Atlantic Monthly International
JERUSALEM—In recent weeks, the all-too-common elements of Israeli-Palestinian violence—rocks, rockets, and rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails and missile strikes—have included more unusual tactics: kidnappings and murders, remarkable not only for their viciousness but also for the youth of the victims and perpetrators.
Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel, the three Jewish teens who were abducted and murdered three weeks ago while hitchhiking in the West Bank, were between the ages of 16 and 19. Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy snatched from outside his home two weeks later and burned to death in a Jerusalem forest, was 16. The Jewish suspects being held in connection with Abu Khdeir’s killing are reportedly between the ages of 16 and 25. The prime suspects in the murder of the Israeli teens are 29 and 32.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have denounced the murders. But with Jewish teenagers marching through Jerusalem and calling for revenge, and Palestinian teenagers rioting in West Bank villages, the condemnations have so far felt impotent. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now 79 years old. Netanyahu is 64. Each has spent almost a decade in power (Netanyahu’s terms haven’t been consecutive). There is a limit to how long they can retain control over their young and increasingly restless populations. The median age in Israel is 29.9. In the West Bank, it’s 22.4. In Gaza, 18.2. (In the United States, by way of contrast, it’s 37.6.).
In the coming years and decades, how will the friends and classmates of Naftali Fraenkel and Muhammad Abu Khdeir exercise leadership? Fraenkel’s peers may be more conservative than the current generation of Israeli leaders, while Abu Khdeir’s may spurn Palestinian party politics altogether. Perhaps the most dangerous outcome is that many on both sides could go their entire lives without saying a word to one another.
On the Israeli side, today’s youth are more right-wing than their parents and grandparents. The Israeli right-wing covers the political spectrum from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the core of the current governing coalition, to Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home Party. Relative to their counterparts on the left, these parties generally take a firmer stance on security issues, like rockets from Gaza and the Iranian nuclear program, and are more distrustful of the peace process and Palestinian intentions. In the last national election in 2013, two-thirds of first-time voters (in Israel, the voting age is 18) defined themselves as right-wingers. A poll in May found that 58 percent of Israelis under the age of 35 described their political affiliation as “right,” compared with 50 percent of those aged 35 to 49 and 47 percent of those above 50. Israelis under 35 were also the most likely to say that the country is heading in the wrong direction and to agree with the statement “most of the Western world is against Israel.”
Israeli youth are mostly in favor of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, but deeply skeptical that such a peace deal will be struck. According to a survey conducted last year, 57 percent of young Israelis still desire a two-state solution, but only 25 percent think it’s feasible (compared with 41 percent of their elders).
Idan Maor, the 25-year-old chairman of the Hebrew University Student Union at the school’s Givat Ram campus, attributed these generational differences to the security situation in which young Israelis have grown up, and their disenchantment with the peace process following the successful but ultimately stalled Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
“All my childhood I was afraid to walk by buses,” Maor recalled, in reference to experiencing the Second Intifada, an armed Palestinian uprising that raged from 2000 to 2005, as a young person in Jerusalem. “Almost every day you would see horrifying pictures of people exploding inside buses. … Even today, every time I hear an ambulance, I think there was a terrorist attack.”
“And [the Intifada] happened at the exact time when the [Israeli] peace movement was the biggest,” added Maor, who identifies politically as center-left. “I remember as a child, I believed that everything was going to end and everyone was going to be happy. A lot of people see those days and remember the hope and look at where we are today, and then they become more right-wing.”
“They say we tried to go left once,” Maor continued. “And it looks like it wasn’t the right way. There aren’t many attacks today but it’s only because our intelligence and military became stronger.”
Consider a median-aged, 30-year-old Israeli. He was 10 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met at the White House to sign the Oslo Accords; 16 when the Second Intifada erupted; 18 when Israel began constructing a security barrier with the West Bank (the age when Israelis enter mandatory military service); 21 when Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip; 24 when Israel and Hamas went to war in Gaza. His childhood was marked by the promise of peace; his teenage years by intense violence; his early adult life by security policies, separation, and sporadic conflict.
This timeline, of course, isn’t the only reason why young Israelis are turning rightward. Consider, for instance, birth rates among traditionally right-wing Israeli groups. Jewish settlers in the West Bank have on average two more children per family than Jews living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. West Bank-based Haredim, the most religiously observant Jewish sect, have an average of 7.7 children per family. Not all Jewish settlers are right-wing, and surely not all children of right-wing parents become conservative voters themselves. But many do.Israeli soldiers in the Negev desert (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Young Palestinians have also grown up during the Second Intifada and post-Oslo era of Jewish settlements and security barriers, with the Oslo peace process a vague memory if a memory at all. Many have become disgruntled with their leadership and, in some cases, turned away from politics altogether.
In a survey conducted last year, 73 percent of Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza stated that they do not belong to any political faction. When pressed for a reason, 39 percent said it was due to a “lack of confidence in existing political factions” and 20 percent said that political parties “do not represent their interests and perspectives.” Palestinian politics has been divided since a brief civil war in 2007, when Hamas seized Gaza and Fatah retained control of the West Bank. The two parties have attempted to reconcile several times, finally announcing the successful formation of a unity government last month, but the recent kidnappings and resulting battle between Hamas and Israeli forces is threatening to undo that arrangement.
Another poll found that while 58 percent of young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believed they personally had no impact on public life, a strong majority felt that their generation of leaders would govern more effectively than the current generation. Eighty-seven percent of Palestinian youth “expressed some level of confidence in the abilities of young people to lead Palestine in the future.”
Hiba, a 26-year-old Palestinian woman from the West Bank (who asked that only her first name be used for security reasons), said that dissatisfaction with the Palestinian leadership among young people is even higher than the polls suggest.
“Only 5 percent of the young Palestinian population supports Fatah or Hamas, the rest hate [them],” Hiba said. “They’re corrupt and they don’t care about Palestinians. We’re fed up with parties. We had so many parties and they did nothing, they only helped themselves.”
This discontent could have real effects. Last September, 48 percent of youth in Gaza and 15 percent of youth in the West Bank reported that they would support “an uprising that would remove their government.”
While a rebellion against Hamas, Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority could be in the offing, Hiba said that another violent intifada against the Israelis is not. She argued that the Second Intifada had a similar effect on Palestinians as it did on Israelis: they never want to see another one again. According to a poll conducted in August, 45 percent of young Palestinians desire a two-state solution—a level of support slightly lower than the figure for older Palestinians. Some prominent figures in the West Bank have lately been calling for alternative models; Tareq Abbas, the 48-year-old son of President Abbas, advocates a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights.
“The young people prefer legal actions, they’re trying to copy the South African model,” Hiba said. “Because they survived the Second Intifada and it was traumatizing for all of us, now we think an intifada will only harm the Palestinians, not the Israelis.”
The Intifadas had another major consequence: cutting off contact between the two sides. Before the First Intifada and, to a lesser extent, before the Second, Israelis and Palestinians had occasion to interact with one another. Israelis would shop in Palestinian stores and eat in Palestinian restaurants, and vice versa. When Israelis thought of people living in the West Bank or Gaza, they pictured individuals they knew. Palestinians did the same. The youth of today, on the other hand, are unlikely to have ever spent time with someone from across the border. Many young Israelis only know Palestinians from the media and from rockets lobbed across the border. Many Palestinians only know Israelis as soldiers and settlers whom they see but never speak to. The Israeli government restricts its Jewish citizens from entering Arab areas of the West Bank and Gaza for fear that they will be kidnapped or killed, and has limited the number of permits for Palestinians trying to enter Israel since the spate of suicide bombings in the early 2000s. The Palestinian Authority’s ‘anti-normalization’ campaign has also discouraged engagement between the two peoples.
Niveen Latif, a 23-year-old who graduated from Birzeit University in the West Bank this year, said she never had an opportunity to encounter Israelis until she went on an exchange program to Paris. “There were Israelis there and that was the first time I’ve ever met them. We had a lot of conversations about the conflict and we were even friends,” she said. “Most people [in the West Bank] haven’t met an Israeli.”
Idan Maor said the same thing. “Before the First Intifada, going to the beach in Gaza was a very common thing,” he said. “You met people, met the other side. They were more humanized. Now it’s easier to demonize the other side because you really don’t know them. You don’t see them. It’s really not safe for Israelis to go to the West Bank or Gaza, so how could we meet them?”
But what if the situation were different? If young Israelis and Palestinians could meet, what might they say to each other? Would they find common ground like Latif did with her Israeli friends in Paris? Corey Gil-Shuster, a Canadian immigrant to Israel, has been trying to answer that very question as part of his Ask an Israeli/Ask a Palestinian project.
Over the last two years, Gil-Shuster has been soliciting questions from people around the world to ask Israelis and Palestinians. Then he heads out to the streets in Israel and the West Bank with his handheld video camera to record their answers. He gathers as many responses as he can, edits them together, and posts them on his YouTube channel, translating the dialogue into English. He even reaches out to Gazans by email and reads their submissions aloud for the camera. As a rule, he includes every response he receives.
In one video in 2013, Gil-Shuster asked Israeli youth what message they wished to convey to their counterparts in Gaza. He said the Israeli teenagers he spoke with generally came across as moderate and concerned about the conditions in which Palestinians were living. “But my guess is that after they go to the army, they will have a different view,” he added.
In another video posted a year later, he posed the same question to Palestinians. Gil-Shuster said that he was surprised by their responses. “Half of them didn’t want to answer the question,” he said. “They said they had no message, and underlying that seemed to be a lot of hatred and anger.”
In making these videos, Gil-Shuster told me, he was struck by just how far apart the two sides were and how out of touch they seemed to be with what the other side was thinking. “When you’ve never dealt with the other group, you can have these fantasy ideas,” he said. “But when you’ve actually dealt with each other, eaten together, met their kids, even symbolically, it’s harder to say let’s get rid of everyone on the other side. So people who have dealt with each other, they tend to be more able to compromise.”
“We always have this instinct to think that things are changing,” he added. “But I think the only real change in 20 years, because of Oslo and the Intifada, is that Israelis and Palestinians are much more cut off from each other.”
Nazi Germany’s well-known obsession with creating a master Aryan race led to many atrocities. But from these same sinister motives came research that may have had health benefits for the German people during World War II—studies on the dangers of smoking that led to the most advanced anti-tobacco campaign of its time. Unfortunately, the campaign was only concerned with protecting the health of Aryan Germans.
“Nazi Germany was governed by a health-conscious political elite bent on European conquest and genocidal extermination,” writes Stanford researcher Robert Proctor in his book, The Nazi War on Cancer, “and tobacco at the time was viewed as one among many ‘threats’ to the health of the chosen folk.”
In 1939, German scientist Franz Müller presented the first epidemiological study linking tobacco use and cancer. In 1943, a paper prepared by German scientists Eberhard Schairer and Erich Schöniger at Jena University confirmed this study, and convincingly established for the first time that cigarette smoking is a direct cause of lung cancer.
Research by German doctors also brought to light the harmful effects of secondhand smoke for the first time, and coined the term “passive smoking.” But Proctor says the findings cannot be separated from the context in which they were realized.
According to Proctor, Schairer and Schöniger’s paper needs to be seen as “a political document, a product of the Nazi ideological focus on tobacco as a corrupting force whose elimination would serve the cause of ‘racial hygiene.’” The Nazi agenda was centered on the idea of establishing and maintaining a German Aryan master race that was free of illness or impurity, and tobacco was just one of the many influences that could weaken the so-called Übermensch.
“Nazism was a movement of muscular, health-conscious young men worried about things like the influence of Jews in German culture and the evils of communism,” Proctor says, “but also about the injurious effects of white bread, asbestos, and artificial food dyes.”
According to an article in Toxicological Sciences, before 1900, lung cancer was extremely rare worldwide, but incidents of the disease increased dramatically by the 1930’s. This coincided with the growing popularity of cigarette smoking beginning toward the end of the 20th century, but a link was never identified between lung cancer and smoking until Nazi-era scientists made the connection.
Research into the harmful effects of tobacco were funded by the Institute for the Struggle Against Tobacco, which was established in 1941 and funded by Hitler’s Reich Chancellery. The Institute was led by Karl Astel, a doctor, high-ranking SS officer and fervent anti-Semite, according to Proctor.
Among other things, Astel’s institute funded and distributed pamphlets and articles about the harmful effects of tobacco, including a collection of Goethe’s views on the subject. The institute conducted research into the potential damage or mutations that nicotine could cause to the genetic material of the master race.
Astel and his scientists conducted experiments on humans and animals, and interviewed the families of smokers who died of lung cancer. But anti-smoking measures were not confined to universities and research labs.
Under Nazi rule, Germany launched the first and most broadly reaching anti-smoking campaign of modern times. Smoking was discouraged in the workplace, and banned in cinemas, and in schools. Policemen and servicemen could not smoke in uniform, and it was not permitted to sell women cigarettes in cafes and other public places. Advertising tobacco products was restricted.
“Nazi officials moved aggressively in an all-out campaign against cigarette smoking in which tobacco was proclaimed ‘an enemy of the people,’” according to Proctor. Hitler frequently pointed out that he had quit smoking in 1919, and that fellow fascists Mussolini and Franco were also non-smokers, unlike Allied enemies Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt.
In true fascist fashion, warnings against smoking often featured Hitler himself, according to Proctor, with statements such as “Brother national socialist, do you know that your Fuhrer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?”
According to Proctor, the campaign also involved “psychological counseling, nicotine gums, methods to make cigarettes distasteful using silver nitrate mouthwash, and injections [of a chemical] that bonded with compounds in tobacco to produce a disagreeable sensation.”
At the same time, tobacco was never outlawed in Nazi Germany. It was too important a source of revenue. According to Proctor, by 1941 tobacco taxes made up a whopping one-twelfth of the government’s income. In wartime, this was important funding.
The campaign against tobacco ended with the defeat of the Third Reich, and the research tying smoking to cancer was lumped in with the atrocities of Nazi Germany. In 1945, Astel committed suicide, fearing that his wartime crimes would catch up to him. (According to Proctor, Astel helped organize the euthanasia program that murdered 200,000 people, as well as having a hand in the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”).
The Institute for the Struggle Against Tobacco was shut down after its founder’s death. Smoking in Germany rose significantly at war’s end, with American and Swiss cigarettes flooding the black market. America even sent cigarettes to Germany as part of the Marshall Plan.
But according to Proctor, the Nazi ban did manage to do some good for a subset of the population: German women. Proctor estimates that some 20,000 German women avoided lung cancer deaths, thanks to “Nazi paternalism, which discouraged women from smoking, often with police force.”
According to Proctor’s research, the paper prepared by Schairer and Schöniger was mostly ignored by post-war scientists. It was cited only a handful of times in the years after the war. Even in Germany, Proctor writes, the paper was largely unknown.
It took nearly a decade after the end of World War II before the American Cancer Society published studies that confirmed the link between lung cancer and smoking, and the risk of second-hand smoke. In 1971 British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was credited with and knighted for his research making similar discoveries about cancer and tobacco use.
Although later research does indicate there was some valid practice in Nazi tobacco science, Proctor is quick to say he does not mean to argue that it should in any way be celebrated. “The fear may be that by acknowledging such a work, one might somehow give credence to Nazi ideals or policy,” he says. “My intention is not to argue that today's anti-tobacco efforts have fascist roots, or that public health measures are in principle totalitarian.” However, he does conclude that “the Nazi campaign against tobacco was as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps.”
“The Maidan is a time machine,” Valerii Pekar explains, and “during the revolution the space-time continuum seemed to break. We built medieval catapults by glossy shopping centers. Priests in monasteries rang the bells to warn us that special forces dressed like RoboCops were attacking. We invented new digital means of making crowd-sourced decisions while living in a Cossack encampment, kindling fires under neon-advertisement hoardings. Days seemed to last months. And in a few months the whole country hurtled forward through several eras and into the future.”
Pekar wears glasses and looks like a laboratory scientist. We met at a terrace cafe near the National University, where he teaches at the Kiev-Mohyla Business School. He specializes in “future management,” bringing the country’s brightest together to project the political model for a New Ukraine. Before the revolution, during Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocracy, this sounded touchingly optimistic. Now, suddenly, anything, or at least something, seems possible. In cafes, students scribble manifestos on napkins; dinner conversations end with grand plans about what is to be done. It’s infectious: a passing English music journalist is, after a couple of days in town, lecturing local barflies on the country’s geopolitical destiny. For citizens of a supposedly post-ideological world living after the ‘End of History,’ Kiev’s residents have many utopias on their mind. And the war in the east is only spurring these visions along.
The Maidan revolution has thrown Ukraine from the “blue” developmental level of neo-feudalism into the “orange” level of free market, representative democracy, Pekar wrote in a recent article, “and has allowed us to see through the flames into the ‘green’ level”—the crowd-funded, post-capitalist, self-governing, wiki-politics of the future.
It’s the Maidan itself, which is situated at the very center of the Ukrainian capital, that serves as the crucible for this revolution. When I arrived in the city, months after the violence that unseated Yanukovych, to attend an international conference about “the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world,” the square was still occupied by revolutionaries cutting off traffic (“We’re making a new country, sorry for the jams,” a taxi driver told me). Massive tents are still pitched in the middle of the street, pinned to the asphalt. Towering barricades of tires, rocks, and rubble are everywhere, as if the very fabric of the city rose up and rebelled. Opposite sushi bars lie piles of chopped-up tree trunks for firewood. Metal ovens cook great vats of soup. Improvised shrines and hospitals sport fluttering flags.
If Kiev’s layout can be transformed, can’t all of society?
Every tent on the Maidan, it seems, houses its own ideology: anarchists hand out pages of Kropotkin; young Cossacks, their heads shaved with one forelock dangling, practice fighting with metal poles and talk of reintroducing Cossack governance (“It’s direct democracy,” one tells me). There are priests calling for Ukraine’s spiritual rebirth, agrarian socialists, Euro-idealists. And there is the Right Sector, the right-wing, nationalist group whose members were among the Maidan’s violent avant-garde during the overthrow of Yanukovych.
“You can’t get away from genetics: Ukraine’s ancestors, the people who lived in this region, had a dominant DNA code of R1a1. They fought mammoths. It’s the warrior gene. That’s the genetics of Maidan,” said Yaroslav Babych, one of the Right Sector’s leaders, as we drank iced tea in Cafe Cossack on Shevchenko Lane, just off the Maidan. “We’re pagans,” he continued, “we worship DNA.”
Babych’s day job is as a lawyer in a Ukrainian investment company (“There’s nothing to invest in here,” he told me when I asked for a tip), but we met over the weekend and he was wearing a ring with ancient runic lettering and a T-shirt that said ‘Slavs.’
“What about those in eastern Ukraine and Donbas who have rejected the revolution?” I asked. The news that day was of Kiev losing control of cities in the Donbas region to pro-Russian separatists, and of Ukrainian police and army divisions defecting.
“A lot of people in the Donbas are Russians who were moved to the region after Stalin’s enforced famine wiped out the Ukrainians. They have different genes,” he responded.A Ukrainian soldier near Slovyansk on July 7, after driving pro-Russian rebels out of the eastern Ukrainian town (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
The Right Sector has been a godsend to the Kremlin, whose propaganda has heralded the group as the fascist core of the Maidan, out to terrorize ethnic Russians in the east of the country. Unfortunately for Moscow, the Right Sector flopped in Ukraine’s presidential elections in May, mustering just 1 percent of the vote. The organization’s brand of pagan-DNA nationalism may be a fringe view, but its tents on the Maidan are still among the busiest.
“The people on the Maidan now aren’t the ones who made the revolution, just the ones with nowhere to go. The real activists are entering real politics, or they’ve signed up to fight the insurgency in Donbas,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, as we sat in his vast, dim office in the leafy, shady district of Lipki. Viatrovych commanded one of the battalions on the Maidan, and has since returned to his job at the National Institute for Memory, where he works to create a Ukrainian identity.
For many on the Maidan, the revolution was about a Romantic, 19th-century idea of nationhood—one that envisages Ukraine united by spirit and language in a long anti-colonial struggle for liberation from oppressive Russian, Polish, and Soviet empires. Poland, which in previous centuries was seen as Ukraine’s oppressor, is now perceived as a best friend and ideal model: a homogenous, Eastern European state. It’s a narrative that is traditionally stronger in the west of the country, especially the city of Lviv. After the Orange Revolution in 2005, President Viktor Yushchenko tried to make it the country’s official narrative, promoting the Ukrainian language, anti-Soviet sentiment, and misty myths about noble knights in the 11th-century Kievan Rus. The attempt wasn’t all that successful. Some Russian-speakers felt alienated; in the east, where Soviet nostalgia dominates, teachers would tell their pupils to disregard new history textbooks. Meanwhile, Donbas-based political leaders like Yanukovych shored up their popularity in the region by telling the population that the rest of the country looked down on them.
Viatrovych, who is originally from Lviv, believes he can help bridge these divisions and create a story that is at once nationalist and integrationist.
“You can’t just throw the east and the older generation overboard, you need to find ways to subtly shift their associations,” he told me.
Viatrovych is best known for his work on reformatting Ukraine’s relationship to the Second World War. Ukrainians fought on different sides of the conflict: most for the Red Army, others for the Ukrainian resistance and, at one point, the Nazis. One person’s May 9th Victory Day is another’s May 9th Occupation Day. This year, Viatrovych advised the Ukranian government to move the national holiday to both May 8 and May 9, and helped rename it “Remembrance Day” instead of Victory Day. Then he changed the symbol for the holiday from the Kremlin’s orange-and-black ribbon to the poppy, an international symbol of mourning war dead.
“But don’t you need some form of positive, unifying national message?” I asked.
“The binding concept is we’re not Russia: they believe in tyranny, we believe in freedom,” he answered.
The night before, on the Maidan, I had seen a music video of a new Ukrainian stadium-rock anthem that reinforced this thought. In the video, shots of the revolution were interspersed with pretty Ukrainian lakes and mountains (they could have been lakes and mountains anywhere), while the rockers, singing in Russian, made a series of distinctions between ‘us’ (Ukrainians) and ‘them’ (clearly Russians, though never actually specified):
You think silence is golden / We light Molotov cocktails
You receive orders / We burn fires of revolt
You have a tsar / We have democracy
“The Maidan is our new national myth,” said Viatrovych. “Look at the people who sacrificed themselves during the fighting, they were from both east and west of the country. This is our new symbol.”
“I wouldn’t use the Maidan as the unifying national symbol,” said Zurab Alasania. “The very word ‘maidan’ divides. My job is to bring the east and the Donbas in. We haven’t listened to the Donbas for 20 years.” One of Ukraine’s most famous TV journalists, Alasania has been tasked with heading up the country’s public broadcaster, a Ukrainian BBC. An ethnic Georgian from the breakaway region of Abkhazia, he left his home after the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the early 1990s and built a career in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is itself defined by being a borderland between Russia and Ukraine—a town of wanderers. When I came to see him in his imposing office overlooking Kiev, he seemed happy to see a fellow journalist after all the bureaucrats. “I’m surrounded by idiots!” he told me, flicking his forehead repeatedly until it gave off a slightly wooden sound. “I just had someone from the Committee for Free Speech try to tell me my presenters shouldn’t talk Russian. Idiocy!”
The use of the Russian language on Ukrainian television is limited by law, which means Russian networks—channels that show non-stop anti-Kiev propaganda claiming that the Maidan is a sham created by the CIA, and that its democratic slogans are lies—are currently more popular in the Donbas. Alasania wants to win the Donbas audience back by running talk shows where people from the east can air their grievances.
“I don’t want us to be anti-Russian,” he said. “I dream of making television which is as relevant to a Swede, a Ukrainian, or a Pole—Ukraine as part of a Europe with no borders. I don’t like the word ‘patriotism.’”
For all the efforts of liberal nationalists like Viatrovych, it’s not clear whether multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Ukraine could ever be another mono-ethnic, mono-lingual Poland. But shift the conversation to ‘values,’ an increasingly popular theory here goes, and identity becomes a secondary issue. Politically influential sociologists, such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, invoke the World Values Survey to demonstrate that the border for Ukrainians who believe in ‘European values’ (openness, independence, tolerance) is moving east to encompass Russian-speaking areas of the country, encompassing the youth and new middle class in both east and west. Politicians are picking up on this approach as well. The recent presidential elections marked the first time this century that major candidates spoke about ‘reforms’ and ‘transparency’ rather than playing the various nationalist cards. The Maidan was referred to as “the revolution of dignity.”
The idea of Ukraine as a place where you can glimpse the dream of a post-national, pan-European utopia, where people were prepared to die under the EU flag while standing up to Moscow, is perhaps most popular among certain Western intellectuals. Returning to my hotel one evening, I found the celebrity French philosopher Bernard Henri Lévy, who was in town to lecture on how Putinism is equivalent to fascism, giving a television interview in the lobby. “Putin is frightened of the loss of traditional values and the principles of religion,” said Lévy. “For Putinism, Europeaness is opposed to Eurasianism.” At the conference I was attending, Western panelists, including liberal luminaries like Paul Berman, kept returning to the idea of Russia as a home for a kind of clerical nationalism—the notion of Putin as a new Khomeini, with Ukraine as the battleground for liberal values.Morning in the Maidan (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
These paradigms play right into Putin’s hands. The Kremlin has desperately sought to transform the story of the Ukrainian revolution from an uprising against corruption and terrible governance—grievances that could apply to Putin’s rule too—into a muddled narrative about ‘Holy Russia’ versus ‘Euro-Sodom.’ The idea of Russia as a beacon of religious conservatism is specious—68 percent of Russians might identify as Orthodox Christian, but only 14 percent go to religious services once a month or more frequently, and 60 percent of Orthodox Russians don’t consider themselves religious. Western liberals risk being spun by Putin.
“The problem with the values discourse is that it is so easily manipulated,” the journalist Mustafa Nayyem told me. Nayyem started the Maidan revolution with a Facebook post in November 2013 that rallied students and activists to protest against Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU.
“I even wrote a manifesto back then—something about this being the time of the youth. But I never published it. It felt wrong,” shrugged Nayyem. I met with him on the 13th floor of a high-rise with views across the Dnieper River, including parks, golden domes, and hordes of Soviet-era apartment blocks. The floor is home not only to Hromadske, the small, independent TV station where Nayyem works, but also to a series of civic groups: anti-corruption investigators, anti-censorship activists, campaigners for parliamentary transparency. In the busy, communal kitchen, conversation centers not on abstract ideals, but on their practical implementation.
“We have to move from a revolution of dignity to a revolution of effectiveness,” said Hanna Hopko, a board member for one of the 13th-floor NGOs who also leads the Reanimation Package of Reforms, a network of experts writing and lobbying for new legislation. Hopko, who worked on anti-smoking campaigns before the revolution, has the ear of 25 parliamentary deputies—a small minority in a 450-strong legislature full of Europe’s most corrupt politicians. She also travels throughout the country, trying to convince people in the east that the Maidan’s battle against corruption is their battle too.
“A cop is just as corrupt in Lviv or Donetsk,” said Hopko, referring to cities in the west and east.
She was chatting with me before rushing off to meet Western funders. The ‘international development consultants’ of the EU, IMF, and international NGOs have descended en masse onto Kiev and the activists of the 13th floor especially, promoting their ideal ‘transition’ templates for how to reform Ukraine.
“I sometimes feel they just cut-and-paste reforms from other countries,” another activist told me. “No one thinks about local context. And what do they bring, a few billion in loans? When Western banks have profited from the hundred billion Yanukovych stole from the budget? We’re the testing ground for whether Europe can still have real democracy. We have to come up with our own ideas.”
But while the 13th floor buzzes with talk of reforms, what I saw elsewhere in the building reminded me of the challenges the revolution still faces. Downstairs, a standoff was underway over control of a city-government construction agency that, investigative journalists informed me, brings in millions of dollars in corrupt, self-dealing contracts to whoever runs it. The managers were worried about being pushed out by people closer to the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, and the entrance to the high-rise was full of scowling, shaven-headed young men hired to resist raids by government agents.
This is the great fear for those who made the Maidan: that the revolution will devolve into infighting between officials over access to corrupt financial flows. It’s what happened after the Orange Revolution, when President Poroshenko was a government minister and among the officials most responsible for the failure.
“You need some sort of military force with which to pressure your government,” I joked before Hopko left.
“We have one!” she answered, quite sincerely.
Gennadiy Druzenko is a constitutional lawyer who also organizes military training for those prepared to go on fighting for the Maidan’s ideals. Druzenko is a former Fulbright Scholar, slight of build and gray-haired. When we met in the lobby of the Hotel Ukrayina, overlooking the Maidan, he was concerned about the lack of bullets in Kiev.
“How are we meant to have military training without bullets?” he complained.
Druzenko runs his trainings on weekends, mainly for young professionals who are taught how to shoot by Afghan war veterans. I asked whether he had always been drawn to violence.
“First I thought we could deal with Yanukovych through diplomacy, but when my friend was beaten by special forces I realized there was no peaceful alternative,” he said. “Throwing my first stone at the police was strange. But by the end my pensioner parents were cooking Molotov cocktails in their bath.”
“But aren’t vigilante military units a sign of chaos and state breakdown, the prelude to total civil war?” I inquired.
“Not at all,” he answered. “It shows society is prepared to self-organize, grow beyond a paternalistic state. It’s progress. Ukraine has a right to experiment. No one knows what the ideal state of the 21st century should look like.”Euromaidan self-defense units in the Maidan (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
Druzenko’s words made me think back to what Pekar, the National University lecturer, had called the “green” phase of development—the self-organizing society. I had asked Pekar if his blue, orange, and green stages of history were moving toward the ideal society. He said that he wasn’t sure. “What comes after the green stage might be something very dangerous,” he had observed. “We need to be ready.”
After meeting Druzenko, I walked to the Maidan. It was getting hot and the place was starting to smell of something rotting. A man in a bear suit was marketing a supermarket next to the shrines of Ukrainians who died during the revolution. The sacredness of the Maidan is fading; some of those still living in tents on the square have a dazed look. “We want our lovely European city back,” Kievans, including some who had been active during the revolution, told me repeatedly. “It’s time to dismantle the barricades” (no one was quite sure what should be put in their place to commemorate the revolution).
In the following days, I found myself returning to the tent city over and over, scraping together the dregs of utopian inspiration. In the post-Soviet space, it’s the idea of utopia, almost any utopia, that is perhaps the most important thing. Cynicism is the great underlying ideology of Putinism, fostered by decades of late-Soviet and post-Soviet disillusion, and now reinforced by Kremlin media, with its recurring message that democracy everywhere is a sham, that the Maidan is a con, its ideals doomed.
This dynamic isn’t confined to Eastern Europe. When was the last time a Western country had a revolution that brought with it the promise of everything beginning again? 1989?
And so I found myself lingering in Kiev, long after the conference I came over for had finished. I wandered and savored the souring Maidan. I spoke with one person who wanted to reinvent elections so that you could retract your vote in a method similar to the ‘likes’ on a Facebook page; to another who envisions Kiev as the capital of an alternative, democratic Russia. I tried not to pay too much attention to the increasing casualties in the Donbas region. Instead, I sat in the cafes around the Maidan at night, among mosquitoes and women in stilettos, scribbling my own manifestos—pleasant projections of utopias for Ukraine, for Europe, for my own life. My wife kept texting and asking when I would be returning to London. Just one more day, I would tell her. And then another.
In late June, the original purpose of the revolution—to force the Ukrainian president to sign an association agreement with the EU—was fulfilled. But the Maidan isn’t budging. Someone has even put up a basketball court in the middle of the tent city. We’re not going anywhere.
The torture and murder by fire in Jerusalem of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by a gang of Israeli hooligans, initially prompted in me a desire to say, "But," but then this short piece, by Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, came over the wire:
Please, please don’t say ‘but.’ The words after ‘but’ invalidate everything that comes before—“He’s a nice person, but he does steal from the company.” You see? “But” is a meaning duster, sweeping all that precedes it.
So everyone who has written condemning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and then goes on to say “but of course” Palestinian society does not condemn their own murders, or Israel is raising up in anguish, or anything else, is missing the point. The point is to be ashamed and to grieve, not to use this murder to prove we are nonetheless better, or they are nonetheless guiltier.
When we beat our chests on Yom Kippur, we do not say before God, “But the man in the seat next to me is far worse.” That is not contrition; it is self-justification disguised as repentance. At a time of national self soul-searching it is too facile and false to use a Jewish crime as a stick to beat our enemies. Jews did this. Blind hatred did this. We should look inside, and be ashamed.
And so, no "but." Except for this semi-unrelated one:
But I think that while the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir is a terrible crime, the non-fatal beating of his cousin, the Palestinian-American teenager Tariq Khdeir, by Israel's Border Police, is, in one way, more consequential. Obviously, murder is the ultimate crime, but this murder was committed, we believe, by thugs operating independent of state authority. The beating of Tariq Khdeir was conducted by agents of the state. We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police. Those of you who have seen images of the beating of Tariq Khdeir know that this assault represents a state failure.
Unfortunately, this is not a one-off failure. On too many occasions, Israeli police officers and soldiers have meted out excessive punishment to Palestinians in custody. I've witnessed some of these incidents myself, both as a reporter and as a soldier. More than two decades ago, I served in the Israeli military police at the Ketziot prison camp, by Israel's border with Egypt. This was during the first Palestinian uprising (which is remembered now, of course, as the "good" uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers) and the prison held roughly 6,000 Palestinians, many of them street fighters, but many from the leadership of the uprising as well. It was at the prison that I witnessed—and broke up—one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen. I wrote about this incident, and others, in my book about my time in Ketziot, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. Rather than summarize my account of this beating, I'm going to post the account straight from the book. It starts when I come across a friend of mine, a fellow soldier, named Yoram, trying to beat senseless a Palestinian man called Abu Firas:
Abu Firas was a disagreeable and smug man, but his sourness was not a mortal sin. Yoram, whom I knew to be gentle but at that moment had blood in his face, was beating Abu Firas on the head with the handset of an army radio. The handset weighed five or six pounds, and it was sharp-edged. Abu Firas was hurt. Most men taking a beating like this would scream blue murder, but Abu Firas didn’t. I was impressed. Yoram didn’t stop when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground.
Yoram was a religious Jew, and his kippah, knit and multicolored in the style of the modern Orthodox, stayed pinned to his head through his exertions. It was quite a sight—a yeshiva Jew, a God-fearer, delivering a bloody beating.
You don’t understand,’ Yoram said, gasping for breath. “You don’t understand.”
Abu Firas was on his knees, grabbing at his head. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent. He pleaded for water. Yoram tried to jack Abu Firas up onto his feet, but he couldn’t move. Yoram, still panting, didn’t tell me what it was I didn’t understand.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked Yoram.
We stared at each other. Yoram looked as if he were ready to take a swing.
Abu Firas sat on the ground, watching now, his pain salved by the spectacle of two Jews at daggers drawn.
“Don’t be a manyak,’ Yoram said. A manyak is an asshole.
How am I a manyak?
“Get this dog out of here,” he said, pointing to Abu Firas.
Abu Firas, who evidently understood Hebrew, spit out, ‘Cus amak,’ at Hebrew. Yoram lunged for him. Cus amak means ‘your mother’s cunt’ in Arabic.
I held Yoram back. I told Abu Firas to move. Then I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me, “He fell,” I lied.
Yoram was not, in my experience, a sadist. He was an appealing person, usually. His parents were refugees from North Africa, a typical Sephardic family, as he described it. They kept kosher, and went to soccer matches on Shabbat. Yoram was kind, not coarse, and patient. Native-born Israelis are blessed with many qualities, but politesse and patience are not among them. That is why the beating surprised me; Yoram did not have a tripwire Middle Eastern temper.
The beating, I deduced, was prompted by something Abu Firas said. The prison had been especially tense in the first months of 1991. Yoram lived in Tel Aviv, which was, for a time, the target of Iraqi Scud missiles (Saddam Hussein was desperately trying to draw Israel into the Gulf War as a way of splitting the coalition arrayed against him). Abu Firas, in the course of a petty argument about some minor procedural matter, told Yoram that he would ask Allah to help Saddam burn Yoram’s family to death. The Palestinian prisoners did not keep their opinions of Saddam’s efforts to themselves. At night, when the air raid sirens warned of an incoming Scud, the prisoners in their tents would let out a roar of approval. “Ya ya, Saddam,” they would sing, and sometimes ,when their sap was high, “Falastin baladna, wa Yahud kalabna," "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs.” They wouldn’t stop until we threatened to fill their tents with tear gas.
Okay, so Abu Firas is an asshole, I told Yoram. What’s the big deal?
“Don’t you understand, Yoram asked. “You can’t let them talk to you that way."
So what if he curses you? It’s the game. His role is to provoke you, yours is to ignore him. I kept going: Beating a man won't solve anything. It just drives the hatred deeper inside him.
I was embarrassed for Yoram. I thought we were the same, but I realized at that moment that were different, crucially: Unlike Yoram, I never hit a Palestinian who wasn’t already hitting me.
But if I was embarrassed for Yoram. for his brutality, for his darkness of mind, he was embarrassed for me, for my stupidity and my softness. I read his face: it said, manyak American, with your stupid American ideas. I had only been in the prison for a month but I had already made for myself a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a “beautiful soul”—a bleeding heart.
They want to kill us all, Yoram said.
Beating them will make it worse, I said.
“You can’t beat them enough,” he said.
I left Yoram to check on Abu Firas. A medic had cut away some of his hair and his skull was yellow with antiseptic. I stood there watching the stitches go in. Abu Firas said nothing. I was expecting him to say thank you. He didn’t. Instead, he dead-eyed me, until I left.
A few days later, I fell into conversation with one of the leaders of the prisoners. I had become quite relaxed with a number of them. This one prisoner—Capucci … was a particular favorite. At the time, he was the shaweesh, the prisoner representative of his sub-block, but he was also said to be high in the ranks of Fatah. We talked through barbed wire. He already knew what had happened. “Are you a Communist?” Capucci asked. He wasn’t smiling. He was seigneurial, and grave. He had a quiet in him that was most unusual. He was only thirty-five, but the other prisoners spoke to him as an imam speaks to God.
Capucci had heard that I had done something humane for a prisoner. Therefore he suspected I was a Communist. ...
I saw a handful of other beatings, and broke them up as well. (I also saw kindness, by the way, but that is not the subject of this post.) I would not cover-up again for a soldier who was committing a crime. I was too angry about this behavior to acquiesce in any form. There were occasions, obviously, in which justifiable force was used—in my own case (referred to elliptically above), I had to defend myself from a Hamasnik who was trying to break my skull with a metal pipe. We flailed at each other and then wrestled on the ground for a bit, until one of my comrades came to the rescue (very deftly, and with a minimum of force, by the way). The prison was a nasty place, and it was not the role of the Palestinians prisoners to make it easy, and it was not the role of the soldiers to run it as a summer camp.
On the other hand, I could not believe, at my tender age, that Jews would resort to the use of punitive violence.
It is often said that Israel is judged by a double-standard. This is not true. Often, Israel is judged by a quadruple standard. There is one standard for developing-world countries; a second for Europe; a third, more stringent standard, for the U.S., and a fourth, impossible, standard for Israel. Often, this quadruple standard bothers me, especially when it is deployed by Judeophobes. But the truth is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country. Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism, and the idea that all people—not just kings—are created in the image of God. Judaism holds that Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and Tariq Khdeir, are created in the image of God, and therefore, to abuse them, to destroy them, is to desecrate God's name. Each time a Palestinian is abused in custody by Israeli authorities, those who commit the beating are violating the spirit and promise of their country.
Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel's enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.
Modern places are made up of layers of incomplete visions of the future, and the result is a permanent state of impermanence. Giarre, a small Sicilian seaside town that lies in the shadow of Mount Etna, offers one of the world’s most startling concentrations of half-finished grand building projects. This town within a town was dubbed the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion by Italian artists, and the name has stuck. Here you will find 25 incomplete structures built between the mid-1950s and the 2000s, many of considerable size, such as a vast Athletics and Polo Stadium, an unfinished near-Olympic-size Regional Swimming Pool, and a tumbling concrete palace known as the Multifunctional Hall. Their concrete shells are slowly being taken over by meadow grass and cacti, but they still dominate the landscape.
In a town of only 27,000 people these edifices stand out starkly, as unmissable clues to local politicians’ habit of making impressive but ill-advised claims about what public works they could see to completion in order to secure funds from the regional government. Starting large-scale construction work has been a vote-winner and a way of creating jobs. It was also claimed to combat the recruiting power of the Mafia.
The landscape that has resulted from all these promises is surreal and has a melancholic appeal for those attracted to the idea that decay and inertia will always overtake the hubris of modernity. A collective of artists based in Milan, New York, and Berlin, called Alterazioni Video, devised the idea of the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion in Giarre, delighting in what, in a photo essay on Giarre, they call its “sheer scale, territorial extent and architectural oddness.” They define incompletion as the “partial execution of a project followed by continual modifications that generate new spurts of activity,” a process that produces “purposeless sites” that “dominate the landscape like triumphal arches.” Alterazioni Video collaborator and local community activist Claudia D’Aita, who once staged a mock polo match at the Athletics and Polo Stadium, explained to a BBC journalist that all of Giarre’s unfinished edifices should be seen as “a kind of open-air museum.” It’s a refrain picked up by Alterazioni Video, which announced in its photo essay that these “glaring blemishes on the civic horizon” should be “transformed into a tourist destination, giving new value and meaning to the monuments of a perpetual present.”The front page of Alterazioni Video's guide to "Sicilian Incompletion" (Incompiutosiciliano.org)
Alterazioni Video produced a map and guidebook to help visitors find their way around the various key sites of incompletion. I’d not heard of anyone using the guide in earnest, so I went to Giarre in July 2013 to see what it would be like to be a tourist of unfinished Sicily. It was, unsurprisingly, an odd experience, and I occasionally found it difficult to tell the complete and incomplete town apart. Just across the road from Chico Mendes Park, a half-built and fenced-off “children’s city” that is a central stopping point on Alterazioni Video’s self-guided tour, is another abandoned area, an elaborate 1980s roundabout that is now a wasteland of grasses, graffiti, and wild fig trees as well as a huge stash of brown glass bottles. It is adorned with a broken central fountain, a rusting orb shaped like Sputnik, a ring of dried-up smaller water features, and a weed-infested sculpture of the 19th-century cleric Don Bosco instructing street children. As I stood next to Chico Mendes Park, this large traffic island felt unfinished, but it is more likely to have simply not been maintained. Neglect and incompletion merge in Giarre, creating an extensive and continuous landscape of abandonment.
In its “Sicilian Incompletion Manifesto” Alterazioni Video argues that Giarre is the “epicenter” of a phenomenon that has “radiated out from Sicily to the rest of the peninsula, creating an Unfinished Italy.” Yet the way the incomplete parts of town mesh with the ordinary landscape reminded me that I didn’t need to come to Italy to find the remnants of once-heroic architectural visions. Standing in the shadow of the high concrete terraces and walkways of the Athletics and Polo Stadium, on a playing field covered in the ash and cinder thrown up by Mount Etna, I was reminded of my hometown of Newcastle, which has its own network of unfinished concrete walkways and a stub end of a motorway, both discards from 1960s plans to bulldoze the city and rebuild it as the “Brasília of the North.”
Giarre offers the extreme form of a condition found in most cities, making it a parable of urban planning. It is the epicenter not of merely an Italian but a global phenomenon of accreted unfinished visions. It is also a good place to think about how we live with the layering and churning of the city. Being surrounded by the sawed-off ends of the utopian plans of once-powerful people can be liberating, as it subverts the professional’s claim on the city; the architects, politicians, and planners all stand defeated, incapable of molding place to their will. Yet if this is a victory, it is a hollow one, for we are all left picking our way through the pieces. A more profound consequence is that we disconnect ourselves from place: provisional and incomplete hometowns inspire provisional and incomplete loyalty. In tumbling together half-realized projects at an ever greater speed, the city of incompletion disrupts the possibility of people building up a relationship of care, knowledge, and trust with the place they live in.A view of Giarre's Regional Swimming Pool, from Alterazioni Video's guidebook (Incompiutosiciliano.org)
The artists who guided me around the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion are attempting to find a new and challenging way to reconnect people with place by embracing this sense of disconnect and tumult. It is a paradoxical project, both subversive and conservative, mocking the failure of effective governance in Sicily while suggesting that vaguely futuristic ruins can be the basis for a novel type of geographical allegiance. “The sum of these relics of never-attained futures,” they write, “is so vast that it can be considered as a true architectural and visual style, representing Italy and the age in which they were produced.” Incompletion comes to represent “the speculative munificence of Sicilians and all other Italians” and, even more grandly, the invention of authentically modern “places for spiritual habitation and contemplation” that are also “places of existential awareness, embodiments of the human soul.”
The idea of rebranding the modern ruins of Giarre as the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion is an attempt to reclaim the contemporary landscape, to allow us to find within its spectacular bleakness both beauty and drama. While the aesthetic of ruins that this argument relies upon looks beguiling as a set of black-and-white photos, on the ground it soon gets wearisome. After I visited a few of the chosen remnants, they all started to look the same and I gave up. I’d learned that being a tourist of incompletion has diminishing returns, but I’d also been reminded that cities of incompletion are places that I have spent a lot of time traveling through. In some cases, I've even called them home.
This post is adapted from Alastair Bonnett’s new book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, to be published July 8 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States and Aurum Press in the United Kingdom.
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
"They couldn't agree on how to set up the legislature," one character explains. "The big states wanted it based on population. The little ones wanted each state to have one vote no matter how many people it had. They were too stubborn to split the difference."
Turtledove told me that it was Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, who first gave him the idea of the American Revolution as a subject for alternate history. The two collaborated on a novel, The Two Georges, that is set in the 1990s and based on the premise that the Revolutionary War never happened. Instead, George Washington and King George III struck an agreement in which the United States and Canada (the "North American Union") remained part of the British Empire. The artist Thomas Gainsborough commemorated the deal in a painting, The Two Georges, that is emblazoned on money and made ubiquitous as a symbol of the felicitous "union between Great Britain and her American dominions."
The novel, which contains some delightfully bewildering passages ("The British Empire and the Franco-Spanish Holy Alliance were officially at peace, so skirmishes between the North American Union and Nueva Espana seldom made the newspapers or the wireless"), includes a description of the painting:
Bowing before the king, George Washington was made to appear shorter than his sovereign. The blue coat that proclaimed his colonial colonelcy was of wool like that of George III, but of a coarser weave speaking of homespun. Not all its creases were those of fashion; with a few strategic wrinkles and some frayed fringes depending from one epaulette, Gainsborough managed to suggest how long the garment had lain folded in its trunk while Washington sailed across the Atlantic to advance the colonies' interests on the privy council George III had established.
Turtledove told me by email that he had an "epiphany" when he traveled with his family to the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Canada in 1994, shortly before he published The Two Georges.
As he read a book from the Little House on the Prairie series to his daughter at the hotel, he came upon a section about a Fourth of July celebration "on the plains in the late nineteenth century, with fireworks and with tub-thumping speakers talking about how the United States had broken away from British tyranny and was the freest country in the world as a result. And there I was reading this in the country next door to mine, a country as similar to mine as any two nations on earth, a country just as free as mine—and a country that had never broken away from Britain at all. It was a thought-provoking experience." Canada, of course, merely shares a queen with the United Kingdom at this point, but its relationship with Britain has certainly evolved differently than America's has.
Turtledove explained that he's toyed with the concept of the American Revolution in other works as well, including The United States of Atlantis, a book, as he described it, "set in a world where the eastern quarter of North America rifted away from the rest of the continent 85,000,000 years ago and got shoved into the middle of the Atlantic by plate tectonics different from the real ones." Atlantis, led by Founding Father-like figures, stages an American Revolution-style uprising against Great Britain.A painting of the Battle of Quebec in 1775 (Wikimedia Commons)
Turtledove also pointed out that he isn't the only author to experiment with this genre. He cited the science-fiction writer H. Beam Piper and his 1948 short story "He Walked Around the Horses." In the story, European officials—living in a 19th-century world in which the American Revolution and consequently the French Revolution have failed, and the Napoleonic Wars never occurred—puzzle over the reports of a British diplomat named Benjamin Bathurst, who has somehow tumbled from our real world into this parallel universe.
One flummoxed lieutenant exclaims that Bathurst spoke of the North American colonists defeating Great Britain and establishing a republic:
Well, you can imagine, that gave me a start. All the world knows that the American patriots lost their war of independence from England; that their army was shattered, that their leaders were either killed or driven into exile. ...
"I can cut it even finer than that," Bathurst continued. "It was the defeat of [British General John] Burgoyne at Saratoga. We made a good bargain when we got Benedict Arnold to turn his coat, but we didn't do it soon enough. If he hadn't been on the field that day, Burgoyne would have gone through [American General Horatio] Gates' army like a hot knife through butter."
But Arnold hadn't been at Saratoga. I know; I have read much of the American War. Arnold was shot dead on New Year's Day of 1776, during the storming of Quebec. And Burgoyne had done just as Bathurst had said; he had gone through Gates like a knife, and down the Hudson to join [British General William] Howe.
A British minister marvels at a separate report from Bathurst:
The United States of America, you will recall, was the style by which the rebellious colonies referred to themselves, in the Declaration of Philadelphia. The James Madison who is mentioned as the current President of the United States is now living, in exile, in Switzerland. His alleged predecessor in office, Thomas Jefferson, was the author of the rebel Declaration; after the defeat of the rebels, he escaped to Havana, and died, several years ago, in the Principality of Lichtenstein.
I asked Turtledove what the world might have looked like in 2014 if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, or if the war had never been fought in the first place. He noted that "alternate history is often better at asking questions than answering them." Still, he indulged me.
"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. "The French Revolution wouldn't have happened, both for lack of example and because it began when a political crisis and a famine coincided with a government bankruptcy that sprang from the money the government paid out helping the American colonists gain their independence—and giving perfidious Albion a shot in the eye."
"This is, essentially, the world of The Two Georges," he continued. "Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars." Would Marxism and nationalism have become such formidable forces? He's not sure.
"Alternate history isn't really about the world you're creating," he added. "It's about the world in which you live, and gives you and your readers a funhouse mirror in which to see the real world." It's a reflection, he says, that we can't get any other way.
ASPEN, Colo.—Take a good look at the image above. That now-iconic handshake took place 20 years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met on the White House lawn to sign the Oslo Accords.
The moment represented the last major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Martin Indyk told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in his first interview since stepping down last week as the Obama administration's Mideast peace envoy. And that process is now dead, he added, at least for now.
In the two decades since the Oslo Accords, a "a deep, deep skepticism" about negotiations has taken root among Israelis and Palestinians, particularly among younger generations for whom Oslo is a distant memory, if a memory at all. In particular, young Palestinians, who have "grown up under Israeli occupation" and "seen [Jewish] settlements grow," have jettisoned hope "that the Israelis will ever grant them their rights." The majorities on both sides that once supported a two-state solution are no more.
Crucially, this corrosive mistrust extends to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen).
"There is a deep loathing of each leader for the other that has built up over the years," Indyk told Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. "'Loathing' may be too strong [a word] for how Netanyahu feels about Abu Mazen," he later clarified, "but it's certainly the way Abu Mazen feels about Netanyahu. He refers to him as 'that man.'"
It is these fundamental divisions that just torpedoed the latest U.S. effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which Indyk and Secretary of State John Kerry have spent the past nine months trying to midwife. And they're what make Indyk so nervous about the current bout of violence between the two sides, following the murder of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem.
"I fear the worst here," Indyk said. "What you've got now is ... a more rapidly deteriorating situation in which all of the worst fears and worst assumptions about the other side are being confirmed."
Indyk rejected the notion that the Obama administration frittered away precious diplomatic energy on a long-elusive Mideast peace agreement while Syria and Iraq imploded, arguing that Kerry and others didn't forsake those other regional issues.
Instead he delivered a frank postmortem on the process, detailing how excruciatingly close negotiators were to a deal and why they ultimately fell short of one. Initially, Israel agreed to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in four stages in return for the Palestinians not signing international conventions or attempting to join UN agencies. After six months of direct negotiations between the parties, he explained, Netanyahu "moved into the zone of a possible agreement" and was prepared to make substantial concessions.
But then, beginning in mid-February, Abbas suddenly "shut down." By the time the Palestinian leader visited Obama in Washington in March, he "had checked out of the negotiations," repeatedly telling U.S. officials that he would "study" their proposals, Indyk said. Abbas later signed 15 international conventions and struck a unity deal with the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. These moves deflated the peace process.
What accounts for Abbas's about-face? The explanation, Indyk says, lies in Jewish settlement activity during the talks. The U.S. had anticipated limited activity in so-called settlement "blocks" near Israel's 1967 borders, where roughly 80 percent of Jewish settlers live.
What caught Washington off guard was the Israeli government's announcements, with each release of Palestinian prisoners, of plans for settlement units, many of which were outside the blocks. "The Israeli attitude is that's just planning," Indyk noted. "But for the Palestinians, everything that gets planned gets built. ... And the fact that the announcements were made when the prisoners were released created the impression that Abu Mazen had paid for the prisoners by accepting these settlement announcements." Netanyahu may have simply been playing domestic politics and trying to placate the Israeli right-wing, but these announcements effectively humiliated Abbas.
Indyk's implicit message appeared to be that Israel's settlement policy inflicted the most harm on the peace process: The settlement announcements undermined Abbas, who in turn walked away from the talks. At one point in the discussion, Indyk observed that Israelis who are moving to settlements for religious and nationalist reasons, especially outside the settlement blocks, "are doing great damage to Israel's future."
The former envoy said the chasm between the two leaders was most evident in their standoff over Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel's right to exist, but also "recognize Israel as a Jewish state or as the nation-state of the Jewish people."
"What was foundational for Netanyahu became for Abu Mazen some kind of trick designed to take away Palestinian rights—to get them to accept the Zionist narrative," Indyk explained. "The more that Netanyahu pushed on this, the more that [Abbas] resisted it, until what was foundational [for Netanyahu] became unacceptable [for Abbas]."
Abbas is "now at the point where he feels the Israelis are not serious, they're not going to give him a state," Indyk continued. "And I think he's also at the point where he doesn't believe that [the U.S.] can deliver concessions from the Israelis. He's coming to the end of his life, 79 years old, he's tired, and he doesn't believe he has a path" to peace.
Still, Indyk somehow retains hope for a peace deal. For all the stasis and backsliding over the past two decades, he argues that the Palestinians have made some strides over the years. Instead of rejecting Israel, they've accepted its right to exist. Instead of practicing terrorism, Abbas's Fatah party has embraced non-violence. Palestinian officials have come to terms with acquiring a demilitarized state encompassing only 22 percent of historic Palestine as part of a two-state solution.
On the Israeli side, Indyk added, annexing the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs, as some Israelis on the right are calling for, is antithetical to Israel functioning as a democratic, Jewish state. If it remains democratic under this scenario, then the Palestinians will constitute a majority of the population. If it remains Jewish, then the Palestinians will be stripped of their rights.
"There is no solution other than a two-state solution," a not-yet-defeated Indyk said. Or there's what we have now, which is no solution at all.
BERLIN—One Thursday in March, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, strode the light-bathed halls of the Reichstag building in Berlin on her way to its plenary hall, to address Germany’s parliament on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Her pace was purposeful. And yet, even without stopping, she must have glanced, for the umpteenth time, at the hallways’ walls, as almost everyone does when inside this building, the German equivalent of America’s Capitol. That’s because they are not only pockmarked by bullet holes but also covered by Cyrillic graffiti—faded but meticulously preserved.
Young Russians scribbled the graffiti after they took the Reichstag on April 30, 1945. The Soviets regarded the building’s capture as symbolic of their overall victory against Nazi Germany because they mistook it for “Hitler’s lair,” as one graffito calls it. (Adolf Hitler, in fact, had never given a speech in this building and committed suicide on the same day in his actual lair, a bunker 10 minutes away on foot, abutting the grounds of today’s Holocaust Memorial.) Some of the Russians wrote on the walls in charred wood that they found lying around. Others wielded red or blue chalk, which they had used during their push into Germany to mark the shifting frontlines on their maps: red for the advancing Red Army, blue for the retreating Germans.
Most simply wrote their names (“Ivanov,” “Pyotr,” “Boris Victorovich Sapunov”) as they would today take selfies. Or they marked the dates and routes of their personal journey (“Moscow-Smolensk-Berlin, May 1945”). “We weren’t proud,” said Sapunov, the first Russian to find his own name again after the graffiti’s restoration in the 1990s. “We were drunk. And we were afraid that we could still be shot right at the end.” Some of his comrades vented different emotions. Their phrases ranged from standard public-toilet fare to the apparently unspeakable (the Germans, often at the suggestion of the Russian embassy, removed some graffiti in the 1990s). Only one vulgarity remains today, barely legible in the building’s southeastern corner: “I fuck Hitler in the arse.”
No other capital deals with its past quite as Berlin does. At one extreme are cities like Beijing, where people traversing Tiananmen Square still look up at a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. Such architecture suggests obstinate denial. Jerusalem is at the other extreme. Like Berlin, it arguably has “too much history.” But its past, unlike Berlin’s, is not even really past, with many public spaces still contested by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is like Berlin before the Wall fell.
Then there are those countries—including America, Britain, and Russia—whose architecture constructs a fundamentally heroic narrative of their identity. A visitor to Washington will be awed by memorials to its eponymous founding father and to Jefferson and Lincoln, while the surrounding streets teem with victors on horseback. The style evokes the classical splendor of Rome. Sometimes nostalgia peeks through an urban landscape. Central Paris is in effect less a city than a vast museum to France’s former gloire. Other capitals have already passed through nostalgia and preserve the past with an essentially archeological style, as in Rome or Athens.
Berlin also has a few victors on horseback. Most prominently, there is the Alte Fritz (Old Fred, or Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who turned his country into a great power). But these statues are not the city’s architectural leitmotif. By harking back to the distant and mostly positive Prussian enlightenment, they merely frame the defining disasters of Berlin and Germany: world war, holocaust, defeat, division.
Instead, the dominant narrative is tragic, but with redemption in the present. The reunification of the city (and country and continent) in 1990, and the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the following decade, provided the opportunity and the physical space to express this narrative architecturally. Many public buildings built or rebuilt during this time visually acknowledge the disasters of the past but surround them with the achievements of the present. The combination constitutes an exhortation for the future. The Reichstag is perhaps the best example of how this distinct style came into being.
For half a century after 1945, the graffiti on the Reichstag’s walls were forgotten and indeed inadvertently hidden. After the building’s sloppy first restoration in the postwar years, when the Reichstag was in the British-controlled sector of the city, tacky paneling covered the scribbles and bullet holes. But in 1995 the graffiti re-emerged, as the past is wont to do. A British architect, Norman Foster, was rebuilding the Reichstag to house the reunified Germany’s parliament, which was still seated in the modest and sleepy postwar capital of Bonn. Workers pulled the plaster off the walls and at first didn’t realize what they’d found. Once it became clear, the controversy was instantaneous.
What should Germany do with the graffiti? What was the proper role of these, or any, reminders of Germany’s dark past—of its crimes against humanity and subsequent devastation—in the new Germany’s parliament building and capital?
“‘Away with it,’ said some members of parliament. Others said, ‘That too belongs to our history,’” recalled Rita Süssmuth, a doyen of German postwar politics and the president of the parliament at the time. “Some said, ‘No way, we can’t let ourselves be humiliated again. This is over, and it mustn’t become visible again.’ They were more on the right, but all the way through [the political spectrum]. ... But I always said that this makes us stronger, not weaker. It makes humanity stronger.”
And yet even Süssmuth soon realized that keeping all the graffiti was out of the question. She refused to repeat the worst messages to me but said that some spoke of Russian “sabers” stabbing German “sheaths” or “vulvas.” Süssmuth was eight years old when the war ended and remembers its aftermath, including mass rapes by the conquering Russians. “And the victims weren’t just women, as we saw again in the Balkan war,” she explained. “It was women and men, girls and boys.” Her voice, always feeble, became even more halting when I asked her to recall the horrors of both wars again. Atrocities in the former Yugoslavia were occurring as she made her decisions about the graffiti.A Reichstag wall inscribed with graffiti (Reuters)
I asked Süssmuth whether she ever imagined an elderly German woman who had been raped in 1945 standing before the most explicit graffiti. “Yes, and I couldn’t have answered for that. There are limits, as in cabaret or comedy, the fine line where it tilts,” she told me. Freedom of speech and opinion is sacrosanct, she thinks, as is art in all forms. But you still have to respect what people can bear.
An initial consensus emerged to merely document what the graffiti said, which in many cases was as simple as “we survived,” she recalled. But she advocated going a step further and preserving and even displaying the messages. “Yes, [the Russians] were here, and that was [the Germans’] end, and simultaneously our liberation,” she told me. Gradually, she convinced her skeptics and her view prevailed.
This transformation in German perceptions of their own Stunde Null (zero hour)—from “our end” to “our liberation”—unlocked what has since, intentionally or not, become a distinct theme in Germany’s political discourse and an accompanying aesthetic in its public art and architecture. The past and its scars must never be hidden. They must instead be acknowledged, preserved, and displayed as an implicit reprimand to be moral and responsible in the here and now.
All these “stories of suffering, of the rupture, of the accepting of guilt, this official treatment of guilt is part of German representation,” said Heinz Jirout, an architect and guide in Berlin. “I don’t see that anywhere else.” He certainly does not see it in his own home city, Vienna, which he left more than three decades ago. After World War II, the Austrians rebuilt their capital to regain as much as possible of its old Habsburg splendor. Today, Vienna looks as though nothing much happened there between 1938, when Hitler annexed his native country, and 1945. By contrast, Jirout noted, in the German capital the new aesthetic has subtly become “a basis for a new identity” and “a form of strength.”
All countries, of course, have memorials to their traumatic moments—the Japanese to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans to Vietnam, and so forth. But these tend to be discrete monuments, standing apart physically and narratively. Even Berlin’s commemorations began in this style. Between 1957 and 1961, officials in West Berlin, then an island behind the Iron Curtain, commissioned the architect Egon Eiermann to rebuild the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, usually called the Memorial Church, which had been bombed to rubble in 1943. Eiermann’s plan was to raze it completely and put a modern structure in its place. But after sustained protests, he kept the ruin and surrounded it with a modern tower, church, chapel, and foyer. Yet the old and the new elements are simply standing next to each other, without any interaction. They are not yet integrated into a new narrative. Berliners call the church the “hollow tooth.”
Integrating the old and unbearable with the new and hopeful only became possible after reunification, and perhaps only in Berlin. “When the Wall came down, all the wounds were opened, not only physically but infrastructurally,” recalled David Chipperfield, a London-based architect who rebuilt the famous Neues Museum, best known for its bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, on Berlin’s Museum Island in the Spree River. Sewage systems, railway systems: Everything had been cut asunder and duplicated in East and West.
“From a physical point of view it’s a broken city, so it’s full of gaps,” Chipperfield told me in his Berlin residence, a modern structure of concrete slabs that he built inside a bomb crater in the former East Berlin. “And the gaps are both physical and mental, if you like. If you go to Paris, there are no gaps. In London, there are hardly any gaps.”"Trains to Life—Trains to Death," located at the Friedrichstrasse train station, commemorates a rescue mission that saved nearly 10,000 Jewish children under the Nazis. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)
One approach to filling these gaps is to build something entirely new. Both in its former West and former East, Berlin has plenty of ultra-modern structures. Chipperfield’s residence is one. The Jewish Museum, built by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind and opened in 2001, is another, with its angular windows and crooked floors signaling a haunted historical backdrop. But for most public buildings in the city center, it seemed more appropriate to integrate the past than to replace it.
In the case of the Neues Museum, which Chipperfield began working on in the 1990s but which only reopened in 2009, he saw a neoclassical temple dating to the mid-19th century in all its war-scarred ruin. The communists had left the building derelict and on the verge of collapse until it was finally reinforced in the 1980s. As usual in Berlin, history presented itself in all its layers: Prussia, then empire, then anarchy, Nazis, war, communism, and finally liberation.
This historical layering of mostly painful memories is a characteristic of many public buildings in Berlin. Take the finance ministry, from which Wolfgang Schäuble has lately been directing Germany’s response to the European economic crisis alongside Angela Merkel. Under the Nazis, the building served as the headquarters of the German Luftwaffe (air force) and thus of Hermann Göring, whom Hitler tapped as his successor. A huge swastika once hung in one of the halls in which I now regularly sit for press briefings. After the Nazis’ defeat, the Soviets used the building as their headquarters until 1948. The following year, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) formally came into being in the building.
In 1965, the building also witnessed one of the most daring escapes in the history of the Berlin Wall. A brave East German, Heinz Holzapfel, had locked himself, his wife, and his son in a bathroom all day. At night, the family snuck up to the roof and Holzapfel threw a hammer attached to a nylon rope over the nearby Wall. His relatives, waiting on the Western side, fastened a steel cable to it, which Holzapfel pulled up to the roof and attached to a flagpole. Using homemade belts, the family slid down the cable as though in gondolas: first the son, then the wife, then Holzapfel. An East German sentry on site missed the entire operation.The dome of the Reichstag building, viewed from Berlin's Holocaust memorial (Arnd Wiegmann)
The building’s dramatic story does not end there. After reunification, it housed the agency charged with privatizing state-owned East German companies. Many Ossis (former East Germans) still bear a grudge against the agency for, as they view it, selling off the contents of their lives cheaply to greedy Wessis. In 1991, the agency’s boss, Detlev Rohwedder, was murdered in his living room by a terrorist of the far-left Red Army Faction.
What does one do with such a building? One option is to destroy the structure and replace it with something new, Chipperfield told me. Another is to recreate what it looked like before all the bad stuff. And then there are all the options in between. In the case of the finance ministry, the answer was to preserve its outside much as it looked under Göring, but to make the inside bright, modern, and welcoming. Photo exhibits in the lobby and upper rooms document the building’s gruesome past. The past is there, but the story told on the inside overwhelms the one told by the facades.
These decisions never come easily. When Chipperfield redesigned the Neues Museum, he decided that as an architect “my responsibility is to the building. As if it was a Greek vase or a Florentine chapel or anything else. I was the guardian of the fabric that history had left.” But for the Berliners who had lived through the city’s traumas, the task was more confusing and painful. “Nobody really likes the evidence of destruction,” Chipperfield told me. When he decided to preserve the bullet holes on the museum’s walls, somebody came up to him and said, “I was here when the Russians came, I don’t want to see bullet holes in the wall. I saw it the first time around.”
Chipperfield understood the sentiment, but he ignored it. Or rather, he overrode it. He kept the bullet holes and other scars of history, but merged them with new structures. Modern columns prop up older and damaged walls, for example. Most visitors find the juxtaposition beautiful.The entrance to the Neues Museum (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
“I think it helped that I was from the outside,” he now reckons. Chipperfield, like Norman Foster, is British—a fact that has added a sense of resolution and irony to the public debate over Germany’s architecture. “Destroyed by Britons, rebuilt by Britons,” as Jirout, the Austrian-born architect, put it to me.
But timing and location were the crucial factors. Cities in West Germany were rebuilt quickly after the war, often with structures that now look cheap and deface formerly beautiful places such as Stuttgart or Hanover. Many East German cities were rebuilt to fit the ideological aesthetic of communism and look even uglier. And neither West nor East Germany in the postwar years was very interested in integrating the past into its designs. But central Berlin, long rendered untouchable by the Wall’s no-man’s-land, offered gaps, holes, and rubble for new architectural visions at just the right time. The past was neither too distant nor too close. Above all, the past, both Nazi and communist, was by the 1990s overcome, with all of Germany a stable, open, and free democracy.
It is therefore in central Berlin where examples of the integrationist-historical style accumulate. Germany’s foreign ministry, like the finance ministry, has a modern section and a Nazi-era remnant that interact with one another around a courtyard. The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities is one of several buildings in which modern glass atriums top former courtyards where the walls still bear bullet holes. The train station at Friedrichstrasse nods on one side to the Holocaust, with statues of Jewish children who once boarded the Kindertransporte from there. On the station’s other side stands the Palace of Tears, now a museum but formerly the checkpoint where East Germans bid farewell to their West German visitors before they took the train back to West Berlin.
This new style has had a profound impact on Germans and visitors alike. The work done to the Reichstag during her term as parliamentary president, recalled Süssmuth, “was decided with very small majorities” in the legislative body. But through these long debates “something very democratic came through,” as all the controversy “quieted down” and gave way to a new consensus that this style was appropriate and uplifting.Inside the dome of the Reichstag (Arnd Wiegmann)
Today, the Reichstag building is a testament to the transparent practice of democracy. Its cupola is open to visitors, who can walk a spiral path to the top and peer down through glass at the plenary hall below. Parliamentarians, in turn, can look up and see the visitors. The very first time I watched Angela Merkel give an address—it was a hot June evening in 2012, when parliament had to take an historic vote to rescue the euro—I started inside the chamber and then went up to the cupola, before descending again to see her finish the speech.
Do all visitors understand that this new “transparency”—this intimacy between the people and their representatives—is meant to contrast with the mock-democracy of the Weimar Republic that once foundered in the same place? Do they understand that the Russian graffiti in the halls is a subtle warning against nationalism, hubris, and jingoism? “I think it works. But not everything explains itself,” said Jirout. Then again, that is the nature of effective art and architecture: It’s rarely explicit.
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill once said. Süssmuth, a professor of pedagogy before entering politics, expands this point to education. “I can turn aggressive kids into [good] ones,” she told me. “I don’t even like the word ‘turn’—that is too much, because the kids actually do it themselves, under the influence of art, or music, or…” She paused, visibly moved. Then she circled her finger, as though taking in the surroundings of her office near the Brandenburg Gate, the center of the reunified Berlin.
ASPEN, Colo.—One major divide in international relations, as well as in other social sciences, is between those who believe in structure and those who believe in agency. Members of the first group say leaders are just representations of cultures and nations, subject to long-running political dynamics; their counterparts insist, no, individual leaders make decisions that can change the course of history.
Discussing whether Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine herald a new or resurrected Cold War between Washington and Moscow, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul placed himself firmly in the agency camp: He thinks the current crisis is a direct result of Putin's actions and personality. But while he didn't put it exactly this way, he suggested that Putin's worldview is shaped by the fact that the Russian president is a structuralist. McFaul made the comments at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.
"Is this a new Cold War? There are certain similarities. This is the greatest moment of confrontation since [the time of Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev," McFaul said. For example, he noted that not even in the depths of the Cold War was the Kremlin chief of staff subject to economic sanctions, which is the case today. "It’s a deeply tragic moment. It makes me wonder, and I know the president wonders, were we naive to try to think about a different relationship with Russia?"
There several ways of thinking about the recent crisis. One favorite frame, especially among Russian experts, is that this is simply the way Great Powers behave and the way they've behaved for centuries. Russia is a rising power, and it's only natural that it would seek to control more territory. That can't be written off entirely, McFaul said, but he doesn't see it as the main factor. First, he explained, if Russia had made a faster transition to democracy and markets—like, say, Poland did—the situation might be different. And second, he noted that Russian policy up until late February of 2014 was far more accommodating.
"I don’t think [Putin] was sitting as a kid dreaming about putting back the Russian empire," McFaul said. The lavish Sochi Olympics and the decision to release imprisoned Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky were the actions of a nation trying to assimilate into the world; the crisis in Ukraine imperiled Putin's dream of creating an eastern version of the EU.
Another approach suggests that U.S. policy is to blame—either the Americans were far too aggressive, chastising Russia for its failings, driving NATO eastward, and supporting "color revolutions" in Eastern Europe, which drove Putin to paranoia; or else the Americans were too soft, letting Putin get away with his incursion into Georgia and telegraphing that they wouldn't strike back. McFaul rejected that, too, noting the long list of collaborations between the two governments up to February: a nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, distribution networks to Afghanistan, Iran sanctions, the Syrian chemical-weapons deal. Violent protests in 2010 in Kyrgyzstan didn't cause a crisis; Russian opinion polls showed two-thirds approval of the United States as recently as three years ago.
“Something that happened 20 years ago cannot explain what’s happening now if we were cooperating two years ago,” McFaul argued. That is perhaps not a completely convincing argument—as we learned during the Balkan Wars, among other conflicts, historical animosities can appear to have disappeared, only to reappear suddenly and violently—but it does undermine those who blame U.S. policy.
Instead, McFaul sees two crucial events as leading Putin to decide the U.S. was implacably opposed to him and determined to push him out of power, which together produced the current situation. The first was widespread protests against Putin in early 2012, which the Kremlin accused McFaul himself of organizing. “But that was not the end of the story, because Putin is a great compartmentalist," McFaul said. "He'd say, ‘I understand you’re trying to overthrow regimes in Syria and Iran and here,'" but still see ways to work on business deals or the chemical-weapons deal with America.
The second event came during negotiations for a peaceful exit for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych this winter. The American government was deeply involved in trying to broker a handover; Vice President Biden was on the phone with Yanukovych. Then the Ukrainian leader suddenly fled the country. "Putin thought that yet again the Americans had duped him. That’s when he said, 'I’m done worrying about what they think about me.'" In short, Putin had adopted a structuralist view. Believing that American grand strategy was geared toward undermining him at every turn, he rejected any attempt to reckon with Obama as an agent of policy. But that was an emotional decision—hence McFaul's allegiance to agency.
“We tend to assign a lot of rationale and logic to individuals and states, and my experience in government suggests ... they’re people with emotions, with worldviews, and that different people in that job will behave differently,” McFaul said. "The good news is that this is not part of a grand strategy where first they take Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, then Moldova, and then a piece of Estonia. This was a response to the collapse of the government in Kiev."
Yet even if the spark wasn't a grand strategy, the ground has now shifted. "The bad news is I think Putin is now locked into his worldview," McFaul said. "It’s going to be a long, long confrontational struggle with Russia that will last at least until Putin is no longer the leader."
ASPEN, Colo.—Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, remembers that when he was a boy, he would see images in National Geographic of children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes—in other words, kids living in pure, miserable poverty.
But that kind of poverty, in which people live on less than $1 a day, has decreased by 80 percent since his childhood. And it wasn't the UN, World Bank, or foreign aid that was responsible for that decline, he argues. He believes there are five explanations, which he laid out for an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic:
"Globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and innovative entrepreneurship, American style. It was the American free-enterprise system that started to spread around the world. They looked at you and said, 'I want to have their life, their freedom, and their stuff, and they threw off their chains of poverty and tyranny.'"
"You did that for those people," he continued, "You lifted those people out of poverty because of the way you lived your life."
Brooks used the precipitous drop in poverty rates as a data point in his broader argument that work is one of the most important factors in generating happiness. And not just creative, fun work—any work, even Walmart jobs, he says. It doesn't matter if you make minimum wage or Brooks's own $645,000 salary—the important thing is experiencing "earned success," he explains, or "the belief that you're creating value with your life and that you're creating value in the lives of other people."
The opposite of "earned success," he said, is "learned helplessness." Getting something for nothing makes you "despondent and depressed." And that's the mental state the world's poor cast off in recent years, he says.
"Free enterprise does that for everyone," he added. "That's the story of earned success. That's the story of helping people avoid their learned helplessness."
Brooks is right that poverty has declined by 80 percent since the 1970s. And economic growth indisputably reduces poverty—there's really no other way.
But the sharpest decline in poverty during this period occurred in China, where the extreme poverty rate fell from 84 percent in 1981 to 12 percent in 2010. In fact, China alone accounts for three-quarters of the global decline in poverty over the past three decades. China, though, is hardly the picture of "American-style" freedom or "rule of law."
Another thing Brooks didn't mention is the rise of wealth inequality around the world, and particularly in the United States. To his happiness point, income inequality has also been shown to make people unhappy. It stifles economic growth as well, and thus the poverty reduction that we all want.
Here's The Economist:
Income distribution matters, too. One estimate found that two thirds of the fall in poverty was the result of growth; one-third came from greater equality. More equal countries cut poverty further and faster than unequal ones.
There is an uncomfortable chauvinism to the idea that we Americans deserve sole credit for millions of people managing to escape poverty. But there are also huge externalities—both good and bad—to the spread of American-style capitalism abroad.
We may have shipped other countries our version of capitalism, but our version of income inequality came in the box. And that's something we may be less eager to take credit for 30 years from now.
Did American soccer just win the football world’s respect?
The World Cup is over for the U.S.A. after a heartbreaking loss to Belgium. But that defeat made for what some regard as perhaps the best match of a tournament that has thrilled from the start. More importantly, the U.S. has been called a “world-class team” by the likes of Barry Glendenning, the ever-critical football writer from The Guardian. Glendenning is perhaps not the Supreme Leader of Football (that title belongs to Sepp Blatter), but he is near the epicenter of international football, and he does not compliment teams lightly.
Men (and a very few number of women) like Glendenning—who is Irish but comments on the English league—and others of his journalistic tribe from Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, hold the keys to the world of football. Their opinions carry enormous weight in the pubs, cafes, and sports clubs across Europe where the best footballers in the world ply their trade. While their individual influence can often be understated, combined and aggregated they can force managers to be fired, bring protests against a team’s owner, or leave an out-of-form player on the bench.
These writers hail from all over the continent, but share one overarching attitude: that national football teams from outside Europe, save some rare exceptions in South America, are inherently second rate. And that’s putting it politely. No team from a non-footballing country has every truly gained the lasting respect of the football world. Even African countries, whose populations are football-mad, are only rarely praised—and often begrudgingly, at that.
This Euro-centricity (some would call it arrogance, or worse) has a kernal of merit. All the best players, even those from South America—the only other continent whose nations (namely Brazil, Argentina, until recently Uruguay, and more recently, Chile) qualify for automatic respect—play for European club teams. That is, after all, where the money is. Many players join European clubs’ academies at a young age, like Lionel Messi, who famously moved from his native Argentina to the legendary Barcelona academy at 13 because his local club could not afford medical treatments for a hormone deficiency.
Currently, European club teams and leagues comprise a polyglot of nationalities. This cartel-like cornering of the world’s football talent market has allowed the sport’s European infrastructure to flourish, while the periphery of Africa, Asia, North America, and to a great degree South America, continually play the role of vassal.
So, for the better part of two decades—that is, since the 1994 World Cup, which the U.S. hosted—American soccer, its fans, and the national team have been patronized by the football world as one would a naïve younger cousin. You see them once every year at the family reunion—in football’s case, every four at the World Cup—and you tolerate their persistent yet humorous efforts to join in with the older cousins, and then you forget about them as soon as they leave the party.
As with any little cousin though, American soccer has gradually matured, both in international tournament play and nationally at the grassroots level. This development, the idea that football is finally catching on in America, has been discussed, primarily by Americans, during every World Cup, with very few in the foreign media or public ever taking it too seriously. However, there has been a marked change in tone over the past two weeks in Brazil. As one writer from the UK’s Telegraph put it, after praising “the never-say-die-spirit of (USA Coach) Jürgen Klinsmann’s” team, “make no mistake. The Americans are going home, but they have certainly arrived.”
This type of praise was not just left to pundits, but to those on the pitch and in the pubs. Vincent Kompany, Belgium’s star defender and arguably the best center-back in the world, stated to French sports paper L’Equipe after the match, “It must be said that it was a special match against a US team that merits all the applause. A true World Cup match.” From the bars, a Scottish friend with whom I played soccer (read: drank) in college and whose nation is reveling in the fact that the U.S. has equaled and bettered England in the previous two World Cups respectively, recently went out of his way to praise America: saying how the U.S. is playing “real football” that is energetic and dynamic and, most importantly, fun to watch. Adding to this praise, a World Cup discussion group that the same friend founded on Facebook is filled with comments from other British fans who have appreciated and admired what the U.S. team brought to this tournament.
Still, stereotypes and clichés in the world of football don’t die quickly. Sid Lowe, whose recent book, Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, is a must-read for those wanting to understand the cultural dynamics of Spanish fútbol, tweeted with remorse, “One day the US will play a World cup game without the rest of the world making smartarsed comments about them not/finally getting football.” It may seem small, but the idea that Americans are “finally getting football” is one that wouldn’t have crossed many a European’s mind four years ago—let alone eight, 12, or 20–and that is progress.
It would seem a given that efficiency-enhancing technologies spread rapidly, seeing as smoother production often leads to higher profits. That’s not always the case, though: A 2008 survey of the past two centuries found that on average, countries have adopted revolutionary technologies such as steel production and electricity 47 years after they were invented. How and why technology spreads—or rather, doesn’t spread—is a bit of a mystery.
For example, why did so many soccer ball factories continue to use an inefficient cutting mechanism when there was a better one out there? That's the question that a team of researchers from Yale, Columbia, and LSE (that's Lahore, not London) tried to answer in a study of Sialkot, Pakistan, where 40 percent of the world's soccer balls are produced.
(How Sialkot got its market share is worth a momentary digression. Its origins as a hub of soccer ball-production date back to British colonial times, when Britons eager to play soccer grew impatient waiting for shipments of balls to arrive by sea. In 1889, a British sergeant asked a Sialkoti saddlemaker to repair his punctured soccer ball, and, pleased with the results, put in an order for a batch of balls to be made. Production took off from there: By 1982, Sialkot-produced balls were used in the World Cup.)
Today, more than 100 firms produce soccer balls in Sialkot, a city of 1.6 million. Since Sialkot faces tight competition from China and East Asia, the team of researchers figured that manufacturers would be hungry for technologies to make their plants more efficient. After happening upon a new manufacturing process that would increase profit margins by about 13 percent—it involved changing the arrangement of pentagons on a sheet of artificial leather in a way that reduced waste—they wanted to know how quickly the method would spread. They introduced it to a control group of firms. They waited.The material left over after cutting out
artificial-leather pentagons (Eric Verhoogen)
But after 15 months, only five of the 35 factories in the control group adopted the technology—a rate the working paper calls “puzzlingly low.” So the team put on hold its original question and started investigating why the technology didn’t catch on. They noticed that one firm outside of the control group adopted the new pentagon arrangement, and that the firm did something most others didn’t: What was going on with that one firm? It turns out, that firm paid its workers by the hour, rather than by the ball. The researchers hypothesized that a worker paid per ball might be resistant to trying out a new technology because, in the short run, as they were learning to use it, it would slow down their productivity and decrease their earnings.
In hopes of erasing the workers' short-run qualms and encouraging them to share innovative information, the team offered them an extra month's worth of wages on the condition that they learned how to use the new cutting technology. After this cash infusion, the researchers saw the probability of adoption increase from 16 percent to 48 percent. This lump sum, which they considered “small from the point of view of the firm,” was the extra push needed for adoption.
The best explanation for this, according to Eric Verhoogen, a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and an author of the paper, is that without the lump sum, the incentives of the worker and the company don't match up. “The general lesson is that workers have to share in the gains for innovation to be successful,” Verhoogen says. In fact, the workers’ incentives were so far divorced from those of their managers that some workers lied to their superiors about the technology’s efficacy in order to prevent its adoption. (Naïf that I am, I found this surprising. Verhoogen didn’t. “What I was surprised about is not so much that workers might try to mislead their managers, but that their managers would believe them,” he says.)
The study isn’t an unqualified endorsement of hourly wages over piece rates in manufacturing, but it does constitute a stab at answering the question of how companies might extract knowledge from inside its workers’ heads. “Even on assembly lines in the U.S., in auto factories for instance, paying fixed wages, many times workers will come up with ways of doing their jobs faster, but they won’t tell the firm about that, because they can just do the job faster, and they can have longer breaks,” Verhoogen notes. He points to Rivethead, a 1992 book by an employee of the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, which described the ways workers could game the system: If one employee managed to be twice as productive, another employee could take the day off and go fishing.Eric Verhoogen
A 2008 article in Harvard Business Review pointed to Toyota as an example of a firm whose success is in part due to listening to its employees. HBR explains:
The company views employees not just as pairs of hands but as knowledge workers who accumulate chie—the wisdom of experience—on the company’s front lines. Toyota therefore invests heavily in people and organizational capabilities, and it garners ideas from everyone and everywhere: the shop floor, the office, the field.
Says Verhoogen, “There’s a ton of knowledge out there that’s being wasted because workers don’t have any incentive to share it.”
ASPEN, Colo.—"The moment was fine for me…. But I don't know, how was it for you?"
That's New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer asking Tessie Guillermo, president and CEO of the consultancy ZeroDivide, how she felt when he inquired about her ethnicity.
"Context is really important," Guillermo responded. "The context, the place of the situation in which the question is asked, really dictates the answer. I guess I'm one of those people that are always trying to put folks at ease.”
Guillermo had just recalled that when she was young, her mother used to clean her with a stone "because she thought she could rub some of the color off of us."
"We were the only non-blacks on our block," Guillermo explained, "and she wanted to make sure that we weren't thought of as black."
"What are you, ethnically?" Oppenheimer had asked in response.
"Filipina," Guillermo answered.
The exchange took place at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, during a panel discussion on The Race Card Project, a four-year-old effort by NPR host Michele Norris to solicit people's frank, unfiltered thoughts on race in bite-sized, six-word essays. She's received tens of thousands of responses from people in 63 countries.
"One of the most common submissions to The Race Card Project is some formulation of, 'So, where are you really from?'" Norris said. "To a lot of people that hits their ear the wrong way. It feels like someone is trying to point out their otherness: 'You're quite obviously not American, so where are you from?'"
The question, Norris added, is, "How do you express curiosity without stepping on someone's feelings?"
Here are some of the submissions Norris is referring to (each person's six-word statement is in bold at the top of the card):
As these testimonies demonstrate, some people resent the question, others embrace or at least tolerate it, and still others find it thoroughly confusing. And sometimes people experience all these feelings at once, or different emotions depending on the situation.
Immigrants around the world struggle with the question. Here's how the researchers Virginia Mapedzahama and Kwamena Kwansah-Aido reflected on this "quintessential question of identity" in a 2010 paper on African identity in Australia:
While acknowledging that a certain 'curiosity' sometimes drives the asking of this question, we still question the implications and multiplicity of meanings to those whom it is asked. We contend that being asked the question raises three key issues for us. First, we perceive it as exclusionary, in that in a white dominated society it is asked, mainly of certain groups of people who are visibly different. Second, the assumption behind the question—that one is not 'from here', constructs an/other whose identity is fixed and tied only to one faraway place, thereby erasing our hyphenated identities, which define our everyday lived realities. Third, it invokes feelings of ambivalence about place when it is interpreted as demanding a justification of the claim to belonging and being 'from here'.
The importance of context was a recurring theme throughout the Race Card Project discussion. Norris pointed out that the audience laughed when one card—"Not all Mexicans can do landscaping"—was read aloud.
"The people who wrote this didn’t write" with the intention of being funny, she observed. "Is it nervous laughter? Is it laughter because of recognition? Or is it the fact that laughter plays a role in creating a bridge to each other? I have always thought that the most honest conversation about race in America takes place on a comedy stage … where people can say things that are impolitic almost everywhere else. Where you're allowed to laugh."
The panel also debated whether the fact that some stereotypes are based in truth makes them any less pernicious, and whether it’s corrosive or cathartic for ethnic groups to stereotype and poke fun at themselves.
"It doesn't bother me to have a little inter-ethnic humor, frankly," PBS anchor Gwen Ifill said. "I think you have to be careful about calling everything racism. Making self-mocking, humorous, loving references to stereotypes can be pretty funny. It's not so funny if those same things are said by someone else whose attempt is to hurt or scar or limit you."
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg found the practice more troubling. "There are people in African-American communities, Jewish communities, other communities, who internalize some of these stereotypes and actually begin to believe them. That's the nature of minority self-hatred," he said. "We've seen this in comedy. Dave Chappelle went silent for six years, and many black comedians have this ... where suddenly they realize they're making these jokes about black people, and white people are laughing, not benevolently. They're running with this stuff."
Anthony Long is director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project. He presented some of his work this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute co-host. This is an edited interview about his organization's efforts.
For those unfamiliar with how global fishing is regulated: What is illegal fishing? That is, how is it defined and what kinds of people are doing it?
Fisheries managers coined the term in the 1990s. The definition includes illicit actions among the suite of activities that must be considered in setting fishing quotas. In general terms, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing includes activities that:
- violate applicable national or international laws or policies;
- have not been reported in areas where such reporting is required;
- are inconsistent with relevant international laws or rules, but either the activities are not regulated or the vessels are operating outside of regulations because they are flying the flag of a state that is not a member of the relevant regional fishery management organization or is not flying any flag at all.
Like almost all theft, illegal fishing is intensely profit-driven and can involve any number of players, from independent fishers, seafood companies and vessel owners, to flag states and port states that fail to uphold their duties. Illegal fishing has persisted as a multibillion-dollar global problem in large part because regulations are patchy and the regulatory and enforcement system has been averse to change.
Legal fishing has reached a degree of industrial efficiency that many argue is unsustainable. How large a part of the conservation problem is illegal fishing? How do you measure the scope of a problem that is being hidden?
The seminal peer-reviewed study on the worldwide extent of illegal and unreported fishing concluded that it accounts for $10 billion to $23.5 billion worth of fish per year, or up to 1,800 pounds of seafood stolen from the seas every second. That range is due to the subjective nature of trying to assess a system that is not transparent. Even taking the low end of the scale, this is a problem worth addressing. Ending illegal fishing is achievable through a combination of: better enforcement of existing laws; stronger controls at ports worldwide; mandatory assignment of unique identification numbers to all large fishing vessels (similar to the VIN on an automobile); and widespread use of best-in-class technology to help authorities find, stop, and prosecute illegal fishers and to facilitate more transparency from the moment of catch until it arrives on the plate.What "best-in-class technologies" are used to combat this problem? Pew is working with a U.K.-based innovation center that specializes in using satellite technology to address the problem of illegal fishing. We can draw on many technologies, such as imagery from space and satellite-tracking systems and even drones. None of these, however, are silver bullets. To work best and for the best price, they have to be employed more collaboratively and in a more focused way. You have to always think about two methodologies when it comes to tracking. On the one hand, enforcement: this is the "look-and-find" approach where you need a tool bag of systems in order to find and track those that don't want to be seen. On the other hand, the same system can provide a mechanism for the good guys to prove their good behavior and be transparent in their operations. The second option, reversing the burden on the vessels to prove good behavior rather than expending energy proving illegal activity, is the easiest and most cost-effective way of tracking activity. It also has the added value of making those that are not transparent stand out more–and therefore, it is easier to take effective action against them, whether it is a penalty or a law restricting access to the market.
Many climate scientists worry about a point where we've put so much carbon in the atmosphere that the effects are severe and irreversible. In our oceans, some species have already been fished to extinction. Are we in danger of a tipping point where fish stocks are depleted so severely that they're beyond recovery? How would you rate the ocean's health?
Our project does not work specifically on these issues, but the health of our oceans is in the limelight. One reason that I decided to leave my career in the Royal Navy was that I felt the oceans faced increasing pressure from a variety of threats. I wanted to help fix the problem. Others think that way as well. The U.S. State Department held its Ocean Summit June 16-17, bringing 80 countries together to raise awareness and set the course for solving problems. The Global Ocean Commission issued a report detailing what we all must do to help rescue our oceans from overfishing, large-scale loss of habitat and biodiversity, the lack of effective management and enforcement, and deficiencies in high-seas governance.
How is your organization combating illegal fishing?
The Pew Charitable Trusts seeks to use the best available science to influence policies for the public good.
In this case, that means:
- urging all countries with ports to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, a UN treaty that will strengthen and harmonize inspection protocols for foreign-flagged fishing vessels and stop illegally caught fish entering the market;
- working to get regional fishery management organizations to require every large fishing vessel to have an International Maritime Organization number—the unique numbers mentioned above—as a precondition of fishing, because uniquely identifying the vessel is the first step in being able to conduct enforcement;
- partnering with INTERPOL to improve cross-jurisdiction communication, monitoring, and enforcement;
- supporting projects like Fish-i: Africa, a seven-nation effort in Southeast Africa to share information and resources to produce a monitoring and enforcement mechanism;
- partnering with technology organizations to develop and promote systems that help fisheries authorities detect fishing with greater accuracy and cost efficiency
Is there anything the average person concerned about this issue can do? A reform measure they ought to support? A sort of fish they ought to avoid? Or is this an issue that must be solved at the state level?
Our political leaders and the agencies and authorities who carry out and enforce policies are ultimately responsible for the stewardship of the resources at sea, whether in their own waters or the global commons. That said, consumers should demand to know that their seafood was caught legally, by vessels that comply with all applicable rules, including fair-labor practices, and that the seafood is accurately labeled. They should encourage their elected representatives to support measures that will combat illegal fishing, improve the traceability for seafood from the point-of-catch to point-of-sale, and ensure sustainable fisheries.
ASPEN, Colo.—To Westerners who don't follow Middle East news closely, it can all get a bit confusing—a jumble of corrupt leaders who seized power from other corrupt leaders. But in trying to understand why there's so much instability in the region, it can be helpful to think of the dynamics within certain Arab countries in the context of our own dynamics in the wake of the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.
Don't get me wrong, the stakes are much different—thousands of lives and freedom of expression, versus free contraception, for starters. But both conflicts have a lot to do with the trouble that countries have in determining just how big of a role religion should play in government.
For example, here's what's happened in Egypt over the past few years (experts can skip the next paragraph or so): The country had a secular, strongman ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after the Tahrir Square protests in 2011. After several months of military rule, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi, who is from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that had been illegal for most of the twentieth century. But exactly a year ago, Egyptians overthrew Morsi's government and a new secular military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, took over and has been in charge ever since.
This kind of turmoil might sound a lot like what happened in Latin America a few decades ago, or in Europe during the Cold War. But it's different for one major reason. As Brookings Middle East scholar and Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid said during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is produced jointly by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, in Egypt and other Arab Spring nations, the root of all this turnover was a fundamental disagreement about the role of Islam in the state:
If we're talking about the liberal elite who drove the sentiment against Morsi, there was a fundamental ideological divide between Islamists and non-Islamists. And we see this now throughout the region. In that way it's different from other transitions in Latin America or Europe, where the primary cleavages were economic in nature. You can split the middle on the economy, you can quantify that. But how do you split the middle on religion and ideology?
The Muslim Brotherhood is actually not religiously extreme, but secular Egyptians chafed at some of the group's actions during its brief time in power. The Brotherhood intimidated secular artists and comedians, like Bassem Youssef, who parodied the party. It passed a constitution without much input from minority interests. Members would say things like "wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape, and husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger." In a widely circulated video from around the time of the 2013 coup, a 12-year-old boy calls the Brotherhood a "fascist theocracy" and blames them for not appointing enough women to the national assembly.
As Hamid said:
What is the meaning of the state, the purpose of the state, the identity of the state? You hear that rhetoric so much from people close to the military in Egypt that the Brotherhood was going to change the identity of the state. The role of religion in public life arouses these raw existential passions.
We've witnessed these kinds of raw passions just this week in the U.S. with the Hobby Lobby ruling, which upheld companies' right to exclude the coverage of certain contraceptives from their insurance plans if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs. Some say the alternative would be like forcing companies to give employees a subsidy for going to church. Others say reproductive rights trump CEOs' religious views without exception. This morning, for example, Morning Edition featured the following "strong reactions" about the ruling:
"It is my choice to live out my freedom as I choose and not my choice to have the government hand me contraceptives," a woman named Emily Zender said.
Another woman, Alex Gillett, said it was "old white men making a costly decision for women."
Also speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Hillary Clinton, too, castigated the Court for its decision:
“It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom, which means the corporation’s … [‘closely held’] employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees, and, of course, denying women the right to contraceptives as part of a health care plan is exactly that,” she said. “I find it deeply disturbing that we are going in that direction.”
During the Middle East panel, New America Foundation president and Atlantic contributor Anne-Marie Slaughter made the Hobby-Lobby/Morsi-Sisi connection:
We heard Hillary Clinton talking yesterday about Hobby Lobby and the role of religion in the state. These are issues we nonviolently hear but they involve deep passions.
This isn't to diminish the very real struggle for good governance that Egyptians and their neighbors have faced. The battle for birth control is nothing compared to the one for democracy.
But to many Americans, Middle East news can sometimes seem like spurts of random violence or inscrutable coup-like events. Recognizing America's own deep divisions when it comes to the role of religion in public life can help us understand what these people are going through, half a world away.
In November 2010, the United States faced a painful dilemma in Iraq. The man Washington had picked from near-obscurity four years earlier to be Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had narrowly lost an election but was, with help from Iran, maneuvering to stay in power.
The clock was ticking as a U.S. troop drawdown gathered pace. American diplomats and Iraqi politicians cast about for alternatives to lead Iraq. But Iraqis had elected a hung parliament and there were no candidates with clear-cut support. Fearing chaos, Washington settled again on Maliki.
In a tense meeting in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, two U.S. diplomats sat down with Maliki, Kurdish chief Massoud Barzani, and Ayad Allawi, the politician whose bloc had won the most seats in the election and whose support was needed to finalize any deal. Earlier that day, U.S. President Barack Obama had phoned Allawi and pledged his support for a government that included all Iraq’s main sects.
In the meeting, tempers flared. Both Allawi and Maliki threatened to walk out, and Barzani at one point physically blocked Allawi from leaving the room, according to two people with first-hand knowledge of the meeting. The Americans encouraged them to set aside their differences. At last, the Iraqis agreed to a final deal, which was spelled out in a handwritten note.
The agreement finalized that day was the last real power-sharing accord Iraq had, and it failed almost immediately. Thanks to Maliki and his opponents' intransigence, the deal was never implemented and the country's sectarian divides widened. Maliki has governed more as a defender of the Shiites than as an inclusive national leader.
Now, as violent Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cement their hold over western Iraq, declare a caliphate, and threaten a new civil war, Washington has again demanded that Iraq's leaders form an inclusive government encompassing the country's minority Sunnis and Kurds.
But former officials and even some in the current Obama administration say that effort may also founder. Maliki had been expected to be named prime minister for a third term after his coalition won April elections, but as security deteriorates pressure is mounting even from within his Shiite power base for him to go. Even if he is pushed aside, Washington will likely struggle to exert much sway over the situation.
More than a dozen former and current diplomats say the relationship between Washington and Baghdad has been marred by repeated missteps by both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Washington, the diplomats say, has been unwilling or unable to influence Iraqi politicians and in particular the man they helped bring to power.
While Maliki lost the 2010 elections, he emerged stronger, said Emma Sky, a British Middle East scholar who was a political adviser to U.S. General Raymond Odierno from 2007 to 2010. Maliki then "faced no consequences when he reneged on his commitments" to integrate Sunnis into the government, she said.
Ali Khedery, a long-serving adviser to multiple U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, said he resigned after warning in an October 2010 memorandum that U.S. backing for Maliki's premiership would lead to dictatorship, renewed civil war, and Iranian hegemony in Iraq. Other U.S. and British officials who shared his view had left Baghdad by the fall of 2010, he said, but his memo reached top White House officials, who overruled him.
To be fair, Maliki took some early positive steps, including facilitating the U.S. surge and confronting Shiite militiamen in Basra, according to former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad. But his rule has proved increasingly divisive.
Maliki's office declined to comment for this story, citing the demands on his time from the war campaign and efforts to choose a new government. Maliki has long blamed his opponents for sabotaging him, and feels let down by Washington.
"There is a bitterness in Maliki's tone when he talks ... about the American role, even what is going on in D.C., with speeches in Congress and Obama's speech," longtime Maliki ally Sami Askari said about his mood in recent weeks. "He ... has no hope. He says we have to rely on ourselves."
To some officials, the painful arc of U.S.-Iraq relations speaks less about one man, Maliki, than it does about the limits of American military and political power to bring democracy or exert decisive influence in the Middle East. After decades of rule by autocrats, often supported by Washington, the region remains riven with rivalries and distrust. Despite the Arab Spring, a generation of politicians like Maliki are skeptical that political compromise can ever be reached or fair elections held.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad from 2010 to 2012, said the American effort to remake Iraq was never realistic or sustained enough to succeed. The Bush administration failed to explain to the U.S. public the scope of the effort needed and the Obama administration frittered away the limited influence it had, he said.
"This all operates on the assumption that we have the skill, the patience, the national interest, and the support from the American people to keep an occupation force in a country and to do long-term nation building a la Japan and Germany in an area that is far less fertile," Jeffrey said. "I challenge the underlying assumption that we could do this."
Robert Ford, who twice served as a senior American diplomat in Baghdad, said Washington was often impatient for Iraqi politicians "to finish their tiresome and long political negotiations." At the same time "you've got to give them time to work out compromises that are sustainable."
Obama, elected in 2008 on a platform to end the war, has visited Iraq just once as president. Having blessed Maliki's continuation in power, he completed Bush's plan to withdraw U.S. troops and quickly refocused attention elsewhere, ending the frequent video conferences Bush held with Maliki and handing the Iraq portfolio to Vice President Joe Biden. The White House declined repeated requests to discuss the U.S. relationship with Maliki.
Maliki, who has visited Washington twice in the last three years, has grown mistrustful of America's inconstancy. "I think he has a very hard time figuring us out, because we do a lot of things that don’t seem consistent to him. I think he finds us very frustrating, and very difficult to read," said Ken Pollack, a former White House and CIA official, and longtime Iraq specialist.
Pollack, who met Maliki in March and later briefed U.S. officials on his trip, said the Iraqi leader appeared obsessed with marginalizing his political opponents after April's national elections. He showed little interest in discussing reconciliation or economic development, Pollack said.
"We were trying as hard as we could to get him to talk about something other than a pogrom against his opponents," said Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution think tank. "He just wouldn't do it, no matter how much bait we gave him."
Maliki is no American creation. He spent years in exile as a member of a secretive Shiite dissident group known as the Dawa, eluding assassins from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party. But Washington did have a hand in the stern-faced 64-year-old premier's final ascent.
In 2006, as a Sunni insurgency raged, Iraq's then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, found himself untrusted by Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni leaders alike, as well as by Washington. Eager to bolster the U.S. public's belief in the war and Iraq's future, Bush officials turned to Maliki as a compromise candidate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Baghdad on a surprise visit and met Maliki and other Iraqi leaders.
At the residence of U.S. ambassador Khalilzad, Maliki told American officials that his first goal would be to ease the mistrust between Iraq's religious groups. "He was regarded as an Arab nationalist," Khalilzad told reporters recently. "He was clean with maybe the potential to be a strong leader."Nouri al-Maliki signs Saddam Hussein's death warrant on Iraqi TV, in 2006. (Reuters/Al Iraqiya)
But Ford, the former diplomat, said the Americans misjudged Maliki. "When we supported Maliki in 2006 to become the new prime minister we didn't realize how capable a politician he could be," Ford said, "and we didn't realize how strong a survivor he could be."
Over time, it became increasingly clear that Maliki viewed the world in stark terms shaped by his own fight against Baathists, whom he compared to the Nazi party in Germany. At the same time, he gradually amassed power in the prime minister's office. Maliki set up operational commands that circumvented the regular military hierarchy, which the United States had insisted include Sunnis and Kurds. In his second term, he took the posts of defense and interior minister for himself and named loyalists to senior military positions as the United States was trying to strengthen Iraq's army.
"Over the years, we didn't strongly react to these moves," Ford said, "as various key elements of the Iraqi body politic grew ever more alienated from Maliki and his team."
By 2009, Maliki had set up an elite army unit that reported directly to his military office and had been accused of abuses. One of the most notorious cases came in 2010 when human-rights inspectors discovered that at least 400 Sunni men had been picked up from Mosul in military sweeps and then held without charges and allegedly tortured in an undeclared facility at a Baghdad military airport base. Maliki said he did not know about the detainees until rights inspectors informed him. He blamed the detentions and abusive conditions on Baathists who had infiltrated his security forces.
Christopher Hill, who served as the American ambassador in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, said the United States did try to push Maliki to end his sectarian rule, but failed. The 2007 "surge" and Sunni Arab uprising against al Qaeda-allied militants weakened the insurgency but did nothing to resolve Iraq's sectarian divisions, Hill said. "Nothing was squared away in 2007."
He recalled how Maliki resisted paying Sunni tribal fighters whose support was crucial to end the worst of the sectarian killing unleashed in 2003. "I had to go to him, sometimes on a weekly basis, just to make sure the check was indeed in the mail," Hill said. "Just looking at his body language, he didn't believe in the whole venture."
Many U.S. and British officials directly involved in the events cite March 2010 as the moment when Iraq began to become unglued again, and U.S. relations with Maliki became more troublesome.
By then, Iraq's sectarian war had eased, and the parliamentary polls that month were both relatively peaceful and fair. Maliki's State of Law coalition came in a very close second behind a largely Sunni slate led by Allawi, a secular Shiite who had acted as interim prime minister. Maliki leaned on Iraq's Supreme Court to produce a ruling that allowed him, not Allawi, to try to form a government, according to these officials. Allawi's bloc had won 91 seats compared to Maliki's 89, and the ruling appeared to violate Iraq's constitution, which U.S. experts had helped to draft.
Sky, the former adviser, said U.S. national-security aides differed on how to respond. Some argued that Washington should back Allawi's right to form a government, strengthening Iraq's political system. "I think if the U.S. had agreed on this approach, it might have led to an agreement among the elites on real power sharing," Sky, now at Yale University, said in an e-mail.A Maliki campaign poster, in 2010 (Al Jazeera/Flickr)
Hill, U.S. ambassador at the time, said the lingering sectarian divide made it impossible for Allawi to become prime minister. After the election, Shiite religious parties that made up a majority in parliament refused to support him. "It wasn’t going to happen," said Hill. "There is absolutely no way we could have affected that short of a 1950s style, Latin American coup."
Allawi could not be reached for comment for this story. And some Western diplomats and military officials criticized the Obama administration for choosing Hill, who had little Middle East experience, as their envoy.
Jeffrey, who took over from Hill as ambassador in August 2010, said that as the process of choosing a prime minister dragged on, U.S. diplomats used every bit of influence they had to try to broker a deal, even as they looked out for an alternative to Maliki. "There was a lot of opposition to him, particularly among the American military, so I was willing to try to delay this thing and see if we could find alternatives," Jeffrey said. "We never found one."
It took almost 10 months, until late December 2010, to finalize a government. U.S. officials worried the continued political vacuum could unleash chaos right in the middle of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Eventually, Sky said, Washington and Iran made it clear Maliki was their choice.
Khedery, the adviser to U.S. ambassadors, said Shiite Iran and the chief of Tehran's covert Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, played a central role in cementing other Shiite leaders' backing for Maliki. Iran pressured a key Shiite group loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who had feuded with Maliki, to support him.
A year later, the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, taking with them much of Washington's remaining clout in the country and leaving behind a flawed leader.
"Not only was this predictable, but it was predicted—it was preventable," Khedery said of Iraq's current catastrophe.
On December 15, 2011, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched as U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's heavily fortified airport lowered the flag of American forces in Iraq, marking the end of Washington's Iraq adventure.
"Challenges remain, but the United States will be there to stand by the Iraqi people," Panetta said at a modest ceremony notable for the absence of Iraq's most senior politicians, who portrayed the withdrawal as a victory for Iraqi sovereignty.
How closely the Obama administration stood by after 2011 to prevent the worsening of Iraq's sectarian divisions is open to debate.
Even as Panetta spoke, government forces had surrounded the home of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni official, suspected by Maliki and other officials of ties to killings and bombings—links he has always denied. Four days later, Iraq's Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for Hashimi. He fled Baghdad for Iraqi Kurdistan and was later sentenced to death in absentia. The U.S. response was muted, partly because Obama administration officials believed allegations against Hashimi's entourage had merit and because not many Sunnis rushed to defend Hashimi, the officials said.
U.S. officials were more troubled by Maliki's move a year later against another of the country's top-ranking Sunnis, popular Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, for alleged ties to militants. In December 2012, government forces detained a number of Issawi's bodyguards, provoking protests in Anbar, Issawi's home province. Issawi resigned in March 2013.
"Issawi was a different story. There was a lot of concern about that. We made our concern well known," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. But the incident barely registered publicly in Washington, where the White House was focused on the worsening conflict in Syria.
The U.S. embassy saw Issawi, a former surgeon, as a moderate Sunni with whom they could do business. Sky said U.S. intelligence officials looked into accusations against Issawi and judged him innocent. In the Issawi case and others, U.S. diplomats sought to stop Maliki and other politicians from inflaming sectarian tensions, the official said. "We've prevented them from doing some things, but some things [we] haven't been able to," he said. "And I think that’s kind of what's led us to where we are today."
Critics say the Obama administration was not bold enough. "We should have been standing up and naming and shaming," Pollack said. "The White House said nothing, or talked out of both sides of its mouth, and came up with all these excuses to do nothing, because in truth they didn't want to do it."
Today, as Obama seeks to push Iraqi political leaders together to repel ISIS, he will have to overcome skepticism from Iraqis who believe the United States has continued to back Maliki even as he sidelined Sunnis and Kurds. The Kurds, whose leader, Barzani, supported Maliki in 2010, feel particularly aggrieved. They now accuse Maliki of walking away from the terms of the deal.
With Iraq facing possible disintegration, former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey said the fundamental problem was born during American occupation: Democracy empowered a Shiite majority that fears its former Sunni rulers.
"We’re all about democracy, that's what we were doing there, and democracy produced this result."
This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.
ASPEN, Colo.—Tattooing, when you think about it, is like smiling: Nearly every culture does it, but not always for the same reason.
In a given society, the motivation for covering oneself in paint, ink, or even scars speaks to what the civilization as a whole holds dear.
Chris Rainier, a photographer for National Geographic and other publications, has traveled the world in search of cultures he describes as having "one foot in the Garden of Eden." (He was also Ansel Adams’s last assistant). Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized jointly by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, he explained how "many cultures around the world believe that the body is a canvas waiting for a story to be told."
From New Zealand's Maori people to Angeleno gangsters, most cultures incorporate some form of tattooing. But "where the skin is too dark to tattoo, there is scarification," Rainier said. When he would visit African societies that practice scarification, and he would ask locals who they thought was the most beautiful woman or the most handsome man, they would inevitably point to the most scarred. (Note: Rainier's images are copyrighted, but you can view them at his website.)The leader of a Turkana cattle kraal shows his traditional scars. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)
Often, body modifications go beyond vanity, reflecting a necessary part of the transition to adulthood. He photographed one group of Papua New Guineans who believe all of mankind originated from crocodiles, and therefore have their young initiates scar their skin to resemble the scales of a reptile.
To varying degrees, the same is true even of cultures that practice less extreme versions of tattooing. As Smithsonian wrote regarding Rainier's work, "In New Guinea, a swirl of tattoos on a Tofi woman’s face indicates her family lineage. The dark scrawls on a Cambodian monk’s chest reflect his religious beliefs. A Los Angeles gang member’s sprawling tattoos describe his street affiliation, and may even reveal if he’s committed murder."
“They say, ‘This is who I am, and what I have done,’” Rainier told the magazine.
But not all tribal signifiers are imbued with such meaning. At Aspen, Rainier showed the audience an image from a warlike culture in West Papua. The men there wear knee-length rattan skirts, from which protrude their yard-long penis sheaths.
"I'm here to tell you those have no utilitarian value whatsoever," Rainier said. "Just think of young men with Porsches and Corvettes."
Which just goes to show, the ways in which we mark our skin may vary widely, but deep down we're all the same.
ASPEN, Colo.—If you were to imagine trying to array the different justifications for the U.S. war in Iraq along a spectrum of idealism to realism, there would be two at the far-idealistic end, whose credibility ended up more damaged than any others' by the war and America's broader involvement in the Middle East post-9/11: humanitarian intervention and the advancement of democracy.
But according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, humanitarian intervention, particularly in Syria, remains at least as tough-minded a proposition as it is a high-minded one. "If you look at Syria," Slaughter said, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, "more than half the population has been displaced. ... The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, as a percentage of the population, is the equivalent of all of Canada moving to the United States. Let's just think what that would mean for our school system, our health system, our infrastructure. ... In a situation where up to a third of the population, or half the population, is destabilized—that is a security concern, as it was in Europe [at the time of the Thirty Years War]."
Marwan Muasher, on the stage with Slaughter, expressed reservations about this framework—or at least about the role he sees it taking on as the U.S. government scopes its foreign policy under circumstances of increasingly acute regional crisis. "I'll give you two kinds of intervention," Muasher said. "You can try to intervene militarily. You've done this before, in Iraq, with 500,000 troops. Did it bring democracy to Iraq today? Obviously not. But you can intervene through other means. For example, encourage the Iraqis to have a political process that is inclusionist. ... That's the kind of intervention that's needed in the region, not the kind of intervention that sends troops ... and sees everything through a narrow security lens to the exclusion of all the other basic problems that are out there in the Middle East."
"Let's stop talking about sending troops," Slaughter said. "Absolutely no one is talking about sending troops into the region. ... It is intellectually dishonest to claim that people who want intervention in Syria want a repeat of Iraq. Iraq was a disaster. Nobody is talking about that."
"I'm all for a political solution," Slaughter said. "I've wanted a political solution from the beginning." Yet "the only time we've seen anything in Syria was when the president suddenly realized that with chemical weapons there we'd better start moving the cruise missiles into place, and we got a deal—and we got all the ISIS people heading for the hills, because they were terrified of our drones."
"So how do we get this political solution—as we ultimately did in the former Yugoslavia, as we did in East Timor, or as we did in World War II?" Slaughter asked. "How do we get to a political solution without a credible use of force? How do we convince any of these guys that they should stop fighting, because the alternative is going to be worse for them? How do we do that?"
Slaughter later came back to the example of World War II, citing accounts from some of the few Western journalists who have managed to get a view inside civil-war Syria. "They say it's the worst thing they've ever seen," Slaughter said. "They say it looks like World War II. We are talking about a government that is using chemical weapons on its own people and dropping barrel bombs on children."
"We didn't bomb the trains [to Auschwitz] in World War II," she continued. "We could have, and it would have made a difference. ... When we have the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of lives, and forcing a political solution in the only way we've ever been able to, which is: You go to the table when you know if you don't, you face the risk of death. If we do not act, we're going to look back and wonder why we didn't."
George Mitchell, also on the stage, countered that if the number of genocidal deaths is the factor the U.S. government should base its decisions about intervention on, "who's heard any American politician or commentator ask that we intervene militarily in the Congo, where five-and-a-half million people have died?"
"Yes," said Slaughter. "And why? Because we didn't intervene in Rwanda, and we're still living with the results of not intervening in Rwanda, which is a civil war in the Congo."
"Do you think we should militarily intervene in the Congo?" Mitchell asked.
"I think, had we intervened in Rwanda—and this is exactly why I'm arguing that we have to intervene now, because this is going to be the Rwanda of our time."
* * *
"My fear," said Marwan Muasher, "and I hope I'm wrong, is that the Obama administration is ending the way the Bush administration did, which is to look at the region from a purely security lens. And that is something that scares me."
It scares Muasher because the modern history of the Middle East is, as he recounts it, a history of artificially induced stability created by authoritarian regimes and sustained by the international community. For Muasher, the Arab Spring and its often-chaotic aftermath are proof that the region's artificial stability was simply not sustainable. "Arguing that we need stability and security at the expense of everything else, when we have already seen that it is not sustainable," he said, "is not a wise option in my view."
"What we need to be looking at, both in the region and as an international community, is how we go from here toward building pluralistic societies—but not to reminisce about the past and say, 'Oh, if only we could go back to stability and security.'"
Muasher points out that while the Middle East's artificial stability was maintained for decades, and while versions of some of the region's abiding conflicts go back centuries, the historical scale of the post-Arab Spring Middle East is still very small. "There is no transformational process in history that unfolded in three years," he said. "None whatsoever—not even close."
If that sounds implicitly hopeful, it is. Muasher believes that despite all the chaos we see now, the Middle East isn't condemned to a terrible future. Of course, it isn't guaranteed any good futures, either. But just as there's always been an unsustainable logic to the artificial stability of Arab strongmen, there's also an unsustainable logic to the alternative promise of political Islam. "We have seen very clearly with 50 or 60 years of exclusion of Islamist forces by Arab regimes that it has resulted in strengthening them beyond reason," Muasher said. "And in them promising people everything under the sun without putting their promises to the test. In two short years after they came to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists lost more support than 50 years of exclusion by Arab governments have been able to do to them. So today 'Islam is the solution' means far less as a slogan than it meant three years ago."
"But this means we cannot have just convenient, short, easy answers," Muasher said. "We will have to go through a process of transformation. And those who will win are those who are able to roll up their sleeves and work on the ground and not pontificate, frankly, from behind podiums."
So much for that hypothetical idealism-realism policy spectrum, then. While for Slaughter, humanitarian intervention can be a vital security agenda, for Muasher, the advancement of democracy is the ultimate security agenda. His objection to the "narrow security lens" he fears the U.S. government is now using in the Middle East isn't, after all, that it's a security lens; it's that it's a bad one for seeing any real distance into the future.Same street as above on May 7, 2014. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty, via Alan Taylor)
Frozen, the Disney cartoon-musical that swept the US in late 2013 and early 2014, only arrived in Japan in mid-March. And since then, it’s completely taken over the country. It’s the No. 1 movie in Japanese box offices for the 15th straight week. Among its other accolades in Japan (where it was released under the name Ana and the Snow Queen):
- The movie’s made $231.8 million in Japan so far, more than any movie in Japan’s history except Spirited Away in 2001 and Titanic in 1997—and it’s within striking distance of the latter.
- It blew past Avatar in early May to become the most successful 3D film in Japan ever.
- The soundtrack’s done solid business as well, topping Billboard Japan’s “Top Albums” rankings for Nov. 2013-Jun. 2014 (link in Japanese).
- Japan’s Frozen box-office receipts have contributed 19% of worldwide earnings, second in the world behind the US’s 32%, even though Japan has less than half the population of the US.
So, what’s behind Japan’s Frozen craze?
Undoubtedly, Japanese audiences are responding to the same qualities that have turned Frozen into a global phenomenon. Not only is the music catchy, but the story is morally nuanced enough that adults seem to enjoy it as well as children. And then there’s the fact that Frozen revolves around the relationship between strong, commanding female characters who defy the “Disney princess” stereotype (even though they technically are monarchs).
That latter point is what makes Frozen‘s unexpected popularity—particularly among Japanese women—so striking.
The story centers on the closeness between two sisters—Elsa, the older sister and queen, and her younger sister Anna. Unlike typical princess movies, Disney or otherwise, romance isn’t a big focus; in fact, the “handsome prince” ends up being a villain. And far from being a spunky but ultimately passive heroine like Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle or Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine, Elsa is genuinely powerful. Not only is she queen, but she has the magic ability to turn things into ice—a magical power that in other Disney movies signals “evil” (think Maleficent or Ursula).
But Elsa’s superpower is a mere distraction; chip away all that fanciful frost and it turns out the movie’s mainly about her struggle to be an effective ruler while gaining control over her power and still caring for her sister—"having it all," as some might term it. And it’s clearly no cakewalk. Elsa delivers the show-stopping number “Let It Go” as she (fairly irresponsibly) ditches her queenly duties for a life of self-imposed exile in an ice-castle of her creation.
A “screw ‘em all” tirade against social expectations, “Let It Go” sees Elsa’s embrace the weird power that makes her different from everyone else, rejecting the shame her parents had made her feel about it. It’s not really her finest moment—while she’s traipsing all over glaciers, her kingdom is in a state of deep-freeze. But it’s also necessary: an instant of brazen self-acceptance that will soften into confidence. And people love it; “Let It Go” has become an anthem for the oppressed of all stripes, as this New Yorker article explains.
This is all pretty un-Disney, and the company seems to know it. Disney marketed Frozen in the US and Europe by playing up Olaf the Snowman—and omitting the whole musical thing—likely in a bid to appeal to boys, knowing that girls would see it regardless. Here’s the US trailer:
That’s unsurprising given how much better more masculine, action-themed movies tend to do:
But Disney took a totally different tack in Japan, highlighting the girl-power themes in its promotions, says Tami Ihara, head marketing director at Disney (Japan).
“Unlike in the United States and other nations, we deviated from the strategy of catering to families and specifically targeted Japanese women,” Ihara told the Japan Times (paywall), “who have the power to spur consumption and create a fad.”
It’s an intriguing ploy. After all, Japan’s not exactly the land of female empowerment. On the contrary, in fact. Even though Japanese girls are among the best-educated in the world (paywall), women earn 30% less than their male counterparts. Female labor force participation is 63%, much lower than in other rich countries, and when women leave the workforce, the difficulty of affording childcare and finding a job after a few years off mean they seldom return.
And while strong female leaders may be dominating Japanese silver screens at the moment, they tend to fare less well in its boardrooms. All this is threatening to wreck Japan’s economy. In a bid to boost growth—more working women could increase Japan’s output by 15%—prime minister Shinzo Abe just launched a campaign to close the gender gap, including the goal of upping the percentage of female managers in Japan’s central government from the current 3% to 30% by 2020.
This fact is now highlighted by the other media sensation gripping the country right now—this one involving the sort of nasty, unrepentant sexism that Japanese workplaces are notorious for. Specifically, while a 35-year-old female politician Ayaka Shiomura gave a speech on the floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on Jun. 19, a slew of male members of prime minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party heckled her (paywall), yelling things like “Why don’t you hurry up and get married?” and “Can’t you bear a child?” to rumbles of laughter from other men, persisting even as Shiomura appeared visibly distressed.After denying involvement on national TV, Tokyo city assembly politician Akihiro Suzuki finally apologized to Ayaka Shiomura for yelling that she should “hurry up and get married” while she delivered a speech. (Reuters/Kyodo) The public wants the hecklers to come forward (one finally has, five days after the incident). Both the outrage and the timing of this LDP boorishness are remarkable. The fact that Abe’s men are behaving badly just as the PM rolled out his “Womenomics” plan to encourage women to join the workforce—complete with a corny, mildly offensive website encouraging women to “Shine!“— hints just how far Japan has to go before its male leaders get a clue. Shinzo Abe’s new women-empowerment blog (screenshot of ameblo.jp/kagayaku-josei-blo)
Given what happened to Shiomura, it seems fitting that while Abe’s trying to convince women that he and his party leaders want them to “shine!”—whatever that means—Japanese women are busy booking out karaoke parlors to sing “Let It Go” (one of the three different versions released in Japan—or, more likely, all of them).
“In particular, ‘Let It Go’ has struck a chord in Japanese people’s hearts and emerged as a cheer-up song for women,” Akio Doteuchi, a researchers at NLI Research Institute, told the Japan Times.
But while it’s inviting to read Japanese women’s love of Frozen as a sign of the country’s budding feminism, its popularity might have more to do with the music. Disney’s choice of Japanese starlets Takako Matsu and Sayaka Kanda to play Elsa and Anna, respectively, in the Japanese dubbed versions was a masterstroke. Praise seems pretty universal: Japanese women love Takako and Sayaka’s voices. Even among women who didn’t like or bother to see Frozen, the songs sung by both women are huge hits, dominating karaoke playlists.
It may well be that Matsu’s mezzo is the main driver of Frozen‘s $235.8 million in ticket sales, and not newly empowered females. It’s hard to tell. But though Disney’s Japan marketing was clearly clever, it wouldn’t have made sense without having two commanding female lead characters (and casting those roles well). In both those strategies, though, Shinzo Abe and his LDP have a lot to learn—but particularly the latter. In July’s parliamentary election, the LDP is fielding nine female candidates out of 79, roughly 11%. Hardly a party for the Frozen era. After all, if there’s one thing the film’s success has shown it’s that when it comes to starring roles, Japanese women like hearing their own voices.
Like a zombie, Sami—one of my fifth graders—lumbered over to me and hissed, “I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule.” And I believed him. An angry red rash was starting to form on his forehead.
Yikes, I thought. What a way to begin my first year of teaching in Finland. It was only the third day of school and I was already pushing a student to the breaking point. When I took him aside, I quickly discovered why he was so upset.
Throughout this first week of school, I had gotten creative with my fifth grade timetable. Normally, students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.
I didn’t see the point of these frequent pit stops. As a teacher in the United States, I’d spent several consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time. So I decided to hold my students back from their regularly scheduled break and teach two 45-minute lessons in a row, followed by a double break of 30 minutes. Now I knew why the red dots had appeared on Sami’s forehead.
Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if the American approach had ever worked very well. My students in the States had always seemed to drag their feet after about 45 minutes in the classroom. But they’d never thought of revolting like this shrimpy Finnish fifth grader, who was digging in his heels on the third day of school. At that moment, I decided to embrace the Finnish model of taking breaks.
Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.
At first, I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years; they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.
In my quest to understand the value of the Finnish practice, I stumbled upon the work of Anthony Pellegrini—author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised this approach for more than a decade. In East Asia—where most primary schools give their students a 10-minute break after 40 minutes or so of classroom instruction—Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon that I had witnessed at my Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom.
Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.
In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside—rain or shine—for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times. Usually, teachers in Finland take turns—two at a time—supervising the playground during these 15-minute stints.
Although I favor the Finnish model, I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at the public elementary school, students had their recess times inside the school and the results matched those of other experiments where students took their breaks outside: After their breaks, the children were more attentive in class.
What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pellegrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.
As a teacher, I’m always trying to improve my classroom through experimentation. What I realized in Finland, with the help of a flustered fifth grader, is that once I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction. Pellegrini’s findings confirm that frequent breaks boost attentiveness in class. With this in mind, we no longer need to fear that students won’t learn what they need to learn if we let them disconnect from their work for 10 or 15-minute periods, several times throughout the school day. And let’s be honest here, we teachers benefit from these breaks, too.