The Runoff

On yesterday’s elections: 1. the French have rejected both traditional parties in an election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. And 2. the pollsters largely got it right, which is more than can be said for their British and American counterparts these last couple years.

While the next two weeks are potentially fraught, for the moment the idea of a functioning European project survives. But headlines like

“Macron to ‘blow Le Pen out of the water’ in final round of French election – Not even a terrorist attack could increase Front National’s chances, experts believe”

in this morning’s Independent are exactly what forces of moderation don’t want to see over the next two weeks. Because, as Der Spiegel explains,

“if only a fraction of those who believe that Macron’s victory is a given end up staying home on May 7, then Le Pen has a shot at becoming France’s next president. Because there is one certainty that has survived: Front National supporters will turn out in force.”

While the periphery frays (Brexit, the Turkish referendum), you can at least make an argument this morning that the core still believes in the European idea. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this ‘blow her out of the water’ kind of loose talk. Two delicate weeks lie ahead for an entirely untested would-be leader in a world full of surprises.

The Turks, the French, the Ballot Box Gloom

As the sun swept the Anatolian plain last Sunday the margin of support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power grab slipped. For a moment I thought the responsibility for the future of the Republic could rest with urban, cosmopolitan, relatively liberal Istanbul.

Silly me. Before dark the futility of hoping good sense could prevail over the combined forces of rural conservatives and elite-controlled media became clear. The electoral commission’s decision, taken during voting, to allow unvalidated ballots to be counted meant the fix was in; the Erdogan forces deployed whatever votes they needed to assure the President’s continued power, likely until 2029.

You may be in your fourth decade of life in Harare and Robert Mugabe has always been your leader. It’s getting to be like that in our Turkish NATO ally. And for his trouble manipulating the referendum, Turkey’s leader has been rewarded with congratulations from the American president and a long-sought visit to Washington.

This kind of thing is going around. So far it’s mostly tinkering around the edges, tentative constricting of liberty, freedom, thought, in our country and abroad. No would-be despot is yet prepared to go full throat but in all countries everywhere, “line up behind me” is gaining cachet.

The West’s reigning pundits are sure of the cause: Our worldwide distemper reflects the various electorates’ rejection of globalization. More narrowly, I think, it seeks to demonstrate rejection of the decisions taken by leaders since the 2008 global financial crisis.

In our part of the world we talk a good game on the importance of freedom and individual rights, peace and harmony and opportunity and justice and sweetness and light. But what recent plebiscite shows reason for optimism for any of that? The Turkish referendum? Brexit? Trump? France?

Well now. France.

Should French political dissatisfaction send their country spinning into the arms of either extreme candidate (who in late polling cluster with the other, more conventional leaders, all within a few percent of one another), the Fifth Republic’s future heir to Charles de Gaulle may either:

– lead France out of the EU and into the Kremlin’s orbit under Marine Le Pen’s assiduously sanitized, formerly Jew-baiting, still alarmed-by-immigrants right, or

– lead France into the uncharted, hologramatic realm of La France Insoumise, equally out of the EU from the left via the man the horrified French right calls the French Chavez.

Far more so than in the U.S. and even in increasingly Little England (where the reliably Tory-horrified Guardian’s opinion page this week called the Prime Minister’s call for a general election a coup), in France the entire system-as-we’ve-known-it is up for grabs. The center right and center left, which have alternated power throughout the Fifth Republic, both smolder in shambles.

The candidate on the conventional right, battling grimly back here at the end, is mired in scandal, and the conventional left has come apart at the seams. The candidate put up by the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister’s party has spun his wheels, unable to get traction, while farther to the left the anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Mélanchon has come on strong, out of nowhere since my first handicapping three weeks ago.

Meanwhile the candidate desperately designated as the Gallant White Knight is an unproven 39 year old would-be maverick who has spent his entire life preparing inside the establishment. As a skeptical Dissent magazine summarizes, Emmanuel “Macron attended the prestigious Henri IV prep school in Paris. From there, he moved on to Sciences Po, a highly selective university that specializes in politics and international relations, before graduating from the ultra-elite École Nationale d’Administration, an institution that literally produces France’s ruling class.”

So what have we got? Who knows. French election watchers have begun to caution that ballots uncast in the first round may be more portentous than those cast, and that “polls showing Ms. Le Pen losing badly in a May 7 runoff election against either Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon (the two more conventional candidates) could be misleading.

There is some doubt whether supporters of Mélanchon on the far left could gin up enthusiasm to vote for establishment-bred Macron just to block the xenophobic Le Pen. At mid-week before Sunday’s first round, the Globe and Mail and Politico EU echoed this idea.

It all adds up, as the France 24 chyron has it three days before election day, to “total uncertainty.”

Also published here on Medium.com.

The Price to Be Paid for Vile Customer Service

When a constituency has been beaten down for long enough a crystallizing moment can prove fatal. Beware tonight, United Airlines. Beaten Down: Airline passengers. Average seat pitch formerly 35 inches, 31 now. Fees, fees and more fees. United Airlines, already last in customer satisfaction, richly deserves the pain coming from it’s just really ugly, unforgivable police action today.

The frowning, sometimes dimly-qualified, testosterone-pumped enforcement cowboys whose gauntlet you must run these days to all the airlines’ friendly skies may wish to think otherwise, but the interior of an airplane is not a war zone. Although you wouldn’t know it on this day.

Honest now, most likely United Airlines chairman Oscar Munoz, like a thousand other captains of industry, kissed his wife and kids and obeyed traffic rules this morning on the way to the office. There is no reason to believe he did anything besides look after his shareholders’ interests right up until, entirely outside his control, an incident occurred on board one of his planes waiting to leave O’Hare airport.

Mr. Munoz’s company needed four of its employees to be somewhere other than Chicago and all of the passengers declined to volunteer their bought and paid for seats for the airline’s benefit.

The airline tried to bargain with its customers. The first offer? $400. No takers. The second? $800. Again, no takers. People gotta go where they gotta go. Interesting to note: rules are, passengers are eligible for up to $1,350 for such a disruption but United Airlines apparently decided not to offer more than $800. They preferred to enlist strong men to haul a paying passenger from his seat instead.

It would appear that in the wake of the incident, after a wavering moment of incipient decency in which Chairman Munoz called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” the chairman tilted awry by calling the bumped passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” Said he, the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Oh, Lordy, whether the passenger was belligerent or not (and none of the emergent videos, see here, here, and here, demonstrate such), this was exactly, precisely, even perversely the wrong response.

The passenger declined to be forcibly bumped from a flight he had paid for with money or airline miles, because the airline thought a better use of his seat was to transport its own employees. (And answer me this, why should police abet the airline in the airline’s wrongdoing?)

A single event won’t usually overtake a career. On this one, Mr. Munoz, who was under fire just last week for denying passage to teenage girls for wearing leggings, just might get caught up in the deluge. Sometimes, a constituency beaten down for long enough will rise up. Sometimes a big enough misstep from the loftiest heights can lead you over the corporate cliff.

Even while I have written just now, I see 2310 new Tweets with the hashtag #United. Since Mr. Munoz kissed his wife and kids this morning, I wonder if he may have kissed his job goodbye.

 

 

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

Saksun, Faroe Islands

An excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold, exploring the tiny northern Atlantic archipelago called the Faroe Islands:

Five people live in Saksun now, way up at the end of Streymoy, 44 kilometers from Tórshavn on the far end of the island, at the end of the world. It’s one of a kind, a real find, but around here there’s one of a kind around every bend.

The air fills your chest so fresh it stings. The bay, the mists, the waterfalls that fill the hillsides, the pop-up rills after rain, everything in sight glittering, utterly pristine.

When Lars Gunnar Dehl Olsen was born in the 1990s, Saksun was home to 33. Tow-headed, lanky with a free range beard, Lars Gunnar stands in benevolent welcome at the end of the road. Which is also his farm.

For a time he rented a big white house from Johan Jogvonsson, a man in the “village.” There are more than enough houses in the village for five or 33, because some are summer cottages. Now, out here on the point Lars Gunnar and his wife will endeavor to raise sheep and to do their part to keep Saksun alive, having just bought their own freehold in paradise.

Lars Gunnar calculates that 600 sheep is the minimum to make a farm viable and he has 700. Would more be better? If he had more he would need many more, enough to hire a farmhand. Seven hundred is about all he can handle by himself.

It’s part of the old farm Dùvugarðar. Now a National Heritage Museum, its outbuildings – with turf roofs – recreate life in the old times. Today the museum stands tiny and deserted, locked tight, beside a hjallur, or curing house, those wooden, slatted buildings for air-curing skerpikjøt.

We can only peer through the museum windows at cooking pots and an iron tea kettle, a lambskin rug and a grandfather clock. There is bedding on bunks reminiscent of the tiny sleeping quarters at the Hanseatic League museum in Bergen, bunks much shorter than a grown man today.

Perhaps the Olsens’ role is as much cordial host as lonely farmer. In the space of our visit, ours and two other cars call at their farm, for here at the end of the road is a fine panorama.

One thing for sure, the Olsens are safe from Viking raids. Sand has made the mouth of the bay so shallow that these days it is navigable only by small boats at high tide.

People may be a bit sparse out this way but the Olsens can rest content in their surroundings. Saksun is just utterly gorgeous.

Saksun

The ground never dries. The sheep squish-step about and drink from pools surrounded by moss. (How do they not get hoof rot?)

Forests of pine, birch and aspen covered Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and even Iceland up to around 5,000 years ago, when the northern climate grew cooler and wetter. Land waterlogged and trees died off, replaced by peat-forming mosses that sealed in rainwater, furthering the wetness. I have read that peat accumulates at the rate of perhaps a meter a millennium.

There are not many trees in the Faroes so settlers burned peat for heat and cooking. Like their ancestors, villagers make roofs of sod. Early inhabitants did it because sod was ubiquitous – and free. They still do it today because it works.

Here is how they do it: The earth is cut to manageable one-foot squares three or four inches thick and applied two-ply, with the first square grass/moss-down and the second upright so that they grow together into one impermeable unit.

While there are boards underneath (or birch bark where there are birch trees), the weight of the sod, about 500 pounds per square yard, helps to compress the logs in log homes and that helps to reduce the draft inside.

•••••

Life was hard for settlers and it still isn’t easy, even here in gorgeous, glittering, scrubbed-clean Saksun. In his book Harvest, Jim Crace suggests the tenuousness of living on the edge of the world: “We do not press too closely to His bosom; rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just.”

Quotes:

“The response of Americans to terror is to be terrified — 9/11’s trauma has never been fully exorcised. Until we get over that, until we manage to stiffen our upper lips like the Brits, jihadist terrorists will exercise control over the American psyche like no one else. We can do better, can’t we? If we want the Constitution to survive both Islamism’s threat and the potential response of a beleaguered Trump, we’ll have to.”

– Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine

Weekend Reading

Thoughtful articles for quiet time this weekend:

The Strange Blissfulness of Storms by Sarah Scoles at Nautilus.
Garry Kasparov on the Press and Propaganda in Trump’s America in Columbia Journalism Review
Can We Know What Animals Are Thinking by The Economist on Medium
The Return of the Czar by Allen Abel in Macleans
The Big Bang – or the Big Bounce by Sean Carroll at FT.com (free with registration)
A Simpler Life: The Hutterites of Southern Alberta by Camilla Macpherson in Nowhere Magazine