The factors that can lead to the rise of far-right movements appear increasingly common in Germany today, where residents worry about immigration and eurozone crises
Police officers clash with a far-right demonstration in Frankfurt in 2007 / AP
When German authorities last week connected neo-Nazis to several murders of foreigners in Germany between 2000 and 2007, it shocked the country and its leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel struck early and hard, calling the attacks "shameful" for Germany, pledging action. Meanwhile, of course, the European debt crisis isn't going away, and Merkel has fought to stay on-message, encouraging Germans to stick with other European countries on the bailouts.
It's possible, though, that these two topics might not be as separate as they seem.
The link is explored most forcefully in a 2005 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, by Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman. At the time, he wanted to explain why caring about the economy isn't just a matter of neo-mercantilist greed. "Are we right to care so much about economic growth as we clearly do?" he asked in the book's opening. Economic growth doesn't just make us richer, he argued, it also makes our societies more tolerant. But what about the converse?
In that book as well as lectures taking off from it, Friedman reviewed the histories of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, arguing, among other things, that there is a strong association of liberal democratic advances -- think civil rights legislation, for example -- with periods of economic growth. Similarly, there is a strong association of racial, ethnic, or religious tension and violence -- or anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation -- with periods of economic stagnation.
People evaluate their standard of living in two ways, according to Friedman: whether they are living better than they previously have and whether they are living better than others around them. But, as Friedman explained in a 2006 lecture to the American Economic Association, these two types of evaluation function as substitutes for one another. "Getting ahead by either benchmark strictly diminishes the urgency that people attach to getting ahead by the other one," he said. When people's living standards rise (due to economic growth, for example), they stop caring so much about being ahead of their neighbors, making them less suspicious and more tolerant of those around them. This is the mechanism by which Friedman believes tolerance, and other values of a liberal democracy, are encouraged.
But there's a flip side. If, argues Friedman, large swathes of society believe their progress is the "circumstance under which the society also moves forward in the political, social, and ultimately moral dimensions" mentioned above, "then no society -- no matter how rich it becomes or how well formed its institutions may be -- is immune from seeing its basic values at risk whenever the majority of its citizens lose their sense of forward economic progress."
In other words, if Europe's about to plunge back into recession, or even continue with the current stagnation and instability, then Germany really should be worried about these anti-immigrant attacks -- the sentiment that fueled them is at risk of growing, according to this theory, not shrinking.
Though Friedman's work received largely quite positive reviews in academic journals, it has its critics as well. The neo-Nazi attacks in Germany happened between 2000 and 2007, a time in which Germany's GDP trended healthily upwards. That's actually not the sort of objection Friedman's fellow academics seem to raise. For starters, Friedman doesn't suggest that individual upticks or dips in tolerance can always be explained by economic indicators, or that it's always easy to perceive the relationship between the two. His argument, rather, is that when one reviews the history, there does seem to be a correlation. At the time of his lecture to the American Economic Association, for example, he pointed out that in the preceding five years, "real U.S. GDP advanced on average at 2.6 percent per annum." In each of those years, median income "failed to keep pace with inflation." Therefore "the fruits of that increased production have been sufficiently skewed that more than half of all Americans nonetheless saw their incomes decline."
What critics have taken issue with is more the implications of Friedman's argument: is growth really a cure-all? Avner Offer of All Souls College at Oxford, reviewing Friedman's book for the Economic History Review, didn't think Friedman "engaged" enough "with the disorders of growth," suggesting that in as rich a country as the U.S., "redistribution" might be a better focus. Amitai Etzioni for the Sociological Forum pointed out the "very likely possibility that as people gain more, their aspirations will grow in turn, and that under these conditions they will compare themselves to still richer people and hence become less content and less liberal, not more so." He pointed out that "high economic growth, especially in developed nations," can come with its own sacrifices. Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University economist and former Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and Chief Economist of the World Bank, offers a particularly clear articulation of this theme: though economists have often suggested growth brings more social justice, "even if it has been true in the past, it may not be in the future." The environment starts to become an issue, for one thing. And Stiglitz doesn't seem 100 percent convinced that the U.S.'s increased wealth is currently resulting in increased tolerance.
But for such a bold argument as Friedman's, that's actually not a whole lot of criticism. And even these reviewers think Friedman has gotten a lot right. Furthermore, there's already some evidence to support Friedman's theory as it would apply, say, to Germany, depending on how you read the numbers. Though right-wing politically motivated crime dropped from 2009 to 2010 in Germany, according to Germany's Federal Ministry of the Interior, neo-Nazis in Germany actually been picking up members and set a new record for demonstrations over the same period. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it was only last year that then-director of Germany's central bank, Thilo Sarrazin, made a splash by authoring a book arguing that unintegrated, uneducated immigrants posed an existential threat to Germany, and that educated Germans needed to out-breed them.
Economically, the danger right now is that even if Germany's growth so far has remained strong, Europe as a whole may be sliding into recession. Austerity measures to address the debt crisis take money out of national economies, making lower growth more likely. Already in France -- one of the stronger countries, economically -- growth predictions for next year have been revised down from 1.75 percent to 1 percent, and that was before France's latest round of austerity measures were announced.
As in most countries, there are plenty of preexisting resentments that this sort of economic stagnation could inflame. Though Turkish immigrants were targeted in the string of murders, represent the largest and most prominent population that Germans might consider un-intregrated, and are viewed with particular suspicion, Germany also hosts plenty of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. German fears of Muslim extremists among the Turkish population haven't helped integration, and while changes in the highly old-fashioned German blood-based citizenship law took effect back in 2000, many immigrants still feel themselves facing an unfair battle when it comes to finding jobs and working their way up.
They're not imagining it, either: a study in 2010 found firms overall 14 percent more likely, and small firms 24 percent more likely, to follow up with an applicant with a German-sounding name than with one with a Turkish-sounding name. With German neighbors confronted with statistically confirmable higher crime rates in the immigrant populations, both sides have things to complain about. It's possible that natural stores of goodwill and generosity are rapidly being depleted as well, as all residents deal with belt tightening in order for Germany to bail out its more profligate southern European neighbors. Despite Germany's best and most generous efforts, Reuters reported Wednesday that "bond market contagion is spreading across Europe."
Who knows to what extent Germany will see more of the kind of tension on display in the past few years, most disgustingly in the string of neo-Nazi-perpetrated murders. One thing's for sure, though: Germany's doing very well economically right now compared to the rest of Europe, and arguably even compared to the U.S. So if Germany should be worried about the social effects of economic stagnation, a whole lot of other countries probably should be worried too -- perhaps even more so.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night: