Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Rant about Water

Not long ago I read in Newsweek a short review of Brahma Chellaney’s Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis,* in which it was stated that “by the 2020’s two thirds of the world’s population will face problems getting enough of the stuff” – the “stuff” being water. 

I felt like I was taken back a few decades, to my childhood and youth, where we were told that people in Africa don’t have enough water and are dying of thirst.  This was the prelude to telling us kids to stop wasting water.  Small changes might have occurred, you know, turning off the tap while brushing our teeth or shampooing our hair, but nothing major.  Some years later the toilets with two different flush sizes came on the markets, but that was about the end of that.  I haven’t heard anyone talk about water shortages in years, and it is certainly not something I or those around me take into account in our lives, no matter how socially and ecologically conscientious we try to be in our daily choices.  I can personally say, for example, that I have learnt to LOVE a long hot shower on a cold evening...

And yet, in a few years’ time TWO THIRDS of the world’s population will face problems getting enough water.  That should be a huge problem and a scandal on a global scale.

What is it that turns an imminent humanitarian crisis into news and a global scandal?  Do we just have too many of them, so we have to select which ones to attend to?  What else is happening out there, as potentially disastrous and large in scale as the developing water scandal, that I know nothing about, because for some reason it has not made it into mainstream media – or if it has, then only into a tiny article in Newsweek that I might as well have missed?

*Christopher Dickey, “Big Think: Water Wars”, Newsweek, 22 April 2013

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Rant about German Crooks

Having had a go at Great Britain a few weeks ago, it is time to turn to Germany.

The starting point of this rant is Switzerland, though.  Switzerland has been an interesting place to be now when the world’s attention has been turning towards tax evasion, and Swiss media has been fascinating to follow.  For example, when the Cahuzac affair became public knowledge, Swiss media emphasised the fact that the authorities here had immediately responded when requested to do so by their French counterparts, revealing the information that forced the story, and Mr Cahuzac’s political career, to unravel.  Similarly, when “Offshore leaks” hit the news, the Swiss press was ever so slightly gleeful in its “see?  It’s not just us!” attitude.  To some extent my beloved neighbours have in fact been since vindicated, with the EU starting to look into cleaning up its own back yard (also known as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Luxembourg, Netherlands Antilles, Cyprus etc) in addition to putting pressure on others.

And here is where Germany enters the picture.  One of the main aspects of this chase of tax evaders has been the see-saw between Switzerland and Germany, where Germany has tried to force its smaller neighbour to enter into a bilateral treaty that would give the German tax authorities the right to automatically get information about deposits by German tax payers in Swiss banks.  When the diplomatic arm-twisting has failed (in the last round it was actually the German parliament that rejected the agreed text as not tough enough), the tax authorities have taken the dubious short cut of buying stolen data containing just such information instead.  This has now happened several times.

In all this one thing appears to be forgotten: it is NOT criminal in this country, or any other, to put money in a bank account.  The Swiss banks have in fact done nothing wrong.  By contrast, it is not only criminal, but morally reprehensible, to evade taxes.  Tax evasion, like corruption, is stealing from the poorest members of society.

So why are so many Germans so keen to defraud the tax authorities?  Hey Germans, the Swiss pay their taxes without any grumbles!  Time magazine says it’s because they have their direct democracy, but I think the reason is simpler: taxes here are low and we get good services for them.  Why would you not pay?  It’s value for money!  The Finns also do not really evade taxes.  Partially I think because there are not that many rich people in Finland, partially because the total transparency of the system (everyone’s tax records are publicly available) discourages hiding and makes getting caught more likely and partially because it is publicly totally condemned.

Shame on you Germany, the promised land of tax evasion.  Stop bullying Switzerland and focus on figuring out the reasons why your citizens are so eager to engage in stealing from the poorest members of society.  As far as I understand, tax evasion gets very light penalties* and must be pretty acceptable behaviour, since so many people do it.  Maybe that could be a place to start ...

*My understanding was that if you confess tax evasion in Germany you escape criminal sanctions altogether, and only have to pay the back taxes, but F assures me this is not the case.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Rant about Lady Gaga

Caitlin Moran in How to be a Woman terms Lady Gaga as “the woman being touted as the next big feminist icon in the broadsheets.”  Moran then describes how she interviewed Her Gaganess, how well they got along and how that led to a wild night of partying in some bizarre kinky club.  Her gushing conclusions on the pop phenomenon smack of starry-eyed fandom from where I am standing, but they also intrigue me, as I had not taken Lady Gaga for a feminist icon. 

Moran goes on to say things like “Gaga is an international female pop star on the side of all the nerds, freaks, outcasts, intellectual pretenders and lonely kids”, and “Gaga’s take on sexual mores is to examine female dysfunction, alienation and sexual neuroses.”  Then comes the drunken conversation in the said club, where Gaga replies to Moran’s thesis about her wearing little clothing but not to titillate men that “’No! ... It’s not what straight men masturbate over when they’re at home watching pornography.  It’s not for them.  It’s for ... us.’  And she gestures around the nightclub, filled to the brim with biker-boy lesbians and drag queens.”

Since then, Lady Gaga was photographed slightly plumpier than usual and got some nasty comments in the media, prompting her to start a campaign called Body Revolution – aimed at getting people to accept themselves as they are.  The goal is obviously laudable, and definitely feminist, but what continues to rub me the wrong way is the fact that she is still a slightly underweight, very attractive woman.  Not that hard to accept yourself in such circumstances, I would have thought.

As for her art, I’m not a huge connoisseur, but it had never occurred to me to describe it as feminist.  I’ve obviously heard my fair share of her songs and seen the videos, but the feminist-sexuality-as-dysfunction-go-nerds message somehow passed me by.  And it still does.  I did some research (read: googled the lyrics to her songs and watched videos on YouTube), and here are some examples: 

Poker face that started it all:  Unless playing hard to get is “feminist”, this one, with its writhing around a pool scantily clad* doesn’t really cut it.

Bad Romance, my favourite among her songs:  The message is just about kinky love with visual theatrics.  “Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick” seems a pretty clear allusion to anal sex, which I would not have thought to be among top feminist agenda items.

Born this way, with the promising title: On the one hand the lyrics are what it says on the tin, which is a nice message of loving yourself the way you are.  The video, on the other hand, contains some weird stuff, but basically when the chorus comes on, it is Gaga in underwear and long, lushy blond hair looking mighty sexy.  So what are we to take away from this?  It’s ok, Lady Gaga, you were born really sexy?

So I remain to be convinced.  And what bothered me from the start was that if Gaga was indeed being a feminist torchbearer, she was taking a leaf from the book of my own favourite pop star P!nk.  P!nk really IS a feminist icon.  I won’t bore you with my “fanalysis” of her songs, but in case you need convincing, check out some of her excellent work, such as U + Ur Hand (“I’m not here for your entertainment, you don’t really wanna mess with me tonight”), Stupid Girls (“What happened to the dream of the girl president?  She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent”), or Raise Your Glass (“So if you're too school for cool, and you're treated like a fool, you could choose to let it go, ... we can always party on our own”). 

Lady Gaga, take note.  This is how it’s done.  Make it less about you and more about your message and then we’ll see.

What’s your take on Lady Gaga – or another pop culture phenomenon that has gotten you thinking lately?

*The videos don’t work from Germany – sorry!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Rant about How to Solve the Mother of All Basket Cases

Wherever there is a conflict or corruption or the like, there might not always be immediately available solutions, but there are inevitably immediately available culprits.  There is always someone to blame.  Preferably that someone has money, so that they can be guilted into parting with it in order to right the wrong they’ve done.  In rural Kenya, for example, where corruption, small scale scamming and thievery were all rampant, many people seemed to have internalised the message that this was all the fault of the English, having been the colonial masters and royally screwed the country.  (That last part is true, of course – it’s just the causal link to the current woes that I sometimes failed to see.)  A few individuals seemed to take it one step further, and imply not too subtly that I was in fact at fault.  That seemed to have something to do with the colour of my skin, I presume.  Or maybe something had led them to understand that Finland and England were the same thing, I’m not sure.

Sometimes you do not have to go that far into the past to find the culprit.  In the case of Iraq it is the United States in more ways than one.  In the case of Russia it is not Putin-the-dictator-in-the-making, but evil capitalism.  Or so they say.

However, there is one current international basket case that doesn’t fit this pattern: it is the mother of all basket cases, the Israel-Palestine conflict.  We may be more inclined to sympathise with the Israeli or the Palestine point of view, but we’re likely to give little thought to how on earth the whole mess came about.  So let me remind everyone whose fault it is: Great Britain’s.

Not only did you not immediately think of that, but there is a chance you didn’t even know that.  It’s true, though.  Take it from the International Court of Justice:

“Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire.  At the end of the First World War, a class ‘A’ Mandate for Palestine was entrusted to Great Britain by the League of Nations ...  The territorial boundaries of the Mandate for Palestine were laid down by various instruments, in particular on the eastern border by a British memorandum ...  In 1947 the United Kingdom announced its intention to complete evacuation of the mandated territory by 1 August 1948 ... In the meantime, the General Assembly had on 29 November 1947 adopted resolution 181(II) on the future government of Palestine, which ‘Recommends to the United Kingdom ... and to all other Members of the United Nations the adoption and implementation ... of the Plan of Partition’ of the territory, as set forth in the resolution, between two independent States, one Arab, the other Jewish, as well as the creation of a special international regime for the City of Jerusalem.”*

There you have it.  The Arabs didn’t like the plan, the Jews used it as a basis to declare independence and it went downhill from there.  But it was all started by the United Kingdom (supported by the UN), who ruled the territory for a few decades and then got the great idea to settle the terrorised, holocaust-survived Jews on the promised land, as if it was some abandoned territory, as opposed to an area populated by Arabs.  Ingenious.  Who could have possibly guessed that that might lead to trouble?

So while I don’t have any answers to how to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I don’t need to, since England and Finland are in fact two different countries and I hail from the latter.  What I would like to know is what is England (and the UN) doing about it?  I expect all Brits reading this to populate the comments section with ideas ...

*Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Advisory Opinion), 9 July 2004, ICJ Reports 2004, paras 70-71.