The Age of Simple Answers, Part 2: Political Blunders

After this lengthy discussion, I believe the precious reader will appreciate a shortlist of real–world examples to illustrate my point. The order does not indicate a degree of general relevance or personal preference, it is more or less random. The list consists of issues popularly discussed, or deliberately avoided, on the Internet (as well as other media).

It goes without saying that the following comments represent my personal opinion and convey my personal world view only. Unlike many others out there, I do not pretend to hold a “universal formula” to address all issues — real or imagined — properly.

Henri Vidal: Cain depicted after killing his brother, hiding his face in his hand

Caïn by Henri Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris, 1896. Cain is depicted after killing his brother, hiding his face in his hand. Source: Alex Proimos, CC BY 2.0

Turkey and Erdogan

How can the Turkish president get away with his ridiculous fairytale of an “attempted military coup”?

The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye and said, ‘Your story’s so touching, but it sounds just like a lie’.

Nat “King” Cole, Straighten Up and Fly Right

If it was not clear (to some) from the outset that this “failed coup” was staged to provide the pretext for a relatively unhindered accumulation of power, it should have become obvious by now. Has anyone ever heard of a coup d’etat with such vast a number of confidants? I have certainly not. To me, it looks like some are returning to the old habit of settling political issues in kangaroo courts.

The most obvious reasons for the outrageous lack of direct international intervention are Turkey’s membership in the NATO, the geostrategic relevance of the country, and Erdogan’s increasingly imponderable behaviour.

Turkey, similar to North Korea in the Pacific Theatre, serves as territorial buffer between major competing ideologies. There is no way of seriously predicting the consequences Turkey’s suspension or permanent ban from the negotiating table would have.

Though merely symbolic in nature (as Erdogan is not in the position to negotiate anything of international political or economic importance), harsh diplomatic sanctions could prove problematic as too much pressure on this already unstable system might push Erdogan to ever more drastic behaviour.

He is obviously bent on establishing himself as a major political player in the area and “making Turkey great again”. The only realistic way (if only in his mind) to accomplish this were to declare Turkey a caliphate.

On the surface, this may not even look like the worst of ideas to some. In reality, it would give way to a host of new, presumably greater geopolitical problems, without settling any of the current issues.

Turkey would instantly lose any geostrategic importance, and inevitably also her NATO membership status. The geostrategic focus would eventually have to be shifted to the Balkans (which already represent a highly fragile microcosm, in unity as in division).

Considering the number of current aspirants to power in the Islamic world, I deem it improbable Erdogan would ever gain enough support (i.e., from all muslims, which would be the precondition in order to establish a true caliphate) to become more than a “mock caliph”.

In other words, we would have to face the music for having helped create yet another country (inhabited by appr. 80 million people, at the time of writing) scourged by political and economic chaos and the growing paranoia of her leader.

North Korea and Kim Jong–un

Oh well, I find it difficult to believe that someone who is said to have been educated in Swiss elite schools is a complete fool. He might be a “troll” (some might even call him names less fit for printing), but a fool he is not.

Unfortunately, it is the only known currently incumbent political fool (I’m sorry, Donald, but if the term “facepalm” had not been coined already, the way you are acting — both at home and abroad — would definitely justify its creation) who cannot wait in line to feed this troll.

Seriously, isn’t it obvious that this obese little bastard is playing both the US and China like a fiddle (and by such holding the entire region hostage)?

Interestingly, North Korea’s Juche (their official state ideology) incorporates chiefly the same principles as Trump’s “Make America great again” — even if (allegedly) designed to a different end. Then again, Trump’s difficulty to tell conflicting ideologies and concepts apart has been obvious for the longest time.

The real problem in this context, I think, is China. The Chinese government will hardly harbour a strong desire to get involved in ventures that might cause commotion at their border. Yet they might not take too kindly to attempts of putting their lapdog to sleep and distributing his yard and kennel in the aftermath. A US–led military campaign against North Korea could have China trapped between a rock and a hard place.

I would not anticipate this conflict to spread beyond the North Pacific theatre as no obvious alliances would have to be honoured by parties outside this area, and Russia would (or should) — despite Vladivostok’s relative vicinity to the North Korean border (81 miles/130 kilometres as the crow flies) — know better than to take sides, but the economic implications of China and the US finding themselves in open conflict are difficult to foresee.

The United States and Trump

What can be safely predicted, on the other hand, is the United States’ inevitable political and economic isolation under President Trump. It doesn’t take a degree in Political Science or History to realise that Trump is acting like the textbook model of an increasingly paranoid absolutist ruler.

I’m surprised that no presidential decree to declare him elevated by divine intervention above the low urge to urinate and defecate has been issued yet; as unreasonable as this may sound, it would explain both his erratic behaviour and the majority of his verbal secretions.

I believe to have offered a somewhat plausible attempt of explanation as to how someone like Donald Trump could even dream of becoming president. How anyone can hold this office for six months (as I write these lines) sans any sign of positive progress in terms of political, economic, or societal development in a democratic country is beyond my comprehension.

I can only imagine this paralysis is a symptom of an unreasonable fear of losing face, lack of alternatives, or unfounded faith that Trump will eventually realise that he is challenged beyond hope, and step down or change his ways before the “hurlyburly’s done”.

Hard National Borders and Terrorist Attacks

I can think of several (positive) effects permanent controls of national borders inside the Schengen area may have, but how this “precaution” might lead to fewer terrorist attacks is beyond me.

Practically all terrorist attacks in major European cities (but also in the US) were committed by extremists who were either radicalised citizens or individuals holding residence permits of the respective countries. They were no “foreigners” who arrived from somewhere abroad to commit their deed.

Granted, several of those seem to have travelled around prior to the atrocities, but most (if not all) of them had been considered “endangerers” by relevant authorities and subjected to “close surveillance” for some time up to the attacks (whatever this may include).

Did these precautions help? Obviously not, or the attacks would not have happened. If close surveillance of individuals doesn’t help prevent such attacks, how would mass controls at borders make a significant difference?

Unless we manage to tear down the fences of fundamentalist ideology in the “endangerers” minds, fences of wire and stone at our borders will only serve to incarcerate ourselves — and by such support the fundamentalists’ purpose.

Surveillance Systems and Terrorist Attacks

Mounting quite costly surveillance cameras on every corner and implementing large—scale systems to process the wholesale data these amount may help investigate certain crimes (after the deed) and identify the villains who committed them — provided, relevant devices were in proper condition and operation.

They may reduce or even prevent petty crimes — unless the villain is too desperate to even care whether or not he will get caught in the aftermath, that is.

Yet how exactly are they supposed to prevent terrorist attacks committed by assassins who mean to die in the process (which is why they are called suicide assassins)?

Cities like London are literally plastered with surveillance cameras (or at least the strategically most relevant venues are), nevertheless Londoners suffered attacks in the past. Unless the footage these cameras capture will show the attacks ahead of time — and this we may safely rule out for all time to come — these systems are useless in order to deter terrorists.

Cheap dummies would have the same effect: instilling a faux sense of security in the random individual — which will be reset to zero each time such an atrocity actually took place.

Leaving the EU to Save the EU

A while ago, I had an interesting debate regarding “Brexit” with someone who has been living in the UK for quite a while now.

I was not surprised to hear (for the umpteenth time) that the European Union acts like a dictator toward the United Kingdom (or her member states in general); employing the “dictatorship theme” appears to be en vogue these days — sometimes it is employed a bit too eagerly, I think.

What astonished me was the statement that the EU (the remaining member states, really) might even benefit from Britain’s departure. While I cannot say just how popular this stance is in the UK of late, the notion helped me see how some people were possibly lured into voting to leave.

I deem it improbable that the UK (or any one of the current members of the EU) will benefit from the “Brexit” enough to crow about. At best, none of us will suffer (to an unbearable extent); but most certainly we all — UK and each of the remaining members — will have to make sacrifices.

If you have a Tory government at Westminster that takes us out of Europe against our will, there may be people in Scotland who think, ‘You know what, we might be better off independent’.

Nicola Sturgeon (*1970), Scottish politician

On a philosophical level, one could (perhaps) hold that “Brexit” helped mute the loudest exit proponents in other countries (for a while), and by such “saved” the EU from quickly falling apart. Yet I genuinely wonder whether this theory would stand close examination.

One of the major problems is, I think, that almost every process in this venture we have come to call the “European Union” was (and is) played by ear. There is no detailed blueprint, no manual, or guidebook telling us what to do, how to address individual issues, or leading us to unknown frontiers.

The European Union is one big political, economical, and societal experiment, and the only advantage we, the members, may have is numerical superiority.

We cannot allow voters to fall for the spin that a vote to leave is the only way to deal with concerns about immigration. We can do far more to address both the level and impact of immigration while remaining in the EU.

Jo Cox (1974–2016), British politician

Unfortunately, we never quite managed to use it to effect during the decades of her existence. Unless we eventually find a way to apply a proper structure to this construct, it really doesn’t matter how many there are left of us (or who they are). The remaining members will try to close the gap as well as they may, and move on, because that’s the only option we have.

Certainly, a few (the major actors) will actually benefit from Britain’s departure (in terms of political influence), but the vast majority will simply be left to pay the price for having individually failed to help develop this project properly.

The argument that Britain left out of frustration at the EU leadership’s refusal to make amendments may safely be dismissed as propaganda.

The British government’s plans to apply for membership already met with substantial public opposition at home, and even being turned down twice couldn’t deter Britain from applying again, and eventually entering the union.

The reason for her persistence is obvious: like every other member state, Britain expected to directly profit from her access to a common market. And like everyone else (other than the “inner six”), she failed to realise that the EU had already evolved into a political entity too complex to be influenced by single nations (that is, national economies other than Germany and France, perhaps).

Refugees Will Hurt Employment

Well, even though this “argument” has been exerted by some for generations during political campaigns — and I have no doubt that the vilest of reactionaries will continue to do so — in order to excite unfounded fear among the populace and consequently gain voters, I failed to find historical evidence to support the notion that immigrants do really hurt national employment.

We are a continent of refugees, and if you say we can't integrate refugees, that's not consistent with our values, even if borders cannot be wide open.

Emmanuel Macron (*1977), French politician

More often than not, the opposite seems to be true. Countries with a strong tendency toward right–wing nationalism — that is, those who advocate political and societal segregation, even isolation and unreasonable economic protectionism — are more likely to suffer during times of depression and fail to benefit from economic booms.

Each year, Legatum Institute, an international think tank based in London, conducts a study in order to determine the most prosperous countries in the world.

For the past ten years, they have published annual reports, analysing relevant factors influencing national prosperity worldwide in great detail. Their findings indicate (in some cases) an interesting conflict between public opinion (what people in the street actually report) and published opinion (what some politicians and media pretend or believe to be the people’s opinion).

More important, though, is another result. Generally speaking, the more tolerant and open the population, the more prosperous the country (rather than the other way around).

Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.

Milton Friedman (1912–2006), American economist

Nevertheless, political radicalism — the far left fostering an anti–establishment sentiment, the extreme right exciting unfounded xenophobia — and the people’s fear for the future (essentially, a sense of general uncertainty) have been constantly rising — not only in countries who failed to see positive progress, but also in countries who actually did well in terms of prosperity. This development appears to lack any logic at first. Yet at closer inspection, a pattern becomes visible.

While overall prosperity rose (especially so in Europe), the economic quality dropped (or at least failed to rise proportionally). This led to dissatisfaction in particular societal groups (those who felt left behind), who eventually began to sympathise with or actively support more extreme political concepts — you know, “anything but the establishment”.

The “refugee crisis” — as cynical as this may sound — was a godsend for both sides. Either camp could suddenly pretend to have “arrived at the centre of society” (which is particularly interesting as they naturally cater to groups of regular voters who couldn’t be any more different from one another) and point fingers at each other.

It doesn’t matter at all that refugees have nothing to do with the core issue (dropping economic quality in spite of rising prosperity), they involuntarily offered the political right a fresh target for their attacks and the political left a desperately awaited opportunity to restore their political profile.

In other words, if there had been no refugee crisis, the average individual’s situation would hardly be any better, perhaps even just as desperate; and political radicals would make up other reasons to blame recent governments — or if need be, single out other available minorities and point their fingers, yelling “bloody murder”.

The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people.

Noam Chomsky (*1928), American activist

That’s their tried and proved methodology. People do have an innate fear of sudden change — whether or not the change in question looks promising is irrelevant, really. The extreme right literally smells this fear, and feasts on it. It is quite unfortunate that the far left, while declaring the right–wing their pet adversary, fails to perform any better.

They, too, lack any sense of proportion and — perhaps even worse — sound objectives and mature political approaches. Consequently, they both eagerly enter a vicious circle of destruction and subversion, without regard to the real issues at hand or their regular voters’ actual needs.

How dare I say so? At least they (who “they” are strongly depends on the precious reader’s political inclination) say “it as it is, without beating around the bush (unlike all the others)”. No, they actually do not. They tell you what you long to hear, and they don’t mind to possibly leave behind nothing but scorched earth, if only they manage to drive their point home.

Individual (national) unemployment rates are the result of many factors — globalisation, lack of incentives for new entrepreneurs, lack of individual education, etc. — but it is rather safe to state that the number of refugees any one country hosts is utterly irrelevant in this context.

It certainly is somewhat tendentious to check the list of European countries having granted refugees asylum against the ranking of the most prosperous countries worldwide (which is to say, the 149 most prosperous societies), but an astonishing 14 (out of 31 on the “asylum list” from 2014) are among the top thirty on the “prosperity list” (in 2016), and still eleven are among the top twenty (including five hosting the highest per–capita percentage of refugees).

As I said, the comparison is tendentious — an unduly simple approach to a complex issue, typical left–wing propaganda that’s likely to drive every “true [nationality of choice here]” up the wall. Nevertheless, these figures do (ever so tenderly) support the notion that tolerance and prosperity are directly linked (the sub–index investigating a society’s tolerance is labelled “Personal Freedom”).

My idea of freedom is that we should protect the rights of people to believe what their conscience dictates, but fight equally hard to protect people from having the beliefs of others imposed upon them.

Justin Trudeau (*1977), Canadian politician

Let’s consider them in a greater context, shall we? I have taken the liberty of excluding Luxembourg (#12) and Switzerland (#4) from the list of the most prosperous countries for obvious reasons.

If we look at the ten most prosperous countries in the world (in 2016), we find (from top to bottom) New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, United Kingdom, and Germany.

Even though they are spread across the world and their sizes (in terms of landmass and population as well as their total economic output) vary considerably, what they all have in common is instantly obvious (or so I think).

They are known to be rather liberal and tolerant, they are popular host countries for all kinds of immigrants, and, with very few exceptions, they are among the top twenty countries in all relevant sub–indeces (Economic Quality, Business Environment, Governance, Education, Health, Safety & Security, Personal Freedom, Social Capital, and Natural Environment).

These are the factors really influencing a country’s prosperity. Why some countries fail to convert their national prosperity into individual prosperity is probably better seen when we look at the following ten on the list. (For better readability, I will do the decent thing and display these as a list; sub–indices in parentheses indicate relevant factors for the relatively poor ranking. Please keep in mind that I excluded two high–ranking countries.)

  1. Ireland (Economic Quality, Health, Natural Environment)
  2. Iceland (Education, Health)
  3. Austria (Health, Personal Freedom)
  4. Belgium (Safety & Security, Social Capital, Natural Environment)
  5. United States (Governance, Health, Safety & Security, Personal Freedom, Natural Environment)
  6. France (Governance, Safety & Security, Personal Freedom, Social Capital)
  7. Singapore (Personal Freedom, Social Capital)
  8. Slovenia (Economic Quality, Business Environment, Governance, Education, Health, Social Capital)

Perhaps we all should consider a rearrangement of national ministries and civil services and see to gain some (individual and societal) flexibility rather than losing our heads and embracing outlandish approaches and foolish concepts every time we are “suddenly” facing issues we could have anticipated ten or even twenty years ago.

One Conflict at a Time

With respect to dreadful events taking place in the Middle East, I often hear people speak of a “religious conflict” or even a “clash of cultures”.

I’m still undecided whether this is merely an undue simplification of matters or a desperate attempt to shift responsibility; as though declaring these struggles to be of “divine origin” elevated them beyond human repair.

Zionism was originally a rebellion against religious Judaism and the PLO Charter was essentially secularist. But because the conflict was allowed to fester without a resolution, religion got sucked into the escalating cycle of violence and became part of the problem.

Karen Armstrong (*1944), English writer

Let’s not fool ourselves, each of these conflicts was caused by man — if perhaps for the most part by incompetence and lack of foresight rather than evil intent — and they all will have to be settled by man.

I’m not going to tell you there will be smooth sailing all the way, or there will be no sacrifices — it would be an unreasonable, utterly thoughtless thing to say — but I still believe a political solution is possible — provided, all actors eventually muster enough statesmanship to accept their individual responsibility rather than keep placating their voters and supporters, and all international intermediaries return to a position of reasonable neutrality.

It is neither antisemitic nor racist — and by no means is it politically biased — to expect Israel to recognise her share of historical responsibility for the region in general and her heritage in particular.

Quite to the contrary, suspending all further settlement projects on Palestinian territories, entering genuine negotiations for a political solution, and recognising the Palestinian Arabs as a people in their own right, were not only a first promising step toward peaceful coexistence, but also an investment in her own best interest.

This would deprive Hamas, Fatah, and consequently also Hezbollah, of their reason to resist (and gradually also of their supporters), and dramatically improve Israel’s international reputation.

To pretend these procedures (and subsequent results) would endanger Israel’s existence and the safety of her (Jewish) population is ridiculous.

Israel needs to change direction, and this is not just political. We're becoming more closed–in, more isolated, more scared. Those who talk tough are making the State of Israel very weak, very isolated — very Jewish, in the Diaspora–sense, in that ‘everyone is against us’. We need to get out of this.

Tzipi Livni (*1958), Israeli politician

In the long run, Israel’s safety and security would best be served by establishing and maintaining an environment of peaceful coexistence, characterised by an open dialogue culture and mutual understanding. Yet for the time being, it looks as though some do prefer a “stable struggle” in order to support their individual political objectives.

What really threatens peace and life in Palestine are stubborn nationalism and unfounded prejudices (on either side), excited in an effort to establish (or preserve) power, and constant oppression of the Arab population (by several consecutive Israeli governments, but especially the present one).

Jews, Muslims, and Christians have been inhabiting Palestine for the longest time and the majority of them have been living peacefully side by side. Let’s not pretend arbitrary segregation and forced settlement projects were anything but a deliberate provocation of individual parties in the Arab camp, or even an inevitable precaution to protect Jewish life in Israel or elsewhere in Palestine.

My colleagues and I have gone in the footsteps of our predecessors since the very first day we were called by our people to care for their future. We went any place, we looked for any avenue, we made any effort to bring about negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, negotiations without which peace remains an abstract desire.

Menachem Begin (1913–1992), Israeli politician

Granted, it took the collaborative efforts of political heavyweights like Hammerskjöld, Begin, Dayan, Sadat, Carter, and Kreisky to even get close to something that might have become a tenable solution (sufficient time provided), but the prospect of possibly using a sensible agreement between Israel and the Palestine Arabs as a template for a step–by–step pacification of the entire region should suffice to bring all parties back to the negotiating table.

A first instalment and an impressive sign of goodwill were the establishment of a neutral corridor — similar to the Brčko district in Bosnia and Herzegovina — linking Gaza (Gaza Strip) and Hebron (West Bank), under the condition that safe passage and access to spiritual places like Jerusalem and Hebron is guaranteed as long as peace be kept.

Whether it is particularly useful to staunchly advocate either a return to Israel’s 1967 borders (or even to an earlier layout) or a formal two–state solution, I don’t know — it might be too late for either by now. The individual camps (and their political leaders) will have to learn to respect and meet each other at eye level as neighbours who happen to share the same territory, that is Palestine.