The German chancellor, who has also been Greece's most important champion, is facing a domestic political challenge.
It happened. Standard & Poor's downgraded Greece's long-term rating Monday to "Selective Default." And, well, the markets seem to be fine. Greece seems to be fine. The one who's really in trouble, though, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The German leader has had one heck of a bad week-and-a-half, and the hits keep coming. The Greek bailout vote and the S&P downgrade are part of it. But the rotten political run began last Sunday with a confrontation that, on the surface, had absolutely nothing to do with Greece. Instead, it had to do with appointing a new German president.
The president of Germany is, in theory, elected: the members of the German parliament--the Bundestag--together with various delegates from the German states form the Federal Convention, who choose the president by secret ballot. But such is the power of coalition politics that the president, in practice, is more or less appointed, following a flurry of activity behind the scenes among whichever parties jointly hold a majority.
The old president of Germany, Christian Wulff, resigned February 17 over corruption allegations involving a loan, after having said for months that no resignation would be necessary. Merkel's reigning coalition, made up of her own Christian Democratic Union, its sister the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democratic Party, then had to come up with a successor.
It turns out, though, that FDP chairman and German vice chancellor Philipp Rösler came to his 5pm Sunday meeting with Merkel looking for a fight. Anonymous sources told Der Spiegel that Rösler came to the meeting having already gotten a unanimous vote from FDP leadership for Joachim Gauck as a candidate--the very Joachim Gauck whom Merkel had rejected for the presidency in 2010 and whom both she and her party were against this time around as well. Though Merkel and the FDP have tussled quite a bit in the past few months--Der Spiegel's team phrases it as "Merkel has humiliated the FDP repeatedly," while "the FDP has done nothing to defend itself"--the opposition took Merkel by surprise. Rösler apparently left the chancellor no choice: if the CDU/CSU voted for their candidate, Christian Töpfer, the FDP would vote with the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, effectively ending the coalition through which Merkel has governed.
So that was Sunday, February 12. The following Tuesday, European leaders finally settled the terms of a second bailout for Greece. It was greeted in Germany, as I explained last week, with very little enthusiasm. That is to say: half a dozen op-eds suggested it's a losing battle, a few wanted to drop the project entirely, and another half dozen pleaded for patience while Greece gets its stuff together. Given that European solidarity is Merkel's signature issue, the waning public enthusiasm wasn't a good sign.
A poll quantified that waning enthusiasm: Sunday, February 26 weekly newspaper edition Bild am Sonntag reported an Emnid Institute poll showing 62 percent of Germans opposed the bailout--up from 53 percent in September.
But that wasn't the only blow Merkel was to receive over the weekend. Evidently unknown to her, her interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, had also given an interview to Der Spiegel in which he came out in favor of Greece exiting the euro. When the interview was published on Monday, Merkel was then had to rebuke her own minister by announcing that she "[didn't] share this view," while Friedrich, presumably after some awkward behind-scenes shuffling, tried in Der Spiegel's words "to distance himself from his own statements." Happy Monday.
Then came vote time: the Bundestag had to approve the bailout package. Though the package passed, it did so without an absolute majority, and with 17 of Merkel's own coalition members defecting. That was enough for opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of Merkel's previous coalition with his SPD party, to declare Tuesday that "the collapse of the [current] coalition is in full swing." In remarks made to Der Tagesspiegel, he announced: "this is the twilight of the chancellor."
And now S&P has downgraded the Greek debt, not just despite the bailout package, but because of it. Greek default may always have been on the horizon, but the immediate "Selective Default" rating on the long-term debt seems unlikely to play well in public opinion.
Let's not be too hasty to accept the words of a man who is, for now at least, Merkel's adversary. Merkel has proved a canny operator on more than one occasion, and Steinmeier has every incentive to declare her coalition done-for as soon as possible. That said, this is not looking good. Athens and the markets may be weathering the downgrade all right for now, but their champion is taking some hits. And Merkel is the Greek champion right now, much though rioting Athenians despise her for the austerity measures they've been forced to accept: for over a year now Merkel's been the keystone in the European effort to break Greece's staggering financial fall.
So take the markets' nonchalance about S&P's downgrade with a grain of salt. Greece was probably always headed towards default, and it may even already be set to leave the euro. But how hard the country hits the ground makes a big difference, and Merkel is a big factor in how hard Greece hits the ground. Right now, she's looking a little shaky.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
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 Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
The executive producer of Masterpiece says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.
For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.