Sunday, November 21, 2010

Scene at the Bahnhof

Part of the reason I'm so hard on the US is because I actually follow US politics. I read the stuff about the anti-immigrant laws in Arizona or Tea Party's latest antics, and it makes me want to tear my hair out -- it leaves me with the impression that the US must be the most militantly, wilfully ignorant country on the planet.

Then I remember that it's easy to wander around Switzerland with the (mis)impression that everything is candy-canes and lollipops -- as long as you don't speak German well enough to understand what people are saying...

Sometimes bad stuff is hard to miss, though -- for example, the cutesy-cartoon-racist political posters that are often plastered all over town. (I posted about them once before here.) Lately we've been treated to a new version of the "white sheep kicking the black sheep our of Switzerland" poster:

I was waiting at the train station with my son the other day, and the only free bench on the train platform had the white-sheep-black-sheep poster behind it. But my son wanted to sit down, so we did (with me muttering to myself about having to sit by this racist poster).

The interesting thing, though, was that apparently folks hadn't let this message pass without comment. There were three messages written on it in ball-point pen:

Naturally, since I have the wrong skin color, I'm a bad person. And naturally I chose my skin color! (originally: Naturlich habe ich nicht die richtige Hautfarbe, also ich bin eine schlechte Person. Und naturlich habe ich meine Hautfarbe ausgewählt!)

Thanks a lot, SVP! They're so intelligent! (originally: Danke schön zu dem SVP! Sie sind so intelligent!)

I suffer every day because of my skin color... I didn't need a poster like this one to remind me. :( (originally: Je souffre tous les jours à cause de ma coleur de peau... Je n'avais pas besoin d'une telle affiche pour me la rappeler... :()

I don't really have anything to add -- I just found it to be an interesting urban dialog.


Kiley said...

That is terrible! I don't know very much about the Swiss but I would not have expected such prejudice. Wow.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kiley!!!

Yeah, it's really shocking when you first see these openly-racist-cutesy-comic political posters.

I don't want to minimize how awful it is, but I'll add a couple of things to put it into perspective: As I've said, every country has its openly-hateful-proud-to-be-racist segment. It's not a question of it being one country's problem -- it's a human problem that we all need to combat in every country. (Just have a look at some of the stuff Hackman posted the other day.)

In Switzerland's case, most (or all?) of their important laws are decided by popular referendum. So all of the political parties regularly put up tons of very simple political advertisements all over the country -- generally dumbing the issue down to one emotionally-evocative image, one quick slogan, and a checkbox telling you whether to vote "Ja" or "Nein". And apparently the racist party has enough money to join in this game. I wouldn't judge the average Swiss person based on this, though.

MoHoHawaii said...

Now imagine that Swiss billionaires can *in secret* give *unlimited* amounts of money to buy ads for specific candidates or ballot measures. That's where the U.S. is right now thanks to our charming Supreme Court.

For all its faults, I think the U.S., Canada and Australia do a pretty good job at ethnic diversity. Other first world countries have a harder time with this.

Joe said...

What's wrong with that MoHoHawaii? Why are you so afraid of free speech?

Don't blame the supreme court, blame that pesky US constitution that quite explicitly states "Congress shall pass no law... abridging the freedom of speech".

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

Re: Now imagine that Swiss billionaires can *in secret* give *unlimited* amounts of money to buy ads for specific candidates or ballot measures.

I hate to admit further ignorance of Swiss politics, but for all I know, maybe they can...

Re: For all its faults, I think the U.S., Canada and Australia do a pretty good job at ethnic diversity. Other first world countries have a harder time with this.

This is exactly the fallacy that I'm most concerned about taking on when I say that racism is everyone's problem.

Fallacy #1: is the idea that Europe is some kind of monolith, and that each country has similar methods for integrating immigrants and similar success rates. Not true at all -- the countries of Europe vary widely.

Fallacy #2: "Europe" in general has a problem that is much worse than anything back home (whichever home country you might be coming from). If you want to dismiss any integration effort as utterly "failed," then you have no further to look than the continued marginalization of black people in the US. Centuries after the end of slavery, and a half-century after the civil rights movement was supposed to have corrected the problem, black people still face extreme segregation and lack of opportunities.

Patting oneself on the back that you don't have a really bad problem with racism like those other guys, is not merely wrong -- it's ironically projecting the problem of racism onto those incomprehensible "other" cultures and ethnicities. The reality is that -- in our new globally-interconnected world -- we can't afford to throw up our hands and give up on integration anywhere. It's incredibly difficult (and incredibly important) everywhere.

Carla said...

@ Joe money isn't speech. There are limits on freedom of speech in the US - libel and slander, or calls for violence, for instance.

When all you need to make people believe horrific lies, especially lies that end in people having their rights taken away in nonsense ballot measures, is money, it's a direct attack on equality and democracy. Democracy isn't just about freedom of choice, but informed choice, by an informed public.

For instance, Prop 8 in California: a ballot measure passed by spending millions on brochures and advertisements that spread vicious lies about LGBT people, and ended in taking away their equal protection under the law and fundamental right to marriage without due process (Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Loving v. Virgina, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, The 14th Amendment to the Constitution)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

Thanks -- that's essentially what I wanted to say in response to Joe's comment.

The other point kind of side-tracked me, though. The thing is that racism from one country to the next is such a complicated issue. Despite what I said in my previous comment, I think that some cultures really do integrate immigrants and minorities better than others, and some cultures place more value than others on fairness (as opposed to racism/bigotry).

On the other hand, I've lived in both the US and Europe. If you want to consider Europe collectively on this issue, I'd say that the US doesn't do significantly better or worse in terms of racism. (See my post European Dream for more on this.)

It's just so weird to me how often Americans see news of racism in Europe and see it as some incomprehensible, alien problem instead of seeing how very similar it is to the same problem back home...

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to MoHoHawaii -- please don't take this personally. This is just my standard response...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hey Chanson,

No offense taken!

Rereading my comment, I see that it was broader than I intended. I agree with your point that racism is all over the place and that complacency enables it.

A narrower statement, which I stand behind, is that not all countries are the same when it comes to pluralism. For example, my boyfriend has biracial nephews in Japan, and they are treated quite poorly by their peers and even by some of the teachers in their school. In the U.S., at least where I live, these kids would be completely accepted.

Having lived in Europe and visited often, as well as having ties to Japan from my boyfriend's family, I'm less naive about this subject than you probably imagine. :- )

Joe said...

Carla, money itself is not free speech, but it enables free speech. Moreover, your examples are misguided--exercising your free speech also means you are held responsible for that speech. Libel and slander are prosecuted after the fact, not before. Prior restraint is a very ugly concept that will always come back to bite you in the ass.

In this case, it concerns political speech which is exactly the type of speech the constitution intended to protect. Do you really think the founding fathers believed speech was only good if money wasn't involved? That's absurd on the face of it, let alone the content.

Once you place limits on spending money on political speech, where does it end? And doesn't it swing both ways? Once you prevent someone from spreading lies, don't you defacto prevent someone else from fighting those lies?

In other words, how can you inform without risking someone else from disinforming? You can't.

In regards to proposition 8 in California, both sides had equal opportunity to make their case. The notion that it passed because of vicious lies is belied by the fact that most people oppose same-sex marriage and those numbers barely budged through out the campaign. (That said, I think the LDS church should be stripped of its tax exempt status for its overt political activities along with other religions and churches on both sides of this and other issues. Then again, I think tax exemption should be eliminated all together.)

(For the record, I think the state should get out of marriage and have basic civil unions for adults who freely enter them in whatever combination they want.)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!


Hey Joe!!!

The SCOTUS has ruled in the past that different categories of speech have different levels of protection. Political speech is the most protected, advertising and obscenity are less protected. As soon as people start pooling their money for a political cause, that is political organizing, and that stage of the game can (and should) be regulated, regardless of whether the campaign money gets eventually spent on political advertising or something else.

I'm not familiar with the details of the ruling that MoHoHawaii mentioned, but I gather that it was that if one person, acting alone, chooses to take out a political ad, the first amendment protects his right to do it (which, as you point out, it does). OTOH, since we're talking about mass advertising, the court could have ruled that the advertisements are at least required to disclose who paid for them. Of course, the real problem may be that a republic has inherent problems functioning correctly when a handful of individuals command more resources than entire states...

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. on marriage: Rather than thread-jack this discussion even further, see my earlier post just write it down.

The Sinister Porpoise said...

And I wouldn't believe too much about what you read about the Tea Party. It's goals are simple: limited government, fiscal responsibility from the government. Neither of these ideas is "owned" by either party.

Sadly, one group did decide to have the John Birch society set up a booth at its convention. If they really wanted to overcome the unfair labels they've been saddled with, that wasn't the way to do it.

wry said...

They claim it is not meant to be a racial thing, but a "black sheep" thing -- meaning the black sheep is the bad one and gets kicked out of the herd. This is a referendum on deporting people who commit crimes, even if they have permanent residency status.

But yeah, there is very little plausible deniability that this is racist, the SVP are hardly subtle about such things. They had one a couple of years ago with all these various darker-than-ivory colored hands grabbing for Swiss passports -- and an online game where you could see how many you could block. And their anti-Schengen campaign was a melodramatic laugh-fest...if people weren't taking it seriously.

I blogged furiously about these campaigns several times. Meh. SVP are not the majority. Screw 'em.

- wry