World

Thursday Miscellany

Let's start with the Eeyore. Yesterday I wrote that women don't count —at least, not to the news media. Right after I posted that, I learned that Katha Pollitt wrote about the same recurring problem last year, brilliantly, of course. One of her key points: if you want more women writers, you need more women editors. Do read her piece. It's depressingly relevant and, of course, funny: I've written so often about the dearth of women in high-end magazines, including my own home base, The Nation , over so many years, and to so little effect, that sometimes I see myself, sitting at the kitchen table in some year like 2050, enjoying a nice bowl of reconfigurated vitamin-infused plastic bags, and over my phlogistatron will come the headline "Study Shows Men Write 85 Percent of Articles in Interplanetary Media. Martian Weekly Editor in Chief: Where Are the Women?" Who's winning the economy—men or women? Bryce Covert wrote an important piece for The Nation about the myth of "the mancession"...

A German History Lesson

Yesterday, the German Parliament relented and agreed to let the Greek debt restructuring go forward, but only the price of crushing austerity for the Greek economy. This is a widespread attitude in Germany, where aid to the Greeks is unpopular. The other day, Jörg Krämer, chief economist for Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said of the Greeks, “If you live beyond your means, then you can repair your balance sheet only if your consumption goes down.” But the Germans might take a moment and reflect on their own history. In the aftermath of World War II, the Allies, remembering the disastrous consequences of German reparations after the First World War, did not insist on their pound of flesh. The entire Nazi public debt, amounting to over 600 percent of German GDP, was written off. The pre-existing unpaid debt from the Weimar period was written down to a fraction of its original cost. Claims on old debt were strictly segregated from German reconstruction funds. The German Federal Republic...

All the Scary Ladies

An effort to silence women in the military is meant to empower the radically conservative clergy in Israel.

(AP Photos/Oded Ballilty)
The Israeli military has to face a lot of threats. Iran. Hezbollah. Rockets from Gaza. Women soldiers singing. If that last item seems out of place, it's because you're reading this in America (where, it's true, presidential candidates can portray contraception as a danger to civilization) instead of reading it in Israel. Here in Israel, the threat posed by female vocalists to religious liberty has been a regular topic in debate of military policy in recent months. As framed by one side in the dispute, the question is whether Orthodox Jewish soldiers must attend army ceremonies at which they'll hear women sing, even if they believe that such a performance is an utterly unkosher act of public indecency. Framed by the other side, what's at stake are basic military values of discipline and unity. The army's insistence on men hearing women sing is such a serious attack on religious freedom, according to one prominent far-right rabbi, that "we're close to a situation in which we will have...

Are You Eating Fish Caught By Slaves?

(Flickr/sarahalaskaphotographs)
According to sociologist Kevin Bales, who founded and directs the new abolition group Free the Slaves , an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today—more than were ever enslaved at any single time in history. The United Nation's International Labour Organization estimates are a more modest 12.3 million —which is still a shocking number of people forced to labor against their will, unable to walk away, for no compensation. Much of the reporting on this phenomenon has been on women forced to work in the sex trades. But the U.S. State Department reports that many more people are enslaved in far more ordinary endeavors: mining coltrane, growing cotton, domestic servitude, and fishing in the south Pacific. Ben Skinner , whom I'm honored to call my colleague at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the foremost reporter on the particulars of this horror. His book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Slavery , offered an in-depth look at both...

Don't Sterilize Trans Folks

(Flickr/PhotoComiX)
We've talked at length, here, about the fact that for some minority of folks, sex and gender don't line up. Some girls have a boyish swagger and a killer pitching arm. Some boys adore nail polish and glittery princesses. Sometimes—not always—those butch girls and pink boys grow up to be lesbians or gay men. Sometimes—less often, although no one knows the real rate—they insist that the only way they can be comfortable and happy is to change their sex entirely. No one knows why, any more than we know why some people are math whizzes and others can't do arithmetic, but the phenomenon has long been noted in a wide variety of cultures, from the Hawaiian mahu to South Asia's hijra . (Check out PBS's map of transgender identities. I don't know their sources, but I do recognize a number of references I've found previously in the anthropological literature.) So I was shocked when Joseph Huff-Hannon of AllOut told me that 29 European countries—including some Scandinavian countries we generally...

Greece's Pieces

The country's eurozone partners finally come to an agreement on a new loan, but it comes at a high cost.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
After nearly four months of negotiations, near misses, bouts of despair, and growing acrimony, the eurozone finally gave its blessing to Greece’s second bailout. It is a huge 130 billion euro package, accompanied by a debt writedown and strict austerity requirements. In a 13-hour-long meeting yesterday, under intense pressure from Germany and the Netherlands, Greece’s private bondholders were forced to take a larger haircut than originally planned—53.5 percent rather than 50 percent. This, according to the International Monetary Fund, will bring Greece’s debt down to 120.5 percent of GDP by 2020. A confidential debt analysis distributed to officials last week found that with a 50 percent haircut, Greek debt would only fall to 129 per cent by 2020, and the package would cost official creditors 136 billion euros—hence the further arm-twisting of banks to take deeper losses. A great deal remains to be done before March 20, the deadline for a 14.5 billion euro Greek bond. National...

Iran Is Not Cuba

In the face-off with the country, the best lesson from the past is that diplomatic compromise doesn't require appeasement.

(AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
Scrolling through news, especially news posted in America, I could think that it's time for me to stock up on canned food and check that my family's Israeli government-issue gas masks are working. The news suggests that Israel's air force is sure to attack Iran's nuclear facilities this year, perhaps this spring, possibly sparking a rain of retaliatory missiles from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria, despite or because of its current turmoil, might join in. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned earlier this month that Iran would soon reach an "immunity zone" in which its nuclear program would be impregnable—implying that Israel must strike first. The news site Ha'aretz's military commentator Amir Oren has bitterly expressed concern that the always-cocky ex-general Barak and his "assistant for prime ministerial affairs, Benjamin Netanyahu," might give the orders on their own, even though the law requires approval of the full cabinet to go to war. The Washington Post 's David...

Olympic Deja Vu?

(Flickr/Dougtone)
Mitt Romney has me counting the days until the Olympics (164 as of Tuesday.) Since he's not always eager to talk about his largely-moderate record as Massachusetts governor, we've gotten to hear a lot about Mitt's role planning the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. There was that lingering animosity between Romney and Rick Perry , supposedly because Romney didn't give the Boy Scouts enough of a role. Of course, most of it's been about the boring stuff, like how he turned around a potentially disastrous event and made it profitable. But, when he starts talking about it, I mainly just imagine people competing in sports I've usually forgotten exist. ( I'm looking at you, luge. ) Romney's got me not only hyped up for the summer games but nostalgic for winter—particularly 2002 Salt Lake City. So imagine my joy when I learned today that Salt Lake City has started an exploratory committee to consider hosting the games for a second time! Now, just to be clear, it's hardly a sure thing...

Why Is Greece on Fire?

The Prospect gives you the lowdown on the country's fiscal nightmare.

As violence surged over the weekend in Athens in reaction to a parliamentary vote on a harsh new fiscal-austerity plan, it became readily apparent that Greeks bearing gifts, however suspect, would be a welcome reprieve from the ones hurling homemade petrol bombs at banks and businesses. There have been innumerable showings of popular rage in Greece over the past couple of years, but here’s why this most recent one is important: What’s at stake? If we’re going to be dramatic about it, the future of modern Greece and the integrity of the eurozone—at least that’s how European leaders have been framing it. While hyperbole might well be the mother tongue of politicians, they have a point this time. Monday marked the deadline set by Greece’s troika of would-be saviors—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission—to accept and initiate a loan process that would allow Greece to stay solvent, providing the nation with $170 billion in relief. Sounds...

Obituary for a Singer

She wasn't as famous as Whitney Houston. Her singing was the kind best appreciated quietly, inside the mind. The shy, Nobel-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska died on February 1, 2012, at the age of 88, having given the world a handful of absolutely perfect sentences in perfect order. Her work makes me think of poet W.H. Auden's famous line that the purpose of poetry is, "by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate." The news of poetry moves far more slowly than the news of celebrity singers, so I only learned of her death this past weekend. In her honor, then, here is one of her poems, the one I read aloud at least once a year: Could Have It could have happened. It had to happen. It happened earlier. Later. Nearer. Farther off. It happened, but not to you. You were saved because you were the first. You were saved because you were the last. Alone. With others. On the right. The left. Because it was raining. Because of the shade. Because the day was sunny. You were in luck --...

Greece Bets Once Again on Austerity

The country's parliament approves deep cuts to social services as rioters overrun central Athens.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
(AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis) Protesters pass by a burning cinema in Athens, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Riots engulfed central Athens and at least 10 buildings went up in flames in mass protests late Sunday as lawmakers prepared for a historic parliamentary vote on harsh austerity measures demanded to keep the country solvent and within the eurozone. ATHENS, GREECE —After a night of high drama, both inside and outside parliament, the Greek government passed the slew of new austerity measures demanded by its official lenders in return for a second bailout package worth 130 billion euros. The deal slashes the minimum wage by 22 percent, reduces pensions, and will result in public-worker rolls shrinking by 150,000 employees, among other measures. The final count for the controversial package, which was announced after 1 a.m. Monday morning, was 199 in favor and 74 against. Politicians accused each other of national betrayal, and tensions erupted into angry exchanges about a deeply divided...

Greece's Desperate Measures

A budget agreement reduces the minimum wage and cuts pensions.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
After days of intense negotiations during which its membership in the eurozone seemed to hang by a thread, Greece finally reached an agreement today on the measures that will accompany the new loan package from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund. The measures agreed on are draconian. They include a 22 percent cut in the monthly minimum wage, reducing earnings from 751 euros to 586 euros per month. For people under 25, it will be even lower, down to 511 euros, and any increase before 2016 is ruled out. In addition, further reductions to the minimum wage may take place in July. Meanwhile, all automatic wage increases that are included in collective-bargaining agreements will be frozen until unemployment falls below 10 percent (it is currently at 20.9 percent). Employers are also considerably strengthened in their bargaining position vis-à-vis the unions through changes in arbitration regulations and a contraction of the time period (from six to three months)...

What It Feels Like to Be Poor

Katherine Boo chronicles the intimate realities of poverty in an Indian slum.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo, Random House, 256 pages, $27.00 I n 2004, shortly after winning a MacArthur genius grant for her reporting on poverty as a New Yorker staff writer, an audibly nervous Katherine Boo told an NPR interviewer, “If I have any gifts at all, one of them is invisibility.” She was talking about a quality of her work: the way she strives to witness her subjects’ lives so intimately it can seem as if the subjects don’t know she’s observing them. Boo’s byline itself hasn’t appeared in the magazine since 2009. From November 2007 until last March, she was in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport. Her tightly woven first book about a core of that neighborhood’s struggling residents, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity , offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor. “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road,” Boo writes...

The Fall of the House of Assad?

If and when the Syrian regime crumbles, an American administration will have to seize opportunities.

AP Photos
B ashar al-Assad has not yet fallen. I note this only because of the tone of inevitability in some news reports on Syria's civil war. The downfall of Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi may be no more predictive than a roulette ball falling on red in the last three spins. Arguably, the popular convulsion in the Middle East began not in Tunisia in late 2010 but in Teheran in mid-2009, when the Iranian regime—Assad's patron—crushed a popular revolution and erased the immense hopes it had raised. Still, it would be foolish to bet heavily on Assad's long-term survival as Syria's leader. His forces may have retaken rebel-held suburbs of Damascus this week, but armed rebels holding suburbs of a capital even for a few days is the political equivalent of a tubercular cough. Wagering on when the regime will crumble or what will replace it is equally risky. Assad has already defied Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's December prediction that the Syrian regime...

Under Threat of Greek Default

The European Union outlines a budget pact in the shadow of economic disaster.

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM —The specter of Greek default haunted Monday’s informal European Union summit. Despite valiant efforts by EU leaders to focus on promoting growth and jobs, an issue they finally seem to have woken up to, and on finalizing the new fiscal compact agreed on last December, Greece’s debt odyssey hovered menacingly over the proceedings. And, as if the Greek situation were not enough, nerves were further frayed by the evolving Portuguese disaster. As talks were under way in Brussels, ten-year Portuguese bond spreads were reaching euro-era highs of more than 15 percent amid growing fears that the Iberian country would follow in Greece’s footsteps and restructure its debt. The most significant development coming out of the summit was the agreement on the specific terms of the new fiscal compact, which aims to enforce greater budgetary discipline among signatory countries. But the Czech Republic opted out of the new pact during the negotiating process, citing nebulous...

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