Author Archives: Peter Hess

Copán and the End of History

Copán Ruinas is a small, modest village in western Honduras, near the border to Guatemala. The village bears the Spanish name for an ancient Mayan city. Copán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its elegant architecture and magnificent carved stelae and altars, perhaps the best art the Mayans ever produced.

Temple 10L-11 at Copán, constructed around 769 CE.

The valley of Copán has been populated for at least four thousand years. Dynastic rulers of Copán are known as early as 426 CE. The last dynastic ruler is mentioned in the year 822 CE. The four centuries between the two dates are generally considered the classic period of Mayan civilization of Copán during which the city was a major regional power. It suffered a humiliating and catastrophic defeat in 738 CE at the hands of its former neighboring vassal state Quiriguá, located in Guatemala, from which it never fully recovered.

The Copán culture collapsed between 800 to 830, and the population gradually declined in the 9th and 10th centuries. All Mayan states failed in this time period, meaning that aristocratic rule, political and military power, urban construction, and cultural production ended, that urban centers were gradually abandoned, to be quickly reclaimed by the jungle, and that their population dissipated in various rural settlements. Deforestation, overpopulation, extreme drought, depletion of soils, and military conflict likely contributed to this decline and collapse.

Altar Q, created in 763 CE, showing the 16th ruler of Copán receiving the insignia of power

The rulers of Copán were conscious of their exceptional history, and they enshrined it in inscriptions and in an iconographic program on a number of altars and stelae. Altar Q, shown above, is one of the most outstanding monuments at the Mayan city of Copán. Altar Q, created in 763 CE, represents the founder of the dynasty transferring the power to the 16th ruler of Copán by handing him the staff of office. The four sides of the altar show all 16 rulers, each passing on the insignia of power to his successor.

Altar L, created in 822 CE, is perhaps the last piece of art produced at Copán. Altar L  was a monument intended to commemorate Ukit Took’, the reigning ruler who was never officially crowned. Only one side of Altar L was completed. The others are either partially completed, as seen below, or left completely blank, with history yet to be inscribed. Such history never unfolded as the Copán culture collapsed around that time. While artistically insignificant, this altar is remarkable in that it marks the unexpected end of the history of Copán, even though the rulers of Copán had believed in the perpetual continuity of their rule.

The unfinished Altar L from 822 CE marks the abrupt and unexpected end of Copán’s history.

When the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote his infamous essay “The End of History” (1989), this is clearly not what he had in mind. Rather, he believed that liberal democracy had celebrated a final victory over totalitarian systems. The exceptionalist view of American history precludes a narrative where America could decline and even disintegrate, and the end of the Soviet empire seemed to validate that point of view. Yet the study of ancient empires, like the Mayan state of Copán, shows that all empires declined eventually, their exceptionalist narratives notwithstanding.

Many factors that led to the collapse of Copán are present in our own time. Climate change and environmental degradation are creating a cascade of problems ranging from severe overpopulation, drought, and soil depletion to resulting pandemics, loss of inhabitable land, and mass migration. The political fallout is visible already, as is evident in the European backlash to the Syrian refugee crisis and US efforts to build a wall on the border to Mexico to keep out Central Americans displaced by climate change and victimized by gang violence.

The political polarization in the United States has become so extreme that it even taints the discussion of basic and undisputed facts, such as climate change, Covid-19, and election outcomes. This is the stuff of cultural decline, which poses a real threat to the democratic foundations and the political stability of the country. The Biden administration may be able to slow the institutional slide, yet the culture wars continue to intensify. Internal discord and polarization invariably play a role in collapse as they can undermine and erase existing power structures suddenly and quickly, followed by a period of unrest and rapid political and social disintegration of society. The tumultuous end of the Trump presidency put the instability and dysfunction of the American system on full display.

How history ends: a collapsed temple on the acropolis, the center of power in Copán, reclaimed by the jungle.

We can’t imagine that our civilization ever could collapse. Likewise, the rulers of Copán spun their historical narrative to the bitter end, apparently unable and unwilling to anticipate their own demise. It is difficult to assess the level of discord in Copán at the time when its culture and political structures collapsed. Yet the abrupt end of Copán’s historical narrative in 822 CE, as documented by the unfinished Altar L, points to such a rapid disintegration process.

Of course the history of Copán did not end entirely. While the sophisticated high culture vanished, Mayans continued to live in the area as farmers, The modern town of Copán Ruinas represents a modest reminder that cultural collapse is not followed by void. Copán teaches us that great empires and cultures inevitably decline and that cultural collapse is irreversible. Yet, Copán also shows us that life, while altered, invariably goes on.

Copán Ruinas after the end of history: evidence that life goes on after cultural collapse.

Contagion–Trump’s Harmful Blame Game

Plague doctor wearing protective clothing, including face mask, during the outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1656.

Pandemics have been around since creation–whether you think that this was 5,780 or 4.5 billion years ago. They all have two things in common. First, as Black Swan events, they evoke a tremendous amount of fear as they are not understood and cannot be controlled, which leads to mass panic and hysteria. This prompts humans to take some form of personal protective action. But it also sets in motion the second, more consequential effect: a race to the bottom in search of a culprit. The two are intertwined as scapegoating is invariably linked to fear and loss of control. The current Coronavirus, or Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.

There are many historical examples to make these points. Let’s first look at the names we choose to attach to pandemics. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 is a great example. It had little to do with Spain. At the tail end of the World War I, neither of the warring parties were interested in disclosing that their soldiers were dropping dead like flies. Neutral Spain had less at stake and reported on the progress of the pandemic more honestly. Subsequently, the world started to believe that this really was a Spanish problem. The Spaniards, incidentally, started to call it the French flu, with little success. By the way: where did the Spanish flu take its origin? Donald Trump, take note: the United States of America is a leading contender. US soldiers likely carried it across the Atlantic. So let’s call it the American flu.

The grandest of all known pandemics, perhaps with the exception of Covid-19, was the bubonic plague, also referred to as Black Death. It arrived in Europe in 1347 and spread over the continent like wildfire over the next four years. As there was no understanding of bacterial infections, a range of explanations mushroomed, from adverse celestial constellations to toxic vapors emanating from the earth to divine punishment for an immoral and godless society. By far the most virulent explanation was that Jews had poisoned the wells and thus were responsible for the death of the masses all over Europe.

In this woodcut from 1475, Jews are tortured to confess that they had poisoned the well, are woven onto wagon wheels, and burned. The inquisitor (left) points to a bag containing the poison as evidence.

By 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed, Jewish residents evicted from cities and towns, and many killed. More than 350 separate massacres occurred between 1347 and 1351. In Strasbourg, almost 200 Jews were burned in a single massacre in 1349. Most of these pogroms were not officially sanctioned, rather they were triggered by a firebrand preacher or civic leader. The plague thus unleashed hatred and aggression against a group that already had been marginalized and discriminated for centuries. Subsequent waves of the plague had a similar impact, such as the Lisbon massacre of 1506. The takeaway is that pandemics not only are mass killers but that they also shatter the political, social, and moral order.

The burning of Jews (Hartmann Schedel: Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493).

This brings us to our current predicament. The moment the Corona-virus started to spread person to person in the United States, people started to engage in panicky protective action. Understandably, people hoarded hand-sanitizer and a range of cleaning products, including soap. But there also was a run on bottled water, which makes sense when a hurricane is approaching. However, a virus is extremely unlikely to disrupt our water supply. Almost comical is the run on toilet paper. It speaks to a deep-seated need to engage in some protective behavior. Hoarding toilet paper can be comforting, even though it does not objectively enhance the preparedness for a virus infection.

We also have seen an uptick in finger-pointing and scapegoating. There is the almost comical attempt by Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s defense minister, to frame the virus as God’s punishment for sanctions against her country. More seriously, China started to blame the US for planting the virus in China. US President Donald Trump spent many weeks downplaying the threat and framing it as a hoax promoted by the Democrats and by the media intended to harm his reelection bid. When the size of the upcoming pandemic no longer could be concealed, he switched to a vicious blame game.

In an abrupt shift in rhetoric, Trump now consistently refers to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” thus not just designating a point of origin but also implicating an entire ethnicity. Trump added this justification: “‘Cause it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.” Others in his echo chamber, notably Fox News, have picked up on the blame game as well, using the phrase “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Host Sean Hannity stated, “Their months-long coverup is now causing death and destruction and carnage all over the world.” Laura Ingraham added, “China has blood on its hands.” Trump himself accused Beijing of harming the United States by suppressing early information about the spread of the virus in Wuhan, while simultaneously accusing the media of corruption: “They’re siding with China. It’s more than fake news; it’s corrupt news.”

Trump’s irresponsible blame game may have dire consequences. The social fabric of our society already shows signs of tearing. Almost over night, a health crisis unmasked the glaring shortcomings of our public health system and more generally of our social safety net. Millions who do not have health insurance or do not have any paid sick leave have no incentive to get tested and to stay home. Almost over night, tens of millions of Americans have become threatened by unemployment and existential ruin. This is a time when we need steady leadership, not a narcissist in charge with a pathological urge to always fault others. The incompetence and immaturity of the President and the unpredictability of a pandemic may turn out to be an explosive mix.

The concern is that the razor-thin veneer of civilization in the United States may be wearing off, and that Trump’s rhetoric acts like coarse sandpaper rather than another protective layer. One worrisome indicator is that gun sales are skyrocketing. Guns can be used to protect one’s home, but also to rob a pharmacy, a grocery store, or a neighbor’s food pantry. Frustrated people confined to their homes for weeks may use their guns to act out on their aggression. This is how a President who is pandering to his mindless supporters rather than showing calm leadership during a generational crisis endangers us all. The plague pandemic should serve as a warning for what social collapse could look like.

 

 

 

 

How a Displaced Sense of Humiliation Drives Trump’s Iran Policy

After the Iranian attack of 8 January 2020 on two air bases in Iraq that housed American troops, President Trump made a public statement, surrounded by his entire national security team. While the media parsed Trump’s statement to understand what further actions he might take, one revealing sentence received little attention: “For far too long, all the way back to 1979 to be exact, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive, destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.” A few days before that, he declared that he had identified fifty-two potential targets for retaliation, including cultural sites.

Donald Trump addressing the nation on 8 January 2020, surrounded by his national security team.

Fundamentalist thinkers and political leaders lack a tolerance for ambiguity. There is only one truth, theirs, and this truth is true across history. In the United States, exceptionalist thinkers legitimize all actions as long as they are rooted in what they see as the foundational principles established by the Founding Fathers. If people saw things differently at different times they must have been wrong because otherwise there would have to be more than one truth. In the view of American nationalists, Trump is the messianic leader who reclaims and realizes these principles in an authentic way, which is why all his moral failings are forgiven and forgotten. And this is why Trump and his Apostles reject history in all its differentiations and ambiguities. Trump’s statement about Iran is exhibit A.

For American nationalists, 1979 serves as a template for national humiliation that needs to be erased by toppling the Islamic regime in Iran. On 4 November 1979, a group of Iranian college students who supported the Iranian Revolution took over the US embassy in Teheran and held fifty-two Americans hostage for a total of 444 days. Ever since, American nationalists have sought revenge to expunge this national humiliation. Trump’s language and actions entirely embrace this viewpoint–hence his reference to 1979 and the fifty-two targets, one for each hostage, that included cultural sites, that is sites of national memory.

For Iranians, 1953 is a corresponding year of humiliation. This is the year when the US government destroyed Iranian democracy by toppling the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeg. Mosaddeg had plans to nationalize the oil industry, much to the chagrin of large British and American oil companies. The Truman administration turned them down, but the incoming Eisenhower administration was more open to their cause. In August 1953, the CIA engineered a bloody coup d’état in Iran. Mosaddeg was arrested and many of his associates killed. The Americans installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as authoritarian ruler of Iran. Pahlavi “modernized” Iran and implemented pro-Western policies that were pleasing to the oil companies. It is this regime that was toppled by the Islamists in 1979.

The important connection is that the 1953 coup d’état was planned and executed by the CIA in the US embassy in Teheran. To this day, Iranians see this as a moment of national humiliation. The Islamist student groups occupied the US embassy in 1979 in order to preempt another attempt at intervention by the United States. So the humiliation felt by the United States was motivated by the humiliation Iranians had experienced in 1953.

This intricate web of mutual humiliations makes it impossible for two nationalist regimes, the Islamic nationalists in Teheran and the White nationalists in Washington, to ever come to terms with each other. It took an enlightened leader like President Obama to help implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, more commonly known as Iran nuclear deal. Trump had to undo the deal so hysterically because it defied the false nationalist narrative of humiliation.

*FAKE* image from 2015 showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama shaking hands.

Obama’s biggest sin is that he is not part of the nationalist narrative, and could never be because he is not White. This is why Trump instrumentalized the birther narrative–the false claim that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim–long before he ran for president. This also is the origin of the fake and debunked 2015 image showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Preisident Obama shaking hands. Yet, a Republican congressman from Arizona just retweeted it a couple of days ago to reinforce the nationalist narrative, with the caption “The world is a better place without these guys in power.”

Both in Teheran and in Washington, tired nationalist legends are retold to a gullible public. Both are steeped in narratives of national humiliation and in the righteousness of their own viewpoints. Both share an intolerance for ambiguity and a disdain for history. And both make it utterly impossible to resolve this conflict.

The Thirty Years’ War as Foil for the War in Syria

This year, we are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It was the most comprehensive, complex, devastating and brutal armed conflict in human history up to that point. In fact, many seventeenth-century sources called it the “Great World War.” When the war began in 1618, it was primarily a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the German Empire. The emperor and many territorial princes sought to push back the influence of Protestantism and to reclaim the territories and cities that had switched to the new faith.

A second layer of conflict was what we would call the Federalism debate today. The emperor sought to consolidate his power over the territories and cities, both Lutheran and Catholic, who in turn were fiercely protective of their privileges. The immediate trigger for the war was the effort of the Bohemian estates to prevent the Hapsburg dynasty from establishing the dominium absolutum, that is absolutist rule, in their homeland that lead to the defenestration of imperial envoys–they literally were thrown out the window at Prague Castle.

Prague Defenestration of 1618. Copper engraving by Johann Philipp Abelin (1635)

Early wins by the Catholic Emperor against Protestants led to the weakening of support from Catholic princes who feared the Emperor would use his battlefield successes to force all princes into submission, Protestant and Catholic.

The third layer was the complex geostrategic context. Early territorial gains by the Emperor brought Protestant Denmark and Sweden into the war who wanted to support Protestants in North Germany. Sweden also saw an opportunity to control the Baltic coast of Germany. Catholic France supported the Protestants as well because they did everything to break the hegemonial stranglehold by the House of Hapsburg–the Hapsburgs held both the Imperial and the Spanish crowns. They also wanted to expand their territory to the Rhine river.

This constellation led to a dynamic of shifting coalitions that made the war unwinnable for any side. While the Emperor was the only stakeholder who realistically could have won the war, the coalition supporting him crumbled the more successful he was on the battlefield. What resulted is one of the longest and protracted conflicts in human history. The devastation to German cities was immense, and the cost in human life immeasurable. The destruction of the city of Magdeburg in 1631 was just one of many atrocities of the war.

Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Copper engraving by Daniel Manasser (1632, detail)

Money ran short on all sides, mercenaries did not get paid, and supply lines did not work. As a result, many regular units, but also groups of mercenaries, ransacked landscapes and raped, plundered, and killed at will.  People fled where they could. Millions got killed, many more got displaced. This perhaps is the first war in European history whose victims were primarily civilians. Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showed the immense brutality of the war against civilians in his native Lorraine in his stunning series of etchings called The Great Miseries of War.

Jacques Callot: Looting and Burning of a Village (1633)

What does this have to do with the brutal and complex war in Syria that arose out of the 2011 Arab Spring protests? The German historian Herfried Münkler described the Thirty Years’ War as a conflict that was very difficult to end from the outside and that military interventions from the outside usually effected the opposite of their declared intentions. In his view, the current war in Syria is a conflict of the same type.

There are a large number of players in the War in Syria pursuing diverging interest and engaging in shifting alliances. The Syrian government is supported by Russia, but also by Iran and Hezbollah. Then there are a number of rebel groups who work together sometimes, and sometimes they fight each other. ISL is attempting to get a foothold in Syria. The Kurdish Front sees an opportunity to create a Kurdish state, combining territories in Syria and Iraq. The Turks, fearing a Kurdish insurgency in their own country, are fighting this effort. Israel is attacking positions in Syria periodically, as have the US in the past. There is great concern that Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Israel will get sucked in more deeply.

As in the Thirty Year’s War, there is dynamic of shifting coalitions that make it impossible for any party to win. Furthermore, there are forces who are interested in maintaining the conflict. The Russians, for instance, want to keep the Syrian refugee crisis going in order to further destabilize the European Union, a strategy that has worked quite well so far. Just like in the Thirty Years’ War, the toll on the civilian population has been immense: millions have been killed, raped, or have lost their livelihood and were forced to flee. The city of Aleppo, a major commercial hub in the Levant for two millennia, has been mostly leveled, and now the world is watching as the city of Idlib is just about to be ground into dust.

Johann Rist: Peace-Wishing Germany (1647)

How does it all end? There is no clear path to peace in Syria at this point. The Thirty Years’ War ended because the warring parties finally recognized that victory was impossible. Germany was bled out, and there was little to gain at that point–it took Germany a century to recover from the devastation. There was a tremendous war fatigue, and there was a growing consensus that the war needed to end, no matter the conditions or circumstances. The war in Syria may have to end this way as well. But there are no signs that we are nearing this point.

 

 

What the Belalcázar Monument in Popayán Teaches Us About Confederate Monuments

The current debate about Confederate memorials in the United States highlights their importance in terms of current symbolic meaning, location, and original intent. The equestrian statue commemorating the conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar (1479/80-1551) in Popayán, Colombia, can help us understand what these monuments signify today and why they have become objectionable.

In Latin America, there are many statues in honor of liberators from Spanish colonial rule, like Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and others, just as there are monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the United States. Colonizing powers are known to have erected monuments remembering colonizers, like the Columbus monument in San Juan, Puerto Rico, erected in 1893. However, there are also are a handful of statues commemorating conquistadors that were erected in the post-colonial period. Notable examples are the Columbus monument in Santo Domingo and the Pizarro monument in Lima, about which I wrote earlier. The Belalcázar monument in Popayán belongs to that list as well.

Belalcázar monument in Popayán, Colombia (1937). A great place to watch the sunset.

Sebastián de Belalcázar and his mercenaries arrived in Popayán in 1537, claimed the territory for the Spanish crown and founded the city of Popayán. Belalcázar already had founded the city of Quito, and he went on to found others, like Cali, and is considered a co-founder of the city of Bogotá. Creating colonial settlements was the most important method for the Spanish to establish control over newly subjugated territories. So why was the colonizer honored with a monument in 1937?

The Belalcázar monument was created by the Spanish sculptor Victorio Macho (1887-1966) in 1937 to commemorate the quadricentennial of Belalcázar’s conquest and the founding of the city of Popayán. It was first placed in the center of town in the Plazoleta de San Francisco. In 1940, it was moved to the top of the Morro de Tulcán, a hill ad the edge of the colonial core of Popayán that offers a great view of the city. The poet Rafael Maya (1897-1980), a member of the conservative and anti-modernist literary movement Los Nuevos, told Macha that the statue should symbolize Popayán’s best: “a heroic race, wisdom, beauty, holiness, poetry and song.” It is evident that the the statue was intended to celebrate hispanidad –that is an Iberian and Catholic identity with affinities to contemporaneous Spanish fascism.

El Morro de Tulcán in Popayán where the Belalcázar monument was placed in 1940.

El Morro del Tulcán is a poorly researched pre-hispanic pyramid, perhaps dating back to 500 CE, although some archeological finds point to use as late as the early colonial period. During road construction at the foot of the pyramid in 1928, adobe structures, vessels, bones and other pre-hispanic objects were found. When the top of the pyramid was removed to create a level space to place he equestrian statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar in 1940, it was well known that this was a sacred Indigenous site.

Thus the quadricentennial of the founding of Popayán only served as a nominal pretext to erect this equestrian statue. Its real purpose was to assert the rule of Colombians of Spanish descent over Indigenous Colombians. Placing the equestrian statue on top of a sacred pyramid was a conscious act of desecrating a native site, of staking a claim to the land, and of establishing cultural primacy. Only the amount of graffiti on the base of the monument seems to indicate that its placement is controversial in contemporary Colombia.

And herein lies the obvious connection with the Confederate monuments. They were mostly created between 1900 and 1920, decades after the end of the Civil War. Their purpose was not primarily to celebrate the accomplishment of the Confederate leaders but rather to reassert White supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Their intent was to put the White brand on public spaces and to intimidate Blacks. The point is not that the monuments of Sebastián de Belalcázar and Robert E. Lee might offend some people today. The critical point is that they were erected with the intent to offend and to intimidate.

PS: The Belalcázar monument in Popayán was toppled by an Indigenous group on 16 September 2020.

Switzerland: Pioneer of Right-Wing Populism

The ascent of a narcissistic autocrat with a white nationalist platform to the presidency of the United States has shocked the world. While the nationalist right played a relatively marginal role in US politics until quite recently, there are other countries with a long history of successful populist politics. Perhaps the best example is Switzerland where nationalist right-wing politics have been practiced successfully for two generations. Their rise has been incremental, gradually normalizing xenophobic and exclusionary discourses.

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Poster against “mass-naturalization” (2004)

On February 12, Swiss voters will decide whether to facilitate the naturalization of third-generation immigrants. These are legal residents of Switzerland who were born and raised in Switzerland and whose parents were also born and raised in Switzerland. Under the current arbitrary and discriminatory naturalization laws, which are entirely based on the ius sanguinis, residents whose grandparents immigrated have to meet the same requirements as recent immigrants who were born abroad. Facilitated naturalization is only granted to spouses and children of a Swiss national. Similar measures were rejected by Swiss voters in 1983, 1994, and 2004. The 2004 poster shows dark hands greedily grabbing Swiss passports. Recent polls indicate that there is a slim margin of support of the measure, but it may still fail because a majority of cantons is also required.

burka

Controversial poster at Zurich main station (Jan. 2017) with the text: “Uncontrolled naturalization? No.”

The political right, particularly the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in Switzerland, has campaigned vigorously against the measure, using very controversial campaign tactics. Their main poster shows a woman wearing a burqa with the caption “Uncontrolled naturalization? No to facilitated naturalization.” Andreas Glarner, a leader of the populist right, justified the poster: “The wearer of a burqa is a symbol for lacking integration.” The intended effect is to create a visual link between a sinister, fully veiled Muslim woman and well-integrated third-generation immigrants. A look at the facts shows how baseless and manipulative this statement is. According to federal authorities, a total of 24,656 individuals would benefit from this measure. Of these, only 334 have roots outside of Europe, while 14,331 individuals, or 58%, have roots in Italy. Furthermore, research shows that naturalization enhances integration, indicating the absurdity of Glarner’s arguments.

Switzerland has a unique system of direct democracy that allows any group to launch an initiative to add an amendment to the constitution or to challenge a federal law in a referendum. A national vote has to be held if a sufficient number of voters demand it with their signatures. This system has enabled fringe groups to take their pet issues directly to voters, bypassing the parliamentary process. It also has forced parliament to work out balanced compromise legislation that can withstand a referendum.

The first initiatives against Überfremdung (overforeignization) were launched by a right-wing fringe party called Nationale Aktion gegen die Überfremdung von Volk und Heimat (National Action Against Overforeignization of People and Home). Even though there was no mainstream support for the initiative, 46 percent of the electorate supported it in the first vote of 1970. If adapted, it would have limited non-citizens to 10% of the resident population, down from the actual rate of 17.2%. (The current rate is 24.6% which in part is due to the fact that naturalization in Switzerland is exceedingly restrictive.) In the following years, similar initiatives followed, all of them narrowly defeated, until 2014.

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Swiss fascist election poster (1933): “We clean up”

The term Überfremdung was used even though it was discredited because of its use in Nazi Germany. The term was coined in 1900 in a Swiss publication that was part of an older Swiss polemic against immigration in the years leading up to WW I. Populist discourses against immigration in Switzerland thus go back over a century. The Swiss fascist movement created an anti-immigration visual language that has informed election posters until today. In the 1970s, the fringe right linked “overforeignization” with relevant issues of the day, such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, the selling out of the homeland, and excessive real estate speculation leading to usurious rents. A pseudo-environmentalist approach to limiting immigration was also attempted in the 2014 Ecopop initiative.

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Swiss poster against “overforeignization,” c. 1970.

Since the 1960s, seven different right-wing populist parties have won seats in the national parliament. While these parties remained on the fringe until the early 1990s, they used the tools of direct democracy very effectively to enact an anti-foreigner agenda. While the early initiatives were not successful, they framed the discussion and allowed the fringe right to set the tone for the immigration debate. Just the threat of a new initiative or of a referendum forced the mainstream to make serious concessions to the fringe right, thus establishing a tyranny of the minority that also is an emerging trademark of Trump’s America.

Over the past three decades, the populist right prevented facilitated naturalization of children and grandchildren of immigrants, forced a tightening of asylum laws, and in 1992 engineered the ballot box defeat of Swiss participation in the European Economic Area (EEA), which many saw as a stepping stone towards EU membership. And in February 2014, the political right for the first time managed to pass a measure that would limit immigration. As this new limitation is in violation of existing treaties with the EU, the Swiss government has stalled on its implementation so far.

In the early 1990s, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) established itself as the main right-wing party and managed to transform popular support of anti-immigration issues into success in parliamentary elections; it has been the most successful Swiss party since 1999 and currently has the support of about 30% of Swiss voters. The party became a model for other European right-wing populist parties and recently has been consulted by similar parties in Europe, like Germany’s AfD. Their controversial 2007 election poster, showing a black sheep being kicked out, became such a branding success that they recycled it for a number anti-foreigner campaigns. Furthermore, right-wing parties in Europe used the motif for their own purposes.

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Infamous 2007 Swiss People’s Party (SVP) election poster (left) and imitations from Belgium, Germany, and Spain.

One of the more spectacular successes of the hard right was the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing minarets in Switzerland in 2009–of which there were exactly four in the entire country. Their campaign posters showed a Swiss flag pierced by minarets that had the appearance of missiles. Anti-Islamic prejudices were further pushed by the same sinister-looking Muslim woman in a burqa seen in the current campaign. And again, this illustration was imitated by right-wing parties across Europe, like France’s Front National and the British National Party, who used it in their own polemics against Islam.

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Minarets piercing the Swiss flag like missiles, Muslim woman in burqa (2009). Imitations from France and Britain.

While the mass appeal of right-wing populism still is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe and the United States, the roots of contemporary right-wing populism in Switzerland go back to the 1960s. It has been a powerful driver of anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Islamic policies in Switzerland that defied the political elites even though the populist right has never received more than 30% of votes in parliamentary elections. It has developed a polemical and manipulative rhetoric and misleading graphics over the past half century that has become the model for right-wing political parties across Europe.

Addendum February 12, 2017: Hearing on NPR this morning that Swiss voters approved the facilitated naturalization of third-generation immigrants felt a bit surreal. This certainly is a step in the right direction, but the Swiss government set the bar very low with its proposal. While the vote (60.4% of voters and 17 out of 23 cantons in favor) is a setback for the populist right, we have to remember that naturalization for third-generation immigrants still is not automatic and that second-generation immigrants–who were born and raised in Switzerland–still have to go through the exceedingly tough and arbitrary naturalization process. The government’s proposal
set the bar very low, much lower than So the populist right still drives the immigration and naturalization agenda.

What the Brexit Vote Teaches Us about Direct Democracy (and the Future of Democracy)

Yesterday’s Brexit vote was widely seen as a referendum on referenda. The populist right across Europe now routinely is demanding to take issues directly to the people in order to bypass the parliamentary process which has not produced desired outcome–a process The Economist recently dubbed Referendumania. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has demanded for years that important issues like EU membership should be voted on by the electorate. Prime Minister David Cameron gave in to the demands in order to win the last election, feeling confident that he would win the vote and thus quiet the right-wing opposition. The gamble backfired: Cameron lost both the vote and his job.

The price Britain will pay for playing with the populist fire is potentially steep. Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the EU and now wants a second vote on independence. In Northern Ireland, the vote opened up old confessional lines of cleavage: Protestant Unionists voted for the Brexit, Catholics against. And the City of London may lose its position as premier financial market in Europe. Most importantly, the British economy will face an uncertain future. The EU is unlikely to sign off on free trade arrangements of the sort Norway and Switzerland enjoy because such a deal would encourage other member nations to leave as well. Furthermore, it took Switzerland a couple of decades to arrive at its current, admittedly cushy relationship with the EU.

Governments in other European countries no doubt will try to avoid this populist trap. This will enrage the masses even more, and demands for more democracy will become ever louder. In the wake of the British vote, the German right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has demanded more direct democracy for Germany. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, promised a referendum on the Frexit if she is elected president of France next year. And the Dutch right-wing leader Geert Wilders announced a push for the Nexit.

One real concern is that this type of referendum is susceptible to lies and deception. The Brexit campaign was run entirely as a post-truth campaign. Its most visible element was the Vote Exit campaign bus run by Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and possible successor as prime minister. The inscription on the side of the bus made a bold claim: “We send the EU £350m a week.”

False claim on Boris Johnson’s Vote Exit campaign bus: “We send the EU £350m a week.” (Reuters)

As it turns out, the figure is wrong. It disregards the massive rebate Britain has received since 1985, and it does not include the EU payments that flow back to British institutions. But facts just did not matter in this campaign that was ruled by anger and fear and dominated by issues like immigration and sovereignty. Michael Gove, co-chair of the Leave campaign and current minister of justice, was asked to name a single independent economic authority who thought Brexit was a good idea. His response: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

The counter-example to this narrative is Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the ballot box four times a year to decide three or four issues each time. Direct democracy in Switzerland has grown organically into the fabric of Swiss politics since the late 19th century. Both the government and the media generally do a good job to inform the public on the facts and on the pros and cons of the issues to be voted on. As a result, Switzerland has developed a polity that is structured from the bottom up and that allows voters to participate in decision-making processes on all levels of government. This system has produced an educated and knowledgeable electorate that is much less likely to be fooled by deceptive populist rhetoric.

Political systems create political cultures as much as political cultures shape political systems. Countries like Britain and Germany have a strong tradition of parliamentary democracy. Voters elect leaders who represent them in parliament that in turns forms a government which it controls. This mechanism does not really allow for an alternate decision-making process, for instance in the form of a referendum, as the political culture does not have the tools to deal with it. A system that works exceedingly well in Switzerland therefore could turn toxic for Britain, with the potential of doing the same in other European countries.

There are two reasons why the current populist anger is directed at the European Union and why referenda could accelerate the unraveling of the EU. The European Union has been an elite project. It has done a poor job explaining to Europeans how it has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that had been ravaged by two world wars, how it helped Spain, Portugal and Greece transition away from fascist dictatorships, and how it supported countries formerly in the Soviet bloc both politically and economically. But it also created institutions that are not transparent and that delegate too many decisions to bureaucrats in Brussels. And it has thoroughly mismanaged the Greek debt crisis. Thus it has become an easy target for malcontents.

The second reason is that Globalization has contributed to the de-industrialization of Western Europe (as well as North America). This has created massive wage stagnation and chronic unemployment among the working classes, and it has spawned unprecedented levels of global migration. European populists successfully managed to blame the European Union for both. In reality, 1.5 billion workers, mostly in China and India, have joined the global labor market over the past quarter century which has created extraordinary pressures. On top of that, the digital revolution has begun to make human labor redundant–a trend that may lead to massive unemployment in developed societies in the future. The EU is responsible for none of this: British voters will soon discover that leaving the EU will not lessen the competitive pressures on British industry, nor will it ease migration pressures.

Western democracies have become vulnerable to populist deception. Boris Johnson will be rewarded for his deceptive politics by inheriting the job of Prime Minister. He also wrote the playbook for Donald Trump on how to win a fact-free campaign that is not restrained by the limitations of truth. Maurine Le Pen is favored to win the French presidency next year. And Angela Merkel, the lone beacon of reason in European politics, may well stumble over the populist furor raised by the refugee crisis. Direct democracy which has given Switzerland unparalleled political stability and economic success may also become the political idea that will give the populist right the tools to undo the European Union.

 

Xhaka vs. Xhaka: Swiss Debates about Immigration and National Identity

The world was watching today as Switzerland and Albania met in a qualifying-round soccer match at the European Championship in France. Switzerland won 1-0. The game got world-wide attention because two brothers were playing on opposite teams: Granit Xhaka for Switzerland and Taulant Xhaka for Albania.

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The Xhaka brothers Taulant (left) and Granit embracing before the game. (Screenshot Blick.com)

Whenever US national teams in any sport play in a big tournament, the expectation typically is that the US will win it all–soccer (known was football in the rest of the world) being an exception. Small countries rarely expect their sports teams to win a big tournament. Often, just qualifying for it suffices to get fans excited. When Switzerland beat Spain during the 2010 World Cup, fans were ecstatic. Spain went on to win the World Cup, Switzerland was eliminated because of a loss against Chile and a draw against Honduras, and everybody was happy. So symbolic victories matter and have an afterlife in the psyche of small countries with implications for national identity formation.

For Albania, the game was important because this is the first time ever that the Albanian national team qualified for a big tournament–World Cup or European Championship. To the Albanians, being there was more important than winning. This is why some streets of Zurich were dominated by Albanian immigrants who were in a celebratory mood in spite of the loss of their team. One Albanian fan told the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger that Albania was represented at the Euro with 38 players, more than any other country: “We feel like victors because the Swiss national team consists predominantly of Albanians.”

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Albanians celebrating: post-game parade in Zurich’s Langstrasse. Some Swiss showing colors as well. (Tages-Anzeiger)

And this is exactly the reason why some Swiss do not feel like celebrating. The Swiss national team over the past few years has become a focal point of the tempestuous debate about immigration, integration, naturalization and national identity which has been virulent in Switzerland since the early 1970s. When the Swiss Under-17 team unexpectedly won the World Cup in 2009, the Swiss public was surprised to learn that two-thirds of the players on that team had a migration background.  Many of these players have now moved up to the senior team.

Of the eleven players in the starting lineup of today’s game, only three do not have a migration background–interestingly the goal keeper and two defenders, while all mid-fielders and strikers do have a migration background. Five players have roots in Albania or in Kosovo (which is ethnically Albanian), and one additional player has roots in Bosnia. So the Albanian fans got it right: they do have reason to celebrate. At the same time, an informal survey of the Swiss tabloid Blick indicates that 58% of its readers do not identify with their national team.

The example of the Xhaka brothers illustrates what has become the norm in Swiss and indeed in European soccer. Both Xhaka brothers were born in Switzerland to Kosovo-Albanian parents who escaped collapsing Yugoslavia in 1989. Both grew up in Basel and learned to play soccer in local clubs. Both profited from the efforts of the Swiss Soccer Federation that since the early 1990s has made it their mission to help integrate the children of immigrants into Swiss society through soccer.

Taulant, born in 1991, still plays for the FC Basel and has collected four Swiss championship trophies with his club. Granit, born in 1992, transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach, an elite German Bundesliga team, in 2012. Last month, it was announced that he will transfer to Arsenal next season. Both brothers played for Swiss national youth squads, but only Granit was invited to the senior team, while Taulant was invited to play in the Albanian national team in 2013. So Taulant plays for a Swiss club, but for the Albanian national team, while Granit chose a career in the Bundesliga and the Premier League but still plays for the Swiss national team.

Populists vilify both a nascent multicultural society in Switzerland in general and immigrants in particular because of their supposed lack in strength, character, conviction and commitment to their new country. Commentators from the populist right have denounced prominent Swiss players with a migration background because they allegedly lack loyalty towards their adoptive country as they play for a foreign national team, foreign club team, or both. While native Swiss players enjoy great support for seeking fame and fortune abroad, this is not the case for players with a migration background who play for a foreign club, like Granit, or worse, for a foreign national team, like Taulant. The Xhaka brothers very much represent the globalized cosmopolitan world of elite soccer in Europe where top teams buy top players regardless of nationality. But a more parochial Swiss public examines ‘their’ players with migration background for their ‘Swissness’ and finds them mostly wanting, as a desire to play abroad is seen as lacking ambition to integrate.

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Split loyalties: mother Xhaka wearing a t-shirt combining the flags of Albania and Switzerland. (Daily Mail Online)

At the 2014 World Cup, the Swiss team was the most cosmopolitan and was widely praised as a model for integration. But recently, questions of integration and identification with Switzerland have flared up within the national team as well. A frustrated Stephan Lichtsteiner, a star player at Juventus Turin and one of the few players without migration background, started the debate when two players with a long history with the national team were cut from the roster for the qualifier against Estonia in March 2015. He angrily told the rightist Basel daily Basler Zeitung: “To me it is not about the`true Swiss’ and the ‘other Swiss,’ rather it is about the question whether people still can identify with the the national team.”

Observers believe that this was a public acknowledgment that a powerful Albanian bloc has emerged in the Swiss national team and that the team is not nearly as integrated as perceived by the public. Lichtsteiner’s statement certainly did not not improve the public image of the Swiss national team at best and played into the populist rhetoric at worst. In that context, Albania was the worst-possible opponent for Switzerland. It is a good thing that the Albanian-Swiss managed to win over the Albanian team–otherwise the public backlash in Switzerland questioning the loyalty of their players would have been palpable. But then these players are professionals who want to play soccer, win games, and be successful in their careers–and who are annoyed about being drawn into integration and identification debates. So the true winners of today’s game: the Xhaka brothers.

Tartu University and the Anti-Russian Memory Project

Monuments are never about the past. They are about how we think about history and culture at the time the monument is erected. Monuments are part of national memory projects whose primary purpose is to shape the present and the future. As attitudes change, monuments themselves can become focal points of political debate. We often instrumentalize monuments to help construct a version of history that is compatible with national identity, as I argued in my piece about the Pizarro monument in Lima, Peru. A recent visit to the campus of Tartu University confirmed this vividly.

I participated in a conference that took place in Tallinn and Tartu, the two largest cities in Estonia. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine was a daily topic of conversation, and the fear that Putin may turn his attention to the Baltic states was expressed frequently. During the Tartu portion of the conference, international participants were invited on a walking tour of Tartu University, led by a Tartu professor who had studied in Tartu during the Soviet period and a younger lecturer at Tallinn University who also was a Tartu alumn. We spent a lot of time at the monument of Swedish King Gustav II Adolf (a.k.a Gustavus Adolphus). It is that monument and the history behind it that gives a snapshot of the history of Estonia over the past 400 years.

The University of Tartu was founded by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden in 1632, the same year the King died in the Battle of Lützen. Estonia was a Swedish territory then, and Tartu became only the second Swedish university–after Uppsala. Russia gained control over Estonia during the Great Northern War in 1710–and promptly closed the university. The university was reopened in 1802 as the Universität Dorpat by the German-Baltic elites as a German-speaking university; its new charter was confirmed by Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1802. As a result of the Russification campaign in the 1880s, Russian displaced German as language of instruction. Most of the German faculty left, and the university lost its international reputation.

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Main building of the University of Tartu, constructed in a neo-classical style in 1804-09.

In 1919, after Estonian independence, the University of Tartu became an Estonian-speaking institution and the national university of a newly independent Estonia. In 1928, the above-mentioned monument to Gustav II Adolf, the founding patron, was erected to mark the pre-Russian origin of the university, to signal Estonia’s Northern European identity, and to symbolically reestablish the university’s link to European intellectual traditions. But Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941-44. At the end of the war, the Soviets introduced Russian as a second language of instruction. And in 1950, they dismantled the monument to Gustav II Adolf.

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Monument to King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden in Tartu (1928).

In the Soviet revisionist reading of history, the university was founded by Russians in 1802–even though the Russians had closed the University a century before that. The monument to the Swedish king who had founded the university contradicted this narrative, and his memory had to be erased. Sometime in the 1960s, according to our guides, students built a snowman that resembled the statue. This triggered an intervention by the KGB, the Soviet secret service, because the snowman referred to the missing monument, which in turn had revived the memory of a time before Russian rule. In the mind of the paranoid Soviet system, this was the very definition of a subversive act. In 1992, one year after Estonia regained independence, the monument was restored as a symbolic reminder that Estonia had rejoined the community of European nations.

Our tour guides then led us into the main auditorium, the Aula. While there is no formal monument here, the Aula clearly has become the locus of an important national memory. In 1964, the Aula at Tartu University was the site of the memorable speech by Urho Kekkonen, the long-time president of Finland, during an unofficial visit of Soviet Estonia. Like Estonia, Finland had been part of Tsarist Russia and was able to free itself at the end of the First World War. But unlike Estonia, Finland was able to maintain its independence during and after the Second World War. As Finnish and Estonian are both part of the Finno-Ugric language group, the two cultures grew closer in the waning years of Tsarist Russia. After 1945, Finland became a model and the window to the West for Soviet Estonia as Finnish TV could be received in the northern half of Estonia. Kekkonen’s speech was entirely in Estonian, and he focused on the kinship of the two nations which gave Estonians hope for a brighter Post-Soviet future.

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Aula (Main Auditorium) at Tartu University.

Even though the Tartu professor started his studies at Tartu a decade after the speech, he described it so vividly and glowingly as if he had been there, including the fact that Kekkonen spoke better Estonian than the rector of the university. This is the nature of vicarious memories: they are transmitted with a great personal and emotional commitment from generation to generation as they hold a symbolic truth that needs to be enshrined in the national memory. Yet, the only tangible impact of Kekkonen’s speech was the establishment of a ferry link between Tallinn and Helsinki in 1965. While the Kekkonen visit was a reminder to this small country that the outside world had not completely forgotten it, some make the argument that it was akin to the recognition of the Soviet occupation.

There is little that reminds the casual visitor to Tartu of the the Soviet period. The entire country is seeking to reconnect with its European past, and the preservation of its pre-Russian cultural legacy has become a national project. The preservation of monuments is a key part of this strategy. The Tartu campus is full of such memory sites. In addition to the Aula and the monument to Gustav II Adolf, they also include monuments to German-Baltic professors at Tartu, such as the statue of Karl Ernst von Baer (1886), and the historically important fraternity house of the Estonian Student Union which was founded in 1870 and whose colors are now the colors of the Estonian flag. Since independence, new memorial sites have been created, such as the monument to the Swedish politician and legal scholar Johan Skytte (2007) who served as the founding chancellor of Tartu University in 1632.

Yet, in the minds of Estonians, the Soviet legacy is omnipresent. The anti-Russian rhetoric permeated the entire tour of the Tartu campus and indeed all conversations with local professors and students. In part, this speaks to the fear of a potential aggression by Putin’s Russia. But in part, this also an indicator of a project to create a national memory and narrative that tries to marginalize the Russian and even more so the Soviet role in Estonian history. Perhaps the sole exception to that is the Tallinn plaque in the memory of the Russian president Boris Yeltsin (2013)–he recognized Estonian independence in 1991.

Mare Nostrum?

Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea”) was a common Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. The term was always somewhat ambiguous: it both implied Roman dominance of the Mediterranean and the cultural diversity of the nations that have bordered it for well over two millennia. Since before the Roman times, the Mediterranean Sea always was a meeting ground for cultures that bordered it–sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.

The island of Sicily is not just the geographic center of the Mediterranean, it always was a place where the Orient and the Occident intersected, and it was located at the historically fluid boundary between Europe and Africa. In Antiquity, native peoples like the Elmynians shared the island with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans who all laid claim to all or part of Sicily at some point. Many of these cultures coexisted in Sicily over time, although many battles were fought as well.

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Greek temple of the Doric order at Segesta, Sicily, built by the indigenous Elmynians around 420 BCE.

After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, a number of Mediterranean cultures dominated Sicily throughout the Middle Ages. Vandals, Goths and Byzantines ruled Sicily in quick succession, until the Arabs erected the Emirate of Sicily (827-1091). The Normans arrived in Sicily in 1061 and created and gradually expanded their own kingdom that lasted until the Norman dynasty died out in 1198. The Hohenstaufen dynasty from Southern Germany assumed the Sicilian crown, followed by the house of Anjou in 1266. By the early 14th century, Sicily had fallen under influence of the Spanish house of Aragon. The common thread in Sicilian history is that it was always ruled by foreign kings who brought in foreign cultural influences.

Today, the narrow lanes in the old towns of Palermo and Cefalù still show the Arabic layout. But it was the Normans who left a huge architectural imprint on Sicily with their ambitious construction program which was designed to re-establish Christianity on the island. The cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, both close to Palermo, and the Norman royal palace in Palermo with its stunning palace chapel demonstrate that Norman Palermo was perhaps the most important European cultural center in the 12th century–and an early hub of globalization.

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Monreale Cathedral, built 1174-1182 in a Norman-Arab style, with its stunning Byzantine mosaics.

The Normans left a big imprint on Sicily from the time of their first arrival in 1061 until around 1250. They created a hybrid culture that is commonly referred to as Norman-Arab or Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture. This civilization resulted from the interaction between the Greek-speaking population, Arab settlers who had dominated the island before the arrival of the Normans, and of course the Romanesque Northern European culture imported by the Normans. As a result, Sicily became the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures under Norman rule, and a hybrid culture arose that integrated Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic elements. The Monreale Cathedral with its Byzantine mosaics and the adjacent cloister created by Arabic craftsmen is the crowning achievement of this culture.

Today, the concept of Mare Nostrum has taken on a different meaning. Following the tragic  2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck in which over 360 African refugees drowned, the Italian government implemented the Operation Mare Nostrum, a military and humanitarian operation designed to simultaneously rescue refugees who cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in unsafe, overloaded boats and to apprehend the traffickers. The initiative has since been scaled back for financial reasons.

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Memorial to African refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean, made out of boat fragments (Cathedral of Noto). The inscription quotes Pope Francis “Chi piangerà per questi morti?” (Who will cry for these dead?)

In this contemporary usage, the term Mare Nostrum is intended to embrace the diversity of Mediterranean cultures and to enhance exchange and cooperation between them. But the opposite is happening in Sicily today. The unresolved refugee crisis that is focused on Sicily, primarily due to its proximity to the North African coast, highlights how Sicily’s role in a new era of globalization has changed. What once was the center of the Mediterranean world now has become an outpost of the European Union, the border between the wealthy industrialized nations and the Global South. Ironically, the globalization of the 21st century has created an impermeable border, a bulwark both physical and mental, on an island that was the meeting point of Mediterranean cultures and civilizations for over two millennia.