IPS Blog

The Bulgarian Turn

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

When I visited North Korea in the late 1990s, I ended up having the longest conversations with my interpreters. When you’re an infrequent visitor to that benighted country, it’s not possible to travel freely and talk to whomever you like. You invariably spend a lot of time eating and drinking with the people who have been vetted to interact with you. One of my interpreters had spent several years in New York City, could sing You Are the Sunshine of My Life, and spoke fondly of Jewish delicatessens. It was fascinating to talk with him, but I would never equate his opinions with those of an average North Korean.

On my recent trip to Bulgaria, in contrast, I could of course go anywhere and talk to anyone. But here too I had some very in-depth conversations with my interpreter, Vihra Gancheva, and these proved considerably more representative than my discussions with my North Korean guide. What I found particularly interesting was her evolution over the years toward a greater appreciation of Bulgarian ways. She didn’t go so far as to proclaim herself a Bulgarian nationalist. She preferred the designation “patriot.”

Our discussion was sparked by a meeting with Volen Siderov, the controversial leader of Ataka, an unabashedly populist-nationalist party. When we walked out of the meeting, Vihra remarked that he seemed much more sensible than she’d expected. I was surprised. She was a well-read intellectual who knew a great deal about the world outside Bulgaria. She did not, in other words, strike me as a natural constituent of Ataka. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bulgarian nationalism – or patriotism, as some would define their belief system – has no appeal for people who might otherwise appear to be cosmopolitan.

I asked Vihra if she thought there had been an increase in nationalism over the last two decades. She believed there had been. “If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then,” she said. “I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.”

She continued, “This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing.”

Interpreters translate language. But they also translate culture. Here, Vihra Gancheva interprets a certain cultural shift that has taken place since 1990 that might be called “the Bulgarian turn.”

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Surprisingly when I thought hard about it, I couldn’t remember when I heard about the Berlin Wall falling. Information wasn’t coming so quickly to us back then. I remember hearing rumors about it. But I didn’t actually believe them because communist propaganda was very strong at the time. And I didn’t trust rumors. I thought they were just deliberate rumors.

Besides, I was not interested in politics at all. I was 23. I was in my third year at university. I was as far as possible from politics or anything related to news. It took me about 10 days to become completely hooked. I embraced the whole thing. It didn’t happen immediately because I was busy doing other things.

When I came home on the 10th of November in the evening, my mother told me that Todor Zhivkov was forced to step down or he was ousted. I wasn’t impressed. I said, “They’ll replace him, it’s not a big deal.” Incidentally it was meant to be not a very big deal. I believe it was a coup d’etat. At that time, I hated this idea because I don’t like conspiracy theories. I don’t like imagining a bunch of crooks sitting around a table like Greek gods deciding the fate of the nation. I thought it was something that we had earned through street protests and rallies. But 20 years on, I realize that this was not the case. It was a coup d’état, and it had been organized for several years, maybe since the mid-1980s.

There was a point when the Communist Party thought that things were getting out of hand. They were not prepared for the hatred that poured out at them. They thought that they could control everything, as they did in Russia perhaps and are still doing. But the hatred from the Bulgarian people was so strong that there were street fights because someone called the other person “comrade,” even though people were just saying it out of habit. Even the choice of words placed you with the Communist Party or against it. People accused each other of being members of the Party.

I remember being so excited about it all. I stopped going to school. I only went to school to see the list of rallies and decide which one to go to. I remember when Demokratsia newspaper was being printed. It was not sold in kiosks because the kiosks were run by the establishment. People stood at corners selling the newspaper. I remember getting up early just to buy it. I bought so many newspapers, and I still have them somewhere at home. The articles were so interesting, so cleverly written. It was an enlightenment that I went through.

My grandfathers were both members of the Communist Party — since the 1930s when it was progressive to be a communist, when it was about liberating the people, the workforce, social welfare. One of my grandfathers was expelled from university for communist propaganda. He was even sent to a kind of prison in Greece. My parents were among those few who refused to become members of the Communist Party. It was a great honor to be invited. And if you refuse, it’s weird. But my parents found some excuse. It was a problem for their career afterwards, but they survived.

For me, it was never an option because I hated the meetings. It was such a waste of time, such a cliché, all those set phrases that the communists used. There was a “military movement of the children” that was like the Boy Scouts but with communist propaganda. The communists were very clever to invite the more active children, the conscientious pupils who wanted to progress in life, to become leaders of these organizations. As one of these pupils, I was also invited. I was bored to death! I couldn’t stand it. But at the time, when you’re so young, you can’t protest. I’m not a fighter. I was just bored. For me, communism was something to be endured.

On the other hand, I was so scared by the threat of a war that I thought that the collapse of communism would mean World War III. Years later when I realized that the Americans were living in fear of Russia, I laughed. There’s this poem — Xotyat li Russkie Voyni?Do the Russians Want War? – by Yevtushenko. For me this was laughable, but now I realize that there was some reason for this fear. But anyway, I lived in fear and I remember when SALT II was signed, I was worried: will they sign it? Will there be peace?

Communists were there to be endured. My idea at the time was that we should just live our lives trying not to cross their paths. Later I realized how brainwashed I’d been. I knew nothing about the concentration camps. Of course I knew about Belene, but I thought this was only a problem for the first years after the war. I had no idea that these things were still happening — probably because my family and my immediate friends were not affected. I trusted the police completely. I trusted them more than I do now! I was definitely not politically minded.

But when this process started and I started reading and realizing the way things were, I was really shocked. I hated the Communists so much. When I hear good things said about the Party, about the leaders, it just gives me the creeps. Although I must admit that they are well-educated, smooth talkers. The former prime minister from this party, he was a much better educated and sophisticated person than the current prime minister. But the previous government was one of the worst. It made so many mistakes. Though some people say that it introduced some economic benefits through the taxation process that benefited anyone but the poor who are their electorate.

In 1989, we realized that anyone could become a politician. Before that politics was a place reserved only for the political elite, for the communist bourgeoisie. Then, in 1989, there was such turmoil that anybody could make it. This is also a bad thing too, because a lot of people ended up as politicians without being prepared in any way. They were not even good professionals. On the other hand, there were some good professionals who became politicians and made policies.

After the elections of June 1990 my hopes were crushed very quickly. There was a famous rally of one million people on Eagle’s Bridge. I was there and so excited and full of hope, and I was sure that Bulgaria would become like Austria in a couple years. The next day was election day. And then we realized that the Communist Party would be in power and everything would be the same. I remember going to the party headquarters of the UDF on Rakovsky Street, and I sat there with hundreds of other people on the pavement and we were in a stupor. I didn’t cry, but I felt as if someone had died. It was so sad and hopeless and stupid. I was angry, but mainly I was disappointed.

Were you tempted at that time to join the City of Truth?

Yes, from the ideological point of view. But I didn’t do it because I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my comfort at home. I was not much of a revolutionary. I went there every evening and spoke to people and signed petitions. I did whatever I thought I could. But I didn’t join. Surprisingly, none of my friends joined. We were all excited about it. We worried that the police would come and chase them away, but nobody decided to live there.

When you think back to 1989 and 1990, do you think this shift came along just at the right time personally for you?

Yes, it came at the right time for me to appreciate it fully. Honestly, if I had been younger, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it much. If I had been older, I would have been cynical about it. I was very open. I embraced it. I reveled in my naiveté. There were so many people who said, “Don’t believe these guys. They’re the same. They are only thinking about their own gain.” But I didn’t want to listen. I believed them, although I didn’t join a party. Party life is not something that I’m after. I never joined a party, never even considered it. Maybe that’s my nature. I prefer to be an observer than an activist.

How about your parents? How did they react?

Luckily, we were on the same side. We went together to rallies. We discussed things at home. We cursed at the communist propaganda on TV. We were worried about whether there would be enough paper for Demokratsia. I say “luckily” because there were families where this was a major problem. I can understand that this could be a serious problem. Even nowadays, when I meet people, I try to ask a question quite early on — not whether they support the Communist Party, it’s not that simple any more — but to understand what kind of frame of mind the person has, to know where to place them. Maybe this is prejudice. I have friends who vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party. I don’t like that part about them. I accept them, but with reservations.

Did you think about going abroad after your disappointment? Did you talk about it with your circle of friends?

All the time. This was the topic that everyone was discussing. But I don’t think any of my close friends actually left. First, we didn’t have exit visas, but then exit visas were dropped in the 1990s, quite early on. I wanted to travel. When I went to Bratislava in the early 1980s I had a cultural shock because it was so much better than Bulgaria in terms of goods. My consumerism was stirred for the first time. I went to a stationery shop and I said, “I’m not leaving here!” I loved everything about it. Even Slovakia was better off back then.

Travelling around was something we cherished. I still can’t say that I’m widely travelled. I wish that I could say that. It’s a matter of money, mainly. Of course we talked about emigration. Surprisingly 20 years on, this is still a hot topic at dinner parties, between friends. It’s still an issue because Bulgarians keep emigrating in new waves every couple years. This is very sad. One million people from the active population, ambitious people with professions, have left the country. It’s very sad. It’s one of the worst outcomes of the changes.

And I still have friends who are seriously talking about leaving. But I don’t think they’ll ever do it. In order to emigrate you have to sever all the ties with the past. And I don’t think we’re ready for that. I’m middle class. I’ve always been. And I don’t want to become an immigrant. I don’t even want to work abroad, well, maybe for a couple years, but only if there’s a time limit on it. Maybe I’m too much of a nationalist, I don’t know. And I think I have too much here to give up. Those people who are poor, who have no family relations, who have no jobs, for them, it’s easier to emigrate. I have a good life here. Why should I give it up?

Do you feel any pride about staying behind?

I don’t know. The pride of being here to endure…

Or to help build the country?

Actually this is an interesting discussion. The Bulgarians who emigrated always say that only the ones who are no good stayed, and we who stayed say that those with nothing to lose left. This is a never-ending discussion. There’s no clear answer to it. Maybe I am proud. If I had emigrated, I would have felt uprooted and lost, because only a few years after leaving your country you feel neither with your own people nor with the people of the other country. This is the way I was raised. I’m not much of a cosmopolitan. I would love to travel for a year in the United States, for instance, this would be a life’s dream. But living there, settling down? I can’t imagine myself doing that.

It’s interesting that you don’t consider yourself much of a cosmopolitan. But your job is very cosmopolitan.

Yes, it is. And it’s getting even more so. Maybe the upbringing that I received during communism, all this patriotism that was instilled in us, is strong in me. I have a love for the Bulgarian language. I can’t imagine my children speaking Bulgarian with an accent. I think that this is disgusting. So many Bulgarians speak English to their children just so that they don’t learn Bulgarian. And I think this is outrageous. I have an interest in other nations, which is one of the characteristics of being cosmopolitan. But apart from that….Maybe I like Bulgaria too much.

That’s a good segue into your evaluation of how much Bulgaria has changed or hasn’t changed since 1989. What score would you give it, on a scale of one to 10, with one being dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 6, even though I was deeply disappointed. Still, after 2000 and after Bulgaria joined the EU, things changed for the better here in many ways. Bulgaria is a better place to be. The cities look better. The highways look better. So, I think that we are on the right track.

But things in Bulgaria are moving very slowly because this is our mentality, which is the result of our 500 years of Turkish occupation. We have the Turkish occupation and the Russian occupation to use as excuse, but I think the Turkish occupation was the worst. It just changed Bulgaria completely forever. We are slow, we don’t make decisions. The decision-making process in Bulgaria is absolutely corrupt. Nobody wants to commit to a decision. They always push decisions upward. And then the prime minister has to decide simple, silly things. And things don’t happen because the prime minister can’t do every single thing in the country. People don’t take responsibility. They just sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We just kill time and wait for the problem to hit the bone, as we say. Once the bone is hit, then we might be stirred to action.

As far as my personal life is concerned, I would say 6 or 7 because I think first of all, one should be thankful for what one has — for being healthy, for having a job, for being able to express freely what you think. I didn’t say 10 because there are a lot of things in life that I didn’t do. As I said, many of my classmates are millionaires, and I’m far from that.

How would your life be different if you were a millionaire?

I don’t know! I think that money corrupts. I don’t want to be a millionaire. One of the problems in Bulgarian society nowadays is that we allowed ourselves to be corrupted by money. But it’s inevitable. Once the market economy starts commanding things, consumerism comes in and money comes into play. In the past, in communist times, it was considered bad taste to ask someone about money, to ask even about how much you paid for these shoes. We never asked that question. Nowadays, it’s become much more common to talk about salaries, about debt, car prices. I don’t like this. It’s definitely a drawback. And I’ve become a person whose life is ruled by money too, as much as I dislike it. Of course I could have become like a hermit and lived in the mountains, and I’m sure I would have planted potatoes. But I’m not that kind of person. So I don’t want to be a millionaire.

There is no free lunch, you know. It’s a trade-off. Even if you don’t make your hands dirty with some illegal business – because millionaires in Bulgaria are not really self-made — you should work very hard. And perhaps I don’t want to work that hard.

And how about the future of Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Having in mind what the Mayans predicted for December 21, 2012, I prefer to think positively. I hope that my life will turn for the better. I have no way but to hope. I think that’s the right frame of mind. If you’re down, you can only go further down. So, 7. Maybe I’m too naive but I think that being naive makes you closer to childhood. If you’re too cynical — though I’m quite cynical too — but if you’re cynical all the time, it makes you old.

On several occasions you’ve said that maybe you’re a Bulgarian nationalist. You love the language. You like living here. Presumably you know a lot about Bulgarian history…

Not as much as I should.

If you were talking to a fellow Bulgarian, would you call yourself a Bulgarian nationalist?

Maybe not a nationalist, but a Bulgarian patriot. In the past, we distinguished between being a nationalist and a patriot. I still think I’m a patriot rather than a nationalist. Progress in life doesn’t depend on your genes or your nationality. It depends on the chances that you are given in life and on some gifts that should be allowed to evolve. But I like Bulgaria and I’m very sorry that it’s developing so poorly.

Do you feel like there has been an increase in nationalism in Bulgaria?

Yes, I think so. If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then. I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.

This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing. When you give too much liberalism to one group, the other group wants its own position back. It’s always a trade-off. I think that given what happened with the Roma population over the years, nationalism was inevitable. Even people who had no frame of mind of the sort became nationalists after seeing what happened. We have nothing against anyone provided they pay their taxes and are law-abiding citizens.

Is there something today that you do that, 22 years ago, you would have made a choice to do in a Western way?

Maybe it’s my frame of mind not so much what I do. Well, I read Bulgarian books today, which I didn’t do in the past. Twenty years ago, I only read the English or American books that I could get hold of. But this was related to my job, my studies. Maybe I don’t hate the Bulgarian style so much. I’ve found something charming about it. Back then, I was definitely against it. I was keen to become totally different: to work totally hard, to adopt a different mentality just to be different. Now I realize that it’s not possible, not necessary, and it can’t happen.

And your decision-making skills?

I’m very bad at decisions. I try to imagine myself in both ways and I can’t. I definitely put things off until the last moment, just like the Bulgarian that I’m proud to be! But there are some things that I feel strongly about. The nuclear power plant, for instance.

Yes or no?

Definitely not. I’m an environmentalist too. My father said if everyone was hesitant like me, mankind would still be in the primordial soup.

You’re a freelancer. Was there a point at which you left an office job to become a freelancer?

I worked for the government for a day and a half, as an interpreter for the minister of energy. That was my charity work, and I was done with it. I’ve worked other office jobs, with very strict, long hours. I was lucky to land a corporate job in 1991. It was my first employment, and I learned a lot there about corporate culture.

But one should find the office environment that corresponds to one’s age and frame of mind. A fresh graduate can work hard, do long hours. But as I grew older, I decided I needed more freedom. I became a teacher for a private school, teaching English to adults. I enjoyed that freedom. Then I got back into business. I became a freelancer in 2005, which is not very long ago. But I can’t imagine myself back in an office. I hope that the crisis will not get that bad to force me to do it.

How is the situation in Bulgaria for freelancers?

It’s quite bad because the demand is not very high and the supply of translators and interpreters is very high. It used to be great in 2007, but then we joined the EU, which changed the kind of work we were supposed to do. Then the crisis started, and companies stopped having trainings and workshops and conferences. They just reduced these activities to the limit.

Do you consider yourself a European?

Yes, I would say that I’m a European. I’m proud of Bulgaria’s history, especially the ancient history. Back then, Bulgaria was a European power. No question about it. Culturally, Bulgaria was quite strong too. I’m okay with being European.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s integration into Europe? Did you have the same hopes around that as you did in 1989-90?

As for the European Union, we also had high hopes, but it came too late. Of course I realize that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready to join. We were let in for political reasons, mainly to sever our links to Russia. And I think that this has saved us. Knowing our sentiments toward Russia, we would have always been their satellite. We still are. We are the Trojan Horse of the Russians in the EU. Everyone says that, it’s not a secret at all. And I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way things are. People here just like the Russians.

The Lukoil gas stations are very nice.

The owner of Lukoil is a good friend of the former Bulgarian president and of the current prime minister: he’s friends with everyone. I think that a lot of things can be explained with that.

As far as the EU is concerned, some cynics said that now that Bulgaria is in the EU, the EU will collapse. It didn’t look like that in 2007, but now one starts wondering if this might not happen quite soon. It’s good for us to be placed within certain limits, for rules to be imposed on us. We tend to wander off because we’re so undisciplined.

On the other hand, the EU is so bureaucratic. If you consider how much money is wasted, even on the translation of documents. They translate every single directive into Gaelic. This is ridiculous. In a time of crisis, why not invest this money into something more normal? I don’t think the EU is very productive, the way it is dealing with the crisis. But we have no other choice. So I’m glad that we joined the EU, although we were not ready to do it. But I don’t want us to join the Shengen area because I don’t want so many immigrants to come and live in Bulgaria. We have a lot of people to give social assistance to, even without the Africans or Asians coming here.

Even though Bulgaria’s population has lost 1.5 million people…?

Yes, but these are the working people who left. I realize that Bulgaria is very sparsely populated. I realize we can’t be a vacuum for long. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with a beautiful climate, beautiful food. We will be populated by somebody. But we should work on bringing over the ethnic Bulgarians living in Moldova. There’s a large group living there that’s not doing very well in terms of their ethnic rights. The Macedonians are also welcome, of course!

Sofia, September 30, 2012

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change – Without Congress

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change - Without Congress

1) Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

2) Regulate power plants.
Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.

3) Curb natural gas exports.
The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.

4) Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith.
Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

This Week in OtherWords: February 13, 2013

This week in OtherWords, John Cavanagh explains why President Obama’s State of the Union address falls short, Ben Freeman says that scaling back the Pentagon’s budget isn’t just for progressives any more, and Donald Kaul skewers the latest Republican antics.

Please be sure to visit our blog. We’ve got a bonus commentary by Jim Hightower regarding the hilariously lavish (except that we taxpayers have to foot the bill) bathroom renovation ordered by George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Interior. And Alana Baum’s post about V-Day — a global movement to stop violence against women. Plus reflections by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner on the arrest of Sarah Silverman’s sister in Jerusalem for wearing a prayer shawl and worshiping at the Western Wall.

Below you’ll find links to our latest work. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. No Game-Changer / John Cavanagh
    Obama’s State of the Union address nudged the debate in the right direction, but not far enough.
  2. Mission Essential / Ben Freeman
    Pentagon pork is too easy to push through Congress.
  3. It’s Time to Move Forward on Climate / Michael Brune
    President Obama has the power to make the transformation to a clean-energy economy.
  4. What about Gun Control Abroad? / Riahl O’Malley
    The killing of four Hondurans by local police backed by DEA agents highlights the gruesome effects of our militarized War on Drugs.
  5. Bulwark of Ignorance / Donald Kaul
    Republicans are calling for a “compromise” as they gear up for another knock-down-drag-out fight.
  6. A More Down-to-Earth CEO Pay Plan / Sam Pizzigati
    Tree-huggers and power suits are finding some surprising common ground.
  7. Another Side of the Immigration Debate / Jill Richardson
    We reap the benefits of cheap farm and meatpacking labor in the form of low-priced food, thanks to the contributions of millions of undocumented workers.
  8. Retail Injustice / Jim Hightower
    Most big retail chains treat their employees as nothing but a drain on profits.
  9. Betting on Gambling / William A. Collins
    Rather than treating the growing addiction to gambling, the states prey on it.
  10. Federal Budget Buster’s Last Stand / Khalil Bendib cartoon

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies OtherWords.org

Enough is Enough

I’ve had enough.

Enough of rape being subject to terms like “legitimate.”

Enough of hearing that my peers just “raped” their final exams.

Enough of being labeled too-politically-correct when I challenge the oversimplification and distortion of a word that is a dark reality for one in six American women.

Enough of having to explain that rape is not just a Law & Order: SVU scenario where a woman is held at gunpoint in a back alley.

And enough of hearing the stories of women I know that are survivors of back-alley rapes.

Enough of the GOP’s attempts to prevent the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which, among other things, adds further protections for Native American women. Although this measure passed in the Senate on Tuesday, VAWA will face a tougher battle in the House.

ginnerobot/Flickr

ginnerobot/Flickr

One of the bill’s main adversaries is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). He was among the 22 Republican Senators who voted against the measure. Grassley says it would threaten the “constitutional rights of defendants who would be tried in these tribal courts.” What about the constitutional rights of Native American women who are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than any other demographic group in the United States?

And, more than anything, I’ve had enough of the horrific cases of violent sexual assault that continue to threaten the lives of women all around the world.

Last week in Acapulco, a group of armed, masked gunmen raped six Spanish women on vacation in Mexico.

In December, a 23-year-old woman was gang raped on a moving bus in Delhi in an attack so brutal that she later died.

According to national statistics, two women are sexually assaulted in India every hour. And these are just the reported crimes. A number of roadblocks stand in the way of justice: unrecorded medical evidence following cases of sexual assault, police that disregard rape complaints, and the vile suggestion that women marry their rapists in order to preserve their “honor.”

And stories are still surfacing about the rampant sexual attacks that took place in Tahrir Square during the early days of Egypt’s revolution and are continuing to take place at protests in Cairo.

On January 25, “the square witnessed nineteen cases of assault, including six in which women sustained knife wounds requiring medical care,” writes Heba Saleh, the Cairo correspondent for the Financial Times. While Egyptian feminist groups and allies are seeking to raise awareness and secure protective measures, public figures are reinforcing the problem. Salafi preacher Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah said last week that female activists show up to protests because they want to be raped.

These atrocities have gained enough media attention to stir our global consciousness from slumber. But they also speak to an epidemic of violence that runs much deeper.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It’s also V-Day, a day of global mobilization to end violence against women and girls everywhere.

There will be strikes, rallies, protests, and flash mobs tomorrow in cities all around the world. I ask that you join me in standing up to demand an end to this brutality.

This isn’t just a cause for women. Nor can it afford to be. This cause must lead to action not only by women, but by men. Not only by survivors of sexual assault, but by allies. Not only by the young, but by the old. Not only by college students, or feminists, or members of Congress, or religious leaders, but everyone. Neither the problem of violence against women — nor its potential solutions — will be apparent until we take collective action.

I’ve had enough. If you’ve also had enough, it’s time to let the world know.

Alana Baum is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and an OtherWords intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

John Keegan: Soldiers and Pacifists Share the Same Qualities

John KeeganWhen John Keegan died on August 2, 2012, it escaped me — I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of his existence. Keegan, a lecturer in military history of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later military affairs editor at the Telegraph, wrote influential books on military history designed to appeal to the public, as well as historians. An obituary in the Washington Post spoke of Keegan, “whose groundbreaking book “The Face of Battle” cast a fresh look at warfare, capturing the fears, anxiety and heroism of the front-line soldier.”

In a 1994 interview with Brian Lamb on C-Span, he speculated on his popularity in the United States.

I think Americans like — they like the practical; they like the human. And I like both those things myself, and I try and put them into my books. I like to try and pick problems to pieces in a practical way and also pick them to pieces in a human way. eals to American readers.

This was exactly the approach Keegan took in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (Viking, first edition 1976), which I just finished reading. He quickly dispenses with the military command’s planning to focus on both the soldier’s experience on the battlefield and the details — such as equipment and positioning — which may play an even larger role in determining victory than the overarching strategy.

It’s as if Keegan transports readers to the battlefield in a helicopter where they can hover and observe in detail the myriad linchpins on which the outcome of the battle turns. I fail, however, to do him justice. An excerpt might help.

For example, at Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War, the French forces vastly outnumbered the British. But that advantage worked against them. Why? The “enormous press of the numbers,” Keegan writes. At a critical point, the French (emphasis added)

… numbering some 5,000 in all, those in the base a shapeless and unordered mass amounting to, perhaps, another 3,000 — and all of them, except for the seven or eight hundred in the leading ranks, unable to see or hear what was happening, yet certain that the English were done for [because they were outnumbered — RW], and anxious to take a hand in finishing them off.

Worse …

No one … had overall authority in this press [the operative word here — RW], nor a chain of command through which to impose it. The consequence was inevitable: the development of an unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs of those in the line of battle, driving them steadily into the weapon-strokes of the English, or at least denying them that margin of room for individual manoeuvre which is essential if men are to defend themselves — or attack — effectively. This was disastrous, for it is vital to recognize, if we are to understand Agincourt, that all infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many combats of individuals — one against one, one against two, three against five. … At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centred on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French men-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armour, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.

In the C-Span interview, Lamb posed a provocative question to Keegan.

LAMB: Are you a pacifist?

KEEGAN: Ninety five percent.

LAMB: What’s the 5 percent?

KEEGAN: There are certain wicked people in the world that you can’t deal with except by force.

LAMB: That 5 percent, then, allows what?

KEEGAN: It allows the use of extreme force in a measured way — if possible, in a measured way in order to curtail or extinguish the activities of these wicked men we’re talking about.

His definition of pacifism grew even broader.

KEEGAN: … I will never oppose the Vietnam War. I thought that the Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way, but I think that they were right to oppose the attempts by Ho Chi Minh and Giap to make the whole of Vietnam into a Marxist society.

LAMB: Let me go back to your thing about being a pacifist. Is that your 5 percent coming out?

KEEGAN: Yes. I wouldn’t have felt it was the end of the world if the Vietnam War hadn’t been fought. It’s not that kind of war. I don’t think it’s a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a correct war, a right war, and it had indirect effects of the greatest importance as well.…

LAMB: Does that make you a conservative?

KEEGAN: I did vote conservative in the last two or three elections. …

LAMB: With American conservatives hearing you say, “How could he be a pacifist, almost, and be a conservative at the same time?”

KEEGAN: No difficulty at all. Even a pacifist, I think, should admire the military virtues. And, indeed, the best pacifists have those virtues themselves: self abdication and willingness, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for what they believe. … I would say a soldier has mortgaged his life. He said, “Here is my life, and I can only have it back again when the end of my service comes and I salute for the last time and take my pension.” I think a pacifist is the same, except, perhaps, his willingness to sacrifice his life never goes.

Whichever the case, Keegan was concerned with how the risk to troops increased in rough proportion to how technological the military was becoming. He was also troubled by the gap between how civilized peacetime society — we’ll put aside mass murder in the United States for the moment! — has become compared to war’s increasing lethality (the ability of military medicine to snatch soldiers from the jaws of death notwithstanding). From The Face of Battle again:

The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual’s life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed, and increasingly to guarantee his prosperity. [Remember: This is 1976. — RW] Might the modern conscript [again, remember that this is 1976] not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?

A final note on Keegan: he was a literary stylist of the first order. Next, I’ll read The Second World War (Viking Press, 1990) and report back.

Obama Could Go it Alone, Bring All the Troops Home, and Stop the Killing

Obama State of the UnionPresident Obama said during his State of the Union address that he would focus on things he could do alone — without having to depend on a badly divided, partisan Congress. And the powerful imagery he summoned in support of voting rights — real, implementable voting rights, based on the example of a 102-year-old voting rights hero, could and should indeed be a critical focus of executive energy. His story of Desiline Victor waiting six hours to vote in North Miami even brought members of Congress — at least some of them — to their feet in a powerful ovation.

But Obama didn’t seem to include in the list of “things he could do alone” the solo, individual decisions that are fundamental to the role of commander in chief. And that role could include, without Congress having to have any role in it, bringing home all the troops from the failed war in Afghanistan. Ending it. Totally. Quickly.

Bringing home half the troops this year reflects the pressure of massive public opposition to the war — but it’s far from enough. All 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be pulled out by the middle of this year. And that role of the president, without Congress, could include announcing that the “winding down” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan won’t be transformed into an expanding drone war waged in shadows across the world.

When Obama claims that budget cuts “would jeopardize our military readiness,” he is signaling a rejection of what his own nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged is the need to cut the “bloated” military budget.

And crucially, when we look at areas in which the President can make executive decisions, independent of the whims of a paralyzed, partisan congress, is there any clearer example than the Obama administration’s strategy of targeting and killing “terror suspects,” along with unknown numbers of civilian “collateral damage” in Obama’s Global War on Terror 2.0?

We heard a claim about those drone assassinations during his address, that “we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.”

There’s no way that would fly, given recent revelations of the administration’s efforts to claim a legal right to murder anyone, U.S. citizen or not, who they “believe” may be guilty of something they identify as a terrorist attack. So Obama went on. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

What about the KILLING of the people he calls terrorists, beyond detention and prosecution? The reference to checks and balances referred back to the Justice Department’s claim that “due process” didn’t necessarily mean anything having to do with courts and judges, the claim that a decision by a “decision-maker” — not even necessarily the president — was enough to qualify as due process sufficient to take someone’s life, way beyond taking their liberty and their pursuit of happiness.

Focusing on the executive actions you can take without Congress is a great idea, Mr. President. But not unless that focus includes reversing the individually taken military actions that brought such disgrace on your administration’s first term.

Phyllis Bennis is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. www.ips-dc.org

A Quick Look at the Ecological State of the Union

Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Obama Executive ActionsIn the last year, climate change has come home to the United States in a visceral way. During his State of the Union address, Obama should lay out bold plans for the transition to an ecologically sane economy that reduces inequality.

Images of waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty, wildfires engulfing homes in Colorado, and flood water shutting down the Louisiana interstate have rocked the American psyche over the past twelve months.

For me, 2012 meant living through record-breaking heat waves that buckled metro tracks and derailed commuter trains in my adopted home of Washington, DC. Sadly it also meant saying good-bye to the beach on the Jersey shore where my brother and I played as kids.

Since Obama committed the United States to responding to climate change in his inaugural address, saying that a “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” American families in the Southeast were hit by severe tornados and in the Northeast by crippling snowstorms.

Of course, dealing with climate change in our country is about more than bad weather. We’ve heard about how battered infrastructure and closed businesses strain on national and local coffers. We hear less about how climate change exacerbates inequality — disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty and low-income communities.

A shot at a better life for everyone has to entail a shift away from an “all of the above” energy plan that includes sources that poison people, pollute the environment, and lock us into decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The expansion of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme ways of getting at it — through fracking, deepwater drilling and blasting the tops off mountains — has got to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Obama said that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” — no less because the fossil fuel industry and the members of Congress to whom they contribute continue to undermine legislative action on climate. But the transition to shared prosperity and a vibrant clean economy can be made easier with sustained leadership from the president and his administration.

Here are a few actions Obama can take without Congress that he can highlight in tonight’s State of the Union address to show he’s serious about the fight against global warming:

  • Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Regulate power plants. Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.
  • Curb natural gas exports. The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.
  • Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith. Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act — and we don’t have to wait for Obama, either.

People have already started. They’re putting their bodies in the path of Keystone’s southern leg to halt construction. They’re closing down dirty power plants in the cities where they live and work, and meeting with neighbors to create plans to make their communities climate resilient. And thousands of people from around the country will gather in Washington, DC this weekend to call on Obama to push forward on climate in his second term.

Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation he’ll be laying the groundwork for his climate legacy. His comments will also shape how the growing majority of Americans who care about global warming perceive him — as a climate champion or an agent of politics as usual.

A Tiny Tax in Europe, a Big Win for Climate?

Europe has taken a bold leap forward to implement an innovative plan that could help protect people and the planet. Poised to set an example of climate leadership for the developed world, will countries like the United States come along?

At the end of January European Union finance ministers approved a proposal by eleven EU member states[1] to implement a coordinated financial transaction tax (FTT) — a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Through a process known as “enhanced cooperation,” this subset of EU countries (dubbed the EU11) was able to move forward with a common tax policy without having to include all 27 EU member states. The European Parliament gave the proposal a green light in December 2012, and the EU Council waved it forward at their meeting last month without a vote because of overwhelming support among member states.

EU tax commissioner and FTT proponent Algirdas Šemeta called it “a major milestone.”

The next step in making the FTT proposal a reality is for the eleven member states in the “coalition of the willing” to agree to details of the common tax. Negotiations are expected to wrap up and a formal agreement officially approved by the European Parliament in 2013.

The implications are potentially huge for climate finance. That’s the money that communities in developing countries need to make the transition from climate-vulnerable to climate-resilient, and from dirty energy development to low-carbon development.

The cost of that shift is measured in the hundreds of billions (some say trillions) of dollars. Rich industrialized countries have promised to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020. A fraction of what’s needed, but still a big lift compared to today’s levels of around $10 billion a year (if you count generously).

At the tax rate originally proposed by the EU Commission of a harmonized minimum 0.1 percent for stocks and bonds and 0.01 percent on derivatives, the EU11 FTT has the potential to raise up to €37 billion (nearly $50 billion in US dollars) every year.

France, which implemented a financial transaction tax in August 2012, has already made a commitment to direct 10 percent of the tax revenue to global public goods like development, health, and climate change (3.7 percent is destined for the Green Climate Fund). Members of Germany’s Social Democrat party have made general political murmurs that if they succeed in upcoming elections they will send revenue from an FTT to development to help meet the country’s 0.7 percent ODA goal.

Global campaigners are pushing the EU11 to be ambitious in targeting a significant portion of their FTT revenue to fight climate chaos. Members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance used the recent 2012 global climate summit to call for the eleven countries to deposit 25 percent of the money raised into the Green Climate Fund. Representatives in the EU parliament and from developing countries are also calling for FTT revenue to be used by developed countries to meet their mid-term and long-term financing obligations.

With Timothy Geithner stepping down as Secretary of Treasury there’s renewed optimism that the Obama administration might support an FTT under Jack Lew’s leadership of the Department. Supporters of the tax are planning to raise the issue at Lew’s confirmation hearing in Washington DC tomorrow.

This would be a move that experts like Joseph Stiglitz endorse, who said, “as Mr. Obama’s second term begins, we must all face the fact that our country cannot quickly, meaningfully recover without policies that directly address inequality. What’s needed is… a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

An FTT that raises revenue for a fund that supports developing countries in dealing with the disproportionate impacts visited upon them by climate change is an important step in fighting global inequality. Here, the EU11 can be a global leader.


[1] The 11 EU member states that have entered into enhanced cooperation are Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. Any other member state may join the enhanced cooperation if they wish.

Low Fertility and Labor Shortages Might Save the World

There has been much discussion very recently about the rapid and deep fall of global fertility rates. The conversation is not new, but has become more intense recently as more evidence has emerged of the depth and scope of the worldwide trend. One factor remains consistent: commentators nearly always assume that this is largely a problem, even a crisis, due to aging populations, shrinking labor forces, and unsustainable government initiatives. At times, increased global migration is mentioned as a coping mechanism, but is usually dismissed as inadequate for various reasons.

In contrast, it looks very likely that a massive increase in global migration, mostly temporary but often permanent, will emerge as the only method of compensating for this situation. Capitalists will not tolerate labor shortages if they can help it, in fact they are willing to bend and break the law in order to get around them, and thus they will inevitably and increasingly push for greater access to the world’s available workers. Government after government will likely bow to the pressure, because, faced with the power of business lobbies and the prospect of companies shutting down due to lack of workers, they will not have a choice. This state of affairs might just save the world.

From 1948 until 1962, it was possible for roughly one-quarter of the world’s population to migrate freely to the United Kingdom. In response to labor shortages resulting from high levels of death and disability inflicted upon two generations by two world wars, along with some geopolitical maneuvering in the face of strong anti-colonial movements, the British Nationality Act of 1948 enabled all residents of the British Commonwealth (consisting mostly of the then-current and former nations of the British Empire) to migrate to the UK without legal restrictions. In practice, this meant that British companies were free to seek out workers from throughout the Commonwealth. Additionally, the relatively tiny numbers of upwardly-mobile Commonwealth residents who were aware of this new opportunity and had the wherewithal to pursue it began migrating on their own to the UK.

Such were the beginnings of the modern, diverse, multicultural UK. Though immigration restrictions began in 1962 and have been refined over the years, the United Kingdom remains a destination for migrants from around the world. In contrast to the perennial worries of nativists and restrictionists, nowhere close to one-quarter of the world’s population migrated to the UK as long as they had the opportunity. It is an empirical fact, routinely stated and re-stated by economists across the spectrum, that immigrants by and large only bother to travel when jobs are available, and the net effect is largely positive for both sides. This can be observed within free-migration zones such as the United States and European Union. Massive hordes of people did not arrive to leech off of the National Health Service; in contrast, the British economy got the workers it needed to shake off its deep post-war doldrums and rebound strongly.

It cannot be stated conclusively (and may be unlikely) that a continued open immigration policy would have prevented subsequent economic troubles, but the ensuing restrictions cannot have helped. In any case, taking the long view, the economic results have been good for the UK and good for the world. Besides the stimulus to to the United Kingdom (whose citizens were able to buy more of the world’s products and invest more heavily elsewhere), immigrants took pressure off of the markets for jobs and public goods in their home countries, and, much more importantly, sent (and continue to send) home financial remittances. More recently, immigrants commonly invest in businesses and other ventures in their countries of origin. All of this activity alleviates poverty and increases access to education, among other factors which contribute to the ongoing decline in fertility in most of the poorer countries of the world. Such is the immigrant experience around the world, and it only looks likely to replicate itself in more and more countries.

One important caveat must be made here, in that it is entirely possible for a country to have low fertility and high rates of unemployment -underemployment-poverty-etc. At the moment, this is true on both sides of the Mediterranean. Forgetting this would be succumbing to the “lump of labor” fallacy, in this case the mirror-image of complaining that immigrants “take” jobs from locals. The upshot of this is that, as labor shortages do inevitably develop in certain sectors of many economies, this will create more opportunities for people from areas with fertility above the job-creation capacity of the local market, and from areas that are simply stagnant for other reasons.

To reiterate, as long as one solution exists, business leaders are going to do all they can to pursue it, and their governments are almost certain to oblige them. Singapore, long a nation of immigrants, seems to be ahead of the curve. The prosperous island nation’s government has been filling its labor shortages with large numbers of migrants for years, and they may have recently learned the hard way that there might not be anything else they can do. This cannot have gone unnoticed in another island nation on the other end of East Asia: Japan. Xenophobic stereotypes (and realities) notwithstanding, Japanese business leaders have been agitating for increased access to foreign workers for years, and a bloc of legislators agrees with them.

Speaking of xenophobia, nativist backlashes are a guaranteed sure thing, and the results can be ghastly. In any case, those who would prevent the movement of labor to fill vacancies are transparently on the wrong side of history. With prevention of cultural conflict in mind, look for governments to rush to broker bilateral deals with nations with cultural similarities (however tenuous), or, failing that, with societies that lack any particular seemingly irreconcilable differences. Specifically, look for European countries to look first towards the Philippines and parts of Latin America, before eventually turning elsewhere. Look for Bangladesh’s leaders to promote their population’s secularism, relatively tolerant atmosphere, and common use of English to lure recruiters. Look for China’s government to encourage its millions of surplus men to emigrate to nations with longstanding Chinese communities, even as China paradoxically is already suffering from labor shortages of its own.

Migration is one of the best mechanisms for reducing poverty, and the inexorable decline of global fertility rates will just as inexorably lead to more migration of the world’s people. As the pool of available labor gradually becomes dry, a world becoming gradually much wealthier (and producing less carbon!) will be in a far better position to deal with aging, shrinking populations, along with all the other problems feared by today’s chroniclers of falling fertility.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

The West Must Help Syria’s Neighbors Absorb the Impact of Its Refugee Crisis

At a donor conference in Kuwait last week addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, more than 1.5 billion dollars was pledged to aid Syrians affected by the conflict. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), in conjunction with Mid-East countries hosting the onslaught of refugees, have been calling for donors to ward off an international disaster in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates each pledged 300 million dollars to assist in funding efforts, alongside the total pledge of 300 million promised by the US and the EU. These pledges must materialize in coming weeks to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Will other countries step forward to provide assistance?

The mass exodus of refugees to countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Egypt, shows no signs of relenting—in fact, the reverse is true—the numbers of refugees have ballooned in past weeks. Syrians fleeing violence, rape, and death are met with open arms by friendly neighboring countries, but the sheer number of refugees seeking safe haven is taking a toll on these countries.

In Jordan, for example, nearly 3 percent of its GDP has gone to addressing basic needs of the 340 thousand refugees living inside its borders—and supplies are running out. Jordan’s King Abdullah stated recently, “We have reached the end of the line, we have exhausted our resources.” With Jordan buckling under the economic strain of the situation, other countries need to step up to the plate.

A majority of refugees in the region are registered with UNHCR or are awaiting processing but many go undocumented in their haste to reach safety and also due to the lack of staff on the ground assisting in the process. The conflict, and resulting refugee problem, has created dire circumstances in many countries hosting Syrian refugees and this will only continue as long as Syria remains engulfed in conflict.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Page 30 of 239« First...1020...2829303132...405060...Last »