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.
The recent revealing photos of Francois Hollande's evening escapade together with the sudden hospitalization of the erstwhile (?) partner/First Lady Val￩rie Trierweiler raise most interesting questions. Specifically, together with the blowback from the Snowden/NSA revelations we are obviously entering a new era of defining the private/public domains. While we all appreciate how technology has brought the world closer together, the invasion of privacy issue can no longer be ignored. We certainly like to communicate, but we are getting worried that most if not all of our private communications have entered the public domain.
Hollande's January 14 press conference was riveting.
The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy has brought forth an enormous amount of interest. Films about Jack and Jackie have flooded the television screens; interviews have replayed the terrible scenes of Dallas, the swearing in of LBJ, the salute of John John at the funeral, the riderless horse following the procession. Conspiracy theorists have been widely quoted; new evaluations of the famous 1000 days continue to be printed.
Why all this interest? During a recent interview, I was asked why so many people get emotional when analyzing the importance of JFK. And I admit I was as emotional as the others being interviewed. The tapes of the shooting, the arrest of Oswald and the second shooting, all came vividly back. Fifty years ago we were glued to our television sets for those horrible four days. We were not aware that history was being made; we just wanted to know what was happening, to have people help us understand what was going on.
November is a sad month. Christmas is not yet here and we are between brilliant fall colors and crackling snow. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the death of President John Kennedy in November 1963, there is an added sadness. For those of a generation that remember him, it was a defining moment, a moment when we witnessed a national trauma that transformed us. Later, we would witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but the death of John Kennedy was something unique that changed how we saw and continue to see the world.
How to evaluate the outcome of the 16 day U.S. government shutdown? Most “referees” judge that President Obama won by a knockout. “Republicans backed down,” we are told. “The President got an extension of the budget and the debt ceiling without caving in to Tea Party demands. In addition, Republicans are being blamed. No contest.”
There are, however, more losers than just the Republican Party. The image of the United States as the world leader was seriously damaged. How can the rest of the world rely on the dollar as the global currency when the Congress cannot responsibly manage its national budget and debt ceiling?
A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.
Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.
The classic definition of the New York expression chutzpah is that of an only child who pleads clemency to the court because he is an orphan after murdering his parents. Two new examples of chutzpah have appeared surrounding the proposed visit of the Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
According to an article in the New York Times of September 18, the President of Sudan has submitted a visa request to attend the U.N. meeting in New York. The United States, as the host country, is obliged to grant visas to foreign heads of states who wish to attend. The chutzpah of Mr. al-Bashir is that he is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) on genocide charges stemming from mass killings committed in Sudan’s Darfur region. If the visa were granted, he would be the first visiting head of state to visit the United Nations in New York while under indictment by the International Court. Leaders who have been violently opposed to the U.S. like Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev were never under criminal indictment.
President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”
Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.
Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.
The August 28, 1963, March on Washington was an emotional and political watershed. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had officially ended slavery in 1863. The highlight of the March was a short speech part sermon that has become a rallying cry for other freedom movements throughout the world. The riveting “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. was part optimism about the future and part realism that the promises of equality following the Civil War had not yet been met. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the legislative culmination of the civil rights movement and the March. Despite ferocious, often physical opposition, legal segregation was finally ended in the United States.
The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March in the U.S. was a bittersweet moment.
Western countries are agonizing over what to do in Syria. As Assad’s government troops, with the aid of their allies, continue to pound cities like Homs and appear to be winning the civil war, Great Britain and its allies are hesitating in furnishing weapons to the rebels. Who are the rebels? How can we be sure that the weapons delivered will stay in the right hands? How can we be sure that the weapons will be enough to turn the tide? All these questions remain unanswered as the slaughter continues while hundreds of thousands of refugees - those who are lucky enough not to be trapped - flee the country.
But what about the United States?
The recent bombings in Boston have unleashed a torrent of commentaries. While investigations are ongoing concerning the backgrounds of the suspects with no definitive answers yet about motivations and affiliations, the fact that the brothers were from Chechnya and Muslim has opened a Pandora’s Box of speculation. One simple point can be made at this point beyond the specifics of this case: There has been a fundamental shift in the nature of deadly attacks, often attributed to “terror.”
Following September 11, the United States declared a “war” on terror. Without a clear definition of terror, the focus of the war narrowed down to one organization, Al Qaeda. The organization and its leaders, we were told, were based in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. There was an enemy; there was a location for its headquarters (Bin Laden’s cave). As in all traditional wars, the opponents were identified, their location fixed. The battle lines were drawn, and the soldiers sent to eliminate the foe.
By chance, I happened to be reading Edward Gibbon’s monumental, classic account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while watching Roger Federer’s semi-final match against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. I was reading Gibbon as part of a reflection on the role of the United States in the world following the jamboree of President Obama’s inauguration. Gibbons’ work, much like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, analyzes long cycles in history and the inevitability of rise and fall. According to Gibbon empires like Rome and with Kennedy France, England, Spain, Holland and the United States, have certain internal contradictions which lead to their eventual decline. There is a tragic sense that nothing can change this destiny.
A debate is raging about President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next United States Secretary of Defense. Behind this debate is another debate about the future role of the United States in the world. On the one hand, conservative critics are accusing Hagel of being reluctant to intervene militarily to protect Israel or to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. On the other hand, progressives are cheering the potential national security team of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan as being realistic about the limited possibilities for projecting U.S. power. Their preference for “light footprints” or “leading from behind” is seen in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy.
After the Newtown shootings, several cities in the United States offered rewards for citizens to turn in their firearms. Many people did. But the fundamental laws on purchasing weapons have not changed and probably will not change. Since December 14, there have been 400 gun related deaths in the U.S. The more recent shootings in Daillon also raise the question of access to weapons. Although the situation in Switzerland is far from the situation in the United States – 2.3 million weapons among a population of less than 8 million compared to almost one weapon for 300 million citizens with shooting rampages very rare -, one could reasonably ask whether Newtown and Daillon will affect gun legislation in Switzerland. The answer is probably not. In 2011, Swiss citizens rejected a proposal to tighten gun laws.
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.
The three presidential debates have concluded in the United States. Millions and millions of Americans watched, 67 million for the first debate alone. Millions more watched around the world. The candidates responded to questions from two moderators and directly from an audience in a town hall type setup. Topics ranged from the economy to foreign affairs, from the record of President Obama the past four years to former Governor Romney’s performance in Massachusetts and his agenda for the future. Pundits analyzed each phrase, focus groups gave real time reactions to each sentence, each gesture. Pollsters tracked how the undecided scored the debate, how and if voters would change their choice.
Instead of asking the proverbial challengers question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” perhaps American voters should ask “Are we better informed about the candidates than we were before the debates?” What have we really learned?
In the first debate I learned that President Obama is moody. He was apathetic, distant, and almost disdainful of his opponent if not the whole process of having to debate. He appeared to be thinking of celebrating his wedding anniversary with Michelle instead of focusing on impressing voters. I learned that Governor Romney looks presidential, speaks well, and is at ease with economic statistics. He seemed confident, determined and capable as a leader in addition to being personally sympathetic when addressing the audience.
In the second debate I learned that both candidates can be petulant and testy. Neither of them was presidential in their manner, neither of them was able to raise the level of discussion beyond criticizing the other. The debate was not impressive; both candidates showed a lack of stature under pressure.
In the third debate, I learned that Mitt Romney is less at ease when discussing foreign affairs than economics. He seemed unsure of his command of the subject, although he was less petulant and frequently agreed with President Obama in contrast to his aggressiveness in the first two debates. Obama, on the other hand, was definitely in control of the subject of foreign affairs – not surprising for a sitting President – and was firm but not testy in his responses.
Do my impressions matter? First, I must admit it was tiring watching the debates in the early hours of the morning and then preparing notes to present to the media. Second, I am not sure that the debates themselves have a relationship with running the country. It all seemed about performance, about programmed responses to impress specific voters, about scoring points instead of discussing serious matters. As political historian Allan Lichtman is quoted in the International Herald Tribune of October 22, “I think there’s more of a tendency now than in the past to avoid discussion of serious problems.”
Instead of declaring Obama or Romney victorious, I would prefer to say that citizens of the United States were all losers. Neither candidate rose to the occasion. This is not to say that I have not voted. It is merely to say that the serious business of governing merits more than Super Bowl type spectacles.
October 24, 2012
The presidential debates will highlight the final sprint before the November 6 election. Both candidates have spent countless hours studying their positions and audiences as well as practicing against stand-ins for their opponents. Since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate on September 26, 1960, conventional wisdom has said that a debate can make or break a candidate. The first debate certainly made the charming, relatively unknown Senator from Massachusetts into presidential material. Since then, each debate has been analyzed, evaluated and broken down with audience reactions second by second, just as coaches review videos of American football games.
The Russian Federation has just closed down all domestic activities associated with the United States Agency for International Development (A.I.D.). The official arm of the U.S. government’s assistance programs has spent almost $3 billion over the past 20 years combating the spread of diseases, developing the rule of law, and helping modernize infrastructure in Russia.
The Kremlin’s decision follows previous stricter controls on foreign civil society aid and development programs. The Russian argument is that under the guise of development assistance the programs have interfered in the country’s internal affairs, crossing the line between development/humanitarian assistance and political meddling.
What is responsible for the outbreak of anti-American violence in the Muslim world? The obvious first answer is the reprehensible video. But, behind the video there are several theories being floated. Among them are: 1) The protesters are a street minority who do not reflect majority feelings. The distinction between populism and democracy is relevant here; 2) Democracy takes time. It is unreasonable to expect democratic values such as freedom of expression to be assimilated in such a short period of time; 3) A cultural clash is most evident. Western countries are attuned to criticizing and even mocking religious figures that are held sacred and beyond mockery by other cultures and religions; 4) The United States is associated with imperialism, often aligned with Israel. The violent outbreaks are a manifestation of a rejection of foreign intervention.
The other day, protesters stormed over the wall of the United States Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, capturing the American flag and destroying it. The rioters were angry over an amateur American video denouncing Islam. Protesters also attacked the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed the U.S. ambassador there. Both events took place around the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11.
During the recent political campaigns in the United States it has become fashionable to do fact checks on what the candidates say. Reporters scrupulously follow each phrase and statistic and then follow through with a specific analysis of whether the statement was true or not. Woe be to the candidate who does not adhere to facts. The next day’s papers will show how far the candidate was off the mark.
But does this really matter? Benedict Anderson wrote a wonderful book on imagined communities. His argument was that communities create myths around which they develop a common history. Does Switzerland really care if William Tell existed or not? Did he really shoot the apple off the head of his son?
Neil Armstrong is being celebrated as a great hero. He was the first man to walk on the Moon. Millions watched him descend from the space capsule and listened to him utter that memorable phrase, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong and Aldrin were part of a dedicated group who fulfilled John Kennedy’s 1961 promise to send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. They opened a new frontier. They inspired millions.
I remember exactly where I was on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong stepped on the Moon. He did not inspire me to be an astronaut or an astronomer. What he did was more important; he helped me to end a long nightmare that had lasted 12 years.
As the heat of summer beats down and the last days of vacation fade away, the serious business of whatever will start again. The campaign for President of the United States will begin in earnest, the economic situation within the European Union will once more make front page news, the civil war in Syria will increasingly spill over to other countries, Israel will more and more threaten to attack Iran and the Dow Jones index should retreat from its artificial summer high. Those returning to the office from the mountains or shores will open piles of letters and e-mails, and once again bear down to work. Children will put away their bathing suits and dust off their schoolbooks long hidden under some pile in their rooms. In other words, we should start being serious again.
Austerity or growth? Worry about the debt or create jobs? These are two questions that economists and politicians are debating. The voters in the recent French election, voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the people in the streets of Athens, Madrid and elsewhere are answering these questions in their own way. Behind these choices are serious attitude differences about what to do in a crisis.
Austerity amounts to turning inward, not being confident that by reaching out and spending more wealth will be created. The assumption behind austerity is pessimistic and negative: doing less will do more; cutting taxes will lead to more liquidity which will lead to more spending which will create more jobs. Those who favor austerity tell us: "We are in a crisis; there is a large debt; government spending got us there, therefore reduce government spending.".