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October 28, 2010
 by Steven Hill

ANCIENT TRANSPORTATIONS: WALKING AND BICYCLING TO HEALTH...As I have made my way across Europe by train, my frequent companions have been the many strangers, visible outside my train window, who can be seen traversing a vast network of bike paths and walking trails that crisscross the cities and countryside. Europeans of all ages, including seniors, can be seen pedaling from home to town and back again with their daily bread in their handlebar baskets. I am constantly struck by the number of senior citizens pedaling along the bike paths on the side of the road. Yet they are not out for a leisurely jaunt, this is their transportation for errands.

One of the ironies of Europe is that, while it is leading the world in high-tech transportation innovations, such as high-speed bullet trains and fuel-efficient autos, it also specializes in low-tech options. Whether in Amsterdam, Athens, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Barcelona, Budapest or any of the thousands of small towns that dot the countryside, bicyclists and pedestrians are on the go. When I was in Umea, Sweden, a smallish city several hundred miles northeast of Stockholm, I saw people of all ages, noticeably the elderly, pedaling their bikes around town and along the riverbank. In Amsterdam I saw so many bicyclists that you have to be just as wary of bikes as of automobiles when you cross the street, particularly because bicyclists aren't as loud. In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, where I stayed once for several weeks, I went walking every afternoon along the numerous Wanderwegs -- walking paths -- that crisscrossed the brilliant yellow fields and blossoming hills. And I had plenty of company: it seemed that for many Germans, walking and bicycling are more than hobbies, they are a way of life.

Europeans seem to be literally biking and walking their way to health, and research bears this out. One study found that whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all such trips in Germany and an incredible half in the Netherlands. The average was 36 percent of all trips across eight different European countries, compared with 7 percent for the United States. Perhaps most striking are the large differences in transportation behavior among the older populations of various countries. Walking actually increases with age in both the Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch and Germans who are seventy-five and older make roughly half their trips by foot or bike, compared to only 6 percent of trips for Americans age sixty-five and older. Cycling is almost nonexistent among the American elderly, but it accounts for a quarter of all trips made by the Dutch elderly. This activity not only provides the Dutch and German elderly with valuable physical exercise, but it also assures them a level of mobility and independence that greatly enhances their quality of life.

It also contributes to longer life expectancy. The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity than the United States. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, have obesity rates only a third of the U.S. rate, and Germany’s rate is only half as high. Also, the average healthy life expectancies in those four European countries are 2.5 to 4.4 years longer than the U.S. life expectancy, even though their per capita health expenditures are about half those of the United States.

In the U.S., walking and cycling are discouraged by living environments that are geared for automobiles. A range of poor public policy choices have made walking and cycling inconvenient, unpleasant, and, above all, unsafe. The most obvious symbol of better European policy is their massive and ever-expanding network of bike paths, which provide completely separate rights-of-way for cyclists; Amsterdam alone has more than three hundred miles of bike lanes. One Dutch city has five bicycle parking garages, one of which can hold five thousand bikes. Just as important, the bike paths and lanes in the Netherlands and Germany form a truly integrated, coordinated network, covering both rural and urban areas. Unlike the fragmented cycling routes in the United States, Dutch and German bikeway systems serve practical destinations for everyday travel, not just recreational attractions for young cycling enthusiasts.

Other nations besides Germany and the Netherlands have embraced bicycling, both for its health benefits and to lower reliance on autos for transportation, especially in cities. In 2007, Paris followed the lead of Amsterdam and other cities and introduced a highly successful program that put over twenty thousand bicycles on the streets, rented from a thousand unmanned kiosks located around the city. The rental cost is about a dollar, plus a $200 deposit paid for with a credit card to ensure the bicycle’s safe return. You rent the bicycle from one spot, ride it to work, and drop it at another kiosk nearby (and then your deposit is credited back). Commuters have taken to the program with enthusiasm, prompting one journalist to write that Paris, the land of the Tour de France, has gone “cycling mad.” These bike-sharing programs now can be found across the European continent, from Vienna to Barcelona, from Rome to Oslo.

Pedestrian-only zones have become so widespread that they can now be found in virtually every European city. In large cities, such zones often encompass much of the city center and the expansive public squares, providing sizable areas where pedestrians have their own right-of-way. Of utmost importance in a densely populated settlement, the square preserves a sense of openness and light in the living environment. Many of the main streets and cozy alleyways terminate at or crisscross the central plaza, so the urban design literally channels the feng shui energy of the city into a focal point or hub, like a magnifying glass focuses sunlight. This gives a particular sense of space, an energy flow, to the living environment. The concept of a square is ancient, and for hundreds of years every European village had its own square or commons, and most still do. These ancient spaces still linger, even as they have been nearly decimated in the United States by the car culture and shopping malls. Most American towns don’t have a center anymore, and few American cities have a grand central plaza (though many have nice parks scattered here and there). The disappearance of the central square is an unquantifiable loss, for this sense of the ancient harkens back to our deepest human longing for community and contact, of shared, womblike physical space as opposed to atomized and individualized space.

Besides the overall urban design, other features sensitive to the needs of European pedestrians and bicyclists help create an environment friendly to them. These include extensive use of traffic-calming techniques in residential neighborhoods (speed bumps and narrow traffic lanes, for example), rigorous traffic education of motorists, and strict enforcement of regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists. Dedicated pathways and route systems help insulate cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles, which are involved in most bicyclist and pedestrian deaths or injuries. Denis Baupin, the transportation chief of Paris responsible for the City of Light's hugely successful bicycle-sharing program, also has reduced auto speed limits to just nineteen miles an hour on a thousand streets and closed many to cars altogether. Baupin has changed the face of mobility in Paris, making it easier for pedestrians, bikers, and users of public transportation, and less accessible to car drivers. All of these efforts are guided by a philosophy that recognizes that efficient and affordable low-tech transportation methods are crucial to the democratization of mobility.

But in the car-dominant United States, authorities have made only a few halfhearted attempts to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, with most measures falling far short of the need if they cost much money or would inconvenience automobile drivers. A lack of political will and vision have prevented Americans from enjoying the health, transportation, and quality-of-life benefits that result from more walking and cycling and less car travel.

Steven Hill 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)
 
October 27, 2010
 by Steven Hill

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION (THE MOST IMPORTANT BODY YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF): “WE THOUGHT WE COULD LEAD BY EXAMPLE”...Despite its perennially gloomy weather (imagine foggy San Francisco most of the year, instead of just in the summertime), Brussels has become a major world capital, the Washington, DC of Europe. It is home to most of the major political institutions of New Europe, including the European Parliament, which has the distinction of representing 500 million people (the largest democracy in the world outside India). The Parliament’s partner in this endeavor is the most important body that Americans (and far too many Europeans) have never heard of, called the European Commission. The Commission, as it is called (a rather bland, faceless, government-issue moniker, to be sure) is the executive body of the European Union; the president of the Commission, Jose Manual Barroso, is the closest thing Europe has to a Barack Obama figure (though there are key differences in their respective offices). The European Union is a confederation of 27 nations that stretches from Portugal in the west to the Russian border far to the east. Within the expanse of this geography is the most important experiment occurring today in human governance and economic development. The E.U. is the greatest attempt by humans to fashion institutions and practices capable of harnessing the capitalist engine so as to foster not only a more broadly shared prosperity but one that is ecologically sustainable and carbon efficient. More than anywhere else, the European continent is addressing the most important challenges of the 21st century.

So I approached my impending lecture and lunch meeting at the European Commission with a good deal of enthusiasm, mixed with curiosity, and a bit of nervousness. I had been asked to give the Jacquemin Seminar lecture by the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, one of the 27 departments of the Commission, and present would be many senior staff of the European Union. In addition, I would lunch with highest level senior staff, including several directors general who are the heads of each Commission department (sort of like the chiefs of staff for each of President Obama’s Cabinet members). I had gained the attention of the Commission because in recent months, as a result of my book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, and numerous opeds written for publications in the U.S. and Europe (see oped links at Steven-Hill.com), I had come to occupy a niche that I had not sought: an American author/commentator who has nice things to say about Europe.

But during the Commission lunch, I suddenly found myself thrust into a different role: that of the straight talking American. After formal niceties and a sumptuous meal, a vigorous discussion ensued in which I asked them a rather direct question: “Why is it, do you think, that Europe is losing the public relations battle to China?” I explained further: there is so much G-2 hype today in the media, casting America as the existing superpower and China as the up-and-coming superpower. Where is Europe in all this, since it has a vastly superior standard of living compared to China (and even compared to the U.S.), has an economy that is nearly as large as the U.S. and China combined, more Fortune 500 companies than the U.S. and China combined, is the largest trading partner with BOTH the U.S. and China, has done far more to rein in carbon emissions and reduce the impact of its mass society…in short, Europe is a leader in just about every way we count these things today… yet Europe is getting little respect, indeed is viewed lower on the geopolitical totem pole than China, a place people try to flee, if they can (and that tells you a lot). Why is Europe getting so little recognition, I asked them?

Some discussion ensued about how the headlines regarding PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis had made Europe appear weak and disorganized, but beyond that they really didn’t have much of a response. That was a little surprising, so I offered some thoughts of my own.

“Not many people know about your successes because you don’t tell anyone about them. You don’t have a public relations machine like Hollywood movies have been for advertising the American Way; nor have you created any public relations apparatus of your own that helps even your own citizens to understand the importance of Europe, much less Americans, Chinese or anyone else. And because the media is used to reporting on individual nations, and economists measure output on national levels, they aren’t sure how to report on this transcontinental “union” -- so they fall back on lazy journalism and inadequate research methodologies which assume that the U.S. and China are the two dominant national powers. So what are you doing to overcome this narrow media/expert vision and inertia?”

Their responses, again surprisingly, lacked much substance, but they evolved into a discussion about what happened at the Copenhagen summit over global warming, during which President Obama had left Europe looking like a jilted bride at the altar. Europe had offered to reduce its carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, and to increase reductions by 30 percent if other countries (notably the U.S., which is by far the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter) would match them. Europe had put a bold initiative on the table, showing real global leadership, and was looking for partners, especially from Obama. But instead, Obama came to the table with virtually nothing -- only a 4 percent carbon reduction, because he couldn’t get 60 votes for anything more in a “filibuster gone wild” Senate. Then, with the Europeans out of the room, Obama shook hands on a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing -- what I have called a coalition of underachievers. At that point Copenhagen collapsed in failure. Yet the media headlines, especially in the U.S., didn’t blame Obama; they blamed Europe, typically portraying it as weak and impotent. Bizarrely, Obama was portrayed as somewhat of a hero for brokering a deal -- however ineffectual -- with the Chinese. Yet it was Obama who had caused the summit to collapse because if the U.S. isn’t willing to do more, then certainly China isn’t going to.

I asked my lunch companions: “Did you consider holding a press conference and exposing Obama and China for obstructing Copenhagen?” They said they did consider that, that there was much intense discussion among Europe’s leaders as they considered what message they should issue as the summit crumbled. They ultimately decided not to go on the offensive or to blame their erstwhile American partner. It was in this context that one of them said something that was incredible to me: “We thought we could lead by example. We thought that if we showed a quiet leadership on this issue, showed that we were willing to make the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to our economy and technology, that others would follow our lead.”

I was amazed, at both their admirably sincere authenticity, as well as at their breathtaking naivete. I have been one of those applauding Europe’s “quiet revolution” (as I call it in my book) and use of its “smart power” rather than U.S.-style” hard power” -- using investment, trade and Marshall Plan-like aid rather than a “big stick” military as a development model for the world. But leaders have to project effectively their trajectory and influence, and they have to inspire those whom they wish to lead with their vision and a demonstrated capacity for success. Leadership by “quiet example,” without the means to communicate your example, tends to get ignored -- or even worse, shoved around -- on the world’s stage.

I expressed my surprise over their naivete (though I used a more diplomatic word).

“You have a product here,” I said to them, “let’s call it Brand Europe. Yet you don’t advertise your brand, your product. So why would you expect that people, either in Europe, the U.S. or anywhere else, would understand what that brand is? And if they don’t understand your brand, why would you expect anyone to follow your leadership, whether ‘quiet’ or otherwise? In the U.S. we have a saying: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ No one is going to hear you because you aren’t making any noise.”

Marketing Brand Europe. I gave them an example. “European companies are employing about 2.5 million Americans in the United States in the midst of this economic crisis. Providing good jobs that pay better than average wages and provide health care benefits. Yet no Americans know about it; all they hear about is PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis, and lately strikes in France.” I continued. “In Dick Cheney’s Wyoming and Sara Palin’s Alaska, as well as in Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Idaho and Alabama, European companies supply over 65 percent of all foreign investment. In George Bush’s Texas, European companies have invested over $50 billion, more than American investments in all of Asia. Across the U.S.A, Europeans accounted for nearly three-quarters of all foreign investment, being the top foreign investors in 45 states with over $1.4 trillion in investments. AND YET NO AMERICANS KNOW ABOUT THIS. You get no respect because no one has a clue about what you are doing. The tree has fallen in the forest, but no one is hearing it.

“Why don’t you run TV advertisements in the U.S., telling Americans these things?” I asked them. You can have ads with visuals of American workers on the job, building autos, working in grocery stores and hospitals, with a voiceover, saying ‘We believe in taking care of our American employees. It’s the European Way.’ Cue the closing visuals, two flags, side by side, one the Stars and Stripes, the other the European Union’s royal blue with a circle of twelve gold stars, like a halo. Fade away.

Or how about a full page ad in the New York Times that shows visuals of green hills and sparkling ocean. Children at play, fields of golden grain, with a storyline reading: “Europe is the leading innovator in preparing for global warming. Widespread deployment of conservation practices, and ‘green design’ in everything from automobiles, buildings and solar and wind power to light bulbs and toilets. Our innovations have reduced our ecological footprint to half that of America’s.” More visuals, showing windmills, solar panels and trains. “A European uses half the electricity and emits half the carbon of an American. It takes 40 percent more fuel to drive a mile in an American car than in a European one. And Europe’s green industry is exporting its innovations to the world, and has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs. That shows that jobs don’t have to be pitted against the environment.

“Europe: doing our fair share to ensure humanity’s future. And looking for partners, wherever we can find them.” At the bottom of the ad, a flash of President Obama’s grin.

I ran these and a couple of other promotional ideas by them. It was like a tutorial in the ABCs of marketing, yet it was apparent that they had not thought much in these terms. Occasionally next to an E.U.-funded project in Hungary, Spain, Greece or wherever you see a sign posted saying “Paid for in part by funds provided by the European Union,” along with an insignia of the E.U. blue flag and gold stars. But that’s about it, in terms of ongoing E.U. promotion. Most other interactions that Europeans have with the E.U. is when they are bureaucratically scolded with regulations that prohibit them from making bread, beer or cheese in ways they have been doing for centuries. And European too have read the headlines about the PIIGS, causing more worry. Seldom do Europeans get to reflect on the many good things that the E.U. or their national governments are doing for them. And certainly a contributing factor is that E.U. officials either are unwilling -- “quiet leadership” -- or incapable of telling them about it.

Europe is suffering from, as they say in the advertising biz, poor branding and low product appeal, resulting from a lack of visibility. Europe is like the early Apple/Macs before they became sexy, losing market share to the vastly inferior Windows PCs. And it’s completely unnecessary because there is no place on this earth that has more to brag about than Europe. Yet European leaders are seemingly stuck in a mentality that still views themselves as the junior Cold War partner. In the post World War II era, Europe sat in the backseat while America sat up in the front, driving the vehicle. That was a convenient arrangement. When you’re sitting in the backseat, you don’t have to take as much responsibility for the direction of the vehicle. You can always defer the hard questions to the driver. Now that American leadership is adrift -- having mired the Western alliance in the twin ditches of a Wall Street-induced economic collapse as well as the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq -- it is really time for Europe to put forward more boldly its own brand of leadership,vision and development model.

Yet, just as Americans are stuck in a Cold War mentality that always sees America as the best, and so can’t stop acting out of that mentality even as the Pax Americana fades into history’s twilight, so are the Europeans apparently stuck, perhaps comfortably so, in their junior status mentality. Yes, it can be easy to let someone else take the lead. Europe has been George Harrison to America’s Lennon-McCartney, happy to stay out of the limelight because that kept the pressure off. But that mentality, perhaps more than anything else, is what is preventing Europe from winning the respect it deserves on the global stage. It’s not the lack of unity, or the aftermath of the Greek debt crisis, or the tensions between Merkel and Sarkozy, or the UK’s stodgy ambivalence, or the cultural and language differences, or a dozen other excuses that is holding Europe back. Because at the end of the day, what they share as Europeans more closely identifies themselves with each other than with any other part of the world. And all of them will benefit from a rising tide floating all boats if the world follows their leadership.

“If you believe in what you are doing,” I told them, “then you should tell the world about it. There is a void in global leadership right now…who is going to fill it? China? The United States? Not likely. Now is the time to step up, into the limelight, and show to the world this remarkable European Way. Because this European Way represents the best hope the human race has for bringing the world together around the twin challenges of global warming and enacting a worldwide economy that can provide a decent standard of living for 6.5 billion people. Those are the two biggest dilemmas facing the 21st century. If Europe doesn’t lead, who will?”

Some nodded in agreement with me, others resisted. “Why should we care what the U.S. thinks about Europe?” said one official with a wave of his hand, breezily dismissing the transatlantic relationship.

I replied: “The U.S.-European relationship has been the most important in the world in the post-World War period. I still think it has much important work to do. But it won’t function effectively unless Americans value and understand Europe, and vice versa. Unfortunately you can’t rely on the media to tell your story…you will have to do that for yourselves.”

I left that lunch meeting a few minutes later to give my lecture inside one of the Commission’s elegantly vast meeting rooms, with translation occurring in five languages. But the luncheon had left me with a vague uneasiness. Clearly the E.U.-U.S. relationship is a work in progress, and now is a critical time as both sides re-evaluate -- and re-value -- what it’s worth to them. The world is poised at a grave juncture. Let’s hope the vision and drive of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic don’t fail us.

Steven Hill 5:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)
 
October 25, 2010
 by Steven Hill

HOPE FOR MULTICULTURALISM IN SOUTHERN FRANCE…AND PORTABLE TEA BAGS…The e-mail below is from Angela Shaw, an American friend of mine who has lived in Toulouse, France for many years. Angela grew up in New York City and was one of the first African-American females to graduate from Harvard Law School. She has lived in China, Belgium and now France, and has worked as a lawyer for IBM, the FCC, the NAACP and Hofstra University. As an entrepreneur she started her own broadcasting company, Spectron Broadcasting and Applied Communications Technologies. Angela is one of the people I turn to when I want to get a read on how race relations in France and Europe are going. Having grown up black in America, her antenna is attuned acutely to both the large injustices as well as the smaller things beneath the radar that others don’t see. Her e-mail below is a tonic for the recent rash of anti-immigrant headlines and loud claims that "multiculturalism has failed." Perhaps France is making slow progress, inch by inch. Time will tell. But as the history of race relations in the U.S. shows, progress often is incremental and takes time. Patience is advised.

From Angela: Georges [her husband] and I were invited to an annual multi-cultural festival in the banlieue (akin to the American projects, but not as sinister and menacing) yesterday. While much of it was mired in political correctness, at one point of this French choir's singing, I turned to the seat behind me and saw the passionate singing of a 40-something woman from Cameroon. There at once, all the political correctness and feigned sincerity was lost within a sea of authenticity. For this woman there was a real life behind her voice, there were real villages of people in her eyes and for that one moment in time in the south of France, we brought home to a woman who was so far away from her village.
Sometimes I am just so overwhelmed by the pride I have in belonging to such a human race that can be so empathetic. Probably no one else (of all those singing) but that single Cameroonian woman understood those lyrics and understood the context from which the song emerges. For their reckless abandon, I love the French, even though I am frustrated by sights of piling garbage in front of my favorite cafes. (Thankfully, this Sunday morning the sanitation workers cleaned our block for the first time in about 5 days. Hallelujah!)
It just made me so proud to see such a host of the worlds' cultural expressions all coming together in this typical urban community center. My mom spent 33 years of her professional life in New York City public housing and I would accompany her to more than my fair share of community centers all over NYC. This was a community which not only hosted people with varying medical disabilities in the audience but on stage as well. Everyone was patient and complimentary and supportive of each contribution of talent that was offered. The stereotype of the urban gangster was nowhere on display.
Indian women dancing in their saris. Muslim women were in their hijabs. Spanish women were in their flamenco dance attire. In this very Latin culture [in the south of France], I am so pleased that women could organize such a treat not only for other women but for children and for a very few men as well. Slowly, very slowly I could barely recall my youth in my mom's NYC public housing community centers. I had almost forgotten how much fun and excited I had there as a young child.
It's too bad that Steven Hill wasn't with me yesterday. I'm sure that the experience would have affirmed his faith that the future of Europe holds so much promise. Lots of love, Angela

Portable tea bags. On a slightly different note -- let’s file it under “European minutia too juicy to pass up” -- I have got to tell you about the most important development in human gastronomical affairs since the Dutch East India Company first brought tea to European shores. I discovered it on the marvelous high speed TGV train from Paris to Brussels, which whisks passengers along -- comfortably -- at 180 mph (forget it Acela-Amtrak, you ain’t even in the big leagues). I had ordered tea, and the waiter handed me a cup of hot water and what looked like a short, thick plastic straw. He indicated that the tea was inside the straw, so I began trying to tear open the straw, first with my fingers and then finally with my teeth. He looked at me with wide-eyed alarm, like a gourmand would an uncouth barbarian invited to his table. His English wasn’t good, but he gestured with his hands, then grabbed the straw from me and stuck it into the water. Immediately the clear water began turning familiar tea brown, and I realized that the bottom half of the straw was constructed of permeable material that allowed the tea inside to soak through. It was like a portable plastic tea ball, and I could take the tea straw out of the water when the strength was sufficient, easily saving it for a second cup later. No more soggy tea bags to deal with! It was a small moment of pure epiphany, the clouds parted and the sun came out on my day, as my mind played out the brilliance of this invention and the wars it might have prevented in centuries past. The world has always detested mushy tea bags, one of life’s little annoyances that have contributed immeasurably to the bad moods of kings, queens, generals and bankers. Yes, I had no doubt that I was in the presence of a work of pure genius, and such a simple one too. Simple genius can be the most pleasant kind.

Steven Hill 5:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
 
October 23, 2010
 by Steven Hill

FRENCH PROTESTERS: "WHERE ARE YOU AMERICANS?"...The headlines are ablaze with reports of strikes in France, and the strikes are getting increasingly intense. As the date arrived for the Senate to vote on the legislation to increase the retirement age (the lower house, the National Assembly, already had passed it), things began coming to a head. Protesters blockaded Marseille's airport and strikers shut down fuel depots, which in turn caused a quarter of the nation's gas stations to run out of fuel. More young people joined the fray, barricading high schools and taking to the streets nationwide. Some of them were masked and hooded, raising fears of a replay of the banlieue youth riots back in November 2005 in which 10,000 cars were burned. Vehicles have been set on fire and overturned. Police turned to teargas and helicopters to try and control the situation as the Senate vote loomed (update: the Senate passed the legislation on Friday October 22, but the unions, students, and other protesters say their direct actions will continue).

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Paris, things were not quite this heated but you could feel the momentum building, could see that the kindling piling up. I witnessed one protest of sorts; I was standing on a street corner, on a beautifully sunny fall day in Paris, when all of a sudden the boulevard was filled with hundreds of rollerbladers! They whisked by in earnest, chanting slogans, some of them were dressed in colorful wigs, brightly painted faces, theatrical props and costumes. Their protest didn't feel threatening, in fact the mood mostly was festive. It was kind of like watching a Critical Mass bicycle ride in San Francisco or other US cities. The faces of the protesters reflected a mixture of joy and determination, but the carnival atmosphere in no way diminished the seriousness of their challenge to the political authorities. The street was paralyzed and motorists were honking their horns.

The media has been reporting that the French are protesting the increase of their retirement age from 60 to 62, but this is only part of the proposed legislation. It also raises the age for retirement with FULL benefits from 65 to 67. Most of the French retiring early do so with only partial benefits. This is an important distinction, yet most media outlets have stubbornly refused to report it. It seems that they have decided that the French are whiners and complainers -- come on, is 62 years old for retirement really such a bad deal? -- and want their news audiences to think that too. But that's not the entire story, many French effectively are having their retirement age increased to 67, not 62 as widely reported. It's amazing to me that the media can't get this simple distinction right. Perhaps they don't want to.

Anyway, as I was standing on the street corner watching this critical mass of rollerbladers, I saw a few of them stop at a nearby Tabac for a quick drink. I decided to talk to them and crossed the street to do so. They were quite friendly, the English of one of them sufficient to carry on a conversation to which the others added a few words and an occasional head nod. Dressed in his bright red striped lycra, he looked to be in his 20s and responded to my questions with replies that perhaps could best be described as “protest normal,” mostly unremarkable and unsurprising. But then he said something that grabbed my attention. He said it after he began asking me about the situation in the U.S., which I quickly summarized - workers’ wages flat for two decades, the wealthy pocketing a greater share of national wealth, 50 million Americans without health care (nearly the same as the population of France), 45 million - and 20 percent of children - living below the poverty line, and great frustration and anger over all this as well as over the bailout of the banks that are back to making handsome profits even as the rest of the country remains stuck.

He translated into French for the others, and they all shook their heads. That's when the one with the accented English blurted out, “Where are you Americans? Why aren't Americans out in the streets? If Americans are angry, why aren't they out in the streets like we are?” He said something quickly to his comrades in French, then reverted back to English. "It's like Americans have gone to sleep or something. You used to have many protests."

I explained that most of the protests over what is going on are coming from the right -- from the Tea Party movement, Fox News, Glenn Beck's protest at the Lincoln Memorial. But that even those are quite small, for the most part. There is no mass movement in the U.S. protesting the theft of their country, i.e. the massive transfers of wealth from working people to the wealthy. I explained how the left mostly has been neutralized because it is afraid to appear to be anti-President Obama. They mostly are putting their effort into getting Democrats reelected on November 2 and retaining Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In any case, the left has not mobilized in any major way since the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. Neither the Iraq invasion nor the presidential election debacle in Florida in 2000 inspired mass protests on the left.

They looked grim and shook their heads. They said something back and forth in French. It was time for them to roll on and we said our goodbyes. But it left me walking down the street, muttering to myself, "Yes, where is the American left?" Not only is it mostly quiet, it's pretty fractured, not necessarily into warring camps but each into its own kaffeeklatsch comfort zone. You have the labor left, the limousine liberal left, the Huffington Post left, the rainbow/ethnic minority left, the green left, all of these and more calling themselves "progressive" today. They flexed their muscles, or so they thought, in pushing Barack Obama past Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary and then past John McCain into the Oval Office. Those were heady days, never was it better than during the interregnum between that magnificent election -- celebrated around the world -- and the swearing-in ceremony of the first black president in US history. It was like Obama was president of the planet during those early days, so much was he regarded as a transformative figure not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But the progressive left forgot the crucial words that FDR told labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph when he met with the president and urged him to take action against discrimination. “I agree with you,” said President Roosevelt. “Now go out and make me do it.”

The left didn't mobilize to make Obama do anything. Nor did it mobilize to pressure any of the foot dragging conservative/Blue Dog Democrats. Instead, the left sat back and waited for Obama -- who was viewed as a kind of savior -- to do it. And when all-too-human Obama was hit with the buzzsaw of Republican filibusters in the Senate -- turning a majority body into a near-super majority legislature where 60 out of 100 votes is needed instead of 51 to get anything done -- that was the formula for a mediocre first two years.

Of course Democrats are trying to say they had a magnificent two years -- health care reform, financial reregulation, preventing a depression. But it's pretty easy to argue just the opposite, that the first two years are a disappointment -- health care reform, financial reregulation, preventing a depression by handing the keys to the treasury to the banks and financial industry CEOs. Health care and financial regulation reform both became watered down because President Obama couldn't find 60 votes in the Senate to tackle the biggest challenges -- "too big to fail" in terms of financial reregulation, and "cost control" when it comes to health care. Truth be told, his health care reform started us in the right direction but does not take us even half way there. It was a major step -- sort of -- toward providing universal coverage, but still to come is reining in costs. To accomplish that will require corralling for-profit healthcare corporations, which will be much more difficult to do than passing a law which simplistically mandated that all Americans must buy health care by 2014. Given the outrageous premiums that these greedy, gouging healthcare corporations charge, that's like trying to end homelessness by mandating that everyone must buy a home. In addition, there has been little accomplishment on climate change (again, Obama did not have 60 votes to move forward with the House bill already passed, and as a result went to the Copenhagen summit empty-handed, leaving the Europeans looking like a jilted bride at the altar). And of course looming out there is Afghanistan/Iraq/Gitmo, and the ongoing blowback of American foreign policy.

With an election approaching, it's understandable why "the left" has had to hold its nose, drink the Kool-Aid and try to reelect Democrats. But in the words of that famous American and former slave, Frederick Douglass, "Power concedes nothing without a demand, never did and never will." The left has given Obama a free pass and it seems to me that it hasn't helped the left or Obama. And it hasn't provided a clear answer to that poignant question posed by one French rollerblader: "Where are you Americans?" Yes indeed, where are we?

Steven Hill 5:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)
 
October 19, 2010
 by Steven Hill

SALZBURG:"WHY DON'T YOU HAVE THESE THINGS FOR YOUR PEOPLE?"...Tonight I am giving a talk in Salzburg, Austria, and it is fitting that I should return here since this was the place where I once engaged in an impromptu conversation that opened my eyes about the European Way vs. the American Way. It was one of those conversations that starts out innocuously and in the middle of quotidian musings delivers a sudden epiphanic punch. As Americans, we learn from the time we are in the cradle that the United States is “the best,” whether in the economy, the Olympics or on the world’s stage, and if you believe you are the best you aren’t very interested in learning from others. But in Salzburg I met someone who pushed my reset button, and things haven’t been the same since.

But before I retell that conversation, I should establish the scene for you like a set designer does for a play. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart, and a quintessentially picturesque European town with a touch of the medieval and the modern rolled into one. There is a huge castle high on the hill, combined with a rabbit's warren of shops, homes, alleyways, plazas and markets below, packed into fairly compact quarters between the castle’s steep-walled mountain and the nearby river. High narrow houses about six stories tall form a grid of canyons, tucked together amidst colorful courtyards with archways and flower baskets (To discourage sprawling American-type ranch houses, centuries ago many European cities began taxing by the width of the house; thus, the tax-evasive Europeans cleverly constructed their houses tall and thin). It is a feng shui pleasure to walk among the maze of nestled buildings, jigsaw pathways, cobbled streets and tunnel-like alleys that honeycomb through the quaint architecture.

But as a testament to how “the times they are a changin’”, Salzburg’s quaintness masks the fact that historically it has been one of Austria’s and Central Europe’s most important and powerful cities. Salzburg traces its roots back to the Romans, and perhaps even earlier; archaeologists believe there were settlements here in the Paleolithic age. Salzburg’s two palaces are the massive remnants of its seat as a once-mighty Catholic power. The grandest is the Hohensalzburg fortress, the one towering in late Gothic splendor over the city since 1077 and today providing a fairy tale feeling fit for postcards; and the other is the Mirabel Palace and Gardens which in the 17th and 18th centuries was the residence of Catholic archbishops who lived in divinely inspired luxury even as they were busy driving off the Protestants and Jews in brutal fashion. The Salzburg Archbishops derived their power from their control of the salt trade, transporting over a hundred tons of salt every day by boat and cart all over central Europe. In fact Salzburg derives its name from the German word for salt -- “salz.” In medieval times, salt was known as "white gold" because it was so valuable for preserving food in the absence of refrigeration, which in turn eliminated dependency on the seasonal availability of food, allowing travel over long distances. Unlike today, salt was a vital food additive for more reasons than mere pleasure for the palate.

So salt became the subject of political power plays and even war. Roman soldiers actually were paid with salt, which is reflected in the word “salary.” Salt was considered so precious that it was traded ounce for ounce for gold, and throughout Europe the salt routes over which the white gold was transported became the most important trade routes. The names of many cities bear testimony to this time: Salzburg, Salzgitter or Bad Salzuflen, as well as the Celtic word for salt, “hall,” incorporated into names like Bad Reichenhall, Friedrichshall and Hallein, indicating salt deposits at these locations.

So Salzburg is a place where one can contemplate the rise and fall of empires. Throughout history, different political-economic systems have been deployed, whether feudalism, monarchies, tribal societies and now the modern capitalist mass democracies. In the type of Catholic theocracy that once dominated Salzburg, the Archbishops ruled in a cruel fashion and an individual’s success greatly depended on their membership in the correct religion. More recently, communist state bureaucracies ruled, sometimes brutally, over an economic machine where democracy was deemed irrelevant; in China today, democracy still is a sideshow, all emphasis being given to economic output. In social capitalist Europe meanwhile, they have created the most democratic political institutions the world has ever known, and consequently their economy also is more democratic, families and individuals have more support and share in Europe’s great wealth. And the United States? The fact that we have not yet figured out how to extend things like health care and other social benefits to millions of people is a sign of a huge democracy deficit, political as well as economic. Wall Street capitalism has resulted in a trickle down economy that has failed to deliver for everyday Americans in far too many ways.

That’s what I realized as a result of this momentous conversation in Salzburg. It was the spring of 2003, and I was relaxing in a platz surrounded by leisurely people settled at tables with festive sunbrellas and colorful tablecloths. Accordion music was wafting through the air along with the sounds of glasses clinking, and the sunlight was streaming through the many pints of different-colored beers and ales, ruby and amber reds, dark rooty browns, and hefeweizen yellows. On this particular day I was seated in Salzburg’s Hagenauerplatz, gazing contemplatively at Mozart’s Geburtshaus—birthplace—a short distance away, mulling over history, music, the history of music, the wonder of a three-year-old wunderkind playing the harpsichord and composing by the time he was six . . . when my reverie was interrupted by an older, dark-haired gentleman with a Ronald Reagan haircut, slight paunch, big St. Bernard eyes, perhaps in his early sixties.

“American, right?” he said to me in his thick, German-tinged English.

How do they always know, I wondered. I nodded and smiled cordially, hoisting in salute my glass of hefeweizen with a lemon wedge. He was friendly in a gruff sort of way and within minutes had offered his opinions on all manner of subjects. Since this was May 2003, only a few weeks after the U.S. invasion of Baghdad, the conversation soon drifted there. In fact, I had the feeling that’s where he had intended it to go all along.

“Who could object to getting rid of Saddam?” he said. “And a half-dozen others like him? But U.S. cannot do it alone. Big mistake.”

He puffed on a cigarette with a heavy, curling lower lip. It turned out his name was Matthias. His English was halting but good, and I was later to find out he had learned a lot of his English growing up close to a U.S. military base near Frankfurt, interacting with the soldiers who shopped in his family’s store. The conversation soon moved on to other topics, steered by me and my perennial probing of all things European. I was in a philosophical mood, spurred in part by the splendid afternoon, with its sunlight reflecting off the bright yellow of Mozart’s house at Number 9 Getreidegasse and glinting off the fashionable patrons strolling along the bustling alleyway that makes the Hagenauerplatz a great place to people-watch. I tossed Matthias the big question.

What do you think, I asked him, is the main difference between Austrians and Americans?

He kind of laughed, a thick guttural snort. He pulled on his cigarette, his lips gripping the filter, pausing thoughtfully before he responded.

“You know what the difference is, the main difference?” he said. “Between you Americans and Austrians, and Germans and French and Italians too?” He paused dramatically, again drawing heavily on his cigarette.

“As an American, I wonder if you can even imagine what it must be like to live in a country where every person has health care. And a decent retirement. And day care, parental leave, sick leave, education, vacation, job retraining. For every plumber, carpenter, taxi driver, waitress, executive, sales clerk, scientist, musician, poet, nurse, of all ages, income, race, sex, whatever, not worrying about those basic arrangements. Can you imagine what that is like?”

At first I didn’t see where he was going with this. He spoke with such passion to point out the obvious. But then suddenly the light bulb went on. I had never really thought about it before: what impact does it have on an individual’s psyche—and by extension on all of society and our feeling of extended family, which is after all the “sticky glue” that holds us all together—to know that certain basics will always be taken care of because you are a stakeholding member of that society, entitled to certain benefits? Certainly it is hard for an American, raised as an atomized individual in the “ownership” (i.e., “on your own”) society, to step into the shoes of a European and imagine what that sense of security must feel like and how it affects your overall outlook.

Matthias squinted his eyes and nodded his head.

“In America, you are so rich,” he said. “Why don’t you have these things for your people?”

He stared at me with his big St. Bernard eyes, and I suddenly felt defensive. I searched for a response, muttered something about Americans being against big government. But in truth, I didn’t have a good response. I often wondered that same thing myself. But Matthias’s next point was even more profound.

“Don’t you think this has something to do with why America is so violent?”

My blank stare caused him to laugh.

“Look, when everything is taken care of, don’t you see how that decreases each person’s anxiety and aggression? And how that has an overall effect on all of society?”

A light bulb went on again. It made complete sense. All these supports aiding individuals and families would lessen not only inequality but also individual anxiety and aggression and, sure, the anxiety and aggression of the overall society as well. And a society in which more individuals have a stake, an investment in its future, is a society in which nonviolence is logical. A society in which so many are not stuck on the lower rungs, and in which individuals on the middle rungs don’t have to constantly scamper so fast up the ladder to maintain their place in the world, is a society that can be built more on cooperation, nonviolence, and solidarity. That psyche becomes the foundation for a more consensual society instead of the winner-take-all, “if I win, you lose,” dog-eat-dog society we have in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the United States has become plagued by the steady corrosion of its unequal society. Various studies have demonstrated that unequal societies tend to result in more violence, lower levels of trust, less involvement in community life, and more racial and gender discrimination. No wonder America is the world’s leader in murders and other violent crimes, suicides, and imprisonment rates (the U.S. imprisonment rate is seven to ten times higher than the rates of European nations, depending on the nation). We spend more money on constructing prisons than we do on universities. In the United States, violence of all kinds—street violence, domestic violence, entertainment violence, official state-sanctioned military violence—has become a way of life, the sea in which we swim.

Later when I reflected on this conversation, I realized what an epiphanic moment it had been. That’s when it really struck me what a failure the American Way is. Here we are, the lone remaining superpower, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, with the most powerful military the world has ever seen, and yet we have not figured out how to ensure that the lives of Americans are not so filled with anxiety and fear. Despite all our wealth and military power, for too many Americans there is no security.

Europeans, meanwhile, have a more stress-free attitude that perhaps can be summed up best in one word, a Danish word—hygge (pronounced hooga)—which describes a relaxed state of conviviality that involves close friendships and family bonds. One American expat who has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years tried to explain the sentiment. “The gist of it is that you are not supposed to have anything to do except let go,” she said, describing a nearly zen timelessness where the present doesn’t worry so much about the future. Wrote another American who had been living in the Netherlands, “To comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind.”

Matthias crushed out his cigarette, as if to underscore his final words: “Europe has the right system for its people . . . it’s what all nations should strive for . . . to take care of its people. Isn’t that obvious?”

His point had penetrated deeply. He had touched on the core of something important, but my defensive comments only served to absolve the United States of any responsibility for having failed to live up to this European standard. In truth, whether and how to take care of its people is a fundamental choice about values and budget priorities that every society has to grapple with. The fact that we have not yet figured out how to extend things like health care, child care, paid parental leave, adequate retirement benefits, paid sick leave, sufficient vacation time, and free (or nearly free) university education to tens of millions of Americans is a sign that something is very askew about the American dream. It shows something warped about our idea of “family values.” And when you factor in that Europeans really don’t pay more than Americans to receive all of these benefits—and that only the president, members of Congress and their families, and employees of the most prosperous U.S. businesses receive the full range of European-level workfare supports—the tragedy becomes perverse. Just a fraction of the bloated U.S. military budget would pay for all of this. Why is this so hard? What’s an economy for, anyhow?

So now, whenever I am in Europe, whether in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, London, Rome, Prague, Oslo, Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona, Ljubljana, Budapest or elsewhere, at some point in my journey I always make a point to stand on a street corner and stop and look around me at all the people milling about. I watch them for a few minutes, take a deep breath, and, remembering Matthias’ words I think to myself, “Everyone I see, all those people walking by, no matter their age, gender, religion, or income, has the right to go to a doctor whenever they are sick. They have a decent retirement pension waiting for them, and parents can bring their children to day care, or stay home to take care of themselves or their sick loved one, and get paid parental leave and job retraining if they need it, and an affordable university education.” Of course I realize that not every European country, or every region or city within each country, lives up to every aspect of this menu 100 percent of the time, particularly since economic fluctuations will always result in contractions and expansions of the social agenda. That’s to be expected. But all of them, even the poorer countries among them, achieve a far higher level of success than the United States can muster.

That is the “concept” of Europe, the social contract between all of the European peoples and their governments. It’s worth contemplating as I stand on street corners in Europe, with the memory of Matthias’s words ringing in my ears: “In America, you are so rich—why don’t you have these things for your people?”


Steven Hill 3:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)
 
October 14, 2010
 by Steven Hill

THE PLIGHT OF THE ROMA MINORITY: SIGNS OF HOPE AMIDST THIS CHALLENGE TO RAINBOW EUROPE...Today I interviewed Professor Rudolf Sarkozi, a leader of the Roma ethnic minority and chairman of the Austrian Romani Cultural Society in Vienna, Austria, as well as his son Andreas Sarkozi, who is the organization’s secretary. It was a fascinating interview in which Professor Sarkozi, a recognized and sought-out European leader of the Roma, gave his frank opinions on the persecution of the Roma, the recent French president Sarkozy’s (yes, ironically nearly the same name! More on that below) policy of Roma expulsion from France, the general treatment of ethnic minorities in Europe and Austria, relations with other minorities such as the Turkish Muslim minority in Vienna, and more.

The plight of the Roma is important, because in certain ways they play the role of the proverbial canary in the mine shaft. In recent decades, predominantly white and Christian Europe has seen an influx of immigrants and ‘auslanders’ (German for ‘outsiders’) and, like the United States before it, has struggled with the integration of minorities, whether those minorities are from North Africa, Turkey or eastern Europe. I have written extensively about the challenges of immigration and integration in my book "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" (www.EuropesPromise.org). There is little doubt that Europe’s future is that of a ‘rainbow’ continent, with a mixing and melting that is occurring before everyone’s eyes -- but not always smoothly or peacefully.

The Europessimists have predicted that this ‘rainbow-ization’ of Europe will lead to its downfall, with the most extreme saying the continent is destined to become “Eurabia,” a colony of Islam. Alarmist anti-immigrant literature has become a genre unto itself, with titles such as these gracing bookstores: While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within; The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?; Eurabia, the Euro-Arab Axis; Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’ s Crisis is America’s, Too; World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism. And of course the granddaddy of them all is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which was a bestseller even as it drew the lines too starkly and distorted the discourse on an important subject. While some of these works have levied some thoughtful analysis, increasingly the genre has resulted in a kind of shrill, pop-chart alarmism which descends into hype and even silly nonsense. There are more immigrants in France from Portugal, for example, than there are from North Africa or Turkey, and there are no credible demographic projections showing that the number of Muslims or ethnic minorities in Europe will ever reach the level of minorities already in the United States (which currently is one-third minority). But facts are not important to the bashers and doomsayers of Europe.

Ironically, the overblown stridency over new Muslim immigrants only has served to obscure the failure of Europe to integrate its longstanding ethnic minorities, most of whom are the children or grandchildren of immigrants and have resided there for years.The Roma are some of these longstanding ethnic minorities, and they are not Muslims. Also known as Gypsies, the Roma ethnic minority is one of the most discriminated in all of Europe. The Roma’s roots in Europe go back centuries, and they have been present in small numbers in most European countries for just as long. But today it is estimated that the Roma population is between two and five million, most of them living in Slavic-speaking countries such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. Romania in particular, ruled by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu until the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989, has been strongly criticized by human rights advocates as well as by the European Union for discrimination against the Roma. Romania has not even spent the millions of euros given to it by the E.U. to foster Roma integration, choosing instead to maintain difficult conditions so that the Roma will leave and migrate across Europe.

And migrate they have, fanning out across much of the European continent with an industriousness that is admirable as much as it is alarming for the places where they arrive in significant numbers, often living in gypsy camps on the outskirts of towns. Locals as well as the authorities complain that a certain criminal element of petty thieves accompany the Roma influx, as a certain number live on the streets by stealing and deploying clever ruses designed to swindle people. When I was in Paris, I stood in the plaza outside the Musee D’Orsay and watched a small pack of Roma youth work the passersby with various premeditated schemes intended to separate people from their money.

All of these issues came to a head in August and September when French President Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of many of the Roma, providing them free travel and a small amount of money ($382) to send them back to Romania and Bulgaria. This caused the European Commission to condemn Sarkozy’s policy as a violation of the EU charter against targeting an ethnic minority and a violation of the Roma’s human rights (as of early October, approximately 1,700 Roma had been expelled by this order, though thousands more had earlier been deported). In dramatic fashion, the plight of the Roma suddenly became front page news as well as an EU-wide challenge. And Professor Rudolph Sarkozi was in the thick of it as a spokesman for the Roma, sparring with his French presidential namesake.

When I meet with him on a sunny October morning in his office, Professor Sarkozi is a stout man who looks to be about sixty five years of age, with a tousled, graying mop top of black hair and a thick moustache. He says that he comes from a simple background (that’s an understatement: he was born in a concentration camp in Austria, and after the liberation of the camp he returned with his mother to her home in Austrian). He has worked his way up over the years to a point of now being a recognized spokesperson for the Roma minority. He was pleasant though business-like in the interview, as was his son Andreas (the interview was conducted in German and translated into English by an interpreter).

SH: There is a perception that one of the difficulties that prevents Roma integration is that they are perennially migrants, never settling down in one place long enough to establish roots; that it’s practically a genetic disposition to wander “like gypsies” from place to place, living in camps, a sort of romantic life that in this modern age where people settle down to work at jobs is an anachronism that doesn’t fit. Can you help us to understand how much of this aspect is part of the Roma challenge?

Sarkozi: We Roma are not a nomadic people. Rather, we are a persecuted people looking for a place where we can live and prosper. Were the first American colonists nomadic when they moved to America to escape persecution? Besides, in Europe there used to be a custom where trades people would move from place to place in search of work, and Roma were like that. Perhaps some adjustment is still occurring in that regard among some of the Roma.

SH: What do you think about Romania’s policy toward its Roma population?

Sarkozi: The Romanian government is pushing the Roma people out of the country. Instead of spending the EU money it is expelling people into the rest of the EU. It would be more effective if the EU gave this money directly to Roma groups and not to the Romanian government, which has no Roma representatives. There are many successful Roma businesses and organizations in Romania that could use this money, especially to hire Roma. It would be better to hire Roma even to do menial jobs, like sweeping, than just give them unemployment, since that would help them to develop skills and mentalities for working.

SH: What would be the best EU policy for the Roma?

Sarkozi: The EU should require that those nations and organizations receiving EU money for the Roma have Roma themselves as co-determinants in how that support is used, how the money is spent. They also should do more to draw the Roma in to the political process. Here in Austria (which he says has one of the best policies in Europe for Roma integration), two ministers in the Austrian government regularly seek out the views of Roma leaders, including myself. EU member states should all have a Roma representative in the European Parliament. We are fighting for a Commissioner at the EU level who will oversee minority issues. The EU is getting better in this regard, but the problems we are now experiencing was completely predictable and the EU was unprepared. When the eastern countries were added to the EU, and when free migration of people was allowed (under the Schengen agreement), it was clear that a persecuted people like the Roma would migrate in search of a better life. The EU didn’t prepare for this and now is playing catch up.

SH: In the recent municipal elections in Vienna (which had occurred the previous Sunday, October 10), the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPO) won many more seats than previously, nearly doubling its total from the last election to 27%. Did the Roma feel a threat from their campaign and now their electoral success?

Sarkozi: The FPO campaigned more against Muslims than against foreigners. And specifically Turkish Muslims, since other Muslims from Indonesia and other places have not had as hard a time integrating. Crises like the current economic downturn cause more people to vote for the Freedom Party. But the Roma were not caught up in this anti-Muslim wave. I have met with the FPO leaders, they are not anti-Roma. The integration of Roma has been more successful than of Turkish Muslims.

SH: Why has the Roma integration been more successful?

Sarkozi: The Turkish Muslim community is much larger than the Roma, and that makes integration more difficult. The Roma have been in Austria since the 17th century but Turkish Muslims only since World War II, so our roots are much longer and deeper. Austria also was conquered at one point by Turkish Muslims, and while that was a long time ago, memories are long. Sometimes some of their leaders say things that alarm people. For example, one Muslim leader said he could anticipate a minaret in every Austrian regional capital and that set off alarms throughout the country. The Turkish children, especially those recently arrived from Turkey, tend to have a low level of education and cannot speak German, so it puts a burden on the education system. And some of the imams say they follow sharia law and don’t always respect Austrian law. If I enter someone else’s country I expect to have to follow their laws. In addition, the Roma have done a lot to foster our own integration. I initiated my own fund for education of Roma youth, as well as parents.

SH: Which countries are best for the Roma, which ones treat them the best?

Sarkozi: Germany and Austria are the best (my note: Currently, there are around 30,000 Roma, largely settled, in a country of 8.5 million Austrians). Our leaders are consulted by their leaders, and many Roma living in these two countries have become successful. Also I don’t hear anything negative about the Scandinavian countries. Integration works best when ethnic minorities are active in the process, and in government. Austria has an advisory board for ethnic minorities which helps with integration. On October18 Austria will have a Day for Ethnic Minorities.

SH: Do the Turks participate in these activities, like a Day for Ethnic Minorities?

Sarkozi: Austria has six officially recognized ethnic minorities, and the Turks are not yet one of them (the others are Slovaks, Croats, Slovenes, Czechs and Hungarians). This is for historical reasons, “minority groups” must have been here for four generations and be Austrian citizens, and many of the Turks have not become citizens. But right now the political will doesn’t exist to make the Turks a recognized minority. The Turkish groups are not seeking that status, and if they did there would not be a parliamentary majority to grant that status.

SH: I have one question I can’t resist asking. Your last name is nearly identical as French president Nicolas Sarkozy. I find that very ironic, that the person who is expelling Roma from France shares your last name. President Sarkozy is the son of Hungarian immigrants to France, is it possible he also is of Roma descent?

Sarkozi: (he smiles and pauses, searching for a diplomatic answer) The similarity in our names is a happy coincidence (later it is pointed out to me that in central Europe, particularly in Hungary, the surname Sarkozy or Sarkozi is quite common among Roma families).

SH: Are you hopeful about the future prospects of the Roma in Europe?

Sarkozi: Yes, I am.

SH: Professor Sarkozi, thank you for your time, it’s been a great pleasure. Best of luck with your important work.

Steven Hill 5:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks
 
October 13, 2010
 by Steven Hill

TRIAL BY FIRE: POPULIST PARTY MAKES GAINS IN VIENNA'S MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS; THE CHALLENGE OF RAINBOW EUROPE...On Sunday, electoral fireworks went off here in Vienna, Austria. I observed the municipal elections, and the populist, anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPO) nearly doubled its vote total from the last election to 27 percent while the long-time governing Social Democrats (SPO) lost 5 percent since the last election, finishing with 45 percent and forcing them into a coalition government for the first time since the 1990s (since previously they had always won a majority of the vote outright). Their coalition partner will either be the Green Party (which also lost votes and finished with about 12 percent) or the center-right conservatives the People’s Party (which lost votes, finishing with about 13 percent). Curiously, Vienna recently began allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote, and it had been presumed that young people would be more left than right. But the FPO had won a sizable number of votes from young people too (more on that below).

On election night I wandered around the post-election campaign tents of the major parties, situated near the plaza in front of city hall (the Rathaus). The crowd at the SPO was pretty subdued, considering that they were the front runner by far and would be the leader in a coalition government. But sometimes life is not about what you have but what you have lost - it’s that ‘glass half empty instead of half full’ thing again -- and the SPO had lost its majority support for the first time in over a decade. For 'Red Vienna', a social democrat stronghold for decades, this was cold water in the face. The SPD leaders and rank and file were not in a mood to be consoled.

But over at the FPO tent the crowd was giddily jubilant. I wandered around inside among the hundreds of supporters as the party's leaders paraded around onstage. Thick Germanic voices bellowed their victory chants and songs, shouting "F-PAY-EW, F-PAY-EW," and large mugs of yellow pilsner were hoisted high. The star of the show was the FPO's hunky telegenic leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who egged on the crowd. Strache's populism had struck an electoral chord, especially in some of Vienna's old industrial white working class areas, now heavily populated by immigrant families. He captured more than a third of the vote in some of these districts that usually had supported the Social Democrats. Strache ran strongly on banning minarets and Islamic headgear, familiar themes for anti-immigrant parties whether in Switzerland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. With minor local variations, the campaign issues for populist parties across Europe continue to be Islamophobia and anti-immigration, which are closely connected to economic security and crime.

After enjoying the hospitality of the FPO’s beer and apple strudel, I began interviewing many of its rank and filers under the big top. This was a random selection, not a scientific one, but I have to say that the people I talked to were mostly reasonable, not some foaming at the mouth neo-Nazi skinheads. There were some ‘baldies’ in the tent -- who may or may not have been skinheads -- but they were a tiny fraction of the hundreds there. The concerns vented by the people I spoke with raise important questions about how relatively wealthy societies (like Austria -- only 8 million people, about the population of New York City) can open up their borders and admit immigrants in a way that doesn’t threaten the high quality of life that they have. The Austrian support system for families and workers is very generous and comprehensive to a degree Americans can scarcely comprehend, precisely calibrated to ensure a healthy and productive populace but at the same time to prevent bankrupting the government. Austria’s social capitalism is cut from a different clothe than the American trickle down, Wall Street capitalism. All Austrians receive health care, paid parental leave (following the birth of a child), affordable child care, monthly kiddie stipends (to pay for diapers, baby clothes, food, etc), paid sick leave, inexpensive university education, ample retirement pensions, supportive elderly care, generous unemployment compensation, vocational training, efficient mass transportation, affordable housing, and more. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week, plus a plethora of religious holidays thrown in.

But this is not a “welfare state” as Americans understand that term; this is not about people kicking back, on the dole, collecting government handouts. This is about how a society provides support for families and individuals so they can be healthy and productive worker bees. In other words, this is about WORKING, and Austrian workers are some of the most productive in the world. That’s why their standard of living is higher than most Americans, since only better-off Americans -- those who work for a wealthy corporation or are a member of Congress -- get Austrian level supports for families and individuals. Even ethnic minorities in Europe, including immigrants after a waiting period, benefit from the same generous workfare supports that native-borns enjoy, so they don’t generally sink to the desolate condition that can be found still today in many minority and immigrant communities in the United States, even among African Americans whose families arrived centuries ago.

A country so precisely designed can’t simply open its borders and allow huge influxes of newcomers, since that would threaten to overwhelm and bankrupt their system. Austria has been willing to absorb smaller numbers of newcomers but even that process becomes controversial when the newcomers are perceived as being both culturally different and not wishing to “fit in” to the Austrian way, including speaking German. Fitting in is very important to Austrians, who are an admirable people in many ways but can be fairly rigid in their approach to life.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that these are legitimate concerns and cannot simply be swept under the rug. The unfortunate part is that it takes a populist party like the Freedom Party to put these issues on the table, because they tend to do it in a provocative and unconstructive way (for example, I have been told that for a while the FPO included a link on their website to a video game where the player could shoot at and blow up minarets and mosques). But I think it’s worth considering for a moment the aggrieved case they make.

As I talked to the FPO supporters, they bristled at the idea that they are racists. They reiterated over and over that Austrians are a generous people who are happy to help people in need, needing political asylum, etc. (and there is evidence that this claim is at least partially true; soon I will post an interview I did with a Roma leader in Vienna who claims that Austria has one of the best integration policies for Roma in Europe). But they claimed that “all they were asking for” was that the Turkish Muslims who came to live there become Austrians, i.e. learn to speak German, find jobs (Austria has a relatively low unemployment rate even during this crisis, only about 4 percent), respect Austrian law (instead of sharia law), stop stealing and intimidating people, and don’t simply “take take take” from the system.

When I asked them “Do all Turkish Muslims act in this way,” each interviewee said “No, certainly not.” When I asked them “What percent act that way?” the responses ranged from “fifty percent” to “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s too much.”

In general, as is usually the case in these matters, there seems to be a lack of credible or widely available data about how big the problem is. What percent of Viennese Turks don’t speak German, what percent go to mosque, what percent don’t have jobs, what percent are involved in crimes, etc. Even some of the policy experts I asked don’t seem to have a good handle on this, and so average people respond with answers like “a lot,” or “too much.” So a good deal of this is based on public perception.

One woman I interviewed spoke about being intimidated and once even threatened with a knife by young Turkish males. But she freely acknowledged in response to my question that not all Turkish males act this way, even that most don’t. Yet she is visited on a regular basis, as are many of her colleagues under the FPO tent, by an uneasy feeling that this “element” is taking over her city and country. Even if the facts happened to be widely available, her perceptions may be impervious to the facts.

The case of 16 and 17 year olds voting for the Freedom Party perhaps best illustrates the challenge. They voted for the first time recently, and at first the perception was these youthful voters would overwhelmingly mark the Green or Social Democrat lists. But it hasn’t actually worked out that way, many are voting FPO. I did not see any youngsters there in the tent -- presumably they were home in bed since it was nearly midnight -- so had to settle for asking a few adults why they thought young people were voting for their party. Each person I asked gave the same resounding response: “Because young people in schools are bearing the brunt of this. Some schools and classes are 50 percent Turkish,” said one white man. “And many of the young Turks in schools are poorly educated, don’t speak good German and are troublemakers.” In Salzburg (in eastern Austria), when I asked some American associates living there about this question, one woman told me about how one day some young Turks threatened to beat up her son if he didn’t give them his hat. Others had similar stories. One gets the impression of a bit of a West Side story situation where the Jets and the Sharks are facing off in the schools, with the battle lines drawn along ethnic/cultural lines.

So it seems to me that many of these grievances are legitimate, or at least legitimate-sounding. Perhaps these polite, anti-immigrant Venetians were just good at sounding reasonable. But what is also clear is that neither the FPO supporters nor their leaders have much to offer in the way of solutions. Possibly because there aren’t any easy solutions, and none that will solve this challenge in the short term. As the United States shows, the process of integration takes generations. It requires constant pressure to change the natural course of the stream, and it takes responsible leaders who over time craft responsible policy. Austria only passed its first anti-discrimination law a few years ago, so the political system has only begun the process of making the Turkish Muslims feel welcome. Not that long ago signs were widely displayed in shop windows that read “Auslanders need not apply” (Auslander = outsider = non-Austrians). And the media, especially the print media in Austria, Germany and elsewhere does not help. Their alarmist headlines obscure Muslims’ own grievances, as well as their motivation for living in Europe today: the vast majority go there to better themselves and to secure a brighter future for their children, not to promote a Taliban fantasy of reestablishing the Caliphate. Most Muslim immigrants, like people everywhere, simply aspire to their own version of the middle class dream, including its secularist-based quality of life. Most Muslims in Austria and elsewhere in Europe don’t even go to mosque, just as most Christians don’t go to church. Your average Muslim immigrants and their second- and third-generation children are law-abiding residents, lunch-pail Ahmeds and Ameeras, looking to find their niche. That’s why they endured the perils of immigration to begin with.

In most ways what Austria and Europe is facing is an old, old story, a classic tale of a dominant mainstream trying to incorporate—or expel—newcomers in its midst. Ethnic minorities and immigrants have always been mistreated, across the world and down through history, and not until their sheer numbers reach a critical mass within the overall population is their condition ever addressed. The minorities appear to be suddenly living in their midst, even though most have been there for decades. It’s as if suddenly the blind can see, and they are shocked by what they have missed. At that point, a populist movement inevitably arises to deport them, only to find that it is too late to do so for any self-respecting democracy that supports human rights, since the immigrants’ numbers are too great and they inhabit a crucial economic niche as low-wage workers performing essential functions that native workers won’t do. So a parallel struggle emerges over how to integrate them or at least to tolerate them, and that process plays out across decades and not always according to design. In fact, as the history of immigration and integration in the United States shows, things can get downright messy.

The United States, which has a far higher percentage of ethnic minorities than any European country has today or likely ever will have, long ago reached a demographic tipping point and began its stumbling efforts toward integration. But Europe never before has had to deal with the number of ethnic minorities who now have settled in. Only recently has that number reached this critical mass in which European nationals of North African, Turkish or Arab origin not only are more visible but also are starting to push for more rights. Once the racial demographics have changed beyond a certain no-return point, the minorities’ elbows become sharp enough for them to say, “Move over, I’m riding on the bus too.” Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands, as well as many cities in other European countries, have reached this moment first, but it’s just the onset of an irreversible course.

Now on the other side of the demographic tipping point, Europe increasingly is faced with some stark choices. Sealing the borders and cutting off immigration, or deporting existing immigrants, is not an option because of white Europe’s own shrinking population problem and the need to counteract that with increased immigration for the good of the economy. So that presents an even sharper dilemma: integration or apartheid. But no country that claims to be a democracy can long suppress its minorities by means of a discriminatory police state without losing its soul. So that leaves only one realistic option: integration. There simply is no other practical course. Europe, increasingly, appears to understand this. A Rainbow Europe is in the offing, but it’s going to be noisy and messy for years to come.

And back in Vienna, the Freedom Party’s 27 percent of the vote will be overwhelmingly outvoted by whatever majority coalition emerges, headed by the Social Democrats, so none of their proposed policies will come to pass. They will comprise a noisy opposition, a thumb in the eye to the majority, and if the history of populist movements in Austria as well as in Europe and the US is any guide, they will see their support drop within a couple of election cycles as the economic downturn levels off and it becomes clear to more voters that the FPO doesn’t offer any practical solutions. But in the meantime, in their own quarrelsome way, they have identified a seismic fault line in modern wealthy societies, and that fault line will continue to open and close over the next few decades as societies shake out their nerves over the earthquake tensions of immigration and ‘auslanders/outsiders’ in a globalized world.

Next: I will post a fascinating interview with a Roma leader in Vienna. And get this -- his last name is Sarkozi, nearly identical to that of French president Nicolas Sarkozy who recently began expelling Roma from France. Talk about coincidences.

Steven Hill 6:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)
 
October 4, 2010
 by Steven Hill

OKTOBERFEST: A “STAMMTISCH” OF THOUSANDS; SKEPTICISM OVER U.S. TRAVEL ADVISORY IN EUROPE...The German language has a word, “Stammtisch,” that really has no English equivalent. The closest translation is something like “regulars’ reserved table” or "regular get-together." Literally speaking, Stammtisch means a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week, and no one else is supposed to sit there even when the regulars aren't present. In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering, which conveys "don't sit here." When I visited the Hofbräuhaus in Munich for the first time, which is a massive beer hall that also has no U.S. equivalent, I made the mistake of sitting at someone else's unoccupied Stammtisch, raising eyebrows and eventually glares until I figured out my transgression. In the US, if a table is empty, it's fair game to occupy it, but not in traditional Germany.

There can be all kinds of Stammtisch, whether for friends who drink together on a regular occasion, or those for specific interest groups, such as a "philosophy discussion Stammtisch" or a "stamp collectors Stammtisch," or a “learn to speak German or English Stammtisch,” etc. This is what US sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) once called “social capital.” Adolph Hitler, who got his start by learning the art of oratory in Germany's large beer halls, had his own Stammtisch of sorts -- it became known as the Nazi Party.

Understanding this word/concept is one way to appreciate Munich’s annual rite of beer swilling known as Oktoberfest. It's like a massive Stammtisch of hundreds of thousands of people who have a regular annual date in Munich. I had never attended Oktoberfest before but when the organizers of my lecture in Munich invited me to be their guest at Oktoberfest, it was too attractive an offer to turn down. Oktoberfest celebrated its 200 year old anniversary this year, and over the two-week period in which it unfolded approximately six million people passed through the gates. A large number of attendees were wearing the traditional Bavarian costumes, men in Lederhosen shorts and feathered caps, the women in the low-cut, cup runneth over, St. Pauli girl Dirndls. And just about everyone is holding an enormous flagon full of the specially made yellow lager beer known as Märzen (nearly two million gallons of which are consumed during the two-week festival). In other words, these Stammtischers (can I use this word as a noun?) are pounding down serious quantities of beer.

Besides the amusement park atmosphere around the fairgrounds, they have enormous beer halls on the fairgrounds where the Stammtischers mount their libational assault on Kantian reason. Just in the beer hall in which I “stammtisched” (can I use it as a verb?) with my friends, I shared the revelry with about 10,000 other people in a single hall. It was an enormous structure and everywhere you looked there was a sea of people hoisting high their yellow flagons, singing along in thick, throaty tones to the oompa band in the middle. The more people drank, the more they climbed on their stools and benches, I suppose trying to get as high physically as they were getting blood-level wise. The singing too grew increasingly loud and paradoxically on-key, as the volkgeist found its harmony in both German- and English-language songs rolling over the crowd. Next thing you know, they are standing on the tables, higher still, and the singing by now was thunderous, bellowing like elephant seals. There's something about singing in large crowds that has always been appealing to humans, something about the communion that occurs when each individual joins with like-others to produce something harmonious; it's the exact opposite of politics, which is often one long argument that one can never win, except temporarily, and frustrates this innate need for agreement and consensus. Three voices joined in harmony is a delight, but ten thousand in unison is a wall of uplifting sound. Think of the magnificent chorus of dozens in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and multiply that by, oh, about a thousand. While I'm not particularly religious, I suppose there is something God-like in this pursuit, a sense of climbing higher and higher onto the stools, the tables, in beer content, in our attempts to reach some divine summit. Perhaps I had drank too much beer myself, but this loud bellowing mass suddenly seemed like something life-affirming and even sloppily beautiful, a Stammtisch of Thousands within this beer hall. Yet as I realized later (once the effects of the beer had worn off?), the flipside is that these sorts of rituals can and have been abused, whether during the patriotic "rally around the flag"-fest that occurred after the 9-11 terrorist attacks (when the number of Americans who were willing to support the use of torture spiked in the opinion polls) or during the Nazi mass rituals that used symbols and, yes, song to unite a people's will around a perverse destination.

American Stammtisch of fear? Must be election time. On this same day I heard on the news that the US State Department had issued an extremely rare travel advisory telling Americans to beware of potential terrorist threats in Europe. The State Department warned that a small cell of potential terrorists from Pakistan is preparing an attack. Plotters could be planning to use "a variety of means and target both official and private interests," the State Department said, adding that Americans in Europe should be careful on trains, subways and other transportation systems, and in visiting hotels, restaurants and tourist spots. I couldn't resist asking some Europeans, as well as Americans living in Europe, what they thought of this warning. Without exception they all shook their heads and smiled. "There go the Americans again," said one. "This is nonsense. How are the terrorists supposed to distinguish between an American and other Europeans? Why would Americans be in more danger than anyone else here? Yet you don't see the German and French governments raising their threat levels." Indeed, the German and French governments downplayed the alleged threat, though the British government -- the usual American ally in these matters -- did raise its level.

One German friend offered a rather unflattering explanation for the American government’s over-reactive posture. "It must be election time again," she said. "Your politicians always try to scare voters into voting for them." She pointed out how the Bush administration had excelled at using fear to rally voters’ loyalty, and wondered why the Obama administration would be tearing a page out of the Bush playbook. "They really must be worried about the November elections." The Americans I talked to, all of whom live in Europe, for the most part agreed.

That got me to thinking. Another meaning of Stammtisch is “regular get-together,” and her comments caused me to wonder if terrorist warnings around election time have become an American Stammtisch, a regular ritual around which Americans all get together, using symbols, stories and "protect the family/fatherland" emotions to stoke electoral passion. Of course, if the Obama administration did not issue the travel advisory and something horrible did occur, they would be accused of negligence and/or incompetence. That charge would hurt their electoral prospects this November more than the charge of being overly cautious, or even over reactive and engaging in overkill. Is this then perhaps an example of "defensive medicine" practiced in the electoral arena, not taking a chance in case something worse might happen? Or…is it something else?

Regardless of which it is, people here are scoffing, and that tells you a lot. After American warnings about weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, after missing an $8 trillion housing bubble that did exist, after Abu Ghraib, kidnappings, renditions, Katrina, and more, America’s credibility is lacking. Even with Obama as president, who remains popular among Europeans but who they increasingly see as having continued a number of Bush policies in this arena, Europeans use their own compass and do not immediately take the word of the Americans.

That gave me a lot to think about when about 5 p.m I had to cut out of the Oktoberfest to catch a train to Strasbourg, France (a relaxing four hour trip through the German countryside, passed farms, green fields, pastures, many church steeples, solar panel arrays and windmills -- the trains really are a marvel here). I have to give a lecture the next day in Strasbourg, but Oktoberfest would continue throughout the afternoon and into the evening, and when it closed down for the evening at 10 p.m. it would roll into the streets and into the local bars. German Romanticism at work, a Stammtisch to remember.

Steven Hill 9:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)
 




 
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