Our governments have no balls (and no, UK, Ed doesn’t count)
There is a phrase in the English language that I am sure most people are familiar with: “to have no balls” – meaning the person who lacks the balls (mostly men, although recently its more general use seems to have been extended to women) lacks bravery, courage, guts, the nerve to do something. In German this translates into “keine Eier haben” – to have no eggs. Both phrases mean the same thing.
Obviously, there is a lot wrong with either phrase. For one thing, both are hopelessly sexist. After all, why is having “no balls” or “no eggs” – as far as they are metaphors for a man’s testicles – necessarily a sign of weakness? What’s this idea that positive qualities like bravery, courage, and nerve are located exclusively in men’s “downstairs”?
I would contest that although women have no “balls” (although arguably they have eggs), they are not lacking in any of the positive qualities associated with the same any more or less than men are.
I would also suggest that both phrases are insulting to men with Cryptorchidism, as well as men in general – surely, no one can be happy at the suggestion that whatever positive qualities they possess are limited to a rather small area (or two) “down there” and that when that area is damaged, or – gods forbid – somehow lost, the qualities that reside in it are lost as well.
However, sexism is not what I want to write about this week. That’s a blog post for another time.
But I am going to write about eggs (feminists, bear with me a while and forgive me). It is, after all, a week until Easter. And this last week for me, as someone who knows what the phrase “keine Eier haben” (to have no eggs) encodes, brought home with force – once again, I might add – the irony that EU governments decisively lack both balls and eggs – although not, in fact, testictles.
Take the governments of the UK and Germany respectively: the UK cabinet has 22 ministers, only three of which are women – two, now that Maria Miller is out of the picture. A circumstance (the lack of women on the front bench, not the resignation of Maria Miller) that furnished Labour Leader Ed Miliband with a perfect opportunity of launching the a recent attack on his opponent David Cameron. The one attack, in fact, that afforded a glance of something like substance, some suggestion that Miliband was anything other than just…blah.
“I guess,” he quipped, “they didn’t allow women into the Bullingdon Club either.”
Boom! Thought we, Miliband! That’s how it’s done!
I guess, as the opposition leader, you can. As part of the government however… it’s a different story.
It is the story of the German government. In terms of female ministers, they are doing slightly better than the English with six out of sixteen ministers being women – Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the government, herself a woman of course.
Still, 3 (2) out of 22 (21) and 6 out of 16 respectively aren’t very many women at all. But it sure is a lot of testicles! 38 in the UK and 20 in the German cabinet if my calculations are correct, assuming that the male members of both governments are all fully equipped.
However, sexism in politics (or this blogger) is not what I want to write about this week either.
Instead, I would like to comment on something that may be obvious anyway but which has become even more so this week: or governments have no guts.
Clearly, an abundance of testicles does not automatically make for an equal abundance of courage, valour, bravery, or democratic responsibility. Mind you, neither does a lack thereof. I have no doubt that the women in either government are no less gutsy than their male counterparts. Sadly, they are no more so either. So, obviously, the particulars of the male and female genitalia have no impact on any of the positive qualities mistakenly attributed to the possession of one or more testicles. Balls – or eggs – do not mean courage and no balls – or eggs – well… you know what I am getting at.
Courage. Bravery. Nerve. There is very little of that in politics at the moment – and Merkel’s government of gutless wonders has made its decided lack of anything resembling any proverbial part of the human body (be it guts, eggs, backbone or spine) so very obvious this week, it is at the same time ridiculous and deeply disturbing.
All the more so because, while I have pretty much given up on the House of Commons, I do still foster a tiny little flicker of hope – all but a sputter by now – that somewhere in the German Bundestag there are some politicians left who haven’t quite forgotten what democracy means. Or what democratic accountability means. Or what it means to be a democratically elected representative of the people.
The German opposition may still cut a better figure than the English opposition (Miliband’s Bullingdon-jibe excepted) but one German news anchor wasn’t wrong either when she called that opposition a “bonsai” – it is very wee, and while some of them do a lot of shouting, it is doubtful that they will actually be able to give German foreign policy a nudge in any kind of meaningful direction.
Spinelessness shows: Germany’s Foreign policy
For that is where the spinelessness of the government really shows: in its foreign policy.
Take Russia and Germany’s minister for finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, who at the IMF Spring Meeting this week said that Germany does not want an “escalation” of disagreements with Russia over Ukraine. At least, I think that’s what he meant. The situation in the Ukraine has, after all, pretty much escalated already. Germany’s weekly Der Spiegel comments on this here (the article is in German).
Mr Schäuble also said that the recent Crimea crisis played a “central role on the fringes” of the IMF meeting – Der Spiegel interprets this to mean that while Crimea is not on the official agenda, it is still the talk of the town.
Personally, I think it Mr Schäuble’s comment also shows – once again – that Schäuble, much like the rest of the German cabinet, tends towards being more than a little (oxy)moronic. (Especially when you consider that Schäuble then went ahead (to a group of students, not the IMF) and compared Putin’s annexation of Crimea with the “Sudenten Crisis” – just how comparing Putin to Hitler is going to help Russian-German relations is a mystery to anyone.)
And if that wasn’t enough evidence of how moronic things are getting with some members of the German cabinet, one only has to look to parliament’s brand new NSA inquiry committee. This glowing example of German democracy and accountability was supposed to start its probe into NSA surveillance this week – only to see its chairman resign right away because members proved unable to come to an agreement about whether or not to invite Edward Snowden to testify. Representatives of the government (also known as the Christian and Social democrat “grand coalition”) were against, the opposition (Greens and Left) in favour. No surprises there at all. The decision concerning Mr Snowden was finally postponed until 8th May – tellingly, until after chancellor Merkel returns from a trip to the US scheduled for 2nd May.
So, basically, German foreign policy stands thus:
Chancellor Merkel has – in tenor with US president Obama – called Russia’s annexation of Crimea illegal under international law – as, by the way, has the EU. Mr Schäuble has gone ahead and compared Putin to Hitler, straining relations further.
However, apparently neither Russia’s continued intervention in the Ukraine nor its annexation of Crimea are illegal or Hitler-like enough for Germany to risk “making it difficult” (this is Schäuble at the IMF again) for Russia – whatever that’s supposed to mean. The problem (i.e. the Ukraine crisis), Schäuble has been quoted as saying, needs to be solved in cooperation with Russia.
In cooperation with. A lovely phrase. It hides sins of omission.
Another example of omission: Angela Merkel is said to be increasingly frustrated at the US government’s refusal “to grant [her] access to her NSA file or answer formal questions from Germany about its surveillance activities”.
A reminder: the German government submitted “a list of questions […] immediately after Snowden’s first tranche of revelations […] in June last year” and the US government has so far failed to respond. Basically, all that president Obama has come back with was something not unlike: “Angela, we cannot give you access to that file, we will not enter a no-spy agreement but I promise you we’re not bugging your cell anymore.”
Sound all right to you? No, not to me, either.
First of all, it would be naïve – if not outright daft – to take anything any US official says about spying at face value anymore.
Second of all, even if US reassurances that they aren’t spying on Merkel are true; I would suggest that this does nothing to reassure Germany’s remaining 80-odd million citizens.
Which is why the necessity for an NSA inquiry should not only be obvious. An inquiry is nothing short of mandatory for a country that takes its democracy seriously.
Yes, I know. The British don’t seem to be going to any such lengths either. After all, the UK surveillance watchdog just this week pretty much exonerated GCHQ. In all honesty, I am much more worried about the state of the UK’s so-called democracy than about Germany’s. At least, in Germany, journalists still seem to be allowed to say and write what they think without fear of being prosecuted.
But then Germany has a very specific and murky past when it comes to government surveillance and there is no excuse for the government to be failing in the way it is failing now. Arguably, there is no excuse for any government to fail, ever, but well, some failures are more obvious than others and this one – the NSA inquiry committee’s utterly nonsensical shenanigans – are such a case.
I would argue that both because of its current status within the European Union and because of its history (and also very much because of its particular constitution), Germany’s responsibility to investigate government mass surveillance is more evident and possibly greater than that of other European countries.
Arguably, “Germans are sensitive about the [NSA] issue” precisely because of East Germany’s Stasi past. Prior to the fall of the GDR, Stasi carried out “one of the world’s biggest mass surveillance operations […] which led to a culture of mistrust”.
Granted, the NSA isn’t the Stasi, even though Angela Merkel herself has compared the two. After all, we are still living in democracies. Yet, East Germany’s past is a prime example close to home of where warrantless mass surveillance by governments of their own people can lead (for anyone who still doesn’t see the danger, I recommend Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No, I am not joking. Mass surveillance and its dangers are one of the film’s main themes – you can learn all about the hazards inherent in the NSA’s mass surveillance apparatus while munching on your cinema snacks and drooling over Chris Evans or Scarlett Johansson).
Merkel is aware of these dangers. Every other politician in Germany is aware of them. It is inscribed into Germany’s historical DNA. For that reason, Germany should be working its hardest to improve data protection laws, not just within Germany but across the European Union as well.
However, to argue successfully and credibly in favour of such laws, the German government cannot be seen to eschew the responsibility of shedding some light on potential NSA abuses against its citizens. It needs to come clean about its own involvement – so far as there is any – in questionable mass surveillance practices. For the sake of democracy, accountability and credibility, the inquiry needs to go ahead at full steam – and it will not be complete without Mr Snowden’s testimony.
No proper inquiry without Edward Snowden
I am not the only one of that opinion. Glenn Greenwald in an interview in Berlin this week called any failure to call Mr Snowden as a witness (and to protect him as such a witness) “irresponsible” – again, the article is in German but RT has more on Mr Greenwald’s comments:
[I]t would be incredibly irresponsible, RT quotes Mr Greenwald, for the German Commission to try and pretend to investigate surveillance on German soil without speaking to the one person who knows more about that and is willing to talk to them than anybody in the world.
Apparently, Mr Greenwald also – which delighted me personally – branded Germany’s failure to call and protect Mr Snowden “insulting”.
He is right on both counts of course.
Failure to call Mr Snowden as a witness (and to offer him witness protection and asylum) would be insulting to Mr Snowden as a person who has committed an act of superior democratic conscience. It would also be insulting to those 80-odd million German citizens who had their civil rights violated by warrantless NSA mass surveillance. Nothing short of a full, comprehensive inquiry would suffice to show that the German government still respects and defends the rights of its electorate.
And it would be absolutely irresponsible – and, yes (oxy)moronic – as well.
Any inquiry that honestly seeks to clear up the pressing questions surrounding NSA mass surveillance in Germany cannot responsibly refuse to hear the most important witness in the case.
German politicians have tried to justify their reluctance to call Mr Snowden by claiming two things:
one, that they would not be able to guarantee Mr Snowden’s safety. They cite the incident with Evo Morales’ plane last year as evidence. I would suggest that those governments who chose to re-route the plane still had a choice as to whether or not they were going to give it access to their airspace. Just because they made the wrong choice – that is prioritizing playing nice with the US over the sovereignty of a nation – doesn’t mean Germany has to do the same.
Should Germany refuse to call and protect Mr Snowden – the key witness – they would need to provide iron-clad proof that there is no other legal option, i.e. that they are absolutely obliged to extradite Mr Snowden under international law and that there is no way around it. I doubt that this is the case.
Two, German politicians dispute the value of Mr Snowden as a witness, saying that they are not sure how much he could tell them that they do not already know.
This is where it gets, plainly and simply, stupid (or insulting, considering how obvious an excuse it is – the German government seems to think we are all a bit dim).
Obviously, Mr Snowden can say only so much while bound by the particular conditions of his asylum in Russia. He has also pledged not to reveal anything that could endanger lives.
Yet chances are that there is a lot more that Mr Snowden can – and will – talk about once he feels truly free to do so. That is, once he feels secure under German protection.
He may be able to tell us, for example, in how far the NSA knew about and exploited the OpenSSL Heartbleed vulnerability.
Now, Heartbleed. I am not going to launch into any speculation about whether what Bloomberg reports (based on information from “two people familiar with the matter”) about the NSA knowing and exploiting Heartbleed for two years is true.
Obviously, if they did, it would mean that they have knowingly left encryption across the internet wide open to all sorts of attacks – the exact scenario cryptographers warned against when it was first revealed that NSA and GCHQ have undermined encryption.
For now, there seems to be little proof beyond speculation (or beyond what Bloomberg reports) of how long the NSA knew about Heartbleed. However, chances are that Mr Snowden might be able to shed some light on this. He did, after all, work inside the intelligence community for years.
Questions, questions, questions
Which is another crucial factor that the German government has irresponsibly decided to ignore: It isn’t just the documents he saw and took that make Mr Snowden an invaluable witness; it is the time he has spent on the so-called “inside”. How can any inquiry committee deserving of its name even debate the question of whether or not to invite him to testify?
What is more, and I have always found this to be one of the most shocking aspects of the whole affair, how can a democracy deserving of its name refuse help to the one person who has rendered an invaluable service to democracies around the world?
The answer is that it can’t but then, given the perfectly gutless behaviour of the German “democratic” government towards Russia over Crimea and towards the US over the NSA, we need to ask ourselves two questions:
One, is Germany’s democracy even democratic and independent anymore or should the government perhaps lock up the Bundestag and give Putin and Obama half the country each? There is a historical precedent for that, just like there is for warrantless government surveillance in Germany, after all.
Two, what exactly is the point of chancellor Merkel? Isn’t she, as the elected leader of Germany’s democracy supposed to act in the best interest of her electorate? I’m pretty sure the constitution says she is. Isn’t she supposed to preserve democracy? Isn’t she supposed, if democracy is being threatened, to take some sort of stand to protect it?
As she isn’t doing any of that, just what is the point of her? What is the point of her entire cabinet? And what has happened to those members of the former opposition – now “grand” coalition – who used to shout the loudest and who we haven’t been doing much shouting at all recently? Andrea Nahles, for example, once the loudest and most annoying general secretary the Social Democrats ever had, has gone conspicuously quiet since being handed a portfolio.
Take a moment and compare them to Edward Snowden – the person they are arguing over.
This week, when the German government failed on two counts with regard to its foreign policy, Mr Snowden announced through his German lawyer that he was willing to drop all conditions he formerly attached to a potential testimony so he could be heard. How can there be any doubt left that the man is genuine? Or that he has more moral fibre in his right pinkie finger than Merkel’s minions have in their profusion of – I am going to say it again – testicles?
Granted, Mr Snowden’s lawyer cheekily suggested that unless given asylum or witness protection, the conditions of his asylum in Russia might mean that Mr Snowden cannot be as frank as he would like to be. The tease! But I cannot help thinking that his admirable sense of responsibility may have caused Mr Snowden to shoot himself in the foot there.
It may be that the German government isn’t all that interested in hearing everything Mr Snowden has to say. And even if there is nothing they themselves would like to keep hidden, I cannot help thinking Mr Snowden should not be making it quite so easy for them to circumvent their democratic responsibility towards him, and their electorate. He should not surrender what leverage he has left quite so easily. Yet Mr Snowden, unlike the governments that persecute or refuse to help him, not only has a sense of responsibility, he also possesses precisely the kind of qualities our elected leaders seem to be so shamefully lacking.
That lack in our leaders is troubling, disappointing and, yes, deeply, deeply frustrating.
Snowden! Snowden! Snowden!
In a brilliant commentary in – again – Germany’s Der Spiegel this week, journalist Georg Diez voices his frustration in no uncertain terms.
Mr Diez accuses the German government, more specifically the NSA inquiry committee, of destroying politics, of circumnavigating democratic rules, of refusing to acknowledge reality, of denying reasonability. He speaks my mind at every turn.
It is thanks to Edward Snowden – and Edward Snowden alone – Mr Diez writes, that the world even knows about NSA surveillance. Revealing how much freedom – and civil liberties and rights – are under threat has cost Mr Snowden his freedom – the US then deprived him of his rights as a citizen as well.
It would be logical, Mr Diez continues, to speak to Mr Snowden, whom Mr Diez calls both whistleblower and hero, the one key witness in this whole affair. It would be logical, unless – and this is my favourite bit – unless one is a member of the two major (sorry, this translates badly) “Demokratieverhinderungsparteien” (Democracy-preveting-parties, although “inhibiting” or “circumventing” would ring just as true).
I would add that it is nothing short of schizophrenic – and definitely moronic – for the NSA inquiry committee to refuse to call as a witness the one person who, as Mr Diez reminds us, made that board necessary and possible. Mr Snowden provided the NSA inquiry board with its raison d’être. An inquiry is an absolute democratic necessity, but it cannot be a real inquiry, in the spirit of true democratic accountability, without its key witness.
Ironically, this is the year in which the German constitution (the Grundgesetz) celebrates its anniversary. I am very fond of the Grundgesetz. It is a great constitution that cradles some invaluable rights and principles, such as the principle enshrined in Article One that “human dignity is inviolable”, which has to be my favourite constitutional principle ever. The fact that it is the German constitution’s first principle alone makes that constitution worth defending. Sadly, at the moment, I feel that the German government is doing a bad job of defending the Grundgesetz and the rights enshrined in it.
Not least against the background if the German constitution, the question of whether or not Mr Snowden should be called is, bluntly put, idiotic. It has no place in a democracy that deserves its name. To ask it, to refuse to call Mr Snowden, not to mention for the chair of the inquiry board to resign, is evidence of how government ministers seem to have lost their sense of what democracy requires – demands – them to do: to investigate the civil rights violations committed by someone else against their people. They are wasting, Mr Diez writes correctly, an opportunity for truth and clarification because they are unaware (and very much so) of both the dignity and the possibilities that their positions afford them.
This is most true of Ms Merkel who is wasting opportunity after opportunity of making a statement that is long overdue: Germany – and Europe – are democracies to be reckoned with; they are democracies worth defending. In many ways, they can serve as examples of what democracies should be. In much of Europe, we do not put people to death, we do not (as far as I am aware at least) detain them without charge and keep them for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Germany in particular has come a long way since its undemocratic, dark past and it could take a stand. It could set an example for Europe and the rest of the world that we will not suffer our democracies to be eroded.
The reason that she isn’t taking that stand is, it seems, it that Angela Merkel lacks the courage to do so.
Let’s put the eggs back into government
In his article, Mr Diez suggest that the German people all dance outside the German parliament building in Berlin, shouting “Snowden! Snowden! Snowden!” Anyone from outside Germany would be cordially invited to dance along, I am sure.
I think that’s a brilliant idea, but I do believe that any attempt at organizing a Snowden Dance Flashmob would either be picked up right away by Prism and reported to the NSA (we’ve seen this before) or broken up by police for disorderly conduct.
I therefore propose a different idea:
It’s Easter next week. Let’s all send the German government baskets full of eggs. You can paint Snowden’s name on them if you like or stick a mini-Snowden inside them.
Snowden-Kinder-eggs might just remind our politicians of the courage they lack.
If they don’t then perhaps ministers will at least be able to hatch a new sense of democratic responsibility. Then maybe they won’t need that much courage anymore because their democratic duty will become so glaringly obvious that they will not be able to eschew it anymore – eggs, balls, gut, courage or none.
There is no question here about what is the right thing to do.
Call Edward Snowden, let him speak, let him help and help him in return.
It’s really that simple.
It’s the very least the German government – the NSA inquiry committee – can do.