Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Populism in Europe, Russia and America - Berlusconi, Putin and Trump

, a brilliant and very knowledgeable columnist for the New York Times had a column in today's paper where he compared American populists with their European siblings.
Here are a couple of quotes from his article:


Long before the destruction and death in France last week, Trump’s presidential campaign was following the path of right-wing working class parties in Europe. Over the past decade, these parties have capitalized on animosity to immigration and the perceived threat it presents to Europe’s autonomy, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” its “postwar economic model,” and its Christian identity.” 
Further down, he writes:
In an effort to place Trump in an international perspective, I asked Herbert Kitschelt, a professor of international relations at Duke, for a more encompassing view of Trump:
A populist leader ventures to establish a personal, intimate relationship with his followers, unmediated by political organizations. Populists have an aversion against organizations and are conspiracy theorists. Consider when Trump invokes that he is in “no one’s pocket” financially. His aversion against the Republican Party establishment. This idiom of the little guys against the machines, with a heroic leader coming to the rescue of the powerless underdogs, is a procedural template in politics that has, of course, inspired many political movements, particularly in times of crisis and economic decline: Think of Latin American populism (especially Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s), but also European fascism (Hitler, Mussolini), to Hugo Chávez in the 1990s and 2000s.
Kitschelt added, however, that he associated Trump most closely with Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy:
You have there the same swagger of the self-made billionaire, even if they are not self-made, the womanizer suggesting unlimited sexual prowess and appetite, the slayer of organizational dragons, the Manichean contrast of good and evil, as well as the substantive programmatic vacuity.
Right behind Berlusconi, “I probably would nominate Vladimir Putin,” Kitschelt said.
For an interesting take on Trump and how he attracts low-educated white racist and fascist supporters, read Evan Osnos' article The Fearful and the Frustrated in The New Yorker,
On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

Hannah Arendt would have recognized what's going on. Highly frustrated people with little knowledge and little political experience are starting to listen to charismatic protofascist demagogues who plays the game as it almost always is played. Attack minority groups. Promise a return to the "good old days" when only white lives mattered, and not even all of those.

Read more about Arendt here:

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...

No, I'm not comparing Donald Trump to Hitler or his supporters to the Nazi movement, but there are similarities between the social forces that drive the popularity of yesterday's demagogic and charismatic leaders and today's political clowns like Trump (who has quite a few things in common with Mussolini, but even more with Berlusconi.) Below is a long quote from a classic analysis of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Read and reflect.

"It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.

The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been "spoiled" by the party system.

Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular.

The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one's own or somebody else's party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority.

The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.

Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions.

It has frequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy . . . "

(Hannah ArendtThe Origin of Totalitarianism, 1951)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Synopsis for the novel "InterRail '73"

This is story about Johan, a young man from Sweden, who in the summer of 1973 sets out on a month-long journey across Western Europe. He had finished high school the year before and his mandatory military service in the spring. Like many young people then, his mind was formed by 1968, the Vietnam War and the pop culture, but unlike today’s youth, he had never heard of the world wide web, AirBnB, smartphones, WiFi, MP3-players or even Walkman cassette players, for the simple reason that they didn’t exist. Books and newspapers were printed on paper and reservations were mostly made in person.

His 7,000 mile-long journey was made possible by the InterRail Pass, which had been introduced in 1972 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Railway Union. For less than 50 U.S. dollars, the card allowed youth under 21 to jump on any train in 21 countries. Five thousand youngsters bought the card that first year, a number that grew to 85,000 in 1973 when Johan began his journey. He left with little money and no fixed plans. He carried a heavy backpack, a sleeping bag and kept his travelers checks and five twenty dollar bills in a nylon pouch under his t-shirt (very few people owned or had even heard of credit cards.)

He traveled alone, but he was never lonely since every train, train station, youth hostel and camp ground was full of InterRailers. Over the next thirty days he visited Paris, London and Rome twice, struggled with demons at the Coliseum, met with Soviet refugees in Venice, traveled with three Norwegian girls to Pescara and Carsoli, before returning to Rome where he debated religion and society with a Jesuit priest in the Vatican. He saw the seedy side of Genoa and then began a 30-hour ride to Bordeaux, only to continue on to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast where he took the ferry to Île de Ré.

He went there to meet the girl who had dumped him half a year earlier, but he never found her. Instead he became friends with several members of a German chamber orchestra and one of them invited him to dine with his family. He went there to meet the girl who had dumped him half a year earlier, but he never found her. Instead he became friends with several members of a German chamber orchestra and one of them invited him to dine with his family.

From France he traveled to Great Britain, but as he couldn’t afford to stay in London so he took a night train to Edinburgh. After a couple of days in Aberdeen, Inverness and Garve in the Scottish Highlands, he stopped in Manchester where he spent an evening with a friendly bum who hated immigrants (Irish and others). Then south to Cardiff in Wales, on to Oxford where he fought with left-wing students before returning to London where he was saved from having to spend the night on the floor at Victoria Station by a black professional who offered him his couch in southwestern London. In Amsterdam he smelled the ever-present hashish while discussing the cause of the youth rebellion with a professor from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Back in his parents’ summer home on an island in the Baltic Sea, he measured the distance traveled and added up the numbers. It was not quite Around the World in Eighty Days, but he had certainly spent more time on trains than Phileas Fogg since the latter had spent most of his time on steam boats. Neither was he accompanied by a valet who folded his shirts and served him breakfast in the mornings and booked his tickets. He wasn’t rich like Mr. Fogg and there was no big prize to win, just an expiration date on his InterRail card.

It’s a story about a young man who wants to change the world, but also a young man adrift on life’s ocean. He embraces the world, wins new friends, travels without fear and overcomes all obstacles. Many in his generation were as confused and rebellious as they are portrayed in James Michener’s 1971 novel The Drifters, but Johan was not rudderless even if his compass direction was distorted by a Marxism that had been revitalized by the revolutions of 1968, the Vietnam War and China’s Cultural Revolution, which many young rebels saw as an alternative to the petrified Soviet bureaucracy. It was his radicalism that helped him stay away from drugs, but it did not offer much help in navigating his search for, or maybe one should say, his yearning for love.

InterRail was a break from everyday life, a postponement of adulthood, which most kids his age ignored like a dark cloud by the horizon. The journey was in many ways an escape, but it was also a chance to encounter people from all over Europe, both young and old. It was also the thing to do for his generation; to jump on a train and ride it wherever it went, maybe to the end of the line. It was a romantic idea that he shared with most of the young people he met during this trip and it allowed for instant bonding and instant dissolution of the same bonds.

The trip also helped Johan recover the self-confidence he had lost when the girl he had loved broke off with him. He had set out on his journey alone, but he didn’t shy away from the challenge and he had a great time, finding new friends and girls that he normally would not have dared to approach. He returned feeling free and empowered and the hole in his heart felt a lot smaller. But returning home also made it clear that as comfortable as home was, the cloud at the horizon was much closer now, and he had to move on.

His life was waiting and the world needed him.

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water."

I was already thinking of reading Elena Ferrante when the latest issue of The Nation arrived with William Deresiewicz's essay about Ferrante's Neapolitan suite. It's brilliant and made me move Ferrante to the top of my reading list now that I have finished re-reading James Michener's novel about the 1960s - The Drifters (which as one can expect from Michener is exhaustively long, complex and highly analytical, but often woody and laden with stereotypes).

Then, in the third paragraph, he delivers this terrific comparison between Ferrante and Knausgaard:

The obvious comparison is to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of My Struggle, another multivolume first-person epic that has burst upon the literary scene in recent years. Knausgaard assures us, in prose of aggressive banality, that every word is accurate to his experience. Ferrante, in The Paris Review, offers a direct (and perhaps deliberate) rejoinder. “It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths.” Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

On the InterRail Way of Travel

The InterRail Pass was introduced in 1972 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Railway Union (Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer). Youth under 21 years old were offered to travel for one month in 21 member countries at a very low cost, less than 30 British pounds or about 50 U.S. dollars.

  Watch a 2012 documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of the InterRail Pass. 

About 5,000 young people bought the InterRail Pass in 1972, and it was so popular that it was repeated in 1973, when about 85,000 young travelers bought the card. Over the years, the InterRail Pass had expanded its reach to more and more countries, while the travel offers has become more varied and even includes First Class travel. Outside Europe the card is known as the Eurail Pass.

For most young people traveling with the InterRail Card/Pass in 1973 was very, very different from how you travel today. Most kids traveled without credit cards, cellphones, Internet, Web, Facebook, WiFi, guidebooks and with very little money. If you couldn't find a campground or a bed in a youth hostel, you had to sleep on a night train, on a beach, with a friend, on a railway station or wherever you found a place to rest your head. It was not always safe, but kids who had come of age in 1968 didn't worry much about safety. They were naive and willing to take risks. And most of them made it home alright.

Monday, October 5, 2015

InterRail '73 - Excerpt from a draft novel - Final Chapter

His father fried breaded fillets of flounder and served them with dill and potatoes that his mom had planted, nurtured and picked. They were small, sweet and needed no peeling. Johan had helped his mom set the table and he opened a bottle of red wine. She had taken the bus from Stockholm a couple of days before to celebrate his father’s birthday and help him close up for the season and drive back to Stockholm.

The dinner table stood in the living room, which used to be his father’s studio before he had a new one built so that the family could use the old one as a living room. It had three large panorama windows towards the Baltic Sea and one facing north. In 1959, his parents bought a tiny cottage from Sture Eriksson, a farmer on the east coast of northern Öland. It had two small rooms, a wood burning wrought iron stove, an outhouse toilet and an old fashioned water pump next to the well. The lot was triangular and located next to a small Pension. It had an unobstructed view of the grazing fields all the way down to the marshlands by the sea. If you walked up to the stone wall at the edge of the Pension’s property you could see the pier where his father had bought the fish early that morning from Sten, the fisherman, who was Sture’s oldest son.

Johan had spent every summer at the summer house since then, so it was a very familiar place. During the high season, there were usually a bunch of children staying with their parents at the pension, and they had lots of fun playing together. They would play catch or Indians and Cowboys, or just running around. Once Johan and his younger brother climbed up on the square roof of the pig sty at one end of the Pension’s property, but the roof was only resting on three sides, so before they knew it, the roof tilted into the pig sty, where there were two huge sows. They landed on all four in the deep black mud, and were scared to death, but quickly managed to escape.

He had so many memories from Öland.

Once he caught a frog and brought it into the bedroom where his father was taking a nap, but the frog jumped and landed on his dad’s pillow. He was not amused.

Another time, his dad suggested that they build a pirate ship, a real one, and started to sketch it out. Johan was the one who got most excited and it didn’t take long before he had started to dig a hole in the ground right in front of the living room. He felt it made most sense to start with the cargo space. The digging would go on for several summers, but never came to more than a big square hole that for years to come would remain an eyesore.

One rainy day, he and his two brothers complained more than usual that there was nothing to do. At some point his father had enough.

“We are going on an adventure!”

“But dad, it’s raining,” they cried out in unison.

“Don’t tell me that you can’t have an adventure because it’s raining? What kind of adventure would that be? Get ready!”

Half an hour later, his father and brothers walked across the property dressed in raincoats and rubber boots. They followed a small road that the farmers used to get to their pasture lands. When the road turned into a small forest, his father stopped, looked around, and told them to be real quiet.

“I think we have found good place to set up camp, and it’s right in there,” his father said and pointed into the woods. He then climbed over a stone fence and set off into the forest. Johan and his brothers were in a mild shock, but followed along. About a hundred feet in, his father started to cut down a two inch thick sapling with a small ax that he had brought with him. The rain picked up, but Johan and his brothers were by now caught up by the adventure and were busy building the base camp. Eventually they managed to fasten the 10- foot long sapling to two other trees and attach a green tarp that they stretched to the bottom of two other trees. His father spread out a second tarp under the first and invited them in.

They sat down in awe and listened to the rain tapping at the tarp, which was about all they could hear as there was no wind and the birds kept quiet.

“Are you hungry, boys,” his father asked as he took out sandwiches he had made, three Coca Cola, and a thermos flask with his coffee.

“Dad, why don’t we always have adventures like this?” Johan’s younger brother asked as he took a break from chewing.

“Well, to be a true adventure, you can’t do it too often,” his father answered.

Before long the rain had stopped and they packed up and walked home.


Now Johan was sitting at the dinner table talking to his parents about his European adventure. His father listened patiently as he always did, while his mother brought in coffee and a cake topped with whipped cream and self-picked strawberries. In the middle stood a single candle. They sang Happy Birthday and his mother gave his father a hug and a kiss before she sat down.


It was August, so the long days were not as long as they were in June, but it was only seven, so they took an evening walk along the same road where they had wandered off on that adventure many years ago. Johan remembered the many evening walks he used to take with his father, and sometimes with both his parents. He especially remembered one such walk when the sun was just about to set and the sky was still blue. His father had pointed to a cluster of trees half a mile away.

“What color is it?” he asked.

“Green,” Johan answered.

“Look again, what kind of green is it? How many green colors do you see?”

He looked again and realized that there were many kinds of green, many nuances, some of which were hardly green at all, but dark blue, brown or blackish green.

“If all you see is green or blue or yellow, then you are not really using your eyes. You need to be open to the impressions as they come your way,” his father said.

That was a lesson he had learned from the impressionists a quarter century ago when he was a young man and studied in Paris.


Johan was resting in a lounge chair outside his father’s studio, while his mother was busy tending to the little garden that she had created over the past few years. The sun was shining and it was warm, but he had a bad cold, a sore throat and a runny nose. He was trying to decide whether to go or not to go to Stockholm the day after tomorrow. As nice as it was here, he knew that he had to move on. His life was waiting and the world needed him.

The End.

InterRail '73 - Excerpt from a draft novel - Chapter Sixteen

He took out his Europe map and unfolded it on the wood floor in the summer house and traced his trip with a blue pen. He had gone from Kalmar to Copenhagen to Paris to Menton and all the way down to Rome, then north to Venice, south to Pescara, back to Rome via Carsoli, and north again to Genoa, across southern France to Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Île de Ré on the Atlantic coast, then to Paris where he jumped on a train to London only to continue on to Edinburgh and Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, south again to Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff, Oxford, and London before heading east to Dover where he took the ferry to Oostende in Belgium and then north to Amsterdam, Elsinor, Helsingborg, Alvesta, Kalmar and Öland.

He measured the distance with a ruler and added up the numbers: He had traveled 7,000 miles in thirty days. Not quite Around the World in Eighty Days, but he had definitively spent more time on trains than Phileas Fogg since the latter had spent most of his time on steam boats. Neither was he accompanied by a valet who folded his shirts and served him breakfast in the mornings and booked his tickets. He wasn’t rich like Mr. Fogg and there was no big prize to win, just an expiration date on his InterRail card.

Had he been searching for anything at all, or was he just one of those drifters the professor had talked about? Was it Terry he was looking for, or was she just a wound that he didn’t allow to heal? InterRail was the thing to do for his generation. To jump on a train, wherever it went. It was a romantic idea that captured the imagination of all those young people he had met during this trip. If anything, the trip had restored his self-confidence. He went all alone and he did it. And the girls he had met and flirted with made the hole Terry had left feel a lot smaller. When he was stuck in the army, he felt imprisoned and she was his only hope, the only one he could see, and then she betrayed him. Now he was free and he felt empowered. There was no need to hold back, to stand back. He could just walk up to a girl, even a beautiful girl and start talking.

Another thing that had struck him was how much alike people were. People in a supermarket in Inverness were not much different from those in Stockholm, Paris or London. Most people were nice and friendly, even the bums. He didn’t believe in God, but he believed in people.

As for what he was going to do next with his life, he had no idea and that didn’t bother him too much. He knew for sure that he wasn’t going to go into plastics. He wanted to do something that was important, to serve the people, to change the world. In the meantime, he was thinking of taking a job to make money, get new shots, renew his STF membership and go on another long journey.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

InterRail '73 - Excerpt from a draft novel - Chapter Fifteen

It was Monday, August 13th and his InterRail ticket would expire in a day. Johan and Göran were going to take the Copenhagen-Stockholm train. The first car was packed with travelers so they moved on to the next car where they ran into the two Norwegian girls they had met in Amsterdam. Johan and one Mette hit it off and talked all the way to Elsinor. She was interested in history and yoga and showed him some of the books she had bought in London. She told him to read Jens Björnboe’s Frihetens øyeblikk: Heiligenberg-manuskriptet (Moment of Freedom: The Heiligenberg Manuscript.) He felt like he felt when he met Sylvia on the train to Rome. It was this overwhelming sensation of wanting to hug her immediately and to give her everything he had to give.


It was his father’s birthday and it was half a year after his surgery. Johan remembered how pale his father looked when they visited him after the surgery, which had taken eleven hours. His father looked tired and still had a hole in his throat when they came in to the room. A nurse cleaned it now and then by sucking out phlegm with a machine. His father’s voice was labored and raspy and it must have scared him, because he sank down on the side of the hospital bed and took his father’s hand, which was cold and pale so that his liver spots were more noticeable. He felt like he was going to faint.

It had been a big operation and getting an artificial heart valve was a big and new deal. His father later told him that the valve was made out of steel, titanium and let him listen to the faint metallic ticking inside his heart. The large medical team at Karolinska Institutet was led by Viking Björk who had developed the artificial heart valve five years earlier together with the American engineer Donald Shiley. His father said that the doctors had given him a fifty percent chance of survival, which was not much, except that it was much better than if they did nothing. He never showed any anxiety before the surgery, but took it stoically. It was but one of many, many times when he had stared death in the face.


In Elsinor, the conductor said that the train would split and that the doors between the two sections would be locked. Mette had to grab her bags and rush over to the Oslo section of the train. They both thought the trains would go on the same boat, so all they said was: “Bye, see you soon!” But the trains took different ferries and they never saw each other again. In Helsingborg, he could see her train standing there right next to his. The train left and he felt really sad. All he knew was that she came from Tromsö. He looked at his European map and realized that Tromsö was way up along the Norwegian coast.

“Maybe I can hitchhike there sometime,” he consoled himself.


There he was on the train to Stockholm and his throat was getting worse. He thought he had strep throat or something like that. He changed train in Alvesta in southern Sweden and was lucky to catch the connecting train to Kalmar. He had decided to go to Öland to see his father and congratulate him on his birthday. He would turn 61 that day. Johan was a bit worried, because it had been one month since he left and it was just eight months since the operation.


The girl from Tromsö was so sweet, soft and nice. A bit heavy, but charming. And she had a lot of stuff in her heart. So much he knew. It would have been nice to feel safe with her.


He was looking forward to get letters from his new friends and write letters to them. He also wondered if he might have a letter from Terry waiting at the summer house.

Hubble Telescope Images