IPS Blog

The Surrealism of the Everyday in Serbia

The author interviews Aleksandar Zograf, who first gained notoriety for his political cartoons during the NATO bombing of Serbia.

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

ZografPancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There’s a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.

The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, Regards from Serbia, appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages. A collection of these columns, plus the emails that he wrote during this period and some work from both before and after the bombings, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the “smart bombs” and “cute little cluster bombs” of NATO. He catalogues the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. “Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies,” he writes in one panel. “Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!”

In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. He showed me the cultural center, and we talked about one of his recent fascinations: Neolithic life at the confluence of Pancevo’s rivers, the Danube and the Tamis. Eventually we sat down at a café to talk about life during wartime, the challenges of lucid dreaming, and the surrealism of the everyday. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that engulfed the region had a profound effect on the cartoonist and his art. “Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions,” he told me. “After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself.”

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how you felt about it? Your book begins with 1993-94. There’s nothing before that. Were you doing comic strips at that time?

At that time, I was not really doing comics of the same type that I did later. I was still at that point experimenting with comics. I was also a writer, and I was writing about mostly rock music and art and also a little bit about comics and literature. It was at that point that I started experimenting with publishing comics.

It was different here in Yugoslavia — at that point, Yugoslavia still existed – since we had a different history compared to the rest of Eastern Europe. We were a mixture of a socialist bloc country and a more Western country. We were somehow on the brink of the two worlds. So, for us, it was not so dramatic, the end of the Berlin Wall. It was happening elsewhere.

Most people here, if you ask them about normal life in the time of socialism, they would say it was more comfortable than now. I have this feeling that 80 percent of the people, particularly if they are old enough to remember these times, would say that their life was easier then. It was not the same as it was in other Eastern European countries. But still, I would say that we expected that things would change in many ways. We were not sure if it was going to be for the better or the worse.

And how did you feel personally about life in Yugoslavia?

Generally I would say that I had a happy life in those days. For example, life was cheap and you could live with a small amount of money, which is good for artists. The level of stress was somehow much less. But on the other hand, some of the opportunities that you have now were not present at that time. For me, I wish that I had used this time better than I did. I was not very clever when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.

There was this famous musician from Belgrade, who said — not about these times, but about the wars in former Yugoslavia — that “we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened during the wars of the 1990s.” This is also true about this socialist period. We will spend ages thinking about what happened and what was good and what was bad. It was far from a black-and-white picture, especially for the artists. Artists are never satisfied with the general atmosphere of the system in which they live. They always feel a little to the side of society, rejected in some way. They would have to struggle in any form of society anyway. They also learn not to be excited by the system they live in. I could imagine that someone with a steady career and a job in a society that would enable him to live comfortably will be excited about the system that allows him to live like that. But for the artist, he knows that he will have to struggle in this system as he would struggle in any other one.

I’m against this idea that the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in former Yugoslavia, was exclusively bad. Every time that you live in, you have an opportunity to live the best way that you can. There is no perfect society.

I was just now reading an anthropological study about cannibalism. It’s horrible. I had to read only a small portion of the book at a time because it is so difficult to take. A lot of different cultures practiced cannibalism throughout human history. For us, in this age, it’s something horrifying, and I was horrified to read about it. But generations were born within this different social and cultural framework, within these societies that are called “primitive” and where such practices were part of the belief system and sometimes simply because they were using humans as food. It was very widespread until the 19th century, which was just yesterday. Within these cultures, they also produced great stories, great traditional dances, great thoughts.

It’s not that I would enjoy being a cannibal. But I should understand that this was part of the human experience, and there were people who were born and died with this mind frame. Someone living in a different society in the future would probably say that Western European people who lived in the European Union in 2012 were primitive idiots, just as we think about cannibals today. It’s all relative.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself, do you remember thinking that this was great for the Germans and then you went about your own life? Or did you say, that will have implications for life here in Yugoslavia?

I didn’t really realize that it would have any impact on our life. I didn’t realize that it would have such an impact on Yugoslavia. It was just like a foreign affair. It was maybe silly of me. That’s why I say, sometimes when you live so much in one society, in one society’s mind frame, you just don’t see what’s going on. Someone from outside can see things more easily.

I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who did an interview with the British music deejay John Peel, a very interesting personality, a very clever man. This was in 1991 just shortly after the first incidents in Croatia with the Serbian minority there opposing the Croatian government, which would eventually lead to the war in ex-Yugoslavia. When the interview was over, my friend was asked by John Peel, of all people, “Okay, can I ask you one question?”

My friend said, “Yeah sure.”

John Peel said, “What is going on in your country? It seems like there’s going to be a war over there. ”

And my friend said, “War? No, no. They quarrel all the time over some stupid thing. But in the end they eventually end up in a bar getting drunk. It will be like an affair that lasts a few days and everything will be fine after that.”

My friend never mentioned this in the article he wrote for a paper here. I remember this incident years after the interview because I was just like my friend. I thought everything would stop after a few days. So, I was thinking how was it possible that a disk jockey understood what was going to happen in Yugoslavia? But we the people living here couldn’t understand.

I want to talk about your work. What struck me the most about Regards from Serbia is the reluctance. So much of your work is about your dream life. At several points, you say that you started observing the life around you, that there were interesting things if you just paid attention to them. But you often were running away from this. At some points you were just drawing things in your head – demons, and so on. Can you talk about this dream life and this reluctance?

It’s connected to my own personal quest. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, just a little before the crisis started, and just when the crisis started, I stated to explore these inner realities. I was very interested in presenting different material from the dream states in comics. Comics are a very good way of presenting your dreams. You can use pictures and words to explain these different experiences. I was also interested in different dream states. I started to practice lucid dreaming. I was successful to a certain extent. I was able to wake up in my dreams and explore the reality of the dream.

It was a very overwhelming thing to experience. Suddenly I was becoming aware of another state of being. There is wakened reality, there are dreams, and there is the state of lucid dreaming. I managed to look at my hands in my dreams and become lucid while I was dreaming. I was able to go very deep into all these things. It was very exciting, as if I were conquering a distant country or another realm. I was trying to capture a lot of information coming from inside, from these very deep inner realities, and turn it into artistic material.

But it stopped when the crisis emerged in ex-Yugoslavia. You have to use a lot of your energy connected to your awakened reality to achieve the state of lucid dreaming. Since I was a very poor artist who didn’t have any savings when the crisis started, it was very difficult for me. I started to struggle with everyday reality. I realized that what was happening around me were these tragic things – the splitting up of the country called Yugoslavia. Like many other people I had to struggle just to be alive in this situation. There was not enough food, for instance. I had to go from this inner reality to an outside reality that was very dramatic and sometimes even more surrealistic than what I would find inside.

Can you give an example of something that was more surrealistic outside than inside?

Everything was more surrealistic. In 1993, when I started to make comics about what was going on around me, we went into a period of hyperinflation that was very much like what happened in Germany or Hungary after the first World War. You go to buy bread. In the morning, the price was 10 dinars. At noon it was 100 dinars. In the evening it was 1000 dinars. It was a completely crazy situation just to buy regular things. I remember thinking that it had been like this forever, ever since I was born.

I was very curious about these quests that I was doing in lucid dreaming – and several other dream states that I tried to explore – and I was not very happy to return to the grey and stupid reality of being in a country that was on the brink of a war for an unknown reason with a crazy leader leading everyone straight into a catastrophe with an economy that was completely destroyed. It was not a reality that I liked very much.

I started to think that at least I should take the premise of this and use it for the scripts of comics. If you take it as it is and make a script for a comic strip, it actually functions like an appealing description of the most surrealistic things on earth. It was strange to become awake every night and be inside the dream reality. It was just as strange to wake up and find yourself in the midst of the huge crisis going on all around. I tried to struggle between these two strange realities.

Both of these experiences changed me for good. Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions. After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself. You learn to ask yourself questions. It’s horrible to go numb in very comfortable circumstances. A lot of people have enough to eat, they have enough material goods, they feel safe within their social situation, and they don’t want to change it. That’s also dangerous. Sometimes you need a slap in the face. You need a crisis. You need to get wild. You need to ask yourself questions. That’s what happened to us. I should not be complaining.

One of your stories is about your Hungarian colleague who set up an exhibition about life in Serbia under Milosevic and under sanctions. He said he would keep it going as long as Milosevic was in power.

This was a friend in Hungary who did an exhibition of my stuff and he said it would last until the fall of Milosevic. It opened in 1999, when the bombing of Serbia started. I was thinking that it was going to the longest running exhibition in the history of Hungary. It’s another indication that if you live inside a reality you cannot judge it. I thought he would rule forever, that we were doomed to live under his reign for the rest of our lives. The exhibition lasted until the year 2000 when Milosevic fell from power. I guess this friend in Hungary was able to detect something that we were not aware of. I can go into the underground levels of society, just like many artists do. But somehow I can’t predict what will happen in the surface reality the next day.

You talk about outside perceptions of Serbs in your comic strip. You travelled some during the time you were making the strips. Were you surprised at the reactions when you said you were from Serbia?

Basically, I should say that we are living in a different time. It’s not like the 1940s. At that point in history, even in Western Europe, people were relying so much on national identities, also religious identities. These were much more important than in modern time, when we live in an ambiguous culture which can be very narrow-minded but which can also accept many different types of information from many different parts of the world. I didn’t encounter any problems from most people when I said that I was from Serbia, which was at that point a place with a burning crisis with a crazy president Milosevic in charge. I think people understood that they were meeting somebody from another country where the situation is not so stable. Basically they were polite. Maybe because I was in my circle of friends and acquaintances. They were mostly artists. It might have been different if I’d gone to a bar where truck drivers were hanging out.

For most people, if you said you were from Serbia in the 1990s, it was scary. You were part of a reality presented like it was Nazi Germany, which was not really the case. It was very much a society that turned the wrong way in many ways, that made many bad decisions politically and also strategically. But if I had to judge it now, it was a confused country with confused people who were not able to realize what was going on around them. Sometimes when you are confused, you act violently. It’s again this psychological thing. I think most of the atrocities done on the Serbian side were done not with some strict plan, like was the case with Nazi Germany, where they had a plan of the different society they wanted to build. Here, the people were bewildered by everything going on.

Maybe this is going to sound awful, but in many sense, these were crimes of passion. Most of the people liked Yugoslavia and they didn’t want it to split apart. Sometimes if someone very close to you betrays you, you have violent feelings and you want to kick him or kill him. A huge part of it was done in this strange state of betrayal, like the lover who has been betrayed. And this society was very irrational, and there were a lot of con men who could use that, who said, “Okay, we are going to do everything for you and you just sit there and be quiet. We are going to clear things up for you.”

I was not participating in any of that. Like many artists, we were feeling like we were watching not from the inside but from a point outside. We were disgusted by everything. For many people, for instance in Western Europe or the United States where it is more rational and not so emotional, it was very hard to understand.

But as you point out in one of your strips, after 9-11 the United States was in a similar situation, with big flags and emotional reactions.

Yes, in some way, it is universal. We are not Martians here in the Balkans, and our experiences are similar to other human experiences in other parts of the world. And that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about this. If someone wants to explain what happened here in one sentence, I would say, “Be careful!” I have spent years trying to understand this, and still I don’t understand why it happened or how it happened.

How much do you think people in Serbia or in Croatia or Bosnia have decided to understand this and how much do they want to forget about it because it was so horrible?

People want to forget. That’s certainly the case. Most of them don’t want to be reminded. I mean – look at me. I don’t say that I’m very different. I don’t like to think about these things. It was very difficult. It was very hard to go through all that. I also want to forget about it. I don’t wake up every morning and think about it. It was so horrible and unpleasant that I understand why people don’t want to go back to it. For most people it was like a trauma.

You have to know that something bad happened on your side. You can be a patriot who says “Yeah, we did the right thing.” Still, you know that somebody did something. Maybe you would like to hide this from yourself. So, it’s better to forget than to be reminded of that.

When you look back at the work that you’ve done between 1992 and 2001, can you give an example of something you think you did very well and another example of something you wish you did a little differently?

Whenever I look at my work, I think it could be different. Usually after I do a drawing, I just flip the page over because I always see the wrong things in my drawings. I don’t like to concentrate so much on what I did because I will probably find something that could be changed. I did it with an honest perspective at that point in time. But later I think I could have done better.

I’m proud of some things. I ‘m glad that I used my time in a useful way. At least I tried to make something out of this horrible situation.

And you have a record of it.

Yes.

At one point in your book you are reproducing emails when Pancevo was being bombed. I’m wondering why it was easier to write this in email form rather than make strips.

It was easier because in the emails I was referring to things that were happening on a daily basis. Some of the details weren’t easy to illustrate in drawings. At the same time, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to draw. You go through all the different phases in situations like that. Some things were easier to express in drawings, sometimes it was easier to express in words. So I made a combination of these two media, which was based on my mood, nothing else.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times. You were obviously living in interesting times. Since the end of these wars, and the end of hyperinflation, the end of sanctions, things have become more normal. Has this been a challenge for you artistically to live in less interesting times?

I have found different challenges. After the end of the crisis in the Balkans, I have started to work on comics for Vreme magazine, a political weekly published here in Belgrade. I do two pages in color every week on a different topic. Usually it doesn’t address the political situation in a straightforward way. I find old articles, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and then I illustrate them in the form of a comic strip. It was a golden age for the press. You can find many intriguing articles back then. Now the press is becoming less interesting and more analytical and with much less fantasy than in the past.

Even if it is not a political commentary, it also speaks about the people here. People, they don’t change. You can go into the past, and you can find some of the same elements. People were probably in a bar 100 years ago and speaking about similar topics as we do now.

I’ll give you one example. I found one article about a man who came back from the front after the end of the first World War. He lived in Zajechar, a town in eastern Serbia. He began to behave in a funny way. He went to his regular job, but he began to act a little bit differently. At some point, he burst into a strange kind of anger. He began to talk about how the human race is moving toward catastrophe. He went to his own house and burned it down. He ruined it completely and started to live in a hole in the ground next to his house. His wife and his children ran away. For me, it was this fantastical scenario. You can’t imagine that a human being could do something more drastic than that. This story is completely forgotten. I spoke to people from that town and there’s no memory of that man. Newspapers are supposed to live for a day or a week, and then it’s forgotten. But you can find some great stories from the past, and by bringing them to the surface you can learn something from them.

There’s a relatively new government here now in Serbia that at least outsiders call a nationalist government. We’ve seen the rise of some even more nationalistic groups like Dveri Srpske. I’m curious what you think about these formations. Do you think they’re temporary or represent a more fundamental shift?

It’s different from what it used to be. The nationalists of 2012 are different from the Serbian nationalists of the 1990s. The reason is that there is some sort of realization among the people to agree with Western values. The nationalistic government that is in charge says, “We want to play by the rules of the West.” Which means that our nationalism is not going to be like the time of Milosevic. Even these nationalistic forces that are now in change won the elections by speaking about joining the European Union. I would call them conservative-minded people who try to imitate the conservative-minded people in Western Europe. Milosevic didn’t feel like he was following this line. He expressed his nationalism in a much more straightforward and much more brutal way.

These new nationalists, they are politically correct nationalists. They know the line. That is the Western way. If you are polite enough, you can do everything. You can say that you don’t like Muslims, but you can’t say it like that, you have to find a way to put the sentence in a different way with that same meaning. If you say “I hate Muslims” in a correct way, it can pass. So these new nationalists learn this. Which means that Serbs can become part of Western civilization, for better or for worse. It doesn’t mean that these people are any better, at least for me. I despise them the same way I hated them before. But there is a different frame.

Or at least it seems to me at this moment. Maybe I will change my mind. Maybe I will be wrong again. I don’t want to speak in absolute terms.

The people who belong to the parties in charge, they pretend that they want to be part of the European Union, and the EU pretends that it wants Serbia to be part of the EU. So there is this strange game. In Serbia, people are afraid of change, afraid of becoming something else. They are afraid that their substance will be changed when they become something else, which is of course stupid. And the EU is in this crisis where they are very much afraid of having more irrational elements inside the union. So they gave some signals to the Serbian administration that were very discouraging. On the surface, they say they will bring you into the club tomorrow. But under the surface, there is the message: you better stay in your wild part of the world. There is this strange dishonesty on both sides, which is not permanent. It is going to change. Is it going to be a fast change or will it be an exhausting change that lasts for 10-20 years? I don’t know, but I think it will change.

So, that’s why you are reasonably optimistic?

We are living in a world that is transforming, that is reaching some sort of world civilization, a united states of the world. It’s not an easy process. We should not expect it to happen in five days or five years or 50 years. This change is going to happen. It’s just a matter for time. So I’m relatively optimistic. I don’t know whether it will take a long time or a short time. But things are going to change for everyone, including the cannibals and the Serbs and the Eastern European freaks. They will all become well-adjusted citizens.

For better or for worse.

Quantitative Questions

I ask all of those I interview in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe three quantitative questions to see if I can get, by the end, a quick thumbnail assessment, country by country, of what has and has not changed since 1989.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Serbia since 1989?

I would say five. There are very good points and very bad points.

On the same scale, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in your own life over the same period of time?

I feel like I’m older and cleverer than I was when I was a kid. So I would say a two. I feel now that most people are not comfortable with getting older. But with me, I feel like I’m getting better as I get older. Maybe I’m crazy this way, I don’t know.

And how do you feel about the near future for Serbia, on a scale of one to ten with one being most optimistic and ten being least optimistic?

I would say two here as well. I’m not very deeply pessimistic but I am a bit pessimistic. I’m not hugely pessimistic because I think that things will get better because here people feel so disappointed that it has to end at some point. We don’t know which point it is. But I believe that it will be change for the better. But I’m bad at predicting things, so who knows.

Beyond the Jobs Report: A Call for a Transformational Economy

Don’t count on the latest round of good economic news to have much of an impact on the elections. There are very few undecided voters left and these minor changes aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind.

But it’s still worth noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the country gained 171,000 jobs and that unemployment inched up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent. Both numbers are good. Unemployment only edged up because so many jobless Americans became confident enough to look for work again.

President Barack Obama can rightly brag about improved economic numbers in recent months. There are more jobs. Gas prices are down. The economy is modestly expanding. Consumer confidence has bounced to a four-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently hit an all-time high. Clearly, the economy is faring well under his leadership.

But, let’s be honest. As tough a row as Obama has had to hoe — inheriting a deep recession and a giant budget deficit — our nation knows how to create jobs at a much greater pace and grow our economy more equitably. It’s up to us, we the people, to create a better society by electing better policymakers and lawmakers.

In the 1950s, with a top marginal tax rate of about 90 percent, we had the necessary revenue to help veterans get college diplomas, to create good jobs, and to grow a middle class.

Yes, racism was an even-bigger problem then than it is now. However, the progressive taxation we had at that time generated enough revenue that most of the country’s residents regardless of race, gender, or economic status could have been brought into the middle class had it not been for rampant discrimination.

The same potential exists today, even more so because we’re an even wealthier country now. We can greatly expand the number of good-paying, full-time jobs with a fair and economically sound approach to our federal budget priorities and long-term debt reduction. It’s time our leaders stopped cow-towing to corporate interests by masquerading as adherents to the ideology of government minimalism.

If we cut wasteful Pentagon spending, restore top marginal tax rates to Reagan levels, close corporate tax loopholes, end tax breaks that benefit only the wealthy, cancel subsidies to polluting oil and gas companies, and impose a tiny tax on speculative Wall Street transactions, we will have the revenue we need to rebuild our infrastructure, create sustainable energy sources, improve public schools, expand access to health care, and build a sustainable economy that provides all Americans with a decent standard of living.

Then, not only will we see an expansion in our economy, but the right kind of expansion — one measured by something like a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), rather than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We need to measure not just general economic expansion but our overall wellbeing.

Either Obama or Romney can do this. Either a Democratic or Republican House and Senate can do this. It’s not about politics. Or ideology. This isn’t rhetoric and this isn’t short-term analysis of monthly jobs numbers. This is common sense. And it’s the transformational approach we need.

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org), where she’s studying alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator.

What Explains Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence About the Persecution of Burma’s Minorities?

Roland Watson, who runs Dictator Watch, is one of the most trenchant Burma and activists and observers. On October 27 he posted an article with the, uh, provocative title: “Worst person in Burma.” Surely, he was referring to long-time junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, who still retains influence, or perhaps even current president Thein Sein, despite his reforms. In fact, counterintuitively enough, to Watson, the “worst person in Burma” is Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now member of Burma’s parliament. Why?

“The reason for this is that, while she isn’t raping and killing people herself,” writes Watson, referring to the Burmese army as well as “Rakhine madmen” who persecute and kill Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma, “she is nevertheless directly responsible for the carnage because she is the only person in Burma who has the ability to stop it, or at a minimum to reduce its scale.”

By way of background for Watson’s article, here’s an excerpt from a previous post of mine.

In his most recent report, Burma’s Semi-Freedom Scorecard, [Watson] writes: “There are clearly winners, but also losers, from the new status quo,” by which he means victims of the organs of the “dictatorship’s oppression apparatus.” … What makes it worse, Watson writes, is that these victims will never

… receive justice. Daw Suu and [her National League for Democracy party] made a political calculation that justice must be sacrificed, that there should not be an international investigation into the regime’s crimes against humanity, or a tribunal for them, much less the ability to bring a case to a local court.

Watson has no interest in dishonoring Daw Suu (as Aung San Suu Kyi is often known to Burma’s people).

I do not mean to begrudge Daw Suu her due. She has suffered tremendously [and] maintained her courage and commitment throughout years of hardship and sacrifice.

But-t-t Suu Kyi

… has ignored the ethnic nationality plight for years. (She traditionally focused almost exclusively on the nation’s political prisoners.) Through doing this she turned a blind eye to what is Burma’s core social issue: Racism against the ethnic nationalities by the country’s Burman generals.

Why does Watson think Daw Suu threw the ethnic nationalities … under the bus? [He speculates.]

She didn’t know how bad the [Burmese army] was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well.

What has made Watson double-down on his condemnation of Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi is the only person with real moral authority over the Burmans, of which the Army and police are comprised, and the Rakhines. Were she to call loudly and repeatedly for the attacks [by the Burmese army and by Rakhines on Rohingya] to end … the violence would subside. (She should ask to speak on national television, and make just such an announcement. If refused permission, she should make a statement to foreign media.)

Equally importantly, the International Community would no longer be able to avoid the subject. … If she spoke out, they would also be forced to condemn the atrocities, and even to support action such as the introduction of a peacekeeping force.

Watson sums up.

History will remember Suu Kyi as the the leader of a pro-democracy movement who changed her mind and surrendered, who ignored barbaric violence, who helped split a nation, and who opened it to rapacious corporate development. This will be her real legacy. This is why she is indeed the worst person in Burma.

As you can imagine, Watson’s article generated a backlash. In his “Response to Critics of ‘The Worst Person in Burma’,” he adds that Suu Kyi

… does not understand the process of social change. You cannot change a society from a dictatorship to a democracy through reform. There has to be a break: a revolution. One way or another, the dictators have to be deposed. Only then can you really move forward.

For President, Focal Points (Not FPIF or IPS!) Endorses…

This author has read every argument for why progressives should re-elect President Obama. He not only agrees with many of them, but his head tells him to vote for President Obama. He knows, though, that once in front of the voting machine, his heart will refuse to abide by the cold-blooded calculus that dictates progressives cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate.

Admittedly, I might be acting out of the vestiges of youthful political purity that I’ve failed to scour from my political consciousness. That’s one voter’s shortcoming. But President Obama has come up short on many count, from his affinity for Wall Street and drone strikes to his lack of same for civil liberties. He then added insult to injury by supporting a “grand bargain” on social programs that sells out those who depend on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

When all is said and done, relying on voters to put aside their visceral dislike of a candidate’s policies and still vote for him is a risky policy. Progressives and those further left thus find themselves in the same position as tea partiers holding their noses while voting for Mitt Romney. It’s long been the province of the right to vote against, instead of for. However much my vote is “wasted,” I prefer to vote for someone and his policies.

Especially when the most appealing presidential ticket of my lifetime — Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala — is gracing the ballot. As I posted previously.

Ms. Stein and Ms. Honkala’s key platform, reports Yana Kunichoff at Truthout, “is the Green New Deal, a jobs program which she says will both build on the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and also help move the United States toward a sustainable, green economy.” As an example of their foreign policy platform, which fundamentally revolves around drastically cutting military spending, let’s examine excerpts from their stance towards Israel and Palestine.

We recognize that Jewish insecurity and fear of non-Jews is understandable in light of Jewish history of horrific oppression in Europe. However, we oppose as both discriminatory and ultimately self-defeating the position that Jews would be fundamentally threatened by the implementation of full rights to Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their homes. …. We reaffirm the right and feasibility of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. … We reject U.S. unbalanced financial and military support of Israel while Israel occupies Palestinian lands and maintains an apartheid-like system in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens. Therefore, we call on the U.S. President and Congress to suspend all military and foreign aid, including loans and grants, to Israel until Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories, dismantles the separation wall in the Occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, ends its siege of Gaza and its apart­heid-like system both within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens.

Breaking the cycle of voting out of fear is a long process, but one that needs to begin at some point. At the New York Times, Susan Saulny wrote:

A general internist who grew impatient with the social and environmental roots of disease, Ms. Stein said, ‘I’m now practicing political medicine because politics is the mother of all illnesses.’”

Meanwhile, Nora Caplan-Bricker of the New Republic wrote:

Stein says her campaign is like “political therapy” for people who have had “self-destructive relationships to politics, like being stuck in an abusive relationship.” And her supporters think it will eventually work: Greens between the ages of 27 and 92 told me they think it’s possible they’ll see a president from the party in their lifetimes—that if they keep offering “political therapy,” mainstream voters who are frustrated by politics will start to want it: maybe in four years, maybe in eight, maybe in 50 or more.

With a president like Romney, most Obama supporters will argue, we may not even last 50 years. But repeatedly settling for short-term emergency management won’t bring us closer to long-term solutions that reduce the need for rescues.

For those considering it, voting for third-party presidential candidates is like deciding to have a baby: the time never seems right. That it requires a leap of faith can’t be denied.

This Week in OtherWords: An Early Thanksgiving

It’s a relief to keep the OtherWords editorial service running on schedule when so little is going as planned. At my house, we just had an unexpected four-day weekend and a downed fence. And our little ladybug and cop trotted back to school in time to celebrate Halloween.

While I’m concerned about the damage from this extreme weather, I’m also thankful that my loved ones are safe and sound. I hope that the same holds true for you, your friends, and relatives.

Thanksgiving is when we contemplate everything we take for granted, and “Frankenstorm” Sandy made that holiday arrive early this year. In addition to being thankful that the neighbor’s towering tree didn’t crush my house, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your continued support.

I’d also like to thank the editors who make it possible for OtherWords commentaries and cartoons to appear in 310 newspapers that reach more than 6.5 million readers. And thanks to the editors that enable us to run on dozens of websites too.

I also want to thank everyone who reads our work online and in other publications and to the many organizations and individuals who write (or draw) for OtherWords. And thanks to anyone who has made a donation to support this important work. With the dizzying number of media alternatives out there, we need your help more than ever to keep our progressive and newsroom-ready perspectives on everything from nuclear dangers to health care challenges in the conversation.

This editorial service is free of charge for editors to use in newspapers and new media outlets under a Creative Commons license. If you know anyone who might want to become an OtherWords subscriber or run our work in their opinion section or website, I’d really appreciate it if you could let them know about us.

This week in OtherWords, we’re emphasizing military and foreign policy priorities. Miriam Pemberton explains how rebalancing our national security spending would make our embassies safer. Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard outlines the next administration’s top foreign policy challenges. Khalil Bendib’s cartoon can accompany either of those commentaries, as well as William A. Collins’ column summing up his take on Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Be sure to visit the OtherWords blog, where you’ll find a bonus column by Jim Hightower in a few days. And please subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up already.

  1. How to Make our Embassies Safer / Miriam Pemberton
    Paul Ryan’s spending plans call for slashing the money the State Department can use to protect diplomats.
  2. The Next Administration’s Top Five Foreign Policy Challenges / Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard
    The next administration’s top short-term challenge will undoubtedly be to end U.S. involvement in combat operations in Afghanistan.
  3. Isolation on Both Ends of the Line / Chancellar Williams
    In a complete distortion of free-market economics, the phone companies that secure contracts with prisons are often the ones that charge more than their competitors.
  4. A Nuclear Strike on States’ Rights / Deb Katz
    Vermont’s Yankee reactor would have closed this year had a power company kept a decade-old promise.
  5. The Dead-End Servant Economy / Sam Pizzigati
    We’re going down the road toward becoming a nation of servants.
  6. Politics Creep to a New Low / Jim Hightower
    Both presidential campaigns are going overboard with their snooping into voters’ lives.
  7. Dining with Mahmoud / William A. Collins
    That night, he left out his signature anti-Semitic rhetoric.
  8. The Horses and Bayonets Strategy / Khalil Bendib
The Horses and Bayonets Strategy, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The Horses and Bayonets Strategy, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

How to Stop Scaring Ourselves to Death

hurricane-sandy-climate-change

Previously published at FireDogLake.

There’s nothing quite like the adrenalin high of a good storm. It’s like a horror film we can’t stop watching: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.

Just as we have come to expect this adrenalin rush from our weather-men and -women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and they are largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.

We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.

And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to act like adults and get beyond the adrenalin rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change, to tell us the truth: That these storms will only grow more intense as our oceans warm and the Arctic melts. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility and not blame Mother Nature for our plight. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1 Degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4 degree rise looks like.

For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off, looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have made a firm commitment to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence–not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. Their path does not involve instant gratification nor feel-good heroics. It involves tinkering with different policies–such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries and their people hundreds of billions of dollars, while saving millions of lives around the world. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the “Frankenstorms” our children will suffer tomorrow.

Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?

Drones: Whatever Became of U.S. Respect for International Norms Prohibiting Assassinations?

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in a post at his blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action (thanks to the Progressive Realist for directing us to it):

After following this program closely for the past half-dozen years, I have stopped being surprised by how far and how quickly the United States has moved from the international norm against assassinations or “extrajudicial killings.”

He writes that, in an October 23 Washington Post article Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists, reporter Greg Miller

… underscores the cementing of the mindset and apparent group-think among national security policymakers that the routine and indefinite killing of suspected terrorists and nearby military-age males is ethical, moral, legal, and effective (for now).

But the “for now” can soon be dropped because of

… the increasing institutionalization—“codifying and streamlining the process” as Miller describes it—of executive branch power to use lethal force without any meaningful checks and balances.

In fact, it’s a significant departure recent history. As Zenko reminds us, in 1975, a

… U.S. Senate Select Committee investigation, led by Senator Frank Church … implicated the United States in assassination plots against foreign leaders—including at least eight separate plans to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro [followed by] President Ford’s Executive Order 11905: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”

Thus was

… opposition to assassination was widely held and endured throughout the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations through 1999 for the following reasons.

In a quote from his book Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford Security Studies, 2010), Zenko expands on that.

Assassinations ran counter to well-established international norms, and were prohibited under both treaty and customary international law. … weakening the international norm against assassinations could result in retaliatory killings of American leaders, who are more vulnerable as a consequence of living in a relatively open society. [Also] the targeted killing of suspected terrorists or political leaders was generally considered an ineffective foreign policy tool. An assassination attempt that failed could be counterproductive, in that it would create more legal and diplomatic problems than it was worth. An attempt that succeeded, meanwhile, would likely do little to diminish the long-term threat from an enemy state or group.

“Finally,” he writes, “the secretive and treacherous aspect of targeted killings was considered antithetical to the moral and ethical precepts of the United States.”

Also, Zenko writes, it is

… notable that Miller does not find officials worried about the legality, congressional oversight, transparency, or precedent setting for future state and nonstate powers wielding armed drones.

In other words, their shortsightedness is disturbing. It might behoove them to read Daniel Suarez’s crackling new techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult), in which drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or, to be more exact, whom — to attack.

On Not Scaring Ourselves to Death: Moving Beyond the Adrenaline Rush of a Good Storm to an Energy Revolution

noaa.gov

There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline high of a good storm. It’s like a good horror film: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.

Just as we have come to expect this adrenaline rush from our weathermen and women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and they are largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads;”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.

We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.

And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween, high on fear. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to get beyond the adrenaline rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility for the growing intensity of our storms. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1-degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4-degree rise looks like.

For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off. They have looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have said: We are committed to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence — not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. It does not involve instant gratification the way storm heroics do. It involves tinkering with different policies — such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries hundreds of billions of dollars, along with millions of lives. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking intergenerationally, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the Frankenstorms our children will suffer tomorrow.

Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?

Why Elections Matter, and Why We’re Still Arguing About It

It’s practically the eve of the election—and I’m still kind of stunned to hear from people who don’t plan to vote, who think voting doesn’t matter. A young writer, 21 years old, wrote to me the other day, after seeing an interview I did on what elections are and aren’t, and on how the candidates do and don’t differ on foreign policy. (Spoiler alert: mostly they don’t.)

Among other things, he said “We young people understand that the political theater of electoral politics will not bring about the radical transformations required to avert environmental and economic catastrophe.”

And of course he’s absolutely right. Anyone who thinks that choosing a “better” leader for the US empire will somehow bring about “radical transformations” has been watching too many campaign infomercials. Only powerful social movements can do that. We have to fight for democracy and we have to build our movements—choosing a presidential candidate doesn’t accomplish either one.

Because national elections—at least those for president—in this country are not democratic. As I said in the interview he was critiquing, presidential elections are not our turf, they’re not our people, they’re not our choices. And anyone who thinks that voting for one candidate over the other is going to solve our problems—especially global problems including wars, occupations, climate change and global inequality—is way wrong.

So our work has to focus on building our movements. But who gets elected president is dangerously relevant. My own work focuses on stopping the drone war, getting US troops out of Afghanistan now instead of two years from now, ending US support for Israeli occupation and related issues—and on those issues there’s hardly any difference between the candidates.

There is one war-and-peace issue where they do differ, and that one matters a lot. Both set “red lines” and say they would use military force against Iran—that’s disastrous under any circumstance. Romney’s red line, which is Israel’s red line, would use force to prevent Iran from reaching “nuclear weapons capability.” While it’s not defined anywhere in international law, “capability” is generally assumed to include the ability to enrich uranium and scientific knowledge. And arguably, Iran actually has that capability already. In the real world of potential new wars, there’s a huge difference between that, and Obama’s red line, which he would invoke to prevent Iran from “having” a nuclear weapon, an event which the entire combination of US military and intelligence agencies agree could not happen before at least a couple of years out. The difference matters—because over years it is possible to build and strengthen movements that will make any such new wars impossible.

And while foreign policy shows the closest parallels between the two parties, that isn’t the only issue. Who gets appointed to the Supreme Court—whether a mainstream moderate centrist or a young right-wing extremist ideologue who will work for decades to move the court even further to the right—matters a huge amount. And that’s exactly who the current Republican party will appoint. Top Republican candidates view rape—“legitimate” or otherwise—as God’s plan for bringing babies into the world. Women, especially poor women, living in much of this country already have few or no options for full reproductive healthcare, especially in how to deal with unwanted pregnancy. One party is pledged to appoint judges who will overturnRoe v. Wade and make abortion illegal across the board. That matters.

Some undocumented young people have just won the opportunity to gain legal status in this country; that’sway not enough, but it matters when the alternative is a new regime pledged to deport all undocumented or to force them to “self-deport.” Obama’s commitment to Medicare and Social Security remains mostly intact, largely because his political base demands it; Romney’s commitment to both is non-existent, except as a means towards increasing privatization. As usual it’s the poor who would suffer the most. Obama has not made good on most of his earlier commitments on climate—but Romney would take those failures further, opening up the Keystone pipeline on his first day in office.

My on-line critic went on to say, “Perhaps a Romney administration would speed up a response by a dislocated working class in overthrowing this doomsday machine? Obama is an extremely effective tool of the corporate enterprise.” Somehow I never accepted the view that the worse things get, the more likely we’ll have a revolution. I just don’t think it works that way. Revolutionary processes—look at the Arab spring—don’t emerge where people are the most beaten down, the most impoverished (which is why we haven’t seen a Sierra Leone uprising or a Niger spring). They happen when people have some renewed hope and then those hopes get dashed. I’m pretty sure we’re not anywhere close to a revolutionary moment in this country. And I certainly don’t think that making things worse for the poorest, oldest, sickest and most vulnerable among us is a viable strategy for building movements—or for making revolution.

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine. There’s an old saying that when you’re drowning, and the water is rising up over your mouth, that last half-inch before it reaches your nose is a half-inch of life and death. Especially if you’re short—or in this case, especially if you’re poor.

This election, regardless of who wins, will not solve the problems of this country and the world. We have to build movements powerful enough to take on the challenges of climate change, war, poverty, inequality. But we should be clear, there are significant differences between the two parties and the two candidates; while neither are our allies, one will make our work of building movements even more difficult, will threaten even more of our shredded civil liberties, and will put even more people around the world at much greater risk. Around the world many people are terrified of an electoral result that will return us—and them—to the legacy of George W. Bush.

Elections don’t change the world—only people’s movements do. But elections can make our work of building movements impossible—and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

This blog post originally appeared on TheNation.com.

The Idea of Europe

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

HANKYOREH Back in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of East-Central Europe all had a common vision. They wanted to join the Europe Community. Some wanted to join immediately; others wanted to join eventually. After half a century yoked to the Soviet Union, the people of this region saw membership in the common European home as a guarantee of democratic governance, economic prosperity, and social stability.

Twenty years later, membership in the European Union comes with no guarantees. The economic crisis that convulses the continent shows no signs of abating. The region of East-Central Europe struggles with corruption and a new brand of authoritarianism. And extremist intolerance continues to plague Europe east and west.

It‘s not just the European economy that is in crisis. The very idea of Europe has lost its shine. “Europe” once meant a more egalitarian and more tolerant model than the free market orthodoxy reigning in the United States. In this age of globalization, however, Europe has become more and more like everywhere else.

This leaves the countries of East-Central Europe in a difficult position. They are finally joining an exclusive club. But the perks of membership are no longer quite so exciting. It’s not surprising that Euroskepticism has crept into the hearts of eastern Europeans. After all, even the inhabitants of the original core group of member countries are having second thoughts.

Of course, Europe still means something. On the positive side, new members of the European Union have access to funds to modernize their infrastructure. I recently drove back and forth across Bulgaria, and next to construction sites I saw many signs with the European Union logo. Repairing the major east-west highways in Bulgaria is not just important for tourists eager to race from Sofia to the Black Sea coast. Good roads – and good rail lines – are essential for getting Bulgarian goods to markets and also to take advantage of Bulgaria‘s geographic location for transshipment.

Also, on the positive side, membership in the European Union has served as a means of leverage to bring the political standards of candidate countries up to European levels. Whether it’s securing the rights of minorities (ethnic, religious, sexual) or ensuring a properly functioning judiciary, the European Union requires potential members to meet a long list of criteria. Since powerful domestic lobbies oppose many of these requirements, reformers can use this external pressure – the European form of gaiatsu* — to push through changes that might otherwise take decades or might not happen at all.

There are certainly other benefits to EU membership, from visa-free travel to lower barriers to trade. But there are now some considerable downsides as well.

The most important challenge that faces EU members and potential candidates is the austerity package that virtually all governments are expected to implement. It was once the case that new members saw a tremendous expansion of their social welfare systems to meet European standards. They also had access to much more generous adjustment funds so that they could close the gap between themselves and the richer members of the community. In this way, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland rather quickly became equal partners in the grand European economic experiment.

Today, new members like Slovenia have to find ways to cut government spending to meet the EU‘s fiscal demands. Candidate countries like Croatia have to do the same. They are not alone, of course. The governments in Greece and Spain and Italy are all expected to push through unpopular austerity packages.

The European Union, in other words, has turned out to be not that different from the American neoliberal economic model after all. Eastern Europe is in fact facing a second round of government downsizing after the initial dismantlement of communism in the early 1990s.

Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries embarked on a new era of democratic governance. Membership in the EU was to make this process irreversible.

It turns out, however, that the process is not entirely irreversible. In Hungary, the right-wing party FIDESZ has cracked down on the media, centralized authority, and focused on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to the exclusion of all others. European authorities have lodged their protests. But Hungary remains an EU member in good standing. Other political parties in the region with similar political programs are watching Hungary’s experience very carefully.

And then there‘s the resurgence of intolerance throughout Europe. Racist and Islamophobic political parties have gained ground in virtually every country, including areas once known for their tolerance such as the Netherlands and Sweden. In East-Central Europe, anti-Roma sentiment remains high despite more than two decades of concerted effort by NGOs to integrate this often marginalized population. This month, the Serbian government again cancelled a planned Gay Pride march. Domestic groups pointed out that the cancellation was unconstitutional; EU authorities warned that Serbia would have to meet European standards for human rights to have any chance of future membership.

The current trends are not inescapable. Europe could weather the current economic crisis and return to its emphasis on the social component of their social-market economies. A new wave of civic activism could drastically reduce the support for authoritarian parties. And an invigorated civil rights movement by and for minorities, supported by strongly enforced European regulations, could push racists and Islamophobes to the fringes where they belong.

Much depends on the Europe’s newest members and countries like Croatia that are on the verge of accession. Beginning in 1989, the people of these countries unshackled themselves from tyranny. They are now realizing their earlier dream of becoming part of the European Union. But this is not the final step. They can help make the European idea mean something other than austerity and intolerance. They can make “Europe” once again translate into justice, equality, and prosperity.

*gaiatsu n. Foreign pressure; pressure applied by one country onto another.

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