This summer for various reasons, both business and pleasure, we’ve had to arrange the vacation time so we could visit both my wife’s family in the Netherlands and mine in the good old US of A. We used to do this regularly a few years back, and the method was to get a round-trip ticket from Hanoi to New York with a stopover in Amsterdam. Singapore Air, Thai Airways and Air Malaysia all fly to Schiphol, so it wasn’t too hard to arrange this. But this year for whatever reason all the flights to New York through Amsterdam were unbelievably expensive. In May, however, it occurred to me to check out the possibility of flying to New York through Paris, and taking the Thalys high-speed train back and forth from Paris to Amsterdam. This turned out to be much cheaper and no more time-consuming, since Vietnam Airways runs a very cheap direct flight from Hanoi to Paris, which cuts out the Bangkok, Singapore or KL transfer.
Anyway, long story short, to get to Amsterdam, we flew to Paris yesterday and took the TGV. To get the cheap fare on the Thalys, you had to pre-book, so I booked a train that left us plenty of time to get to the station in case our flight was late. As it happened, our flight was on time, so we wound up at the Gare du Nord with three hours to kill. Now, if you’re stuck in an airport for three hours with young kids waiting for your next flight, you wander around trying to find a playground, usually fail to find one, and end up succumbing to their whining pleas for smoothies and coloring books.
If, on the other hand, you’re stuck at Gare du Nord some morning for three hours with young kids, you go for a stroll, like this:
The Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam takes about 3 1/2 hours. So by the afternoon, we were sitting on a friend’s houseboat on the Amstel.
I mean, not that it wasn’t a really long trip or that really long trips with kids are every free of unpleasantnesses. There was dropped ice cream, whining, and so forth. But in the meantime we got a few hours in Montmartre and the kids got to actually see something of Paris, rather than seeing the inside of an airport. Since the point of travel is generally to see places like Paris rather than to see the insides of airports, I think the ability of rail travel to get you to fun places directly, and to do so via other places that are, themselves, often fun, is a big advantage over air travel.
The news that Holland and Belgium had been invaded came over the radio on Friday morning, but I could not write about it that day. I had a curious sense of having lost the last vestige of hope that the imprint of civilization still made any dent on certain parts of the world. Just as I had feared, the “protection” turned again into aggression.
Dorothy Thompson’s column few days ago, in which she analyzed the psychological unpreparedness of democracies, as well as their physical unpreparedness, was very interesting to me. I think she is entirely right that the two go together. They mean that we, in the democracies, have prepared ourselves for a civilized, peaceful world, and we have almost forgotten that a bandit may turn up who does not understand our language nor hold to any of our beliefs. There is little use in looking backwards. We have to face the realities of the present, and move step by step along a twisting way hoping that we act in the best way for the preservation of our civilization.
Here’s a translation (from a Dutch translation) of Victor Klemperer’s diary entry for the same weekend.
Yesterday “at dawn”, May 10 (Georg’s 75th birthday), the attack on the Netherlands and Belgium began. The “counterattack”, of course, to “prevent the enemy’s penetration at the last moment.” The whole “presentation,” Hitler’s speech with his famous “thousand years,” the fact that he takes the leadership of the operation (!) upon himself, shows that now everything is being thrown into the game. If he does not win (or even if he draws), it means his downfall. In terms of historical philosophy, Montesquieu’s “Even if Caesar had not crossed the Rubicon, the republic would have fallen” is correct. Certainly—but then when did it fall? The playing-out of history demands more time than the private man has. And I fear Hitler’s aura of invincibility…
Amazing to think that it was possible for anti-Nazi Germans to hope, at the time, that Hitler’s promises of overwhelming victory might be bluffs, that the army might lose (in Holland or Belgium!) and cause his political defeat. Our political hopes lead us to delude ourselves.
“Welcome to the club of states who don’t turn their back on the sick and the poor,” Sarkozy said, referring to the U.S. health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama last week. From the European perspective, he said, “when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it’s difficult to believe.”
“The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them … is something astonishing to us.”
Then to hearty applause, he added: “If you come to France and something happens to you, you won’t be asked for your credit card before you’re rushed to the hospital.”
But I bet he still loves hot dogs!
Last week I said I didn’t understand why right-wing anti-tax terrorist Joe Stack’s daughter would flee America’s oppressive socialist tax regime and move to…Norway, an actual socialist market economy that has significantly higher taxes than the US.
But after reading David Brooks’s rewritten encyclopedia entry about a Norwegian World World II hero, it all makes sense to me. Clearly she expected to benefit from higher per capita production of Olympic medals. Even it is produced by socialist investments in the commanding heights of athletics.
Note: I think the title to this post is an extremely clever reference to Soviet popular culture, and I’m really bummed that almost nobody except me is likely to agree.
This is a charming hook for a story about the Velvet Revolution, but the idea that Czech Communism wouldn’t have fallen if not for the inaccurate rumor that a student demonstrator had been killed by police during the demonstrations on November 17, 1989 is pretty far-fetched. Journalist Jan Urban, one of those who reported the rumor as fact, says “I am ashamed of the lie because it was a professional blunder. But I have no regrets because it helped bring four decades of Communism to an end.” Megan McArdle asks whether it’s appropriate for Urban to still be working in journalism. It seems to me that it’s hardly true that one would be automatically drummed out of the profession for making such an error in a fast-moving, violent situation — equally inaccurate things have been reported by still-working American journalists in combat environments.
But more importantly, this was reported during the course of the Czech transition from a Communist totalitarian society to a capitalist democratic one, a transition that took place over just a few months. Under the Communist system, scrupulous concern for accuracy and multiple independent sourcing were not exactly top priorities. If one were to drum every journalist who had reported a lie out of the Czech media, there’d be nobody over the age of 45 working in the sector today. I traveled through Czechoslovakia the summer after the revolution, and they were still playing classical music over loudspeakers every morning in the villages, just as they had for the previous 42 years. Consciousness and culture don’t change instantly; it seems a bit much to expect a student dissident journalist to have immediately begun behaving like a New York Times reporter within a few hours of hearing there were demonstrators out on Wenceslas Square.
Matthew Yglesias is skeptical about the idea of Tony Blair as prospective EU President because he’s center-left while Europe is trending center-right:
Instead he proposes the Netherlands’ Jan-Peter Balkenende.
I would have thought that one problem with Blair would have been that he remains widely despised in his own country, as the above article notes. And while Balkenende is an interesting possibility, I’d think that one problem would be that, as last week’s “Politieke Barometer” reported, “Vertrouwen in Balkenende heeft dieptepunt bereikt”. Viz, “Trust in Balkenende has reached its lowest point yet.” The center-right Christian Democrats have been running the Netherlands since 2002, but Balkenende now polls worse at a personal level than Labor leader (and coalition partner, and Finance Minister) Wouter Bos.
The Netherlands actually does have a long tradition of sending its former Prime Ministers and other top figures off to positions of international importance. Ruud Lubbers, for example, followed up his incredible 12-year stint as PM with 4 years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But when Lubbers left power it was as a widely respected and even somewhat beloved figure, known for his ability to wear down political opponents by regaling them at incredible length through hours-long meetings until they finally collapsed of boredom. I’d think that’s more the profile of the kind of person you should be promoting for EU, rather than former PMs who have lost favor in their home countries.
[posted by Matt]
Megan McArdle writes, of US vs. European health care systems:
Doing something moderately ordinary here is a hassle. Doing something extraordinary there is often not possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens, though that depends on what, and in what system.
Yeah…doing something extraordinary is “often not possible” for “the overwhelming majority of citizens” in the US either. Depends on what that “something extraordinary” is, because the overwhelming majority of people in the US really don’t have coverage that includes many of those “extraordinary” somethings.
I’m really not sure what Megan is talking about here and what evidence backs it up. My wife’s best childhood friend is currently on her third round of intensive arthroscopic knee surgery. Another friend’s wife is a 15-year leukemia survivor. My wife’s father broke his neck and had three vertebrae fused, and has been in various kinds of physiotherapy for related issues for 20-odd years. A close friend has two children with severe birth defects; one was expected to die within six months of birth but, with heart surgery as an infant and constant care, is now 5 and doing okay physically, though he’s severely mentally disabled. And the main difference I can see between all of these people and any similar cases in the US is that while most of the people I’ve mentioned above are of modest means — air traffic controller, nurse, anthropology grad student — none of them are bankrupt, and all of the medical decisions they’ve had to make have been strictly medical decisions, not financial ones.
Add: Going back, I see Megan is on even less firm ground in her earlier post on health care.
…as Ezra [Klein] points out, people in Germany and France are not dying in the streets. So centralization does work better on health care than it does in steel. But I’d argue that the difference is that Germany and France, unlike the Soviet Union, have companies which produce in American markets to provide them products.
On the issue we are discussing — the issue of health insurance — Germany and France do not have any “companies which produce in American markets to provide them products”. The insurance policies offered by NUTS or AON in the Netherlands, say, are completely unrelated to the policies they offer in the US. The US could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow with no substantial impact on how German or French health insurance companies write their policies, and no sensible argument to the contrary can be made. What Megan means to argue is that medical treatment and care is only developed in the free US market. But the German and French markets for medical treatment and care are no less “free” than the US market. What’s different are the markets for insurance. And “innovation” in insurance is almost exactly equal to new ways of siphoning away more money from the insured, and has virtually no benefits for anyone but those employed in the insurance industry.
Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama’s nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration’s meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves. And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace.
The support of the US government for the Hungarian uprising in 1956 “could have made a difference” only if the US were prepared to invade Hungary and go to war with the USSR. The US would quickly have lost such a confrontation to the overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe, and would have risked seeing Soviet tanks roll into Western Europe as well. The US would then have been faced with the decision of whether to launch a nuclear war. President Eisenhower made the correct — the only possible — decision, in declining to intervene in Hungary.
The error in 1956 was on the part of Radio Free Europe, in holding out to Hungarian resisters the false hope that the West would or could intervene on their behalf. It would be similarly cruel and immoral to give Iranian demonstrators the false idea that we in the democratic world can offer them anything more than our sympathy. We can’t. We will not invade Iran, and nothing else we do will have much of an effect on the behavior of a regime fighting to retain its hold on power. The demonstrators in Iran must know that they have to win the struggle for a fair election on their own, and must be prepared to face the consequences of failure. And they do know this. That is precisely what makes them so courageous. It would be stupid and irresponsible of the US to use their struggle as an occasion for ineffectual rhetorical grandstanding, and fortunately President Obama, unlike our last President, seems able to resist the temptation.
Going back to the question of whether the European Parliament elections made Europe more “right-wing,” there are two new data points. The first is Benjamin Weinthal’s article in the Jerusalem Post today following his interview with Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders.
When asked about commentaries in the German media labeling the Freedom Party as “extreme right” – a term typically reserved for neo-Nazi parties in Germany – Wilders said that is “totally ridiculous” and an “insult to the the Dutch people” because the party is now the “biggest party in Holland” according to polls.
The Freedom Party should be viewed within a liberal Dutch tradition, he said, noting that “we are not for cutting social welfare and are for more health care” and because of our “friendship for Israel, the extreme right demonstrates against us.”
Wilders is an Islamophobe who supports ethnic cleansing in Europe and in Israel/Palestine. But as we can see, the understanding of what is meant by “right-wing” is considerably more complicated in Europe than in the US (where it’s getting pretty complicated lately, too).
The second point comes from the interesting NY Times op-ed a couple of days ago by German EU Parliamentarian Alexander Lambsdorff.
There has always been a presence of extremism in the European Parliament, just as in many national parliaments across Europe.
In this election, however, the success of Geert Wilders’ populists in the Netherlands was touted as a sea change in European politics. It was not. He gained 4 out of 25 Dutch seats, while Jean-Marie Le Pen’s share of the vote in France was halved to 10 percent. Le Pen lost the four seats to be taken by Wilders and they both, together with the other extremists, will remain as marginal to the political process in Brussels as they have been in the past.
The four main parties governing the European Parliament are still decidedly pro-democracy and pro-European. Extremist groups may be receiving much media attention, but their influence in Parliament remains nonexistent.
Lambsdorff argues in essence that the rise of the extreme right in Scandinavia (the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark, as far as I know, now all have strong anti-Muslim parties) has been balanced by the decline of the extreme right in France. There are several interesting things to think about here. Maybe France, which had a much stronger nationalist right from the late 40s through the 80s than northern Europe, is simply on a different political cycle than Scandinavia. Or maybe France is ahead of Northern Europe in its approach to the Muslim immigrant question, because it deals with the issue as part of the legacy of its colonial empire in North Africa, rather than as an unintended result of the guest-worker programs of the ’60s and ’70s or of political asylum programs in the ’80s and ’90s. In any case, it’s another reminder to stop painting “Europe and Islam” with such an unsophisticated broad brush.
In the adjustment period between Finland and Hanoi with a couple days in Paris between I somehow missed this post by Megan McArdle calling all of our attention to this superb bit of rhetoric by Daniel Davies:
It’s therefore an important point to be made, to our own population and to the world’s watching media, that Nick Griffin isn’t in fact a newly popular and influential political figure; he’s a widely reviled creep who not only doesn’t lead a phalanx of jackbooted supporters, but actually can’t even set up for a TV interview without being pelted with eggs. The voice of the British populace does not shout “Hail Griffin!”, it shouts, “Oi Fatty, cop this! [splat]“.
Not only was I unaware that the head of the British National Party had been egged; had I been so aware, before reading this post, I probably would have found said egging a bit tedious and most likely counterproductive. After reading the post, I am a gung-ho member of the pro-egging faction. How often is it that one reads something that actually changes one’s mind? What worries me however is that while Davies’s argument may in itself be sound, the reason I changed my mind was rather because I was too busy laughing at the words “Cracking shot, sir!” and “Oi Fatty, cop this!” to disagree. I have a feeling that I might be persuaded to back the economic policies of Eva Peron or Ron Paul if they were expressed in the language of a really good Eric Idle skit.