Opinion

John Lloyd

Switzerland says ‘We’re full’

John Lloyd
Feb 10, 2014 18:15 UTC

Swiss voters have opted for stiff restrictions on immigrants entering the country — including those from European Union countries. In doing so, they’ve given joy to the burgeoning anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties, a blow to the politicians and officials in Brussels and a blaring warning to center parties on the continent and everywhere.

In Europe, the consensus on immigration has always been fragile — and now it’s being shredded to bits.

The vote was narrow — 50.3 percent of the electorate with a mere 19,000 votes. However, this is Switzerland, where the people’s voice is paramount. Over the next three years, the federal authorities must develop strict immigration curbs designed to sharply reduce the inflow of immigrants who now make up between 23 and 27 percent of the population of eight million, the second-highest proportion in Europe (after Luxembourg).

Those who voted for the restrictions — put on the ballot by the right-leaning Peoples Party —deny racism or xenophobia in interviews and point instead to downward pressure on wages and overcrowding. Supporters of business lamented the looming inability to hire the best workers and experts from across Europe for successful companies like Nestle, Hoffmann-La Roche, Schindler Elevator and dozens of watch companies.

Switzerland is weak in one sense: the federal government is small and run by politicians who are little-known outside the country. But in another sense it is strong. A referendum is the expression of the nation-state and an example of direct democracy more potent than anywhere else on earth.

As the world revolts, the great powers will watch

John Lloyd
Jan 28, 2014 19:20 UTC

Civil wars, those raging and those yet to come, present the largest immediate threat to human societies. Some have similar roots, but there is no overall unifying cause; except, perhaps, a conviction that the conflict is a fight to oblivion. Victory or death.

Syria currently leads in this grisly league. Deaths now total well over 100,000 in the war between the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad,and opposition forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nearly 126,000 dead last month, and said it was probably much higher. More than 2 million Syrians have left their country as refugees, and 4.25 million have fled their homes to other parts of Syria. Last week, a report by three former war crime prosecutors alleged that some 11,000 prisoners had been tortured, many to death, in “industrial scale killing” by the regime of President Assad.

We are watching a relentless horror unfold. The current negotiations between the various factions of the opposition and the Assad government in Montreux may have saved some women and children from the besieged city of Homs, but at the core remains a presently insuperable clash of aims: the regime insists that Assad remain in power, the opposition that he depart immediately. Assad’s forces appear to have the advantage.

CEOs on stage

John Lloyd
Jan 21, 2014 21:57 UTC

Gerrit Zalm, the chief executive officer of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, appeared before his staff in drag last week. In a performance that belied his usually dour management style, Zalm was dressed as his sister, “Priscilla.” He may make a bulky drag queen, but the CEO’s performance as a Madame working in the world’s oldest profession offered a series of brilliant comparisons to the profession of banking today.

Posing in a purple dress with startling red hair, Priscilla gave her brother a lesson in “putting the customer first” from a “flourishing business with a centuries-long tradition.” She noted that Zalm had given up working for leading — a choice that immensely benefited his salary.

“You should start with core values. In my company, we have three: reliability, professionalism and ambition. We try to give the customer a warm welcome. We aim for long-term client relationships and we deliver what we’ve agreed upon.”

French minds turn to scandal

John Lloyd
Jan 13, 2014 21:13 UTC

Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.

Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.

In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.

Journalism’s next big problem

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2014 19:01 UTC

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.

McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.

Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.

An empire dies slowly

John Lloyd
Jan 2, 2014 21:55 UTC

Stalingrad is the center of action in one of the world’s great novels, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, spent months in Stalingrad in 1942 under constant bombardment. The description he gives of those who defended it against the encircling Wehrmacht is of a struggle, often hand-to-hand, across a ruined city between the troops of two totalitarian states. It was the war’s central turning point when the Red Army broke its hold on the encirclement.

Five years after Joseph Stalin fell from favor in 1956, Stalingrad become Volgograd. On Sunday bombs hit the city’s train station and a trolleybus, killing more than 30 people. There is a kind of symmetry in this attack and those that had reduced Stalingrad to rubble. The preservation of the city took a near suicidal feat of arms on the part of the Red Army, which in turn saved the Soviet Union. The bombings in Volgograd were Islamist suicide attacks, and they are likely to be a critical point in the slow death of the Soviet empire.

The passing of great empires can last for many years, and often decades. The effects of the withdrawal of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires from the vast territories they once commanded can still be felt. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s without a civil war like the one that nearly killed the new Soviet state between 1918-21. There have been, however, major conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kyrgizia and a full-on, if brief, invasion of Georgia by Russia. Only the first and the last of these have been extensively covered by journalists. The attack in Volgograd signals that there are more conflicts to come.

Khodorkovsky’s time

John Lloyd
Dec 27, 2013 16:35 UTC

After ten years in prison, one surreal day of release and a private jet to Berlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was facing the press in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which houses an exhibition in his honor.

Facing a scrum of reporters, Khodorkovsky was rational and in command of his surroundings. He was modest about his suffering. In the camps, he said, “they can still demean people, put pressure on people, but the hunger, the cold that prisoners spoke about in the past, that doesn’t happen now.”

The political prisoner who comments so judiciously about the conditions of his imprisonment is rare. Even rarer is one who can make a joke. Khodorkovsky said he “won’t be buying a football team,” making a dig at fellow oil magnate Roman Abramovich’s well-known ownership of Chelsea Football Club.

‘My people throughout the world’

John Lloyd
Dec 23, 2013 22:02 UTC

This week Queen Elizabeth the Second, now 87, will give her customary Christmas broadcast. Every year she tells most Britons what they want to hear: that they are still great. And she is given much love for that.

That love is said to have been hard won. A few of the books written about Queen Elizabeth’s reign detail a marriage that went sour, at least for some years, because of her husband Prince Philip’s adultery. Nearly all books point to a disciplined life of unremitting travel, briefings, lengthy state occasions and unfailing courtesy. They also mention the constant explosions of sexual waywardness of nearly all of her four children and her (temporary) drop in popularity when, after Princess Diana’s death in 1987, she appeared to insufficiently grieve.

The British like to sneer at the claim of American exceptionalism — the “necessary nation,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in a TV interview in 1998. Britain has its own exceptionalism in the form of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. In this sense, the Queen is a master propagandist.

The EU’s soft power and the big carrot

John Lloyd
Dec 17, 2013 20:50 UTC

MOSCOW – There’s a joke in Europe, the making of which is credited to Lord Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University who in the 1980s was the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations. Adapting President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick,” Patten said that the EU’s attitude to foreign affairs was to “speak softly but carry a big carrot.”

Collectively, Europe must exercise influence through “soft power.” The concept was invented by Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, who, in his 2004 book “Soft Power,” defined it as the power to influence other countries without force or money. Instead, soft power draws people to it who, by “admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”

U.S. soft power has suffered in the past decade because the hard kind has been so prevalent. But it has not disappeared. It draws people to it still. The EU has had nothing but soft power. The “big carrot” is its ability to have others “aspire to its level,” economic or otherwise, accompanied by the promise of financial assistance. Yet Patten’s joke carries a rueful recognition that this may be a less-than-realistic approach to a hard world.

Corruption is everywhere and nowhere

John Lloyd
Dec 9, 2013 21:30 UTC

December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Started a decade ago by the U.N.’s General Assembly, which states on its website that “corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries…[it] undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability…[it] attacks the foundation of democratic institutions.” This all sounds good — except for the first part.

There are two escape tunnels in that first sentence. One is that the issue is “complex” (so don’t blame anyone if it takes time — forever? — to eradicate). The other is that “it affects all countries.” It does, but there is a difference between dangerous corruption and the largely trivial amounts, sometimes illegal, spent by British parliamentarians on their expenses or by Swedish cabinet mister Mona Sahlin, who charged her government credit card for a chocolate bar. Most were punished. Sahlin had to withdraw her bid for her party’s leadership, some British MPs were fired, fined or were given (short) prison terms.

Where countries with a functioning democracy and civil society can keep corruption down (but never out), others must live with it as a major, sometimes overpowering, fact of daily life. Eruptions against corruption tend to be massive, even violent. Acting as real-time demonstrations of the U.N.’s declaration, the mass protests threatening the governments in Ukraine and Thailand have corruption at the core of their complaints. The gatherings in Kiev were spurred by President Viktor Yanukovich’s swerve from an association agreement with the European Union toward a closer relationship with Russia. The protesters believe that Yankovich, his family and favored cronies are robbing the people of their state.

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