The meaning of Yes and No

Athens by A.Savin

Athens by A.Savin

Greece is voting today in a referendum about the Euro.  Or maybe it’s a referendum about EU membership?  Or…?

The referendum question is:

Should the plan of agreement, which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of 25.06.2015 and is comprised of two parts that constitute their unified proposal be accepted?

The first document is entitled “Reforms For The Completion Of The Current Program And Beyond” and the second “Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.”

This refers to a proposal from Greece’s major creditors that is no longer on the table.  So, at face value, it’s a meaningless question.  Yet the Greek government, the European Central Bank, the IMF and the world’s media all view it as immensely meaningful.  The trouble is, they disagree about the meaning.

The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, said that Greeks will effectively be voting on whether to stay in the euro.  Many European leaders would consider a No vote a fundamental rejection by Greece of the single currency, and perhaps even of the whole EU project.

On the other hand, the Greek government claims the referendum is not about the euro, and seems to view it as a negotiating tactic to achieve better bailout terms.  Interestingly, the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has suggested he will resign if there is a Yes vote, implying that — among other things — the referendum is a vote of confidence in his catastrophic leadership.  European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who would like to see the back of Tsipras, is encouraging Greeks towards this interpretation.

With such contrasting ideas of what the referendum is actually asking, it’s not surprising many Greeks have struggled to decide how they should vote.  Pragmatists have given up trying to understand the question in favour of assessing the likely consequences of a Yes or No vote.

If Greece votes Yes, it’s very hard to predict what will happen.  The ECB will have to make a fresh bailout proposal, which may or may not be accepted by the Greek government, which may or may not still be led by Tsipras and his Syriza party.

The alternative scenario is perhaps clearer.  If Greece votes No and Syriza stays in power, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the country will resolve its differences with its creditors before it runs out of money and has to start issuing IOUs, in the process creating a de facto new currency.

By that interpretation, whatever the wording on the referendum paper, this looks like a pretty straightforward decision between keeping and renouncing the euro.  Indeed, both Francois Hollande and Jean-Claude Juncker have warned that a No vote will mean Greece having to leave the euro.  It will be a brave Greek voter who ticks the No box while remaining confident that their 2016 salary or pension will be coming to them in euros.

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Black and White?

It has to be one of the more bizarre stories of the year.  Rachel Dolezal, the pale-skinned former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, has been accused of misrepresenting her race.  For years, she has claimed to be black, and has built a career on that reality.  Now her parents have come forward to say that her genetic heritage is European, with no black blood at all.  Indeed as a teenager she was blonde and freckled.  She has been labelled a “con artist” and accused of putting on “blackface“.

The genetic facts seem inarguable, and Ms Dolezal does not dispute them.  Yet she continues to consider herself black. On NBC’s Today show:

Interviewer: Let me just ask you the question in simple terms again… Are you an African-American woman?

Dolezal: (nodding) I identify as black.

In another interview on NBC, she said, “I definitely am not white.  I’m more black than I am white. That’s the accurate answer from my truth”.

How can this be?  Can white people simply choose to be black?  Plenty, from Ali G to Eminem, have adopted black character and performance traits, but Dolezal is going way beyond that.

Liberal instincts might lead one to say, “If she wants to call herself black, why should we stop her?”  On the other hand, a number of African-Americans have objected on the grounds that a white person should not just adopt a black identity for a while and then drop it when it’s no longer convenient.  “She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s always black. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?” writes Jamelle Bouie in Slate.  Could a black person choose to be white when pulled over by the cops or seeking a mortgage?

But Dolezal protests that her choice to be black is a profound and irreversible one. “I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first transracial,” she said.  So is this akin to people of one gender choosing to adopt another, a practice that has now gained widespread acceptance?  Is transracial the new transgender?  Could Dolezal spark a trend of race-swapping that might break down further the racial divide that still haunts America?

The fact that commentators are still debating Dolezal’s claims implies that this is not a clear-cut, black & white case.  More than a few seem to think she may have grounds for her self-identification as black.  Which suggests that it is not only Ms Dolezal’s reality that has been reshaped but the very meaning of race.

Magna Carta Reshaped

King JohnToday we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta.  It carries great meaning for modern lawmakers: freedom from tyranny, fair trial, the rights of man.  The ideals of liberty and justice symbolised by Magna Carta underpin the US Constitution and have informed human rights campaigners around the world.  The historian Bishop Stubbs declared all English constitutional history to be “a commentary on Magna Carta”.  Lord Denning called it “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.  This conception of Magna Carta is an important reality for us – it is very real indeed.

And yet it is not the original reality of Magna Carta, a document that was not called by that name, was not signed by King John (he used his seal), and which was repudiated by both monarch and barons after just a few weeks.  A last-ditch peace treaty between two upper class factions, the “Charter of Runnymede” is unconcerned with the oppression of the common man, freedom of speech or democratic representation.  Instead, it prioritises the interests of the Church and the (mostly French) aristocracy, focusing in the main on the specific grievances of rich landowners.  It is harsh on Jews (“If anyone has taken a loan from Jews, great or small, and dies before the debt is paid, the debt is not to incur interest for as long as the heir is under age”) and women (“No man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband”). About a third of the 1215 Magna Carta was rewritten or cut within ten years, and almost every clause has since been repealed.

It does seem odd that a failed agreement between one oppressor and a bunch of disgruntled lesser oppressors has come to represent the very essence of liberty and the rights of man.  And yet it has.  Its reality has been shaped — partly by John’s son, Henry III, and partly by 17th century Parliamentary spin doctors — into something powerful and very valuable.  A kind of historical alchemy, one might say.  To go back to the 1215 text and protest that it has quite a different meaning is to miss the point.  Magna Carta IS freedom and justice.  It doesn’t really matter what the words say.

1215 Magna Carta (British Library)

Polling Power

A curious story is emerging in the aftermath of the UK General Election that suggests polling organisations may unintentionally have shaped our reality to a remarkable degree.  Consistently, in the weeks and months before the election, a wide range of polls put Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck.  Politicians on both sides confidently expected their party to draw ahead, but as time passed and it didn’t happen even the most bullish started admitting the obvious — it was going to be a hung parliament and whoever wanted to hold power would have to do a deal with one or more of the smaller parties.

When the Conservatives then won a comfortable majority, the polling failure was considered so serious that the British Polling Council launched an independent inquiry.  Journalists and politicians across the land poured scorn on the pollsters.  Many theories have been put forward to explain the failure — “shy Tories” reluctant to admit their allegiance, a last-minute swing driven by fear of the SNP, a poor turn-out by Labour supporters — but I am less interested in why it happened than what the consequences are.

Because of the consistent story coming out of the polls, the party manifestos — launched only a few weeks before election day — were widely seen not as promises of policies to be implemented in the event of victory but opening negotiation positions for the inevitable coalition bargaining that would follow an inconclusive vote.  We can reasonably presume that the parties themselves didn’t really expect to have to implement all of the contents of their manifestos.  Indeed they may well have included, at the last minute, more extreme policies than they wanted, expecting to bargain them away.  But then a surprise majority eliminates the need for negotiation, and suddenly the Tories are obliged to follow through on everything they’ve pledged.

Did this happen?  Did the polls influence the contents of the Conservative manifesto?  Did David Cameron and George Osborne come up with excessively right wing policies so they would have something to give up in a new deal with the Liberal Democrats?  One obvious point of contention is the £12 billion of welfare cuts the Tories want to find – but this policy was announced by Osborne in January when many Tories still expected a majority.  More likely faux-policies are the crazy Right to Buy extension, the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the Inheritance Tax threshold increase, the 500 new free schools, the benefit cap reduction and the pledge not to increase personal taxes.  Any one of these, one imagines, David Cameron might have been more than ready to give up in return for LibDem support.

Now, with a parliamentary majority, he has to stand by them all.  That will be our reality for the next five years, and there’s a good chance the pollsters — in honestly reflecting what they measured — have helped to shape it.

Voting made simple

The UK General Election is here at last.  Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we’ve had plenty of time to prepare.  Years of informal campaigning have provided us with numerous opportunities to assess the character and aspirations of each of the parties.  Yet with just a few hours left, plenty of people are still “undecided”.  Why?  Is it so hard to choose?

Well, yes, and so it should be.  Choosing a government in a representative democracy means choosing where railways will be built, which schools will be renovated, what environmental laws will be passed, who will be Minister for Skills and Equalities, when analogue radio signals will be switched off, and a thousand other non-trivial issues.  A responsible voter might perhaps feel obligated to study the different parties’ various positions on all these issues, weight them for importance, and then calculate a net score that revealed which party most deserved their vote.

Of course, this is deeply unrealistic.  For some voters, the choice really might come down to nothing more substantial than which school a party leader attended, or whether their teeth “look funny”.  Despite all the time we’ve had to consider our options, despite the wealth of information and commentary available, despite the deadly seriousness of a national election, we humans seem largely incapable of basing this vital decision on more than a handful of factors.  Politicians know this and they exacerbate the problem by feeding us binary choices:

Only two people can be prime minister – do you really want to let Ed Miliband into Downing Street?

There’s only one party that can control immigration, because only one party wants to leave the EU.

A vote for the SNP is a vote to keep David Cameron in Number 10.

It’s a choice between a proven long-term economic plan or more chaos from the party that gave us the financial crisis.

The Tories want to privatise the NHS; Labour will protect it.

Only a strong Liberal Democrat coalition partner can restrain a spendthrift Labour government or a brutal Tory government.

Only one party is able to deliver a referendum on Europe.

Let Labour into power, propped up by the SNP, and the security and integrity of the United Kingdom is in jeopardy.

These are the kinds of arguments political parties deploy most of the time.  They know that our short attention spans, our impatient media and our culture of cynicism make more reasoned, complex and nuanced debate ineffective.  So although we will be voting on a many-hued constellation of different issues, events and personalities, our political realities have been whittled down to the banal and simplistic choice between black and white.

Or possibly white and black.

Depending on which school you went to.

“We’ve cut the deficit by a third… or is it a half?”

The Conservatives have launched a campaign poster declaring “THE DEFICIT HALVED”.  This is odd, as up until a few weeks ago they had been telling us they’d cut the deficit by a third.

To quote the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, who drew attention to this shameless reshaping of British economic reality, “In the first six months of 2010 the government borrowed an extra £65.9 billion. In the first six months of 2014 year, it was £44.2 billion – so down by a third.”

Then how did our honest leaders come up with the “deficit halved” claim?  Easy.  They just redefined the word “deficit”.  To most of us, the deficit is a cash figure: the money the government has to borrow to pay for public spending not covered by taxes etc.  It is the amount we add to our national debt each year.  Now, magically, it means something different: “deficit” is apparently shorthand for “deficit as a percentage of GDP”.  And as GDP has risen over the last five years (it could hardly have done otherwise), this convenient ratio has fallen faster than the actual cash value of the deficit.

Tories will argue that the ratio is what matters in practice – the cash figure is meaningless unless you know how big is the economy that is incurring the resulting debt.  But that doesn’t make their pre-election definition-fiddling any less sneaky.

Terrorists, nation states and other Middle East beings

Flag of Islamic State

Flag of Islamic State

Here’s a standard representation of what’s going on in the Middle East right now: a terrorist group is killing civilians and the nation state that it threatens is struggling to deal with it, so the US and other Western powers feel obliged to intervene. We could be talking about Islamic State and Iraq, but the same words could also be used to sum up the confrontation between Hamas and Israel playing out in Gaza. Yet what both of these cases demonstrate is the inadequacy of these traditional terms. Simply labelling Hamas and Islamic State as terrorist groups does not encourage insightful analysis of these desperate situations. Equally, the very concept of the nation state is being tested to the limit in this turbulent region. We need better, more nuanced conceptions of the major players if we are to respond appropriately to the challenges they pose.

Victims of Belgian terrorism in the Congo, c.1900

Start with Islamic State. On the surface this is a particularly nasty organisation. Everything we hear about them fills us with dread – beheadings, crucifixions, persecution of minorities, mass executions. But to think of them merely as terrorists is dangerously to underestimate them. They are an army, battle-hardened, well resourced, with strong leadership, great communications and a clear vision that inspires many. Yes, they use terrorist tactics, but so have plenty of western nations and organisations. The British have a long history of horrific executions designed to send a message – think of Indian mutineers strapped over the muzzle of a cannon and blown apart. Heads on stakes and severed hands were commonplace in the Belgian Congo, and let’s not forget the many atrocities ordered by German officers within living memory. 

The real test is not the horrendous tactics used by Islamic State to achieve their military goals, but the way they behave once they are firmly in control. Thousands fled Mosul when ISIS, as it then was, rolled into town. But reports from the city suggest that life has almost returned to normal. Residents have been surprised by the moderation shown by their new rulers. The world looked on aghast as Islamic State captured the strategically vital Mosul Dam, but against many expectations they did not blow it up – even when they knew they were about to lose control of it to Kurdish forces. They behaved, one might almost say, responsibly.

This is in no way an apology for Islamic State, whom I sincerely hope will be wiped from the face of the earth before long. My point is that it does us no good to think of them solely as “terrorists”. They are perhaps closer to the Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols or Nazi Germany – a terrifyingly effective military force using extreme methods to subjugate large numbers in a short space of time. Their desire to convert those they subjugate to Sunni Islam does not make them terrorists any more than the British determination to make so many distant people subjects of Queen Victoria.

Hamas is similarly complicated. They are the group the people of Gaza trust most to run their affairs. That is to say, they won a democratic election. They are more than just terrorists. Yet they cannot be said to be a governing party to the same extent as Israel’s Likud, for they have so much less power over the land they govern. They do not control Gaza’s airspace, borders or imports, and they have extremely limited resources. Moreover they lack the financial link most political parties have with the people they represent – the majority of Hamas’ funding comes from other Arab governments and individuals, often with a strong anti-Israel agenda.  So Hamas is a democratically-elected paramilitary organisation funded by foreigners that has to operate within very narrow parameters to achieve a goal (Palestinian statehood) that many around the world support. And yes, they target civilians (as the British and American air forces did in World War 2 and Vietnam).

Symbol of a nation state? Iraqi Kurdistan's Pechmerga

Symbol of a nation state? Iraqi Kurdistan’s Pechmerga

Then there are the nation states, many of which don’t fit our traditional understanding of the term. Iraq’s government no longer controls large swathes of the country; the same is true for Syria: neither one exercises sovereignty over their own people and lands, thereby failing one of the most basic tests of statehood. Meanwhile, an alternative state has emerged in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with a powerful army and a strong sense of its own national identity. Other states such as the US do not recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as a nation state – indeed it has not yet claimed to be one – and yet they are allying with it and treating it very much like a nation state. Israel itself has long been a paradox of a state – a land full of Arabs, run by Jews, with de facto control over large areas of territory that theoretically belong to other countries. Meanwhile, the Palestinian state does not technically exist, even though we have a very clear sense of where it should be and which people should be citizens of it.

The variability in statehood matters enormously both in terms of capability and culpability. A state that cannot control its own cities and armed forces cannot be relied upon to act on international agreements or obligations as other states would. This is particularly true of Syria and Iraq, and also to some degree of Lebanon and Yemen. But equally a state that lacks full control cannot be blamed for some of the things done by its own organisations and people. The state of Israel is highly capable and is consequently fully accountable for the actions of its settlers and armed forces, in a way that the severely constrained Palestinian proto-state cannot be.

The point is that if we do not recognise the exact nature of each entity with a role to play in the Middle East – putting them instead in out-dated boxes labelled “terrorists” or “states” – we cannot possibly work out the best way to approach them, support them, isolate them, negotiate with them or fight them. If the Middle East is a chess board, we need to acknowledge that the pieces are not simply black or white but have a range of characteristics, capabilities and limitations – they are knights and bishops and pawns and queens. Each entity must be viewed and dealt with in a unique way. As US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently said of Islamic State, “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” The reality that will eventually emerge in the Middle East depends critically upon how we choose to describe its constituent parts today.