Friday, August 20, 2010

With Everything Permitted...

David Byrne wonders how access to an unending font of information can trivialize the act of reading. The singer and blogger thinks back to the days of the Communist bloc, "when nothing was permitted, and everything was important."

Richard D.E. Burton echoes this plaint for the vitality that repression gives culture. In his literary history of Prague, he says that any and all printed material in the pre-1989 era meant long lines in front of the bookstore. But after the Velvet Revolution, the cinemas filled up with American trash movies, and the diehards all shrugged.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Fresh Face in England

A serious challenge to the United Kingdom's electoral traditions is in the offing. Nick Clegg will probably force one of the two dominant parties (Labour and the Tories) into forming a coalition with his newly powerful Liberal Democrats after Thursday's election.

David Cameron of the Tories would appear to benefit from his Euroskepticism--a long-held feeling the U.K. and never more relevant in this period of meltdown--but his party is virtually tied with Gordon Brown's Labour. Simon Schama finds in this deadlock new hope for crusty old Westminster. Will Hutton sets out a vision in which Clegg's party governs the U.K. in a coalition with Labour.

And just what sort of man is this, who seems to be sweeping aside the two-party, "first past the post" system? His "My Hero" choice in the Guardian is risky and intriguing. He used to work for this curmudgeon. His multinational family will certainly invite comparisons to a certain American politician, and his Europeanness is not superficial.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter Olympics as a Reflection of GDP

A perusal of the final medal count of this month's Winter Olympics looks a bit fishy. These podium-hogging nations seem to have something in common.

Why is it that the world's wealthiest countries dominate the Winter Olympics? Why does the medal total for events like luge and ice dancing so closely resemble this list?

The Olympics purport to host a contest for amateur athletes. In reality, producing elite athletes requires a substantial corporatist investment. Promising children must be culled from the hinterlands and isolated in frosty, impersonal training academies. There's plenty of snow in Chile, but that nation lacks the capital and social structure to give potential champions the means to refine their talents.

But money alone does not explain why Saudi Arabia and Brazil do not yet produce top skiers. Sure, there are factors like geography and custom. But to grasp the link between wealth and winter sports, you need to take into account just why homo sapiens decided to go out there in the snow, exerting himself.

Man's conquest over winter could not have taken place without the search for fuel that obsesses the global North. In the cold, rich countries, to survive means constantly hustling, gathering firewood, scavenging, accumulating resources at all costs.

Our sporting triumph is a highly technocratic one, involving advances in speed-skate design and skintight outerwear. In ageless competitions like running, the playing field is truly level, and underdeveloped economies like Jamaica and Kenya dominate.

Braving cold temperatures and the accretion of wealth are and forever will be intertwined. Perhaps an indicator of real national athletic achievement should account for the tremendous economic gap between competing nations. This formula divides the number of medals by trillions in GDP per capita (2009, according to the International Monetary Fund).

1) Slovenia: 65.79 medals per trillion dollars
2) Latvia: 58.65 mpt
3) Norway: 51.11 mpt
4) Belarus: 49.83 mpt
5) Estonia: 43.10 mpt
6) Croatia: 42.86 mpt
7) Austria 39.02 mpt
8) Slovakia 33.33 mpt
9) Czech Republic 27.27 mpt
10) Sweden 22.92 mpt
11) Finland 18.52 mpt
12) Switzerland 18 mpt
13) Canada 17.33 mpt
14) Korea 15.22 mpt
15) Poland 11.32 mpt
16) Netherlands 9.09 mpt
17) Russia 8.93 mpt
18) Germany 8.17 mpt
19) Kazakhstan 7.69 mpt
20) France 3.83 mpt
21) Australia: 2.97 mpt
22) United States: 2.57 mpt
23) China: 2.54 mpt
24) Italy: 2.17 mpt
25) Japan: 1.02 mpt
26) Great Britain 0.37 mpt

Of course many participating countries did not medal. Still, it's remarkable that the UK spent 2.6 trillion dollars for one lousy gold (Amy Williams in women's skeleton). It's also illuminating to note that China and America have near identical ratios--another indicator of the unification of Chimerica. Finally, it will be intriguing to see if the former Eastern bloc countries can continue their overachievement in winter sports as their economies grow.

For a hockey roundup, check out N+1.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Muslim Non-integration

French laïcité has arguably advanced a specific kind of intolerance for Muslim identity. The tradition of keeping "ostentatious" religious symbols out of sight while in the public sphere (a sphere that includes pretty much all of France) has translated into a ban on the hijab.

To my mind it's a reasoned objection, even if it can get a little hysterical and xenophobic. I have a Parisian woman-friend who says she feels "violated" when she sees a veiled woman. As an American, I instinctively feel that curtailing personal expression in deference to "national identity" is a bummer. But of course it's complicated--veils mean stand for more than just modesty.

Switzerland has recently taken the attitude a bit farther with a ban on minarets. Carlin Romano seems to understand that fashion and architecture traffic in symbols, and this backlash to Islamic co-existence is more than just symbolic. Immigration restriction and societal exclusion are daily realities for Europe's millions of Muslims.

Hence that without policy change, building codes mean little more than that, and just end up inflaming opinion. It reminds me of when American Indian activist Russell Means stealthily installed a response plaque at Little Big Horn as a means of symbolic terrorism. Means wanted a more truthful memorial than the existing paean to Custer. It wasn't an assault on a source of power, it was an assault on a symbol.