Barbara Halla '15 is a staff writer for the Harvard Political Review. She studies imperial and economic History and is passionate about development, foreign languages and how ideas spread through time and space. Follow her on Twitter @barbarahalla

A Night to Remember, Or Forget

Books & Arts - Literary Supplement March 6, 2014 6:38 pm

paris-massacre-007Kader was a student at a French university in Paris in 1961. Though we know little about him, it is possible that he was the French-born son of an Algerian immigrant who had moved to France after having served for the French army in one of the world wars. Kader’s life was not easy: he lived a poor existence in the French shantytowns, or bidonevilles, with a manual job and no prospects of a good education. Yet many Algerian immigrants hoped this was still better than the poverty and prospect of unemployment to be found in war-ravaged Algeria, which in 1961 was in the middle of an ongoing conflict and in the process of decolonization from France. But that, in many ways, was not the case.

Algerians living in France faced constant and clear danger. On the one hand, they faced daily frisking from the French police, brutal violence and blind discrimination by the general population, and on the other continuous pressure from the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), eager to recruit French-Algerians to fight for their cause. Kader and many of his peers were the de facto victims of a transnational conflict that would culminate in mainland France, on October 17, 1961, in what is nowadays known as the Paris Massacre of 1961.

The Paris Massacre of 1961 rarely makes headlines in France’s cultural narrative. It is not included in the textbooks that provide an overview of French, or even Algerian, history in either country, never mind the international academic community. But before we try to understand why such an event has been erased from public memory and textbooks, it is important to understand its origins and how it unfolded. As mentioned previously, in 1961 the French empire was in its last gasps. The jewel of the Empire fought back; the FLN organized strikes and sparked a revolutionary war that had France trembling, yet not ready to give up. The attacks of the FLN were not limited to the presence of the French army, but had spread quietly all over mainland France as well.

Throughout 1961 and, in particular, in the days preceding October 17, the attacks of the FLN had been targeting the French police force rather violently—merciless killings in the streets, beatings as violent as the ones that many Algerians living in France were subject to in their everyday life. At the same time, the FLN was recruiting. Though many French-Algerians wanted French citizenship, they never got it. They had built their lives in France, lived on French soil, some even fell in love and married French men and women, yet they were not really considered French citizens. Rather, the French government had created a specific category, called the French Muslims of Algeria (FMA), to distinguish them from the rest of the French population. The FLN had exploited such a distinction to feed the nationalist feelings of the Algerian population in France.

These events worried the French government, and in particular the French Minister of Internal Affairs, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury. With the French National Police, the notorious Maurice Papon at its head, on October 16, 1961, they imposed a curfew only on the category of French citizens dubbed the FMA. This curfew meant that those French citizens of Algerian nationality were not allowed to leave their homes after 8pm. If they did, they would be arrested. But the French branch of the FLN could not tolerate such an insult. To counterattack the inhumane laws the French government put in place, they organized a peaceful protest and urged the Algerian population of Paris to gather en masse in the streets of Paris after the curfew, bearing no weapons whatsoever. And gather they did. Women, men, adults and students flooded the main streets of Paris, by all accounts, unarmed and peaceful.

But this protest made the French police uneasy. The French government gave the police force carte blanche authority in the matter of dealing with these protesters. Every Arab-looking individual would be arrested and then beaten. In the streets, the police fired shots that killed a number of Algerians, though the death toll was never confirmed. According to the French government, fewer than 20 were killed; according to the FLN, more than 200. Some were even thrown in the freezing Seine to drown. No one was ever found guilty for this tragedy. The official journalistic accounts and numbers collected by the French governments are now part of the French archives, to be opened only in 2020.

There is, however, a twist to the story. One could consider whether the French government was justified in their approach in imposing a curfew and giving the police carte blanche. It is just as important to remember that though this particular protest was in fact peaceful, the FLN had harmed and attacked several police officers in the past. There was no reason for the police to believe that this protest would be harmless. The ultimate problem was not whether the French government had legitimate concern, but rather, where it found the moral and political authority to single-out one part of the French citizenry and treat them like second-class citizens. The reason why this massacre conflicts with the rest of French history lies precisely in the legitimacy of the government’s actions, with respect to the nature of the republic that they were leading. In a way, even the citizenship status of those Algerians forced at a sort of home-arrest does not justify their actions, especially the actions of a self-proclaimed democratic republic. This conflict, buried forty years ago, reminds the public of the ever-present conundrum—liberty versus security.

Nevertheless, the Paris Massacre was about French citizenship, and this fact begs the question: how can such an episode, which happened in the heart of Paris, while the rest of the city was sleeping, have been so easily forgotten? For the French government, forgetting and erasing this episode was crucial. They had been building a narrative of the French nation, in which the empire was not lauded. And even more, they had been building a narrative of a nation where the French-Algerians were not really present, as they had not participated in the making of the French Republic. In the end, creating a coherent story about the French Republic, as with every other nation, is about remembering, just as much as it is about forgetting and sweeping under the rug those moments that do not fit the narrative.

This particular moment in history, one that has passed unaware to the eye of mainstream imperial or even Western history at large, is an example of how historical amnesia builds the narratives of two countries: France and Algeria. For France, it is the uncomfortable truth on two fronts. On the one hand, it would like to be remembered as the epitome of freedom and democracy. The values of the republic, the ideals of the French Revolution, and the institutions of the Fifth Republic remain intact because people believe them to be efficient. But is a republic efficient when its own citizens are denied the right to protest and are murdered under the orders of its own ministers?

On the other hand, the Paris Massacre is a bitter reminder that issues of citizenship remained unsolved. France has tried very hard to build the image of a coherent nation, with one population under the tricolor flag, a population that is united by its history as much as by its culture—in short, a nation of uniformity. But this image is somewhat false. The question of French citizenship is still a raw spot in 2014, as it was in 1961, when French citizens faced discrimination and were forced to give up part of their civil liberties. To this day, children born in French territories to immigrant parents are not legally French citizens. They have to wait until they are 18, and even then they have to apply. Not all are successful, despite having spent most of their lives in France.

In Algeria, historical narrative is about the people they forgot. The problem with the French-Algerian citizens is that they were never really fully French, but most of those participating in the protests were not Algerians either. The Algerian government never publicized this event, even though it would have suited their plans to portray the French as the villain. The Paris Massacre was omitted from the national narrative, in large part because it was a reminder that these two nations shared a fundamental similarity, despite the attempts of the Algerian government to pretend otherwise. It is also a reminder that the Algerian government might have responsibilities beyond that of Algeria’s own territory. When trying to rebuild a nation ravaged by war and colonial legacies, what happens on the other side of the Mediterranean might not be a priority.

Though cliché, history is written by the winners, and the general narrative is transcribed by the feelings and actions of the man on the spot. For countries like France, it is about Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Charles De Gaulle. But the real history, the one that changes nations, even through omission, is done through the middlemen as they challenge the status quo. People like Kader, whose stories we do not know and whose lives are not outlined in textbooks, are the ones that lived the Paris Massacre. It is important to remember that it is not only about the sacrifice, or the people that died and suffered. The FLN and its protest would be nothing without the 30,000 that showed support for its cause that October night. They were the ones who actively challenged the French government, who through their actions proved that the divide would make them second-class citizens, but not passive victims. History is nothing without the masses and those who fight for the leaders on the covers of history books. It is a pity that this is so often forgotten.

The Paris Massacre of 1961 has only recently resurfaced in the French national consciousness. In 2005, a film appeared that described the event and the conflict: Nuit Noire. This narrative film follows the fictional lives of the many participants in this massacre: French-Algerian citizens and their daily struggles and French policemen, scared of the organized attacks that the FLN brought to their homes. It is a dark film that describes the lives of those who lived it. Following its release, the French newspaper Le Monde was among the first to bring attention to the Paris Massacre and what it described as the night that cadavers flooded the Seine. Critics lauded the sobriety of Nuit Noire, pointing out that it did not favor or pick sides, rather displaying the faults and excesses of each. Other stories and books followed Nuit Noire, all attempts to reach the people, not just the media. It is no coincidence that Nuit Noire was first released as a television series, before hitting cinemas as a full-length film.

These attempts have been well received by French media, and yet the average French citizen still does not know much about the Paris Massacre. Even if they did, it would probably not rupture their notion of French citizenship, or even what it means to be French. Stories like the Paris Massacre of 1961 are omitted from mainstream French history—or any history for that matter—because these omissions are used as a tool to keep the nation together. History is continuously written and rewritten by academics, as it always has been, and the debate on nationhood and memory seems to remain in the ivory tower, rather than becoming the problems of the ordinary citizen. The Paris Massacre of 1961 is a prime example of that. It challenged the French government then, and it still challenges the government now. It does not appear in mainstream school textbooks, as it displays a conflict within French history, a moment when what it meant to be “French” was not clear: a moment when the French were fighting the French. In such instances, memory is constantly used by government, with the perhaps unconscious help of academia, to group and divide, to justify its own actions. The problem, in the end, remains not just how to make people remember, but how to make them care. The Paris Massacre might have sparked an academic debate, but it seems to have been forgotten again, just as easily as it was remembered.

Image Credit: The Guardian

Ready or Not: Janet Yellen and the Route to the Fed

United States November 17, 2013 11:14 pm

With the government shutdown being the main news the first two weeks of last month and Obamacare stirring a considerable amount of debate since then, another topic that might impact all American (and foreign) citizens has been left in the shade: the person replacing Ben Bernanke as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. This decision is crucial, as the next leader of the Fed will decide, through her actions, whether the Fed will become a backstage actor in the U.S. economy or be at the forefront of policy innovation.

For most this could be considered a rhetorical question. For months there have been speculations on the next figure to lead the Federal Bank, but only weeks after Larry Summers announced that he would not be seeking this position any longer, the answer to this question seems clear. Current Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen is the Presidential nominee and seeing as she recently successfully testified before the Senate Banking Committee, her confirmation is just a matter of weeks away .

Janet Yellen seems a safe choice. Yellen has a great track record. She was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) for three years, and spent six years as chair of the San Francisco Fed. Moreover she was among the number of economists that seem to have predicted the 2008 crisis and housing bubble. She is described by the Financial Times as a New Keynesian, whose focus remains a low inflation rate and low unemployment. Nevertheless, unlike her once competitor, Larry Summers, she is more likely to try to regulate big banks and be harsher on Wall Street than her predecessors.

There is also a symbolic nature to this nomination, though some might decide to ignore it. If elected she would be the first woman to ever lead the Fed. Of course, Yellen has the full backing of President Obama. But there are also talks that she will be able to win more than just the 60 votes she needs to be elected, thus perhaps gaining a rare bipartisan image. Plus, she would be the first Democrat in a quarter century to be nominated for such a job.

If elected to be the next Fed chair, Yellen would have big shoes to fill. Even if he has made his fair share of mistakes, Bernanke has been, for the most part, a reliable chair. His monetary policy has not been revolutionary, yet he provided the necessary boost to the economy by maintain a steady policy of quantitative easing, among other methods. Furthermore, he has refused to sacrifice the Fed’s two-percent inflation rate to lower unemployment, a policy that in hindsight might have saved the United States economy from potential rampant increase in inflation, which is what most economists fear in such instances.

The question remains whether the next chair should be merely reliable, and perhaps continue the path laid out to her or him by Bernanke, or become a revolutionary figure and revamp the usage of traditional monetary policy. Now that the U.S. economy is steadily recovering one might argue that a cautionary policy, continuing the stable influx of money in the economy through quantitative easing, would be the best policy. And yet there is always the fear that the economy itself has grown resistant to quantitative easing and the market’s expectations are no longer highly influenced by the influx of money in the economy.

Yellen could potentially become the revolutionary that changes the face of the Fed, 9 years after Alan Greenspan modernized the science of monetary policy. Nevertheless, the issue remains as to how much room she would have to implement any new ideas she might have. The Fed has a dual mandate that stretches between maximizing employment and moderating inflation.  It seems like Yellen has plans to use the tools of monetary policy and regulation to increase general American well-being through a more robust recovery in the context of price stability. What Yellen argued was that seeing as the Fed does not have the direct power to create jobs, or impelement infrastructure, it could try its best to maintain a stable economy that would create the right circumstances that would accelerate such recovery. Furthermore, she believes that the Fed has the capacity to predict future bubbles and it should use it to do so.  Janet Yellen has great plans and a vision. How she will implement such a vision remains to be seen. Janet Yellen might be the right person to continue the work of the Federal Reserve, but whether she will be remembered as just the first chairwoman of the Fed or a revolutionary Fed chair may lie beyond her power.

Photo Credit: Bloomberg

Rain on Russia’s Parade

Asia-Pacific - Europe - International - World August 21, 2013 11:20 am

gay rights russia

The past few years have not been Russia’s best, at least from an international perspective. Since the reelection of Vladimir Putin for a third term as president in 2012 — but even during his role as prime-minister — the country has been known for major human rights violations that often escalated into full-blown violence. Such trends started with protests against Putin’s reelection and culminated with the imprisonment of Pussy Riot in October 2012, an all-girl band that was vocal in its resentment of the heavy-handed leader.

But, in the recent weeks in particular, Russia has been under scrutiny and criticism for its anti-gay propaganda laws and its mistreatment of the LGBT community. In June, President Putin approved an anti-propaganda law whose formal “purpose” is to protect children from “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships.” Despite the official proclamation, many see this as a way of silencing gay rights activists in Russia, a community that has become more vocal over time. As expected, such a change in the constitution provoked mass riots in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Nevertheless, they were quickly counteracted by both the state police and civilians outraged by the cause their fellows citizens had taken up.

It’s true that Russia is not the first country, nor will it be the last, to publicly scorn and try to silence the LGBT community. Many self-proclaimed democracies have been following similar, or even harsher routes to annihilate LGBT culture. Nevertheless, as Russia is expected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, its behavior and policies have been widely discussed and criticized. Many are calling for the Russian government to either change their laws, or otherwise the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should move the Olympics elsewhere. It’s obvious that neither will happen. Russian politicians have made it clear that Olympic athletes will be held accountable if they fail to respect the country’s laws, despite the IOC’s previous claims to the contrary.  It seems though, that what worried most athletes has been the reaction of the IOC, which failed to address the unfairness of such laws and instead warned athletes, telling them to be careful once they arrive in Russia, as they will not be protected, and gay athletes will not have the opportunity, as in the past, to celebrate their victories in honor of the LGBT community.

There are some who call the reaction of the IOC sensible. Nevertheless, as an article published by the Huffington Post last week outlines, the response of the committee will have both short- and long-term negative consequences. Firstly, it puts more pressure on homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. As their immunity is not guaranteed, the fear of a misstep might affect their performance. That puts a considerable number of athletes, who have started showing their support for the LGBT community already, at an unfair disadvantage. Though this is still a hypothetical outcome, it’s certainly worth considering.

Secondly, the actions of the IOC and Russia have bigger resonance on LGBT rights across the world. Several European countries have either legalized same sex marriage or emphasized fair treatment regardless of sexual orientation. The same general movement has also been happening in the United States. Yet, for every country that promotes and implements these changes in favor of gay rights, there are more that harden the punishment for the mere “crime” of speaking in favor of equal rights, nevermind actually being a member of the LGBT community.  It seems like LGBT rights have become a global game of one step forward and two steps back, and the IOC  is not helping in the way forward.

In the West, the fight has been focusing more on the topic of marriage equality, and gay rights activists have won several battles.  But at a larger scale, the LGBT community and its supporters have been losing the war. Russia’s actions have brought to attention the fact that not everyone is receiving the same treatment and that some people’s concerns are not even heard.  The question remains how the global community, especially its members who trumpet equality and human rights, are going to respond. Because if silence or forceful adaptation is their answer, than the future looks rather grim.

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Abenomics and Japan’s Future

Asia-Pacific - World July 25, 2013 12:59 pm

shizo abe

On July 21, Japan went to the polls to elect a new prime minister and decide on the make-up of the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament, the National Diet. The results were not surprising, not for the Japanese, nor for the international press. Shinzo Abe, chosen for the second time to be the acting prime minister in December 2012, was re-elected to the post. His banner, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in a strong coalition with the New Komeito Party, won 76 of the Diet’s 121 available seats, giving the LDP-led coalition the majority in the Upper House. Abe’s victory is significant not only because it might change the course of Japan’s economy from stagnation to actual recovery, but it might also lead to the only stable government Japan has known in the past six years. Since 2007, six different prime ministers have served the country, with no major party getting the upper hand in Parliament, thus stalling any significant reform.

Abe has been serving as a prime minister since December and so far has shown a desire to act and change, focusing his reforms on the future economic growth of Japan. Prompted by the stagnating Japanese economy and the constant rivalry of a booming China, Abe came to power with a plan — what he called the “Three Arrows of Economic Growth,” and what journalists have dubbed “Abenomics.”

In April, Abe fired the first arrow of his reform, directed to monetary policy: he replaced the head of the Bank of Japan with Haruhiko Kuroda, an experienced economist and friend of the Asian Development Bank. Kuroda got to work early and initiated a bout of quantitative easing that would lower interest rates, while keeping the nation’s inflation target at two percent, following the example of Ben Bernanke and the American Fed. The second arrow was a fiscal stimulus package worth about $116 billion, and the third, introduced just a month ago, promised structural reforms that would seek to boost Japan’s competitiveness by making the Yen cheaper, among other measures. The first two arrows were well-received by investors and stock markets, while the third left them disappointed as it was believed to be artificial and not as daring as they had hoped. On the whole, the willingness of Abe to throw himself into the field and provide the people with an actual plan boosted his competitivness and lead to his victory during these past elections.

Nevertheless, critics agree that there’s still much left to do. Only two days after the elections, Mr. Abe’s cabinet’s approval rating fell to 56.2 percent from its high of 68 percent in June. Many people fear that these reforms would lead Japan to an instantaneous boom, only to fall back again, whereas others blame Abe for conceiving a plan that will weigh heavily on the poor. Nevertheless, these are only theoretical drawbacks. What Japan should fear instead is falling into the trap of other countries that are suffering recession and stagnation: overzealous nationalism and single-focus policy. Abenomics deals with immediate economic issues, but it fails to address other, very important matters that hamper the healthy recovery of Japan. From Japan’s status as the ‘oldest’ country in the world, to a xenophobic policy that makes it hard for immigrants to settle and hinders labor mobility, the country needs further, more daring reforms.

Abe came to the elections with an economic plan and the force of nationalism in a nation scared by stagnation and political instability. His tools for monetary policy are traditional at best, but it has been years since any politician has been daring enough to implement Western-style economic policy in Japan, and it seems that the change is welcome.  But it may not be enough in the end. Mr. Abe has the opportunity to be known as the man that brought Japan back from the economic ashes. It would be a pity if he threw it away with incomplete reforms.

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Painting the Country Pink

Europe - World July 3, 2013 10:49 am

Albanian elections

On June 23, Albania held its fourth regular parliamentary elections since the country’s fragile democracy was established in 1990 — elections that were of utmost importance for this small, eastern European country, as they would not only make or break its economic and political future, but also indicate how ready the nation was to become a candidate for membership in the EU. So far, Albania has not had much luck in the matter, as its low GDP per capita, high rate of poverty and relatively poor infrastructure have hampered the country’s prospects.

As is typical for Albania, even a week after the elections, there are still votes yet to be counted, and the process was marred by violence in some locales. But despite all the messiness, the winner was clear. The Socialist Party (PS), with its leader and future prime-minister, Edi Rama, and its left-leaning coalition won 58 percent of the national vote. The Democratic Party, and the current-prime minister of Albania, Sali Berisha, who has been in power for the past eight years, only 39 percent.

The elections were a mandate by most standards, and despite his costly campaign, Mr. Berisha understood the message that the country sent to him. After 20 years in Albanian politics, during which his past crimes had been forgotten, he decided to retire from the public spotlight, paving the way for a new parliament and a new, perhaps better Democratic party.

The Fall of the Rightists

Berisha’s government had its faults, but it also had its achievements. From better infrastructure, to Albania’s joining NATO, it paved the way for a great amount of investment in the country. In the capital city of Tirana alone, three luxurious shopping centers were inaugurated, and the local electricity and telecommunications industries were privatized. New roads and highways were built, and since December 2010, Albanians have been able to freely travel for up to three months in most of the European Union.

Unfortunately, however, most of these ‘improvements’ benefited a only tiny fraction of the population, never translating into increased wellbeing for most citizens. Corruption scandals, natural disasters and a high, unofficial level of unemployment (as high as 30 percent, according to some calculations) were the PD’s and the rightist coalition’s downfall. All the money and employment that came from investments seemed to have gone into the pockets of politicians, and the welfare of most Albanians remained unchanged.

This year’s election was largely a rebuff to the frivolous ways of the Democratic Party. And several interesting trends were shown in these elections that both worry and excite political analysts. First and foremost, unlike the past elections, Albania was united in its opinion. In the past, the north and south were clearly divided, with the northern regions going to the Democratic Party, and the south remaining loyal to the Socialists. This time, 11 of the 12 regional districts went to the leftist coalition, even in regions believed to be filled with hard-core Democrats. Secondly, a considerable number of Albanians — especially among the youth — were focused more on debates relating to tax systems and employment, than they were on family allegiances.

Still, though Albanians have started to give their vote to minor parties, slowly increasing opposition power, this has, in many cases, not been for ideological reasons. For instance, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), one of the major members of the leftist coalition, which managed to win 16 seats in Parliament and ten percent of the votes, is rumored to have been paying and offering job opportunities in the new government for citizens who voted for the party. And it did not matter that the leaders of LSI were accused of multiple scandals only a year ago, when it used to rule in coalition with the DP; confronted with the opportunity of a job and cash, many chose security over ideology. It is hard to blame them, considering that the average Albanian only makes roughly $4,029 a year.

So Much To Do, So Little Time

With the PS and its coalition in charge, Albania is bound to change, even though Edi Rama is far from the ideal leader. As mayor of Tirana for many years, he pursued many reforms that, to a certain degree, changed the city for the better. But he was also hopelessly corrupt. Often, he was violent, unpredictable and hot-headed, with a past tainted by personal troubles that have hampered his public profile. Most Albanians voted him in as the lesser of two evils, prompted by eight years of very few changes. At the same time, 58 percent of Albanians trusted him and his coalition with the future of the country. Let us hope that Mr. Rama will be able to pay them back for this trust.

There’s much still to be done in Albania. The country is poor, and beyond the capital city, people live in misery, with their most basic needs unattended — be that electricity or clean water. Unofficial unemployment is high, and twenty years of indecision have hampered everything from the educational system, which is now an unrecognizable hybrid between the French and American models, to a non-functioning healthcare system. The leftist coalition that will rule the country for the upcoming four years has much to do, and for the first time Albanians have shown that they will punish those who fail to fulfill their promises. This change in the culture of Albanian politics has been gradual, but the rise of smaller, most centrist parties has been deeply felt in these elections.

The Socialist Party has to be careful. The Albanian state might have not changed profoundly, but Albanians certainly have. As the population shakes off the vestigial chains of Communism, and the country matures, they will not be fooled again.

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Dan Brown’s Inferno – More Heaven than Hell

Books & Arts June 18, 2013 11:15 pm
Botticelli_ChartOfDantesHell (1)

Botticelli’s Map of Dante’s Inferno

Truth is, if you have read a Dan Brown novel, you have read them all. To a lot of readers, Dan Brown’s newest installment in the adventures of the fabled Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon will feel and read like a deja vu. The adventure, the mystery and the pretty girl is a formula that worked well for his past bestsellers, and that is what the reader can expect to find in Inferno as well. Though it did not have the same amount of decoding and deciphering that made The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons contemporary hits, its reliance on the fascinating symbology found in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and the lively descriptions of Florence made up for the ‘barely there’ mystery and decoding. On the overall, Inferno will pique most readers’ interest and can rightfully be dubbed a page-turner.

When it comes to plot, no one can accuse Dan Brown of not being innovative. The novel starts off with Robert Langdon waking up in a hospital chamber, suffering from amnesia and unable to recall the events of the past forty-eight hours of his life. There he meets the Sienna Brooks, a pretty young doctor who turns out to be a genius in disguise. It is not long before Robert Langdon discovers he is being hunted: by both a dangerous hired assassin, his government and mysterious dreams a mountain of human bodies rotting in Dante’s iconic hell. Symbolically, Langdon has the duty of being someone’s Virgil on a journey that could lead to the discovery of a dangerous virus that threatens life on Earth, or its activation.

Langdon is in possession of a mysterious code that he does not take long to decipher. Together with Sienna Brooks he runs through the streets of Florence using famous works of art and Dante’s poetic lines as a guide. As is often the case with Dan Brown, there are many details that make the plot and one can only be too cautious of spoiling the fun for the readers of this journey. The virus they are looking for was planted by a Swiss biologist, an expert in his field, who believes that an increase in population at the current rate will lead to a health pandemonium and the explosion of the worst survival instincts amongst humans. His solution is draconian: a virus that could possibly kill millions.

Beyond the general plot, Dan Brown can be dangerously repetitive. Perhaps in trying to make up for either lack of plot, or because there is so much he wants to show the reader, Inferno suffers from overzealous descriptions of streets, names and places. There is an excess of details pertaining to Dante’s Divine Comedy, or even the existence and description of the Humanity+ movement, who believe that the future of humanity is the genetically modified individual. But the rest of the book can be overbearing, and it reads more like a screenplay, rather than a novel. Though the book is generally fast-paced, it can also be stagnant at times and the reader might feel trapped in a circle of step-by-step actions that are unnecessary.

It is obvious that Inferno tries to be controversial, as Dan Brown has proven single-handedly  that if you want to make it big in contemporary literature, a compelling story is sometimes not enough. The reader can rely on Dan Brown to create a fast-paced adventure that will leave the reader breathless to know what happens next. But global health specialists and even amateur statisticians will be perplexed and even outraged at the fact that Dan Brown apparently only read about world population growth theory up to to 2010. A considerable amount of his book, beyond the references and the usage of The Divine Comedy and Renaissance art, relies on the idea that the population growth at the current rate can be dangerous for the future and well-being of Earth and its population. Dan Brown is certainly right about certain aspect of world-population. In most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the attempts of the World Health Organization to stop population growth have been thwarted by religion and culture. The same is true for India, and some of South Asia. Nevertheless, on the whole, now that the world has reached 7 billion people, the rate of growth has steadily declined. The world faces a rapidly aging population and most countries, including China, are well below the recommended fertility rate for a healthy population.

The dangers of an aging population and the gap between developed and developing countries are both health-related and economic. But they are not the ones the ones that Brown describes, and nor do they require the actions that he tries to justify. It is very unlikely that in the near future the world will see piles of human bodies rotting in the middle of Florence, or elsewhere, for the lack of food and because of terrifying disease. What we might experience is economic decline due to the collapse of the current pension and social security system in various nations, but even that is dubious. Nevertheless, Dan Brown can be forgiven–provided the reader remembers that he deals strictly with fiction, not fact.

Whoever reads Dan Brown might be surprised to find him or herself stopping to think over real-world issues that confront us at every turn, but which we prefer to ignore. Nevertheless, the average reader chooses Dan Brown over another for purely hedonistic reasons: because she or he relishes the mental escape and knows that it will be done quickly, leaving the reader to return to an equally fast-paced, though not as dangerous, life.  We can safely presume that Dan Brown is not the Goethe, Balzac, or the Hemingway of our era. He is for long-flights, sleepless nights and binge-reading. But there are certainly moments when he can make you think. The issues he grapples with might be either too cliche, or entirely too big for him to handle. Still, Dan Brown creates a compelling story and plot, and though he might not be everyone’s cup of tea, to dismiss him and his works as redundant and cheap, would be to give up on a kind of literature that is for pleasure, just as much as it is about cultural enrichment.


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The Gentle Mask of Intolerance

Asia-Pacific - World April 8, 2013 1:24 am

burma The general perception of Buddhism in the West is one of peace, tranquility and modesty. Buddhist monks, and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have been a source of inspiration for celebrities and children’s cartoons alike. So it might come as a surprise to know that in the past two weeks, the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has been extremely hostile toward the Muslim minority of the country.

Prompted by a row in a gold shop in the city of Meiktila, mobs of Buddhist citizens and monks raided Muslim properties and killed more than 30 people on March 20, injuring some 70 bystanders in the process. From Meiktila, violence spread rapidly in the surrounding regions and has been continuing in full force for weeks. Tensions have always been lurking on the surface of Burmese culture, as radical nationalists have long perceived Muslims as foreigners coming from India to steal their wealth and property, even though a considerable fraction of the Muslim population is indeed native. Since the attacks started, the mobs have destroyed Muslim shops, homes, and mosques. According to the latest numbers, at least 12,000 Muslims have had to flee their homes and are seeking refuge elsewhere.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the affected regions; in Meiktila proper, a curfew has been imposed, with the national army trying to assuage the situation. Though daytime is relatively safe for the 100,000 Muslim inhabitants of Meiktila, nighttime is anything but. Despite the one thousand police officers stationed in the city, and additional help sent by the United Nations, the situation does not seem to be improving.

This violence in Myanmar seems to have spread to Sri Lanka and Indonesia as well. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama, who condemned past violence of this kind in the region, has been silent on the current state of affairs in these two countries. These displays of violence — though scarcely covered by Western media — still threaten the images of Southeast Asia and Buddhism itself. And, what’s more, they hamper the economic growth and stability of a region that desperately needs it.

In the past year, Myanmar has been described as the new Asian tiger. As political turmoil started to dissipate and as the military government, with its President Thein Sein, decided to implement substantive reforms, 2012 seemed like a great year for the nation. Political prisoners were released, elections were relatively fair and a ceasefire had been negotiated with several ethnic groups within the country. This marked a first step towards a much needed peace. Yet, the recent outburst of violence, especially coming, as it does, from the side that represents the majority of the population in Myanmar, threatens to overshadow all other signs of political progress (not least the reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of parliament). If the government does not want its efforts of political opening-up to have been in vain, and if it wants to retain the support it has recently garnered from the West, it must act quickly.

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Leading Nowhere: Do Institutions Matter or Not?

Books & Arts March 26, 2013 10:53 pm

Why are some countries wealthier than others? Lately, this question has been receiving a lot of attention. The most recent debate centers around the role of institutions in economic development. Daron Acemoglu, a professor of Economics at MIT, and James Robinson, a government professor at Harvard, discuss this particular issue in their latest book on the topic, called “Why Nations Fail”. I myself reviewed it a couple of months ago. I found fault with many aspects of their argument, but I do agree with their main thesis: institutions are the cornerstone of sustained economic growth, or lack thereof.


From an empirical point of view, even those not well acquainted with economic and political theory of development would agree: growth depends largely on investments, and investments are made when companies or individuals have the right incentives; that is to say, where they have a supportive legislative and economic environment where they are assured their property rights will be protected. But the role of institutions is not merely to help private incentives. It is also to protect citizens from overzealous individuals and companies and enhance competition. So far, this is a basic understanding. It is a simple solution that has been around since the 1990′s yet rarely is discussed—an idea that Acemoglu and Robinson have made popular again.

Well, Bill Gates disagrees with this idea. He just recently reviewed “Why Nations Fail” and the authors consider his take on it to be the harshest and least constructive criticism of their work to date. It is hard to argue with that assessment. Gates’ review of the book, which includes some uninspiring assumptions about world history, can be read in two ways. On the one hand, it looks like a pathetic rebuttal of the books characterization of himself as one of many innovators who wanted to create a monopoly—one that was stopped by the United States’ strong, healthy, and inclusive institutions. On the other, it is the prayer of a man who truly hopes the billions he spent on international financial aid did not end up in the coffers of the corrupt, instead of in the hands of the people he hoped to help.

Just a few days after Bill Gates posted his review, the two authors came up with a response of their own. According to the two authors, not only has Gates not understood their point, but he has probably not read their book at all. They re-emphasize the points made in the book: historically, though geography and culture certainly impact development, it is institutions that provide the ultimate recipe for growth. South Korea, with its inclusive institutions that protect property rights and personal wealth in addition to helping investors, has fared so much better than North Korea, even though the two countries share a common history and geography. Colonies overtaken by extractive institutions put in place by the colonizers still face trouble today because of the culture of institutional work that has been crated.

Furthermore, the West, with policies of financial aid and intervention, has not helped. According to the authors, in a study administered in Uganda and Afghanistan, only 10% of the aid given by developed states and charities reaches its target. The rest is lost to corruption and bureaucracy. According to a talk by Ernesto Sirolli, a self-made Italian businessman, not only does the West put too much trust in bad institutions, it also fails to listen to those who draw attention to the ineffectiveness of their aid.  Funds are usually either sucked up by leaders, or used the way charities or western businessmen, unfamiliar with the needs and culture of the country in which they are investing, see fit. As such, their money is wasted on barren land and education in places where child mortality is high. What policy-makers outside the regions they are trying to help should do is stop and listen. Solutions come from within, be they from institutions or the people.

This latest spat is but a morsel of the great debate that populates the academic world on the development of nations. The power of institutions is but a single facet of the discussion, and Bill Gates’ criticism is one of the many that Acemoglu and Robinson have received since publishing their work. It is a debate we should continue to have, since understanding why nations fail is the key to better policies in developing countries in the future—and we are nowhere near close to it. But if the debate is left to academia, regardless of whose argument is strongest, there will not be much progress.

The best way to read “Why Nations Fail” is to view it as a big piece of a puzzle that has been constructed throughout the years by brilliant minds. It is not the whole picture, but it does help us better understand the history of economic development. Acemoglu and Robinson have created an ambitious work and theory. They do not merely dismiss geography and culture, key to other academics’ theses—they help explain why institutions can tie all these important elements together. Collaboration, even among ideas, is the key to progress.


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Do Markets Have Morals?

Books & Arts - Online February 26, 2013 3:22 pm

In April 2012, Michael Sandel released his latest book  “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets.” Recently, he supplemented his book with an article on the topic, and recently gave a speech at the Harvard Law School re-emphasizing his point of view. The crux of his argument is simple: markets do not take into account human dignity or morality and thus have started to conquer territory that should have otherwise been left on its own.

We must admit that though Sandel’s argument is interesting and strong, his book’s title is flawed. Sandel talks about what money can’t buy, yet he draws all his examples from aspects of society where markets have burgeoned regardless of moral constraint, as with black markets for organs, paying your child to read, or giving money for additional Facebook friends. Considering the human nature of all these monetary transaction,  maybe a better title would have been, “What Money Should Not Buy.” But if you interpret Sandel’s argument in terms of what should and should not be sold, the question becomes by default another: it is no longer whether or not markets have morals, but whether or not certain things should be allowed in the markets at all.

The philosophical debate of what is for sale has not been straightforwardly expressed until lately. It seems that with increasing technology, inequality and the successes of economics, as well as its failures, what was a scattered topic  throughout modern history has now become of  a philosophical stream of its own.  In fact, many services that were once considered too sacred to sell have become a widely-accepted part of the market. We need only think of the concept of human capital, a concept which until the late 1980s was thought as inadmissible by society at large. Humans could not be seen as capital, because to see humans as capital  would be to treat to treat human beings as commodities, to objectify them. And yet, twenty years later, human capital is a quintessential element of neoclassic economic theory, and firms could not be understood without it.

But there is a piece of the puzzle that Sandel has ignored when discussing the question of market morality. It seems that when studying markets, we forget that markets are a human invention and arise from human needs and interactions. Markets might be inert, and they might not take into account what is moral, but markets are not separated from the human factor. They are essentially an element of human society.

The implications of this debate are political: if markets have no morals, and if humans create markets even where there should not be one, then how should the society react? Should the state interfere? Many of the social elements that seem to have a market of their own, as was the case with paying for a friend or a conversation, were created based on individual needs, by individuals themselves. If they have evolved, that means that perhaps there is a need for them. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there are broader, darker implications to the idea of a market for everything. One point we can all agree with Sandel, is that putting a price on everything creates further inequality, and not even necessarily in an economic sense.

Many of the examples mentioned in both Sandel’s book and article relate to firms, or individuals using someone else’s wealth or fragility, but the emphasis is on the latter. He points to examples such as using your forehead for advertising, or buying mercenaries to fight for your cause. The humanity of one class is exploited for the benefit of another. Or in the case of black markets for organs, it can create economic discrimination: only the ones rich enough can buy the needed organs to save their lives. In a sense, it is giving a price to life, or worth based on wealth. Who deserves to live and who doesn’t should not be decided by markets.   It might be pragmatic, it might solve the problem, but those are entirely separate from what is right. There is a danger to this thinking, not because  it might cause society to go down a slippery slope, but economists make many assumptions that can and should be questioned.

In the end, the debate of what should and should not be for sale is a very intricate one. The underpinnings of such a question go deeper into social and political theory.  Should humans be allowed to act on will? And if so, where is the limit? We always wonder when the state should interfere, or when does a human’s capacity to understand what is good for him- or herself diminish,  and the answer comes down to the dichotomy between personal choice and ‘greater good.’ Maybe there will come a day when selling your organs for money will be legal and widely accepted, where most incentives are monetary. But I think the main question we should ask ourselves is not when this will happen, but whether we should allow this to happen.



A Royal Affair and Foreign Films at the Oscars

Books & Arts - Cafe B&A Posts January 28, 2013 2:40 am

Slow, historical European films seem to have been doing well in the United States lately, and especially in the Oscars. With The Artist last year  winning the big award, it seems no surprise that A Royal Affair, the Danish submission to the Oscars for 2013, has been nominated for Best Foreign Picture.  It has, almost formulaically, all the things that people like about period films, and is at the same time deep enough to appeal to the ‘critical’ eye.

A Royal Affair tells the story of the short renaissance that blessed  Denmark  unexpectedly in the 18th century. A British princess, Caroline Mathilde, goes on to become the newest Queen of Denmark and Norway in 1766 after marrying King Christian VII.  As we expect, the marriage is one made out of convenience, with little love in it and even less compassion, as Caroline has to deal with the madness and antipathy of the king. Things change for her once the King’s personal doctor and adviser, Johann Friedrich Struensee, joins the Danish court. Struensee and the Queen Caroline start a tumultuous love affair, kindled through their passion for Renaissance authors, banned by the conservative council  of state. Through their influence and Struensee’s  appeasing nature, the King takes control of the state and together pull forward  a number of reforms that make Denmark the symbol of European Renaissance. At least for a while.

A mad king, a rebellious queen and a mysterious, revolutionary adviser singlehandedly change the destiny of Denmark, while defying a malicious conservative council  of old men. It also helps, that in defiance of many other independent European films, who seem to be filmed by amateurs, “A Royal Affair” is made with careful attention detail and scenery. Lavish courts that are never over-done with unnecessary luxury and the peaceful scenery of the countryside are juxtaposed to the filthiness of Copenhagen to outline physically a plot that only picks-up half-way through the film, as Struensee arrives in Copenhagen.

But that remains just the surface of the film, and it is not the part that convinced the Oscar committee to put it on the list of nominees. The appeal of A Royal Affair’ remains its intellectual nature, and moving, hopeful ending.  Its representation of the archaic council of state rings a bell for many politically-inclined viewers. The arguments used in what represented Denmark’s parliament remain true to form today. It is easy to draw a parallel between something that happened 250 years ago and how often the same ideals of preserving tradition and being right by proxy are used in politics to date. It reminds the viewer, albeit subconsciously, how some ideas, however wrong, still remain.

It should be said, however, that it’s not only historical films that have been drawing the American eye, though that proud historical tradition definitely helps.  Though a long shot, if Austria’s Amour wins this year, it would be the third European film in a row to be granted the honor,  after The Artist in 2012 and The King’s Speech in 2011. What all films have in common are their lack of action, focus on character and a slow building up that never really delivers anything that the viewer had been not expecting.  They also share the feeling of nostalgia for a lost time, when things were different, where the romantic was shown in its true form. The American public seems to be missing their motherland’s perfume and history, which they consider their own.

Still, a question begs to be asked: is the European film-making industry getting better, per-se, or has the American public grown to enjoy the slow paced, anti-climactic style of the other side of the continent? The easy answer out of this would point to a little bit of both, but that does not matter. What matters is the fact that the Oscars, though they have become in the past five years more accepting of international talent, have still confined their selection to the like-minded European artists. It should travel farther.

Oscar Picks and Predictions

Books & Arts - Cafe B&A January 28, 2013 2:40 am

No Easy Answers

Books & Arts - Online October 15, 2012 1:42 pm

It is something many of us notice: some countries are just better at keeping their people wealthier and happier than others. This, roughly speaking, is what economic development is about: countries making their GDP grow and their citizens wealthy and healthy. Unfortunately, not all countries have the same level of development, nor have

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.” Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson. 546 pp. Crown Business. $30.

they ever. In response to these trends, there are a number of theories as to why this divergence in economic development has occurred, from cultural factors to geography.

Why Nations Fail, by MIT economist Daron Acemoğlu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson, introduces a new one: institutions. Development, the book argues, comes down to institutions and how they interact with people, governments, and the economy. Throughout Why Nations Fail, Acemoğlu and Robinson investigate what they see as the fundamental element of development that has long eluded economists and policy makers. Their quest, however, is too ambitious and their focus too narrow.

One thesis and one long story

Despite its voluminous length, the story behind Why Nations Fail is not particularly complicated. What’s more, one might say it is highly repetitive. Acemoğlu and Robinson’s thesis is straightforward: the reasons behind a nation’s failure are the nature of its institutions. From then on the theory and evidence is clear, though the not particularly well organized. The authors put institutions into two categories: extractive and inclusive, based on their behavior towards free markets, private property, innovation, and equality of distribution wealth. Extractive institutions are antithetical to these development vectors; inclusive institutions foster them.

Extractive institutions are exemplified all over the globe, from North Korea, to Belarus, to Cuba. In these cases, political power is in the hands of a usually non-elected minority. In turn, this minority uses the country’s resource to its own advantages, instead of fairly distributing them according to need and potential. Further, as was mostly the case with colonizers in South America or Southeast Asia, the elites stop innovation for the sake of preserving power, eliminate private property other than its own, and restricts international trade in favor of local monopolies. This was seen in Venice in the beginning of the 16th century, and can still be perceived today in poorer countries like Belarus and Venezuela.

This is quite different from the functioning of inclusive institutions, a concept crafted in the image of Western liberal democracies. In these instances, there exists a supposed meritocracy and a liberty to use one’s resources as seen fit. Institutions here are also favorable to free trade and innovation, prizing shared prosperity over preserving the power of elites.

The authors’ idea that extractive institutions make for failed states is made clear at the beginning of each and every chapter, but, other than historical examples, the theory is not much more elaborated upon. They stress the importance of Spanish colonialism and its influence in Central and South America, and how the exclusive institutions that favored the European elite over native populations resonate today with the current economic underdevelopment of most of the continent. And while making the case for role of dictators and political unrest in Africa as the cause of poor growth, they manage to inquire into the causes of the stellar development of Western Europe. The Glorious and Industrial Revolutions in Britain are considered the engines that helped the creation of the British Empire and spread modern economic principles in the present “developed world,” as opposed to negative practices that left other continents in poverty. Overall, each chapter of Why Nations Fail is a historical analysis of a period exemplifying the superiority of these inclusive institutions over exclusive ones.

To anyone familiar with economic history there is nothing new to this account. These examples have been around for a while  for those studying international development.  Perhaps it is the new jargon that is introduced, talking about institutions rather than political structures, putting everything in an economic context, or talking about institutional macro-policies that makes this book so special. But do the authors have anything original to offer beyond terminology?

The Cultural Hypothesis

As stated before, Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson are not the first to indulge in historical and economic research as to why nations fail. In fact, a considerable part of their book is focused not only on why nations fail, but also on why other theories don’t work towards explaining this.

The first theory they critique is the Cultural Hypothesis of Development. This hypothesis can be traced back to Max Weber, who argued that Protestant European countries tended to do better economically than Roman Catholic ones due to the influence of religious doctrine on lifestyles. What Weber would dub “The Protestant Work Ethic” is perhaps the best know example of a cultural hypothesis of development. Yet today, according to Acemoğlu and Robinson, economic growth encompasses a far larger group of factors, not merely religion.

More recently, it has been contended that Africa, because of its ethnic tensions and pockets of archaic tribalism, has been left behind in the recent waves of economic development and prosperity. But Acemoğlu and Robinson refuse this assessment. What Africa is lacking, according to their opinion, is not the right culture but the right institutions. Were one to group the continent as a whole into some lost cause of cultural ignorance and incompetence, then what explains the success of Botswana and South Africa in the past years when compared to a considerable number of world countries? The authors make an ultimately convincing case against the Cultural Hypothesis by comparing specific countries’ development, not just whole continents like Africa with the Western hemisphere.

Geography Theory

But the cultural theory is not the sole subject of Acemoğlu and Robinson’s criticisms. In fact, they believe their main adversary is the Geography Theory, devised by Jeffery Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, and Jared Diamond, a UCLA geographer best know for his work Guns, Germs, and Steel. Both Sachs and Diamond talk about “geographical luck,” whereby a country’s economic development is largely determined by their position on the globe. Being landlocked, and thus having no direct way of accessing other resources but your own, for example, affects the way a country develops. Where you are determines what you can do, and thus how you can grow economically. This holds true for a many countries.

Nevertheless, the authors of Why Nations Fail dismiss this theory. Taking a historical perspective, Acemoğlu and Robinson contend that a considerable number of countries that were once very prosperous, though not in what is today considered a “geographically advantageous” position, stopped developing once they were colonized and forced into extractive institutions by Western empires. Such was the case for what is now Brazil and Mexico. Further, they mention the case of South Korea, which shares the same culture and geographical characteristics as North Korea, and yet is more prosperous than its more northerly neighbor. Institutions, not placement on the map, were decisive in these instances.

Sachs and Diamond, however, have far more data on their side . Using the Swedish Karolinks Institute of Medicine interactive website, Gapminder, one can readily see that over half of the poor and underdeveloped countries in today’s economy are landlocked, or located on islands far from a mainland. For geography theorists it is probably not surprising to notice that “coastline” nations have higher GDPs and standards of living, whereas “landlocked” countries and isolated islands tend to rank at the bottom of these metric. This is not to say that geography is everything, of course. But it certainly remains an important factor that can make a superpower—or break a small country.

Understanding prosperity and poverty: Too big of a goal?

Acemoğlu and Robinson focus too much on two things: historical events and attacking, in their words, “theories that don’t work.” In general, it is easy for one to agree that institutions matter for why countries flounder or flourish. In numerous occasions we see them stopping what could be prosperous possibilities. But the authors’ simplistically institutional and historical account ultimately falls short, not only because it is too narrow, but also because it raises more questions than it answers: Can there only be one theory that explains development? And what lies behind extractive institutions? Is it human failure at base? Or just historical contingency? A book that claims to explain why nations fail must succeed in solving these complex puzzles.

Summer Dispatch

HPRgument September 22, 2012 11:22 am

Seventeen HPR writers discuss their summers interning in politics, traveling, volunteering, “going home,” and more.

The Lackluster State of Southeastern Europe’s Development

HPRgument Posts September 8, 2012 2:21 am

Having been born and having lived in Albania most of my life, and having had the chance to visit the region often, I had been sure of one thing: the population of Southeastern Europe is livelier than ever. There was great hope in people my age: hope that they would become part of the European Union within the next five years, that once out of school they would go on to find good jobs and visit the world. Nine months since my last visit, the region seems to have changed.

Indeed, reality seems to have hit hard the fraction of the population that had always believed in the possibility of change. For sure, university students in Southeastern Europe have begun to realize that things are not going the way they had hoped. The region’s GDP growth rates are mediocre at best (not higher than 6.3%, even in Kosovo, where international aid is flowing) and unemployment is high (as high as 30.9% in Macedonia and never lower than 13% in the region). Of course, these numbers are even worse when it comes to youth unemployment, which reaches 50%-60% in some countries.

There is reason for the feeling of stagnation and hopelessness that seems to have captured the youngest in every country from Croatia to Macedonia. Those who had the chance to leave have already done so, and not many have the desire to go back. And those who have remained have had to contemplate the real possibility of still living dependent upon their parents after graduation from university. And even those hoping to study abroad, join a political party, and help their respective countries move forward seem to have given up those dreams.

Instead of more actively pressing for change, Southeastern Europeans often voice their discontentment in the region’s coffee shops and bars, nearly always full regardless of the time. Some do try to join youth forums with connections to the political parties in power, but to little avail.

Many economists would argue that most of the countries that compromise Southeastern Europe have all the necessary elements to proposer: good geographical position, plenty of natural resources, international aid, and historical mistakes to learn from. But the population and institutions of the region seem to have fallen into a state of depressive contentment, where politicians lie and the people wait for them to fail in order that someone or something else might offer them a different future. There is anger and disappointment, yet little desire to do anything about it. The Middle East had its revolution, but are the Southeastern Balkans states waiting for self-destruction before starting their own?



Books & Arts August 8, 2012 6:24 pm

Hanne Blanke’s Straight – The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, promised to be innovative and refreshing. While there are many books that attempt to explain the historical and societal perspectives of homosexuality, there have hardly been any works that try to map the development of the concept of heterosexuality and the prevalence of the heteronormative standard in our society. In her book, Blanke attempts to create a thorough collection of historical evidence of how society’s perception of sexuality has changed over centuries with a major focus on the Victorian era. It is a combination of both historical and scientific details that raise important questions on the difference between gender and sex and whether or not it is possible to characterise human beings merely by their chromosomes, behaviour, or orientation.

With this premise and goal, one would expect a potentially interesting read. Unfortunately, “Straight” lacks a coherent theme and argument. By trying to address too many difficult and ambiguous topics, it ends up being hard to follow, unstructured and highly unsatisfying. Its problems are not solely structural, but also contextual. Among these multiple elements that undermine her work, two are the most prominent. First, her inability to go past the cliché of defending homosexuality in every book that deals with human sexual preference and secondly, her dislike for categories and rebuttal of everything good that categorization may have brought to the human condition.

Please stick to your previously-stated mission

If someone decides to pick up “Straight” from the library, they would want to evaluate the title’s promise to surprise the reader on the topic of heterosexuality. That said, it is only natural, as heterosexuality, like many other concepts whose understanding comes from a pre-established binary opposition, is usually contrasted to the alternative of homosexuality. Yet, as Blanke shows in her book, both terms were not invented during the same period of time.  Heterosexuality came first, as the means of identifying a group of people who not only had sexual desires directed at a person of the opposite sex, but also those who remained within the boundaries of the plain vanilla variety. So far, so good. This is exactly the point that the book is trying to make: how did we go from having no specification of sexuality, other than the person you marry, to these brands?

It is more than fine to use homosexuality as a mean to achieve a goal of defining heterosexuality as an opposite. Unfortunately, Blanke does not use homosexuality just as a means to an end. As many writers, academics and scientists before her, she falls into the one trap that seems to have become unavoidable when discussing sexuality: defending the existence of homosexuality and vouching for its “normalcy.” Blanke is fighting in a never-ending circle that spirals around the idea that homosexuality has always existed, at least since the times of Ancient Greece and Babylon, and that science has never stated that there is such a state of ‘normality’ when it comes to sexuality. Hence, where does the idea of heterosexuality as the golden standard come from? The question is interesting, but she provides no historical evidence to hint at an answer.

By dealing with these questions, Blanke forgets what her book was supposed to be about. So much in fact, that once a whole chapter on sexuality and science is finished, while she transitions to the importance of the developing of the notion of marriage and female equality has changed the idea of heterosexuality, the reader has forgotten the main point of her discourse.

What’s wrong with categories?

In her defense of  homosexuality, rather than in her history of heterosexuality, Blanke brings up an oft-asked question: why do people have to fit into categories—whether of sexuality, nationality or culture—at all? Most liberals are against categorization by principle, as they imply stereotypical characteristics, which limit the person’s ability to create their own image. However, the manner in which Blanke demonizes categorization is not convincing. Most of her critique is implied, yet she does go as far as to say that heterosexuality was just a brand of self-identification created to make sure that you were not homosexual. According to her, categories such as ‘heterosexual’ were created to make sure that when you saw yourself in the mirror, it was not a ‘degenerate who looked back.’

Essentially, defining oneself as gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or whatever, though it might not be necessarily welcomed by everyone, does not have to be inherently offensive. It is something we have come to accept as human beings. Categories are helpful— they are defined by the people we are attracted to and to what they define themselves as. It might not be biologically accurate, and it might not even describe our own experience, but categories themselves only can embody the meaning that we give to them. As human creations they are bound to evolve as our understanding of the world evolves. And if they help millions of people make choices, fit better, or understand where they do not fit in, they can also serve to build communities and provide relief as people share common experiences.

Finally, there are two things left to do for Blanke. Either change the title to “Another book on why homosexuality is just fine,” or rewrite the whole story by leaving out the overly long chapters that defend homosexuality on the basis that science has found nothing against it. The book has potential, if it actually were about heterosexuality in the overall.

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