Why are the Swiss so fascinated with one bear roaming the Grison? Why are the Swiss so fascinated by the introduction of a wolf or lynx into the countryside? While these may seem superficial questions, the answers reflect fundamental attitudes toward nature as well as subtle differences with the Sister Republic, the United States.
The role of nature in Switzerland is obvious. From small, public garden patches outside metropolitan areas to weekend and holiday retreats in the mountains, the Swiss adore being in nature. Romantic poets and artists throughout Swiss history have written about and painted the virtues of being in the state of nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after all, was born in Geneva.
Can people change? Can leaders radically change their countries’ policies? We all recognize the audacity of Richard Nixon in his opening to China, but rarely do we examine what caused the change to take place. We admire the signing of the recent nuclear treaty between the United States and Iran, but we cannot fully comprehend the complex reasons behind the shift – the easing of economic sanctions is a simplistic, unicausal explanation.
For example, tributes to Nelson Mandela at his death re-affirmed a universal recognition of his extraordinary personal qualities and leadership in freeing South Africa from the curse of apartheid.
The recent positive Swiss vote on maintaining obligatory military service was an important statement. Beyond strategic considerations of how the country can best be defended, there was a certain part of the population saying that conscription re-inforces national identity. In a country with three distinct languages and cultures, the military experience has long been considered an important element in creating a sense of national unity.
Belonging to some group matters. We all like to feel that we are members of a community. From the very local to the national level, people’s identities are crucial to their emotional well being. While in many ways societies have evolved from tribes and clans, there is no question that belonging still matters, even if it means sharing feelings with others on Facebook or Twitter. Virtual communities are still communities, and in many ways reflect nostalgia for being with others through modern technology in spite of the loss of face-to-face interaction.
This past week has not been a good one for Switzerland’s image abroad. The American TV and film star Oprah Winfrey went very public with accusations that she was the victim of racism in an exclusive store in Zurich, although she later played down the implications of the accusation. Whether or not the charges are true or merely publicity for her and her new film, the Swiss Tourism office was forced to apologize, which they later said might have been premature. On top of that, the international media was reporting that Bremgarten in the Swiss canton of Aargau had introduced several "exclusion zones" for asylum seekers, including public swimming pools and sports facilities.
Nicolas Bideau is the Head of Presence Switzerland, the person primarily responsible for Switzerland’s image abroad. The seasoned diplomat - educated in China, having served in the Swiss Embassy in India, former diplomatic advisor to Pascal Couchepin during his Presidency of the Confederation as well as the former Mr. Cinema Swiss - is reported to be vacationing on a Greek island.
Whether in Turkey or Brazil, “the street’s the place to go” (from a song by the Weather Girls). Social media has allowed hundreds of thousands to protest against government policies throughout the two countries. But questions remain about the identity of the protesters, what they are protesting against, and the outcomes desired.
There were two specific issues during the 1968 protests in the United States: ending racial segregation and ending the Vietnam War. Although the protests were not necessarily identical, these were the fundamental issues around which students and sympathizers coalesced. Many of the same people participated in both protest movements, united by the two progressive causes. (I will ignore those cynics who said that the real issue behind the May 1968 movements was for students to get out of final exams.)
Hurricane Sandy can teach us a great deal about the power of nature. I lived through a hurricane in 1954. Caught by surprise, the town on Cape Cod where we lived was devastated by the unannounced, invading ocean. Cars floated down main street; docks were ripped apart; boats were torn from their moorings; trees were felled like brittle toothpicks; houses were flooded. My father had to carry me out of our house on his shoulders as the water kept rising. We just managed to get the family car to high ground with the galloping sea trying to overtake us.
Mass killer Anders Behrig Breivik is fighting in Norwegian court to be considered sane. Originally considered criminally insane, he was later judged to be sane and responsible for his actions. Admitting to killing 77 people in a bombing and youth camp massacre, he said that no one would have asked for a psychiatric examination if he had been a "bearded jihadist". Two psychiatric examinations have reached different conclusions about his mental state.
The Norwegian Board of Forensic Medicine has asked for additional information from the two psychiatrists who found him sane. Jon Hestnes, who heads a support group for victim's families and survivors, was quoted as saying, "He's not in our world".
The Arab Spring brought hope to the Middle East and North Africa. People took to the street to protest autocratic if not dictatorial rule, many using social networks with a prominent role for the young. In Athens, Madrid and London, people took to the street to protest chronic unemployment, many using social networks as well with a prominent role for the young. Where has the United States been in all of this given its similar situation of millions unemployed? The jobless rate for high school graduates now stands at over 20%.
While the protests of the late 1960's focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights, the recent populist Occupy Wall Street movement is focusing on the distribution of wealth. With official unemployment figures continuing to hover at 9%, people are protesting against the concentration of wealth associated with Wall Street's financial center. The Government bailed out large firms and banks too big to fail, but the tax money spent on them has not yet trickled down to the middle or lower classes. The TARP program has not led to increased lending or job creation while financers continue to receive huge salaries and bonuses.
What began as a small protest movement in New York three weeks ago has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and looks to be catching in other major cities as well as outside the U.S. Little formal organization is involved, with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google playing a major role. No political party is in the lead, although some labor leaders seem to be joining the movement.
It is fascinating to compare this movement with those of the 1960's. There is no clear leadership now, no Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd or Mario Savio. There is no clear organization like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or ideological statements like the Port Huron document. There are no clear objectives either such as end the war in Vietnam or desegregation. There is anger at the radical inequality in the distribution of wealth; there is anger at the failure of the government to create jobs; and there is anger at the Wall Street firms for their inability to deal with the realities of Middle America.
For the moment, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have reacted. No candidate has come forward within the two established parties like Eugene McCarthy with the Democrats; no third party movement has started. With the election of 2012 on the horizon, it is not yet clear how this grass roots movement will play into traditional two party politics. The Tea Party has become a major player moving the Republican Party to the right. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is long past being inclusive of populism. It is fascinating to see how a populist movement is developing in the United States after the Arab Spring and European demonstrations. In 1968, it was the other way around.
October 10, 2011
The rebellions taking place in the Arab world are a major event, similar to the riots in the spring of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union and empire.
Is there something wrong about commenting on current events from a beachside bungalow on an isolated island in the Maldives? On the one hand, news is hard to receive except occasional CNN and a spotty WiFi that seems to come and go like the tides. On the other hand, and this is obviously my justification, there is a wonderful sense of distance in place and time that allows more than just a rapid commentary on major events. There is a much larger perspective.