It’s that season again, hope, goodwill among men, obligatory. It occasions all sorts of uncharacteristic behaviour.
Thousands see the inside of a church only during this season, Easter, and Mother’s Day. The pews fill with vacant, ecstatic smiles and Oris Root.
Television trots out Christmas Carol, or, in a nod to modernity and comic relieve, Scrooged, but the message’s the same. Everywhere, candles glow white and gold. On cue the media brings forth those delightful colour commentators the media seems to warehouse for such occasions, to pronounce thoughtful, wise but suitably empathetic commentary on topics ranging from soup kitchens to homeless. They might even display an income distribution chart safely tucked away the rest of the year.
Old rock stars release compilations of old rock stars singing old Christmas standards. Or Old Country stars, to taste. If one is too cultured for these, there’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Vienna’s Boys Choir, or Jim Neighbours in Honolulu. On the other hand, if one was stamped “different” from birth, there is, of course, Celtic Women. The ringing in my ears is the every present sleigh bells ring-a-jing jingling in perpetual loops at my local coffee shop.
Everyone and everything has become bloody, nauseatingly warm and rosy.
There is coincidentally a sudden torrent of religious piety from literally unbelievable sources. It certainly spins the dial of politics. Prime Ministers lecture clerics on the proper role of the church. That role is, of course, to reinforce the politician’s concept of social order. It is, above all, not to question his government’s policy, especially if that policy is to screw benefits scroungers. I mean, what is the church for, anyway, if it isn’t moral order?
Occasionally a politician may correctly cite a section of Scripture for the meaning for which it was written. On these occasions, it is invariably from somewhere deep within the law and order portions of the Old Testament. The passage is invariably irrelevant to anything to do with the teachings of Jesus, serving to offer the politician a loose cloak of retained if vague memories from Summer Church School.
But I should be more charitable. It is Christmas. It is hard to remember that musty old book through the haze of all those parties at college. What college is for, but that’s another rant.
I think it may pay to be Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, anything but Christian during these Prime Ministerial moments of piety. Especially if you are sufficiently accursed to actually have read the teachings with a thought to understand them. You find what is left of your teeth ground to the root overnight.
This season of obligatory hope and cheer can be very hard on people. Where have I heard that before?
The above-it-all mutter about the true meaning of Christmas beneath their breaths, refusing to be corrupted into rampant consumer lust, an easy virtue in this time of austerity. There are gifts of hand made items instead. Still gifts, but you were expecting maybe Scrooge, were you? The seasonally affected grasp a blanket. Maybe if they pull the covers over their heads it will all go away.
BBC and CNN dig into the warehouse to produce a psychologist or two to explain, as if for the first time and to a four year old, the impact of the season on some. At such times I recommend firmly stepping away from the channel, switching to DVD, and starting a good movie. I recommend What About Bob for this occasion. Go with that.
But one basic truth remains concerning the impact of this season on affect. No one remains unaffected. The obligation to be cheerful meets the least naturally cheerful time of the year. The warehouse is sure to disclose an expert in myth to explain that the holidays were always designed that way in response to Solstice, or something like that.
This year we have the additional elements of worldwide war, famine, political upheaval, and disease. In short, situation normal. Well no, not quite normal. There is that little thing called the onset of another Great Depression. There, that ought to do you for this bloody cheerfulness business.
I suppose it is time for the schmaltzy, hope-in-the-darkness turn to the narrative.
Just as I am about to protest, I will not do yet another schmaltzy, hope-in-the-darkness turn in the narrative, a little voice opens up inside my head. It sings “Little Drummer Boy,” the Black Eyed Peas version.
Are those candles I see before me?
I can see row on row of little white candles set inside red glass votives, glowing yellow in the darkness, casting their reflection across a golden oak railing, highlighting a statuette of a Virgin and a child. No, I am not Roman Catholic. But I do have memories of a desperate moment in my life where the only thing between me and oblivion was such an alcove.
I’m humming now. Damn, I’m all bloody, nauseatingly tingly warm and rosy.
It happens every year at this time. The truth is, it has nothing to do with what is going on outside or inside anyone else but me. Hope is an internal mechanism not an externally caused event.
Hope is also not faith. Faith is a term we give to behaviour acting on a commitment acting on a deal with the divine, often entered into so long ago we have little retained memory of the event.
Hope is a well spring of energy that picks us up when we fall down. Hope is a Toddler getting up to walk again.
Many of us tonight occupy that uncomfortable and ill defined place between letting go of what has been and did not work, or did work and is completed, and finding something new and exciting with which to begin again, vaguely suspicious it isn’t out there. Our discomfort is nothing beside that of the multitude who will never again find a new and exciting anything. But it is our discomfort.
Pretty much like clockwork the new beginnings come.
But maybe not this year. The West at least, if not the entire globe, rolls into this year’s holiday season in a somber mood. The mood music is more 1812 Overture in fear of a Night on Bald Mountain than Silent Night. We seem at times to be holding onto a rope, wanting to cling to it just long enough to make it through New Year. We expect that the other side of New Year we must let go, and that when we do there will be no safety net beneath us.
Anyone who said this was not a scary time would be giving false comfort. It is a scary time.
Anyone who said this is all going to work out, it will all be fine, would be giving false comfort. We don’t know how it will work out.
But that has nothing to do with hope, or why this season brings hope. This season brings hope because hope is the healthy response to the insurmountable challenge. And hope has proved itself. It has moved our species forward, time and again, against seemingly insurmountable challenges.
No one can guarantee the future success of you, yours, the nation, the world, life as we know it. But we can light a candle in a votive. That candle’s glow may cheer someone who has come anonymous and alone in a desperate moment. That cheer may become hope, and it is hope that moves us forward to beat the odds.
But what is objective physics of hope? Where’s the science to the religion? Empathy may be the divine wind, sympathy the still, small voice. But acting on these, and you acting accordingly, constitutes the true G*d particle in the physics of hope.
Santa Claus is in a tizzy. Less than 24 hours to tweak the Big List, to endorse or reverse the Big Decisions. Who’s been naughty? Who’s been nice? Who gets the nifty gifts? Who gets the air-polluting coal?
Coal! It’s a symbol of the worst kind of hell, the hell of exclusion from the goodies. If you don’t get into heaven, which is the ultimate A-list, you are going to feel destroyed, even if you aren’t freezing or broiling (coal-assisted) à la Dante or Revelations. Humiliating!
Of course, there’s the bribery route for persuading Santa to change his mind and bestow the dreamy gifts where they weren’t intended. The tubby old guy is a sucker for a plate of Christmas cookies. Ho! Ho! Ho! Pecan delights!
Congress is like that, too. Lavishly heaped platters of cookies produce legislation that lets greedy bankers and financiers off the hook for unethical behavior. Probably, if you’re in the mind for precedent, the magi who presented those costly gifts to the Christ child made out pretty well, too. No coals for them on earth, although it's hard not to hope for a heavenly balancing of the books. Especially in regard to those bankers whose giant-sized stockings are stuffed to overflowing after they’ve lavished millions on Cookies for Congress and Sweets for the Senate. The Senate! The Congress! I’m referring to those people who are supposed to be our representatives, but aren’t really, because all we have to offer is votes. Votes! Bah humbug!
As for those unemployed voters who can’t offer a single oatmeal cookie because they can barely afford a bowl of Cheerios for their kids this year, our well fed and financed representatives aren’t in the mood to play Santa Claus. They’ve turned into a bunch of grinches instead. Tax cuts for the wealthy will be protected, but the extension of the payroll tax holiday isn’t flying so well. For the wealthy: let them eat caviar. For the poor: let them pay taxes. What's more, there may not be enough coal to go around, either. Not that the reindeer will complain. Fewer visits to make this Christmas eve.
Well, let’s face it, the poor have been naughty, haven’t they? They’ve failed to take advantage of every individual’s responsibility to make full use of America’s equal opportunity to achieve the American dream of goodies galore all year round. Some of the indigent have shown themselves to be spectacularly inept at keeping the miserable subsidies they’ve had in the past. All their begging hasn’t produced enough funds for patching the holes in the safety net, while those clever clever plutocrats seem to have no trouble holding on to their oil and gas subsidies. And bankers’ salaries have increased this year! Wow! Those guys know how to work the system! I wonder how many cases of fine old Scotch were included with the butter cookies they set out for Congress this year.
Meanwhile, poor old Santa, stuck up there by the North Pole, where the ice cap under his workshops and warehouses is melting away. He can’t rely on snail mail any more because it’s getting slower and slower. As for his satellite internet service, it’s been cut off by the U.S. government, on the grounds that terrorists might use it. Fortunately, he and the elves got their flu shots before the government decided that terrorists might benefit from scholarly information sharing. So, in the next few years, they'll be dying of natural flu instead. Us, too. How wonderful it is to be so well taken care of.
To return to the main subject, even Santa's life style has indeed come under threat. Once upon a time the Pole was a safe quiet place. Santa had a Scandinavian-style ice palace to snuggle into at the end of a long hard night’s work. He had his cookies and Single Malt served by acquiescent elves, before he did a little (um) spooning with the babe who replaced Mrs. Claus a few years ago. And yet he’s not entirely innocent when it comes to global warming from generously subsidized carbon emissions.
That's right. Don’t be fooled by the reindeer mystique. Santa’s a slave to the new technology, a carbon criminal from his fur lined boots to his fur lined hat. That sleigh? Looks traditional from the outside, maybe, but it’s jet-assisted (the Europeans may increase his landing fees), and Rudolph’s inflamed nose is hide-it-in-plain-sight camouflage for radar, sonar and a super powerful tasar to take out undercover operatives, who have been making inroads on his plum pudding and Glenfiddich. And move over, Google maps! No more guesswork with deliveries. Santa has acquired a fleet of drones to keep tabs on all of us all the time (except in Europe where people have a peculiar hang up about privacy).
What’s more, Santa's drone-mounted super-fast computers do instant analysis. One teensy little bad move unaccompanied by an iron-clad IOU for macaroons and do-re-mi, and you move to the Coal List. It’s a fail-safe system, which Santa picked up from the USG. You can’t have too much surveillance, if you want to be in control of the game.
Well, I guess that’s about all for now. Have a happy (religious or purely cultural) Christmas. I have an unbreakable date with a bag of chocolate chips. Got to bake some cookies.
Kudos to the Foreign Service Journal for “When the USSR Fell: The Foreign Service on the Front Lines,” a special section of articles by several US government officials from longtime US-Russia specialist and Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock to Embassy Moscow Political Officer Thomas Graham. These individuals really did know what US government officials knew about the Soviet Union’s impending collapse and when they knew it.
As FSJ Associate Editor Shawn Dorman points out in his introduction to this special section:
“Conventional wisdom has it that the United States was caught off guard by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. “No one saw it coming” is a common refrain. But it is false.”
One FSJ account after another supports Dorman’s observation. Yet “The Excerpt from the Abyss Cable,” a cable drafted by Minister Counselor for Political Affairs Raymond F. Smith, transmitted to Washington on July 13, 1990 and subsequently declassified by the State Department entitled: “Looking into the Abyss – the Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should be Doing About It” (p. 37) is perhaps the strongest refutation of “the conventional wisdom” that I’ve read.
Smith’s “Abyss Cable,” by the way, would not have appeared on Wikileaks – it had been classified SECRET/Exdis – a far more restrictive classification to which the Wikileaks leaker would not have had access.
Aron began that article entitled “Everything you Think You Know about the Collapse of the Soviet Is Wrong” by claiming that “in the years leading up to 1991, virtually no western expert, scholar, official or politician foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union. . . "
FP, which wisely advises prospective authors that it fact-checks, obviously hadn’t done enough in Aron’s case. Maybe it was the summer help – it was July after all. Or maybe the editorial staff simply failed to do its job. Or maybe it’s because AEI and its neoconservative stable of so called foreign policy experts are highly effective at promoting their own views - whether accurate or not.
Tampering with the ballot box can be hazardous to the health.
It’s bad enough that on September 24, Vladimir Putin cavalierly announced he would take over – yet again – as Russia’s President but the spark that brought tens of thousands of Russian protestors into the streets last Sunday for the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1991 were eye-witness reports and amateur videos of blatant election fraud filmed – and then Youtubed - by ordinary Russian citizens with camera phones and other video equipment during the previous week’s Russian parliamentary elections.
It was just twenty years ago that Russians had similarly taken to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the hijacking of the Soviet government by three drunken clowns er Communist Party coup makers which, had they succeeded, could have sent the world back to the coldest times of the Cold War. That was the first popular Russian uprising filmed by western television – and it was made for CNN’s new 24/7 broadcast format. It was also viewed in Moscow in real time.
The lid went back on slowly but relentlessly eleven years ago – the Russian media that had been unchained by Gorbachev and freed by Yeltsin – was put under wraps by Putin ostensibly to stabilize and make the country secure again but in reality to reinstitute his one-party strong man rule – something a majority of Russians, according to the polls, seemed to crave.
This was not the first time Russia’s parliamentary elections had been rigged by the Putin government and the opposition muzzled. Similar tactics had been used in 2007. But public outrage at that time was invisible. Putin’s popularity then was reported to be an astronomical 80%. It had dropped to around 60% this year – lower by a good 20 percentage points – but still high enough for United Russia to expect to win a clear majority at the polls.
Ballot box stuffing and other electoral shenanigans, therefore, made no sense – unless the pollsters were lying or voters had lied to the pollsters. Yet no one’s made that claim.
The $10,000 question is: Why did the authorities think they needed to employ such unnecessary – and possibly - counterproductive tactics to keep power in the hands of the already powerful? Or maybe it wasn’t fear but rather arrogance and maybe it was election officials taking things into their own hands – just to be 128% certain that the results would turn out to please their boss in good old Soviet fashion. Or not.
Today the European Union has a tentative deal from its latest make or break summit. No one pretends this deal addresses the Eurozone's current debt crisis. Its framers argue it fashions a framework of fiscal discipline needed in order for the Eurozone to address its crisis by ensuring the crisis cannot repeat.
26 of 27 European Union nations have either signed on or signed on to take it to their Parliaments recommending signing on. 1 nation, the UK, dissented.
It is premature to declare 1) Mission Accomplished, 2) the end of life as we know it, or 3) what the details will look like in March when the final plan is adopted or crumbles. It is also premature to reason that the deal paves the way for the markets' cherished “Big Bazooka,” much less the growing demand for a “Growth Plan.” And the deal does nothing immediate for European nations currently struggling with amping interest rates and declining economies.
Since last night, the UK and Europe have been abuzz with what it all means. Conversation tends to focus on Prime Minister David Cameron's decision not to play, with the Left, foolishly I will suggest, attacking Cameron for how he handled the negotiations. Does the Left really want to be included in the deal on the table? I think not.
But more of this subsequently.
Not many consider the doctrine of unintended consequences. But in all the right and relevant discussion, I thought I'd share with you all some things I think important.
The plan, if the plan is finally adopted and truly enforced, appears to call for deficits to be reduced to no more than 3% of GDP. That target already exists, but the Treaty calls for semiautomatic sanctions and central budgetary controls.
There is an ambiguity in the Treaty language as to the application of the cap to deficits currently in excess of 3% of GDP. This is, I suspect, a critical question. Reportedly, 23 of the 26 potential members of the new “fiscal union” have already exceeded the cap in the past Assuming the provision continues to mean what it is touted as meaning, this provision would require 23 of the prospective 26 member states to immediately sharpen their pencils. The result would be subject to budgetary review and control.
Budgetary review and control coupled with banking regulations, all out of Brussels, was the reason David Cameron refused to join. His stated object was to protect “The City” from the regulations. Sarcozy's sarcastic counter was that the leaders of the new fiscal union believe deregulation of finance was a major contributing cause to the current situation.
There is some appeal to a left of center thinker in what Sarcozy says. However, the serious prospect of Franco-German Conservatives effectively taking control of European budgets and thereby social policy causes immediate twinge. But that is not to me even the most interesting bit. With a flip of a coin in public opinion it would be Socialist control. Or something entirely different. That is an issue of policy not structure.
The most interesting bit for me is the application of the 3% rule.
Turkey’s courting of Europe was pathetic while it lasted. For years the so-called sick man of Europe tried to prove itself worthy of joining the European Union. No sooner were requirements set and all but fulfilled than the goal posts were moved. Former Soviet satellites (much of their territory previously part of the Ottoman empire, at that) with more fragile economies, weaker democratic institutions and far more corruption went sprinting by and won the prize, but Turkey was expected to wait, wait, wait, then kowtow some more, because in truth Europe wasn’t so sure it wanted Turkey in the club.
It was painful to watch, and I for one wondered what the Turks were thinking. I know what I was thinking: If the members think so little of you during the application process, how nice are they going to be even if they eventually let you in? No doubt the Turkish guest workers in Germany were hoping that the parent country would make the cut, but no one else was all that eager, although diplomatic rectitude reigned.
The Impressive E. U. Vision
Even I could understand the E.U. goal, for Turkey, back then. The very creation of the European Union seemed so miraculous after the wars of the 20th century. The coming of the Euro, though not all EU countries signed on, was surely a sign of ultimate consolidation. Suddenly it seemed as if there were going to be a Western power to rival and balance the U.S. Why wouldn’t Turkey want to be part of that, politically? And Turkish business was ready, too.
Americans, ambivalent at best about the rise of a powerfully consolidated E.U., were already criticizing individual European countries for allocating too much to social services and not enough to defense, thanks to America’s post World War II commitment to European security. With Europeans so well off now, U.S. defense analysts complained, they should bear the financial burden of defending their territory and values. It didn’t help that Europe continued to produce the luxury goods that the rich, new and old, throughout the world, clamored for. Europe, to produce such products, much be rich indeed. Might not the magic wear off on them as new countries, including Turkey, were absorbed into the promising new political entity?
Bubbles Began Bursting
And then the world changed. Arabs forgot that they were supposed to be passive remnants of past history. Economic and financial bubbles were bursting all over the place. Already Turkey had found its voice in international affairs, and its economy, evidently, was on solider grounds than of major European countries, like Italy and Spain, to say nothing of peripherals like Greece and Ireland. So what had Europe to offer or teach Turkey? And to what country were many Arabs looking as an example of what they, too, might achieve?
No wonder this headline appeared in the New York Times last week: “For Turkey, Lure of Tie to Europe is Fading.”
The Flame Flickers
There’s a message here for the United States, I think. Like Europe, the U.S. has rested on once deserved laurels for too long. Worse, perhaps, the U.S. has drifted far far away from the post World War II ideals that inspired the world by actualizing a vibrant, virtually classless democracy, where nearly everybody could live comfortably, aspire to higher education, have leisure time to enjoy. This sad decadence (that has nothing to do with sex) has been noticed even in Latin America, a part of the world that Americans used to regard as a hopeless backwater ruled by unsavory authoritarians. An op-ed by the Mexican scholar Jorge G. Castenada notes, not happily, that the U.S. economy is beginning to look more and more like the stagnant economies of a vanishing Latin America: the middle class is shrinking; its power is waning; an irresponsible small minority controls the lion’s share of national wealth.
Castenada goes on to mention the remarkable rise of Brazil, of course, while reminding us of the longer-standing accomplishments of Chile. Other countries are close behind, he writes, not least his own Mexico, though hope must play a very strong role in this part of his vision.
This is how Castenada concludes: “Americans cannot retain the tolerant, forward-looking and innovative national character they cherish if they give up the egalitarian middle-class configuration that comes with it. Mexico and other Latin American lands are reshaping our national characters and democratic politics in our quest for a larger and more vibrant middle class, and at last we are having some success. The United States’ middle class is coming under increasing pressure as the income gap between it and the very rich widens. Do Americans really have nothing to learn from us, after we have learned so much from them?”
New Voices Can't Be Ignored
Who ever expected Turkey to spurn Europe? Who dreamed that Latin Americans would ever be in a position to tell the United States to shape up. As the song goes, "the times they are a changing." These are straws in the wind that are best not ignored.
(Wendi Maxwell looks behind the two-dimensional news stories to find the real motivations of the California Bay Area's radicals. Maxwell is a former policy maker for California adult literacy projects.)
If you’ve been wondering what direction the West Coast Occupy groups would take, the answer is here. Are they going to endorse a political candidate? Sponsor legislation? Lobby the government? Use their media time to deliver a well-honed message?
No. Occupy Oakland called for a West Coast Port Strike, and has been joined by cities up and down the West Coast. Together they plan to throw a wrench in the works of American capitalism by closing down the West Coast ports on December 12. Occupy groups from Alaska to Mexico - including Anchorage, Vancouver BC, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Oakland, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and San Diego - have all voted to stage a one-day blockade of the ports, closing them to land traffic, and halting shipping out of those ports for that day. It’s a massive flexing of grassroots power with an estimated loss to the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) and Goldman-Sachs of tens of millions of dollars for the one-day strike. (Photo left above: official poster of the December 12, 2011 port strike).
Do the Longshoremen support the port closures?
The West Coast Port Closures are an independent action taken by the Occupy groups, and are not supported by the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). In fact, the ILWU sent a formal memo to its 15,000 longshore members and leaders “emphasizing the union’s internal democratic process, and stating its rejection of third-party calls for job actions that have not been sanctioned by its Officers or voted on by member representatives.”
The ILWU is not affiliated with the Strike; the closures are organized and supported solely by Occupy groups in the cities involved. At first glance, this sounds like Occupy moved too quickly to declare the port strikes – either an act of naivete or of hubris. Dig a little deeper though, and you find this is the same thing that happened with the November 2 General Strike in Oakland. (See photo far right). That General Strike resulted in closing the Port of Oakland to truck and train traffic for the day, which in turn meant that ships could not be loaded. How did the ILWU react? (Photo left: Oakland port strike poster with sun in background)
Patricia Lee Sharpe Poet, journalist, teacher, foreign service officer with 23 years public diplomacy experience in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
Patricia H. Kushlis 27 years public diplomacy experience in Europe, Asia and Washington, DC as a US foreign service officer. International affairs writer, analyst and commentator.
John C. Dyer, UK correspondent Public Policy "wonk" with over 34 years public service experience, over 17 as state level policy counsel, legislative advocate and analyst. Writer. Poet. Dual citizen relocated to UK 2010. Follow on Twitter @JohnCharlesDyer