‘No money, no Swiss,’ the saying goes, and un-paid Swiss mercenaries could drop their unreliable employer at the drop of a hat. Switzerland was something of a military super-power in the 15th and 16th centuries, known for its hard-fighting mercenaries. They were guarding the French king, Louis XVI, at the time of the French Revolution, and were massacred on August 10, 1792, when the mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, although the king had already fled. The only left-over of this largely forgotten period are the Swiss guards for the Pope in the Vatican.
At the beginning of March, Switzerland was in the headlines of the media around the world, hailed in neighbouring France as a model: a rare event. The Swiss had just massively (67.9%) voted to limit top manager’s pay. It was called the ‘people’s initiative against fat-cat pay’. The measure requires that listed companies offer shareholders a binding vote on senior managers’ pay and appointments at each annual general meeting. The penalty for bosses who fail to comply is up to three years in jail or the forfeit of up to six years’ salary. ‘Switzerland’s penchant for direct democracy has trumped its tolerance for tycoons,’ said London-based ‘The Economist’.
Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation in February 2013. Credit: Creative Commons/Andreijoshua.
Two recent ‘resignations’ have encouraged me to dream of a third.
Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic church by announcing that he would step down on February 28th, the first papal resignation in 600 years. In a statement read out in Latin, the 85-year-old pontiff said he had decided to leave office because of his age and because ‘strength of mind and body are necessary’ for the job.
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the oldest reigning Dutch monarch, announced her abdication on January 28th in a sudden move three days before her 75th birthday. After 33 years on the throne following her mother’s abdication in 1980, Beatrix said she would relinquish the crown at the end of April, leaving the monarchy to Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander, the oldest of her three sons. The queen went on national television and radio to announce the departure, having recorded the broadcast earlier in the day. The prime minister, Mark Rutte, delivered a statement on television shortly afterwards. ‘The queen was there for us in good times, but also in bad times. Her knowledge and compassion made her an icon of the Netherlands,’ Rutte said in his statement.
Thanks to the media, we can share in a tragedy and empathize with the suffering of others. Almost instantly, we can follow events anywhere in the world: if the media are there to cover them. And the closer to home, the greater the impact of these events. My wife and I find ourselves in tears as we watch the TV news of a coach-load of Belgian children shattered in a road-tunnel accident on their journey home after a skiing holiday in Switzerland. A wave of solidarity sweeps over a deeply divided country (Belgium), quieting divisive quarrels. On our Swiss TV, we have a once-weekly little film at the end of the TV news, where a filmmaker looks at the events of the week. Last Friday’s film was on this tragic accident, and made the point that silence seems to be the best way of marking such tragedies: no words, just silence.
by: Andrew Stallybrass on November 9th, 2011 | Comments Off
A citizen in Tunis shows off a memento of his first free and fair vote. Creative Commons / Freedom at Issue
Tunisia has just held the first free elections of the Arab Spring, nine months after the fall of former President Zinedine el Abidine Ben Ali. There are also feverish meetings, summits galore in Brussels and elsewhere to save the Euro. Then there are the questions around Col Muammar Gaddafi’s death. I guess news in the US is headed by President Obama’s announcement that the last American soldiers will leave Iraq by the end of this year, drawing to a close an eight-year war that cost the lives of more than 4,400 US troops. Over 10,000 Iraqi troops and police, and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians.
But there’s another event that I’m pretty sure hasn’t been dominating your foreign news headlines. Well below the radar screens of all but the most fanatical ‘world-watchers’. A general election for the Swiss parliament.
I’m a convinced democratic. Lower case – a believer in democratic values. As a non-American I wouldn’t hazard a comment on US politics here. My Swiss daily newspaper had a cartoon of a Swiss couple walking past some of the many posters that mark our campaigns, and the man’s saying ‘the only country in the world where we vote to change nothing’. As a dutiful citizen, I read through the 32-page booklet that I got through the post of ‘spicy recipes’ of the different parties for the Federal stew that makes Swiss politics, ending with a real recipe for Engadine barley soup.
The dance of time: quick time, slow time; quick, quick, slow. I’m fascinated by the times of history. Evil usually takes time to prepare and to grow, but then often only instants, minutes to inflict, and then again a lifetime or more to heal. This seems to be part of the tragic of human nature and human existence. A massacre, rape, violence, horror in all its many forms… Time does not heal of itself.
I recall meeting a Swiss journalist in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, after the withdrawal of the Serb army. Serbs and Kosovars had been living together for generations, for hundreds of years, perhaps not with any great affection, but living as neighbors, she said, sharing the same schools, landings in apartment buildings, often going to each others’ marriages, sharing birthdays. And then a slow poisonous rise of nationalisms, and suddenly Serbs were turning on their Kosovar neighbors, telling them to leave, now, within minutes, with what they could carry. A certain level of tolerance destroyed in hours that may take generations to heal, to restore. And the enemy was not a faceless unknown, had a first name.
There’s a lively debate among experts in the field of paleo-anthropology about intriguing signs of ‘compassion’ among our distant ancestors. Compassion: ‘A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.’ Based on old bones and burial sites, there seems to be some evidence not just respect for the dead, but respect for the living.
Shanidar Cave is an archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan (in northern Iraq). It was excavated between 1957-1961 by Ralph Solecki and his team from Columbia University and yielded the first adult Neanderthal skeletons in Iraq, dating between 60-80,000 years ago. The Shanidar fossils show a very high frequency of injuries, healed injuries of all different kinds. The most extreme example of this is an arm bone from Shanidar I – the designation of one of these ancestors. It’s an upper arm bone that’s withered, has a healed fracture, and a healed over amputation just above the elbow. It shows that this individual lived with an important handicap for 20 or 30 years. “And what that says is that these people were taking care of their injured kin. They were taking care of people who had serious injuries so they could survive them and continue to be functional members of the social group for many years. It was a dangerous lifestyle, but they were compassionate, they were caring, they were human,” says Erik Trinkaus.
We Europeans find a lot of news of the United States in our media. Many of us follow with interest, much puzzlement and relatively little understanding of the posturing, the insults, the exaggerations. Obama doesn’t look much like a socialist to us… But I was hurt the other day by the nameless Republican figure who sneered that Obama was trying to make the US more like Europe – but that Europe was 20 years behind. Behind what?
I believe that we should all be able to cultivate a healthy nationalism, a pride and love of country. But perhaps we all also need to work harder to work our way up the league tables, by learning from each other’s best practice. Take education. The United States objectively has much to learn here; her ‘end of term report’ reads much like my school reports: ‘Could do much better. Needs to try harder.’ (see UNICEF’s “big picture” comparison of the performance of schools in the world’s rich industrialized nations.) The US is close to the bottom of many league tables of school achievement. But who has got it right? Here in Europe, the Finns seem to have got a lot of things right, and apparently they’re rather overwhelmed by the visiting delegations wanting to pick up good tips. But I find that highly encouraging: clearly in some fields, we are getting more ready to look around and see what we can learn from those who seem to be doing better than us.
Photo: courtesy of the Swiss canton of Glarus
In many countries, the concern is to get away from Presidents for life, from power-hungry politicians changing constitutions to allow incumbents to have another term, bending the rules to stay in power. Here in Switzerland, the government ministers take it in turns to act as President. So probably a pretty shocking percentage of Swiss would not be able to tell who this year’s President is!
The President’s responsibilities and powers mainly involve chairing the meetings of the coalition government that includes all the largest parties represented in Parliament, and welcoming foreign heads of state and dignitaries, who otherwise might find it hard to understand shaking hands with all seven of the wise men and women. And the world, which rightly shows little interest in the strange ways of a small country in the middle of Europe, has shown some interest in last month’s election of two new ministers being elected by the parliament, giving Switzerland for the first time a majority of women in the government. Switzerland now has a woman President, and both houses of parliament are chaired by women. So there’s feminist rejoicing (and I count myself a feminist) in a country where women only got the right to vote in Federal elections in 1971.
The conference center at Caux, Switzerland
I spend my summers, like many Swiss, up in the mountains. But my summer ‘chalet’ is a former Palace hotel, now an international conference centre, with hundreds of participants, from around the world (see: www.caux.ch).
We enjoyed a magical evening of Klezmer music in the Caux theatre. It’s slightly amazing that after the almost total destruction of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe that gave birth to this musical idiom, this haunting, joyful, dancing, sad music is played and enjoyed by many. I’m not well-known for my dancing, but it is almost impossible NOT to dance to this music! A moving revenge on Hitler.
I’ve also taken part in a workshop on ‘Religious diversity and anti-discrimination training’, a training that has been modeled by an NGO called CEJI and is billed as ‘A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe’ (www.ceji.org). And there were also a number of people taking part in this conference on ‘Learning to Live in a Multicultural World’ from the pedagogical movement for children’s rights inspired by the Polish-Jewish victim of the Holocaust, Janusz Korczak.
Towards the end of the Second World War, the former Caux-Palace, then the Esplanade Refugee Camp, housed some 1,600 Jews. In 1999, we inaugurated a plaque at the foot of an oak tree planted in 1997 to mark this little-known chapter of history. The simple plaque looks out over the breath-taking view over the Lake of Geneva to the Franco-Swiss pre-Alps. The text on the plaque reads: ‘In remembrance of the Jewish refugees who stayed here, and of those who were not admitted to enter Switzerland during World War II. We shall not forget.’
I guess I’m not alone in sometimes being mystified by myself and my reactions. I want to be a peace-maker – yet I sometimes lose my cool, and can provoke others to rage, without meaning to. I am part of an inter-faith committee in Geneva, Switzerland, the city where I live. We’ve built up some good friendships, relationships across divides – but the tensions in the world beyond our borders often touch us. Which is no big surprise. At one meeting, with a full agenda, I was trying to hurry things along, to encourage the chair to cut short a debate that I saw as going round in circles. Two Muslim friends stormed out of the meeting, one of them saying that they’d had enough of colonial attitudes…
I can easily forget that I’m British, and that others may see in me part of the colonial past that for me is ancient history, not personal experience. I also learned afresh that some old hurts lie like nerves very close to the skin, and I forget that at my peril.
At another meeting, a Buddhist nun made a for me rather patronising remark about the monotheistic faiths being responsible for so much of the violence in the world, unlike her own more pacified tradition. I hit back with ‘What about Buddhist religious extremism in Sri Lanka?’ I knew nothing, I was told, the Buddhists were simply defending themselves and responding to Hindu terrorism. And I was off into another spiral of anger and violence of my own. And again, I had to swallow my pride and apologise.
But I’d rather go through the anger and apologies, and live in the real, than just avoid all conflict and resolutely stick to the polite and superficial.