June 13, 2012

After Poland–Russia

PoliceDespite days of media tension-building, the Polish-Russian war of 2012 went by with only minor incidents – and with little damage even in football terms.

Maverick Polish rightwinger takes on the USSR

I went to the start of the much-disputed Russian march, at the beginning of the Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula. A large police presence defended a few thousands Russians who were in a good friendly mood and avoided ostentatious communist symbols – tsarist ones prevailed. Maverick rightwing politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke, in desperate search of publicity, tried single-handedly to stop a lonely USSR flag. He caused amusement instead of a fight, but he is the usual case (think Le Pen and Nick Griffin) of far Right in a neck-tie, cunningly making space for the violent one. Only a little more threatening were little groups of Polish hooligans, who shouted their hatred to the Russians and ‘Russian whores’ to the police who defended them. When I had to cross the police lines to leave the Russian march, a Polish policeman addressed me in fluent Russian explaining me that I was going in the wrong direction. It is not the first time that I am mistaken for a Russian in Poland – but it is the first time that I am treated politely for this.

A little later, more Polish hooligans tried to attack the Russians and were dispersed by water cannons, with about 200 arrests and a few minor injuries. Comparisons with 1794, 1830, 1905 and 1920 are rather misplaced.

I then moved on to the Polish fans zone under the Palace of Culture and Science, the skyscraper that Stalin donated to Warsaw. Some 50,000 Polish fans, and I could spot only one Russian, a young woman wrapped in a national flag. Russians can be no less brave than Poles.

Some pictures from around Euro 2012 here, and more occasional comments on Twitter: @guglielmomeardi


June 11, 2012

Euro–history – ahead of Poland–Russia

Irish historian Norman Davies, after XVI Century's Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, defined Poland as ‘God’s Playground’. I dislike his romantic approach to history, but indeed the playground of Euro 2012 football matches having been the main playground of European XX Century’s history, it’s no surprise that every day brings new history politics issues. Let see some of them, because rather than ‘don’t mention the war’, here the point is it to mention it right.

German history (1)

Only two weeks ago Obama caused a major diplomatic scandal when, while delivering the Presidential medal of Honour to the memory of Jan Karski, the Pole who in 1942 brought the news of the extermination camps to a West unwilling to hear, to see and to act, pronounced the words ‘ Polish extermination camps’. Nothing is more offensive to Polish ears: it is just like saying ‘American terrorist attacks’ for 9/11, just because it happened in America. The Polish authorities, usually very flattering towards the Americans, asked for a public apology, Obama obliged immediately, but the damage is done. Last week, the German, Italian and Dutch team, and a few English players, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the pictures show them with the guided tour headset. The first thing the guides say in Auschwitz, is that in 1942-45 there was no Poland: Auschwitz was in Nazi Germany. Let’s hope they will remember what Obama has not remember from his tour two years ago (when he mixed up Auschwitz with Buchenwald).

German history (2)

One who needs a bit of history lessons is the second coach of Germany, Hansi Flick. He invited the team to a ‘Stahlhelmen auf’. In Gdansk. He apologised more convincingly than Obama, probably because the Germans at home care about history more than Americans do.

German history (3)

The Czech Republic and Germany might meet in the quarterfinals, although this is unlikely given the Czech bad start. In any case, President Gauck, while leading the hardliners towards the Ukrainian government on the Tymoshenko case, just made a historic step towards better Czech-German relations with an excellent letter of unconditional condemnation of the Nazi massacre of Lidice in 1942, which significantly avoids mentioning the Benesz decrees (as if they retrospectively justified German crimes) and express admiration for the Czech resistance (which can no longer be considered moraly responsible for the massacres, for having assassinated Reichsprotektor Heydrich). Well done. Czech Republic and Germany may meet in the quarter-finals.

Polish history (1)

In Warsaw the impressive Museum to the 1944 Insurrection (not to be confused with the Ghetto insurrection of 1943!) has become a pilgrimage point for Polish fans before each match. And he is crowded with western fans too, and are conquered by the dramatic, if one-side, history of Warsaw’s sufferance. Everybody hopes that Russian fans will visit too: the museum blames them as much as the Germans (but does not blame the mistakes of the Polish underground leaders). Some Russian fans have left flowers at the Insurrection monument.

Polish history (2)

The tramways to Gdanks new stadium run along Gdansk shipyards, now largely dismissed, where the army massacred strikers in 1970, Solidarnosc was born in 1980, and communism started to end in 1988. Yesterday, Italian President Napolitano left his flowers under the monument to the victims of 1970, which was appreciated by locals even if they could not avoid to notice that back in 1970 Napolitano was a communist himself (although as moderate as a communist can be). Now my Polish friends define the impressive shipyards as the monument to the collapse of communism, and indeed there is a ‘Museum of Freedom’ here since 2005, when I came for the 25th years of Solidarnosc celebrations. But I can’t avoid to notice that the dismissed parts look to me rather like a monument to the collapse of capitalism. Moreover, in the part that still is active, just meters away from the ‘Museum of Freedom’, a few years ago it was discovered that North Korean welders, posted from their government, were working for no salary…. Selective freedom indeed.

Russian history (1)

In 1920, the Soviet Army arrived to Warsaw gates. Germany and Hungary being then in a revolutionary state, a Soviet advance would have changed Europe’s history – who knows if for the better or for the worse. Pilsudski guided the freshly created Polish army to the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ and condemned socialism to be ‘in one only country’. Tomorrow, for the Poles, it is re-enactment of that battle, and they hope in a new miracle. All Russia (or USSR)-Poland games are politically charged: in 1957, during the Polish Spring of 1956-58, when Poland beat the USSR in Chorzów, hundreds of thousands sang the national anthem, in tense awareness of what had just happened in Budapest; in 1982, Poland stopped the USSR 0-0 in Barcelona, qualifying for the semi-finals, and the Soviet TV could not broadcast the match live because of the big Solidarnosc banners behind one of the goals (old times: now anything vaguely political cannot enter the stadium).

Russian history (2)

But for the Russians tomorrow, the 12th of June, is national day: the announcement of Russia’s exit from the USSR in 1990, following Eltsin’s election victory. Russian fans asked the permission to organise a match through Warsaw ahead of the match, which was initially banned but eventually allowed on a very short tract. The end of the USSR is something Poles should be happy to see celebrated. But the Polish Right is inflamed: Russians marching in Warsaw! Dressed in red! The Russian fans are nationalist, their leader being active in Zyrinovski’s party, and add to the provocation by announcing they will carry communist symbols (banned by a law on the same ground as swastikas in Poland, which however the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional but the Constitutional Court). One has to hope right-wing Polish football hooligans will not react. Some of them have left flowers at the liberating Red Army monument, though.

Polish Fanta-history

As Spanish novelist Cercas writes in his Anatomia de un instante, according to some survey (?) a quarter of British people believe Churchill was a fiction hero. What is sure is that a quarter of Polish people believe that the 2010 Smolensk disaster, when the Polish president and the highest political, military and economic authorities died in a plane crash when heading to Katyn’s remembrance day, was a Russian attack. On the 10th of each month, the Right demonstrates in memory of Lech Kaczynski in front of the presidential palace – which is just besides the Bristol Hotel, where the Russian team is based. Fortunately no problem at all occurred during yesterday’s demonstration, and the Russian team made the nice gesture to leave flowers at the Smolensk victims monument. Still, some nutters (under the banner ‘Solidarni 2010’) still cry that Kaczynski was murdered by Russians. They were kindly invited to get out of the stadium area last Friday, will they try again tomorrow?

Ukrainian history

There are two Ukraines, one hates the Russians, the other hates the Germans, neither trusts the Poles, who on their side would like to bring Ukraine under their influence and away from the Russian ones. During the Orange revolution of 2004, Poles were wearing more orange flowers than the Ukrainians themselves. The horrible crimes between Ukrainians and Poles at the end of WW2 are less and less mentioned. Signs of hope?

Italy-SpainOn a lighter note

For once, I wasn’t ashamed of being Italian yesterday in Gdansk. For Polish speakers, the two best Polish comments on the events of the last few days:

“Tyton ratuje zycie”

“Yakunovich siedzi na trybunie. Tymoszenko tez siedzi”

(untranslatable, sorry)


May 19, 2012

Aiming high: occupy in Milan

Macao - Torre Galfa skyscraperLast year, my arrival to Madrid coincided with the first demonstration of what, a few weeks later became the indignados movement. This week, my arrival to Milan, on my way to Florence, was less lucky: the clearing by the police of the occupied skyscraper Torre Galfa.

While Milan has a long history of occupying spaces, second probably to only Berlin and Copenhagen, over the last decade, under the Berlusconian version of privatisation and commodification, the occupied centri sociali have been silently disappearing, and social movements have been very shy. This Spring, finally, something fresh: at the beginning of May, the occupation of the skyscraper Torre Galfa, in the middle of the new business district. This occupation is different from those of Puerta del Sol or Wall Street. It was not of a public s[pace, and it was not primarily political. It was of a private space, and highly symbolical: skyscrapers are the architectural symbol of financial capitalism. And it was primarily creative/artistic: creating a space for ‘co-working’ of creative cultural projects in Milan, called ‘Macao’. This is itself very political, though: Milan is in many regards the cultural capital of Italy – theatres, galleries and publishers are based here -, but what was an avant-garde city decades ago has become stiff, bourgeois, conformist and very commercial. A visible cultural centre outside market logics is politically disruptive.

Macao, in its short life, received the support of leftwing mayor Pisapia and of the icon of Milanese alternative culture, Nobel Prize Dario Fo (who knows something about occupying: his occupied Villa Liberty was in the 1970s the Milanese centres of experimental theatre). However, it also received the attention of Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri. In a very Italian twist, her son happens to be an executive director of the developers’ company that owns the empty skyscraper, a company which has been involved in nearly all corruption scandals in Milan for the last 30 years. The very quick police intervention to clear the occupiers is therefore at least suspicious. It also raised ironic comments: the police would have got confused and cleared the wrong skyscraper – the really illegally occupied one is the adjacent Pirelli tower, seat of the regional government, which is squatting there despite a huge amount of scandals involving both ruling parties (Berlusconi’s Freedom People and the Northern League) and charges of electoral fraud.

After the evictions, the occupiers have refused Pisapia’s offer of a space in the former Ansaldo factory – a central area which should become the art and cultural district of Milan. Insisting in ‘aiming high’, they refused any compromise with the institutions, occupied the street for a while, and today moved on to occupy an empty palace, belonging to the Ministry of Culture, in the arty Brera quarter. I have taken some pictures with the occupiers under the cleared skyscrapers, but better ones had been published by... Vogue.


May 14, 2012

Brave New World under threat

Follow-up to Warsaw's Brave New World from Around Europe 2010-12

Last remains of the GhettoThe Brave New World club-cafe of leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, an oasis of free criticism in Warsaw's downtown I frequently pop in to (and one of the most interesting cultural cafes in Europe), is again under threat. The current rent of the historic New World's cafe is due to expire, and the association has succefully bid for another space, the former Menora restaurant on Plac Grzybowski - the centre of the former Jewish Ghetto, which is now being regenerated. It is less central than the current location, a bit further away from the University, but still a great place: actually, Brave New World is exactly what is needed to bring back to life a square that has become sleepy and neglected.

In an insult to the rule of law, the local authority have declared the tender won by Brave New World void and reopened it, with the requirement that any activity should be focussed on Jewish traditions - in the previous tender, there was no mention of them. This selective rediscovery of Jewish Warsaw is nothing more than a pretext to exclude a politically and culturally fastidious presence.

Polish cultural and political personalities, from Baumann and Holland to Mazowiecki and Kwasniewski, have signed a petition in defence of Brave New World (Wspanialy Nowy Swiat). I can't find an English version, but I guess it will appear soon on the London's virtual site of Krytyka Polityczna.


May 07, 2012

Thoughts on a normal president in not–so normal times

Musée Rodin

If François Hollande wanted to remind of the François Mitterrand moment of 31 years ago, despite his best efforts and nearly exactly the same score of 51.7%, the common background only underline the striking differences. The square itself has changed, after Mitterrand himself built the immense Opéra, in my view a symbol of his ambitious, often spectacular but ultimately failed attempt to democratise French culture. The quartier Bastille has changed too, largely sanitised and gentrified. But zoom into the crowds. As huge and as conscious of the grandeur of its revolutionary tradition as in 1981, the 2012 one is different. While in 1981 it sung L‘internationale, this time a very timid attempt at it in a corner of the square was bottled by La marseillaise and the stage sound system. But while in 1981 the flags were red and tricouleurs, in 2012 a number of disaparate ones have appeared, with the Algerian ones in particular (like in the Stade de France when France plays). Whether they like it or not, the République may have become less internationalist, but it has also become quite multicultural.

The 1981 victory was a real climax, as the opinion polls were too close to call. This time, the defeat of Sarkozy has been expected for so long, that the only surprising thing was the narrowness of the gap. And Mitterrand’s charisma was so strong that he actually did not need to go to Bastille. Hollande’s best asset, instead, has been to look and act normal. In other words, Mitterrand was bigger than the stage – but yesterday the disproportion was between the grandeur of the setting, and the normalcy of the performer.normal

Indeed, his opponent was not normal. I started disliking him already in 1995, when I was in Paris during that presidential campaign, the one Jospin lost with honour (unlike 7 years later). In 1995, the young Nicolas stabbed his mentor Chirac in the back to support the other righting candidate Balladur, who was ahead in the polls – the only good thing of Chirac then winning was the subsequent punishment of Sarkozy. Who was once more opportunistic in 2005, exploiting the No referendum to the European Constitution against Balladur and, again, Chirac. And as a president he has been neurotic in acting and inconclusive in ruling: he will be probably the only V Republic president not to leave a mark. Despite this, I must say that in the last televised debate Sarkozy was more impressive than Hollande: he even managed to look convincing when saying that German success is a success of his ideas (shame that the Germans actually respect trade unions and collective bargaining).

The results of the first round add to the feeling of anticlimax. The high score of Le Pen, and the good but not as high as hoped score of leftist Mélenchon may have strong consequences for French politics. If results are similar in the parliamentary elections of June (which is far from unavoidable), the Left Party will have a very small representation and the Socialist Party may have a comfortable majority alone. This may open the doors to a very moderate government. I keep hoping in two women, Martine Aubry as prime minister and Marisol Touraine as social affairs minister, but there is the risk that, to appease the markets, more moderate socialists will get the posts. And the consequences may be deep for the Right too: for the first time, a large number of Front National candidates might reach 12.5% and qualify for the second round. This will be a disaster for Sarkozy’s party UMP, which would face a disaster in the second round... unless it comes to an agreement with the FN. It sounds absurd, and both Fillon and Raffarin seem opposed to it, but other rightwingers have started saying that Marin Le Pen is not her father, and 70% of UMP and FN voters are in favour of an alliance (Ipsos opinio poll, yesterday)... In any case, this is the historic opportunity for the French extreme right to be ‘legitimised’ – what the Italian one achieved in 1993, with Berlusconi’s compliments.

Talking of extreme Right, one mention of the worst of all, the Greek neonazi Golden Dawn, who entered parliament with 7%. Xenophobia in Greece had up top now more a funnythan scary aspect, but it is turning really nasty. The Greek election night was much more thrilling than the French one. Early results indicated a narrow seat majority for the ‘pro-bailout’ parties (PASOK and ND), but a closer look at the Ministry of Interior website’s data (every now and then, having studied ancient Greek turns useful) revealed that cities were well behind in vote counting. And in cities these two parties scored particularly badly – eventually, ND and PASOK only reached 149 seats out of 300. I expect that external pressure will force at least some MPs of the ND break-away Independent Greeks to join the government, but in any case it will not be an easy time for Greece, and for Europe, if the bailout agreement is not renegotiated soon. So-called anti-politics is ripe, as seen in Germany and Italy in this same intensive electoral week-end. The Piratenpartei has entered the Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, and the comedian “5 Star Movement” has overtaken Berlusconi’s party (itself a comedian party, if you think about it) in many Italian large cities, while, once again, leftist candidates overtake the mainstream Democratic Party. I don’t fancy either the Piratenpartei or Beppe Grillo, but maybe these kinds of populism are a better temporary safety valve than the extreme Right. It is up to people like Hollande, now, not to waste time.


May 04, 2012

Voting in Coventry

Yesterday, I made the most of my status of European Union citizen by voting in the local elections in Coventry. Voting in local elections is something two thirds of the British population do not care about, so my act may be seen as paradoxically one of distinction from, rather than of integration in the local polity. Those who do not vote in local elections over here might have some reason: the country is strongly centralised, there are no regional elections and local councils do not have much competence, despite running substantial budgets and being responsible for something most British people complain about all the time: the council tax (a rather regressive thing, heritage of the even worse Thatcher's poll tax). But still, local elections have some relevance for national politics, although not nearly as much as they have in most of western Europe, and especially so in Germany, Italy and Spain. And they matter locally too: when Coventry fell shortly into conservative hands afew years ago, the damage was there for all to see, for instance in the cuts to libraries, including those just built.

So I did go to vote, and while in the past I occasionally voted Greens or Socialist, especially when sick of wars abroad and of traffic locally, I opted for the ‘useful vote’ that a first-past-the-post system calls for, and gone for Labour. With good satisfaction: my ward, which is a mix of two parts, old working-class Tile Hilland new middle-class Westwood, swung from Conservative to Labour and Coventry’s Labour majority was strengthened. Despite low turn-out, Labour's excellent result across the country sent a clear message to the ruling coalition and especially to the Lib-Dems, who were duly massacred in the polls.

Liberals have been an important tradition in the European polity, with serious merits, but both largest liberal parties, in Germany and in the UK, may disappear from the next Parliaments and I find it difficult to miss them. The German FDP discovered neoliberalism after its sell-by-date, and it is now reduced to something like 1%. In the UK, the Lib-Dems' affair with the Tories will go to history as one of the most stupid political decisions ever. The long history of Italian coalitions taught me that as a rule, ina government the senior patner always takes the merits, and the smaller parties take the blame: this is why the Christian Democrats could rule with smaller allied for as long as 45 years (the rule is confirmed, grosso modo, by the other proportional-voting countries). So junior partners need to demarcate very clearly something they will benefit from, which is usually simpler for regional parties (i.e. the Catalans of CiU). But in a foolish bet, Clegg gave the Tories everything, even what they had not asked for (the reform of the NHS!), in exchange of only one, terribly insecure thing: the referendum on the election system. Which he predictably lost, and now, for a further three years, he has to keep being the spare wheel of the Tories for no benefit whatsoever, playing the shameful role of the scapegoat for Cameron, without any negotiation power given that in a snap election he would disappear. No, his strategic vision will not be missed.

Yesterday we also voted on another election reform: a referendum on the direct election of mayors. Initially, I was quite in favour of the idea. In Italy, it was introduced 19 years ago and, although I had opposed it in the Italian referendum of 1993, I concede that it had a positive effect in revitalising local democracy, and all across the country there have been lively campaigns and independent, innovative mayors. And during these two years, I have seen charismatic mayors having positive influence in all corners of Europe, from Kraków to Berlin to Milan. But on reflection, this is not so much associated with direct election: in Germany and Spain, the elections are indirect. And direct election works well in Italy, because anyway the large majority of the population takes part in the vote. But in the UK, with participation at around 30%, the risk of maverick populist mayors with large marketing budgets is too high: Boris Johnson in London is only a taste of worse things that could come. Rather than revitalising democracy, direct election could undermine the associational pillar of democracy itself (so openly despised in these same days, across the Channel, by Sarkozy). So I voted no, and in this case, I have been in line with the innate conservatism of the majority of local voters.


April 18, 2012

With the unions of Emilia Romagna

Emilia-Romagna is a specific "social model" in Italy (Or actually two, because Emiliani and Romagnoli are two separate breeds). It has been ruled by the Italian Communist Party and its heirs since the war, it has the highest unionisation levels, and its public services for childcare and for the elderly are considered to be amongst the best in the world. The management of immigration is also better than elsewhere.

monument to the rice picker

Like with all social models, there are visible cracks in it. The Right often wins in the most north-western part of it, Parma and Piacenza - the latter is where the new left journal "Quaderni Piacentini" was born in the 1960s, and despiute the small size it still has some lively political experiments (I used to escape there from Milan in my student years). It also shockingly won once in Bologna in 1999, showing that the Left monopoly cannot be taken for granted. Corruption scandals occur nearly as often as in the rest of the country - the Parmalat case being particularly noticeable. The Left here, despite its anarchist and communist roots, is as pragmatic as it gets though - the current leader of the Democratic Party, Bersani, is one example.

Last week, I spent two days, regrettably under the rain, in the hills off Bologna in the CGIL-Emilia Romagna convention centre, discussing with unionists about the state of industrial relations in Europe. All very interesting, and I had forgotten how long Italian unionists can talk for. Two observations. First, Italian speakers were nearly only men, despite the fact that the labour movement of Emilia Romagna has feminine roots, illustrated by the monumement to the rice pickers in the same location. Second, the food of Emilia (parmigiano, lasagne, agnolotti, mortadella, aceto balsamico...) is not the lightest but it is more and more a matter of cross-class pride. Maybe to compensate for the vanishing political one.


April 10, 2012

Easter in Istanbul


Sultanahmet

To compensate for last year's semana santa in Spain, this year for Easter I escaped to Istanbul. Unfortunately, hundreds thousand tourists had the same idea (many of them actually from Spain: but are they not in crisis? I guess it has something to do with inequality and regressive policies). But the city is huge and it is not too difficult to escape tourists crowds, and enjoy the neighbourhoods of Beyoglu and Ortaköy, the Bosphorus villages, Yildiz Park, and laisurely enjoy the varieties of mezzes and sweets, washed down with raki and Turkish coffee.

Young Turks

And soon after a stay in Norway and Sweden, where if they held a referendum now on entering the EU and the EMU 95% would vote no, here it is refreshing to see somebody still wishing to enter the EU, although already in disenchanted way, tired of decades of broken promises. Turkey's entry is sponsored by the UK and the US, which could be an argument for caution, but I still believe that a democratic secular muslim country in the EU would be good both for Turkey, the EU and for the muslim world. EU accession may be a formidable lever to solve the last issues of human rights in Turkey, and possibly even in Cyprus.  The alternative of keeping them out, surrendering to xenophobic fears such as the Austrian ones, would only reinforce frustration and extremisms on both sides. However, this time, it would be good if the social issues neglected during the eastern enlargement (see my book...) were kept in mind... all the more that Turkey is poorer and has nearly the same population of the ten new member states of 2004 put together. In any case, while mixing with the young crowds of Istanbul's saturday night, it becomes clear how much the future of Europe depends on the choices of its most lively population, the young Turks with a small "y"...

Hagia Sophia


April 04, 2012

On "our" terrorists

Two weeks ago, I was in the centre of Oslo, very close to the government district where last July Breivik’s bomb killed 8 people and injured 92, following the news of another terrorist killing children in a different corner of Europe – Mohamed Merah in Toulouse – and reflecting about our perception of terrorism. Last summer, a barbarian act was originally blamed on Al Qaida, and the perception changed when it occurred it was a white supremacist. In France, the opposite happened.

I grew up in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s, infested by the terrorism from extreme Left and extreme Right. Some of the worst terrorist killings happened in my central neighbourhood , and I sometimes heard the shots and the ambulances and the screams. A lesson I learned very early when starting political activism in the 1980s was that there is a sentence you cannot say: “I disagree with the methods of the terrorists, but...”. By saying that, you give them the oxygen they need to grow. Terrorists NEVER have a political point, you cannot extrapolate any of their sentences to say that they make sense. Saying that they have a point when they write, say, that “workers are exploited” is as unacceptable as saying that Hitler had a point when he wrote that World War I was atrocious. Because in terrorism (like in genocide) you cannot split the meaning from the means, the words from the context: the means are the total denial of the democratic process and of humanity, and therefore the words have to stay outside.

Oslo newcomersThe way Breivik was treated highlighted initially a strident difference in the way terrorists are perceived. When the nature and motive of the crime emerged, some populist politicians (e.g. from the Northern League in Italy) said exactly the unspeakable: that they disagreed with the means, but “he had a point”. Imagine saying that of 9/11 or of the Red Brigades. But OPK, these may be just people outside democratic civilisation. More striking was the immediate humanisation of the terrorist: we learned that he had a difficult relationship with his father and various other problems, and soon he was diagnosed with psychosis, which might avoid him a sentence. When young men set bombs or blow themselves up in Israel, Iraq, Madrid, London, we never hear that they had difficult relations with their fathers or that they suffer from psychosis: they are just “the evil”, “the enemy”, completely dehumanised. When however the terrorist comes from among ourselves, we immediately feel the need to medicalise him, to treat him, not to take him seriously. Soon rightwingers from all countries started explaining that Breivik had nothing to do with the Right, with anti-immigrant discourse, with Christian integralism, that he was just a nutter, that it would be instrumental to qualify him politically. Strangely enough, Islamic terrorists keep being called Islamic terrorists. The whole of Islam, the whole of Palestine may be associated to the crimes of a handful terrorists – but western civilisation cannot. Oklahoma and Utøya are just criminal events, but 9/11 and 7/7 are the product of certain cultures. Double standards of the worst kind.

Now, with Merah, a symmetric thing happened. As soon as the identity of the killer emerged, the humanisation happened from the Left, although I have not heard anybody saying that “he had a point”. We learnt that he grew up in demonised communities and reacted to exclusion from French society...

This attitude, rightly, upset many, and a good example is writer Olivier Rolin in Le Monde des livres of the 31st March, expressing his outrage at the “banaliser derrière des prêts-à-porter sociologiques”: yes, Merah was a young misfit – but then so were many of the Einsatzgruppen massacring Jews during the war: would we extend this kind of humanisation to them?

Quite strikingly, le monde published Rolin’s angry piece to the side of one by writer Salim Bachi titled ““Moi, Mophamed Merah”: a literary attempt to enter the mind of Merah (Bachi had written a book titled “Moi, Khaled Kelkal”, on the terrorist whose bombs terrorised Paris in September 1995, and “Tuez-les tous!” on 9/11). What a mess.

Is it too much to ask for a bit of clarity, for the sake of human coexistence? There are three very distinguished levels of judgement here. One is at the level of psychology and criminology: in that context, “humanisation” is the obvious thing. At the other opposite, there is the study of the context, and again there is nothing inherently wrong with historical and political studies of factors that tend to promote terrorism (just like, to use again the extreme comparator, one can study the context of Nazi rise and of the Shoah). Yet the specific remits of these levels of analysis should be always made clear. Because the third and most important level is the political and moral judgment of terrorism: and at that level, if we are to be human, there can be no “I am against terrorism, but...


March 27, 2012

"Lean production" in Stockholm City Hall (and lean cuisine in Scandinavia)

Thin ice, from the Oslo-Stockholm trainAfter a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...

In Stockholm, among other King's Speech in the Golden Hallthings, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.

Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.

PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.

ÖstermalmstorgJust to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.

But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.


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