15/03/2012

Culture Wars: Swiss Secondary Homes and Rick Santorum

The recent Swiss vote on secondary homes was an excellent example of people voting for regional interests. The city cantons voted to limit "cold beds," the mountain, tourist regions voted overwhelmingly not to impose quotas. The maps showing the results were clearly divided. In a federal system, it is often difficult to balance specific geographic or linguistic interests with the national interest; the tensions are inherent. The losers in Valais are screaming against imposition from Bern, just as the states' rights people in the United States are adamant about any impositions from Washington.


The recent primary victory of Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi reflects deep cultural differences in the U.S. The southern states, like many in the Midwest, are culturally more conservative than the northern or coastal areas. To the southerners, Mitt Romney represents the elite, cosmopolitanism of Massachusetts, New York and California. To them, this is not the real America. Barack Obama, if one listens carefully, even changes his accent when he ventures below the Mason-Dixon Line. using the tempo and rhythm of a southern African-American, no Harvard Law School alumni in the heart of Dixie.

In the 1960's, the culture wars in the United States exploded over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Northerners going south to protest segregation were treated as invaders, certainly not fellow Americans. Among other experiences of that era, I vividly remember chatting in a restaurant in northern Virginia and being threatened because I was "a damn Yankee," a term referring to Northerners during the Civil War of 1861-1865. One hundred years later, my New York accent was a physical liability.

While I can't imagine Genevese being attacked in Valais, the antagonisms following the recent vote are very strong, as sometimes happens in Switzerland along linguistic lines. As we bemoan sectarian violence in other parts of the world, we should listen to the arguments here and marvel at the lack of violence and the ways in which the legal/political institutions deal with the inherent tensions in federalism.

Culture wars in democratic countries are certainly different from domestic ethnic conflicts, with the term wars a definite euphemism, thank goodness.

 

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