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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
An African American grandmother’s conservative critique of her community goes viral, picking up where Bill Cosby left off.
Over the weekend, at least 7 million people watched Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother, excoriate the Black Lives Matter movement in an emotional video posted to her Facebook page. 71,000 people liked the post. 16,000 people left comments. And discussions like this one on Reddit rippled out across the Internet.
Two breaking news events prompted the U.S. Navy veteran, who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, to speak out and share her feelings. In the first, two white police officers killed Mansur Ball-Bey, a young black man. Police say that he tried to flee out the back door of the house where they were serving a warrant and that he pointed a stolen gun at them before they shot, a narrative that his family disputes. In the second news story, 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting as she lay in her mother’s bed. The perpetrator is unknown.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
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.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.