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Ukraine: Did the protest movement transcend historical borders?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, International Politics, Politics

“Even in the president’s heartlands, in Eastern Ukraine, protesters have come out in strong support of ‘Euromaidan’,” two British academics argued last week on the Washington Post’s political science blog The Monkey Cage, and they drew a far-reaching conclusion: “In effect, Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, young and old, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians [have] united against – what they increasingly regard as – the illegitimate rule of the president and his party”.

A similar note was struck in a slideshare that’s circulating on Facebook, called What is really happening in Ukraine, which has been viewed over 650.000 times. Citing “massive protests” arising in the East and the South on January 26, the creators chide the Western press for a tendency to continue portraying the protests “in cold war terms,” as “fundamentally based on ‘ethnic/language’ splitting in Ukraine”.

Ukraine, 26 January 2014: occupations, seizures and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 26 January 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

Both arguments came with maps. The Monkey Cage contributors,  Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk,  presented a map from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, which colours most of the country orange (“occupied state administration buildings”) or brown (“mass protests”). The slideshare used three of Sergii Gorbachov’s detailed maps, presenting the situation on January 25-27. On his map from January 26, 21:00, just two of the country’s provinces remained Yanukovych-blue: Donetsk and the Crimea. The rest of the country was in the grip of the revolution: local state administrations were “occupied by [the] people” or the object of “attempted seizures” or “mass protests”.

Ukraine, 29 January 2014: occupations and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 29 January 2014, Centre for Eastern Studies

Those maps look very different from the one posted by Max Fischer in the Washington Post just a couple of days earlier, under the title “This is the one map you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis”. Fischer’s map of the regional divide running down the centre of Ukraine between the protesting North and West of the country and the non-protesting South and East neatly overlapped with those of various post-independence election results — and moreover, as I wrote and mapped out last week, with ancient and more recent historical borders as well. So did something fundamentally change, in the last two weeks?

Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk seem to believe so, when they go beyond describing the protests in the South and East as “unprecedented and until recently inconceivable” to describe “the East and West of the country” uniting against Yanukovych. The slideshare authors obviously also believe that analyses that still focus on ethnic/language divides are out of touch with the changing environment.

There are two questions about this argument: To what extent were they right, concerning the developments as they unfolded in the last days of January? And to what extent do any such changes last today?

Protesters in the East: How much of a force?

Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies, which created the map used in the Monkey Cage blog post, summarized the state of the Ukrainian protests on January 29 in a detailed briefing, covering events across the country. When it came to developments in the South and East, it reported that “demonstrations numbering several thousand and blockades of offices also took place in Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, Odessa, Cherkassy and Lugansk.”

Map of Ukraine with main cities

Cities of Ukraine (Wikimedia)

By then the Centre had already published more detailed write-ups of ongoing events in the previous few days. Its briefing of the 27th cited “massive numbers of participants” in “protests in the largest cities of southern and eastern Ukraine”, which “reached unprecedented proportions”. Detailing the specifics, however, the briefing reported that “several thousand people” took part in an anti-government demonstration in Dnipropetrovsk, a “four-thousand-strong rally” was held in Sumy, a “demonstration of several hundred people” was dispersed in Zaporizhia, “2–3 thousand people” took to the streets in Odessa, “more than one thousand” people demonstrated in Kirovohrad, and so on. Reuters reported “up to 5,000 anti-government protesters” picketing the regional government  headquarters in Zaporizhia. The Centre for Eastern Studies’ briefing from a day later added a few details: “a one-thousand strong demonstration” was held in Luhansk, “which may be viewed as another sign of a civil ‘awakening’ of people in eastern Ukraine”; but meanwhile, in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia “attempts at occupying administration buildings have been effectively and brutally countered by the police and groups of “titushky”‘.

Even if only a few thousand people took part in those various protests, that may indeed have been unprecedented; after all, in Luhansk for example, Yanukovych received over 80% of the vote in the last presidential elections. The local, Yanukovych-friendly administrations and oligarchs usually keep these cities on a tight reign. But does “several thousand” really equate with “massive,” let alone indicating that the East and the West are finally uniting against the current government? Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa have a million inhabitants each; Zaporizhia has over 800,000. The same Reuters story reporting on the protest in Zaporizhia also interviewed an opposition journalist admitting that the local protests only attracted the educated middle class: “Unfortunately, Euromaidan’s appeal is very limited here”.

Not all these places are the same either. Sumy and Kirovohrad went for Tymoshenko over Yanukovych in the last elections, so it isn’t all that surprising that opposition protests would break out there. In fact, for two cities with 250,000-300,000 inhabitants which voted for Tymoshenko, a few thousand protesters doesn’t immediately impress, although Sumy protesters did occupy the city’s council building. The size of protests is also sometimes overstated – by both sides, for different reasons. A reporter from the Putin-critical Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta observed a peaceful protest rally in Kharkiv where no attempts were made to storm the regional government building: “Most of the participants were students,” she said, “just half a thousand very young and unprepared kids who did not prepare for an assault at all”. Yet afterwards she saw on TV that an opposition politician was telling a Kyiv rally that “at this very moment protestors are blocking regional state administrations” in Kharkiv – and that the mayor of Kharkiv, from Yanukovych’s party, was threatening protesters that they shouldn’t involve themselves in a “war,” as they would be assured to lose it.

Violence and loathing on the streets

No doubt, the threat of violence and intimidation will have kept many away. Police used tear gas and smoke grenades, and “young men armed with baseball bats” attacked anti-government protesters in Kharkiv. In Zaporizhia,  men “with white ribbons on their shoulders were walking around the city and beating people”, a local journalist reported. The BBC linked to videos showing vigilante titushki, armed with seemingly identical batons, gathering inside a Dnipropetrovsk government building and then rushing out to viciously beat up demonstrators. The local Governor later called these men “representatives of the region’s public organisations”, calling “everything … perfectly legal.”

Vice versa, eighteen policemen were injured in Dnipropetrovsk alone, according to regional authorities. A blogger in Donetsk described “hired thugs” being transported in on buses to stage mock street riots and “imitate assaults at official buildings,” presumably “to frighten people here and … mobilize their voters,” but it’s not as if actual attacks on administrative buildings by anti-Yanukovych protesters have been lacking in graphical violence of their own, as this disturbing footage from a Central-Ukrainian city illustrated.

Anti-government protesters in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk talked to France24 about their motivations on January 27th. “[I]n Kharkiv we’ve been having protests every day since November 22,” said Natalka Zubar – but it’s tough going. “Here in eastern Ukraine, [..] Russian TV is even more popular than Ukrainian TV, and every day its anchors talk about LGBT people controlling all of Europe, spreading sodomy, things like this. They claim all protesters are hooligans. But I think that more and more people have stopped listening.”

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan in Kyiv (Photo by spoilt.exile, creative commons)

Protests in Dnipropetrovsk started two months ago, added Pavlo Khazan, and “there had been no major incidents [..] until Sunday”. That day, however, “some protesters decided that we should go to the regional administration building. [..] When we arrived, we were shocked to see that, behind a line of police officers guarding the building stood hooligans armed with sticks and baseball bats. The police let them attack us, and then dispersed the crowd [..] and began making arrests.”

The slideshare touting the protests’ strength makes mention of football fans several times. There’s a long history of politics and football mixing, and Ukraine offers a new episode. Local fans of Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk protected demonstrators from attacks by aggressive pro-government groups, AFP reported on the 31st, along with even fans of Shakhtar Donetsk, in Yanukovych’s own hometown. “We came to support our people in fighting for their rights,” explained some of a group of about 60 Shakhtar fans in central Donetsk.

Already back in mid-January, professor Alexander J. Motyl wrote a piece extolling the bravery of anti-government protesters in Donetsk: “at first, it was only a small group of about 20 to 30 demonstrators who repeatedly assembled at the Shevchenko monument [..]. Then, a few weeks ago, several hundred brave protesters [..] carried pro-democracy, pro-Europe, and anti-Yanukovych banners in a march through downtown”. Motyl argued that even these small numbers had the local establishment spooked, and compared the demonstrations with Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches through Alabama: “For 500 marchers to assemble in Donetsk is the equivalent of 50,000 in Lviv or 500,000 in Kyiv.”

Is it? In symbolic terms, maybe. But not necessarily in terms of measuring the balance of public opinion across the regions.

Fathoming public opinion

The Ukrainian Center for Social and Marketing Research SOCIS last week released the results of a poll it conducted between 17 and 26 January. They don’t include any regional breakdown, but the overall results are instructive. The opposition is definitely on an upswing: Klitschko ‘s UDAR, the pro-Tymoshenko Fatherland party, Solidarity, and the far-right Freedom party are pooling some 58-60% of the vote among them in both parliamentary and presidential match-ups. That’s about 10% more than these parties received in the 2012 parliamentary elections. (The parties now rallying in the streets already actually received a narrow majority of the vote back then, but lost out big in seats because of their divisions.)

Support for Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, however, has barely lessened. The party would get 29% of the vote in parliamentary elections, and he himself is polling at 29-30% in presidential match-ups. In 2012, the Party of the Regions received almost exactly the same share of the vote: 30%. Instead, it’s the Communist Party which lost some of its vote, polling at 8% when it received 13% in 2012, and the largest shifts are actually taking place within the opposition camp, with Fatherland (down to 20%) and Freedom (down to 7%) losing out to UDAR (up to 24%) and Solidarity (9%). In addition, some 30% of the full, initial sample answered that they wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Yanukovych’s party won the 2012 elections by racking up 65% of the vote in the Donetsk region, over 50% of the vote in Lugansk and the Crimea, and some 40% of the vote in the regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Odessa and Mykolaiv. And the Communists hauled in 18-25% of the vote in those same regions. If the Party of the Regions remains at strength and the Communists hold on to at least half of their vote, as this new poll suggests, then a majority of those who have an opinion in these regions are likely still in their camp. In the Dnipropetrovsk region, the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party pooled 55% of the vote in 2012 while Fatherland, UDAR and Freedom added up to 38%, so if shifts are taking place roughly proportionally around the country, that region too would at best be evenly divided now.

In the same poll, respondents were given a straight choice between entry into the EU and entry into a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. A plurality of 43% chose for the EU, but 32% preferred the Customs Union (with the rest offering no answer), and that latter number will be proportionally higher in the East and South. These numbers suggest that little has actually changed. In openDemocracy, Valery Kalnysh recapped polling data from late December, when the Euromaidan protests were already ongoing but hadn’t yet escalated, and they showed that 50% of Ukrainians then supported Euromaidan while 42% did not, and that opponents were far in the majority in the East, by 65% to 30%. Tellingly, that poll had also shown support for not just the opposition leaders, but also Yanukovych going up since October, from 19% to 29% – suggesting that far from Yanukovych’s south-eastern base suffering erosion, the increasing polarization of the country was shoring it up. A whole series of polls by different pollsters between May and November 2013 had showed a similar balance of opinion, with support for EU access consistently at 41-47% and, with the one exception of a November poll, support for the Customs Union at 31-40%.

Rallying the counterforces: local authorities and the “titushki”

A view of Donetsk

A view of Donetsk (Photo by Vladimir Yaitskiy, creative commons)

In some regions, the mere prospect of increasing protest did seem to change some of the political dynamics. In Odessa, the Kyiv Post reported, the local administration and opposition struck a truce of sorts, a “non-aggression, mutual supportiveness deal”. But elsewhere  in the South and East, any challenge to the grip of Yanukovych loyalists seems to have been beaten back. On February 1, the Kyiv Post reported that local authorities in Dnipropetrovsk had detained two opposition party members for allegedly “plotting a terrorist attack at a national energy system facility”. In the Crimea, the regional parliament banned the Freedom party, though it was forced to reverse its decision on February 7. As January ended, one reporter found no more protests in Donetsk, just a middle-aged local scoffing: “Euromaidan? To hell with that!”. Organizers of a protest picket had cancelled it out of fear of further violence. Two local activists of the nationalist Freedom party had left Donetsk on the 27th, explaining that “we feared that emergency rule would be imposed so that nobody can leave the region”.

The regional deputy head of UDAR said that party activists throughout Donbass have been receiving threatening text messages on their mobile phones, and dismissed local pro-Yanukovych protesters as titushki, “hired thugs” and “former inmates”. An in-depth portrait of the “titushki” phenomenon for Foreign Policy describes these roaming groups of violent youths as an actually well-organized, 20,000-strong national force, complete with internal hierarchies, materially supported by riot police, and motivated by daily government pay-offs, Soviet and military-inspired loyalties to the state, ties to powerful organized crime groups with a vested interest in corrupt ruling politicians, and plain old criminal tempers.

Anton Davydchenko, the leader of a group called National Unity in Odessa which claims to have rallied over 1,000 volunteers, all ready to take up arms against anti-government protesters if necessary, would presumably recognize some of these descriptions and take issue with others. “We will never give them our cheek to be slapped. If they come to us with weapons, we will meet them with weapons,” he told RFE/RL. Like local authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk did with similar groups (described as including “Cossacks and Afghanistan war veterans”), local authorities are supporting the group.

Night over Kharkiv

Night over Kharkiv (Photo by Aleksandr Osipov, creative commons)

In Kharkiv, a conference of provincial Party of the Regions officials called for establishing a new organization called the “Ukrainian Front” – after the Soviet Army campaign that drove Nazi Germany out of Ukraine in WWII – at the suggestion of an Afghanistan veterans group. “‘The Front will purge and cleanse the Ukrainian land from anyone who has come here as an occupier,” orated the governor of Kharkiv: its participants “will follow their fathers’ and grandfathers’ example in freeing our lands, like in the 1940s”. (If that sounds alarming, it doesn’t help that many protesters in Kyiv have actually embraced the imagery of Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukrainian State during WWII, and the  Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which committed war crimes and at times collaborated with Nazi Germany during its battle for independence.) Kharkiv’s eccentric mayor, Hennady Kernes, riffed on the same theme when approving of the local pro-Yankovych martial arts club Oplot, which has been accused of ties with the kidnapping and torture of Auto-Maidan leader Dmytro Bulatov: “I know these sportsmen,” he has said: “they are against allowing ‘Banderovtsy’ to come to Kharkiv and I support this”.

Protests in Ukraine - situation by region, February 4

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 4 February 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

All in all, the authorities in the South and East seem to have succeeded in beating back any challenge which local protesters posed to their position in late January. The last time Sergii Gorbachov posted an updated map was on February 4, and all the South and East had reverted back to Yanukovych-blue, with added icons indicating the appearance of pro-Yanukovych demonstrators, Party of Regions brigades and violent “titushki” as well as local protesters.

Change: up to moguls or mobs?

In the end, if the protest movement is to crack the South and East in a meaningful way, it may not be up to the protesters themselves. It will have to be up to elements in the political class itself — “and no one within that class is more powerful than Ukraine’s oligarchs, the billionaire business tycoons who together own a vastly disproportionate share of the country’s wealth,” as Sergii Leshchenko wrote in Foreign Policy. They won’t be motivated by political idealism, but by self-interest, needing the doors to the EU to stay open, stability to return to the country, and themselves not to be targeted by financial and visa sanctions to protect their wealth. Leshchenko recounts how a second oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk, switched to supporting the opposition in December – and he’s from Dnipropetrovsk.

The others, however, are still hedging their bets, at best – and it would have to be someone like Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and still powerful in his native Donetsk, to really overturn the dynamics. Lesser moguls will not do, as two of the richest businessmen in Dnipropetrovsk found out after January 25. That day, Hennadiy Korban and Borys Filatov decided to air live broadcasts of the antigovernment protests in Kyiv on a large outdoor screen at a shopping mall they owned, and hoist the flags of the EU and Ukraine at their local properties. Hours later, the New York Times recounted, the electricity was suddenly cut to all their three shopping malls. Four days later, a local judge ordered “that Mr. Korban be detained and interrogated as a witness in connection with a previously dormant investigation of a 2012 murder”. Then, state security officers raided the premises of the businessmen’s accountant for “bombs or other evidence of terrorism”. The two men have now relocated to Israel.

Enduring divisions

With the iron grip of local authorities from Yanukovych’s camp in the South and East seemingly barely letting up, for now, and indications that a majority of the population there is still on the opposite side from Euromaidan’s activists (who themselves are hardly unified), the question arises how much future there is for a unitary state so bitterly divided. The dividing lines today are, after all, not very different from the borders of previous eras – could they become real borders of one kind of another again? The Ukrainian Communist Party has floated a trial balloon: Ukraine as federal state. Dividing Ukraine up into seven large states, each with its own parliament, would pull the country back from the brink of civil war and prevent the country from falling apart, the communists argue. But the opposition, not altogether without reason, is likely to see this as a mere Russian strategy to break up the state and seize the South and East.

Despite the initial enthusiasm about unprecedented demonstrations in the East illustrated by the Monkey Cage blog post, it seems in fact unlikely that “Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, [..] ethnic Russians and Ukrainians” will really unite against the political forces represented by Yanukovych any time soon. On February 4, a week after the small protests in the South and East crested, an AP report concluded that “two months into Ukraine’s anti-government protests, the two sides are only moving further apart. [The protesters] appear unable to significantly broaden their movement into parts of the country where the opposition is weak, as some of the protesters use nationalist rhetoric that alienates even liberal eastern Ukrainians.” As David Stern wrote in The Atlantic, even if Yanukovych does steps down, peacefully, and the opposition assumes power, “it too would not resolve Ukraine’s crisis. Political divisions, both within the country and the protest camp itself, will remain, and possibly become more pronounced” over time.

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Knowing What I Don’t Know

Culture, Media / journalism, Politics, Uncategorized

Something interesting happened over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign. I have always been interested in current events and politics, and have always read the New York Times daily and The New Yorker weekly. I’ve usually supplemented those sources from here and there, CNN maybe, or my local newspaper. But I’ve felt reasonably well-informed based on those two publications.

During the campaign, for both professional reasons and simply because I was personally very interested, I branched way out from there. In the earliest days, (circa late 2005/ early 2006), I’d simply search for “Obama” in Google News and see what there was to see. As I did so, certain sites kept coming up — Lynn Sweet’s blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Chicago Tribune’s blog, Talking Points Memo, First Read, and more. As things heated up and a general search for “Obama” would yield way too many hits on Google News to be useful, I started to cycle through those sites in addition to the Big Two (NYT and The New Yorker).

No single news source turned out to be the one that had all the answers. But cumulatively, all of this reading gave me a lot of accurate information. Various ideas I formed based on that information were borne out — I was able to correctly predict many elements of the campaign, from whether Obama was indeed a viable candidate (in the very earliest days) to whether he would be able to get the Latino vote in a general election, to how Obama would fare against McCain in a head-to-head debate (back when such an outcome seemed unlikely), to what effect Sarah Palin would have on McCain’s campaign (the fact that my predictions tended to be pretty good was part of why I was interested in starting this blog; unfortunately, by that time, only the tail end of my Sarah Palin predictions made it here).

By the time of the election, I was ready to take a break from the information overload. (Me and everyone else who had followed this incredibly dramatic and incredibly information-rich campaign.) I figured my interest would return at some point after I had given myself a bit of a break.

My interest did return, but I faced something I didn’t expect. Because I was so extensive in my research and reading during the campaign, I now know that my usual sources offer some but not all of the story — or worse, offer what is purported to be the full story but is actually fatally skewed. I was repeatedly very annoyed with sloppy reporting from the New York Times during the campaign — that means that while I have always read news items with a jaded eye, my eye is much more jaded yet, to the point that I don’t feel I “know” anything that I’ve read in the NYT — it’s merely a starting point. The New Yorker is much, much better from my perspective — my bullshit sensors are tripped by their reporting far less. But they tend to choose relatively narrow subjects that they then plumb in-depth. I feel like I “know” what’s going on with something that they plumb, but at the expense of breadth. There are plenty of things I’m curious about that they don’t plumb.

So I’m faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that unless I do my extensive trawling again, I don’t really know what’s going on. I have the broad outlines. I have a variety of opinions.

That’s not enough.

This leaves me a bit in limbo when it comes to writing something about politics. It feels lazy to just ask the questions. It feels daunting to go in search of all the answers, so that I “know” something to the same level that I did during the campaign.

It’s an interesting exercise, though, a good wake-up call re: journalism and fallibility thereof. This knowledge that while I may read a lot about current events, the truth takes so much work to find. While I think the idea that blogs will take over from newspapers is problematic (another post, perhaps), I do think this is a service that blogs provide — going deep, doing the research, and providing other information rather than leaving it all to the major newspapers. The New York Times is far from worthless, but the New York Times PLUS my long list of daily blog reads during the campaign provided far more, and more accurate, information to me than the New York Times alone.

So now I read my New York Times every day, and think… “really?”

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Fear the Vlad

Culture, European Politics, Politics

(Yes, I know everyone else already tried out Obamacon.me a month or two ago…)

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Redditors to the rescue

Culture, Economy, Media / journalism, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

A Redditor started a Wiki on the stimulus bill. The purpose: to translate its provisions into ordinary language so regular people can understand it, filtering out the legalese. And to sort out exactly how much money is assigned to what and whom.

The initiative got some 870 up votes (and lots of discussion) on Reddit, and it seems like a fair spread of people is now working on the Wiki. I thought it was interesting: both the idea and the resonance it had. Citizenship in action?

Of course, as with every Wiki, the risk of pranks and manipulation looms rather large. But at least, as one commenter notes, it seems like an interesting social experiment. And even just the act of creating it should acquaint a bunch of people with the specifics of the bill, maybe better than many of the Congressmen who had to vote on it hours after the final version was released.

It’s also distinct from a partisan initiative like readthestimulus.org (offline right now), which was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

No idea how useful or complete it will become. For one, while the site links to the post-conference version of the bill, it also notes that it is still largely based on the version that was passed by the House on 28 January. Whereas the bill was of course significantly modified since – first by the Senate, which made changes that according to Krugman would have created 600,000 jobs less than the original House bill, and then by the conference, which crafted a compromise between the two bills.

I’d also worry about reinventing the wheel. For example, as noted in the Reddit thread, the CBO already created a table, stretching for a few pages, that summarises the stimulus expenses, year by year, by section of the bill. (Table 2 in the enclosures of this letter from the CBO director to Nancy Pelosi.)

But still I thought it was great. At best it will make for a very neat tool, and at worst it will still, as initiative, be an encouraging sign of the times.

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I Got 95 Theses But A Pope Ain’t One

Culture, Funny, History

This was made last year, but I’d never come across it before, and it’s bloody brilliant.

It’s 1517, and Luther’s got some dope shit:

The lyrics are on the 95thesesrap.com website. The whole thing was directed by a senior history major at Yale, Alexander Dominitz, and produced by a junior at Yale, Kate Maltby. More info also in an item she posted on the Iqra’i blog.

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Annals of Fox News reporting, Rahmbo edition

Media / journalism, Politics, US Politics

Many of the Americans among you, I suspect, will have heard of the telling incident this week in which Fox News aired a news item on the stimulus bill which repeated, word for word, the points in a press release from the Senate Republicans. Without ever mentioning that the analysis they were presenting came straight from Republican officials, of course. “It was so blatant,” Steve Benen notes, “Fox News’ on-screen graphic included the identical typo made in the original GOP document, making it obvious that the network used a party press release as a news script”.

But bias isn’t usually as jaw-droppingly stupid or outrageous. Subtle still isn’t quite the right word, but try this on: Some Critics Blame Emanuel for Obama’s Cabinet Troubles. I clicked the headline because, well, I don’t like Emanuel, so I’m in principle well-disposed to believing the diagnosis, even if it does come from Fox. (The HuPo, for example – admittedly not the most reliable source either – last week had a disturbing take on the stimulus negotiations, which alleged that Rahm had undermined Congressional Democrats and Nancy Pelosi in order to curry favour from moderate Republicans and deflect criticism of Obama.)

Alas. The Fox headline referred “some critics”. The opening sentence read, “President Obama’s latest Cabinet setback [..] has put the White House on the defensive, particularly Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whom some critics blame for cracks in the vetting process.” So what inside sources had Fox News found dishing the dirt on Rahmbo? Who was blaming Emanuel, and what did they have to share about his role in these vetting mess-ups?

Um, well … “some critics” turns out to refer to exactly one person. And that person turns out to be “Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.” That’s it. The only person they got to blame Rahm was the spokesperson to a lowly Republican Congressman, who himself is a bit of a crackpot.

The whole story, in fact, quotes just two sources. One is, unsurprisingly, Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, the kind of Democrat Republicans love; but even he refused to play ball, saying that “it’s hard to defend or attack Emanuel without knowing how involved he’s been in the vetting process,” and that it “doesn’t strike me as fair or appropriate [..] to put it all on Rahm”. The other’s Bardella.

He gets no less than six paras, though.

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Can nationalism help us be like leaf cutter ants?

Culture, environment, Funny

There was an interesting juxtaposition of successive posts on The American Scene on Wednesday*. In one post, Alan Jacobs links to a fascinating story on Wired, which lays out how leaf cutter ants avoid the very problems that plague urbanised human society with traffic congestion by instinct. Basically, they never get stuck in traffic, because they behave, well, rationally:

Of the returning ants, some were empty-mandibled — but rather than passing their leaf-carrying, slow-moving brethren, they gathered in clusters and moved behind them. This seemingly counterintuitive strategy — when stuck behind a slow-moving truck, are you content to slow down? — actually saved them time…

The trick here, of course, is that ants do not experience egoism:

“One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism,” said University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider. “Drivers optimize their own travel time, without taking much care about others. This leads to phantom traffic jams which occur without any obvious reason. Ants, on the other hand, are not egoistic.”

The question, therefore, as Jacobs points out, is whether there is “any .. way to prompt people to learn these lessons? Or is unthinking, reflexive egotism invincible? It seems to me that the prime problem here is that the leafcutter approach only works if pretty much everyone applies it. I’m not sure that partial compliance would have much effect.”

Right. Enter the post directly below on the Scene, by James Poulos. He quotes the report you may have seen a while ago about the behaviour of the Titanic’s passengers:

[..] British passengers, who queued for a place in one of only 20 lifeboats provided for the 2,223 on board, had 10 percent lower chance of survival than any other nationality.

In contrast, Americans, who reportedly elbowed their way to the front of lines, had a 12 percent higher probability of survival than British subjects.

“Be British, boys, be British!” the captain, Edward John Smith, shouted out, according to witnesses.

“Being British” meant to forget mass panic behavior — everyone looking after themselves — and rather follow the social norm of “women and children first.”

Well, there you go then. The Brits suffered from their own selflessness because they were not among themselves, and their efforts to put community ahead of ego were crushed by those darned selfish Americans. But in a more or less mono-cultural (or -national) setting, then, the Brits were apparently able to apply a leaf cutter ant ethos to their community interaction – by invoking nationalism. Problem solved!

*I really need to start noting stuff straight away instead of keeping it in open tabs for days…
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The shooting party

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Politics

The Tagesspiegel reports that Hell’s Angels and militant neo-Nazis are fighting out a bloody feud in the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

It all apparently started in 2007, when a Nazi stabbed a Hell’s Angel in a fight over debts, and the Hell’s Angel barely survived. The trial about that case was supposed to take place last August, but had to be suspended when dozens of neo-Nazis and Hell’s Angels battled it out in front of the court house. During that fight, Peter Borchert stabbed a leading Hell’s Angel. Borchert is the former chair of the National Democratic Party, which received 2% of the vote in the last elections in the state. He’s already done a stint in jail for illegal arms trade.

Now two unknown, masked men have shot the brother of the Nazi who started it all back in 2007 – and who was supposed to testify in the court case. He was shot on the parking place of a swimming pool.

The Tagesspiegel dryly notes that the Angels are “involved in activities related to tattoo studios, gastronomy, bouncer services, fight sports and online mail ordering” as well as connections with the prostitution sector and, it is suspected, illegal anabolics trade … “to some extent there are overlaps in the above-mentioned commercial sectors with members of the extreme right.”

Right.

So … how wrong is it if, as a normally passionate proponent of the rule of law, you’re not all too bothered when neo-Nazis and Hells Angels start taking each other out?

Bernd the Bread, with friends

Bernd the Bread, with friends

In other news from Germany today, a two-metre high statue of Bernd the Bread, a local children’s show character, was found back in abandoned barracks after protesting squatters kidnapped it from the town square of Erfurt two weeks ago.

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Annals of Scientific “I Thought So!”s: Recess

education, Uncategorized, US culture

Some people get annoyed when a scientific study goes and proves something that seems obvious. I love it. I find it very satisfying somehow — I don’t have the capability to go and do original research on all of this stuff, so it’s fun when someone else does the hard work and I get to say “I thought so!”

Here‘s the latest:

Children who misbehave at school are often punished by being kept inside at recess. But new research shows that recess helps solve behavioral problems in class.

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reviewed data on about 11,000 third graders, collected in 2002 as part of a large study, financed by the Education Department, to determine how an array of family, school, community and individual factors affected performance in school.

The study, published last week in the journal Pediatrics, found that about one in three of the children received fewer than 15 minutes of daily recess or none at all. Compared with children who received regular recess, the children cooped up during the day were more likely to be black, to come from low-income and less educated families and to live in large cities.

Children who had at least 15 minutes of recess scored better than the others on teachers’ behavioral ratings. Dr. Romina M. Barros, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Albert Einstein, said the data were important because many new schools were being built without adequate outdoor space for students.

“We need to understand that kids need a break,” Dr. Barros said. “Our brains can concentrate and pay attention for 45 to 60 minutes, and in kids it’s even less. For them to be able to acquire all the academic skills we want them to learn, they need a break to go out and release the energy and play and be social.”

This has been kind of a bugbear for me. When my daughter was in kindergarten, there was no recess at ALL. They were supposed to have recess but they didn’t because it was half-day kindergarten and they had so much to fit into their brief day. (The fact that kindergarten has become the new first grade is another bugbear but I’ll save that for another time.) They just didn’t have as much time to socialize as I thought they needed, and even though they were there for only a few hours, it was a pretty intense time.

Since she’s started all-day grade school, though, I have noticed a definite correlation between behavior and recess. They normally have two recesses of about half an hour each, but they don’t if the outside temperature goes below 20 degrees. We’ve had a lot of that, which means a lot of “indoor recess,” and a lot more behavior problems. While taking a break and socialization are big parts of why recess is important, just plain running around and burning off energy is another huge part of it.

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I was wondering how this would play out…

US culture, US Politics
I took this photo of Obama volunteers in Columbus last fall (I dont know their names).

I took this photo of Obama volunteers in Columbus last fall (I don't know their names).

During the presidential campaign, I kept having the same conversation with fellow Obama campaign volunteers — that win or lose, we were going to keep doing stuff once the election was over. These volunteers all seemed to feel like they wanted to make the world a better place, and while that was part of why they liked Obama, they planned on doing that no matter what — and they were happy to meet others who felt the same way and to forge alliances and make contacts.

I’ve already seen a few large-scale manifestations of this, starting with the Obama-run “Day of Service” on January 19th, and going through various MoveOn and TrueMajority appeals I’ve seen that use the email lists they amassed when they were working on behalf of the Obama campaign.

But I’m now seeing the first truly grass-roots manifestation. There have been a spate of robberies in our area and one of the people I worked with on the campaign decided to do something about it. She’s forming a standard Neighborhood Watch program, but then also is organizing a series of informational events by the police department, covering ways that you can increase your security. (A neighbor had been robbed and then was given pointers on how he could help prevent it in the future, and she thought those pointers were worth sharing with the community.)

She fired up the old Obama volunteer email list (local version) and we’re all pitching in same as before. Someone’s designing fliers to advertise the meeting, someone else is covering printing costs. We’ll each be taking a street or two to do literature drops, and we know the drill (can’t put them in mailboxes, etc.)

It’s fun to be talking to people I know through volunteering but not in everyday life again, and the project is working out fantastically well so far.

I can easily see this becoming a regular thing. The infrastructure already there can be put to quick and painless use for any number of purposes. I may even think up a cause to take up next time. (Hmmm….)

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Will the grapes of the House GOP’s wrath turn out to be sweet for the Democrats?

Culture, Politics, US culture, US Economy, US Politics

I already noted that the significant dilution of the stimulus bill, when it was only going to be rejected unanimously by the House GOP anyway, drove some people up the wall. “Now that [Obama has] offered concrete concessions to the GOP only to have them publicly throw them back in his face, there simply isn’t any super-secret strategy that can [..] make it all make sense,” wrote Stephen Suh angrily at Cogitamus. Why bother even striving for compromise?

This question will get more acute by the day, as a recent post by Kevin Drum illustrates. He reports on the Obama administration’s push to extend the February 17 deadline for TV stations to switch from analog to digital transmissions. Not exactly a hotly partisan issue, right? The Senate promptly arrived at a bipartisan bill – which it passed unanimously. Every Republican agreed. But then the bill went to the House.

Only 22 House Republicans voted in favour. 155 voted against it. Drum: “100% of Senate Republicans voted in favor but 90% of House Republicans voted against. Shazam! Apparently the House GOP caucus really has decided to blindly stonewall everything Obama wants, no matter what.” He posits: “This is even more of a wakeup call than the vote on the stimulus bill.”

Right. The House GOP leadership is startlingly open about its intentions too, observes Dan at Bleakonomy. It will block and obstruct whatever comes its way, so Republicans can freely blame the Democrats for everything when the economy hasn’t recovered yet in six months. Yes, six months – if things haven’t improved in six months, the Republicans intend to say that it’s all the Dems’ fault and that the stimulus “didn’t work” because they “didn’t have the input in this”.

Of course, the current crisis is turning out to be the worst in almost three decades and is guaranteed to have an impact lasting (much) longer than six months, so … GOP profit!

Yet still there are valid reasons not to come down on Stephen’s side of the argument … yet. (I mean, apart from the stimulus bill not actually being all that bad.) The obvious one is the enormous contrast between House and Senate Republicans on the TV bill. If the Senate GOP shows any remotely similar divergence from the House Republicans’ obstruction course on the stimulus as well, Obama’s strategy may still come to “make sense”.

Then there’s the question of strategy. I already linked to Josh Marshall’s argument that offering the Republicans significant compromises, only for them to reject everything anyway, will help to brand them as the party of ‘no’. Which will marginalise them even further in 2010 so the Dems can go the long haul. Kevin Drum links to more evidence on that count too: a poll conducted by Democracy Corps on January 14-19.

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