Does God love Romania?

It would take a stand-alone blog to track the daily utterances of George Bush but here he is in St Louis today talking about his visits to Romania —

And they had just been accepted into NATO, and the President asked me and Laura to go, and there was 225,000 people, more or less, in the town square to see the American President. And it was raining.

Now, the interesting thing from my perspective was that I was here, and there was a balcony lit in the town square, and I was told this was where the tyrant Ceausescu and his wife had made their last public appearance. And the story has it that he — somebody started chanting, “Liar,” and he realized his power was slipping away, and then he tried to get out of there, and anyway, he was done in by the people. They were tired of him; he was a brutal guy.

And so that was my line of sight. And the President introduced me, and just as I got up to speak, a full rainbow appeared. And it was a startling moment. And I turned back — Laura was like — I went, look, baby, look up there. And so when I pointed up, 225,000 heads flipped around to look at the rainbow. I then ad-libbed, “God is smiling on Bucharest.” And the reason I did is because the rainbow ended right behind the balcony where the tyrant had given his last speech. Liberty is transformative, and it will yield the peace we want.

There’s a lot of Bush’s personality in that little anecdote: a self-serving mysticism, his remembering that he had departed from his script (which must therefore be a rare event) and linking God specifically to political freedom.  One wonders if God left Bucharest the same time he did. 

Pride (In the Name of Love)

After my earlier post/can of worms on secularism I have been a bit hesitant to stir up more religious trouble. Until I saw this little beauty:

The Vatican has asked Israel to ban a gay pride parade due to take place tomorrow in Jerusalem. Thousands of gay activists are expected to march in Jerusalem even though violence is expected.

This, in and of itself, is not such a big deal. The Holy See has always claimed that the catholic Church has the right, the duty even, to interfere with other people’s lives. If you have some time, you can go and read the official social doctrine of the Holy See. No, the really interesting part in the article is this:

“The Holy See has reiterated on many occasions that the right to freedom of expression … is subject to just limits, in particular when the exercise of this right would offend the religious sentiments of believers,” the Vatican said.

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Bahrain blogger Mahmood censored

This falls under the category “Not Europe” here at AFEM but on the internet the world is a global village and one of the voices in that village has just been silenced, albeit in his own neighbourhood, along with a few others. Mahmood from the Bahrain weblog Mahmood’s Den was presented with a site blocking order and, as he wrote yesterday:

I just heard confirmed news that this site (Mahmood’s Den) will be blocked effective immediately, together with 6 others (don’t know which yet) by order of the Minister of Information. The memo has been printed and delivered to all the ISP’s this afternoon apparently. I am yet to receive my copy. But if I go off the air for too long, you know the reason, and it’s not inconceivable that prisons will be used to silence criticism.

This is not good. And really bad PR for the Bahrain government.

Update (November 6th): Mahmood has been unblocked. Long live Bahrain!

The liberalism of fools?

I cannot recommend highly enough Ken Macleod’s post (found via Crooked Timber) on how the “socialism of fools” – Engels’ description of anti-semitism – was accompanied by a sort of “liberalism of fools”, to wit, the anti-Catholicism of the pre-WWII era. Macleod, acknowledging that anti-Catholicism is rather passé these days, wonders if hatred of something else, perhaps another sect, might fill the roll as a modern liberalism of fools.

And, on a not entirely separate topic, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (no website, not that kind of paper) is republishing the images, along with one on its cover of Mohammed crying “It’s hard to be loved by fools”. An effort by the Conseil français du culte musulman to stop publication through the French courts was rejected on a technicality.

Chirac, however, has demonstrated that he is not, contrary to widespread belief, the biggest fool in Europe. Unlike the Danish Prime Minister, he has “condemned all manifest provocations that are liable to dangerously arouse passions.” Alas, he has only retreated to the number two slot in European political idiocy. He also said, “Anything susceptible to harm the convictions of others, particularly religious convictions, should be avoided. Freedom of expression should be exercised with a sense of responsibility.” Right on count two, wrong on count one. Responsible freedom of expression means that when you go out to offend people, you can’t claim to be surprised when they are offended. But there is little point in free speech if it is forbidden from trying to change convictions.

And round and round this totally avoidable fiasco goes.
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Unfit To Lead The G8?

The question as to whether or not Russia ” truly belongs in the prestigious Group of Eight (G-8) advanced liberal democratic market economies”, and even more to the point, whether it is in a fitting condition to take the helm in that organisation is a question which was asked by Taras Kuzio (Visiting Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University) in yesterday’s issue of Eurasia daily monitor, – a publication which is rapidly becoming a ‘must read’ for those of us who want to follow what is happening along the EU’s eastern frontier.
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When Sorry Is The Hardest Word

Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow today, paid tribute to the courage of “all Europeans who resisted Nazism.” He also stated something which for my generation seems to be simply a fact: that the war?s most ?ruthless and decisive? events had unfolded within the Soviet Union, whose sacrifice of 27m citizens had underpinned the Allied victory. Had the Stalin-Hitler pact held, the war in Western Europe would probably have looked very, very different. However, as the FT notes:

Mr Putin stopped short of issuing the apology demanded by the Baltic states for the four decades of Soviet occupation that followed the war. He also made no reference to the post-war division of Europe.

Why is it sometimes so hard to say sorry?
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Enter The People. Why We Are Wearing Orange.

It is getting colder in Kyiv, so it may not be too surprising both camps are busy fueling the flames of their conflict. In a country eagerly awaiting its Supreme Court’s decision about the validity of last week’s Presidential election, the second week of popular protests in Kyiev begins with the incumbent president Kuchma’s threat to enforce martial law, and more secessionist motions passed by Eastern regional assemblies/authorities, which, although likely a consequence of oligarchic pressures and thus questionable true popular support, have caught the attention of the Yushenko campaign – as Scott’s post below indicates. In many ways, things could take an ugly turn soon.

Given the growing awareness that Mr Yushenko is a politician with oligarchic friends of his own, who is making, as the Kyiv Post stated on Saturday, “a multi-faceted attempt to take power”, and not a saint, I think it is appropriate to explain exactly what we want to express by wearing orange these days: orange is, after all, Mr Yushenko’s campaign color. But then, it seems, orange is no longer just his campaign color.

Former US National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated last Thursday, in a roundtable discussion, hastily arranged by the American Enterprise Institute, that we witness “the meeting of Ukrainian nationalism with Ukrainian democracy on a popular basis”. Well, nationalism clearly has its role, and not unexpectedly in a country featuring such a motley collection of salient cleavages. Yet for all I hear, I do not get the impression that the nationalism exhibited by the crowds peacefully demonstrating for Yushenko is of divisive, ethnically exclusive nature – while the Yanukovich camp apparently scared ethnic Russian voters in the East. Arguing that the Kuchma administration has talked up ethnic tensions to be able to act as mediator, Tarik Amar writes in a very informative, long primer at John Quiginn’s

“[c]rucially, even in round one the opposition managed to win all Ukrainian regions in the West as well as the Centre of the country, including ? by a large margin ? the largely Russiophone capital city Kyiv. The government has always liked to pretend that the opposition?s base was restricted to the Ukrainophone West, implying that it was ?nationalist?, even ?separatist.? Some Western observers still cling to these facile stereotypes. It is Yanukovych who has been cornered in a minority of eastern oblasts. If anybody represents an above-regional Ukrainian solidarity, it is clearly Yushchenko. He speaks proper Russian as well as Ukrainian and his being a native of one of Ukraine?s most eastern oblasts and having spent his student and working life in western as well as central Ukraine cannot be matched by Yanukovych, whose biography is strictly mono-regional and whose Ukrainian is not perfect.”

So I think Mr Brzezinski’s statement is by and large correct about the nature of what’s going on. And while most Ukrainians as well as political analysts will probably have agreed even before last week that this election was a crucial event for Ukraine, I think everyone has been surprised by the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned the election into a plebiscite about the kind of society they want to live in. Let me again quote Tarik Amar –

Even if some Western minds jaded by overfeeding on ?Civil Society? rhetoric may find it old hat, for Ukraine things are at stake that were achieved in Poland in 1989: essential respect for the law and the sovereign people, pluralism, and, indeed, freedom from fear. Ukraine is facing a choice not between different policies or regions but between mutually exclusive political cultures. Without undue idealization, the opposition stands for a reasonable understanding of rules, laws, and good faith in observing them.

Wearing orange is – now – essentially about aspiring to a different standard of governance. Yet I am not as certain about the prospects of Ukrainian civil society as Mr Brzezinski, who believes it would survive even a failure of the current stand-off. I am worried by the failed 1953 East-German uprising – it’s (bloody) failure led to widespread decades-long political apathy. Despite all efforts by political activists from inside (and outside) Ukraine, Ukrainian civil society must still be weak. Thus, as every little thing may count, we have decided to display a few additional orange bits to show our support for all those in Kyiv who are aspiring – and freezing.

One more thing. Over the last few days, some reports have led to not unreasonable suspicions about a renewed confrontation between Russia and “the West” about Ukraine, including some about several Western, particularly American, governmental as well as non-governmental organisations having “meddled” with the Ukrainian elections, particularly by funding grassroots protest-organisations like the student movement PORA.

Yet “meddling” is a matter of degree – a week before the second round of the elections, the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow quoted a Russian political consultant with the so-called “Russian club”, Sergei Markov, using the American grassroots support to justify the – far more extensive – Russian involvement in Ukraine –

“[l]ook at what the U.S. is doing here – supporting foundations, analytical centers, round tables. It’s how contemporary foreign policy is pursued. And it’s exactly what we’re doing.”

I would never claim that “the West” or any of its constiuent parts would be above the use of electoral manipulation; particularly, in situations where it had a clear idea where it wants to go and what to expect, how to direct, and what to achieve through any political movement.

Yet, as opposed to Russia, whose motives with respect to Ukraine are clear – if there is one truth about the American and European involvement in Ukraine, I think it would be that there is no strategy, simply because there isn’t a monolithic or even prevailing view of Russia anymore. Absent any real strategy, Western support is likely to have actually achieved what it was supposed to achieve: create process awareness.

It was the latter that brought the people to the streets, not some handbook of popular opposition, pollsters, political consultants, or stickers paid for with money from Washington or Brussels. And that is one more reason to wear the ribbon.
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An Orange Song Of The Heart

The TulipGirl quotes a letter from her friend Lena, wishing that everybody could truly understand the nature of the hope hiding behind the headlines talking about an Orange Revolution.

In (some of) Lena’s words

“Quite recently I didn’t believe that my people able to resist to violence and humiliation. 2 month ago I guessed that I live in the worst country in the world. I was oppressed when I could not see a dignity in my fellow citizens, that I could not see the willingness to freedom and happiness in them. I considered that there is no passionaries in my country, and even when they appear all the rest start make propaganda: “they just have nothing to do” or “they just want to take the power”. And for me there was obviously the main difference between Ukrainians who says “What can I do?…” and for example Americans who says “Just do it! …

November, 22 I started to be really proud of my co-citizens. Now I can see that them are not passive mammals who want just to dig comfortable burrow, to generate they own posterity and to finish life in poverty, pretending that there is no another way. Since November, 22 there was not a crowd on the main square of my country. It is the PEOPLE. It is the NATION. Love, faith and hope filled up a whole space of capitol of my country and warm these people who spend the nights on the frost snowing street instead to lie down on the sofa and watching the “pocket” TV channels and chewing sausage?”

When I thought about a title or quote that might express what I think Lena was referring to in her letter, I remembered the chorus of an old song by John Farnham, called “That’s Freedom”.

It’s a song of the heart

A race in the wind

A light in the dark

That’s freedom

It’s a reason to live

And after the rain

Rekindle the spark

Let freedom ring

Of course having high hopes is dangerous when the risk of failure is immediate and the consequences may be grim. And we all know how hard it is to make a leap of faith sometimes.

Yet without this kind of faith no one would ever jump. And nothing would ever be achieved. For all the obstacles on the way to a brighter future, to a united and democratic Ukraine, to me, Lena’s words are the spark. The most promising sign yet that the Orange Revolution has, in some sense, already succeeded.

For some more emotional context, Brama.com now hosts a private short film called “The Revolution, a film by Tristan Brotherton, for nobody in particular” (10mb, wmv) which I did not link yesterday due to bandwidth considerations.

Suspicion and divided loyalties

Perhaps the most damaging effect of 9/11 and all that has followed will be its role in making divided loyalties one of the most dangerous things a person can have. From the beginning, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still burning, any effort to hold non-trivial positions about terrorism and Islam were attacked. People opposed to the war in Iraq were branded as terrorist supporters, people unimpressed by a programme of reform in the Middle East imposed at the end of a gun were castigated, people who asked questions about whether there was more to things than “they hate us for our freedom” were branded as traitors.

Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece in Wednesday’s New York Times which must be read in this light. The key paragraph – the statement of where he stands – appears at the end:

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

But it is not that hard to see the threat in it. To encourage western Muslims to at once see themselves as having a place in the West and a role in the Islamic world is tantamount to asking them to divide their loyalties. To all too many people right now, divided loyalties are a synonym for treason. The charge of divided loyalties is an old one, and a very damaging one. It was once the most mainstream charge that people made against Jews. To see it revived today – against Muslims in Europe, against Mexicans in the US by the likes of Samuel Huntington, and yes, against Jews in many countries – is very, very troubling.
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At least no one can accuse me of being knee-jerk pro-French

My goodness, talking about the headscarf law has brought up some interesting discussion on the blogs. It appears that my mistake was to think that this was ever about improving the lives of Muslim girls. From the responses there is one thing that is clear – this law is about legislating conformity.

For example, from Lilli Marleen:

So who is wetting their pants about what French do in their schools and Germany – hopefully – will do soon after? The girls can go to school, all they have to do is to behave like anyone else.

I’m sure that will make a stirring addition to the EU constitution: You have the right to be just like everyone else, especially if you’re under age. Any failure to take advantage of this right will be punished in the law. It is exactly this sentiment that leads people to think xenophobia towards non-Europeans is a deep seated problem.
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