Swedish Populists Want Folksy Art

Immediately after the Swedish election the SD anti-immigration party made a major proclamation advocating policies copied from 1930s Germany – pertaining to the public funding of the arts.

Since the end of the war, the driver of a car is no longer known as an Autoführer, “car driver” in German. He’s an Autofahrer, a “car rider”. Other words have proved impossible to rehabilitate. A prominent one is völkisch, meaning “national”, “ethnic”, in some situations “folksy”. The Nazis loved folksy culture, music with a lot of tuba and Glockenspiel, traditional songs, leather shorts, hats decorated with a boar-bristle brush. And they hated Modernism, urban themes, decadence, to the extent that Entartete Kunst, “degenerate art” has become a household word and a badge of honour in art circles. Friends of mine who are into folk music tell me that Irish folk is huge in Germany because their own musical heritage carries too much baggage. It’s too… völkisch.

Now the SD anti-immigration party advocates increased funding for what was in the 19th century perceived as Swedish folk culture: local historical societies, folk dancing groups, folk music bands, the national Heritage Board (gee, thanks guys, but no thanks) and certain museums. On the other hand, they want to strip the funding from art that intends to shock, disturb or provoke. To decide what is what, the party wants to make Swedish art policies more centralised. The goal is to herd Swedish arts in a more “constructive, positive and socially beneficient” direction.

Anyone with some knowledge about the issues at hand will recognise the whole thing from senator Jesse Helms’s attacks 20 years ago against Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and other Entartete artists. It’s a breathtakingly naïve move that demonstrates yet again that the SD and their voters have very little education, poor souls. They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.

Before you all get the impression that I’m a staunch defender of free publicly funded arts, though, let me tell you that I actually agree with the SD on one point here. They mention the possibility that the market, that is, the audience, could be given more say in where public arts funding should be directed. As I have discussed here repeatedly, I’m an aesthetic relativist, recognising no universal standards for good art. Just as I think boring archaeology is bad archaeology, I think art that is enjoyable and interesting to only very few people has little value and deserves no public support.

Non-populist liberal politicians in Sweden have floated a suggestion that citizens might be given an annual punch card for art events that would allow the audience to allocate public art funding. I like that idea. A lot of currently funded stuff would likely disappear and be mourned by few. But you can be equally sure that people would not put that money into local historical societies, folk dancing groups, folk music bands, the National Heritage Board and historical museums, no matter how völkisch all this is.

Swedish press coverage is here and here. A debate piece co-written by archaeologist Lars Amreus, head of the Museum of National Antiquities, is here. And check out this hilarious Danish TV skit inspired by that country’s anti-immigration party’s stance on arts funding!

Update 3 October: The federation of Swedish local historical societies also says no thanks to the SD’s proffered funds. “The homeland of the SD is not our homeland”.

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Swedish Election Results

Sweden held a general election yesterday, and it did not go the way myself and other lefties would have liked. Parliament has 349 seats, and 175 is thus a majority. Before the election, the various right-wing and centrist parties held 178 seats. Now they hold 192. But the conservative voters have not only become relatively more numerous: they have also diversified in their sympathies, propelling the brown fringe of the right-wing block into Parliament in the shape of a new populist anti-immigration party, the Swedish Democrats.

The Swedish conservatives are basically like the US Democrats. Their leader Fredrik Reinfeldt endorsed Obama before the US election. So not even they want anything to do with the anti-immigration party. This means that the right-wing block has effectively lost a few seats to a party that exists outside and to the right of the two main blocks in Parliament. Of those 192 right-wing seats, only 172 will actually be allowed to take part in government, leaving 157 to the leftie-green block.

There has been some concern that this might give the anti-immigration party undue influence since theoretically they might threaten to block governmental decisions they don’t like by voting with the opposition (157+20=177). But that would mean that they had to vote with the lefties, which is highly unlikely on most contentious issues.

Meanwhile, Reinfeldt is rumoured to be negotiating a deal with the Greens in order to eliminate any possibility of anti-immigration party shenanigans.

I’m a bit disgusted that ~6% of the electorate voted for the anti-immigration party. They’re bigger than the Christian Democrats and the Former Commies now. We had a similar party in Parliament during the 1991-94 period, and they made fools of themselves through inexperience and general stupid thuggishness. At the first opportunity, the voters unceremoniously threw them out. I expect no less for the Swedish Democrats.

As for my home municipality of Nacka, there was little change: most significantly the Soc-Dems that I voted for lost a quarter of their seats to other parties. The only real reasons for me to rejoice somewhat after this election is that my housing estate’s participation was significantly less crap than usual (though it did us no apparent good), and that the anti-immigration party remains unrepresented in our municipal hall.

Update 23 September: After various recounts and checks the final result of the election is right-wing block 173 seats, leftie block 156 seats, anti-immigration party 20 seats.

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New Albums: Roy Zimmerman, George Hrab

i-90e7ef9290f33337f1ec3e964c3157ad-cover_real_200px.jpgCalifornian Roy Zimmerman is a satirical singer in the vein of Tom Lehrer (who endorses him). He recently released his seventh solo album, Real American, and I’m happy to say that Zimmerman has lost none of the brilliance us fans have come to expect.

The disc has 13 tracks of which 3 are spoken political comedy. My favourite is the live-recorded boogie tune “Socialist!”, which recalls “I’ll Pull Out” from Zimmerman’s previous album. It’s sung in the voice of a hillbilly Republican who sneers at all the socialists in the audience. They’ve driven to the gig on public streets, gone to public schools, visited Yellowstone national park, yep, they’re all “taxatin’, appropriatin’, regulatin’, nanny-statin’ socialists”.

Another highlight is a Caribbean limbo tune about Rush Limbo, err, Limbaugh: “How low can you go?”. And of course Zimmerman doesn’t forget to make fun of the home crowd on one tune, “The Orange County Rolling Acres Senior Center Cannabis Club”, accompanied by ukulele and upright bass.

i-ab423986141649b1fa0172612d70e10f-hrab6.jpgLikewise beloved by skeptics and lefties is Philadelphian multi-instrumentalist George Hrab (did you know he speaks fluent Ukrainian?). His new album, Trebuchet, is available on-line as a 70-minute mp3 file for anyone who wants to listen before they buy. 17 tracks. The title may call to mind 80s death metal band Bolt Thrower, but most of the music here is studio-polished 70s funk and prog. King Crimson fans, take note! I particularly like “Far”, about astronomical distances, “Death From the Skies” where Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer appears, and the crimsonesque instrumental “One Hypnopompic Jerk”.

Roy Zimmerman is mainly a comedic singer (though he does a few serious numbers as well, live and on other discs), and he’s never personal. Hrab does get personal on the new album. His lyrics won’t make you laugh much: they vary in tone from playful to serious, and can be quite poignant as in “Small Comfort”, about an atheist mourning a loved one. Both men are accomplished musicians and arrangers, and neither makes any claim to musical innovation: they move effortlessly among Anglo-American pop music styles of the past century and there’s nothing in the production of either album that sticks out as an attempt to sound hip for 2010. (In fact, the only thing I can think of that would signal our musical era would be heavy use of digital autotuning, perish the thought.) Both Roy Zimmerman’s Real American and George Hrab’s Trebuchet are lovely pieces of work and have my recommendations.

Read my review of Zimmerman’s third-latest album too. The Skepticality podcast offers a long interview with Hrab about his new album.

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From Gaza to the Museum of National Antiquities

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Back in August of 2006 I wrote about an absurd plan to relocate the Israeli embassy in Stockholm temporarily to vacant office space in the Museum of National Antiquities. This plan became reality. But the Israelis are having trouble with the building they’re headed for on a more permanent basis, and so the embassy is still there, over three years down the line.

The Israelis have had one or two rockets too many fired at them from the Gaza strip, and so are doing their best to cut off supplies to the area. Pro-Palestinian groups have responded by organising aid flotillas. Recently Israeli forces attacked such a group of ships on international water outside Gaza, and somebody made the mistake of lowering young soldiers onto a boat full of angry Turkish activists. Chaos erupted: the panicked soldiers shot nine Turks dead and wounded many. This was a huge news story, particularly in Sweden as other boats in the flotilla were carrying a bunch of pro-Palestinian Swedish intellectuals and politicians who have excellent access to the mainstream media.

Now, the Gaza flotilla raid is linked back to the Museum of National Antiquities in at least two ways. In 2004, the Israeli ambassador vandalised an art installation in the museum because he interpreted it as pro-Palestinian and pro-suicide-bomber. And sure enough, one of the Swedes on a boat in the flotilla was Dror Feiler, saxophonist and co-creator of that art installation. The subsequent demonstrations around the embassy in Stockholm led to the erection of an aluminium riot fence around the area, manned by police. The fence and a few policemen were still in place last Tuesday when I visited the library of the Academy of Letters.

I am a friend of all peaceful and non-nationalistic Israelis. But I must admit that I look forward to the day when I no longer have to pass their embassy on my way to my country’s main archaeological museum and research library. It’s scary.

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Nigerian Islamist Senator Outdoes Catholic Church on Child Rape Issue

It is of course a major issue of public discourse these days that the Catholic church has long systematically covered up child rape in the interests of the organisation’s public image. But to my knowledge, nobody has attempted to justify the rapes with reference to Catholic religious doctrine. The church’s attitude has roughly been “We think this is really nasty behaviour, but more importantly we don’t want any bad press”.

In Nigeria, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to marry. But senator Ahmad Sani Yerima, 49, is under investigation for taking a girl as his fourth wife when she was allegedly 13 years old. He is said to have paid a dowry of $100,000 for her. Sani is an Islamist who, as governor of Zamfara state, oversaw the introduction of Sharia law there in 1999.

Sani denies that the girl was only 13 but agrees that she was under 18. However, he is not concerned with secular Nigerian law on this issue, which may strike the reader as odd given that the man is a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Nigeria. Said Sani to the BBC, “I don’t care about the issue of age since I have not violated any rule as far as Islam is concerned … History tells us that Prophet Muhammad did marry a young girl as well. Therefore I have not contravened any law. Even if she is 13, as it is being falsely peddled around.”

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On Moral Relativism

In the context of religion versus atheism. Dear Reader Jason has expressed a need for moral absolutes that is quite common among conservatives. Wrote he,

“The bane of atheistic thought based on naturalism is that it cannot account for objective moral absolutes. All that is left is societal ideals and individual preference.”

“There are two tribes, A and B. Tribe A is composed of hunters and warriors; however, within the community itself they are loving and caring to one another. Tribe is B is composed of farmers and gatherers; they are peaceful and loving to one another. Tribe A decides that Tribe B has some things it wants, so it attacks. Tribe B is decimated; men killed, women raped, children either killed or brought in as slaves.

Is Tribe A wrong? If they have no remorse, or no feelings of guilt toward the brutality, perhaps it’s because they didn’t know them and were more concerned about their own needs. What do you do with these types of situations?”

My view is that morals are collectively negotiated and enforced constructs. It works fine since mentally healthy people are basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity.

Jason rightly points out above that with my approach to morals, it is impossible to judge tribe A’s behaviour as essentially evil by any independent universal standard. But I don’t see the need for such a universal moral standard. I don’t claim the right to judge tribes A and B from any other perspective than that negotiated in my own tribe.

As for his question, “What do you do with these types of situations?”, it’s a separate issue. My reply is “If I have enough resources, I send peace-keeping troops and educators to teach tribe A my own tribe’s opinion that we are all brothers”.

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University Degrees that Lead to Jobs in Sweden

A recurring theme here on Aard is my complaints about how useless certain kinds of higher education are if you want a job. For a change, let’s take a look at what kind of degree is most likely to get you a job in Sweden over the coming decade. The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education has just published a study that offers data on this very issue. Here are the degrees where there will be a labour shortage in Sweden for the foreseeable future!

  • Medical laboratory scientist, Sw. biomedicinsk analytiker
  • High-school teacher of manual skills for craftspeople such as carpenters and plumbers, Sw. yrkeslärare
  • Youth centre leader, Sw. fritidspedagog
  • Pharmacy clerk, Sw. receptarie (but getting an actual pharmacist’s degree is career suicide)
  • 3-4 year engineering degree, Sw. högskoleingenjör
  • Teacher for children with special needs, Sw. speciallärare
  • Day care teacher, Sw. förskollärare
  • Dentist, Sw. tandläkare

Need I point out that most of these jobs are relatively poorly paid compared to others that presuppose a university degree, and that most are not perceived as high-status? The only real exception, to my knowledge, is dentistry. But all of them will support you and your kids quite handsomely. And most of them look to me like they’d be quite fun.

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Population Will Come Down — We Choose How

It’s time for the annual Global Population Speak Out. We all know that in order not to crash the planet we need to consume less energy and raw materials and we need to emit less pollutants. But it doesn’t seem to be generally known that nothing an affluent Westerner does can have anywhere near as beneficial an effect on the future environment as not having kids. Riding a bike to work, recycling milk cartons, turning off the outdoor lamp before you go to bed — all of those green efforts of yours will be swamped and obviated if you have that extra kid.

Think about it. If there were only a few million people on the planet, then we wouldn’t have to worry about consumption or pollution. The problem is partly our environmental footprint per capita, but more the sheer number of people on the planet.

So, as I once wrote, for a person to produce more than two children is unethical. If you want lots of kids, then adopt — preferably from an affluent country, as you only make things worse if you move people from cultures with a small environmental footprint to a land of big cars and hamburgers.

We need to give little girls worldwide a good education, because that makes them have fewer kids when they grow up. And we need to combat various religious organisations that sow doubt about the efficacy and moral acceptability of contraceptives.

The population will not continue to grow for ever, nor remain constant on a high figure for very long. Sooner or later the human population will come down. It’s up to us to decide if this should happen through contraception and a global single-child policy or through a catastrophic die-off.

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When Labour Union Idealism Backfires

I support labour unions. Worker solidarity is the only way to keep wages above the barest subsistence level when you’re working for an employer who wishes to maximise profit. I haven’t been a union member myself for many years, though. The reason is that there is nothing a union can do for me. On an over-saturated labour market there is no way to organise a large enough percentage of the work-force to get any traction in negotiations with the employers. For each archaeologist who makes demands, there are always ten newly graduated young ones eager to work for peanuts. No union can improve our conditions before archaeologists become a scarce resource. Supply and demand.

The relationship between employers and employees is regulated through negotiation. Nobody forces them to offer us jobs, and nobody forces us to offer them labour. We need to seek the middle ground. And so, a labour union has to make pragmatically realistic demands and present them in a correct medium.

I don’t know if the demands put forward by brewery workers in Liège, Belgium, are pragmatically realistic. But I really laughed when I read about their tactics: learning that Anheuser-Busch is planning to reduce their European work-force by a tenth, the workers took the factory bosses hostage! Does anyone imagine that such an act will improve their situation? It’ll just get a few of those 10% thrown into jail instead of just sacked. Stupid bastards.

Then I read about some union demands closer to home. They’re eminently well presented: as reasoned opinion pieces in newspapers and on-line. But the demands look completely unrealistic to me.

For many decades (though it will change soon), foreign students have been able to study for free at Swedish universities – no term fees, just apply with the right qualifications and you’re good to go. This has also gone for PhD students. They have been funded from their home countries, usually at a level way below that of a fully funded native PhD student. And so the PhD students at a university department have had quite radically different living conditions. Funded by Sweden, you’re quite an affluent person. Funded by China, not so much. Most of the foreign students are funded by their home countries on the express condition that they return home after graduation.

Now the doctoral candidates committee of the Swedish Association of University Teachers is demanding that foreign PhD students be paid as much as native ones. This suggests that they don’t know how research projects are organised and funded. It’s tantamount to demanding either that the bodies that fund Sweden’s scientific research suddenly accept much less bang for the project buck, or that Swedish researchers quietly quit accepting applications from overseas students to join their labs. In the former case, since these PhDs have to leave Sweden after graduation, what the union advocates is actually a form of foreign aid funded with research money. But more likely, these people simply wouldn’t get a chance to study in Sweden at all.

This is exactly the same situation as when the Builders’ Union blockaded a school construction site in Vaxholm near Stockholm in 2004 on the grounds that the non-unionised Latvian workers there weren’t paid Swedish-level wages. Even if this was really done in the best interest of the Latvians (and it almost certainly wasn’t), it was a completely unrealistic way to support them. The Latvians were there because they accepted lower wages. If they had demanded Swedish wages, they wouldn’t have had a job in Sweden at all. Supply and demand. And as long as Chinese PhD students find the quality of free Swedish education acceptable, they will continue to come with their meagre funding – if we still let them in.

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Reform English Libel Law

i-9ef68053d189b224e898ad86ff1e75c9-libel reform.jpgIn mid-2008, UK science writer Simon Singh fell afoul of the weird and archaic English libel law. After he wrote in The Guardian that chiropractic lacks scientific support and that such treatments are bogus, the British Chiropractic Association sued him for libel. And in England, a libel case is always a major pain for the defendant regardless of whether he wins or not. He has to prove that he’s innocent (!), the damages are 140 times as high as in other European countries, and even if you win it costs you huge sums of money, loads of time and loads of stress. (Also, the law promotes international libel tourism, where people in other countries can bring cases against each other to English courts.)

But Singh didn’t settle. He fought back, and has expanded his motivation to include the reform av English libel law. I’ve had his campaign’s sticker, “Keep Libel Laws Out of Science”, in the left side-bar for months. And yesterday, Singh wrote to his supporters to ask us to sign a petition not specifically about his case, but about English libel law in general. English PEN, Index of Censorship and Sense About Science are jointly behind it. I signed up immediately. Check it out!

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