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.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (2012)

First things first, 2012 it is now history. It is time to wish you all a good start into the coming year. Happy New Year all! 

This draft of my review of 2012 has been a few days in the making. There were a few distractions, most of them good, not all. I wish that I could claim that the low point of the year was early in January, almost an year ago in Paris when I went to what was my secret rendez-vous place across the Louvre, and found that the parts of that café that I was most fond of had been painted over. That was not the low point of the year, that came in the last days of December when all expectations were off-scale for merry making and relaxation. I will not go into the details of the bad news, and will focus here on the positive events and memories that this past year brought. In the paragraphs that follow l briefly sketch some of the events that dominated the year, and thoughts that persist during the past weeks whenever I think that I am looking back. I do wonder what it is that I look at when I think that I am looking back. 

People, Family and Friends. It was good to see friends whom I had not seen for years. The summer of 2012 was a bit different from anything that I had planned, and very rewarding. Above all, I had to look critically at some of the assumptions that I had taken for granted so far, and this is a process that continues, has just begun and was much overdue. I am particularly pleased with the opportunity to lecture at the summer school for materials in renewable energy where I reconnected with old friends, met new critical minds, and had a bit of time to think. It was as though doors opened where I had not even imagined that they exist. As it was, I ended up in Erice at the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Center for Scientific Culture twice this summer. The second visit was for the 2012 edition of the Seminar on Planetary Emergencies where the only familiar faces were those of the staff at the Centre. In between my two visits to Sicily, I ventured north to spend a few days as a guest of my two friends Alex and Tony at the Open Coop in Amsterdam. Again, my stay in Amsterdam went anything but as planned, only better. And the family? Oh yes, the family is a never ending story.

Politics. For some not so odd reason, politics is very much on my mind these days. Although politics is about dealing with conflicts, there is a prevailing notion – or so it seems to me – that politics is about some sort of utopia where everything works and that those with the task of doing politics have an easy task. It ain’t so. To begin with politics is everybody’s business.  Then, despite all the vague claims that this world has less conflicts these days than before, the existing conflicts are not being solved very intelligently. This tongue-in-cheek piece  in The Economist’s 2012 last issue somehow brings it to a point. Even though the piece is not about politics, it suggests how many like to think, and do think about politics: dismissively, deceptively and misinformed. Politics is messy, hard work, requires an unadulterated confrontation with problems, and commitment to find solutions that work within the tight web of our social values.

Local Conflicts. What am I rambling about? At the beginning of 2012 I had the infamous dossier of the Reitschule in the committee for social, cultural and educational affairs of our city parliament on my desk and was tasked with evaluating it and making a recommendation. After careful consideration, and a whole lot of interviews of various people involved, I submitted the recommendation that the the contracts stipulating the modalities for the subsidy provided by the city to the Reitschule (more exactly, the Interessengemeinschaft Kulturraum Reitschule, IKuR) organization needed re-negotiation. This passed, the contracts were again re-negotiatiated, I was still not happy. Anyhow, it came up for a vote again in the city parliament late in the Fall, somebody else had the dossier this time,  they recommended that the contracts be approved, and it passed; I voted against. The details of this are all rather dull, but this is the one item that gets many in Bern, to voice an opinion. There are several problems, mostly around security, especially the lack of it on some occasions, and the relationship with the Police is strained. On the grand scale of things, this is nothing earth-chattering, but violence is unacceptable. Equally unacceptable is the intolerance that many right-wingers show towards others with different political views. So, I had a few harsh words for a few people, and I was sure to make myself very unpopular in an election year. Two surprises. The press did not bother much with my opinions, and second I did get re-elected with a much better result than I had expected in spite of the fact that our party lost two seats in this round. Now, I am a bit challenged. The new legislation will start in a few days, and I may need to get out of my comfort zone. 

Films, Media, Technology and Gadgets. Over the last two weeks when I have gone off-grid I have watched a good number of films. Four make an impression as an interesting ensemble. Casablanca (1942), Blade Runner (1982), Idiocracy (2006), and Skyfall (2012). First of all, I did love Skyfall. There is something totally appealing about a James Bond that fails his active duty qualifiers, namely an aging Bond. Disturbing are the roles that women are cast in all four movies. How many of these movies have a female hero? Ilsa Lund is not an hero in Casablanca. Ilsa’s role is that of supporting an hero, any male hero, with her devotion. But when I think again, does it matter that female roles are cast as subservient, subordinate, and weak? Perhaps not. In Idocracy, the female protagonist has a whole lot of street smarts, but is also cast in a profession that albeit the oldest, it is still not a desired one. Why could the two leading roles not have been cast with the professions reversed? Namely, the female soldier, and the male prostitute would have distributed the roles in a less biased fashion. Blade Runner‘s screenplay differs in many aspects from the original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but this is one of those exceptions where the film and the original story are equally rich and enjoyable. But… that is just a thought for later. What struck me most is the role of technology in all four movies. I could not help but to think that in dystopia, technology always works. The airplane does take off in Casablanca. The weaponry does function in Blade Runner while the genetic engineering is supposedely malfunctioning. The barcode scanners are the better policemen in Idiocracy. Last but not least, the true villain, if not hegemon, in Skyfall is technology. So, what does this tell us about our relationship to technology? Or, what is it like to live in constant fear?

Writing. In my personal electronic journal, in 2012, I wrote a mere odd 9,000 words. In 2011, when I was also not particularly prolific in journaling, it was more than double that count. That is, in 2012, I spent precious little time at the computer writing belly-button diatribes. I also did not blog much either. On paper, there are a mere 20 pages penned by hand in 2012. The fiction stuttered. Yes, it stuttered. The non-fiction book project was intentionally put on ice at the end of 2011 for one year. Have I been writing? Without a doubt, yes. It just has not been journals or fiction. 

In conclusion, what I can offer myself upon this disarrayed rendition of what I can not make pass for an analysis of the past year, is that distractions are everywhere. At the end of the day what gives me great satisfaction is to set my mind’s eye on a goal and work with all my focus towards it. For me it is not always easy to keep a balance between intensity, concentration, focus, and what my body and mind need to function. I want it all, but I know that unless I slow down, I will get nowhere. Early in 2012, in the midst of a project, I jotted down that I  had just signed up for the impossible. I did the impossible. Somehow, I rarely ever settle for less than the impossible. Focus helps. At a time when clutter and fragmentation threatens to engulf our lives and usurpate our existential rights, focus gets promoted to a value based on the faculty of choice. 

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Politics & Politics

Yesterday for a while I thought that that had been my last session in the Rathaus. Elections are on the 25th, and the next session of Bern’s city parliament (Stadtrat) is on the 29th. Needless to say that I have never been any good at reading tea leaves or at predicting the outcome of elections. Still, I contend that Obama’s reelection was possibly won thanks – an odd word in this context – to anthropogenic emissions and their effects on climate. By the way, in case that there was any doubt about where I stand on the issue of climate change and environmental protection, I think that we as a society are failing on most accounts. Those trying to bring in governance and management of the situation in some form just do not have an easy task ahead. The so-called Greens are also not helping much, the Conservationists of all shades are also an impediment, and as a recent editorial in the local fish-wrapper said, Bern has no vision for the future. I wish that there were more fish in Bern, then said paper would be slightly more useful. 

All I wanted to say is that I do not count with being elected into the Stadtrat on the 25th, but contrary to my feelings a few months ago when I was more than swamped by other concerns, now I feel a renewed interest in the politics of this city.

It is also no secret that I prefer to act behind the scenes rather than on the speaker’ stand at the Rathaus. It was indeed an exception that I took to the stand yesterday and said a few words about the infamous and world famous Reitschule. I only had two points that I wanted to get across that in my frustration with the German language (it just does not come to me as easy as English does) may not have come across as clearly as I wanted.

First, the Reitschule could use a bit more autonomy from the city and the existing subsidies in the form of the rent for the premises, is a nice gesture but it is not much of a contribution to the cultural activities of this city. This is different for the subsidies that finance the utilities for the premises as here there is money that flows from one coffer to another for the payment of services. In my view the rent is another issue. To make a long story short, the building was derelict when it was renovated and rehabilitated by the group and associations of what is called the Reitschule. The location and the state of the building is such that right now there is no other commercial use for the building. Another alternative for the real estate is  to develop the site in as proposed by a colleague in my party. I like that idea too. You see, I may, after all, have a vision for Bern. However the cultural institution and heritage of the Reitschule could be developed in other premises. I support the idea and function of the Reitschule, I am not convinced that the present contractual solution is good; certainly it is not working. At the very least, the present arrangement is past its expiry date and there is much social microbial debris fermenting discontent among all. Really, think about it, but what is basically a rental agreement is not a good instrument to insure constructive collaboration with the Police in matters of security and prevention of violence or organized crime. To recapitulate, after the many divergences, the first point is about increased autonomy for the Reitschule and their operators. The second point is to hightlight the fact that the Wellness-Team at the Reitschule is already doing a very good job in security matters, however there are situations when they can not take care of it all, and then situations get out of hand, and violence shows its ugly face. We would like to see this problem solved, and that is why I think it is time for going back to the negotiation table and restructure the whole deal. Who would you invite to the negotiation table?

By the way, as the press is reporting, the contracts with the Reitschule have passed with a majority (47-31). We will return to this in a few years, and I may or may not be at the Rathaus or in the Committee giving my two bits to the debate.

Those who have voted and will vote for me, many thanks. I think of you, and I am glad that some of you have faces that I see everyday.