Democracy and arithmetic

5 September 2012
Only in en
New Humanist takes a reasonable line on circumcision; Dilema veche despairs of political innumeracy; Soundings counts the winners and losers of the global auction for jobs; Arena criticizes a system that prevents women having it all; Mittelweg 36 sees the “Collateral murder” video for what it is; dérive talks about the weather and the city; Springerin features angry artists; and Ny Tid says the e-book has a place on the library shelf.


Like the headscarf debate, the current controversy around the ruling by a German court that circumcision counts as physical injury typifies conflicting perceptions of the position of religion in secular society. In New Humanist, Toby Lichtig
in wry mode about how, in his own secular Jewish family, the circumcision issue pits tradition against reason. Both his sisters had their sons undergo the Brit milah, should his own baby boy “get the snip”?

“If I don’t want my son circumcised, what does this say about the decision of my mother, and my sisters, to carry out the infant surgery on theirs? Surgery? Now he’s calling it a surgery! Never underestimate the power of guilt in the Jewish mother.”

However there’s more a stake than culture. As Lichtig writes, complications following circumcisions are common and, unlike the case that prompted the Cologne ruling, rarely investigated. Yet, despite the evidence, Lichtig shies away from a ban: “There are many things it would be nice to do away with if we were able to rip things up and start again, but revolution isn’t always the way. The outrage that any such decision would provoke is likely to do more harm than good. And, as experience has told us with everything from prostitution to abortion to drug abuse, criminalizing such practices doesn’t stop them: it merely makes them more dangerous.”

The surrogacy trade: Journalist Bidisha explores the international trade in gestational surrogacy. Banned in Sweden, Spain, France and Germany, surrogacy is a boom sector in India, she reports. Infertile European couples increasingly pay up to 30 thousand dollars to have an embryo “birthed” by an Indian women. “A surrogate may be grateful for the money, but what message does this trade send about her value? As surrogates, women usually receive the first proper medical checkups, pelvic exams, monitoring, rest, nutrition and quality care of their lives. When they bear their own children, no such help is available.”

The full table of contents of New Humanist 5/2012


The after-pains of the Romania’s July referendum continue to make themselves felt in the pages of Dilema veche, with debates about democratic values, the sense of referenda and the “lack of political culture” (Mircea Vasilescu, 441). Vasilescu notes that the electoral lists have not been updated for many years; nor has a census been conducted. The chaotic adding and subtracting of votes is an ordeal for political minds: “This battle with arithmetic is the latest result of an irrationality in which Romanian politicians move. (And not only politicians but also a large part of the population.)”

After the referendum the Constitutional Court decided to risk a look into the lists of Romanians eligible to vote and thereby set the arithmetical machinery in motion. Vasilescu observed the proceedings of the ensuing parliamentary session. Ion Iliescu, former head of state, suggested that citizens that had been abroad for over six months be removed from the lists while from the National Liberal Party voices were to be heard calling for Down’s Syndrome and Alzheimer sufferers to be struck off. The new infrastructure minister Radu Stroe then suggested that caretakers be consulted because they were the ones with the best knowledge of who goes in and out. Only in passing was it noted that, for the last 22 years, the dead had not been removed from the lists. That’s “democracy and arithmetic” for you, writes Vasilescu.

The state of the law: Anthropologist of religion Anca Manolescu (440) looks further afield in order to illustrate the “dismantling of the law” in Romania. Though separation from the Church was a major element in the development of Europe, the concept of “the equal value of all people” and the “imago Dei of every person” stem from Christianity. This transcendental equality, she argues, is expressed in the principle that “every individual is equal in the eyes of the law”.

The ruling socialist-liberal coalition has been challenging the “idea of the law itself”, she writes. No longer is it a case of illegality in Romania, but lawlessness. Citing the threat of drastic EU sanctions, Manolescu reminds Romanians of their responsibility in maintaining the authority of the law – an ancient value upon which society is built.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 440-443/2012


The “global auction for jobs”, previously limited to manufacturing and the service sectors, now affects the knowledge economy, write
Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder in Soundings (UK). As higher education expands globally, work traditionally reserved for the West is being done cheaply and just as well in emerging nations. This, in turn, means that the wages and working conditions of western employees are no longer the global benchmark.

“For the lucky few, often from more privileged backgrounds, the global auction will remain in forward gear, as their investments of effort, time and money will continue to be handsomely rewarded. But most others, including many with a similar educational background, will struggle to achieve the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, while large sections of the working class will be increasingly excluded, through inferior education and declining occupational mobility.”

A generation out of work: Youth joblessness (at around 20 per cent in the UK, two per cent below the EU average) is an economic failure and not a skills problem, argue Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley. Instead of a new generation of knowledge workers, as predicted by New Labour, a new service-sector proletariat has emerged: “The Internet industry may now contribute almost as much to GDP as manufacturing, but it employs about a tenth of the numbers.”

Direct intervention in the labour market is needed, subsidized not only by growth but by more “direct forms of redistribution”, write Allen and Ainley. Work itself could also be redistributed: a 21-hour week, as proposed by the New Economics Foundation, would appeal to people who have seen their parents work long hours for minimal rewards. So what are socialists and progressive economists afraid of?

Popular environmentalism: “Economies grounded in place – in skills sustained through generations, in local value and regionally specific institutions – far from being a nostalgic liability, may in fact provide the key to our future survival,” writes Ruth Davis, chief policy advisor to Greenpeace UK. “Such economies are also those in which the demands of the labour market do not inevitably atomize communities and tear up sustained and caring relationships with land, nature, and the local environment.”

The full table of contents of Soundings 51 (2012)


In Arena (Sweden), editor Mikael Feldbaum
comments on this summer’s debate about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why women still can’t have it all”. Writing in The Atlantic, Slaughter explained why, after only two years, she had to leave her job as director of policy planning in the Obama administration: her family life was suffering from the long hours and her 14-year old son, who had started getting problems at school, needed her. No matter what the official line is, she wrote, it is simply not possible to combine a top job with a family.

Some regarded Slaughter’s article as a betrayal of feminist ideals, others found it refreshingly honest. Feldbaum fears that the Anglo-Saxon model, with its extreme division of labour and long working hours, is about to make its way into Swedish society too. Soon Swedish women might have to revolt the same way Slaughter did and old political demands for a 30- or even 21-hour working week will return to the agenda.

“Allegedly economic arguments are used to support a system that makes privileged women revolt and means even more disadvantages for women further down the social ladder. Parents lose contact with their children and children with their parents. Those who already earn little come to earn even less while the taxpayer pays for the subsidies that support the system. And the privileged women, the colleagues of Anne-Marie Slaughter, will still never be able to have it all.”

Media feminism: In a short article, Karolina Ramqvist calls for a feminism that is not limited to the media. “As feminist discourse becomes part of the media mainstream, it has to start to play by media rules. That’s the problem. You have to bring something new, otherwise we get bored. We’re fed up by yet another article comparing Madonna to Bruce Springsteen from a gender perspective, yet another text on the TV-series Girls or quota for women in the film business. It doesn’t matter that reality is just as misogynous as before. In the worst case, the description of reality is taken for reality itself – and the fight for gender equality is confused with equality as such.”

Also: Claus Leggewie
sees the future of Europe in the currently so unpopular South (a longer text by Leggewie on this topic will be published in Eurozine later this week); and Magnus Linton says misguided Swedish drug policy is responsible for several hundred unnecessary deaths per year.

The full table of contents of Arena 4/2012


Released by Wikileaks in April 2010, the “Collateral murder” video confirmed doubts about the observance of the “Rules of Engagement” by the US military in Iraq and raised the issue of war crimes committed during the occupation between 2003 and 2011. Yet our abhorrence of what the images depict should not override analysis of how their production and transmission affect how we “read” them, argues art historian Gerrit Walczak in Mittelweg 36 (Germany).

For example, debate has focused partly on the question of what the videos don’t show. While Robert Gates, then US defence secretary, played down the culpability of the helicopter crew on the grounds that the videos provided an incomplete view of the action (it was, he said, like “looking at the war through a soda straw”), Julian Assange claimed the opposite: precisely because the crew had better imagery at their disposal, they were more blameworthy. Yet both the viewer of the video and the crew were seeing no more nor less than one another, writes Walczak: the videos “form the basis of all decisions that are taken by the crew, and even show what they see but on occasion ignore.” The videos are, then, sufficient evidence in themselves to draw conclusions about criminal liability.

Russia: The culture of violence in Russian society is cemented by the “hierarchies of brutality” brought by army veterans from periphery to centre, writes Mischa Gabowitsch. The security services are largely recruited from this milieu and thus are systematically opposed to the educated and metropolitan protest movement. Yet money remains the sole factor in continuing loyalty: after the parliamentary elections, police officers’ wages were doubled and security forces were paid bonuses for duty during demonstrations. “The mood in the police and the army is most likely to turn when the resources for such a remuneration become scarce, rather than through political and moral pressure from a non-violent protest movement.”

Also: Ramin Jahanbegloo explains why, thirty years after Khomeini’s Revolution, Iran’s Green Movement has put the genie of violence back in the bottle.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 4/2012


Pleasant climatic conditions are a prerequisite for social interaction in the public space and are therefore essential to urban planning. In dérive (Austria), contributors offer various strategies for moderating the impact of climate change in the city.

Weather: Wind speed, temperature, solar radiation and atmospheric humidity all contribute to human comfort, write Wolfgang Gepp, Matthias Ratheiser and Simon Tschannett. Sensible urban planning can compensate for the effects climate change has on these meteorological factors. Early settlements always adapted to given meteorological parameters, a principle that seems to have been forgotten:

“The prevalent opinion is that technical aids and the availability of cheap energy can make human life independent of weather conditions. However the energy consumption that enables this independence from climate contributes to climate change. Now that the necessity for a reduction in energy expenditure has been acknowledged, city planning must, as in earlier times, […] be brought into harmony with the climate.”

Landscape: “Open space and its specific micro-climate will play an important role in sustainable urban development”, argues landscape architect Katrin Hagen. The formal principles of the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra and Grenada suggest various ways of influencing thermal wellbeing in times of global warming, especially in the city. Historical analysis, an oft neglected discipline in city planning, offers formal principles of sustainability, Hagen concludes.

Barcelona: Twenty years after the Olympic games in Barcelona, the building boom in the Catalan capital is well and truly over. Unimpressed by the architectural hype surrounding Barcelona in the last two decades – “although you were on the Mediterranean, you felt like you were in Miami” – Rafael Siart wonders whether extravagance will give way to a more sensible approach: after all, she writes, given the current politics of austerity, there will probably be “few means with which to build and lots of time to think”.

The full table of contents of dérive 48 (2012)


Post-democratic tendencies, economic crisis, the unjust allocation of wealth – Springerin (Austria) devotes an issue on artistic practices that verbalize, visualize and discuss the general feeling of dissatisfaction deriving from the global political misère.

Collectivism: The US arts collective “Not An Alternative” cooperates with political activists fighting foreclosures by “seizing city spaces, everyday building materials, symbols and signifiers that are otherwise reserved for the state, redefining them and putting them at the service of the movements,” says NOA member and political theorist Jodi Dean in interview with Pascal Jurt and Johannes Springer.

Current social movements need a common denominator, Dean argues. Discussions within the social movements often boil down to demanding common ownership of education, healthcare and basic resources. “When it comes to the question of demands, we need to ask ourselves what a project like the commons might look like. We need to develop a new economic model based in the collective administration of goods.”

Activism: “The question is not how to aestheticize ‘living as form’, in order to display the results for contemplation in a museum. The question is how to change the forms in which we are living”. Brian Holmes compares the Argentine avant-gardists Tucumán Arde and their Guevarist-Situationist protest against the military junta of the 1960s with the AIDS activist group ACT UP of the 1980s:

“What’s impressive is the collective reaction to a situation of extreme risk, where the issue is not so much the technical capacity as the ‘willingness’ of a democratic society to respond to dangers that weigh disproportionately on stigmatized minorities. Rather than widespread police and military repression, as under a dictatorship, it is the perception of an intimate threat that lays the basis for militant action.”

Also: Herwig Höller explains why politico-artistic outfits such as Pussy Riot are now seen by the political establishment as a serious threat; and Silviu Mihai writes on protest strategies by Roma artists in Orbán’s Hungary.

The full table of contents of Springerin 3/2012


In Ny Tid (Helsinki), Janne Wass interviews Swedish journalist Rasmus Fleischer, whose two-volume work Boken (The Book) and Biblioteket (The Library) has vitalized the Scandinavian debate on the future of the book trade. Asked to comment on the current surge of e-books, Fleischer is surprisingly sure that the printed book will remain the most important form of publishing for the foreseeable future: “No writer makes his or her debut with e-books. If you want to be taken seriously, you still need to publish in print.”

However, the e-book is here to stay and presents a real challenge to traditional libraries. It took some time before libraries started to adapt to the digital development, says Fleisher. But now they have a much clearer strategy and even cooperate to make sure that digital books are – and will be – part of libraries’ service to the public. This is something that has already drawn protest from publishers and writers.

The conflict between libraries and publishers will deepen, says Fleischer. And if the publishers refuse to allow e-books to be lent for free and instead want to introduce a rental system? “Well, then laws will be passed that force them to do so.” There is no real reason to fear for the future of the library as institution: “People want their libraries, especially at a time when younger generations have started to defend the freedom of information.”

More about Ny Tid

Published 5 September 2012

Original in English
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