Weekend Reading

Suggested articles for an absorbing Saturday and Sunday:

This Island Life by Maggie Fergusson in 1843
India’s Silicon Valley Is Dying of Thirst. Your City May Be Next by Samanth Subramanian in Wired
Useful background: Macron’s Win in Context by Jonathan Fenby in Foreign Affairs (register to read for free)
Living Eating and Dreaming Revolution by Catherine Merridale in The New Statesman
Rising high water blues by Peter Coates in the Times Literary Supplement

Book: The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford

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.