Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Social Capital Makes Japan Strong State

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

What allows members of a polity to be willing enough to trust each other in order to engage in collective endeavors for the common good?

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, in a number of articles and books, has referred to this quality as social capital. It’s the network of thick connections that keep citizens engaged in collective activities on behalf of all.

Social capital rests on a set of mutual understandings about the kinds of behaviour people can expect from one another, and comes about when people all have mutually reinforcing ties across a wide spectrum of civil society institutions.

The single largest factor used to quantify social capital is the level of social trust, he has argued.

The greater the amount of social capital, the likelier it is that members of society will be able to cooperate in the public realm – something of immense importance for the proper functioning of a democracy. 

So, as Putnam suggested in his 1993 book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, a strong and free government depends on a virtuous and public-spirited citizenry.

Japan provides an excellent example of this. Its culture and its homogeneity may be its greatest strengths. The nation’s deeply rooted shared political and cultural principles allow for a level of social peace, harmony and unity found in few other countries.

Some social scientists posit that this gives the Japanese a sense of meaning and purpose and hence the desire to accomplish tasks to the best of their ability. There is a deep personal investment that people make in their work. Perhaps you work harder when you are all part of one “extended family.”

In an article in the New York Times Magazine of Dec. 18, “What the West Can Learn From Japan About the Cultural Value of Work,” John Lanchester tells us that the word shokunin sums it up: It means something like “master or mastery of one’s profession,” and it captures the way Japanese workers spend every day trying to be better at what they do.

There is also a different approach to business relationships; there is much more of a sense of social responsibility than there is elsewhere.

While company profits are important, so is their corporate social duty to keep their workers employed as much as possible. The relationship is one of mutual responsibility going back to samurai times.

Employees are expected to work hard and demonstrate loyalty to the firm, in exchange for some degree of job security and benefits. Executives and workers look out for each other and not just for the bottom line. So unemployment, at about three per cent, is almost nonexistent.

Companies thus take on a heavy amount of responsibility for ensuring social stability, the latter being a paramount value in Japanese culture.

All of this can sometimes be carried too far. An article by Amanda Erickson in the Jan.14 Washington Post, “Japan’s Employees Are Literally Working Themselves to Death,” observes that the Japanese “might be the hardest working people in the world.”

Even taking a vacation is seen as selfish. The culture is so rigorous that there is a word for literally working yourself to death: karoshi. 

The Japanese have gone through many decades of turmoil, be they economic, political or military, over the past century. They continue to face challenges, especially in their relations with China, South Korea and the United States. But they will see them through as a united country.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What Led to Trump's Attempted Ban?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
 
President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding the entry of various people into the United States, which initially came into effect Jan. 27, has been front-page news ever since.

It targeted three groups: refugees in general, who are blocked from entering the U.S. for the next 120 days; refugees from Syria, who may be barred indefinitely; and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, who are barred from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days.

This is technically not actually a Muslim ban: It affects citizens, regardless of faith, of several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa but not to persons of Islamic faith who carry the passports of almost 200 other countries.

Still, most observers see an anti-Muslim animus informing the decision. The result has been intense fury from Democrats and discomfort among many Republicans.

Meanwhile, a federal district court judge in Seattle on Feb. 3 temporarily blocked the ban.

The administration continues to challenge that ruling and it may be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to render a final decision.

It should also be noted that most of the reaction has ignored the dismal foreign policy failures of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama which preceded this draconian move.

It has also, for partisan reasons, overlooked Obama’s own previous restrictions on the intake of refugees. (The countries affected by the edict were initially selected by the Obama administration.)

Two recent articles posted on line have helped place the issue in context: “The Refugee Ban and the Holocaust,” by Walter Russell Mead and Nicholas M. Gallagher, in the American Interest periodical of Jan. 28, 2017; and “The Self-righteous Backlash to Trump’s Immigration Ban Could Play into his Hands,” by Tom Gross, in the Spectator magazine, Jan. 31, 2017.

Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, a New York liberal arts institution, and Gallagher, who graduated from Oxford University in 2011, assert that “Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has an American President done anything so cruel and bigoted.”

However, they argue that the failures of the Bush and Obama years “are father to Trump’s callous treatment of refugees.”

The best way to deal with refugee flows is to prevent them from happening, contend the authors. But, they conclude, Obama never took responsibility for his own repeated errors of judgment regarding the Syrian catastrophe, now entering its sixth year.

Gross, a journalist, international affairs commentator, and human rights campaigner specializing in the Middle East, also castigates Obama.

He, too, maintains that Trump’s executive order “is morally unacceptable (it amounts to collective punishment), strategically dubious (since many terrorists are home-grown or came from countries other than those seven),” and “has caused distress and uncertainty.” It sets an anti-immigrant tone, when immigrants can hugely benefit their new countries.

But Gross, like Mead and Gallagher, maintains that “the war in Syria descended into barbarity in part because President Obama encouraged the rebels, and the Sunni majority population of Syria who supported them, promising them arms and protection, and then abandoned them.”

As well, Obama went on to release billions of dollars in funds to the Iranian regime, whose forces and Shia militia in Syria have done much, if not most, of the killing there these past six years, leading many Syrians to seek sanctuary in Europe and beyond.

Why, Gross asks, were today’s critics largely silent when, during his time in office, Obama deported more immigrants than any other president in history, or when in 2011, Obama stopped admitting Iraqi refugees for six months while the vetting process was re-evaluated?

Obama also signed a 2015 law imposing tighter visa restrictions on foreigners who had traveled to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan within the previous five years. Donald Trump is a latecomer to a tragedy which has been unfolding since 2011.

Vietnam War Changed a Traumatized America


Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

At the beginning of 1967, the U.S. State Department announced that 5,008 Americans had been killed in Vietnam in 1966, fueling nationwide protests. But President Lyndon Johnson saw America’s credibility on the line and determined to press on.

The president had escalated the war in Vietnam in 1965 with broad but very shallow popular support. By the summer of 1967, the United States had 448,800 troops in Vietnam, draft calls exceeded 30,000 a month and some 13,000 Americans had been killed.

Yet the people in government, so sure they were, as the title of the 1972 book by David Halberstam indicates, “the best and the brightest,” refused to take heed.

Robert McNamara, a president of Ford Motor Company who became secretary of defence, “knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics,” wrote Halberstam.

The war had become a bloody stalemate and opposition to this senseless conflict was gathering steam.

At the start of that year, Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most prominent athlete in the world, fought induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds and condemned the war. The antiwar movement was growing and now attracted highly visible new supporters like Martin Luther King Jr.

And even television – which in the U.S. at the time was basically limited to three major networks – finally began to take notice.

When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” made its premiere on CBS Feb. 5, 1967, and grew in popularity, it demonstrated that mainstream American has begun to question the war.

Tom and Dick Smothers, until then two fairly unknown comedians and folk singers, began to challenge Johnson’s administration and its rationale for continuing the conflict.

The brothers even got CBS to break the 17-year-old network TV blacklisting of folk singer Pete Seeger, who had been a supporter of the Soviet Union, on Sept. 10, 1967.

The war became ever more destructive and American casualties kept increasing. Much of the American intelligentsia and literary community now opposed the conflict.

At the beginning of 1968, Noam Chomsky, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Gloria Steinem, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Baez, Susan Sontag, Thomas Pynchon and James Baldwin joined more than 400 others in signing the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the war.

For most other Americans, realization that it could not be won came with the Tet offensive.

On Jan. 31, 1968, some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam, planned the offensive in an attempt both to foment rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the U.S. to scale back its support of the Saigon regime.

Though American and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold off the Communist attacks, news coverage of the offensive (including the lengthy Battle of Huế) shocked and dismayed the American public and further eroded support for the war effort.

The attacks marked a turning point in the Vietnam War and the beginning of the slow American withdrawal.

On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. That November, his vice-president Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate in the presidential election, lost to Republican Richard Nixon, who promised to end the war – though it would drag on for another seven years.

Meanwhile, on April 4, 1969 CBS fired the Smothers brothers, whose show had become ever more “radical.” In a very small way, I know how they felt.

In 1967-68 I was an MA student political science at McGill University in Montreal, and one of a number of teaching assistants in the Introduction to Political Science course.

Following Johnson’s resignation, I told the professor teaching the course that “the ruling class” had “fired” Johnson. She was so angry that she fired me!

Maybe my statement smacked of hyperbole, but I still think that, in a sense, I was right.
Today, one would find few defenders of that war.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Does NATO Need to be Restructured?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

After British Prime Minister Theresa May met newly-elected American President Donald Trump Jan. 27, she said she felt assured that both countries retain an “unshakable commitment” to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But is it really that certain? After all, during the recent presidential campaign, Trump had suggested that the military alliance is “obsolete” and that the United States might not come to the aid of countries that don’t meet targets for their own defence spending.

In response to a question about potential Russian aggression towards the Baltic states, Trump told the New York Times in an interview last July that if Moscow attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

He accused European allies of bring free riders and taking advantage of what he called an era of American largess.

NATO was founded in 1949 as a way for American troops to protect a war-shattered Europe from aggression by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was also designed to prevent a potentially resurgent Germany from engaging in future assaults against its neighbours.

As one cynic suggested, it was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Today Europe is quite capable of shaping and paying for its own security, but NATO’s structure remains unchanged. The United States still pays nearly three-quarters of its budget. The European members, on the other hand, have always been leery about heavy conventional defence expenditures.

According to NATO statistics, the U.S. spent an estimated $664 billion on defence in 2016, more than double the amount all the other 27 NATO countries spent between them, even though their combined gross domestic product (GDP) tops that of the U.S.

Only five of NATO’s 28 members -- the U.S., Greece, Poland, Estonia and Great Britain -- meet the alliance’s target of spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence. Washington spends the highest proportion of its GDP on defense, at 3.61 per cent.

Canada spends less than one per cent annually and would need to spend an extra $20 billion per year to make the two per cent target.

Why has Washington gone along with this for half a century? It’s because the U.S. did not want to surrender control over the continent’s security, fearing that Europeans might otherwise seek conciliation with Russia.

Russia may be seen as a destabilizing force in Europe or as simply defending its border regions. Either way, it is more of a challenge for Europeans than North Americans.

The international order is now in a state of flux. Starting with China and Russia, many countries resent America’s leadership role.

 For that matter, many Americans have also tired of it and are questioning the nature and extent of their nation’s involvement in the world. They wonder why they need to play such an outsize role on the world stage.

Trump has tapped into this feeling. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he has proclaimed.

A neo-isolationist, in his inaugural address the new president contended that the U.S. has for too long “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

Trump promised to put “America first.” So he is not averse to making deals with Russia should that benefit the country.

In a joint interview with the Times of London and the German publication Bild shortly before taking office, he suggested a bargain that would ease sanctions on Russia in exchange for nuclear arms cuts and cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State.

Trump also restated his doubts about NATO, “because it was designed many, many years ago.” From Moscow’s point of view, a reduction of NATO’s military presence near Russia’s borders would be welcomed. Stay tuned.

Role of Religion Expands in Russia

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
 
On Jan. 28 some 2,000 Russians rallied in St. Petersburg to protest plans by the city authorities to give a landmark cathedral back to the Russian Orthodox Church, amid an increasingly passionate debate over the relationship between the church and state.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral dates back to 1818, when construction began on the orders of Tsar Alexander I. It took 40 years to construct.

It has been under state control since 1931, a time when religion was under increasing attack by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Communists stripped it of its religious trappings and installed an anti-religion museum inside.

“We won’t give St. Isaac’s to the church. We want to save it as a museum,” Boris Vishnevsky, a local lawmaker, told the protesters. But he will probably lose the battle.

It’s indicative of the increasingly significant role of the church in Russian life, especially under President Vladimir Putin. In cultural and social affairs he has collaborated closely with the Church, appealing to traditional values to help tighten his grip on society.

There are some 150 million adherents to Russian Orthodoxy estimated worldwide, about half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Russians have been Orthodox Christians for more than a millennium.

According to some accounts, in 988 Prince Vladimir of Kievan Russia, a forerunner of today’s state, was baptised. He was apparently impressed by the dazzling worship his ambassadors described seeing in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.

As the world’s largest Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate boasts more than 30,000 parishes, but only about half of them are based in the Russian Federation itself.

And those beyond the country’s borders are part of Putin’s “soft power,” as they adhere to the teachings of Moscow and are opposed to Western liberalism.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the focus was at first on the reform or destruction of the old system, rather than on any clear vision of what Russia should become.

Russia is “an idea-centric country,” asserts Arkady Ostrovsky, a Russian-born journalist who has spent fifteen years reporting from Moscow, first for the Financial Times and then for the Economist.

His book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War traces the battles over the country’s history. “The liberals and their hard-line opponents fought over the past as if they were fighting for natural resources,” he writes.

And after a quarter century, Russians are still confronting their cultural and religious future, and struggling to define an emerging “Russian idea.”

Hence the return to religion, welcomed by Putin as part of a broader push by the Kremlin to assert itself as both the legitimate heir to and master of “Holy Russia,” a state great and strong.

“The church has become an instrument of the Russian state. It is used to extend and legitimize the interests of the Kremlin,” according to Sergei Chapnin, who is the former editor of the official journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In December he was dismissed for criticizing the Patriarchate’s policies and calling it “a church of empire.”

The Orthodox “are now Russian patriots first, and everything else second,” Chapnin stated in a Jan. 5 interview with Rosbalt, a St. Petersburg-based news agency. He sees a “new hybrid religion,” a mix of Orthodox traditions, Soviet nostalgia, and “the dream for a strong empire,” emerging.

“This fusion leads to the formation of a post-Soviet civil religion, which exploits Orthodox tradition but in fact is not Orthodoxy.”

Chapnin places much of the blame on Patriarch Kirill, who became head of the church eight years ago. He endorsed Putin’s election in 2012, stating his presidency was like “a miracle of God.”

Speaking to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, on Jan. 26, Kirill called on Russians “not to forget about our common national hero, Prince Vladimir, equal to the apostles, whose spiritual children we all remain, no matter what happens on the international scene.”

The patriarch’s voice “resonates across the public space,” Chapnin writes, while “all others are mostly silent, not daring to go beyond brief comments.”

Monday, January 30, 2017

How Will President Trump Deal with China's Leader Xi Jinping?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

An intensely nationalistic state, a resurgent China is set to face a new American president who seems willing to confront it economically and perhaps militarily. Beijing will certainly be up for the battle.

For all but the period known to the Chinese as the “century of humiliation” -- from the First Opium War in 1839 to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 -- when European and Japanese imperialism overturned the existing order, China was at the center of East Asia for thousands of years.

Other states in the region acknowledged its dominance via the tribute system. But then China was humbled and invaded, with large areas under foreign control or domination.

Consequently, much of Beijing’s foreign policy in the past seven decades has been about restoring the country’s rightful place at the center of regional, and perhaps global, affairs.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is aiming to become the paramount power in the South China and East China seas, a worrisome development to its neighbours -- in particular, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

It has been engaged in “island building” as a means of asserting sovereignty over wide stretches of maritime territory.

Xi, the son of a first-generation Communist leader, has become the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping and perhaps even Mao Zedong.

Last year, Xi became commander-in-chief of the Chinese armed forces. At the Communist Party Congress in 2012 he had already been chosen as the general secretary of the party. Four months later, Xi stepped into the state presidency.

He is also chair of the Central Military Commission, and is modernizing and re-organizing China’s armed forces.

Xi is projecting China’s power into the wider world. He has made numerous foreign state visits in recent years, and launched the “One Belt, One Road” programme to spread Chinese influence through Asia and into Europe. China now has major economic ties with states throughout Africa as well.

But China’s expansion into the seas of East and South Asia has led to regional instability, now compounded by uncertainties about how Trump’s administration will act.

Trump has been in contact with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, predictably angering Beijing, which considers the island Chinese territory. Washington cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, recognizing the Communist mainland rulers in Beijing as the sole government of “One China.”

Trump also invited Taiwanese representatives to his inauguration. Former premier Yu Shyi-kun led an 11-strong team to the ceremony, and remarked that U.S.-Taiwan ties were at an “historic high.”

The new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has warned China about its expansionist policies.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” he told members of the U.S. Senate Jan. 11.

Washington has long asked China to halt its massive dredging and island building in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But Tillerson’s warning that the United States would block China’s access to the contested islands could raise the danger of a military clash.

As author and Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash wrote in London’s Guardian newspaper Jan. 21, “do Trump and Xi have the wisdom, statecraft, sound advice and, not least, domestic political elbow room to step back from the brink?”

Is Donald Trump an Illegitimate President?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Donald J. Trump is now president of the United States…or is he?

Apparently, many Democrats don’t think so.

Not wishing to tarnish the American “brand” of democracy by stating that the American people voted for the “wrong” person, they instead insist that Trump only managed to defeat Hillary Clinton because of the machinations of the Russians and FBI Director James Comey – as if those by themselves could swing an entire election.

A large number of actors, journalists, pundits and entertainers refuse to accept him as their head of state, and refused his invitation to the inauguration.

Others openly mock him or brand him an authoritarian danger to the republic. A typical example was Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards Jan. 8 in Los Angeles.

There were also major demonstrations against the new president, in the nation and around the world. A Women’s March in Washington Jan. 21 drew about 500,000 people.

Some, in Russian hats, marched with signs calling Trump “Putin's Puppet” and “Kremlin employee of the month.” One woman carried a sign reading “Trump is a Ruskie,” apparently not realizing the irony of using a phrase similar to those employed by right-wing anti-Communist McCarthyites in the 1950s.

Starting with John Lewis, a member of the Democratic caucus from Georgia in the House of Representatives, some lawmakers have openly branded Trump as “illegitimate.”

Lewis told journalist Chuck Todd in an interview on “Meet the Press” Jan. 15 that “the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” He called it a “conspiracy.”

To make this point as clearly as possible, more than 65 Democratic members of Congress boycotted the inauguration.

Even before Trump assumed office, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents about his potential conflicts of interest, and it released a seven-point plan to challenge every aspect of his agenda.

In fact the effort to impeach Trump is already underway, led by two liberal advocacy groups, Free Speech for People and RootsAction, which are making their case on Trump’s insistence on maintaining ownership of his luxury hotel and golf course business while in office.

It’s also unprecedented that the Obamas will continue to live in Washington. No president in recent memory has stayed in the capital after their term ended; the custom has been for the outgoing tenant of the White House to leave immediately, so as not to prove a distraction to the incoming incumbent.

The last president to stay in Washington after leaving office was Woodrow Wilson, in 1920, and he was incapacitated by a stroke.

But things are different now. Clearly, if Democrats don’t accept Trump as their chief executive, they might in effect be setting up the equivalent of a “government-in-exile,” centred around Obama and Clinton. She remains a heroine, unjustly robbed of her rightful place in history.

Maybe the Obama’s new home, a few kilometres from the White House, will become the equivalent of a 19th century salon for Democrats to gather, resembling the royal court of a “pretender” to the throne exiled in another European kingdom.

Such was the case with the Stuart monarchs in Britain, who became “pretenders” after being overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

After all, if Trump is a Russian puppet, the Democrats must continue to serve as the “true” face of America – the way Charles de Gaulle and his Free French movement based in London defied the Nazi collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain after the fall of France during the Second World War.

Certainly Obama will be by far the most politically active ex-president in U.S. history. He told reporters at his final news conference that he finds some ideas advanced by Trump so alarming that it may draw him back into the fray.

This “government-in-exile,” including people from the massive Clinton Foundation, will increasingly be portrayed in the international media as the legitimate voice of the American people. And they will do their utmost to remove Trump from office through impeachment proceedings.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Nationalism of Great Powers

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It may not be a good thing for the international community that the three mightiest nations on the planet are, arguably, also the three most nationalistic.

China, Russia and the United States all consider themselves to have world-historical missions to enlighten or save the world. They all view themselves as exemplars for other, “lesser,” states.

America was founded by Calvinist Protestants who considered themselves chosen by Providence to create a republican commonwealth in the New World: in the words of the Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630, a “city upon a hill.”

America would become a “promised land,” a replica of the Old Testament covenant between God and the Israelites. It would thus become the country’s “manifest destiny” to expand across the continent and emerge as the world’s most powerful nation.

As a nation defined by a creed and sense of mission, Americans tend to equate their interests with those of humanity, which in turn informs their global posture. They consider themselves the “indispensable nation,” the country that “makes the world safe for democracy.”

The sense that the history and mission of the U.S. makes it superior to other nations is sometimes referred to as “American exceptionalism,” and it allows the country to see itself as the standard to which other states should be judged.

Russian nationalism, too, emerged from a religious base, in this case Russian Orthodox Christianity. Under the tsars, the Russian Empire was sustained by three pillars – autocracy, Russian ethnicity, and Orthodoxy.

Byzantine missionaries brought Christianity to Russia and it became an Eastern Orthodox state in the 10th century.

At the time, Constantinople was the “second Rome,” being the seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But when Byzantium fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1453, the Russians saw themselves as having inherited the mantle of the faith.

They now deemed themselves the “third Rome,” stewards of the purest form of Christianity. “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth,” proclaimed the Russian monk Philotheus of Pskov, in 1510.

In Russia, religion and state were fused, because of the Byzantine model known as Caesaro-papism. It was now a “holy empire.”

Those Russians who considered Russia as uniquely favored by God, known as Slavophiles, opposed the influences of Western Europe in Russia and were determined to protect Russian culture and traditions.

The Bolshevik revolutionaries who seized power in 1917 were nominally “anti-nationalists” and, of course, atheists, yet the Soviet form of nationalism, too, privileged the country above all others.

Moscow, now the capital of international Communism, remained a beacon for all those fighting for socialist revolution. The Soviet road to Communism was the path others needed to follow.

Today, of course, all that is gone, yet Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains an intensely nationalistic country, with religion again playing a part in buttressing the sense of Russian greatness.

Putin was determined to restore Russian dignity after the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR and many Russians still dream of a reconstituted, though non-Communist, successor to the old Soviet state.

China is, of course, an ancient culture, one that, until a few centuries ago, was paramount in East Asia, and technologically superior to any other on earth.

Some form of a Chinese state has existed for some four millennia, and the Chinese concept of the world was largely a division between the civilized world and the “barbarians” beyond its frontiers, who as vassals of the empire were supposed to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty.

The intensity of Chinese nationalism therefore stems from the almost permanently dominant position occupied by the Chinese Empire within the world with which it maintained relations.

Humbled and humiliated by western powers after the 17th century, it has re-emerged as a great power. Ostensibly Communist, it is once again the “Middle Kingdom,” the centre of the world.

And it intends to make certain other countries acknowledge that status. Nor will it rest until it reclaims all the territories lost when it was weak, including Taiwan.

In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, political philosopher Richard Rorty asserted that “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals.”

Still, too much of anything may be a bad thing. These three powers, given their historical and ideological traditions, may be headed for a collision of one sort or another. The rest of the world watches, worries, and waits.

The Politics of Identity in Kosovo

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The Albanian people in the Balkans are not descended from the Slavic migrations into the region that occurred from the sixth century onwards. They consider themselves the descendants of the first people that lived in the land, the Dardanians. And unlike the majority of ethnic groups in the region, they are mainly Muslims.   

An Albanian state was created just before the First World War, but not all Albanians were incorporated into it. Many became part of the newly created Yugoslavia, distinguished from their Slavic neighbours when it came to language and ethnicity.

Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia worked to undermine Albanians politically. Even in post-1945 Communist Yugoslavia, the Albanians in Kosovo did not acquire their own republic, as was the case for Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes and Macedonians, but instead they became part of Serbia.   

As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status in 1989. The Serbs viewed themselves as the defenders of “Western civilization and Christianity” against the Kosovar Albanian Muslims.

In reaction, the Kosovar Albanians mounted resistance to Serbian domination. They first formed the non-violent Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova.

Unable to win back their rights through the LDK, they created the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1996 which, with the help of NATO, prevailed in a war in 1999, after some 10,00 Kosovar Albanians had been killed.

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence. NATO still has some 5,000 troops stationed in the country to keep the fragile peace. Serbia has never accepted Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Saudi-based humanitarian agencies charitable organization soon arrived in Kosovo. They took the opportunity to spread religious education and helped rebuild mosques that had been destroyed in the war.

Kosovo itself is legally a secular state. Article 38 of the constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience and religion, and Article 39 ensures and protects religious autonomy.

Understandably, though, Kosovo, where 96 per cent of its two million inhabitants are Muslim, has close historic, political, and religious ties with Muslim Albania and Turkey.

Kosovo is still a largely pro-western country. In the capital of Pristina, many street names pay tribute to former American presidents, owing to NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign and Washington’s support for Kosovo’s independence.

In recent years, though, more conservative forms of Islam are taking root. There were about 200 mosques after the war in 1999. Today, there are more than 800.

There is an element of society and certain parts of Kosovo that are becoming more religious,” according to Naim Rashiti, an analyst at the Balkan Policy Research Group, a Pristina-based think-tank. “This is a new experience for us.”

Kosovo’s identity remains fragile. Many Kosovar Albanians are not emotionally attached to the new state, but see themselves as Albanians, and some wish to be united with their ethnic brethren across the border.

In Pristina, even in government buildings, the Albanian red flag with a black, double-headed eagle is widely seen, instead of the country’s own flag. So for many Kosovars, Islam has filled that identity gap.

Meanwhile, low-level hostilities between Kosovo and Serbia continue. On Jan. 14, a Serbian nationalist train left the capital, Belgrade, for Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, where most of Kosovo’s remaining 50,000 Serbs live. 

It was painted with Serbian flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes of monasteries and medieval towns, and inscribed with “Kosovo is Serbian” in 20 languages.

Not surprisingly, Pristina saw it as an act of provocation. “I believe that turning back the train was the appropriate action,” declared Prime Minister Isa Mustafa. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also weighed in. “Serbs will be able to enter Kosovo only as tourists,” he remarked.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic accused Pristina of attempting to ‎spark a conflict and said that he would be willing to send the army to defend Serbs in Kosovo, if necessary. “The territory of Kosovo is the territory of Serbia under international law,” he added.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Is This Just Fake News on Steroids?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

A partially declassified report released Jan. 5 outlines what America’s top intelligence agencies view as an elaborate “influence campaign” ordered by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency described the operation as Russia’s effort to “undermine the U.S.-led democratic order” and to skew the outcome of the 2016 presidential race in favour of Donald Trump.

As far as I can tell, the Russian “cyber attack” that supposedly “hacked the American election” consisted of getting hold of Democratic National Committee e-mails and disseminating them; no bullets used, no one killed, no stuffing of ballot boxes.

It was just the modern version of steaming open letters, copying the contents, and mailing them to newspapers, or of instructing hack journalists on your payroll to write slanted articles. There is nothing new about any of that.

It bears repeating, yet again, that the hacked e-mails were not forgeries but genuine. They drew attention to the way the DNC had been working on Hillary Clinton’s behalf to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

Yet American cable channels such as CNN and MSNBC devote almost their entire news coverage to insisting that Russia hacked the electoral process. They seem intent on “shaping the narrative” that Russia is once again, as during the Cold War, an evil empire wreaking havoc.

The claim of Russian interference in the election has led to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and closure of two diplomatic compounds in the United States.

Actually, just about everything written or said during the contest influenced people one way or the other. Every oped, every feature story, every newscast. Naturally -- that’s what a campaign is all about.

Unfortunately, American elections have degenerated to the point that both major parties concentrate, not on the issues, but on what the Russians call “kompromat”: each candidate publicizes every piece of dirt they can uncover on the other.

If they were won or lost on the issues, rather than on the equivalent of National Enquirer style yellow journalism and gossip, none of this would even work.

There’s another way you can tell that the issue of “Russian hacking” has been blown up out of all proportion.

We are told that it has been going on for years, yet prior to Clinton’s loss, the media showed little interest, and the story would have remained buried – in contrast to genuine “acts of war” such as, for example, the bombing of Pearl Harbor – had Clinton won the election.

After all, she wouldn’t have wanted to call attention to the unethical methods of the Democratic Party officials who stacked the deck on her behalf against Sanders.

In a press conference held Oct. 18, Barack Obama told reporters that “there is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America’s election, in part because they’re so decentralized.” He certainly changed his tune after Clinton lost!

For what it’s worth, I do think hackers sponsored by the Russian government did the deed, though we have seen no hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims. And America’s intelligence agencies have been wrong many times before.

In early 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to the UN, justified the impending invasion of Iraq by claiming that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.

Powell presented surveillance photographs to support this claim.  But it turned out that in fact there were none.

We also know that the intelligence services in 2011 lied about the terrorist attack against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They backed up the politically motivated narrative of the Obama administration that the attack was due to a video.

There was no shortage of misleading and intentional misinformation during the Vietnam War, for those of us old enough to remember it.

Lyndon Johnson’s fabricated 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which an American destroyer exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats, served as a pretext for a Congressional resolution allowing the bombing North Vietnam and the escalation of the war.

Trump has stated that only fools would oppose better relations with Russia. But most of the American political class, and the heavily Democratic-leaning media, still refuse to accept him as the duly elected president.

A Brave Man in an Immoral Europe

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
 
On Jan. 17, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat credited with saving thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War, was arrested by Soviet authorities and never seen or heard from again. Last Oct. 26, at the request of his family, he was formally declared dead.

There are few positive stories that emerged from the Holocaust. Most ordinary people could do very little to help Jews, even if willing to risk their own lives and those of their families.

That is why a few well-placed diplomats played an outsized role in saving Jews. They had the wherewithal to provide Jews with safe passage out of Europe, or to supply them with documents granting them some form of asylum or otherwise enabling them to stay out of the clutches of the Nazi executioners.

Arguably the best-known was Raoul Wallenberg, who was appointed secretary in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, Hungary, in the summer of 1944.

Hungary was by then virtually the only state in Axis-dominated Europe whose Jewish community had remained safe from the Nazi “Final Solution,” despite its regime being allied to Germany.

But that changed on March 19, 1944, when German troops occupied the country. In the two months that followed, the Nazis deported 440,000 Jews, mainly from outside Budapest, to the largest and most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

An additional 230,000 remained in the capital, where they awaited their fate.

Meanwhile, the American War Refugee Board requested that Sweden, which had stayed neutral during the war, send a special envoy to Budapest to spearhead a rescue effort. So in the summer of 1944, the Stockholm government agreed to use its diplomatic mission in Budapest to help Hungary’s remaining Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg, a member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest and most prominent families, was selected to be that envoy. He was an ideal choice, as he was sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, could speak Hungarian and German, and was familiar with Budapest.

He was given full diplomatic privileges and his principal task would be to deal with issuing passports.

By the time Wallenberg arrived that July, the only Jews left in Hungary were in Budapest. The Swedish embassy began issuing travel documents to Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg introduced the colours of the Swedish flag, marked the documents with government stamps and added Swedish crowns.

Altogether, he issued Swedish diplomatic papers to more than 30,000 Hungarian Jews, preventing their deportation and murder.

Wallenberg also bought and rented more than 30 buildings in Budapest. He ordered that the Swedish flag be flown over these houses, thus converting them into official Swedish embassy annexes and shielding their inhabitants from the Nazis. At least 10,000 Jews moved into these safe houses for protection.

As Hungary was falling to Soviet forces, on January 17, 1945 Wallenberg began a journey to Debrecen, located 120 miles east of Budapest, where the Soviets and a provisional Hungarian government were headquartered.

The exact purpose of the trip is unknown, but Wallenberg was taken into custody by Soviet forces and was never seen or heard from again. The reason for the arrest was never made clear.

On Feb. 6, 1957 Soviet deputy foreign minister Andrei Gromyko released a report to the Swedish authorities informing them that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947 in Moscow’s infamous KGB-run Lubyanka prison. In the ensuing decades, various sources claimed that Wallenberg was still alive and being held by the Russians.

On Dec. 23, 2000, Russian officials admitted Soviet forces had wrongfully held Wallenberg at a Soviet prison. But no document certifying that he was executed has ever been found and his exact fate still remains a mystery.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Egypt's Coptic Christians Face Renewal of Violence

Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, NS] Chronicle Herald
 
On Dec. 11, a bomb ripped through the chapel in the St. Mark’s Cathedral complex, the seat of Egypt’s ancient Coptic Orthodox Church. It killed 27 people and wounded another 49, one of the deadliest attacks on the country’s Christian minority in recent memory.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic State, though the Egyptian government blamed the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Divisions have widened in recent decades between Egypt’s Sunni Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority, who account for about 10 per cent of the country’s 92 million people.

Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Orthodox Christians, has said that attacks against Christians have occurred on average about once a month over the past three years. In too many instances, the police don’t care to investigate.

Egypt’s Christians have long complained of discrimination, saying they are denied top jobs in many fields, including academia and the security forces. And the Egyptian parliament in August passed a law imposing restrictions on the construction and renovation of churches.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights counted 77 incidents of sectarian violence between 2011 and 2016 in Minya governorate south of Cairo, home to Egypt’s largest Christian community.

Egypt saw a previous wave of attacks by Islamic militants after July 2013, when the military under Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, a freely elected leader and a senior Muslim Brotherhood official.

Many of his supporters blamed Christians for supporting his ouster, and scores of churches and other Christian-owned properties in southern Egypt were ransacked that year. The army and the police made little attempt to intervene.

Some 38 churches were looted and torched, while 23 others were attacked and heavily damaged in one week. According to the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches in Egypt, 160 Christian-owned buildings were also been attacked.

Two years earlier, a New Year’s Day 2011 bombing at the Saints Church in Alexandria killed 21 people. That same year, 28 Christians were killed in clashes with the military outside the Egyptian Radio and Television Union building in Cairo. They were protesting against an attack on another church.

In 2006, there were days of clashes in Alexandria between Copts and Muslims after a Copt was stabbed to death during a knife attack on three churches.

Under the 19th-20th century Egyptian monarchy Copts were relatively secure. But they faced increasing marginalization after the 1952 coup d’état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

His pan-Arabist ideology had little room for a community that felt little affinity with the larger Muslim Arab world. He also nationalized many businesses that were owned by Copts.

Increasingly, Egyptian Christians are speaking out against the government, ignoring the wishes of the church.

On Sept. 19, during Sisi’s visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, 82 Copts signed a public letter protesting the church’s widespread support of Sisi and expressed frustration that the situation for Christians in Egypt has not improved.

Some went so far as to say it is worse than under Hosni Mubarak, the dictator overthrown during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Two days earlier, Tawadros had stated that media outlets were publishing false news about relations between Copts and Muslims.

“Egypt is not the best society in the world, but both its people and its leadership are trying to become the best society,” the pope explained.

Monday, January 09, 2017

How Are the World's De Facto States Faring?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In 2004 I co-edited De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty, a book that examined ten unrecognized polities around the world, though a few others, such as the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Timor Leste, and South Sudan, didn’t make the cut. (The last two, though very troubled, are in fact independent today.)

How are these ten entities faring today? It’s a mixed bag.

Four of them are the result of the “frozen conflicts” in the zones of contention between newly-formed states that emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Transnistria, largely Russian and Ukrainian in ethnicity, broke away from Romanian-majority Moldova in 1992. In the Caucasus, Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan, a Muslim Azeri state, after a war that ended in 1994.

Chechnya tried to free itself from Russia, and the Abkhazians demanded their freedom after Georgia become a separate country.

Nagorno-Karabakh survives due to its support from neighbouring Armenia. The conflict heats up occasionally, most recently last April, when dozens of Azeri and Armenian soldiers died in a flare-up of hostilities.   

Abkhazia, which emerged as a country after a war with Georgia in 1993-1994, has become stronger following the abortive attempt by the Georgians to recapture it, and also Russian-majority South Ossetia, another secessionist area, in 2008.

Moscow quickly came to their aid and defeated Georgia’s aspirations to reunify its former territory as a Soviet republic.

As for Chechnya, after two bloody wars against Russia in 1994-1996 and 1999-2000, it has slid backwards and is now a satrapy ruled by a warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, who governs the ethnic republic with the blessing of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In the Balkans, the Republika Srpska, Kosovo and Montenegro all emerged from the detritus of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The Republika Srpska is the Serbian region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the loose federation that is also home to Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. Since the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995, it is a virtually autonomous region in a failed state paralyzed by ethnic conflict.

Albanian-majority Kosovo, wrested from Serbia with help from NATO in the 1999 war of secession, declared formal independence in 2008. However, Serbia continues to claim it and a Russian veto keeps it out of the United Nations. Montenegro, on the other hand, parted ways with Serbia peacefully in 2006. It is in the United Nations and has applied for membership in the European Union.

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been partitioned since 1974 between the officially recognized Republic of Cyprus, in effect a Greek jurisdiction, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Tensions between the two have eased since the island was admitted to the European Union in 2004, although the EU legislation is suspended in Northern Cyprus.

The Palestinians remain enmeshed in the seemingly intractable conflict with Israel and now administer two semi-sovereign statelets which are often at odds with each other.

One of them, the West Bank, ruled by the Palestine Liberation Organization, is mired in corruption; the other, Gaza, under the control of Hamas, is a hotbed of ideological Islamism.

Somaliland in the horn of Africa remains a beacon of stability within the anarchic vacuum that is Somalia since 1991. Nonetheless, though it is a democratically governed country which has run free elections since 2003, and also a rare development success story, no one has recognized it.

In the Pacific, the island of Bougainville, part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, tried to free itself from Papua New Guinea in a civil war that ended in 1999. But, though now an autonomous part of that country, it may yet re-emerge as a state after a scheduled 2019 referendum.

Why this New Cold War Rhetoric Now?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Why, in the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency, are we being subjected to the constant orchestrated drumbeat of anti-Russian propaganda on American television and newspapers? After all, Washington has been long aware of Russian cyber spying.

Part of it is to weaken Donald Trump, as he gets set to assume the presidency. After all, Obama and Hillary Clinton are still seething over their loss to the man they kept mocking.

They hope to drive a wedge between the new president, who has consistently indicated a desire to improve American-Russian relations, and anti-Kremlin hawks like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

McCain has called the hacking of a Democratic Party e-mail server “an act of war.” Graham told reporters in Latvia that “Russia is trying to break the backs of democracies all over the world.” And Obama himself recently referred to the “free world,” a Cold War term not heard in many years.

So a second reason is to prepare the grounds for claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin will have “fixed” next year’s French and German elections, should the right-wing, anti-European Union National Front (FN) or Alternative for Germany (AfD) happen to win.

Indeed, the intelligence agencies have now begun to doubt the validity of last June’s Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union. That result, too, went the “wrong” way, so why not also try to tie Putin to that as well?

A Dec.10 article in the London-based Guardian noted that the CIA investigation into the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails “may also have implications for the integrity of Britain’s Brexit referendum last June, and how upcoming elections in France and Germany could be vulnerable to Russian manipulation.”

A few days earlier, the chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, Alex Younger, warned that cyber-attacks, propaganda and subversion from hostile states pose a “fundamental threat” to European democracies, including Britain.

Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks.

British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon also contended that there was “a disturbing pattern” of allegations against Russia around cyber warfare.

The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service also has warned that next year’s German general election could be targeted by Russian hackers intent on spreading misinformation and undermining the democratic process.

"We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty,” Bruno Kahl, president of the Federal Intelligence Service, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in late November.

“The perpetrators are interested in delegitimising the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping.” He added that the attacks “come from the Russian region.”

Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said in an interview that cyberspace had become “a place of hybrid warfare” in which Russia was a key player. “More recently, we see the willingness of Russian intelligence to carry out sabotage.”

Germany faces a heated election campaign next year, largely due to the pressure Chancellor Angela Merkel is under because of her liberal refugee policy.

She, too, has asserted that populists and social media platforms spreading propaganda were in danger of causing unprecedented damage to democracy.

In France, NF party leader Marine Le Pen has stated that her election as president next year would form a trio of world leaders – meaning herself, Putin and Trump -- that “would be good for world peace.” This is obviously music to Putin’s ears.

But will he necessarily support her campaign? Russia might be just as content to aid the conservative candidate François Fillon, who is known as a friend of Russia and a critic of Western sanctions against the Kremlin.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Fear of "Fake News"

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
 
Americans now live in an age of intense political polarization. One result? Partisan political websites are feeding followers false or misleading information, according to an Oct. 20 analysis by BuzzFeed News.

Their review of more than 1,000 posts from six large hyper-partisan Facebook pages selected from the right and from the left found that the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments -- far more than the three large mainstream political news pages analyzed for comparison.

One purveyor of false news, Alex Jones, has nearly 1.4 million followers on Facebook. In a Nov. 17, 2013 interview in New York magazine, Jones claimed that being called a conspiracy theorist was just a way to discredit “someone who questions known liars in government and media.”

So are we really so gullible? According to several studies, the answer is yes: even the most obvious fake news starts to become believable if it’s shared enough times.

Is all of this really unprecedented?  Not really. First of all, there’s nothing new about it. We’ve had pamphleteers spreading scurrilous lies since the dawn of print. Has no one heard of the various conspiracy theories around John F. Kennedy’s assassination?

We have always been subjected to fabricated news, but it used to be called propaganda. As David Uberti pointed out on Dec. 15 in “The Real History of Fake News,” in the Columbia Journalism Review, “It’s worth remembering, in the middle of the great fake news panic of 2016, America’s very long tradition of news-related hoaxes.”

By the early 19th century, when modern newspapers came on the scene, many were printing fake stories to increase circulation.The only thing new is that virtually anyone with a computer can disseminate it now, via tweets, Facebook posts, their own websites, or other social media.

“Whatever its other cultural and social merits, our digital ecosystem seems to have evolved into a near-perfect environment for fake news to thrive,” New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club on Dec. 12.

In consequence, many internet destinations “have become unsafe spaces,” as Jennifer Howard observed in “Internet of Stings,” in the Times Literary Supplement of Dec. 2, “where fake news prevail.”

Fake news also proliferates because “real news” is sometimes suppressed. All kinds of stories are also subject to “self-censorship” by the mainstream press. Public trust of the media has been in decline for decades.

So people turn to samizdat (as I now call these various blogs), which may or may not be telling the truth.

So how can we protect ourselves from digital lies? Separating truth from fiction takes time and an open mind. And who should decide what is false and what isn’t?

After all, was it “fake news” to report on data models that showed Hillary Clinton with overwhelming odds of winning the presidency? Surely that, too, skewed the election.

Some believe the solution is enhanced fact-checking – but others see this, too, as a conspiracy designed to censor unpleasant news. Who will guard the guardians? It becomes a house of mirrors.

We should definitely not leave that task to governments, as Kenan Malik cautioned in “Gatekeepers and the Rise of Fake News,” a Dec. 5 New York Times oped. Such suggestions “promote cures worse than the disease.”

Here’s some advice from British journalist Simon Oxenham of the London-based New Scientist magazine: check who produced it. “Often it is clear from the URL that a website is pretending to be reputable by stealing the name and style of another publication.”

But the “big lie” unfortunately sometimes wins the day, with dire consequences.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rise of Populist Parties in Nordic Countries

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The Nordic countries have long been considered a part of Europe where people support progressive and social democratic parties committed to the preservation of the welfare state.

However, as elsewhere in Europe, these nations have in recent years seen the rise of right-wing populist and anti-immigrant parties.

The Danish People’s Party (DF), Finns Party (PS), the Progress Party of Norway (FrP), and the Sweden Democrats (SD) have all become significant forces in their respective countries.

These states have proportional election systems with low vote thresholds for gaining seats (four per cent in Norway and Sweden; two per cent in Denmark; none in Finland) and a strong tradition of minority coalitions. All this has helped radical parties gain a foothold in their political systems.

In Denmark, the DF emerged out of an anti-tax movement and assumed its present form in 1995, as the issue of immigration began to dominate Danish politics. It first participated in elections in 1998 and immediately won 7.4 per cent of the vote.

In 2012, Kristian Thulesen Dahl became the party leader and succeeded in enhancing the party’s image. By 2015 it had almost tripled that initial result, with 21.1 percent. With 37 of 179 seats, it became the second-biggest parliamentary group.

In Norway, the FrP, founded in 1973, also initially developed as an anti-tax movement and was very similar to the DF in its ideology. It gained a double-digit election result – 13 per cent -- for the first time in 1989.

The FrP has recently tried to improve its image and distance itself from racism. Since 2013, when it garnered 16.3 per cent and 29 of 169 seats in parliament, good for third place, it has been included in a government coalition under the conservative Hoyre Party.

A successor to the openly fascist Sweden Party, the SD, founded in 1988, presented itself as a ethnic-nationalist, Euro-sceptic movement.

It entered the Swedish parliament for the first time in 2010, with a vote of 5.7 per cent. It doubled that number in 2014, with 12.9 per cent, taking 49 of 349 seats and becoming the third-largest party.

To present a more moderate face, it has expelled more than 100 openly racist party members since 2012. Sweden’s other parties have denied the SD any voice in government, but some centre-right politicians have become more open to the idea of a possible coalition with them.

In Finland, the PS was established in 1995 and is the successor to the now-defunct populist Finnish Rural Party. Fiscally centre-left but socially conservative, it sees itself as the defender of the national culture.

It remained marginal until its electoral breakthrough in 2011, when it won 19.8 per cent of the balloting.

Though the party’s share of the vote fell to 17.7 per cent in 2015, it nonetheless became the second-biggest group in the legislature, with 38 of 200 seats, and part of a tripartite centre-right governing coalition, whose rhetoric on immigration has become stronger.

These anti-immigrant, populist parties have gained further support since some 250,000 refugees entered the Nordic countries in 2015, including a record 163,000 in Sweden.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a Social Democrat, has tightened asylum rules and border controls.

In Denmark the DF has even attracted disgruntled Social Democrats. So last January a bill tightening immigration laws, including the confiscation of refugees’ valuables passed with overwhelming support.

In Norway, a few months after a number of immigration reforms were instituted aimed at making it a less attractive destination for refugees and migrants, the number of asylum seekers dropped precipitously.

Prior to last year’s election, the PS website stated that Finland “should take care of the Finns first.”

Throughout northern Europe, the larger issue is the growing unwillingness to subsidise those seen as the foreign poor.