Exercises in Arrogance: I

This is not an exercise for beginners. It is an exercise in advancing the exploration of arrogance. it started as a banality. On the way to the Rathaus on Thursday I went to the hairdresser and was in a chatty mood. Here I am telling my hairdresser about the fact that I have two main professional occupations, and he volunteers that he knew that one is politics, but did not know the other. This was the funny thing, I was not even thinking of politics. Politics is something that I do in my spare time, it is not a profession. Politics is also a civic duty. After all, if you are not willing to govern, you are damned to be governed.

Thursday’s triple – in fact quadruple – dose of the Bern city parliament had something for everybody. There were big items on the agenda and we did not get through half of those items. Still, some of the meatier subjects were debated. The annual report 2013, or a great opportunity for the left to say that they also know about finance, and the right to point out the errors, or vice-verse. Thursday night was no exception and we got it approved, but not without a vote of protest from our fraction. The best was yet to come. The details are theatrical. At one point it really got out of hand and people were shouting at each other (and yes, the local newspaper reported on that). Civilised I say, in comparison with some parliament squabbles elsewhere, but unusual for typically slow and anaesthetised Bernese. The protocol of Thursday’ sessions is going to be a doozy! 

The epitome of ridicule was reached as the clock was about to strike 23:30. At that point one member of the parliament gets up to make yet another motion of order and argued that we were wasting taxpayer’s money by going into overtime, thus we should break up and resume the debate at another time. Parliamentarians in this city get paid in 3 hour blocks, and since we had been debating since 20:30, we had been at it for three hours and were no where close to conclusion. We voted, and this motion did not get a majority, thus it was rejected. This rejected motion prompted yet another one by another parliamentarian asking that our honorary for the overtime be cancelled. This caused a commotion because such a motion of order is not permitted according to the statutes. However it is possible to ask that we voluntarily forfeit of the honorary. This was put to a vote, and roughly speaking those who had wanted to debate the damned business to its bitter end, forfeited, and those that wanted to go home didn’t. 

In view of all these antics, one must be curious as to what it was that we were debating. You guessed it, about spending money. This time about a public transportation project that has captured the fancy of mostly left politicians, but which is meeting considerable opposition from the residents, the extreme right, and the liberals. When one looks at the project in detail, there are major flaws with it. Surely Bern should update and modernise its public transportation, but this project is ridiculously poorly conceived. A lot of arguments for it are about serving two suburban communities (Köniz and Ostermundig)  with trams. Both Köniz and Ostermundig have train stations. Needless to say that S-bahn (trains) are a whole lot faster than trams and do not cause congestion on the streets or hinder bike riders. But that is not all. Actually, I get bored listing all that is wrong with this concept. The debate in the Stadtrat is however a bit more interesting, but just as poorly informed. Lies, and more lies, and who gives a damn? Damn lies!

Still, the substance seems almost besides the point; marginalised. The basics of the exercise are about power. The majority block wants this project’s credit to be approved, and the minority doesn’t. The strategy on the pro-project side is to get it through as fast as possible, and that on the minority side is to delay it. It is the way it is. Anyhow the fellow with the motion that we forfeit our honorary is now poking fun at the fellow who wanted to interrupt the debate because he did not forfeit. This is pathetic! Kindergarden silliness. 

Indeed the arguments against going into overtime were not very sound. We will debate this damned tram project as long as it takes, this is what a parliament is for. This is not a business meeting to be run efficiently. Democracy, for better or worse,  is not very efficient. First people are irrational, and if anything, politics is irrational. Fortunately the whole project will be put up for a vote in September, and then the residents can have their say. 

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Freedom and Democracy

It is a sad day for Switzerland, it is a sadder day for humanity. It is a day when a slight majority – 50.3% – of the 56% who voted on this weekend’s plebiscite approved an initiative that was advertized in the media to deceive. It was designed to stoke existential fears, and add fuel to the virus of xenophobia. That this initiative succeeded to get a thin majority at the polls, comes as a surprise to many, and I hope that it comes at a surprise to those 44% who did not bother to vote. While I claimed that I would not be surprised if this happened, now that it happened, I am indignant and surprised.

The EU is build on four fundamental principles set down in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. This treaty is an 80 page document, the four freedoms are the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people, Article 3 (c).

If we are to take the case that these freedoms constitute fundamental rights, and this is a case that can be made. Then the violation of these, when contrary to international law, in that intentional deprivation of these rights constitutes persecution, this could approach a crime against humanity. But, this is a difficult case to make, and I do not wish to go so far right now. 

We may recall that states are free to exercise their territorial sovereignty and deciding matters pertaining to foreigners. This freedom is however is limited by the EU bilateral agreements, but also by anti-descrimination and reunification of families right (remember Gül v Switzerland?) Really, why don’t we have an independent constitutional court? 

Now, this is going to be dizzy to implement! 

It really is no consolation that the virus of xenophobia is spreading through Europe. Some states have better immune systems against this virus, but it is one which we are all being exposed to. It is also not just Europe. I thought that we had done the civil liberties movement, dealt with apartheid, and that we were on the way to live in a truly free world. Think again! 

The erosion of our basic freedoms is not something to be taken lightly. A thin majority of Swiss today voted against one of the four freedoms on which our neighbours on all sides are building the future.

The State of Discord

Do you often wonder what you would do if the world was yours to govern?

The world is yours to govern. If you feel powerless, it is because you have done an uncreative uncommons license deal with your neighbours and signed away not only your obligation but your birth right at self-governance. It’s you and they. They! The damned they are running the world! You let them. 

I have read Betty Medsger’s The Burglary in one fell swoop. Here is an NPR report on it. I just couldn’t put it down. I arrived in the US in 1973. I went to college with Vietnam veterans. One cousin left his life in Vietnam. Did I ever debate the Vietnam war? No. To me there was nothing to debate. For me, the war was wrong. I did not feel the need to debate something about which I had no doubt. After all, I was sixteen, and all the wars I had ever heard of made little sense to me. I avoided politics and thinking about politics until I was living in Germany and well into my thirties. 

The Burglary got my attention, not only because it is a story well told, but because it is a very contemporary story. What the FBI was doing then is not very different from what the NSA is doing now. The technologies have changed, the methods are basically the same. The purpose is still power. Come to think of it, I have no clue how things work in DC, but then Hoover had the goods on about anybody, thus keeping it all secret, was easy. One thing has changed, the man in the White House is no longer white, but he is still a man. Not that women are not capable of playing the same dirty games.

Now I am in Swiss politics, and I have no doubt that the local power game is not different from that played in other parts of the world. Really, I have absolute no doubts. However if you are endowed with ambition about reelection and staying in politics, playing by the rules, and playing fair, may not have much appeal. People who play by the rules, like to play fair, and are pacifists are often called activists. There are a few other typologies of so called non-govermental bodies who will not shy aggression or violence, however aggression and violence are criminal activities. We should distinguish between breaking the law, and criminal activities undertaken by any individual, grouping, entity, private institution or governmental agency. There is a big difference. 

One thing that I discovered in reading this book is that I make a strong distinction between what is the rule of law and what is ethical behaviour. There is much ‘legal’ behaviour under the rule of law that is far from being ethical. In fact, there is much that is possible under the rule of law that is unethical. 

In your eyes Google has gone from doing no evil to being evil, and I wonder who allowed that to happen. Has Google changed? How? Who took those decisions? One day, some bright creature will report on the saga of Google (or any other tech multinational) and how they have interacted with government. I may or may not by then either read the book or be alive. Still, we should not forget that the world is ours to govern.

Self-governance is a concept that we need to think about within our very pluralistic understanding of democratic utopia. While I can see where Russell Brand is coming from, his presupposed admission that he has never voted, points to disenfranchisement. It is not just in the so-called developing countries that people feel disenfranchised, the successful public figures in some of the more affluent parts of the planet, are literally in the same boat. There are two sides to this: the ugly and the beautiful. It is plain ugly to think that so many of us have resigned our fate to those who have no interest in our well-being, and it is so plain beautiful that somehow both the very poor and the very rich do share in lacking a sense disenfranchisement. 

In this light, it is indeed an elixir to read The Burglary and be reminded that there are people capable of taking matters into their own hands and remain true to higher ethical values.