06/24/09 1:00pm
06/24/2009 1:00 PM |

The world is shocked and captivated. Curious and anxious. Engaged, informed.

And perhaps worried. Perhaps very.

It has been nearly two weeks since the dubiously legitimate electoral results in Iran indicated a decisive victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the primary opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, catalyzing protests and demonstrations throughout the Islamic Republic and flooding media outlets with minute-by-minute images and accounts thereof. The situation is complicated, to say the least, by many different factors, making its outcome as difficult to foresee as some of its bloodier depictions might be to behold.

Naturally, neither is commenting on the events a facile task, especially for certain Western leaders. For them, quite obviously, official statements must be devised and delivered with particular delicacy.

Yet among those leaders and their critics, verbal caution is not all that has ensued.

There has also been comparison aplenty.

The French
Though often somewhat exaggerated, critiques of the alleged ‘softness’ of Barack Obama’s response to the situation in Iran have been abundant enough to beg explanation in American media, but European reactions to his careful tone have been largely positive — or at least understanding. In “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compte ses soutiens à l’étranger,” for example, from Le Monde, the logic of Obama’s guarded reaction seems quite clear: “The American president chose carefully his statements, critiquing the repressive turn in Iran but avoiding overtly contesting the legitimacy of an Iranian leader with whom his administration will have to engage in delicate discussions, in secret or out in the open, in the coming months.” The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, endorsed the American response as well: “President Obama chose his words with great prudence… In Iran, this is not a competition between pro-West and anti-West, rather a competition to reflect the will of the Iranian people.”

Harsher statements, meanwhile, have hailed from France. According to the same article, “In Europe, the most biting commentary against the Iranian president has come from Nicolas Sarkozy… The French president seemed to have definitively cut bridges with Ahmadinejad… ‘The extent of fraud is proportional to the violence of the reaction’ of the Iranian authorities, declared Sarkozy. ‘These elections are detestable news,’ he went on, ‘and the Iranian people deserve otherwise.’” At the same time, Le Monde reports that Ahmedinejad’s ‘victory’ has been warmly received by other national leaders, including Russia’s Medvedev and China’s Hu Jintao. Purportedly, Venezuela’s Chavez has also openly applauded it. Adding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to that roster of endorsements, then, makes for a rather petrifying Dream Team.

Petrol-ifying, even? Indeed.

But wait, all that applause has nothing to do with oil, right? And isn’t the Dream Team backed by stars and stripes?

Moreover, isn’t this not about America? As Obama has explained, echoing Brown’s comment above, it shouldn’t be: “The last thing I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States… We shouldn’t be playing into that.”

Nonetheless, with so much talk of the ‘Obama factor,’ the American press has done that for him.

Back once more to the French press where, in a different article in Le Monde — this one an interview with the president of the Research Institute for Contemporary Iran, a Washington-based think tank of sorts — one finds a most chilling sentiment: “Khamenei has reached a point of no return… If he manages to repress the Iranian people, he will become a military dictator along the lines of Saddam Hussein. He will be the king of a cemetery.”

The Italians, the Germans

Although Italy’s Berlusconi has consistently failed to properly cover up the various forms of ass he has coined for himself of late, he did succeed in speaking out against the violent suppression of Iranian demonstrations. On that note at least, as reported in La Stampa, his sentiments concur with those of Germany’s Angela Merkel: “Merkel defended the Iranian people’s right to free speech, asking the government of Tehran to ‘renounce the use of violence, release the opposers and initiate a recount of the ballots.’” The same article features also Khamenei’s widely reported attacks on British authorities for supposedly allowing mujahideen terrorists to enter Iran from Britain, as well as his accusations that London was engaged in a plot to subvert the Iranian election.

Discourse in Deutschland, while in no way suggesting a level of insincerity or undue restraint in Merkel’s response, has simultaneously remarked on the importance of trade-related concerns in the rapport between Iran and Germany, who “is still – after China — Iran’s second largest trading partner, maintained by long-standing connections,” according to Der Tagesspiegel. As such, while in the past Germany has bent to “US and Israeli pressures to cut back economic ties,” the consideration now, should greater sanctions be called for, is whether “other firms in other countries,” such as Russia, India and Japan, would take advantage of the situation and “fill in the holes” left behind by Germany’s truncation of trade. Moreover, according to Handelsblatt, Iran will be able to play such trade-related chips, regarding the energy sector in particular, with many of Europe’s largest economies.

One more curious twist in all this, and one more sobering note:
According to the New York Times, it is software developed by Chinese computer engineers working in the US that has enabled Iranians to obviate state control and transmit images and news to the outside world.

Meanwhile, it is technology developed by Nokia Siemens, of German and Finnish ownership, that has enabled the Iranian government to intercept such transmissions and crack more firmly down.

Yet to be sure, once again, this is not about the West. It is not, intrinsically, about us.

But it’s hard not to sense an exceptional, albeit detached fixation to this moment as we too flock to ephemera online — even YouTube and Facebook — to observe this history.
Or to learn, to mourn.
Until a dove of peace perhaps calmly Twitters tweets.

06/10/09 1:00pm
06/10/2009 1:00 PM |

Are Americans more like Europeans than either side cares to admit? Or, are variably interpretable and exquisitely manipulable statistics more reliable than rhetoric?

Alternately, are Bloomberg and Spanish journalists conspiring to bring down Berlusconi? Or, is poolside nudity more fun with machine-gunners casually lurking around?

Obviously, the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.

Ok, maybe just a lukewarm yes.

Ok, fine. Perhaps just a maybe.

Auf jedenfall, The Germans
Exhibit A is a series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel bearing the umbrella title “Warum wir den Amerikanern ähnlicher sind, als wir glauben” (“Why We Are More Similar to Americans than We Believe”). Culling data and points of comparison from research conducted by Peter Baldwin, a professor of European history at UCLA, for his forthcoming book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, the series compares Americans to Europeans from many different angles and draws a number of rather striking parallels and divergences.

And ach mein Gott, sometimes the data even favor the US! Could it be? Zum Beispiel:

“From an ecological perspective, America always comes across as very wasteful…. But the numbers say something different. The oil consumption per capita is in fact quite high. Yet when this is considered with respect to production (that is, in relation to goods produced or miles covered), then America falls within European limits and is actually in better standing than Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Iceland. CO2 emissions increased from 1990 to 2002, but they fell with respect to GDP in a way more distinct than in all 27 EU countries.”

Unglaublich! But what about all those big fat cars? Aren’t we totally übermotorisiert? [Note: I refuse to translate that gem of a word.]

“Even the myth of the übermotorisiert nation can be refuted: per capita, Americas own fewer cars than Austrians, French, Swiss, Germans, Luxembourgers and Italians. And Americans are only a bit more dependent on their cars. But when one considers the kilometers driven with respect to landmass, then they even fall behind Finland, Sweden and Greece.”

Nein! Nein! And what’s that? Neither do we produce that much garbage? Less per capita, actually, than Norwegians, and about the same as the Irish and the Danish? Crazy! Well, what about all that fake food we constantly spray with poison?

“Conventional farmers in the US waste less fertilizer than their European colleagues. And since their crops are genetically optimized, their use of pesticides is lower. Italians spray seven times more pesticides on their fields – and Belgians even more.”

Phew! At least the food is still fake! Disappointing, however, is the notion that those adorable and delicious little cabbages called Brussels sprouts are just miniature toxin bombs. [That’s unsettling, too, given that the birthday dinner I recently prepared for myself featured – as the pathetically lone, butter-bathed entrée with a side of pretzels – the cheapass frozen version of those little fuckers. Yet since the German word for ‘poison’ is Gift, I suppose that all makes sense. So since I sincerely heart Brussels sprouts, I’ll keep giving myself buttery presents.]

Other points of comparison in the series pertain to religiosity, patriotism, various notions of cultural fortitude, self-critique and faith in government. In these concerns and many others, not only might we be quite different from what our European friends think, we might indeed be quite different from what we ourselves think. The flipside of all this, of course, is that Europeans don’t fit their typically less denigrating clichés either.

At the same time, numbers and statistics are easy to fudge to make convenient, alarming or desired claims, and asserting that Americans are ‘better than’ or ‘the same as’ or ‘not much worse than’ Europeans with regard to certain cultural and meta-cultural concerns is not necessarily something that should heighten anyone’s sense of aplomb.

In other words, the data should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe even a whole teaspoon of salt in case our nation’s widespread high blood pressure is a fallacy as well.

Bloomberg and The Spanish contro Berlusconi

Italian politigoat Silvio Berlusconi continues to blow his wad dappertutto. Spain’s El País recently ran these photos (NSFW!) of the ever-scandalous prime minister daddy-macking poolside with naked women in topiary ecstasy, leisurely poised yet heavily armed guards, naked women hanging out with sculptures of naked youths and, most curiously, one man who appears to be astonished by either a blue and white striped towel or the neat trim of his own pubic hair. Although Berlusconi called the photos “innocent,” he also called them a “scandalous aggression” and denounced the Spanish daily.

In unrelated news, New York Times contributor Rachel Donadio has been accused, more or less, by an Italian magistrate of conspiring with Mayor Bloomberg to depose Italy’s oh-so chivalrous – he is called il Cavaliere, after all – leader.
Or maybe that news is not unrelated. Maybe El País and Bloomberg are in cahoots. Bellissimo! How often does one get to use the word ‘cahoots’?

Now back to those opening questions: Maybe? Yes? Jawohl?

05/27/09 4:00am
05/27/2009 4:00 AM |

This week in Paul D’Agostino’s funtime adventures through the European press, he seriously thinks about moving to Romania. Seriously.

Evidently, a new plan to facilitate study abroad and Euro-tripping for Moldovan youths could eventually ruffle feathers in the Kremlin and raise eyebrows in Beijing.
Weird, right? Preposterous, even?

Well, given the diplomatically purposeful yet rather muted forms of applause that concluded summits held between the European Union and Chinese and Russian leaders last week – and given a curious new loophole in Romanian citizenship rights – something along such improbable lines could, in fact, in the coming months, be the case.

And in rather large part, it could all hinge on gas. Seriously. Somewhat less seriously, though, is that after a bit of politico-geographical zigzagging, there may be reason to find this all quite unsettlingly funny.

Let’s begin in Eastern Europe.

The EU and Moldova par the French
According to an article in Le Monde, “Les jeunes Moldaves rêvent d’Europe et se rouent sur les passeports roumains,” relations between Romania, an EU Member State since 2007, and Moldova, an independent republic that was once part of Romania before becoming Soviet territory throughout the Cold War, are currently strained on two fronts – one of them democratico-electoral, and the other, in a sense, generational – both of which have been very recently roiled:

Romano-Moldovan relations were severely degraded by the communist victory to the Moldovan legislature on 5 April, a victory that the opposition contested violently in the streets. Authorities in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, have accused Romania of being behind these anticommunist demonstrations…. On 19 May, in hopes of encouraging EU mediation, Moldova accused Romania of wanting to ‘annex’ it.

In the meantime, Moldova had already given the Romanian ambassador the proverbial boot and imposed visa restrictions on Romanians in Moldova. Yet the Romanian president, Traian Basescu, while accusing Moldova of “ethnic discrimination, suppression of the opposition and censure,” seems to believe that this would be a fitting time to invite Moldovans – well, certain Moldovans – over for dinner, and that a Romanian passport would make for a lovely dessert. As such, waving his formidable EU flag and all its emblazoned bling, Basescu “decided to grant Romanian passports to Romanophone Moldovans, opening for them the doors to the EU,” a measure that the sociologist Dan Dungaciu sees as an opportunity for Moldovan youths to “integrate themselves individually” into the EU, “the key being Romanian nationality.” In the words of Corina, a Moldovan student at the University of Bucharest, “this is an unexpected gift. Our place is in Europe, and a Romanian passport is our only chance of traveling to the west.”

What an interesting gesture. A generous one, even. Many young Moldovans, one might assume, would be happy to get EU passports and envision their futures anew. What’s more, they’d get to alter their Facebook profiles accordingly, change their network preferences and update their status to, perhaps, ‘Romanian now lol!’

Note, however, that this opportunity has been granted to Romanophone Moldovans, who make up two-thirds of the population. The other third, the group that apparently has not been granted the same privilege, is Russophone, so their imaginable FB status in the wake of all this, ‘like WTF?☹,’ would likely resonate with authorities in Chisinau, and maybe Moscow, as well.

Now let’s go all the way east just to come back west.

The EU and China durch the Germans
As reported in “Peking verwahrt sich gegen ‘Einmischung’” (sic. – indeed, the ‘Beijing’ memo has yet to reach all desks in Germany), from the Frankfurter Allgemeine, “Peking and the European Union remain distant. At a summit meeting in Prague, China and the EU were unable to settle a number of important political questions.” Although José Manuel Barroso, the current president of the European Commission, and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese leader, both made references to things like ‘deep connections,’ ‘common interests,’ ‘working with one another’ and ‘mutual trust,’ it remained abundantly clear that their “essential practical differences” regarding matters such as “human rights, minority rights, the crises in Burma and Sri Lanka, investment regulations and pirated products” would not be easily resolved. And for various, perhaps more tangible reasons, the Chinese side proved itself relatively more obdurate, demanding not only that a “weapons embargo against China be lifted” but also that “restrictions on exports of advanced technological products to China be loosened.” Additionally, Wen, “at the conclusion of the summit … and in sharp tones, forbade the EU from getting mixed up in the ‘internal matters’ of his country.” Thus ultimately, despite other concluding claims to “improve coordination and working together on international questions,” it was hardly a healthy happy ending that wrapped things up.

05/18/09 2:00pm
05/18/2009 2:00 PM |

This week, Paul D’Agostino senses some disappointment in the European press over Obama. Oh, and also notices that all those scary torture photos (or at least some of them), are already out in the open.

Having witnessed and begun to process two consecutive rounds of White House turnaround this week, European observers seem to have reached a set of conclusions not dissimilar – note the litote, for it is not irrelevant – from those we have arrived at here.

Necessarily inconclusive. Aggravatingly nebulous. Less-than-fully informed. And consequently, at the very least, quadrilateral, the minimum four sides of which might be labeled as such: A) Obama can do no bad; B) Obama can do no good; C) Obama cannot do anything awfully different from Bush; D) Obama cannot, as yet, do anything at all. Although variable viewpoints along such lines are nothing entirely new – and although they are surely cross-complicated by intersecting lines P and Q – events and announcements over the past seven days have forced side A to shrink considerably with respect to side C. Seriously, look.

But let us now attribute some verbiage to each side. And let’s begin, logically or not, with side C.

The Italians

As of Saturday 16 May, coverage of these yet-touchy issues in a couple of Italy’s main papers was still largely summary. La Stampa, in “Obama: ‘Tornano i tribunali militari’,” reports quite plainly:

After having promised the maximum transparency, both in his electoral campaign and upon arriving to the White House, in recent weeks the US president has had to make a series of decisions that brought his previous pledges into discussion and provoked some embarrassing reversals of course…. And now a turnaround on Guantánamo: Barack Obama has discovered that to resolve the complex problem of what to do with suspected terrorists detained in the US military base in Cuba, the special tribunals are perhaps a lesser evil.

As for the fallout of such decisions and the unclear break they indicate with Bush’s policies, Il Corriere della Sera remarks that “Obama stirred consensus only in the democratic right, led by Senator Joe Lieberman, and among conservatives, guided by Senator Lindsey Graham. But for the liberals, this isn’t the first disappointment.”

The Germans
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, on the other hand, featured a number of reasons why one might not yet completely repudiate side A. In an interview with Dietmar Herz – a professor of political science and comparative politics at the University of Erfurt who has taught in numerous American universities as well – it seems that Obama’s pragmatism, when mixed in with the deep, sometimes unforeseeable, sometimes quite contradictory difficulties of his mandate, might be what has both shaken and stirred his recent Realpolitik cocktail:

Obama has broken with the past more than other US presidents. He split from the politics of the Bush years right at the beginning. On the other hand, he wants to reunite a polarized nation. These goals actually contradict one another… Obama is now beginning to make a Realpolitik turn. He stands for a new politics, but he must simultaneously consider military and secret service interests, which the Democrats traditionally mistrust. He doesn’t want the torture photos published because his generals tell him that they’ll endanger US troops. He doesn’t want to bring CIA collaborators to court, though they did commit acts of torture. He wants to prevent alienation between his administration and important State institutions. For the war in Afghanistan, he’ll need their loyalty.

In other words, it’s an administrative quagmire. Political quicksand for a president with institutionally tied hands. For Herz, though, this is a moment where Obama, whose supporters will likely still support him, must appease, or at least not readily rebuff, the other end of the spectrum if he wants to realize his goals and truly break away from Bush. Because for Herz, leaders who really broke from predecessors (and here he cites only Jefferson and Reagan) “all knew that the break must be valid for the future, not the past. If Obama were to press charges against the responsible parties of the Bush era, many Americans would see this as an ‘attack’ on America and shift back to the Republican side.”

While Herz’s points are not baseless, they might be unduly facile. Should no one, for example, be held accountable for Bush-era transgressions? Must Obama really attempt to do the impossible and appease everyone? How behemoth must the political center really become for him to get things done?

Given the circumstances, anyway, Herz’s picture seems a bit too rosy.

The French
Somewhat less than rosy, and much more along the lines of side B, is the picture presented not in, necessarily, rather beneath several articles in Libération. For while an article such as “Obama recule encore sur les droits humains” is relatively devoid of a real stance (well, aside from its loaded title, which translates to “Obama Again Backs Away from Human Rights”), the scores of readers’ comments that follow the piece (146, at last count ) are ridden with vitriol and immediately revisionist debate, much of it directed at Obama – who is “now showing his true face,” who was “elected by multinationals” and is just part of “the same dynasty,” who was just “an icon” and “a dream” who has already “completely disappointed us” – although it digresses here and there to excoriations of other US presidents, of French leaders, of Obama’s contemporary and sort-of-rival Sarkozy (who at one point is likened to Santa Claus), and, of course, of Democracy in general, of History in general, of Humans in general.

Woe is Us, and Woe is Me. Putting caps (berets?) all over side B.

The Spanish, The British
If Herz’s verbal picture is perhaps a bit too rosy and the one painted by French readers perhaps a bit hyperbolic, these pictures from El Mundo – released by The Sydney Morning Herald and also run in The Telegraph – “believed to be part of the group of 2,000 instant photos of prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Obama administration did not want to come to light,” quite probably, and quite un-rosily, speak for themselves.

So many unfathomable images so not unfathomable. And not unaffecting. And not inapplicable, as it were, to the persistence of side D.

In sum, ‘not dissimilar’ doesn’t exactly equate to ‘similar.’ Just like ‘not irrelevant’ doesn’t exactly mean ‘relevant.’

So in this polygon of debate shaped by unreleased images, resuscitated talk of torture, potential for justice, administrative turnarounds and hopefully not impossible Bush-era closure, we might do well, when minding lines P and Q, to consider reacting, for now, with nuance. Rhetorically derived or otherwise.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. But these matters are not, in any way, uncomplicated.

05/11/09 2:00pm
05/11/2009 2:00 PM |

This week in Paul D’Agostino’s funtime tour through the European press, it’s pirates, pirates, PIRATES!

Where do Paul Auster, Peter Pan, Michael Jackson and failed states come into semantic confluence with an Italian mercantile vessel?

In Neverland, of course. With Somali pirates hosting the party.

Indeed, despite significantly heightened international efforts to curb ship-jackings in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, and despite several recent arrests of supposed pirates — including the prized, now NYC-based survivor of the Maersk Alabama debacle, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, whose official age at one point ranged from 15 to 26, and who here looks very happy and here rather hard — acts of piracy in these heavily trafficked waters have spiked dramatically this year, leaving little room for seafaring respite but ample opportunity, perhaps, to practice swashbuckling.

The Dutch

At the time of this writing, news out of Amsterdam relayed the most recent pirate capture. According to De Telegraaf, in “Nederlands schip gekappt,” the MV Marathon, a Netherlands Antilles-flagged vessel whose cargo happened to be tons of coke (the kind that fuels machines, not parties), was seized with ostensibly little episode, evidence that “the regulatory measures in the Gulf of Aden are not effective enough.” A spokesperson from the Koninklijke Vereniging van Nederlandse Reders (KVNR) , an organization representing Dutch shipowners, opined similarly: “Though we have said it before, better and more effective steps must be taken.”

Quite probably, yes. New preventive measures might be a good idea. Perhaps the ever-elusive ‘kind that don’t suck’ would be worth a shot.

The Germans

Unless ‘surprising’ new methods of piracy, so to speak, have complicated possible solutions even more. For according to a report in Der Spiegel, “Attacke am Horn von Afrika: Piraten entführen deutschen Frachter vor Somalia,” the pirates can be a bit sneakier than one might think. Less than 24 hours before the Dutch MV Marathon was captured, a German freighter, the MV Victoria — despite traveling as part of a convoy, and notwithstanding attempted aerial intervention by a helicopter sent from a nearby Turkish frigate — was seized, also with ease, 75 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen. Blame for the facility of this capture can be attributed, in part, to the ship’s “relative defenselessness” thanks to its “weak motor” and low-slung wall design, but the pirates’ attack this time featured a certain departure from protocol, something of a lame yet well hyperbolized boo-ya maneuver, an “Überraschungseffeckt,” that caught the Victoria’s crewmembers unaware: too crafty for their skiffs, the pirates struck in the afternoon rather than in their usual “early morning hours.” According to a German marine officer, “the pirates were using an element of surprise,” hence their oh-so-quick success.

At the same time, getting around to ‘work’ later in the day isn’t awfully sneaky, is it? Diurnal procrastination is probably quite common to all of us, in fact, whether it’s a matter of putting off laundry-doing, column-writing, gym-going or, in this case, German-freighter-jacking. So in a sense, the afternoon attack allows us to relate better to the pirates and, more importantly, loosely proves that getting up early isn’t the only way to get ‘ship’ done.

In other recent endeavors, however, the pirates didn’t have it so easy.

The Spanish
As reported in El Mundo, in “El juez decreta prisión para los siete piratas de Somalia,” seven pirates were apprehended, on the same day the Victoria was taken, by the Marqués de la Ensenada, a frigate deployed to the Gulf of Aden under the aegis of Operation Atalanta, an EU-administered effort to prevent attacks and bring pirates to justice. This latter task, however, given the intricacies and lack of useful precedents in international maritime law, might prove as daunting, or at least as onerous, as the former. At any rate, the charges will likely be illegal detention, violent robbery and use of arms.

The French
French contribution to Operation Atalanta, according to Le Figaro, has been particularly successful of late. Under the leadership of Captain Jean-Marc Le Quilliec, who commands a frigate called the Nivôse, French forces have not only displayed a curious knack for capturing eleven pirates at a time — which they did twice in about two weeks, once on April 15th and again on May 3rd — but they also managed to intercept a bateau-mère, a mothership, and apprehend a few more suspects. In one of these recent takes authorities found, on just one skiff, “two Kalashnikov automatics, numerous munitions cartridges, a rocket launcher and five rockets.” With so much payload on such a small boat, it seems safe to assume that the mothership’s inventory was significantly more impressive.

The only logistical downside to this capture, in sum, is that it took place before 8am. So maybe getting an early start is a good idea after all.

Kalashnikov Crunch for breakfast, anyone?

The Italians
Or how about a little divine intervention? Thusly described, after all, was Italy’s successful foiling of an attempted ambush on one of its larger gas ships, a Finival-owned mercantile vessel with a circumstantially amusing name, considering it was nearly taken by pirates.


Nothing to do (lacking that extra ‘never’) with a flying boy who won’t grow up, of course. And on that note, nothing to do with Michael Jackson either.

Yet as La Repubblica implies, in “Somalia, battaglia navale contro i pirati,” someone or something both magical and quite famous intervened to help the Neverland evade harm: “The crew was terrorized, fearing they might end up hostages of the pirates like the crew of the Buccaneer [an Italian tugboat held hostage since April 11th], but, as if it were a scene from an action film, salvation arrived from the sky.” In this case, however, heavenly salvation came in the form of a helicopter of the Italian Marines sent over from a nearby Italian frigate, the Maestrale. This was “the fifth attack on Italian ships in one month,” and according to this article’s count, attacks in the Gulf of Aden “in the first trimester of 2009” have increased tenfold with respect to last year.

As for the semantic confluence in Never(never)land of various disparate entities, there it is.

But what of Paul Auster? Well, at the time of this writing I happened to be reading his relatively recent novel of narratorial intrigue, Travels in the Scriptorium, in which one of the stories within the story pertains to an unpublished novel called Neverland.

And since it remains a mystery when and how the so-called failed state of Somalia might inscribe a new chapter into its long-fraught history – by now pirate-ridden, pirate-written and pirate-smitten – this storied link seems to hold quite firmly.
By hook or by crook. Or by Hook.

05/04/09 12:00pm
05/04/2009 12:00 PM |

Welcome to Dissociated Press, Paul “Polyglot” D’Agostino’s first of many columns exploring the view from Europe. Do they like us this week? Do they hate us? Do we still have to put Canadian flags on our backpacks? In this edition, Paul takes us through the Eurochatter on Obama’s Summit of the Americas throwdown. It will shock and amaze you.

It was all about a book. Or it hinged on a handshake. Or it was the sowing of new seeds. Or a couple clever goals sealed the deal.

The French

Although quite positive overall — if not ‘guardedly hopeful’ or ‘cautiously optimistic,’ to use a couple of the most hackneyed expressions pervading our parlance since last November — European coverage of the Summit of the Americas was curiously sundry.
Fittingly enough, perhaps, some of the most reserved approval came from Le Monde. In “Pour la presse, le sommet des Amériques marque ‘l’émergence de la doctrine Obama’,” no sooner does one learn that the gathering concluded with “the promise of a new era in the relations between the United States and their neighbors to the south” than one also reads, in the second sentence, that the event was marked in part by a “controversial handshake and smile,” building on John Ensign’s (R, Nevada) claim that it was “irresponsible” for Obama to be seen laughing and kidding around with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. A couple days later, however, the same John Ensign could be seen on Hardball doublespeaking his way through a litany of claims regarding Bush-era torture tactics, which he basically summed up as ‘not all that bad.’

So for him to call a handshake irresponsible is, well, questionable. Yet Le Monde had already letterboxed it. So anyway.

A few other national papers handled the historical meeting with a generally higher tone of applause.

The Italians

Writing for Italy’s Corriere della Sera, Paolo Valentino underscored the symbolic significance of Chávez’s gift to Obama, a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano: “When historians look into the symbolic moments of this change of season… more than to the words of Raúl Castro on his willingness to discuss ‘everything’ with Washington, they will perhaps look to the gesture of a book.” Valentino goes on to explain why the “iconografia” of this exchange will remain so important, why this loaded moment — one that permitted “an incendiary populist, the same one that had called George W. Bush ‘the devil,’ to cross the hall of the Summit of the Americas to give a gift, albeit with a provocative flavor, to the new American president” — was ultimately so “decisive.”

The Spanish

Praise from Spain’s El País, meanwhile, in Antonio Caño’s “Obama siembra la semilla de la reconciliación con Cuba y Venezuela,” relates more directly to the various leaders’ carefully chosen words and impressive conduct in delicate moments. At the same time, so many promises of change and reconciliation – assurances made by Obama as well as by his fellow leaders – will need to show and prove: “As happened with his recent tour of Europe, Obama’s presence in this meeting seemed to provide more of a seed that nonetheless may or may not give fruit. A great part of this depends on how the nations of Latin America receive this new US politics.” A fair enough assessment, to be sure. But Caño warns that such fruit, should it be sweet, will need to appear sometime soon: “This will be rapidly wiped from memory if recognizable progress does not happen quickly.”

Again, anyway, fair enough.

The Germans

What might seem a bit less than fair, however, would be to sum up the entire summit as something like a soccer match.

Nevertheless, such was the metaphor of choice in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Despite the significant praise he heaps upon its participants and the promise he sees in their interactions, Matthias Rub, in “Obama und die alten Männer,” compares the summit’s tension and flashiness to that of Fussball, and he even comes up with a final score for Obama’s ‘winning team.’ Zum Beispeil: “The North Americans, in the first game on neutral ground and under their new, dynamic captain, Barack Obama, won two to zero against the youths from the south under their already somewhat exhausted leader, Hugo Chávez.” Rub goes on to remark that Obama’s “fresh team” not only handled the “flat ball” well, but ultimately met “success” in the end thanks to their “zone defense” and “short passes.” And all that to preface the following observation: “Politics in Latin America and in the Caribbean is mostly spectacle, comparable to the preferred sport there,” than it is any sort of functional method for devising “better solutions to problems.” Perhaps Rub is right to point out such a rub, but it gets annoying, particularly when one learns that Obama’s first ‘goal’ came when he reacted calmly to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s long, impassioned speech with a wink and a witty remark, and that his second net – or rather, his game-winning score – came when he said, thinking that the book Chávez had given him was written by Chávez himself, “I was going to give him one of mine.”

Yet if the Summit of the Americas was, by and large, a successful gathering, and if at least some of its success would have to be attributed to the various representatives’ stated willingness to work together on ‘equal grounds,’ does it not seem strange to chalk up the entire match as a wash? Did the ‘losing’ team – consisting of not just one nation, but rather of dozens of nations whose collective land happens to account for a significant portion of the earth – really never score at all?
Whatever the final count should be, I do not believe that any one of those 34 leaders slid away on his stomach. But I do ‘guardedly hope’ that after the next Summit of the Americas, to be held in the US in 2013, they all will.

Hand in hand, perhaps. Smoking Cuban cigars.

Unless rehashing the Bay of Pigs might have mysteriously given flight to swine flu.

Doubtful, sure. Crazy, even. Yet not long ago, just as doubtful would have been some those handshakes and smiles, those seeds and goals.

So swine flu aside – of history-stirred origin or not – the era of new relations in the Americas seems rife with good omens.