The Localised Olympic Games

February 16, 2010

The Vancouver Olympics were on last night at our house, I was watching the highlights of men mogul skiing where Canada took its first gold on home soil.  M. walked into the room and said “What sport is this?! I’ve never seen this before!” which I thought was odd as mogul skiing is pretty routine fare for the winter Olympics. But then I remembered an insight I had during the Beijing 2008 games, which we watched while in Italy that August: there is no such thing as “the Olympics,” unless you’re physically at the games watching a random distribution of events. The Olympics you see on TV are highly dependent on what country you’re watching from and the broadcasting network that has rights to them.

I realised this when the Italian coverage of the 2008 Olympics was light on gymnastics (something Italians are not very competitive in) and heavy on fencing (in which the Italians won 2 gold and 5 bronze medals). I realised that M. had probably never watched moguls because the Italians aren’t good at it. In fact, I checked it out and not a single Italian man qualified for the moguls, and just one Italian woman made it through the qualification round.

Least you think this is solely an Italian phenomenon, I remember as a kid thinking that the US won a medal in every single event. In retrospect, while it is true that Americans win a lot of medals, I’m sure that the coverage was particularly oriented to the sports Americans are most competitive in (which reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the Page realises that NBC has created fake Olympic sports – like teatherball and octuplets tennis –  to boost perception of American medal standing). And last night, BBC Three was featuring the 34th ranked British downhill skier rather than broadcasting figure skating. Could it be because just one British pair featured in the programme?

So the Olympics are politicised and nationalistic, no news there. They have been so since the US and other Western nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow games, the Soviets / Eastern Bloc boycotted Los Angeles, and before. What’s interesting is that despite the world shrinking through the process of globalisation, where you’re watching still matters in determining the Olympics that you see. And that seems to me to be a nice anachronism: all Olympics are local.


In the 1980s, large swaths of the developing world became democratic.  Autocracies in Latin America and Africa fell, and with the downfall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe too became democratic.  Political scientist Samuel Huntington called this the “third wave” of democratisation.  Despite the initial euphoria, the new democracies did not always turn out to be liberal democracies with strong civil societies and democratic accountability.  In many places, elections were held (though they were not always free and fair), and constitutions existed (though they were often contradicted), and much of the day to day governance was not democratic all. Theorists of this phenomenon argued that elections were a necessary but not sufficient indicator of democracy.  A term, “procedural democracy,” came about to describe this state of affairs.

Today I’ve been wondering whether procedural democracy would be the right label for Europe.  Last week Europe held elections.  Those elections were to elect members to the European Parliament (MEPs).  If you are an American or other non-European citizen and you’re reading this thinking “gosh, how ignorant of me to not know there were European elections going on” you shouldn’t beat yourself up.  Lots of Europeans didn’t know there were European Parliamentary elections going on either.  Voter turnout was less than 50%, and many, if not most people,  did not vote on the basis of issues that have to do with governance of Europe, but rather to express their dissatisfaction with their own national governments.  In fact, many people don’t know what the European Parliament does at all: as a friend noted, it was both telling and unhelpful that the BBC waited until broadcasting election results to tell voters what the European Parliament does. One of the greatest thinkers on democracy, Robert Dahl, has argued that genuine democracy requires an educated electorate.  It’s highly problematic that Europeans don’t know (or care) what the European Parliament does.  I took a poll amongst one class of my master’s students at LSE last term, asking how many of them knew who their MEP was.  Not a single person raised their hand.

While this in and of itself does not mean that Europe’s democracy is only procedural, it’s at least worth point out that there are some paradoxical things going on with regards to democracy at the European level.   For example, an increasing number of anti-Europe MEPs are being elected. Wait,  you might be thinking, members of the European parliament that want to abolish Europe?  Yep, that’s what’s happening.  In Britain, a party called the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), who advocates withdrawing the UK from the EU, got more votes than the Labour party, which is currently in power.   A party called “No2Eu, Yes to Democracy” got 1% of the vote.  And the Conservatives, who are skeptical of further European integration, got 27% of the vote.

A further problem for European democracy is one that is long standing and much acknowledged: citizens often to seem to reject further European integration, which national leaders are in favour of.  The most recent example of this, is the long and winding road to ratifying a constitution for Europe.  The constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters, renamed the Lisbon Treaty, and then rejected by Irish voters.  So the Irish are being asked to vote again on it, in hopes they’ll give a different answer.

European leaders are now worried that the UK could derail the process.  Why?  Because the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, plans to ask the UK public in an referendum whether or not they want to ratify the treaty if (or more likely when) he is elected. European leaders thus hope that the current government, led by Gordon Brown, can stay in place long enough to allow the treaty to be ratified. There is something terribly un-democratic about this.  The fact that the public would reject the treaty if given the chance to vote is important, even if not all political issues have to be solved by an open vote.

Perhaps the most telling quote about the current woes of European democracy came from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.  Discussing a dispute about whether an Italian or Pole should become the parliament’s president he said: “If we can’t negotiate, then democracy will come into play.”  Any statement of European politics which puts democracy as the second option is highly problematic.

Making Babies

February 18, 2009

An article in the January 19th edition of the New Yorker about the history of breastfeeding and the recent trend to accommodate breast-feeding women in the workplace was sent to me by a friend.  She and I later traded comments about how much maternity leave each of us had received: she lives in San Francisco and had 12 weeks of leave at 60% pay for her first baby, and only 6 weeks at 60% pay for her second baby.  I live in London and had 6 months of leave – 3 at full pay, 3 at half pay – and the rights for an additional 6 months of state maternity leave (which is about $300 a month), which I did not take.

American women who take less maternity leave, and work until the day they give birth, are applauded rather than looked at with skepticism: Sarah Palin was given big plaudits for coming right back to work after her little one was born, and the representative taking Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat, Kirsten Gillibrand, got a standing ovation by her colleagues on the House floor for working up the day her second child was born. The point that the New Yorker article was making is that having corporate policies which allow women to comfortably pump breast milk during the working day is not the same thing as having pro-family policies.

Thus I got all worked up this morning when I read a letter in this week’s New Yorker responding to the article.  The author of the letter stated: “Six to twelve months of maternity leave per child would be a personal, professional, and economic disaster for plenty of women and families.  It is worth noting that the countries that have these types of policies also tend toward abysmally low birth rates.”

Au contraire, dear Jill Foley from Princeton, N.J.  The first sentence just seemed to me silly, and not at all consistent with my experience or that of others.  Ms. Foley states that “The ability to economically support myself and my family, to contribute to society by pursuing the discipline that I studied for more than a decade to become qualified to practice…are all opportunities that I heartily thank the women’s movement for.”  But why must a woman go back to work within 6 weeks of giving birth to “contribute to society” and support their families?  I too studied for nearly a decade, and going back to work after 6 months presented me no problems as my organisation was happy to have me out for that period of time to spend some important months with N.

But the thing that bothered me more about Ms. Foley’s letter was the second sentence, which is empirically false.  Research has demonstrated that low birth rates are the result of a bad combination of policies.  In countries where state support for maternity and childcare are high (like in Scandinavia), people have more babies.  In countries where the job market is flexible and women can leave and re-enter the workforce relatively easily (e.g. the UK and US), birth rates are also high, regardless of state provision of pro-family policies.  Birth rates are low are in places where state provision is insufficient and the market for work is not flexible – e.g. Italy and other parts of Southern Europe.

So Ms. Foley is wrong.  It it not worth noting that countries that provide their female employees with six to twelve months of maternity leave have abysmal birth rates.  It is worth noting that some countries have a bad mix of policies, which is contributing to their very low birth rates.  Presumably increasing maternity and childcare benefits in the US would have no impact on the birth rate unless the move was coupled with a de-flexibilisation of the workforce.

Though it sounds romantic to spend Valentine’s Day in Rome, I imagine that the ministers attending this weekend’s G7 meeting there will find their task – crafting a solution to the global economic crisis – a sufficiently cold shower to kill off any amorous feelings the setting might have generated.   And if the topic alone weren’t enough to dampen the romance, the infighting amongst G7 governments about what to do to get us out of this mess suggests that this will be a less a Valentine’s Day love-in than something akin to a gathering of dysfunctional and divorce bound married couples.

Let’s start with the Italians, who hold the G8 chair this year.   Their surprising announcement about a month ago that they would seek a  a new legal approach, indeed a “legal standard,” for international finance will have left the UK and several other European governments feeling a bit like jilted lovers.   While Italy is holding court in the G8, the UK holds the reigns in the G20 Group of Finance Ministers, a group with an identical mandate but a wider membership, incorporating a number of large developing countries.   The problem is of course that the G20 has been tasked with coming up with solutions for the financial crisis (and singled out by the previous American administration as the appropriate forum in which to pursue this), but that their meeting is not being held until April.

The Italian finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, appears not to have consulted with the UK (or indeed with other European counterparts) before floating his idea of a legal approach to the Financial Times.  It’s notable that since this announcement, the Italians have been forced to say that they will extend invitations to G20 members to the G8’s big summer meeting in La Maddalena (Sardinia).

This whole story seems to me to suggest two important things about global governance.  First of all, the Europeans absolutely must begin to better coordinate their positions on matters related to finance, even if the underlying European architecture is complicated.  I’ve written about this in the context of the IMF previously, but the inability to even informally coordinate positions for summit meetings seems to me to be pathetic given that France, Germany and Italy (3 out of 7 G7 members) share a currency and a Central Bank.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s time to do something about the proliferation of G’s. By creating the G20 but allowing the G8 to continue to exist, inefficient overlap and competition occur between the two.   All of the original G7/8 members are in the larger club, and they are routinely forced to invite an additional 5 developing countries – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – to make the meeting meaningful (though as the leader of one of those countries commented, they are really just invited to the coffee breaks).   It’s time to seriously think about dismantling the G8 in favour of the G20.  Or creating a G13, leaving out some of the smaller G20 members.  Anything but two equally non-transparent international institutions doing the same thing at different points of the year.

Maybe it’s time to extend the mandate of Saint Valentine, whose patronage includes loving couples and bee keepers, to the G20 and G8.  With an appropriate prayer and a little help from Cupid, maybe something would get done this weekend that moves global governance in the right direction.

This weekend my husband M. and I realised that our efforts to raise our one year old son N. bilingually are paying off.  Of course we’ve always suspected that he understands both of us, but being good social scientists, this weekend we conducted some tests.  Would he clap his hands if we asked him to do it both in Italian and English?  Yes.  Does he understand other gestures in both languages as well (e.g. bye-bye / ciao is matched with waving)?  Yes.  And even more, does he understand language specific gestures (e.g. the Italian gesture for something being tasty) can also be translated into the other language?  Yes: he understands that if I ask in English whether something he is eating is good, he can respond using the same gesture.  The plethora of Italian hand gestures means that we can keep testing this last one, though it will be harder to test in reverse.

This was all intensely exciting to his two nerdy parents, and reassuring that we have chosen a good strategy in terms of language.  M. always speaks to N. in Italian, and I always speak to him in English.  For now, his exposure to the two languages is about even despite the fact that we live in London, as our nanny is Italian and he sees both sides of our families often.  This is generally the strategy that is advocated by language acquisition experts, but there is surprisingly little information in mainstream baby books / websites about bilingual children.  Most of the US based information focuses on preserving immigrants’ languages in second cultures, and a lot of the information I found in the UK was about “artificially” introducing a second language (e.g. French) to a child, when neither parent is a native speaker.   We sort of went with the one parent, one language strategy because we knew that it what was recommended by other parents, not through any detailed analysis (surprisingly for aforementioned nerds).  And also because it makes sense: who wants to speak to their child in a language that is not their own?

Given that globalisation is about the movement of people, not just the movement of goods, the number of children born to parents of two different nationalities,  who speak two different native languages, must be on the rise (though note that I could not find any hard data on this online).  Certainly it is common amongst the couples we know in London: in some families, there are at least three operational languages as the parents speak two different native languages and speak to each other in a third (usually English).  The kids are fantastic at switching between all three (amazingly to all of us).

There is evidence that children raised bilingually learn language differently.  Whereas mono-lingual babies sort between nonsense sounds and useful sounds early, which affects their babbling, bilingual babies keep their options open as nonsense sounds in one language might be important sounds in the other (this is particularly true when the languages are very different, say Chinese and English).   I’ve been amazed to hear N. make noises which are exclusive to one of his two languages, like “th” in English or “gli” in Italian.

So for globalised babies, double effort in learning to speak.  Our little guy must master not only his mother tongue, but also his father tongue.