Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Leyla Zana, a Kurd

The history of the Kurdish people is one of blood, constant warfare, and manipulation. The Kurds are the most numerous remaining group of people who do not have a nation to call their own. Their homeland has been ruthlessly divided between countries that continue to deny their very existence. All together, an estimated twenty-three million Kurds are scattered among a remote and mostly mountainous region in the Middle East that spans the frontiers of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Ever since the early days of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s, the Kurds were given few rights and were not acknowledged as a separate group. With more than a quarter of the Kurdish population residing in Turkey, Kurds comprise one fifth of the Turkish population. Up until the first World War, the Kurds were a pastoral people who by tradition herded animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. They migrated from one area to another depending on the season, and lived simple lives that revolved around the animals they herded.

In modern days, the Kurds speak languages related to the Farsi language of the Persians. The languages they speak vary in different regions; some major dialects are Kurmanji, Zaza, and Sorani. Sometimes a Kurd from one area cannot understand the language of a Kurd from a different area, a fact which other countries use to dispute the Kurds' capability of forming a free nation. Most Kurds belong to the Sunni sect of the Muslim religion, while others belong to the Alevite sect. The Kurds have their own traditions and culture. Despite their many attempts to gain independence, a united Kurdish nation has never actually existed.

Origin of the Kurds

Looking back into history, the mystery of Kurdish origin is quite disconcerting. The Kurdish people themselves have often pondered the question of where they came from, and why they are in their present situation. The unceasing rebellions of various Kurdish groups for an independent Kurdistan, or “Land of the Kurds,” have often made the Kurds contemplate their own identity. Some consider themselves the descendants of Noah, who after the great flood supposedly landed on Mount Ararat, where Turkey, Armenia, and Iran meet, while others think of themselves as the offspring of the Medes. However, modern researchers have found that the Kurds are actually related to the Gutii, or Karducoi, a fierce band of warriors who dwelled in the mountains overlooking Assyria more than 2000 years ago. As a tribal group, the Kurds were frequently forced to submit to the will of the central ruling government in their region, ranging from the Persians to the Macedonians to the Arabs. After the influx of Turkish tribes into Asia Minor in 11th century B.C., the Kurds again found themselves faced with a group of rulers who would shape their future.


"Ataturk let people speak their own language, then after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, everything changed. From then on, the Kurds couldn't talk about their identity. President Demirel still hasn't given us Kurdish education or television or cultural rights. What kind of admission of our existence is that? War achieves nothing. The Kurdish people have rebelled 28 times but each time they didn’t achieve anything. But the PKK are our people, our children. They don’t come from outer space. If Turkey gives us more rights, maybe the violence will stop. These rights won’t be for the PKK, but for the Kurdish people. If the Turkish Government introduces some rights for the Kurds, this problem can be solved through politics, not in the mountains. I would like to live with Turkish people on equal terms. If we Kurds had this, I don’t know what I would say about an independent state.”

The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918 at the end of World War I, and several nations were formed from former Ottoman lands, one of which should have been a nation called Kurdistan. Two years later, the Treaty of Sèvres was created by the European Allies, promising the Kurds an autonomous nation. However, Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s first president, refused this proposition. Kemal, often referred to as Atatürk, or “Father of the Turks,” emphasized the need for national unity. In July of 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne came into effect; it failed to mention the approximately 20 million Kurds whose homelands were split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The treaty did state that “all citizens of Turkey should be equal before the law ‘without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race, or religion.” Despite this promising start, Atatürk carried out a ruthless crusade to forcably assimilate the Kurdish minority into the general population, forbidding Kurdish media, education, and culture.

Partia Karkaran-e Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or Partia Karkaran-e Kurdistan, was founded on November 7th, 1978, by Abdullah Öcalan and twelve of his fellow students. Öcalan is often called the ‘apo’, meaning uncle. His humble Kurdish beginnings did not limit this man's ambition. He was educated at Ankara University, and after he was arrested for handing out pro-Kurdish leaflets in 1971, he came out of jail calling himself a "professional revolutionary." He strongly believed in the Marxist-Leninist doctrines and eventually became a Maoist, advocating an uprising of the common people, or in this case, the Kurds. The PKK's enthusiastic young founders viewed themselves as progressive representatives of the Kurdish minority, with the sole intention of establishing a 'democratic and united Kurdistan.'

Unfortunately, frustrated by their initial attempts to realize their bright ideals, the newly disbanded PKK turned to terrorism. In their zeal, these PKK participants first targeted the landlords and leaders of tribes ‘representing the chauvinist class.’ After much bloody combat and controversy, the Turkish government and army started to take seriously the threats from this insurgent group of separatists. Soon after, a ban on speaking Kurdish was initiated, adding to the already existing bans on Kurdish radio programs, Kurdish newspapers, as well as teaching in Kurdish. Starting in the early 1980s, PKK guerrillas began to raid and spread fear among the border towns of Turkey. The PKK leader Öcalan directed his war against Turkey from Syria and Lebanon, countries happy to use the PKK to agitate their Turkish neighbors. According to Jonathan Rugman and Roger Hutchings, the authors of Atatürk's Children, "Turkey is unfortunate in being surrounded by countries which, largely because of the colonial Ottoman past, dislike Turks and want to keep Turkey's regional power in check."

In the early 1990s, the PKK changed its tactics, attacking urban areas rather than rural communities. With more than 1500 armed guerillas, the PKK in northern Iraq struck Baghdad, after the defeat of President Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, but this effort to gain control proved futile. Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish government officials in 1999; he then declared a 'peace initiative' in order to increase the odds of his release, renaming the PKK the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK). Öcalan claimed that this new organization was focused on promoting Kurdish rights through acts of nonviolence.

The conflict between Turks and Kurds still exists as a major problem in the unity of Turkey. In 2002, Turkey was refused entrance into the European Union largely on account of past human rights records, and EU officials demanded the unconditional release of the Kurdish MPs arrested in 1994, including Leyla Zana. In early 2004, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met American president George Bush in Washington D.C., to discuss Turkey's potential admission into the European Union.

(Civilized) Mass Murder Witness

It seems almost improper to suggest that fortune was smiling on Tsutomu Yamaguchi in the dying days of the second world.

On 6 August 1945, he was in Hiroshima, preparing to return home from a business trip when the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the city. Yamaguchi lived, while 140,000 other people who were in the city that morning died, some in an agonising instant, others many months later.

Burned and barely able to comprehend what had happened - only that he had witnessed a bomb unlike any used before - Yamaguchi spent a fitful night in an air raid shelter before returning home the following day.

That home, 180 miles to the west, was Nagasaki. His arrival came the day before it was devastated by a second US atomic bomb on 9 August.

In a barely conceivable course of events, he had twice been perilously close to nuclear ground zero; and both times he had lived. More than 70,000 other residents of Nagasaki were not so lucky.

More than 60 years later, the 93-year-old became the first and only known survivor of both attacks yesterday to win official recognition from Japanese authorities.

While other survivors died prematurely from cancer and liver disease caused by their exposure to radiation, Yamaguchi remains in relatively good health apart from near-deafness in one ear and complaints that his legs are "growing weak".

Japanese records show dozens of people experienced the blast in Hiroshima only to be exposed to "residual radiation" in Nagasaki three days later. But Yamaguchi is the first to have been at ground zero when both explosions occurred.

According to a newspaper interview Yamaguchi gave on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific war, he had spent the conflict designing oil tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a wartime zaibatsu, or conglomerate, whose shipyards dominated the Nagasaki skyline.

After a three-month stint at the firm's yards in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and two colleagues, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato, prepared to return to Nagasaki on 7 August, 1945. The day before, they woke early, collected their belongings and prepared for the train journey west.

On the way to the station they became separated after Yamaguchi realised he had left his personal seal in the office.

He remembers hearing the Enola Gay circling above, but thought nothing of it: Hiroshima was an important wartime industrial base, and the sound of circling planes had become a fact of life.

Within seconds he had been knocked to his feet by the force of the blast as "Little Boy" detonated 580 metres above central Hiroshima just after 8.15 am, announcing its arrival with a blinding flash followed by a deafening boom. As he stumbled to the train station the next day, Yamaguchi witnessed the destruction and carnage left by the bomber's 13-kiloton payload.

The following day, his burns swathed in bandages, Yamaguchi reported for work in Nagasaki, like Hiroshima an important industrial and military base.

At 11.02 on 9 August, as his boss reportedly questioned his sanity for believing that a single bomb could destroy a city the size of Hiroshima, a 25-kiloton plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki, throwing Yamaguchi to the ground.

He, his wife and baby son survived and spent the following week in a shelter near what was left of their home. His son has since died of cancer aged 59.

After the war Yamaguchi worked for the US occupation authorities, became a teacher and eventually returned to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Yamaguchi was quoted yesterday by the Mainichi newspaper. "My double radiation exposure is now an official government record. It can tell the younger generation the horrifying history of the atomic bombings even after I die," he said.

As a registered survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, Yamaguchi has owned a pale violet copy of the Atomic Bomb Victim Health Handbook since 1957, entitling him to monthly allowances, free medical checkups and funeral costs. More than 260,000 others are similarly covered.

Yamaguchi's handbook confirmed he was within a three-kilometre radius of ground zero in both cities, but the reference to Hiroshima was deleted when he renewed it at Nagasaki city hall in 1960.

Officials refused to recognise Yamaguchi's special status because, they said, it would not affect his medical and welfare entitlements, but relented after he filed another request earlier this year.

"As far as we know, he is the first one to be officially recognised as a survivor of atomic bombings," Toshiro Miyamoto, a Nagasaki city official, told the Associated Press. "It's such an unfortunate case, but it is possible there are more like him."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Quote Of The Day

"You can resist an invading army; you can not resist an idea whose time has come"


Friday, March 20, 2009

More Divided Countries

Mr Hecht did some overlay work, and came up with this remarkable fit: “The divide between the (more free-market) PO and the (more populist) PiS almost exactly follows the old border between Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia, as it ran through Poland! How about that for a long-lasting cultural heritage?!?” How about: amazing, bordering on the unbelievable?


Listening to Birds

That’s where I heard the cuckoo the last time, in Käsmu. I haven’t heard one since.

estonia350.jpgThis was in the forests of Estonia, in May of 2004. We were on a walk in the mountains, a group of writers, and we heard it right there, in the depths of that dark forest, singing its heart out.

We were taking part in a writers’ retreat in a small village called Käsmu. Käsmu, a village by the side of the Baltic, is truly small, with no more than a dozen houses and some three hundred inhabitants.

We walked through the mountains and then went to a supper in a building alongside the beach. We had to dine by daylight, since it was the end of May and, at that time of year, nighttime in Estonia lasts only three or four hours.

That building, that house by the beach, was beautiful. It was very likely the largest house in the village. Wide stretches of wood-framed windows. The doors and the window frames painted white. The walls light blue. In the front dooryard a flower garden, well kept, and on the beach the hull of an old rowing scull.

The building had been the coastguard’s during Soviet times, and before that, a school for sea captains. Now several married couples lived there. Inside, they’d set up something like a museum, with old sea gear and navigation instruments. There were old photographs, too, hung on the walls. In these photos were the captains, elegant in their uniforms. When I looked at the portraits closely, the head of the household murmured by my ear: “They’re Germans.” He went on, “In the days of the czar, most Russian naval officers were German.” A great number of state posts were in German hands at the time, and most scientists, too, came from Germany. “That, until the revolution arrived,” he explained, with a sad look.

The doors and the window frames painted white. The walls light blue. In the front dooryard a flower garden, well kept, and on the beach the hull of an old rowing scull.

The man talked about the business of the captains and the revolution as we were on our way to the village graveyard. “Outsiders think there was a socialist revolution also in our village,” he said, “ but it was actually nothing but the Russian conquest.” Dissidents had gone to take refuge in the dark forests. Some of them spent years and years living in these forests, not ever coming out. He plucked a sprig of green from the roadside then, gave it to me to taste, remarking that it was edible.

The small Käsmu graveyard is one of those graveyards that turn up on seacoasts. The church is wooden, painted white, and the gravestones are inside a wooden fence. The most tremendous discovery I made in the days I spent in Käsmu was made in that very graveyard. There I happened on something I had never seen before.

The man told us to look at the names on the gravestones, the names of married couples:

“Hasso Liive (1935-1999).
Ilvi Liive (1938-blank)”

I wrote these two down in my notebook.

It wasn’t strange that the husband and wife had been lain together. What struck me as odd was that when one spouse died and was buried, the name of the other spouse was written on the stone as well. So the one who was still alive, when she went every day to visit the cemetery, would see her own name etched into the gravestone. Alive but written down. She knew where she would end her days, and by whose side.

The Estonians believe that if people are interred together, they will be together in the next life, too. That’s how the man from the coast guard house recounted it to us. And while we were there, the Estonian poet Doris Kareva told us an old story. She’d been reminded of it by the gravestones.

It was actually the story of her friend’s grandmother. How when she was young, she had fallen in love with a boy. They did fall in love, but life didn’t want them to be together. One had to go off one way and the other another. The boy had to leave the village. And so it was that they met other people, and even married these other people, and had children. But in their secret hearts, their love for each other went on living. And that love stayed alive, year in and year out. At some point, the man returned to the village. And in that small village, they met up with each other, but each one’s life was running on a different path. It was too late to get back together again. And so they went on like that until one of them, the man, died.

They had once made a promise to each other that though they couldn’t be together in life, they would be together after death, forever. At long last, the woman managed to get her own grave site placed next to the man’s. Their people would have buried each with his or her own spouse, but instead they would get to rest alongside each other for eternity, close enough to shake hands.

The one who was still alive, when she went every day to visit the cemetery, would see her own name etched into the gravestone. Alive but written down. She knew where she would end her days.

Doris found that woman’s love story sublime. The woman was brave, it seemed to her, and love, in the end, won. But the Welsh writer Meredid Puw Davies did not agree. Meredid, a poet several years younger than Doris, didn’t want to accept that the couple could not be together in life but only in death.

It struck Meredid as horrible that they’d had to write their names on the gravestones to be together—horrible that the friend’s grandmother had suffered without the love of her life while she was alive. Is there no way to change direction while we are alive and breathing? Do we truly have no chance to begin another life until we die?

I sat by Meredid during supper. Before the meal, each poet was supposed to read a poem, and that’s what we did, each in our own language. Doris went last:

Woman is water,
Water — clean and eternal.

Men are but salt and pepper
in this night’s soup.

After supper, Meredid returned to the subject of the gravestones yet again: Why should we always be hoeing the same row, why believe things can be done in only one way? Literature, too, should forge new paths, just as our cultures must become renewed. The ways of doing things renewed. To adapt to the times. Our mediums have changed, she said. Nowadays, it’s not just books. There are new technologies. And who is on the receiving end has changed as well—now we don’t write solely for our own community, but for the whole world. The world is smaller. The people of Tallinn would be hearing us read on Saturday. And just a few years ago, such a thing was impossible.

“I’ve been listening to birds in the forests here for forty years. And myself, though I didn’t understand your poetry word for word tonight, I know what you were meaning to tell me.”

I told Meredid I agreed with her and went on to say, I write to a reader in Basque, that’s the language I write in, but I’m writing to the world. And by the same token, it’s the only way I have, Basque, to write to the world in.

“Anyhow,” she said, “I suspect that we don’t believe in ourselves as much as we ought to. Our energies are too scattered. Let me tell you what happened during the war in the Malvinas. The Argentines took the Malvinas, and the navy of the United Kingdom went off to liberate them. It happened there were Welsh-speaking people in both navies. On one side were people who had gone out from Wales, under the Queen. And on the other side were Welshmen at the defense of the dictator of Argentina. A great many Welsh people live in Argentina; in some parts only Welsh is spoken. They fought against each other. On both sides, you heard the same language. It does seem we are still stuck in that war.”

He broke in on what Meredid was saying: an older man who’d eaten supper with us. He took up a spoon and tapped it against a drinking glass, asking for silence. He introduced himself: “Good evening. I’m Fred, and I’d like for you all to listen to something.” He put a CD in the sound system—bird songs, twitter-twitter-twitter, the birds.

“How many kinds of birds do you think are in there?” he asked us afterward. “One or two,” someone answered. “Three or four,” said someone else. “Nope,” Fred said. “There are twenty kinds of song there, twenty different birds singing simultaneously.” And he likened the birds to the reading we’d done that night. “Hearing you, it sounded as if you were birds singing. I’ve been listening to birds in the forests here for forty years. I haven’t always understood their song, but I’ve known what they were feeling. I know when they are cold or hungry, I know when they are sick with some disease, or in love. And myself, though I didn’t understand your poetry word for word tonight, I know what you were meaning to tell me. But nevertheless you yourselves, you’re incapable of distinguishing the songs of this number of birds. You heard only the ones on top, only the loudest.”

I went outside. It was the small hours of the morning, but still the sky hadn’t gone entirely dark. You could see a reddish line on the horizon, like the eye of a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep. Fred came up and he too stood and examined the sky. Without taking my eyes from the horizon, I told him that what he’d said about the birds had been beautiful. It had taught us a lesson.

“That was no lesson,” the naturalist said. “Half the world hasn’t heard one word about the other half,” he went on, looking off to the edge of the horizon. “I’ve spent forty years of my life listening to birds, I know everything there is to know about bird song. But I can’t sing myself. I’ve never in my life written a line. I wanted to be a poet, but I’ve never been able to write a word.”

With that, he turned to me, looked at me closely, and said: “Fear kept me from it.”

I heard the cuckoo the last time in the forests of Estonia. It’s our old folk belief that if you have coins in your pocket when you hear the first cuckoo, you’ll have money for the entire coming year.

I didn’t have a single coin in my pocket at the time, but I did come back from that place with my trousers full of poems.

by Kirmen Uribe translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Looking Up...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Run To Japan! (or Sweden)

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens' incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks' holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we'd trust each other more.

The Spirit Level : Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Allen Lane

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don't soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet's resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years' standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable "low" end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable "high" end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world's richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence - murder, in particular - that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality - within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.

The graphs also reveal that it is not just the poor, but whole societies, from top to bottom, that are adversely affected by inequality. Although the UK fares badly when compared with most other OECD countries (and is the worst developed nation in which to be a child according to both Unicef and the Good Childhood Inquiry), its social problems are not as pronounced as in the US.

Rates of illness are lower for English people of all classes than for Americans, but working-age Swedish men fare better still. Diabetes affects twice as many American as English people, whether they have a high or a low level of education. Wherever you look, evidence favouring greater equality piles up. As the authors write, "the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance".

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of reading this book is the revelation that the way we live in Britain is a serious danger to our mental health. Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

Wilkinson and Pickett's description of unequal societies as "dysfunctional" suggests implicit criticism of the approach taken by Britain's "happiness tsar" Richard Layard, who recommended that the poor mental health of many Britons be "fixed" or improved by making cognitive behavioural therapy more easily available. Consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all follow from inequality, they argue, and so cannot rightly be made a matter of individual management.

There's an almost pleading quality to some of Wilkinson and Pickett's assertions, as though they feel they've spent their careers banging their heads against a brick wall. It's impossible to overstate the implications of their thesis: that the societies of Britain and the US have institutionalised economic and social inequality to the extent that, at any one time, a quarter of their respective populations are mentally ill. What kind of "growth" is that, other than a malignant one?

One question that comes to mind is whether the world's most equal developed nations, Japan and Sweden, make sufficient allowance for individuals to express themselves without being regarded as a threat to the health of the collective. Critics of the two societies would argue that both make it intensely difficult for individual citizens to protest against the conformity both produced by, and required to sustain, equality. The inclination to dismiss or neuter individuals' complaints may, Wilkinson and Pickett suggest, go some way towards explaining the higher suicide rates in both countries compared with their more unequal counterparts. Those who feel wrong, or whose lives go wrong, may feel as though they really do have no one to blame but themselves.

What Japan and Sweden do show is that equality is a matter of political will. There are belated signs - shown in the recent establishment of a National Equalities Panel and in Trevor Phillips's public pronouncements on the central place of class in the landscape of British inequality - that Labour recognises that its relaxed attitude to people "getting filthy rich" has come back to bite it on the rear.

Twelve years in power is long enough to reverse all the trends towards greater social and economic stratification that have occurred since 1970; instead they have continued on their merry way towards segregation. Teenage pregnancy rates have begun to rise after a period of decline; there is a 30-year gap in male life expectancy between central Glasgow and parts of southern England; and child poverty won't be halved by next year after all (though it wouldn't make as much difference as making their parents more equal).

There are times when the book feels rather too overwhelmingly grim. Even if you allow for the fact that it was written before Barack Obama won the US presidency on a premise of trust and optimism, its opening pages are depressing enough to make you want to shut it fast: "We find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, driven to consume and with little or no community life." Taking the statistics broadly, they may be correct, but many readers simply won't feel like that.

However, the book does end on an optimistic note, with a transformative, rather than revolutionary, programme for making sick societies more healthy. A society in which all citizens feel free to look each other in the eye can only come into being once those in the lower echelons feel more valued than at present. The authors argue that removal of economic impediments to feeling valued - such as low wages, low benefits and low public spending on education, for instance - will allow a flourishing of human potential.

There is a growing inventory of serious, compellingly argued books detailing the social destruction wrought by inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett have produced a companion to recent bestsellers such as Oliver James's Affluenza and Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety . But The Spirit Level also contributes to a longer view, sitting alongside Richard Sennett's 2003 book Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality , and the epidemiologist Michael Marmot's Status Syndrome , from 2005.

Anyone who believes that society is the result of what we do, rather than who we are, should read these books; they should start with The Spirit Level because of its inarguable battery of evidence, and because its conclusion is simple: we do better when we're equal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

The European Vaccine

The European Union is one reason not to fear the spectre of the 1930s

A WHIFF of cold-war menace hung over the European Union summit on March 1st. A “new iron curtain” threatens to divide rich western Europe from the east, declared Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungary’s prime minister, as he pleaded for a €180 billion rescue plan for the countries of central and eastern Europe. Mr Gyurcsany had a second plea: for eastern countries to secure early membership of the single currency. Neither idea found favour.

Germany’s Angela Merkel said aid should be given on a “case by case” basis, as eastern countries had “very different” needs. As for speeding up euro membership, she thought not, though newcomers might get faster entry into a scheme to peg currencies to the euro. The Poles, Slovaks and Czechs were also hostile to the Hungarian plan. Their economies are in better shape than debt-laden Hungary or credit-crunched Latvia, and they fear contagion from the belief that eastern Europe is uniformly troubled.

But there is another reason why Mr Gyurcsany’s cold-war rhetoric failed to resonate: another period, the 1930s, haunts Europe even more. This year violent anti-government protests in Greece, Latvia, Bulgaria and Lithuania have spooked leaders across the EU. The European elections are in June. This time, extremists on right and left may do well—including in Hungary, home to some of Europe’s least savoury political groups. Could 1930s economics lead Europe back to 1930s politics?

There are reasons to hope that liberal, multiparty democracy is in pretty good shape across the EU. For a start, everybody knows how the 1930s ended. Europe then was a more dangerous place: its poorest citizens were starving and welfare safety-nets were non-existent or inadequate. At times, Italians in Sardinia ate wild plants to survive. In Denmark unemployment topped 40%, and the government bought surplus cattle from desperate farmers. In 1933 almost-two thirds of Greek public spending went on servicing foreign debts, before the country defaulted. Equally, the first world war had left Europe with much unfinished business. Despite hyperinflation and punitive bills for reparations, Germany remained a big power, yearning to redraw its borders. Austria and Hungary were wounded ex-giants. Italy dreamt of controlling the Adriatic. The Soviet Union’s rise sparked instability as far away as Spain.

Yet for all the differences, intriguing echoes from the 1930s can still be heard. It is not that bits of Europe are flirting with fascism again. It is rather that the same issues irk voters then as now—and politicians are responding to them in similar ways. Today’s German and French governments talk loudly about clamping down on tax havens: this is a highly visible way to seek extra revenue and punish errant plutocrats. Almost 80 years ago, an identical outrage gripped Europe, when French police in 1932 raided the Paris offices of a Swiss bank for customer records, coming away with the names of French members of parliament, newspaper editors and a brace of bishops. (In a nice irony, the raid persuaded livid Swiss authorities to enshrine banking secrecy in law.)

Before the depression, France also had one of Europe’s most open labour markets, home to millions of Poles, Czechs, Belgians, Italians, Spaniards and Swiss, plus impressive numbers of political refugees. But between 1932 and 1935, a string of laws and decrees set quotas on foreign workers and stopped them moving from job to job. Tens of thousands, mostly Poles, were eventually expelled by force. The middle classes also protected themselves: new laws closed the French medical and legal professions to foreign-born graduates, often Jewish refugees.

Today British tabloids rage about jobs for migrants, seizing on Gordon Brown’s infamous phrase about creating “British jobs for British workers”. Spain, which welcomed immigrants in boom times, is offering unemployed foreigners money to go home. Italy’s Northern League wants a freeze on non-EU immigration and last year pushed for the expulsion of EU migrants without adequate means of support, a measure aimed at Roma, or gypsies, from Romania. The expulsion plan was dropped only because it fell foul of an EU directive on freedom of movement.

And therein lies the biggest reason to think that the 1930s will not be repeated. EU membership binds national politicians into a set of essentially liberal, free-trading, internationalist standards.

It is true that competition rules and the freedoms of the single market are being sorely tested, as politicians try to steer rescue funds to domestic companies, banks and workers. But among EU leaders there is a consensus on the need to defend “fundamental rights”. The EU can be expected to block blatantly discriminatory laws on housing, employment or schools. No hothead nationalist can close borders to a neighbour’s goods.

Governments can be taken to court or threatened with suspension. But the EU also operates by peer pressure. This can be pompous and ineffective, as in 2000, when European leaders shunned high-level contacts with Austrian politicians because Jörg Haider, a far-right politician, had joined the ruling coalition. That boycott fell apart when Austria’s government was found to be sticking to mainstream policies. Or it can be brutal and effective: in 1998 the EU warned Slovaks not to re-elect Vladimir Meciar, a nasty nationalist, if they wanted to join the club.

Bad things could happen as this crisis deepens. In one nightmare, a fragile EU member could become a failed state. But the EU stands for international solidarity and interdependence. Its maddening complexity amounts to a permanent compromise between competing interests that also makes it a bulwark against extremism. That may not always make Brussels popular with voters. But it does make one thankful that the EU exists.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

To Our Beloved Dog

Bro brought you 16 years ago already... you were just a ball of black fur with two amazing blue eyes. I know that some people offered money for you when bro was just killing time for the bus home. I also remember how mum told bro off saying she didn´t want any dog at home but then she was the one who was always there looking after you and tonight she is the one who is crying because tomorrow your elderly suffering will stop. I remember my best times with you on the local beach, throwing the stick, walking looking the waves or just sitting on the sand. I remember thinking how silly people were for crying for pets. Tonight I am crying, and bro is crying and mum is crying. And my thoughts are just with you my beloved friend who just happened to be from another specie. I missed you every single day all those years. You are up there, in the same picture with dad.


As I sit in those moments of quiet,
When sadness invades me,
I know that yesterday,
You were here.

Now you are away from us,
Not knowing your future,
Or when you'll come home, but yesterday,
You were here.

It has now been a week,
A week since you last were in the house,
An entire week since we carried you away,
To the place where we did not know your future,
But just last week,
You were here.

Another day passes;
a week ago, you were still with us,
In daily reports from the clinic,
They did not know your future,
But we could still hope, and,
You were here.

More days pass,;
A week ago you left us,
Your head cradled in our hands,
Your spirit gracefully moving upward,
But for a few hours of that day,
You were here.

Sadness invades again,
As I know that once those hours pass,
I can no longer look back,
Over the span of a familiar week's time,
To find that comforting point when,
You were here.

More time will pass;
Sadness will not so much invade as menace,
And I will mark the days,
Saying things like,
"last month, last summer, last Halloween, last year,"
You were here.

I dread that day,
One year from now,
That first marking of the time,
That your body was no longer with us;
Though we will never forget you,
Your tangible memory fades,
The feel of your fur, your head, your back, your weight against us,
The smell and sounds of you when,
You were here.

The emptiness is beginning to fade,
To change into another reality,
One with you still playing a part,
But a role of ethereal presence rather than physical comfort we crave;
Your memory, your spirit, your essence and counsel,
Dwell with us, but this feeling is not the same as when,
You were here.

Author: Jenine Stanley