a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Beware of Greeks cradling democracy

Posted on the November 3rd, 2011

This morning while reading a couple of analyses about the great Greek referendum brouhaha, the shade of John Lennon floated past murmuring “Democracy is what happens while politicians are busy making other plans.”

Might that be the case if the Greeks are allowed to vote on the EU’s latest proposal to rescue/doom them into penury for years to come? Wouldn’t that be nice (shades of the Beach Boys just now floated by). Messy? Maybe yes, but maybe not.

The two informative commentaries mentioned above are “Time to resign Mr Papandreou” by Greek economics professor Yanis Varoufakis (here), and “Papandreou shows no regret as he faces a grilling from Sarkozy and Merkel” by the Guardian‘s Helena Smith (here). They offer differing perspectives on the Greek PM. Varoufakis scorns his government leader’s latest referendum maneuver as political ploy only. Smith, in contrast, casts Papandreou more admirably, as in this quote from an unidentified “adviser”:

He is not afraid to upset others if he firmly believes it is in the interests of his country. And as a committed socialist George really does believe in the value of participatory democracy.

Well, notwithstanding that Varoufakis makes powerful argument to the contrary, we can hope that Smith’s featured adviser may prove to be auspicious. That whether mere political operator or democracy’s champion, Papandreou will by hook or crook give the people a voice. That would be true democratic process, wouldn’t it?



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The superrich and robbery in plain sight (“Winner-Take-All Politics”)

Posted on the May 25th, 2011

A Book Review

That the superrich across the globe are in the process of stealing most of the world’s wealth and resources from the rest of us is by now common knowledge among those who aren’t persisting in turning a blind eye. That superrich defined is the top 1 percent approximately (or 0.01 percent more accurately).

But for those who still don’t know about this mindboggling raid on the human planet and its population, I hope you will take a look at two recent sources of information that describe the process chapter and verse.

The first, thoroughly documented and alarming, is the book “Winner-Take-All Politics” – the authors are two political science professors in American universities (Yale and UC Berkeley), Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.

As an example of what they are writing about, here’s a 1954 quote they cite from President Dwight Eisenhower (Republican):

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt…, a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Unfortunately, as Hacker and Pierson demonstrate over and over in their book, Eisenhower was wrong about his central point. One of the two US major political parties (and the other one also to a huge extent) is persisting in doing just what he described as impossible, and that party is very much still part of political history in the making.

A second source of information about the superrich and their grand theft of all there is to have is a recent article in the UK’s Guardian“Anxiety keeps the super-rich safe from middle-class rage” by Peter Wilby (May 18, 2011).


That is the most important point about what has happened to incomes in Britain and America during the neoliberal era: the very rich are soaring ahead, leaving behind not only manual workers – now a diminishing minority – but also the middle-class masses, including doctors, teachers, academics, solicitors, architects, Whitehall civil servants and, indeed, many CEOs who don’t run FTSE 100 companies, to say nothing of the marketing, purchasing, personnel, sales and production executives below them.

Neither Hacker and Pierson in their book nor Wilby in his Guardian article play favorites with political labels. The superrich driving this ruthless and barbaric raid on the planet and their fellow human beings evidently don’t care whether you call yourself a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, Anarchist or general apolitical layabout. To paraphrase the pop song, they just want your money, honey, they don’t need your love.

Again, I highly recommend reading these two exposès. What you choose to do once you are aware of the real state of affairs is, of course, your choice. But this is not the time to stand silently by on the sidelines.


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Prosperity, liberty, democracy and the Web: Tim Berners-Lee

Posted on the November 24th, 2010

Reading Tim Berners-Lee’s new article online in Scientific American, my memory was jogged to remember some things I already know but keep slipping away — the difference between the Web and the Internet, for example. And I learned other things I didn’t know — why social media such as Facebook, and proprietary sites such as iTunes may be harming the development of the Web itself.

The British-born Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web (www), and he is arguably its most passionate protector.

His article “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality” (Nov 22, 2010) is a plea for everyone to become guardians of the Web. Berners-Lee writes that the Web as we now know it is being threatened in different ways. He lays out in detail what we need to do to protect it and keep it healthy and growing.


Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help…

Read the full piece here.

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Speaking about power: Fatima Bhutto

Posted on the June 3rd, 2010

In this short video of a Guardian interview with young Pakistani poet and journalist Fatima Bhutto, she speaks in a compelling way about how things have gone so wrong in her country (“Hay festival video: ‘Power is violence in Pakistan'” June 3, 2010).

Embodied in her words, it seems to me, is a frightening warning for the citizenry of all countries, including my own.


We have for the last 63 years of our country’s history allowed those in power to be above the law. We have laws and bills and acts safeguarding those in power, protecting them from questions, protecting them from recrimination, protecting them from the consequences of their often corrupt and criminal legacies.

And the people are protected by nothing, but held hostage by silence.

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The Achilles’ heel of democracy

Posted on the March 19th, 2010

A troublesome question keeps cropping up related to democracies, old and new. It’s one that, it seems to me, could turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of this much lauded system of government. And that question is — how do you persuade most (if not all) of the voters to come out and vote when it’s time to do so?

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the highest average percentage of voter turnout globally during the past several decades has been 68% (see here). More recently, though, even that not very impressive statistic has been shrinking, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA):

Overall participation in competitive elections across the globe rose steadily between 1945 and 1990. Between 1945-1950 the number of voters turning out to vote at each election represented 61% of the voting age population (i.e. all citizens old enough to vote). That turnout figure rose to 62% in the 1950s, 65% in the 1960s, 67% in the 1970s, and 68% in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, with the influx of a host of competitive elections in newly democratising states, the average for elections held since 1990 has dipped back to 64%.

In the 2008 Presidential election in the U.S., for example, voter turnout was 64 percent. Turn that on its head and that means that 36 percent of eligible voters — 73 million people — did not bother to go vote. And they made this choice to not participate in the democratic process during a time of great crisis not only for their own country but for the entire world, and in an election that was an amazing historic moment for the country itself.

Interesting, don’t you think?

As many do, I find this trend of low voter turnout generally across the globe to be alarming. But I also think we need to confront it in an intelligent way. For me that means posing a direct question to the citizens of those many countries who choose not to vote — do you really want to have a democratic form of government? Seriously ask this question.

I’m not so naive as to think that high voter turnout is the solution to the world’s problems. An ignorant voter is more often a friend only to the worst of those seeking elective office. To march into the future, simply muttering to our dog or cat about public apathy on election days, while suffering under ever lamer, ever more corrupt governments, however, is not very smart either.

What brought this all to mind is the video below of an interesting interview today on France 24 exploring why 53 percent of the French didn’t vote in last week’s regional elections there.

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Georgia on their minds

Posted on the February 23rd, 2010

Today, in the first video of a series, TOL showcases a cross-section of citizens of the country of Georgia. Each one talks about his or her idea of what civil society actually is. May seem dull fare but, as usual, when people speak from their hearts in ordinary language about something important, it isn’t (“The View from Tbilisi: Change from the ‘Bottom Up'” by Tako Paradashvili and Nia Kurtishvili, Feb 22, 2010).

TOL is a non-profit organization focusing on the post-communist countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Intro to video:

As democracy in Georgia continues to develop 19 years after independence, how do Georgian citizens view their personal and collective responsibilities? Is civil society capable of fighting for people’s rights, and how well has it succeeded? To what extent do Georgians recognize and capitalize on the power they have to monitor their government and take part in building the country’s future?

(Perhaps it will occur to you, as it immediately did to me, that these same questions apply as well to the older democracies — to the United States at more than 200 years old, and to those of Western Europe — especially as some are facing a critical and defining turning point in their development –see here and here.)

What Is Civil Society? from Elene Asatiani on Vimeo.

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We can fix our broken system: Lawrence Lessig talks to Ezra Klein

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

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Allvoices: a new level of democracy in news media

Posted on the July 11th, 2008

A new citizen journalism website is now fully online, and it’s one of the most interesting and ambitious such ventures that I’ve seen. Allvoices.com describes itself as the “first true people’s media.”

Excerpt from its mission statement:

It’s a place where individuals from all over the world can share what is happening where they are (location) at a particular point in time. Allvoices then brings together multiple voices or points of view via news stories, videos, images and blogs from the Internet, to provide context and build momentum. The platform provides the community with the ability to search and navigate a news event by location and category, to share and to have a discussion around it, to emotionally connect with each other’s perspectives and complete the human story.

Especially fascinating and helpful, I think, is an interactive world map displayed across the top of the home page. Posted with hyperlinked circles and stars in various locations on the map, it allows the viewer, if interested, to click and easily review what’s currently being posted.

How does it work?

Allvoices is an open, unedited and unmediated site. Every voice (contribution) is automatically checked for spam and relevance to the news event. A contribution is not edited and is posted as is as long as it is relevant to the news event. The relevance is checked by our algorithms and technology – not humans.

The whole idea behind adding a voice to an existing news event is to get the discussion going. It can be as simple as sharing an emotion or a comment.

The team behind Allvoices is impressive. It includes business, communications and IT professionals, and also some Computer Science professors from Northwestern University.

Summing up its mission, the Allvoices website states:

Allvoices was started by passionate people who believe that everyone has a story worth telling, sharing that story can be the first step in changing lives. Allvoices redefines the voice of people through the global community for sharing current news events and issues from multiple points of view, providing an emotional connection to each other’s perspectives.

At it’s core, Allvoices is about democracy. About giving power to people. About their voices having the effect that makes a difference.

(I came across the link to Allvoices on the Editors Weblog site.)

This Allvoices video below powerfully demonstrates once again that a picture can be worth a thousand words:

UPDATE: Questo post in italiano

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