Republican presidential candidates have called each other “lazy,” “liars,” “low energy,” “nasty,” “con man,” and made direct references to the size of their fingers, implying the size other parts of the anatomy. As the American presidential campaign heats up, the role of these “zingers” becomes more and more evident. In a campaign reduced to sound bites and “gotcha” videos, one sentence or offhand remark is all that remains of debates on issues affecting millions of lives. The back and forth of ideas and presentations of coherent policy positions have been reduced to quips and gag lines meant to amuse the public. One-upmanship has replaced elegant phrases much as Twitter has replaced logical sentence construction.
The Geneva Bible was one of the first Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew. Considered a vulgar Bible, it was not only published in a common language but it was also mass produced for the general public with several study guides. A Geneva Bible was one of the Bibles brought to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, and is one of the reasons there are numerous towns and cities in the United States named Geneva.
The continuing popularity of Donald Trump and the rise of populist politicians in many European countries is cause for concern and reflection. Where does this wave of emotionalism come from? It could be a reaction to two factors. The first is globalization. The expansion of frontiers has caused instability. While technology has increased our perspectives from the local to the global, we have lost the assurances of that which is closest to us. The rise of fundamentalism in various forms is an attempt return to roots that have been destabilized.
Technology allows us to follow events around the world in real time. Front page photos show cities in the Middle East reduced to rubble. Nightly news programs project horrendous scenes of people dying while fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in make-shift vessels. Reporters file stories tracing the desperate lives of those who have newly arrived in Europe only to find hostility if not rejection in what they thought would be relief from their war-torn countries.
Each game has its rules; each arena has its specificity. British politicians hoot and shout during debates in Parliament while Swiss elected officials calmly listen waiting their turn to intervene. Fistfights have broken out in the Ukrainian and Georgian national assemblies; American officials stand and applaud when they agree with the speaker. In Tbilisi, some representatives dismantled the table-top microphones from their desks to be used as weapons during a brawl; Genevans were shocked when a deputy flung water at another deputy during a parliament meeting. Soccer players yell and argue with the referees while American football players never contest calls. Basketball players talk to the referees, baseball players have been known to bump umpires in fits of anger.
It is the very nature of the unexpected that makes sports so exciting. At the recent downhill race in Kitzbühel, the overwhelming favorite, Aksel Lund Svindal - two-time overall World Cup champion, winner of the previous week’s downhill on the demanding Wengen course and winner of four downhill races this season - crashed out at the bottom of the course. At the recent Australian Open tennis tournament, an overwhelming favorite, Serena Williams, going for her 22nd Slam title and the dominant female player for the past 15 years, lost to a lower- ranked player who had never won a major tournament. True Svindal had missed almost the entire 2015 season due to injury; true Williams had lost to a relative unknown in the semi-finals of last year’s French Open, but still, the crash and loss were unexpected.
Several years ago I attended a cocktail party on Park Avenue in New York. I was approached by a man puffing on a large cigar. He had an open shirt (highlighting his expensive gold necklace), and wore all the accoutrements that go with a certain type of wealthy New Yorker. His immediate question to me was: “Who are you?”
“I am a poor, intellectual school teacher,” I replied.
The sports world, traditionally a refuge from the harsh realities of politics and business, continues to be sullied. After the crisis of corruption in the ruling football organization FIFA and the Russian state-sponsored athletic doping scandal, the pristine world of tennis has been rocked by allegations of match-fixing. The usually reliable BBC with BuzzFeed published an article asserting that the names of 16 players who have been ranked in the top 50 worldwide were sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit for investigation. “Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy have made hundreds of thousands of pounds placing highly suspicious bets on scores of matches – including at Wimbledon and the French Open,” the article stated.
One of my favorite cartoons shows two Native Americans standing on the shore near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts watching the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sail into the harbor. One of the Indians turns to the other and snidely remarks: “Oh, oh. There goes the neighborhood.”
The president of the United States is required by law to give an annual presentation to the Congress on the status of the country. President Obama carried out this duty for the last time this week with his formal State of the Union address. What makes the speech extraordinary is not its contents – the world will little remember what he said – but the divergence in perceptions about the country’s situation.
President Barack Obama cried in public. The president of the United States of America, the man who has his finger on nuclear weapons, had “tears streaming down his face” before television cameras when he announced new executive actions to reduce gun sales in the U.S. As reported by the International New York Times: “Mr. Obama broke down as he spoke about the young children shot to death in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.”
The new year has started with all its expectations. It is new. But it is also a year: twelve months, 365 days, 7 days in a week, 24 hours in a day. While we cannot predict what will happen in 2016, we can be confident about time. That doesn’t change.
Or does it?
During the recent election for the Swiss Federal Council, the necessity of knowing English was hotly debated. In his interview to be one of the seven members of the Executive, Guy Parmelin said: “I can English understand but je préfère répondre en français pour être plus précis.” Although the quotation went viral on social media, he was easily elected and became the Minister of Defense, Civil Protection and Sports. Apparently being conversant in the language of Shakespeare is not a necessity to govern Switzerland.
Geneva and Islamabad are two very different places. The former is known as a bastion of tranquility in Western Europe with a long history of democracy and neutrality, the latter as the capital of a large, militarily dominated country recently created with a history of violence as well as a continuing potential for destabilization from its neighbors Afghanistan and India.
Multitasking has become an imperative in our accelerated, modern era. People have to juggle their personal and professional lives 24/7. This is not simple. Sometimes the juggled balls drop to the floor. Politically, faced with the horrific November attacks in Paris, it is difficult to accept the duality that ISIS is both a quasi/state and a global network. It is a military force which controls half the territory of Syria as well as a loose web of global terrorist organizations often aligned with lone wolves around the globe. How to respond to the dual nature of the threat? How to multitask our response?
T. Woodrow Wilson is an iconic figure in the history of International Geneva. The 28th President of the United States (1913-1921) is revered not only for his vision of a world without wars (World War I was to be “the war to end all wars”) but also for his role in choosing Geneva as the site of the League of Nations’ headquarters. While his name continues to be associated with peace – the building housing the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights bears his name as well as the famous hotel next to it – his legacy is less appreciated today in the United States.
Of the horrific events in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said: “It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh, against France,” Hollande told the nation from the Élysée Palace. He went on: “It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.”
To fly from Geneva to New York City is more than just an eight hour 40 minute flight. To go from news about federal elections in Switzerland with discussions of political party alignments to the billion dollar theatrical televised debates of candidates in the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential elections is similar to the apple and oranges analogy; they are both fruits, but they are very different. And Geneva is not New York.
Who will win the November 2016 United States presidential election? Who will be elected Senators from Geneva? Will the price of oil stay low? Will the stock market go up? Should I put money aside for my grandchildren’s education? Where should I go on vacation?
In Switzerland, unemployment is well below neighboring countries; there is a stability that contrasts with the chaos in many other parts of the world. Sunday’s right-wing vote was a conservative vote to keep the status quo. After all, in politics as in sports, the first rule has always been: “Never change a winning game.”
During his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to give a history lesson. It is highly questionable whether he will be listened to. For the United States to admit its errors in democracy promotion, for the U.S. to admit it is not exceptional, and for the United States and Russia to cooperate to restore peace in Syria remain highly questionable. Nonetheless, his speech was a fascinating presentation of his world view. Although discourse analysis is fraught with difficulties, some of his comments do merit a close reading.
The recent shooting of thirteen students at a community college in Oregon has raised again the question of gun control in the United States. In speaking to the American people after this latest incident, a frustrated President Obama pointed out how little progress has been made to curb these shootings and how repetitive the situation has become: “We’ve become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine, and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun,” he said.
The Volkswagen scandal is perplexing. For a rather small benefit per car, the company took enormous risks if caught. Penalties are said to be in the neighborhood of $18 billion without the cost of recall and repairs. The CEO resigned; sales and the stock have plummeted; the reputation has been tarnished; the image of Germany as efficient and non-corrupt has been damaged. (If a similar incident had happened to an auto maker in France or Italy, would there be such reverberations?)
Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States last week. The Pope’s visit was his first to the U.S., and while he obviously tried to energize Catholics, the largest denomination in the U.S., his message was surprisingly political. For the Chinese leader, on his first state visit as president, his trip included meetings with business leaders in Seattle, a reception in Washington with a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn, and multilateral events in New York. While the Pope used the opportunity to emphasize a moral dimension in political affairs, Xi Jinping dealt with such earthly matters as cyber-espionage, climate change, the South China Sea, and China’s relationship with the U.S. as a great power.
Racism is not simple to define. From South African apartheid’s formal segregation to racial profiling, there are many different hues. “Black Lives Matter” has become a United States movement in reaction to violence, often by police, against blacks. But violence can take on many forms. When African-American celebrities are involved in an incident, not a shooting or violent crime, the publicity can become front page news.