Johannes Ruckstuhl

Student, critic and general -preneur

State of the Campaign

At a fundraising event last November, Barack Obama described changing the political cultures of Washington as his biggest challenge, calling it “the biggest piece of business that remains unfinished. That’s probably the area where we’ve been most stymied over the last three years” (article). No doubt referring to the rather cavalier stand-in-the-way-of-everything tactics of his Republican-led lower house, the president has had to discover that the absurdly upbeat sentiment of “Yes we can” (which Obama himself has thought a silly slogan) can play hard to get. 

And while four months is a century in political terms, witholding the possibility of a major scandal, his reelection in November is not unlikely. Opinion polls put him ahead consistently if marginally. Some of this is attributable to the fact that the Republican ticket is only just getting into gear. Romney’s choice of running mate will be key, as it was for John McCain four years ago, however it’s the tone of argument coming from the Democratic election HQ that is equally interesting.

First comes the admission that fundraising is going to be rather more difficult than last time round. In 2008 the vast majority of almost $800 million raised came from individuals donating small amounts online. And while at the end of May Obama’s coffers were twice as full as Mitt Romney’s, the latter significantly out-fundraised in June, collecting over $100 million, $40 million more than Obama. The response has been to call for small donations of $3-5 to “Close the gap.” While it would be rash to qualify this as desperation - as Der Spiegel (article in German) did today - it must be admitted that mobilizing comparable numbers will be a major hurdle.

Secondly, the tone of Obama’s campaign has been as much to discredit the opponent as to discuss actual policy. This is epitomized in an obnoxious video advert and the “Truth Team” (a pretentious term if ever there was one). Romney’s campaign meanwhile sports an even more laughable website called “Obama Isn’t Working,” his main campaign meanwhile splashing headlines such as “Meet Mitt” and “The American Entrepreneur - You Did Build It!”, this coming from a party whose previous President famously exclaimed that the French don’t have a word for entrepreneur!

Mitt Romney has a lot of answering to do about offshore accounts, business ventures and so forth and, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, Americans need to ask themselves whether they can vote for a man who believes that Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets and believed the Garden of Eden to be in Missouri.

It’s simply not good enough for a campaign centerpiece to consist of cheap political point-scoring. When all this is done, maybe we can get back to discussing policy because Obama has some tough questions to respond to as well. The state of the Guantanamo detention center for instance or the roadmap on foreign policy. There’s a term for what’s currently happening, and that’s called distraction.

Thou Shalt Not Intervene

Another day another massacre. That has been the Syrian status quo for over a year now. The International Red Cross today upped the nation’s profile to “civil war.” What does that mean, or change? Not much. Effectively it means that, according to the Geneva Convention, sometime in the future it may, weather permitting, make it more likely for then aging despots and generals to maybe be put on trial for war crimes. You see where this is going.

The 20th Century can be read as a long list of crimes against humanities committed by dictators, politicians, soldiers and civilians that were largely “gotten away with.” In other words, the international community stood by, watched and let it happen time and time again (or worse, had a dirty hand in it), whether in Russia, Armenia Cambodia, East Timor or El Salvador. It begs the question of why, when human rights are being so grossly disregarded, as they are in Syria, why interventionist foreign policy cannot find more support. Eddie Izzard puts forward the rather cynical argument that “we’re sort of fine with that [the criminals], because they killed their own people” and to a certain extent this is true. Would it not however be honourable to defend human rights and values like free speech that western society stands for? By force if necessary.

Yet everybody is keen (officially anyway, more on that later) to leave their hands off Syria. The Arab League has tried and failed, the United Nations have sent a half-hearted diplomatic mission, brokering a ceasefire that lasted all of a day. Turkey has moved some troops, more as a reinforcing of its own borders than anything else and Putin is being anti-western self, vetoing every possible resolution from the UN Security Council. And every day the world waits, more people die.

The political situation is of course precarious. The US, the biggest player and most likely source of a military solution has led two disastrous wars of intervention over the last decade. Purely from a moral perspective, both Afghanistan and Iraq may have been justified - human rights were being grossly disregarded in both. However, Obama has the electorate to face in November and in no way would a third front increase his chances of a second term. America is in a state of paralysis and identity crisis, much like it was in the aftermath of Vietnam. Furthermore, over 85% of Syrians are either Sunni or Shia muslims and that will equally be a deterrent for the US fed up with the image of “World Police” it holds throughout much of the muslim world.

What are the possible outcomes here? With a fully fledged UN resolution likely to remain off the table (though that needn’t prevent military action, the second gulf war was started without one), the west’s influence is likely to remain more discreet. Perhaps a bombing mission similar to the Libyan example is a possibility. Most observers say Assad’s days are numbered but in a recent interview with Jürgen Todenhöfer his disposition was everything but defeatist. The CIA are (reportedly, it’s not like they’d tell us) involved in training Syrian rebels in Turkish camps. Furthermore, the rebels are quite clearly being bankrolled by foreign powers and this is set to continue.

The west’s stance is doubly hypocritical if you will. On the one hand, the public face is one of non-intervention, limiting itself to “strong words.” On the other, the power-play is far too significant for the powers that be not to be ready to pounce and divide the scatterlings among each other.

Arguably: The Art of the Essay

Having hours to kill in one of Berlin’s largest book stores is sure to return some interesting results and today I poked my nose into Christopher Hitchens’ last published book before he passed away last year, Arguably. As anyone who has known me in the last few months can attest to, my engagement with Mr. Hitchens’ writing has been on a level where abnormal is putting it mildly. His prose (perhaps polemic is a more fitting term) is on a level few today can compete with and those who can - Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie et al - were sure to be found among his list of friends. Prompting this piece is a reflection on this chosen format of writing, the essay.

The definition of the essay is rather lucid. Perhaps more specifically, Arguably is a selection of newspaper and magazine articles and book reviews, columns rather than essays. In essence however, this is today’s primary platform for short, discursive writing, the significance of which should not be diminished, particularly in light of some very famous predecessors and their position in history. Examples are of course innumerable but two essayists of the renaissance particularly spring to mind - Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne.

The birthplace of humanism (yay!) was obsessed with the notion of the self and self-forming to which the essay was both means and end. It was therefore not only a regular but formative occasion as well. Bacon’s language is exemplary as it is highly didactic, often drawing on classical mythology and philosophy. Montaigne’s writing is comparatively light hearted, a conversation flow of thought and conscience, basing itself on reason rather than example and experience. 

Montaigne can easily follow a discourse Of Cruelty by writing Of Smells,Of Thumbs or comment on how he will plant his cabbages. Insatiable curiosity is coupled with constant an immediately likeable self-deprecation. Here are two samples, from Of the Force of the Imagination and On the Education of Children:

The discourses are mine, and hold together by the proofe of reason, not of experiences.

and

…there is not a boy of the lowest form in a school, that may not pretend to be wiser than I, who am not able to examine him in his first lesson, which, if I am at any time forced upon, I am necessitated in my own defence, to ask him, unaptly enough, some universal questions, such as may serve to try his natural understanding; a lesson as strange and unknown to him, as his is to me.

If we view column inches as contemporary essay ground then that seems like a disposition worthy of aspiring to, wouldn’t you say? Jack Warner may be right - today’s newspaper may indeed be tomorrow’s toilet paper. That may be because what’s written on it isn’t worth a second look, but that’s no excuse for you or me. The essay can be an art form and let’s keep that so!

Hello World, hello Tumblr!

Yes, it’s another tumblr blog. Truth be told, the inner journalist needs to keep his writing style in polished shape over the summer. So I’m going to do a short daily piece on whatever tickles my fancy. Broadly, you can expect ruminations on politics, culture, technology and so forth.

It’s a bit early to ask for followers but if you check back in a few days, you’ll find something a little more engaging. If you do decide to follow, I might just follow back!