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German Elections on Sunday

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Some thoughts about Germany’s election this Sunday, hoisted from comments over on Facebook. They’re more about personal preferences, and maybe not anything new for the three readers Fistful still has after Brexit broke the blog. (By the way, there’s still a media niche that could be filled by Brexit Jones Diary, if anyone has the stomach for that task.)

Martin Schulz [the Social Democrat] is not bad. I’m of several minds. Merkel absolutely did the right thing with refugees in 2015, against the trend of her party, and it made a huge difference for Germany and for Europe. And I want to see that kind of choice rewarded. Certainly, if Germany has to have a government led by the conservative party, having a female scientist from the East, who is also a pastor’s daughter, as the head of that party is the way to go. On the other hand, an additional term of office would be years 12-16 of a Merkel chancellorship. Governments get to be long in the tooth; the people in them forget that they have ever not been in power; scandals accumulate; stagnation can set in. Maybe Merkel’s next government (she is likely to be the head of the largest party still after Sunday) will beat those odds, I don’t know.

[comment from friend]

[Me again] Well, it’s proportional representation, so everybody is in the running. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) are likely to come in first, with the Social Democrats (current coalition partners) also likely to come in second. One of the tricky parts comes afterward: putting together a coalition that can command a majority in the parliament. Right now, there’s a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties. They don’t really want to work together, but that’s how the math turned out last time.

Her main opponent, Martin Schulz, is the top candidate of the Social Democrats. Previously he was head of their faction in the European Parliament (Brussels and Strasbourg), and in fact president of the European Parliament. His candidacy is a good thing for a number of reasons, though I will be surprised if he and the Social Democrats win by becoming the largest part in Germany’s parliament.

The far-right party, AfD, also looks likely to get into the national parliament. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons; on the other hand, it’s not surprising that far-right voters make up something like 5%-10% of the German electorate. If anything, that’s pleasingly low. But! It will be the first time that a far-right party has made it into parliament (despite what some people say about the Bavarian part of the Christian Democrats), and that’s disappointing enough. It may also mean that there are six parties in parliament, which makes putting together a coalition challenging. Not least because the Social Democrats are still holding fast to their pledge not to work with The Left at the national level. (The Left are, several name changes later, the successors to East Germany’s Communists. Back in the old days in East Germany, the Communists went after Social Democrats with special vigor, sending some to Siberia and putting others in camps that had recently been vacated by the actual Nazis. So one can see why the Social Democrats would not want to work with them.)

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, isn’t it?


[friend says no, please go on]

One of key things about refugees is that every — *every* — family in Germany has a refugee story of some sort. Grandparents had to leave the Baltics after the war, uncle so-and-so fled East Germany before the Wall went up, sister-in-law was a Transylvania Saxon and left Romania after the fall of Communism, babysitter is Jewish and from Ukraine, and on and on. Merkel told everyone here to remember, and people did. It was hugely important, all the more so coming from a conservative party, from a German conservative party. The repercussions are still playing out, but it was and is a genuine big deal.

Between the wars, there was a party called the Catholic Center, and they did not discredit themselves as badly during the rise of the Nazis as the other conservative parties did. After the war, the Center and some Protestant groupings essentially fused into the Christian Democrats. There are numerous Christian Democratic parties across Europe — Italy’s essentially ran the country for the better part of 40 years, and they have formed governments in Holland and Belgium, maybe parts of Scandinavia as well. With national conservatism discredited by ties to fascism and collaboration during the war, these parties emerged as an acceptable face of conservatism. (They also embraced democracy, which pre- and inter-war conservative parties often had not.) Their ties are to established churches, so they are a lot mellower than your Alabama Bible thumper.

Yes, the Social Democrats (SPD – Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) correlate most closely with the Democrats. By some measures, they are older than Germany, as some of the organizations that became the SPD were founded before Bismarck pulled off his unification trick. They are generally leftier than the US Democrats; they were an out-and-out Marxist party until 1958, and they are still observers in the Socialist International (and were members until 2013). On the other hand, they have been part of a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU for eight of the 12 years she has been Chancellor. So they have the tricky task of needing to campaign as opposition while being a part of the government.

I think we are about to find out how well proportional representation (PR) serves Germany. For the first few decades after the war, there were basically three parties at the national level: CDU, SPD and the Free Democrats (FDP). One of the big parties governed in coalition with the FDP. Changes in government came about by changes in the coalition in parliament, and they were ratified afterward by the voters. West German improved on Weimar’s setup in two important ways (well, more than that, but two for now). First, parties had to win at least 5% of the national vote to be represented in parliament by PR. That kept the number of parties low; a fractured parliament had been a big problem under Weimar’s constitution. Second, a government could not be brought down by parliament without its replacement being proposed. This “constructive vote of no confidence” is different from the practice in most other Western European parliamentary systems.

In the 1980s, the Greens found a permanent place in national politics, making it four parties in parliament. These had a rough left-right breakdown, with SPD/Green on the left and CDU/FDP on the right. It’s interesting to note that the first time that German voters actually turfed out a government on their own was in 1998, when they voted SPD/Green in to replace CDU/FDP. In the mid- to late 1990s, the former communists returned to political importance in Germany, as they did in all other post-communist countries in Europe. (That Germany is also a post-communist country is underappreciated, not least in Germany itself.) They mainly get votes in the former Eastern Germany, out of a combination of regional identity, old loyalists, and protest voting. So that meant five parties in parliament, and made the left-of-center’s task of assembling a majority trickier because the mainstream left would not go into coalition with the further left. (Because of the persecutions mentioned above. The SPD is serious about this, too. They have failed to gain power in some states because in secret ballots state legislators won’t vote for a left-left coalition. In at least one case, iirc, SPD legislators had relatives who had been repressed by the communists, and could not bring themselves to vote for ruling together with the communists’ successors.)

On Sunday, if the AfD gets in (and polls suggest they will), there will be six parties in parliament. Nobody will work with them because they are Nazi assholes taking Russian money, but their presence will make coalition building more difficult, in that there will be fewer mainstream seats available to reach an absolute majority.

I think Germany’s parliament works better together because there is still respect for the informal norms (not least because of historical memory about what can happen when norms are trashed for partisan gain), and because all of the parties really do want to govern. There are also fewer veto points than in the US system (although there are more than in, say, the UK). Further, there is no real expectation that it will be necessary to work across party lines. A government has a majority, and it pursues its program. There is some tinkering around the edges because (1) a junior partner may wish to keep its options open for future coalitions; (2) Germany is federal, and the upper house is shaped by the make-up of state legislatures, so the government will not necessarily have a majority in the upper house; (3) Germany’s courts place a noticeable role in shaping how legislation is applied; and (4) other things I haven’t thought of right now.

True story: In 1998 or so, I told a young producer for 60 Minutes that Merkel had no chance of becoming Chancellor because she had negative charisma. So count me among the many, many people who have underestimated her. My only defense is that seven years (several eternities in TV time) did in fact pass before she became Chancellor, so I was correct at the time if wrong in the long run.

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‘The Real Story in This Mess Is Not the Threat That Algorithms Pose to Amazon Shoppers, but the Threat That Algorithms Pose to Journalism’

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Maciej Ceglowski, demolishing a “news” story that spread around the world claiming that Amazon’s suggestions were helping people make bombs, when in fact they were helping people conduct high school chemistry experiments: 

The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

There is no real penalty for making mistakes, but there is enormous pressure to frame stories in whatever way maximizes page views. Once those stories get picked up by rival news outlets, they become ineradicable. The sheer weight of copycat coverage creates the impression of legitimacy. As the old adage has it, a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.

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Anatomy of a Moral Panic
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The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society

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Workers-at-Scop-Ti-in-southern-France

John Bellamy Foster in Monthly Review:

The narrative found today in every neoclassical economics textbook portrays work in purely negative terms, as a disutility or sacrifice. Sociologists and economists often present this as a transhistorical phenomenon, extending from the classical Greeks to the present. Thus Italian cultural theorist Adriano Tilgher famously declared in 1929: “To the Greeks work was a curse and nothing else,” supporting his claim with quotations from Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, and other figures, together representing the aristocratic perspective in antiquity.

With the rise of capitalism, work was seen as a necessary evil requiring coercion. Thus in 1776, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations defined labor as a sacrifice, which required the expenditure of “toil and trouble…of our own body.” The worker must “always lay down…his ease, his liberty, and his happiness.” A few years earlier, in 1770, an anonymous treatise entitled an Essay on Trade and Commerce appeared, written by a figure (later thought to be J. Cunningham) whom Marx described as “the most fanatical representative of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie.” It advanced the proposition that to break the spirit of independence and idleness of English laborers, ideal “work-houses” should be established imprisoning the poor, turning these into “houses of terror, where they should work fourteen hours a day in such fashion that when meal time was deducted there should remain twelve hours of work full and complete.” Similar views were promoted in subsequent decades by Thomas Robert Malthus, leading to the New Poor Law of 1834.

Neoclassical economic ideology today treats the question of work as a trade-off between leisure and labor, downplaying its own more general designation of work as a disutility in order to present it as a personal financial choice, and not the result of coercion. Yet it remains true, as German economist Steffen Rätzel observed in 2009, that at bottom “work,” in neoclassical theory, “is seen as a bad necessary to create income for consumption” (italics added).

This conception of work, which derives much of its power from the alienation that characterizes capitalist society, has of course been challenged again and again by radical thinkers. Such outlooks are neither universal nor eternal, nor is work to be regarded simply as a disutility—though the conditions of contemporary society tend to make it one, and thus necessitate coercion.

More here.

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The end of the Eyadéma Dynasty in Togo?

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Image via UN Photo Flickr.

The latest installment of the Republic of Togo’s on-again off-again political crisis appears to have a little more heft than usual. Over the past several weeks, tensions have escalated between the government and a coalition of opposition parties and activists. Large-scale rallies, marches and gatherings have sprung up in a number of cities around the country. With the internet and cellular technology suspended by the Ministry of Information, signs suggest that this may be blossoming into a serious threat to the half-century-long Eyadéma dynasty.

Several historical markers point provide some context for this simmering tension. The first elected regime of Sylvanus Olympio ignored many issues affecting Togolese beyond those of interest to its southern Ewe ethnic stronghold, and quickly devolved into authoritarianism. Olympio’s government was the first sub-Saharan nation to fall victim to a military coup d’état, and from 1967 the military presidency of Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his in a one-party state under the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) became a loyal western satellite. Under Eyadéma, political dissidence was brutally suppressed; tens of thousands were summarily executed or “disappeared” by rigidly loyal Kabyé ethnic kinsmen and their allies. Many hundreds of thousands fled abroad, creating large exile communities who continue to fund opposition activities. The short-lived democratic multiparty experiment in the early 1990s collapsed in further bloodshed. And after Eyadéma’s son Faure assumed power, he maintained the fiercely faithful ethnic superstructure of the economic and political realms inherited after his father’s death in 2005. He even elevated his father’s chief of security, the notorious brutal torturer Lieutenant Colonel Yark Damehame, to the role of Ministre de la Sécurité.

The current unrest began in mid-August when a new coalition of opposition activists declared a joint national protest action. Unlike previous demonstrations — planned, permitted, spontaneous or otherwise confined to the south and to known opposition strongholds — this particular action involved events in more urban locales, Sokodé, Kara, Bafilé, Anie, and the capital and largest city, Lomé. The new protests explicitly demanded term limits on the presidency and an end to the “Gnassingbé dynasty.” These events quickly overwhelmed the police, who along with pro-government militias used lethal force to disperse demonstrators in Sokodé, with as many as seven or more killed. Police and gendarmes also injured and arrested many others, including Sama Kossi, the secretary general of the relatively marginal opposition Pan African National Party.

Researchers often use Togo’s political history as a template for understanding post-independence African political instability. A north-south tension was coopted by Eyadéma; he appealed to ethnic and clan allegiance in times of crisis, but smoothed it over when national unity was his goal. The ethnic divisions in terms of economic, political, educational, and security apparatuses are palpable. Political power and the security apparatus have long been dominated by the RPT and Eyadéma loyalists; while educational and economic privileges have remained the domain of southerners. And even after the father to son delegation of power resulted in a certain relaxation on the part of the more oppressive paramilitary entities, Fauré’s reshaped RPT, the Union pour la République (UNIR) continues to maintain a stranglehold on government. 

The death of protesters is hardly news in Togo. Several were killed in Lomé in February 2017, and a number of others shot dead in Mangu in 2016. Not a single Togolese policeman, soldier, or gendarme has ever been charged with, let alone prosecuted for extrajudicial killing. Amnesty International and other NGOs have long decried the culture of complete impunity that operated under Eyadéma’s dictatorship and continues today under that of Faure. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial killings, Manfred Nowak, condemned Faure’s utter reluctance to address criminal actions by Togolese government forces; and Togo has admitted it tortures before the UN Human Rights Council. But this particular massacre appears to have dramatically recast the opposition’s platform by thrusting Tikpi Atchadam, President of the Pan African National Party, to national prominence. Whereas until now, Jean-Pierre Fabre, the head of the Alliance Nationale pour le Changement (ANC), was the titular lead of the national coalition opposition, the rise of Atchadam forecloses criticism that this unrest is simply sponsored by the disgruntled southern Ewe community.

A second unusual component of the unrest is the platform of demands. Protesters marching in the streets have long demanded the “démission” of Faure, just as they did his father. But the call for the re-imposition of term limits is a marked departure. Term limits were introduced in Togo during the National Conference in 1991-92, which briefly saw Eyadéma relinquish power, only to violently return in 1994. Eyadéma pretended to adhere to term limits, but then had them stripped from the constitution (by a single supermajority vote in the single-chamber assembly his party controlled with 95% of the seats). When French President Jacques Chirac visited Togo, he extracted a public concession to abide by term limits; Chirac himself was remaking the French constitution, and questions were raised about his own intentions too. So it was no surprise when Eyadéma reneged on his pledge. When his son seized power, he copied the actions and attempted actions of many of his neighbors, such as the former presidents of Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Benin.

Faure is now in the second year of a third term. His UNIR party has drafted a constitutional change re-imposing limits. But it may be a case of too little too late. Faure may find himself emulating Burkina Faso’s presidential transition more closely than he planned, and much earlier than he thought possible.

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The Great Africanstein Novel

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Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s magisterial first novel Kintu continually diverts us from our preconceptions about Africa. Despite the generalizing and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to universal questions. But as its two-faced title—man/thing—suggests, Kintu does in fact have a grand philosophical question in mind. The novel forces us to reckon over and again with what it means to be kintu, to be man, or human.
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Functional Defenestration

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It’s almost been a Friedman unit since I published anything in this joint so, with due deference to that old standby public service pamphlet, What everyone should know about blog depression, and a head nod to Bertrand Russell's note In Praise of Idleness, here goes some throat-clearing toli.

I. Defanging Satire (or Editorial Genuflections in the Internet Age)


Defanging satire in the age of the internet (New Yorker edition)

A highly paid editor at The New Yorker is now intervening to neuter the bite of Andy Borowitz's normally savage satire. The first injury came a few months ago with the retitling of the column and RSS feed from "The Borowitz Report" to "Satire from The Borowitz Report" as if to say “we must protect you from being a moron in a hurry”. Then the lasting, almost fatal, wound was the recent move to change the contents of the feed summary, which used to be the first few sentences of the article, to instead actively bash you over the head with a spoiler warning that each article is "a satirical report". Apparently the reader needs to be informed upfront that they are about to read a humorous article and protected from the dire possibility of being spoofed.

In other words, even for the most potent source of written content (and the New Yorker proclaims itself to have "the best writing anywhere"), it now of paramount importance to maintain its listing as a Google News "source" (and now with Facebook's Zuckerberg apparently faking concern about clickbait and fake news and the like, the audience needs to be coddled). The bean counters (and search engine optimizers) have run the numbers and, on the evidence, it is clear that telegraphing an article's intentions, and blunting its impact is worth the downside risk and what, I rather think, is grievous damage to art.

Up until a few months ago, the feed summary would have been the following (a pithy defenestration of age-old hypocrisy)

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — The pornography industry has likely suffered permanent damage as a result of its unfortunate association with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, industry sources said on Tuesday.

It is soul-deadening to contemplate the considerable effort expended to actively sabotage noble hatchet jobs.

The only concession to art is that the editor didn't additionally prepend "Satire" to article titles as I noticed smaller publications starting to do routinely 12 or so years when Google News started being a dominant source of web traffic.

And here Dear Reader, as I wrote the foregoing sentence and began winding up to a thoroughgoing rant, I realized that I had been down this path before. Indeed I left a community (Blogcritics) back when its writing guidelines started to ask that writers explicitly tag their work and the site started messing with titles. The injunction then was that we needed to telegraph and prefix "Satire" to titles '(if you "make things up" or "bend the truth" notably to make a point, or for comedic effect)'.

Searching through the archives, I even found a cri de cœur written on the topic, Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons, a jeremiad-in-vain as it soon became a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.

It is a disappointing development a decade later, that ostensibly powerful media outlets have thoroughly succumbed, even as one cannot deny their economic logic, pace Buzzfeed. And yet I remain a maximalist on the issue.

The story, I suppose, is about capitalism in the internet age. Per Jeff Hammerbacher by way of Allen Ginsberg, it is a case of "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads". Per contra, we could harken back to Slim Charles's folk wisdom from The Wire: "Game's the same, just got more fierce."

The existential question posed is how do we weigh the competing demands of popularity (as expressed by the Google News imperative) against whimsy (as expressed in satire). Sacrificing whimsy at the altar of attention is not a price worth paying, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. Needless to say, I dissent.

II. Attention Mongering

Apropos attention, for a good decade, say right up to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and much to my consternation, a note I had hastily written On the importance of biting satire was regularly the top search result on Google about satire. It has since found its proper obscurity, but my unexpected Googlejuice in the interim meant that the occasional student writing a term paper on “why satire matters”, “significance of satire”, “importance of satire” etc. would start mining this blog.

The early web was a great equalizer, one in which my rants occasionally trumped the combined insights of Jonathan Swift, Will Self and the like, hell even the encyclopedic Wikipedia was lagging in the Anglophone internet. Even as Jon Stewart and company started a revival of the satiric tradition in America, the clicks kept coming my way.

I don't know if I ultimately managed to convince 15 readers of the paramount importance of savage satire as opposed to the milder form that Americans favor, but I feel my ultimate insight is worth restating:

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound. The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

III. On Satire

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality.

Will Self - Junk Mail
[Will] Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. "What excites me," he has said, "is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable"

— Gillian Glover, as quoted in Brian Finney's The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression.
Of all the gifts of the pen perhaps the most fraught with danger is that which resolves itself into satire. It is indeed difficult to distinguish between cynicism and satire, perhaps the former is born of disappointment perhaps the latter is born of humour. Let it remain so and it cannot be called debased, let it become cold and let it die.

— Patrick Braybrooke writing on Hilaire Belloc as Essayist in Some Thoughts On Hilaire Belloc

Instability fundamentally disturbs markets which is why even the threat of boycotts so unmans even the most cynical modern corporations. The reverse of the coin however is that whimsy, that most valuable human concern, and its close counterpart satire thrive as disturbances to the mundanity of life. Reconciling whimsy in all its messiness to the demands of hard-nosed capitalism remains a struggle and yet struggle we must. For better or worse, we must humanize capitalism.

IV. Orphaned Thoughts

I once spent forty minutes on a subway sitting opposite a group of engineers and salespeople that worked at Functional Fenestration. They were attending a conference in Oakland about window hardware and automation, of all things. I was fascinated with their technical argot, the intricacies of the actuators, track and carriage systems and door automation that they were discussing. I marveled at the engineering arcana, and the fact that the windows and doors that we take for granted could have such complexity. Their deconstruction of the merits of some of their competitor's offerings and their strategizing about how to market the new feature of whatever widget they had just come up with (a slide handler if I remember correctly) drew me in. The intensity of the back and forth between the marketers and the technical folks reminded me of a comedy of manners of sorts, office politics writ large. Hypnotized as I was by the language and the context, I immediately imagined a novel or short story, something in the vein of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and the title came unbidden, Functional Defenestration.

Most ideas are destined to be half-formed and ultimately, I never got beyond the few pages scribbled in my Moleskine, a meditation about a man unmoored by capitalism. The first sentence remains:

Man, it was hard to compete against those guys at Functional Fenestration, they were intense.
Run with it.

Soundtrack for this note

A playlist for those tilting at windmills.

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