Saturday, there were massive protests throughout Portugal against Scrooge policies by the government, which have so destroyed the country’s economy that 2% of the population has fled abroad for jobs in the past 2 years alone. On Friday, Greek workers staged a huge general strike. In Italy, anti-austerity feeling made grumpy comedian Beppe Grillo and his party the swing vote in the new parliament. Grillo may single-handedly destroy the Euro zone. European newspapers rather amusingly demanded that Grillo now ‘take responsibility’ and ‘tell us what he wants.’ He is a contrarian comedian. It would be like having Robin Williams or Tracy Morgan as the swing vote in Congress, with the press hounding them for their agricultural policy and asking them about the dangers of deflation. But Grillo’s ascendancy, while less alarming than the resurgence of the Greek far Right, is a manifestation of the rejection by the Italian public of the long dreary road prescribed by the ‘troika,’ (The International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Central Bank), of further government cut-backs, reductions in minimum wage, high unemployment, no hope.
Reducing the state budget at a time of economic contraction is the opposite of what the great economist John Maynard Keynes prescribed. When the economy is in the doldrums, the businesses are skittish about investing their money, and so keep it in the bank. The only force, Keynes argued, that can and will risk putting a lot of money into the economy during a deep recession is the government. Of course, the government has less money at that point, too, since tax receipts are reduced. So it will simply have to spend money it doesn’t technically have, i.e. go into deficit and print extra paper money. The extra paper will, obviously, lose some of its value. But that loss can have benefits, too, since it will make the goods produced by the country less expensive abroad, and spur exports.
This argument is straightforward for most countries, and it is mysterious why European and some Middle Eastern governments reject it. It is complicated in the US by the position of the dollar as a reserve currency and by the fall of manufacturing to only 20% of the US economy. The former means that large budget deficits don’t necessarily reduce the dollar’s value significantly, because the US only holds about a third of the world’s dollars and there is a lot of confidence in its value. The latter means that even when the dollar falls against the yen or euro, the jump in exports is limited to a fifth of the economy and domestic services don’t get much of a boost. But actually these peculiarities of the US economy are not arguments for austerity; on the contrary, the reserve dollar allows the US to do stimulus without as much pain as one would otherwise expect.
Instead, the Tea Party has forced the US into an artificial crisis with the ‘sequester,’ taking $100 bn. a year out of the economy for the next ten years, which will cut half a point of economic growth and harm workers, keeping unemployment high– not to mention the harm it likely will do to medical research, higher education, etc. That this austerity is being pursued by the GOP in part in hopes of disillusioning voters with President Obama in his second term is fairly obvious, but it is also in order to protect the 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, 80% of which have been retained. Sequester, as usual with these things in the US, is actually a tax on the middle classes to benefit the wealthy, since it preserves undeserved tax cuts for the latter by reducing government services for the former.
That austerity does not work economically should be clear. But that it creates populist discontents that are shaking southern Europe and could derail Middle East democratization is even more alarming. The world needs stimulus, not Scrooge government if it is to pull out of the crisis kicked off by corrupt bankers in 2008.
The Minister of Education, however, appears to agree that the filming of the dance at the school was inappropriate, and is making noises about expelling the students involved. In turn, that threat has provoked calls for a public demonstration against the government in downtown Tunis that will involve mass performance of the Harlem Shake.
A section of the Tunisian Salafis have adopted essentially al-Qaeda tactics. Since they are small and fanatical and powerless, terrorizing people appeals to them as a form of social control. They attacked the US embassy and an international school in Tunis last September, and before that had made trouble at an art gallery in upscale La Marsa. The Tunisian government has blamed them for the assassination on February 6 of secular politician Chokri Belaid, which threw the country into political crisis and caused the fall of the Hamadi Jebali government. The cabinet is dominated by the Ennahda Party, a party of the religious Right, but which is substantially to the left of the Salafis. Some secular Tunisians have alleged to me that Ennahda uses the Salafis as shock troops, while others simply accuse the Ennahda government of not being interested in cracking down on any movement of the religious Right.
The Tunisian Revolution of 2011 was a mass movement that began in poor, small provincial towns influenced by the religious Right, but which eventually caught up many in the urban middle classes of a more secular bent. The revolution was coterminous with a set of youth movements. Once the revolution succeeded in overthrowing the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and high politics went into the hands of older former dissidents, the revolutionary youth– many of them leftists, secularists and connected to world youth culture– were often marginalized and their desire for greater personal liberty and political and cultural openness disregarded. The Ennahda Party played only a minor role in the revolution, but its minister of culture promptly, on taking power, uninvited Lebanese pop music icons Nancy Ajram and Elissa from the 2012 Carthage Festival, apparently on the grounds that their performances are not PG enough. Most Tunis youth greeted that decree with derision. (I can’t personally understand the religious Right’s targeting of Nancy Ajram, who seems to me pretty wholesome, and probably is looked upon as superficial by the devotees in Tunis of Trap music).
A conflict between religious-right puritanism and Tunisia’s secular youth culture is an on-going feature of the post-revolutionary process. While a crackdown on the Harlem Shake is not earthshaking in itself, it is significant if it is part of the same yearning for social control and imposed conservatism that animated the Salafis to attack an embassy and assassinate a secular politician. In essence, unless the Harlem Shake wins, Tunisia loses.
The resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in Tunisia has created a political crisis that the elected government will have to deal with. Jebali is a politician of the Muslim religious right, from the Ennahda Party, and had led an Ennahda-dominated cabinet in coalition with two smaller secular parties, Moncef Marzouki’s social democratic Congress for the Republic and another small partner.
The Jebali government was shaken by the assassination of secular opposition figure Chokry Belaid, a severe critic of the religious right. Many secular Tunisians openly accused Ennahda of the act (though without proof), withdrawing the public confidence necessary for Jebali to rule from that party. He therefore sought a shake-up of his cabinet, installing non-party technocrats to produce a government of national unity. The Ennahda Party parliamentarians, however, rejected that step. They have the largest bloc of members of parliament, around 40%, but are not a majority.
When Jebali found his proposal blocked, he stepped down Tuesday night. In essence, he treated his party’s rejection of his plan as a vote of no confidence. In parliamentary systems, prime ministers have to step down all the time when they lose a vote of no confidence. I see Jebali’s move as positive. He or someone else will have to try to form a government, being nominated by elected president Marzouki for the task.
Actually Jebali is not the first post-revolution prime minister to step down, and while the political crisis is regrettable (and especially the assassination that caused it), the political process is not. Tunisia was ruled by strongmen for most of its post-independence history, but now has leaders who need the support of parliament and of the people. As we see in Belgium or Italy, getting such support is not always straightforward. But that’s politics, and politics of a parliamentary sort are good, and much better than corrupt, oppressive, inflexible strong men.
On Friday, tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to protest the shocking assassination of leftist, secular politician Chokri Belaid earlier this week. He had been the leader of a small opposition party and had been an outspoken critic both of the ruling al-Nahda Party and of the neighborhood militias that sprung up during the revolution of 2011 and many of which have never been demobilized.
Friday was marked by a general strike called for by the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (French acronym UGTT), the first in 35 years. (During the January, 2011, revolution, the UGTT was relatively timid and only called for a 2-hour work stoppage at one point).
In response to this week’s crisis, al-Nahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed the formation of a government of national unity, in which he would appoint apolitical technocrats to major cabinet posts instead of prominent fundamentalist al-Nahda politicians. But the next day, his party’s central committee objected to this plan.
Belaid’s assassination was the most visible and prominent evidence of Tunisia’s class polarization. It is three-way, with workers and intellectuals of the left opposing the new government’s Neoliberal tendencies; with middle and upper classes tied to the old secular state and its institutions afraid of fundamentalism and privatization; and with the fundamentalists promoting private businessmen.
But the murder of Belaid also points to widespread security problems in the wake of the fall of the dictatorial regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali two years ago. The security problems derive from three quarters: simple criminal gangs, unruly neighborhood militias, and militant Salafi fundamentalists who act as Ku Klux Klan-style vigilantes against secularists. All three problems derive from the inability of the current government to reconstitute the security forces after the revolution. Tunisia’s some 80,000 secret police were largely disbanded, and the ordinary police are poorly paid and lacking in morale, feeling that people unfairly blame them for policing during the dictatorship. The military is small (35,000 men in a country of 10.5 million) and apolitical and has not played a significant role in civil security issues.
In turn, the incompetence of the ruling al-Nahda government in restoring security is in part structural. The government is full of people who were harassed by the police and unjustly jailed during the old regime, and restoring power to the police is probably not high on their agenda.
The other problem is the way the outcome of the October 23, 2011 parliamentary elections was handled. The Muslim, religious al-Nahda party only got about 37% of the seats. Secular, leftist and center-left parties made up the rest. Moncef Marzouki, leader of the Congress for the Republic party (center-left), went into coalition with al-Nahda and with the small Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties of Mustapha Ben Jaafar. Marzouki became president and Ben Jaafar became Speaker of the parliament. But the prime ministership went to Hamadi Jebali, and old-time fundamentalist, who formed a cabinet that largely was drawn from al-Nahda, the religious right. The three of them are called the ‘troika’ in Tunisia.
Marzouki is erratic and quirky, and ineffectual. Parliament doesn’t function all that well, and Ben Jaafar’s party only got 20 seats, so he isn’t powerful. Jebali and his fundamentalist cabinet have thrown their weight around even though they essentially head a minority government. Tunisian middle classes are often not just secular but militantly Voltaire-like, and they hate al-Nahda and its government.
The security problem posed by the hard line fundamentalist Salafis, who go around physically assaulting people and disrupting cultural events they don’t approve of, has generally been soft-pedaled by al-Nahda. Its leaders typically won’t condemn them outright, and talk about secular ‘provocations’ to the violence, thus blaming the victim.
The secularists go further. When I was in Tunisia last May, secularists repeatedly alleged to me that al-Nahda secretly runs the Salafis as enforcers for their own party, putting them up to their extreme actions. (In September, Salafis were bused by someone to an outer suburb of Tunis where the US embassy is located, and they attacked it).
In some ways, al-Nahda has itself to blame for the polarization and suspicion. It should have put more leftists in the cabinet (reflecting their weight in parliament), and it should have dealt more firmly with the Salafis and neighborhood militias.
Al-Nahda politicians have also sometimes deployed fiery rhetoric against secularists like Belaid.
Belaid was a critic of the neighborhood militias, of the Salafis and of al-Nahda. But his widow fingered al-Nahda as behind his murder, and this charge is widely believed in the tony neighborhoods of LaMarsa and other nothern suburbs.
If you really did believe that al-Nahda has dictatorial tendencies and has secret assassination cells, it would be alarming to have it be your government, hence the big demonstrations on Friday. But that conspiracy theory is only the expression of bigger class conflicts and anxieties. Tunisia is roiled not just by a religion/secular divide but by a Religious Right vs. Workers and peasants divide, with many middle class intellectuals siding with the latter. That is why the protests took place in hardscrabble rural towns as well as in downtown Tunis. Rural Tunisia is relatively religious, but it is also disproportionately unemployed, and al-Nahda has yet to do much for them. Indeed, where they have tried to strike and protest on labor issues, it has put them down (in a way it seems uninterested in putting down violent Salafis).
As usual, a lot of pundits are looking to use the instability in Tunisia to indict the Arab Spring. But the divisions and the structural problems in the country were largely produced by the old dictatorship, which could no longer deal with them by state coercion. Tunisia is wracked by that new phenomenon, of open political struggle. The country needs to rework it into peaceful civil politics if it is to go ahead, but the struggle itself is salutary. The old Tunisia of 80,000 secret police spying on citizens’ every word and the criminalization of political speech is gone, and good riddance. People who want that back for the sake of ‘stability’ are being unrealistic; it is what produced the instability, because it was untenable in the long run.
(Note that if you are viewing with an internet browser, you can enlarge the photo by pressing Control and the plus sign.)
In May, the upscale neighborhood of LaMarsa in the northeast of Tunis commemorated the hundredth anniversary of its founding. A street was blocked off, with contemporary Tunisian rock music playing and street artists chalking the street, and local artists displaying their works. Many exulted in Free Tunisia (La Tunisie libre or al-Tunis al-hurrah) I thought these three pieces made an interesting triptych!
Rick Santorum attacked President Obama on Saturday for his theology. Although people assumed that Santorum was, like other conservatives, hinting around that Obama is not a Christian but rather a secret Muslim, Santorum denied this allegation. And, likely he meant instead to lump Obama with the 45 million members of mainline Protestant churches in the US who he considers to be pagans. You see, for Santorum, Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians may as well be Muslims, since he does not believe that they are Christians.
What is remarkable is that it is Santorum who sounds like a Muslim fundamentalist. And ultimately maybe what he is saying is that Obama isn’t Muslim enough.
Santorum told his audience in Ohio that Obama’s policy is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phoney ideal, some phoney theology — not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”
Likely Santorum was condemning Obama for being a theological liberal. Despite the Obamas’ occasional attendance at African-American Baptist churches just before Martin Luther King Day, they also have gone to the Episcopalian church.
Rick Santorum does not think Episcopalians are Christians.
” We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it. [...]
Whether its sensuality of vanity of the famous in America, they are peacocks on display and they have taken their poor behavior and made it fashionable. The corruption of culture, the corruption of manners, the corruption of decency is now on display whether it’s the NBA or whether it’s a rock concert or whether it’s on a movie set.”
So the most likely explanation of Santorum’s outburst is that he believes the social Gospel and non-literal approaches to the Bible are un-Christian, and he has thrown President Obama out of Christianity along with 45 million other mainline Protestants. Santorum does not believe that the Bible suggests you care for the poor and needy.
In fact, Santorum by declaring the social Gospel to be un-Christian has not only excommunicated liberal Protestants from Christianity, he has excommunicated the majority of American Catholics, along with the US Council of Bishops and the last few popes, all of whom speak of an “option for the poor.”
So if Santorum doesn’t believe in this sort of thing is Christianity:
Mt. 25:31-46. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
what does Santorum think Christianity is about? He thinks it is about moral puritanism.
Thus, he condemns fornication and adultery, but also implicitly revealing clothing. And he is against condoms and birth control pills because in his view they encourage sleeping around (though he doesn’t approve of them for married people either; go figure).
Rick Santorum does not adhere to any recognizable Catholic theology of the social. Rather, he is a Puritan in the Calvinist tradition, staying awake at night afraid that someone somewhere might be committing fornication at the same time that he takes worldly success as a sign of divine favor.
Moreover, Santorum’s approach to religion and social policy is reminiscent of Muslim fundamentalist parties such as al-Nahda in Tunisia.
Just as Santorum has excommunicated Obama and the other mainline Protestants, so Muslim fundamentalists such as Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) in Egypt declared mainstream Muslims to have departed from the faith. In Islam this is called Takfir or declaring someone to be an unbeliever even if the person considers him or herself a believer. Sunni Muslim authorities, and even the Muslim Brotherhood, reject the practice of takfir. Thus, Santorum is more extreme in this regard than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
And, for instance, the new fundamentalist government in Tunisia is prosecuting three journalists for reprinting in that country a German GQ cover showing Tunisian-German soccer player Sami Khdeira with his mostly unclothed German model girlfriend (Lena Gercke), and him providing her with a hand bra. Santorum? He wants to ban pornography. I presume that if it is banned, then publishing it will be prosecuted.
And, the minister of culture in Tunisia is refusing to allow Lebanese singers Nancy Ajram or Elise, or Egyptian performers Tamer Hosny and Shirin Abdelwahab, to appear at the Carthage music festival. He is excluding them because at one time or another they have made a music video he considers to be immoral, i.e. sexually provocative.
So Mahdi Mabrook of the al-Nahda Party agrees with Santorum about the decline of morals in mainstream society, “whether it’s the NBA or whether it’s a rock concert or whether it’s on a movie set.”
In fact, President Santorum might like to bring Minister Mabrook over to head our National Endowment for the Humanities, since the two of them see eye to eye so much about culture.
Many big capitalist bosses in the US have had striking workers killed over the decades, but they don’t mostly appeal to the teachings of Jesus to justify it. Don’t tell the Republicans about that Tunisian parliamentarian’s weird interpretation of the Qur’an, or the GOP will all convert immediately to Islam, and that religion already is struggling to deal with its own fringe of nut jobs.