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Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"It is a curious thing, do you know, [...] how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve."

James Joyce, one of the biggest literary legends. Author of a book that I started reading twice and yet never finished (I'll let you guess the title of that one). Exiled himself from Ireland for virtually all of his adult life, yet never seemingly wrote anything not taking place on the Emerald Isle. Growing up in a highly religious setting of Catholic boarding schools he turns into a non-believer, yet remains obsessed with religious topics all his life.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a reflection of Joyce's literary alter ego's, Stephen Dedalus, youth and upbringing. His family life is dominated by a father driven to alcohol, critical of the Church and its lack of support for Irish nationalism while his aunt and mother are devout catholics. Dedalus himself is taught by Jesuits with the hope that he has developed a vocation to enter the order. The protagonist is a young man grappling with his life, his studies, women, his relation to his faith and to the church.

I had two kind of difficulties with the book. Firstly, my knowledge of Irish nationalist politics is, well, limited. I simply did not understand some of Joyce's references, nor did I care to involve myself into this topic more deeply. Secondly, Dedalus' dominating preoccupation in the latter half of the novel is clearly his faith (or lack thereof, or his sinning in any case). I found it difficult to immerse myself into page-long treatises on the eternal consequences of sin. Theological discussion is simply not something to get me riled up.

Yet, please don't get me wrong. This is a great book and Joyce a wonderful author whose sentences evoke a Faulknerian beauty. Highly recommendable.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Iraqi oil exports do not pick up

A political stalemate between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad continues to prove problematic for Iraqi oil production in general and troublesome for international oil companies (IOCs) in particular. In the face of a stalled national oil law which were to regulate questions of regional and federal responsibilities but is stuck in parliament, the KRG has autonomously declared it's right emanating from the 2005 constitution to negotiate and sign contracts with IOCs. It has since gone ahead and signed around 25 contracts dealing with the exploration and developments of the fields in its region. At least two of these fields are by now producing limited quantities for the domestic market, both combined could immediately produce 100,000 barrels per day ready to be exported if the political issues were resolved.

The national Iraqi government claims exclusive competence for the negotiations of oil contracts with IOCs. Especially Al-Shahristani, Iraq's oil minister, has taken a strong stance against the contracts awarded by the KRG, calling them illegal and blacklisting the companies having signed them from taking part in the bidding for federal contracts.

Apart from the larger picture of the institutional struggle for power between federal and regional authorities, the contentious issue lies with compensation of the IOCs financing the production and the infrastructural build-up. According to the production-sharing agreements signed with the KRG these companies would receive anywhere between 15-20% of revenues. Exports being administered centrally, the KRG would receive only its regional share of 17% of all export revenues. With the federal government not recognizing the contracts signed by the KRG and its refusal to recompensate the IOCs, the KRG would at most stand to gain only little from any increase in Iraqi oil exports stemming from its region.

Since Iraq's neighbors continue to cooperate with the federal government, Kurdish oil exports are possible solely through national pipelines, giving the Ministry of Oil decisive sway over these decisions. Yet, in the current situation it is the KRG that seems more interested in blocking exports until an agreement over the compensation of production costs has been reached. At the same time pressure on the federal government to strike a deal with the KRG is increasing nation-wide and in the parliament because of sinking government revenues coupled with Kurdish promises of possible exports of 250,000 bpd by the end of 2009.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Journal 1942-1944

Le journal de Hélène Berr vient d'être publié en Allemagne, c'est pour cela que j'en ai entendu parler (Zeit). Berr commencé son journal en 1942, parlant de sa vie personelle. Elle n'est pas politique. Il n'y a qu'une référence à Vichy, qu'une fois que la guerre même est discutée. Tout au début le journal s'occupe surtout de sa vie sentimentale. Elle a un ancien petit-ami qui n'est plus là (il n'est pas clair pourquoi, est-il prisonnier de guerre? Ou simplement au sud et alors inaccessible pendant l'occupation?) mais est bientôt (si lentement même réticent) en train de tomber amoureuse d'un autre. Elle est à la Sorbonne étudiant des lettres anglaises, cite de la poésie anglaise souvent et utilise même des mots dans son journal. Venant d'une famille de la grande bourgeoisie elle joue au violon, se promène à Paris et passe ses week-ends dans la résidence en campagne de la famille.

Mais évidemment elle ne peut pas éviter le temps qu'elle vit. Le journal gagne en force peut-être particulièrement parce que Berr ne semble pas s'occuper de la politique. Elle discute pas les grandes lignes, ne nomme jamais Hitler ou Churchill, mais elle sur ce que lui (et des autres juifs) concerne personnellement. L'étoile qu'elle doit porter, la peine que cela lui fait, les expressions de solidarité qu'elle reçoit des français 'ordinaires'. Berr s'engage dans la lutte de tenter de cacher des enfants juifs en Île de France, elle continue à être amoureuse et souffre beaucoup au moment où son petit ami décide à joindre la France libre et lutter pour la libération.

Berr reprend son journal un ans plus tard et différemment. Elle a réalisé qu'elle va mourir (même si elle n'en parle pas directement: On parle beaucoup de la gaz. il doit être du vérité dans ces rumeurs.) et veut laisser quelque chose pour son amant pour que lui sache ce qu'elle a vécu et ce qu'elle ressent pour lui. Alors elle raconte moins factuel et beaucoup plus philosophique donnant au journal une deuxième partie peu similaire de la première mais si fort si sur un niveau très différent.

J'ai été frappé par la combinaison de sa description des allemands et le fait qu'elle continue à apprendre de l'allemand jusque à sa déportation. Les allemands font du bruits comme les bêtes pendant qu'ils font du sport sur les Champs de Mars, ils sont généralement moins agréable que les français même quand ils font le même travail (les arrestations). Berr se trompe même en faveur de la police française parfois et lui reproche moins des actes de violence qu'elle n'a commis. Mais, elle continue à apprendre allemand. Pourquoi? Était-il une sorte d'adaptation à l'état potentiellement le vainqueur de la guerre? L'espoir que la connaissance de la langue aiderait à éviter le pire? Un espoir faux et fort tragique dans ce cas. Une mystère pour moi en tout cas.

"Qu'on soit arrivé à concevoir le devoir comme une chose indépendante de la conscience, indépendante de la justice, de la bonté, de la charité, c'est là la preuve de l'inanité de notre prétendue civilisation."

Agent provocateur

This is the second time the police in the US has arrested a bunch of dimwitted, supposed terrorists with few, if any, ties to radical Islamism. The way these (1, 2, 3) articles make it sound the four guys imprisoned in this case would have been unable to even try to commit any act of terrorism on their own. The informant planted into the group (or the informant that initiated the group?) organized all their weapons, bombs and the such. He drove them around in his car. For god's sake, he helped them buy a digital camera in order to take pictures in preparation of the attacks.

This reminds me eerily of Peter Urbach without whom the militarization of West Berlin left wings groups would possibly not have occurred in the first place (or in any case less easily). For the US, what does this mean? There apparently are agents provocateurs trying to pick up youngsters willing to employ radical rhetoric after a life wasted with petty crimes (a crack addict? indicted for pick-pocketing?) and help them fulfill their - rhetorical in any case - desire to attack Jews, or other Americans in general. All this only to ensure their dramatic arrest in a situation that according to the police 'was at all times under control.' How is that not condemnable? Not sure what this war on terror is doing to the US as a just political system (domestically or abroad), but it sure (and still) doesn't look good.

UPDATE: As I was saying in my last phrase. A just system this is not. (NYT

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Comparative newspaper studies

Both the New York Times and Le Monde (1,2) commented on Benjamin Netanyahu's first visit to the Obama White House. The interesting thing is that their analyses are nearly diametrically opposed. Le Monde stresses the fact that the two politicians "emphasized their differences" (affichent leurs divergences or a mis en évidence leurs divergences) while the New York Times is surprised at their common positions (while claiming that Obama moved more than Netanyahu did). For them there were only "some differences."

So, what does this mean? Quite honestly, I have no idea. The quotes used in both articles and the aspects noted are virtually the same. It seems as if the French paper simply saw more of a rift based on the same data than the American newspaper. Why would that be the case? The only explanation I could offer lies with a difference in beliefs that feeds some kind of self-fulfilling desired interpretation of this event. Thus, the French (and I am equating journalists and the general public as well as political leaders here in a very unscientific manner) as more critical towards Israel would like to think that the days of unconditional American support for Israel are over. The Americans (as above) on the other hand prefer a continued close partnership and tend to not emphasize Israelo-American political differences as much.

Does this make sense? I have no idea. Maybe the intern responsible for the headlines screwed up. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I did feel like the completely diverging interpretations were a funny (as in: "differing from the ordinary in a suspicious, perplexing, quaint, or eccentric way" Merriam Webster) business.

UPDATE: This might not be a question of national perspective after all. Stephen Walt already had a look at it from the American side in fact and came to the conclusion that I am right in regard to political believes shaping one's interpretation but wrong in attributing it to French or American sentiments.

The Cricket on the Hearth

Apparently I am stuck in the 19th century right now, after Theodor Fontane I just finished The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens (as a side note: The edition that I have in my possession dates from 1901 and is accompanied by a list of vocabulary as it is intended for German students. I seriously wonder where I got it from, feel like it was handed down to me by grandma via my mom though. In any case, I'd be fascinating to know who bought it and when and what the book must have already seen.). I am not certain I ever read any Dickens, I remotely remember an attempt during my early teens when I read anything that I could get my hands on without necessarily understanding a lot. Anyway, I started out with this short booklet, only about a 120 pages that I finished in a few mere hours.

Dickens made a really good impression on me with this novella. I find fascinating how, in a story filled with characters that are too good to be true and in a descriptive manner that is so tacky it would hurt my brain coming from most other authors, he succeeds to explore realistic topics and difficulties faced by the poor, inept and crippled (blind actually in this case) of his day and age. Problems that furthermore still surface and hold relevance today. There is a sort of universal value to his characters and problem sets. The young girl that is pressed into marrying an older man for the financial security he provides. The white lies people (a father to his daughter in this case) tell each other, which may hurt more than the truth even before they (inevitably maybe) unfold. How companion- and friendship holds more value than financial or professional success (as corny as it sounds, how can anyone seriously argue otherwise?).

If I wasn't committed to reading in French as much as possible and if I didn't already own a collection of English and German books to intervene inbetween and afterwards, I would most definitely read some more Dickens rather soon. As it is, I will put him on my ever-enlarging list of authors and books.

Mathilde Möhring

Direkt ein zweiter Roman (eine Nouvelle, doch sehr kurz irgendwie) von Fontane. Nach Irrungen, Wirrungen nun Mathilde Möhring. Wieder wird die Erzählung durch eine starke Frauenrolle geprägt, die gute Mathilde ist in diesem Fall noch einiges eindrucksvoller (und stärker) als Magdalene Nimptsch. Sie ist die Tocher einer alleinerziehenden Witwe, welche aufgrund mangelnder finanzieller Mittel einen Untermieter bei sich einziehen lässt. Mathilde nimmt es auf sich diesen jungen Mann zu formen und sich von ihm ehelichen zu lassen (hier erscheint Fontanes Porträt wenig überzeugend, er lässt Mathilde denken, ihr zukünftiger Mann sei von Anfang an an ihr interessiert, sie täuscht sich, merkt dies aber nie und wird es später nie wieder tun (sich täuschen)). Er besteht aufgrund ihrer Assistenz sein Staatsexamen, wird Bürgermeister und auf diesem Gebiet erfolgreich, alles wegen ihres Eifers und ihrer klugen Ratschlägen. Ich will das Ende nicht vorweg nehmen, auch wenn der Roman nicht von seiner Spannung lebt, aber am Ende muß Mathilde einsehen, daß einige Menschen den von ihr ausgeübten Druck nur schwer verarbeiten können und sie ihren Erfolg sich lieber selber als durch andere erarbeiten sollte.

Fontane lohnt sich wirklich, sonst braucht man da wenig zu sagen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Irrungen, Wirrungen

Fontane war mir aus meinem Deutsch-Leistungskurs immer gut in Erinnerung geblieben und ich hatte schon lange mal wieder etwas von ihm lesen wollen. Irrungen, Wirrungen also, die, natürlich, unglückliche Liebesgeschichte zwischen einem Grafen und einer Kleinbürgerlichen. Aus Standesgründen sind sie von Anfang an dazu verurteilt und ihresgleichen zu bleiben.

Interessant fand ich mehrere Aspekte. Die, zumindest angedeutete, sexuelle Freizügigkeit auch der Frau, welche zwei (feste) Partner ihr eigen nennt bevor sie letzten Endes heiratet. Die Beschreibung Berlins, welches mir zwar den Namen nach bekannt vor kam, nicht aber in seinen Gegebenheiten. Wilmersdorf war wirklich ein Dorf, die Felder von Spandau sind auch entschwunden und der Anhalter Bahnhof steht auch schon seit einigen Jährchen nicht mehr (seit wann eigentlich?). Die Adligen kommen bei Fontane nicht sonderlich gut weg, was ich natürlich sehr begrüßte.

Literarisch ist die Offenheit von Fontane bemerkenswert, es wird zwar bei ihm auch vieles versteckt oder nicht direkt ausgedrückt, aber die meisten Gespräche bzw Gedanken sind halt ohne jedes Versteckspiel, ohne die komplizierten Gedankengänge der Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts. Ich will das gar nicht beurteilen, mag Fontane aber auch Sartre, fand es aber sehr interessant. Die starke Betonung des Dialog als Bedeutungsträgers war für mich vielleicht nicht neu, doch zumindest ungewohnt.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Realism we can believe in

Let's sum up the savior's week for a second here:

- Additional pictures of the torture inflicted upon prisoners of the American military will not be published. (NY Times)
- Prisoners will not be judged in the normal court system but instead through Bush's military tribunals, depriving these people of their rights. (NY Times)
- Funny how the differences between him and Bush that Obama emphasized so much during his campaign fade away. (NY Times)

Where is the uproar against this development? Where are all those college youngster that wanted change, that wanted believe? Your hero is backtracking on promises all over the place and y'all can't be heard.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Voyage au bout de la nuit

Je ne vais pas prétendre de savoir beaucoup sur Louis-Ferdinand Céline. On m'a dit qu'il a été vachement de la droite, ce que me déplaît bien évidemment, mais on m'a aussi prêté son live Voyage au bout de la nuit avec les mots le plus chaleureux. Pour l'auteur je me réserve de juger, à la fin j'écoute avec plaisir Merle Haggard (Fightin' Side of Me) ou Sizzla (True God). Pour l'ouevre je peux avouer qu'elle est très forte. Ce n'est toujours pas facile pour moi de lire la haute littérature française, surtout dans des paragraphes descriptives j'ai du mal à suivre et parfois il y a bien des subtilités qui m'échappent parce que je ne comprends pas tous les mots (et je déteste lire avec une dictionnaire à ma côté). Mais, ayant admet cela, ce livre m'a beaucoup plu.

Céline semble comparable à Camus ou Sartre, même Voltaire je dirais ou mon grand héros Faulkner, dans le sens qu'il décrit l'absurdité de l'existence. Comme les autres de cette liste illustrée (hors Voltaire) Céline ajoute la futilité de la vie, la manque de sens qu'on y trouve. Shakespeare l'a exprimé dans Macbeth, Faulkner l'a repris dans son livre le plus célèbre: "Life is but ... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Comme Simplicius Simplicissimus ou (plus connue) Forrest Gump (non, pas Tom Hanks, le bouquin), Céline nous montre un héros presque picaresque. Sa personnage principale n'est ni le plus intelligent, ni le plus fort, ni même le plus sublime (loin de cela en fait), elle est seulement quelqu'un qui essaye de survivre dans un monde peu soignant. Revenant sur Voltaire (et les deux anti-héros je viens de citer), Ferdinand (l'auteur a quand même donné son nom à la personnage principale!) bouge en permanence. De les tranchées de la première guerre mondiale à Paris, à l'Afrique coloniale, aux Etats-Unis et de retour en France à la banlieue parisienne (incluant une petite visite à Toulouse).

Ce que m'a frappé pendant ma lecture sont les positions incompatible avec la droite (surtout la droite de Vichy) que Céline (ou plutôt Ferdinand) adopte dans son livre. Sa personnage principale n'as pas de morale ("J'ai été un vrai cochon"), elle est lâche, "refuse la guerre et tout ce qu'il y dedans", n'est même pas patriote, critique le régime colonial et est même anti-capitaliste (ou donne cette impression en attaquant le système fordien. Effectivement, Ferdinand est très nihiliste et me plaît beaucoup ainsi.

The German parties in the lead-up to the European elections

The elections for the European Parliament in Germany as well as in the rest of Europe suffer from a lack of media and popular attention. Less than half of the German population even knows that European elections take place this year and only 43% - which still is above the European average – plan to vote. Ever since the the European Parliament has been elected voter participation has in fact steadily declined from 62% in 1979 to 47% 2004. This development and the glaring lack of attention in the lead-up to this year's elections has caused the European Parliament to unveil a non-partisan publicity campaign encouraging citizens to vote, while the European Commission has called for public TV stations to run non-partisan spots advertising the elections free of charge. Considering this sad state of affairs and the general nature of elections of secondary nature to national ones, it is far from surprising that the little campaigning that does take place concentrates on national issues.

This might be especially true for Germany where the European elections in June are followed by national elections in September and where, a striking German singularity, no truly euro-skeptic party is expected to gain support. The polls foresee a conservative victory with the Union (CDU/CSU ~ 35%) easily surpassing the Social-Democrats (SPD ~ 30%). Behind these two main parties (Volksparteien) were to follow the liberals (FDP ~ 11%), the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen ~ 11%) and the Left (Die Linke ~ 9). None of the extreme right-wing parties is expected to approach the 5% threshold.

The Union, consisting of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and its Bavarian sister party the CSU (Cristian Social Union), currently holds the majority in 13 of the 16 German Länder and on the national level. For the European elections both parties have established different electoral lists as well as differing election programs. At the head of the CDU-list can be found the President of the EP Hans-Gert Pöttering, the CSU-list is led by Markus Ferber. Their programs emphasize a privileged partnership with Turkey, implying opposition to full EU-membership, and oppose the harmonization of social policy in Europe. While both parties stress the importance of subsidiarity, the CSU is more averse to centralization clamoring for a Europe composed of strong regions. Differences between the two partners also arise in regard to the Lisbon Treaty, which the CSU unlike the CDU has given up on, and in regard to European referenda, which the CDU opposes while the CSU supports them.

The SPD, minority partner in the national government, has experienced a crisis of leadership ever since Schröder's government was voted out of office and is struggling to gain footing in the polls again. Its electoral list is headed by Martin Schulz, chairman of the Party of European Socialists (PES) group in the European Parliament, who gained celebrity status following his interaction with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, during which he was offered the role of a Kapo (an inmate serving as a concentration camp supervisor) in an Italian film. In its election manifesto the SPD argues for a Social Union in order to complement the already existing Economic and Monetary Unions. Among other things, this would include a Pact for Social Stability (mirroring the current Pact for Stability and Growth), a minimum wage in every European country and an increase in workers' participation in their companies decision-making (Mitarbeitermitbestimmung). Additionally the SPD stresses the role of the European Union as a civil power (Zivilmacht) for peace.

The FDP has had a hard time adapting to its new role in the opposition after the ouster of the Kohl government in 1998. Yet, it currently easily surpasses the other two special interest parties at the polls and, in January, enabled the reelection of Robert Koch (CDU) as Minister-President of Hesse with a record score in the regional elections. Its electoral list is dominated by the deputies that in 2004 had reestablished the FDP in the EP after a 10-year hiatus. Its election program is dominated by economic issues; deregulation, opposition to EU-taxation and in general an increase of European say over the economy. The FDP vocally supports the Treaty of Lisbon as the solution to the current lack of democratic elements in European decision-making and is, under the condition of institutional reforms having been enacted before, not opposed to the adhesion of neither Turkey nor, in the long-term, the Ukraine.

The German Greens originated in the peace and anti-nuclear movements from the 1970s and as the minority partner of the SPD were part of the national government for the first time. Their biggest priority lies with the protection of the environment – renewable energy as the only source of energy by 2040, the complete disuse of nuclear power and the creation of a Renewable Energy Community. In regard to social and economic policy the Greens demand a minimum wage in every member country, increased workers' rights protection, the introduction of quota in professions dominated by men and the equality of female and male salaries. Furthermore, the Greens defend the Treaty of Lisbon, support the adhesion of Turkey to the EU and argue for the right of European Union citizens to be able to vote in the national elections of their country of residence.

The Left has become the bête noire of German politics ever since the merger between the PDS (the ex-Communist ruling party of the GDR, based almost exclusively in Eastern Germany) and the WASG (a potpourri of union members and obscure leftist groups from Western Germany, unified by their opposition to the social reforms introduced by the Schröder government). Yet, recent electoral results seem to indicate that the Left has succeeded to establish itself as the fifth power on the national scene in Germany. It is the only major party positioning itself not against Europe per se, but loudly clamoring for a different one. It opposes the Treaty of Lisbon because of its militaristic consequences and has punished its outgoing EP-deputies in favor of that treaty by delegating them to low positions on its electoral list or not nominating them at all. The Left further argues for an economic government of the EU and wants to alter the the European Central Bank's regulations in order to include among its goals a low level of unemployment and sustainable development. Furthermore its program includes a provision demanding a EU structurally incapable of wars of aggression.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rational Choice

The most confounding experience of my year spent at UNC was most likely the difference in scientific work in the USA as compared to Germany (if not to say Europe). Where during my studies in Potsdam, Berlin, Salzburg and Paris (my point is that this is not something peculiar to my home university) of political science in Europe formal analysis was virtually nonexistent (I believe there is one auditorium course in Potsdam on game theory), in my post-graduate classes at UNC every article centered on some kind of more or less complicated model. I always found this rather dubious, even if I felt I simply did not understand most models well enough to be able to criticize them. Stephen Walt has attacked this American obsession with formal analysis. Read the article, it is highly informative.

Honestly, I kind of liked game theory - I didn't excel at it, but then my first (and only) course was a post-graduate one, which might not have been such a good idea - but I feel that it is dangerous to concentrate too heavily on it a tool for analysis. As usual some middle ground between the American purely mathematical and the French purely argumentative path should be found. Yet, I most definitely want to do another course (get a book, I'm out of university after all) on this subject, simply to understand most American political scientists better.