Bravery and simple humanity have shown Westminster at its best

Jonathan Freedland writes: There are certain places that cease to be places in the public imagination. They become shorthand for a loathed political establishment or distant, overmighty government. In America, that place is “Washington, DC”. For Eurosceptics, it’s “Brussels”. And in Britain, that reviled, imperial citadel is “Westminster”.

Yet today, as the airwaves and social media timelines filled with dreadful, violent news, “Westminster” began to lose those quotation marks. As the afternoon passed, it became seen not as the widely despised bastion of the political class, but a real place inhabited by office workers, tourists, security guards and groups of visiting schoolchildren.

On any other day, Tobias Ellwood might be seen as just another Tory MP. But then came word that he had given CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a policeman who lay wounded – and with it a reminder that the MP, a former army officer, had lost a brother in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Or there were those photos of MPs locked in the chamber of the Commons for their own safety, many of them on their phones, searching for news just like the rest of us but with an extra edge: they were worrying about friends, colleagues or their own employees. Everyone had the same thought: what if someone they knew or loved was among those hurt?

As it happens, I was in Westminster (though not in parliament) when the attacker struck, wrapping up a lunch meeting with an MP who was alerted to the news by a text from his wife, checking that he was safe. On television, he’ll look like just another politician. But if people saw him today, they’d have seen a human being.

And yet, when it comes to those involved in politics – the people who keep our democratic machinery functioning – it seems to take violent tragedy to remind us that those we elect to represent us don’t stop being people the moment we vote for them. Last year it was the murder of Jo Cox that reminded people an MP could also be a living, breathing, loving person. At that moment, many felt chastened about the way we speak about politics – so often using violent language to describe political argument. We held back for a while. But we soon fell back into the old habits. [Continue reading…]

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

Politico reports: A group of congressional Republicans is teaming up with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe with the shared goal of stopping a common enemy: billionaire financier George Soros.

Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”

It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.

Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.

For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.

But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan’s growing army of volunteer citizen informers

Financial Times reports: Browsing Facebook at home one Saturday, Bilgin Ciftci saw a post that made him chuckle. It was a montage of images of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed alongside Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In the first, the president and the shrivelled inhabitant of Middle-earth shared a look of astonishment. The second showed both figures wide-eyed with wonder. In the third, Erdogan gnawed on a chicken drumstick while Gollum bit into a scaly fish.

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Ciftci, a doctor from the western town of Aydin, clicked “share” and thought no more of it. But a few weeks later, he was summoned to see the police and charged with insulting the president — a criminal offence in Turkey. He lost his job at a public hospital and became trapped in a legal ordeal that has so far dragged on for more than 18 months. At one stage, the judge appointed a panel of Tolkien experts to advise whether Gollum should be deemed good or bad (they ruled that he is good at heart).

Amid the absurdity, there was another, darker layer to the story. When he shared the meme, Ciftci, 48, believed he was only showing it to those in his private Facebook network. But the police had a screenshot of his page. They had not hacked his account or snooped on his computer. The truth was far more unsettling: he had been betrayed by someone he knew. Ciftci deduced that the culprit was the husband of one of his relatives. When he called up to confront him, the relative first denied it and then hung up the phone.

Ciftci’s ordeal reflects something bigger happening in Turkey, something that could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel. On an almost weekly basis, stories emerge of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences. “This has become a phenomenon in our society,” says Ciftci from a café near Aydin courthouse, an institution now more familiar than he could ever have imagined. “There are people who are more royalist than the king. They become citizen informers.” [Continue reading…]

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Dutch prime minister claims victory over anti-Muslim candidate Geert Wilders

The Washington Post reports: The Dutch political establishment appeared Wednesday to fend off a challenge from anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders in a national election, according to exit polls, a victory that heartened centrist leaders across Europe who are fearful of populist upsets in their own nations.

The result confirmed Wilders as a powerful voice on immigration in the Netherlands. But it would leave in place Prime Minister Mark Rutte and do little to alter the fundamental dynamic in a country unhappy with the status quo but deeply divided among many political parties.

The vote in the prosperous trading nation was seen as a bellwether for France and Germany, which head to the polls in the coming months and have also been shaken by fierce anti-immigrant sentiment. The British vote to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, a skeptic about NATO and European integration, have cracked the door to a fundamental reordering of the post-World War II Western order. [Continue reading…]

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How the Netherlands made Geert Wilders possible

The Atlantic reports: In the 17th century, Dutch settlers flocked to the southern half of what is now Manhattan to establish New Amsterdam, a fur-trading post that would welcome Lutherans and Catholics from Europe; Anglicans, Puritans, and Quakers from New England; and Sephardic Jews who were, at the time, discouraged from settling in America’s other nascent regions. Though its English conquerors would rename the city New York, the values of diversity and tolerance that the Dutch introduced would remain the region’s hallmarks for centuries to come.

In the modern-day Netherlands, however, the Dutch Republic’s founding pledge that “everyone shall remain free in religion” will soon collide with the ambitions of one of the country’s most popular politicians.

“Islam and freedom are not compatible,” claims Geert Wilders, the Party for Freedom (PVV) leader who campaigns on banning the Quran, closing Dutch mosques, and ending immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. “Stop Islam,” the phrase that sits atop Wilders’s Twitter page, aptly summarizes his party’s platform. In December, Dutch courts found Wilders guilty of carrying his rhetoric too far, convicting him of discriminatory speech for rallying supporters in an anti-Moroccan call-and-response. Nonetheless, Wilders is a leading contender to receive the plurality of votes in the country’s parliamentary elections on March 15.

The nation’s peculiar path from “live and let live” to “Make the Netherlands Ours Again” (as Wilders recently said) has as its guideposts a changing definition of tolerance, some instances of political opportunism—and a pair of grisly assassinations.

From the mix of faith groups that inhabited New Amsterdam to the peaceful coexistence of Protestants, Catholics, and socialists throughout the Netherlands in the 20th century, the Dutch brand of multiculturalism has often been more “salad bowl” than “melting pot.” Each sect of society had its own schools, media outlets, and social groups; tolerance was the act of respecting those boundaries.

“Historically, Dutch tolerance has been more of a pragmatic strategy,” said Jan Rath, a professor of urban sociology at the University of Amsterdam. “Tolerance has been a way to contain oppositions or complications.” [Continue reading…]

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Wilders, Russia and Twitter bots: How social media is serving Dutch populism

Financial Times reports: Follower numbers are a commonly recognised indicator of social media influence. Snapshot counts of Twitter and Facebook followers reveal that, in contrast to most other party leaders, Mr Wilders’ personal social media following dwarfs that of his party’s accounts by a ratio of 330:1 on Twitter and 133:1 on Facebook. By comparison, sitting prime minister Mark Rutte’s followers are outnumbered by those of his party, VVD, by 1.5:1 on Twitter and 3.4:1 on Facebook. 

However, an examination of the rate of growth of Dutch party leaders’ Twitter followings reveals Mr Wilders’ to be growing comparatively slowly — which is to be expected given that hisis the largest among party leaders’ followings. More intriguing are the bumps in the growth rate of the Wilders following, several of which coincide with specific news events. In particular, Mr Wilders’ conviction for race-related discrimination offences on December 9 last year and the terrorist attack in which a truck was driven into a Berlin crowd on December 19 boosted Mr Wilders’ following, which may suggest a reactive component to the motivations of people following Mr Wilders on Twitter.

The accusations of election interference in France made by the campaign of Mr Macron prompted a denial by RT, which said in a statement that it “adamantly rejects any and all claims that it has any part in spreading fake news in general and in relation to Mr Macron and the upcoming French election in particular.” The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, asserted in a January report that RT and Sputnik functioned as part of a Russian “state-run propaganda machine” that was deployed in an attempt to influence the outcome of the US election.

FT Data calculated the frequencies with which a random sample of 100,000 of Mr Wilders’ Twitter followers mentioned the accounts of RT and Sputnik (@RT_com and @SputnikInt), along with those of the top five Dutch news outlets over a six-month period. We compared these to a sample of the same size taken from followers of the office of the Dutch prime minister (@MinPres), a non-partisan governmental account.

Although Mr Wilders himself did not disproportionately share content from either outlet, his followers were 12 times more likely to mention Sputnik and almost eight times more likely to mention RT than followers of Mr Rutte, prime minister. Notably, Mr Wilders’ followers mentioned RT more frequently than they did the Dutch national broadcaster NOS (@NOS). [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump and the new dawn of tyranny

Timothy Snyder writes: The Founding Fathers designed the constitution to prevent some Americans from exercising tyranny. Alert to the classical examples they knew, the decline of ancient Greece and Rome into oligarchy and empire, they established the rule of law, checks and balances, and regular elections as the means of preserving the new republic. Thus far, it has worked. But it need not work forever.

We might imagine that the American system must somehow always sustain itself. But a broader look at the history of democratic republics established since our own revolution reveals that most of them have failed. Politicians who emerge from democratic practices can then work to undo democratic institutions. This was true in the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as during the spread of communism in the 1940s, and indeed in the new wave of authoritarian regime changes of the 21st century. Indeed, absent a truly decisive revolution, which is a rare event, a regime change depends upon such people — regime changers — emerging in one system and transforming it into another.

It is in this light that we should consider President Donald Trump and his closest advisors and spokespeople. Although they occupy the positions they do thanks to an election, there is little reason to believe that they support the American constitutional system as it stands, and much to remind us of authoritarian regimes changes of the recent past. A basic weapon of regime changers, as fascists realized nearly a century ago, is to destroy the concept of truth. Democracy requires the rule of law, the rule of law depends upon trust, and trust depends upon citizens’ acceptance of factuality. The president and his aides actively seek to destroy Americans’ sense of reality. Not only does the White House spread “alternative facts,” but Kellyanne Conway openly proclaims this as right and good. Post-factuality is pre-fascism. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s testy campaign over ‘executive presidency’ sows divisions at home and abroad

The Washington Post reports: So far in a rancorous election season, the Turkish government or its opponents have invoked Nazi Germany, terrorist groups, fifth columnists and a Latin American dictator.

And that was in the campaign’s first two weeks.

There is more than a month to go before a referendum in April that will allow Turks to vote on a series of constitutional amendments that could give Turkey’s dominating leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vast new powers and allow him to remain in office for more than a decade.

But already, the poisonous rhetoric surrounding the campaign has aggravated tensions in this sharply divided nation, raising fears about the aftermath of the vote — and surged beyond Turkey’s borders, upending its foreign alliances. On Sunday, as part of an escalating feud with the Dutch government, Erdogan warned that the Dutch would “pay a price” after Turkish ministers were prevented from visiting the Netherlands over the past two days, according to Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Steve Bannon’s mission to destroy the European Union

Michael Crowley writes: It was the day after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June, and the Western world was still absorbing the shock. With no clear plan for what would come next, the globe’s fifth-biggest economy had abruptly announced a divorce from the neighbors it had been trading with for nearly 45 years. Markets plunged. “A calamity,” declared the New York Times. “Global panic,” proclaimed one London headline.

Steve Bannon had a different reaction. He booked the calamity’s chief architect as a guest on his radio show to celebrate.

This was then still weeks before Bannon emerged into the national spotlight as CEO of Donald Trump’s struggling presidential campaign. Bannon was an executive at Breitbart News, an activist-editor-gadfly known mostly on the far right, and the “Brexit” campaign was something of a pet project. He hitched onto the Tea Party movement early in Barack Obama’s presidency and noticed a similar right-populist wave rising across the Atlantic, where fed-up rural, white Britons were anxious about immigration and resentful of EU bureaucrats. The cause touched on some of Bannon’s deepest beliefs, including nationalism, Judeo-Christian identity and the evils of Big Government. In early 2014, Bannon launched a London outpost of Breitbart, opening what he called a new front “in our current cultural and political war.” The site promptly began pointing its knives at the EU, with headlines like “The EU Is Dead, It Just Refuses to Lie Down”; “The European Union’s Response to Terrorism Is a Massive Privacy Power Grab”; “Pressure on Member States to Embrace Trans Ideology.” One 2014 article invited readers to vote in a poll among “the most annoying European Union rules.”

Bannon’s site quickly became tightly entangled with the United Kingdom Independence Party, a fringe movement with the then-outlandish goal of Britain’s exit from the EU. In October 2014, UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, poached a Breitbart London editor to work for him. That September, Bannon hosted a dinner for Farage at his Capitol Hill townhouse. Standing under a large oil painting by the fireplace, Farage delivered a speech that left the dozens of conservative leaders in attendance “blown away,” as Bannon later recalled. [Continue reading…]

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The Deep State is a figment of Steve Bannon’s imagination

Loren DeJonge Schulman writes: Here’s a handy rule for assessing the credibility of what you’re reading about national security in the Trump era: If somebody uses the term “Deep State,” you can be pretty sure they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The phrase’s appeal is undeniable. The notion of a shadowy network pulling the strings in Washington is an attractive one to an embattled White House and its political opponents, shorthand-employing commentators and conspiracy theorists alike. But uncritical use of this canard is lazy at best and counterproductive at worst. The term, which political scientists invented to refer to the networks of generals and spymasters that rule many authoritarian states around the world, has migrated from leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy to the alt-right advisers running the White House. As a card-carrying former member of America’s vast national security bureaucracy, I find it offensive. But I also find it offensive as an analyst, because it’s a deeply misleading way to understand how the U.S. government really works.

So what is — or isn’t — the Deep State?

Let’s start with standard insinuations of the phrase. There are more than 2 million civilian executive branch employees (not counting the U.S. military or portions of the intelligence community, which does not fully report employment numbers). At least half of that number work in an agency related to national security, broadly defined. When combined with the million-plus uniformed military and support system of contractors, this is an unwieldy group. A mix of hard-working patriots, clock-punchers, technocrats, veterans and scammers, these folks swear the same oath to defend the Constitution.

Hollywood bears much of the blame in portraying this group as some combination of Rambo, the All-Seeing Eye of Mordor and the cast of Homeland — an omniscient guerilla force unaccountable to any authority. Reality is less made for the big screen; if, say, “Zero Dark Thirty” had been true to life, it likely would have been a single shot of 100 hours of lawyers’ meetings. The national security bureaucracy does wield awe-inspiring capabilities that could be disastrous if abused; months sitting through the Obama administration’s surveillance policy review made that clear. But while civil servants and military personnel do pledge to defend the Constitution, it is not only the goodness of their hearts but a complex web of legal, congressional, bureaucratic and political oversight that guards against such risks. These checks are met with both grumbles and keen awareness of how they set the U.S. rule of law apart from, say, Russia. These systems are not foolproof, and could undoubtedly be improved. The flaws of the administrative state — ranging from redundancy and waste to self-interested bloat to inability to innovate to scandalous incidents of corruption — have been well documented, its day-to-day successes far less so. But find me an alternative to the national security bureaucracy, or find me a functioning state without one. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s wiretap tweets raise risk of impeachment

Noah Feldman writes: The sitting president has accused his predecessor of an act that could have gotten the past president impeached. That’s not your ordinary exercise of free speech. If the accusation were true, and President Barack Obama ordered a warrantless wiretap of Donald Trump during the campaign, the scandal would be of Watergate-level proportions.

But if the allegation is not true and is unsupported by evidence, that too should be a scandal on a major scale. This is the kind of accusation that, taken as part of a broader course of conduct, could get the current president impeached. We shouldn’t care that the allegation was made early on a Saturday morning on Twitter.


The basic premise of the First Amendment is that truth should defeat her opposite number. “Let her and Falsehood grapple,” wrote the poet and politician John Milton, “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

But this rather optimistic adage only accounts for speech and debate between citizens. It doesn’t apply to accusations made by the government. Those are something altogether different.

In a rule of law society, government allegations of criminal activity must be followed by proof and prosecution. If not, the government is ruling by innuendo.

Shadowy dictatorships can do that because there is no need for proof. Democracies can’t. [Continue reading…]

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A violent attack on free speech at Middlebury

Peter Beinart writes: My fellow liberals, please watch the following video. It suggests that something has gone badly wrong on the campus left.

The events leading up to the video are as follows. One of the student groups at Middlebury College is called The American Enterprise Club. According to its website, the Club aims “to promote … free enterprise, a limited federal government, a strong national defense.” In other words, it’s a group for political conservatives.

This year, the AEI Club invited Dr. Charles Murray to speak. That’s crucial to understanding what followed. When leftists protest right-wing speakers on campus, they often deny that they are infringing upon free speech. Free speech, they insist, does not require their university to give a platform to people with offensive views. That was the argument of the people who earlier this year tried to prevent ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley. And it was the argument of those who opposed Murray’s lecture at Middlebury. “This is not an issue of freedom of speech,” declared a letter signed by more than 450 Middlebury alums. “Why has such a person been granted a platform at Middlebury?”

The answer is that Middlebury granted Murray a platform because a group of its students invited him. Those students constitute a small ideological minority. They hold views that many of their classmates oppose, even loathe. But the administrators who run Middlebury, like the administrators who run Berkeley, consider themselves obligated to protect the right of small, unpopular, minorities to bring in speakers of their choice. Denying them that right—giving progressive students a veto over who conservative students can invite—comes perilously close to giving progressive students a veto over what conservative students can say. If it is legitimate for campus progressives to block speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos or Charles Murray, why can’t they block speeches by fellow students who hold Yiannopoulos or Murray’s views? [Continue reading…]

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In Romania, faith in democracy survives

Mircea Geoana writes: A month ago, images of hundreds of thousands of Romanians protesting in front of the government building in Bucharest and in other Romanian cities started to spread around the world. It may have seemed just another popular turn toward right-wing demagogy in a time of receding faith in democracy. But that is not the case.

This protest movement is, in fact, a signal to the world that in this corner of Europe, democracy and its ideals are alive and well — that the civic fabric destroyed during decades of Communist oppression has healed, and the people want to perfect their democracy, not to weaken it.

The protests are aimed at an emergency ordinance from the government that would have reversed a national campaign against corruption, in which Romania has achieved significant but incomplete victories in recent years. Graft and nepotism still exist, and are blamed for high levels of poverty, polarization, social and economic injustice; those, in turn, have sent millions of young Romanians fleeing to other parts of the European Union, the United States or Canada. Still, enough young Romanians remained to take over the streets in freezing cold, and ultimately they forced the government to abandon the infamous ordinance.

These are not the first spontaneous protests here in the name of popular power. Those began three years ago with the end of the discredited presidency of Traian Basescu. They continued in opposition to attempts by foreign corporations to extract gold from Roman-era historic sites in the mountains of Transylvania. And they resumed against the government of the prime minister at the time, Victor Ponta, after a terrible fire in a Bucharest nightclub.

What Romania has been experiencing is an anti-elite political outpouring with a fury that resembles what we see in Europe and America, but whose origins and goals are 180 degrees opposite. These Romanian “indignados,” as the protesters are called, are not the blue-collar, rural, anti-globalization disgruntled who voted for Brexit or helped Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. They are mainly young, urban, college-educated people with well-paid jobs at multinational corporations and banks, the main employers of local talent. So they are not protesting against globalization or the European Union. The solution they seek would be more globalization, a more solid Europe, more American and NATO involvement in our region. They are instinctively against any walls — physical or invisible — that may be erected in a vain effort to stop the free movement of people, ideas, capital or technology. [Continue reading…]

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The vote that could wreck the European Union

An editorial in The Economist says: It has been many years since France last had a revolution, or even a serious attempt at reform. Stagnation, both political and economic, has been the hallmark of a country where little has changed for decades, even as power has rotated between the established parties of left and right.

Until now. This year’s presidential election, the most exciting in living memory, promises an upheaval. The Socialist and Republican parties, which have held power since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, could be eliminated in the first round of a presidential ballot on April 23rd. French voters may face a choice between two insurgent candidates: Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front, and Emmanuel Macron, the upstart leader of a liberal movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), which he founded only last year.

The implications of these insurgencies are hard to exaggerate. They are the clearest example yet of a global trend: that the old divide between left and right is growing less important than a new one between open and closed. The resulting realignment will have reverberations far beyond France’s borders. It could revitalise the European Union, or wreck it.

The revolution’s proximate cause is voters’ fury at the uselessness and self-dealing of their ruling class. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s media war threatens journalists globally, protection group warns

The Guardian reports: The Trump administration should “act as a champion of press freedom”, a senior member of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Saturday, rather than prosecute a war with mainstream US media that could “send a signal to other countries that it is OK to verbally abuse journalists and undermine their credibility”.

Rob Mahoney, deputy executive director of the CPJ, a nonprofit that promotes press freedom worldwide, told the Guardian Trump’s attacks on the press do not “help our work trying to deal with countries like Turkey, Ethiopia or Venezuela, where you have governments who want to nothing more than to silence and intimidate the press.”

Mahoney also said attempts to favour conservative press outlets and declare the mainstream media the “enemy of the American people” looked like a deliberate effort by the White House to “inoculate itself from criticism”.

“Any time the press now uncovers an scandal or wrongdoing the administration can dismiss it as false,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg interview: ‘It’s not the best of times’

 

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