Lamb Chops, Diversity and National(ism) Narratives: Australia Day Advertising

National myths have an enormous effect on us. They posed a significant danger in Thailand following the military coup in 2014, they’re why Greece has such a complicated relationship with Europe, and they’re the reason Americans just will not let go of their goddamn guns. They’ve even given rise to the phenomenon of “national branding”, the deeply suspect offspring resulting from an unholy union between advertising and nationalism.


Nothing bad has ever come from the combination of those two things! [x]

There isn’t a single nation on earth that has an uncomplicated relationship with its past, however when it comes to murky, schizophrenic and incredibly divisive national narratives, Australia really takes the pavlova. Federated 116 years ago, on the 1st of January 1901, Australia prides itself on being something of an underdog, using words like “larrikin” and “mateship” and “fair shake of the sauce bottle” to drive home its scrappy, loveable persona.

[Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seen here deploying the vernacular to promote the visage of being #relatable.]

There’s heavy emphasis in Australian history on national mythologies that enshrine the hard yakka of colonial settlers and the sacrifices of the ANZAC soldiers in the First and Second World Wars. Much like the United States, Australia draws on the idea of being a land of opportunity – the “lucky country” – where anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work can build a life for themselves. Of course, the phrase “the lucky country” was originally coined to criticise the fact that Australia had lucked into its undeserved success on the back of other people’s innovation amidst a xenophobic and racist set of both foreign and domestic policy.

Yes, beneath the veneer of kangaroos, perfect weather and endless beaches simmers a toxic casserole of violence against both the Indigenous peoples of Australia and its newcomers, with nutritious ingredients such as massacre, kidnapping and the White Australia Policy. It’s a dish the whole country’s been chowing down on for some time, and although gains have certainly been made towards recognition and repentance, when you consider things like the Don Dale Detention scandal of 2016 or the horror that is Australia’s offshore “processing” for refugees, the whole thing still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. And an especially bitter note for many is Australia Day, which is celebrated on January 26th, the date that the ‘First Fleet’ of British invaders landed in Botany Bay – a fact that has led to critics referring to it as Invasion Day.  


It’s all especially nauseating considering who’s been re-elected to government recently.

Into this culinary clusterfuck wades a now firmly established Australian tradition – the annual Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) Australia Day lamb advertisement. While the campaign is obviously focused on the commercial practice of selling meat (a moral quandary I’m not going to tackle in this article) rather than nation building, it’s a fascinating case study for which particular mythologies the organisation feels can be exploited for the most profit. Throughout the 12 years of its run, the MLA Australia Day ad campaign has made a point of drawing on a mixture of pop culture, current events and national imagery to sell lamb as the “national meat” of Australia. The first ad was aired in 2005, and espouses some interesting views on the qualifications required to be Australian:

Ah yes, there’s nothing like an angry white man denouncing un-Australianism™ in a rant laced with overt xenophobia and latent homophobia to really encapsulate the spirit of nationalism. The campaign really milked that particular niche for all it was worth, with this stunning specimen featuring three years later, in 2008:

In case you missed it, one of the real gems of a line in there referred to those who might protest the introduction of an ‘Australia Week’ by saying, “The placard-waving, police-bashing weed-worshippers may protest about it, but it’s nothing a few blasts from a water cannon can’t fix. They could do with a wash. And if they’re still too un-Australian to chomp a few chops with the rest of us, send them to Nauru. The refugee processing centre has plenty of palm trees they can hug.”


Controversy has plagued the campaign in this decade as well. Last year’s ad drew the ire of vegans and Indigenous groups alike:

Notably, this was the first ad to feature someone neither white nor a dude at the front and centre of the campaign (with original spokesman Sam Kekovich relegated to a supporting role as of 2015), and it’s hard not to be charmed by anything featuring confirmed BAMF Lee Lin Chin. However the combination of the aesthetics of military incursions combined with Australia Day gets harder to swallow the more you think about it.

But things took a turn this year. Marketing director Andrew Howie apparently received the memo on racism not really cutting the mustard any more last year, as the launch of the MLA’s glorious Spring Lamb campaign demonstrated:

While it isn’t a part of the Australia Day series, it certainly represents a sharp turn away from the aggressive rhetoric those ads had established. Instead of the rigorous promotion of a single, rigid set of values as being truly “Australian” – and of those values as being worth violently defending – it puts forward lamb as the food that brings everyone together (a nod to religious and cultural dietary restrictions that prevent the consumption of pork or beef) as something that can unite a diverse Australia. Note the final beat, in which the line “Who was here first?” is met with the response “That’d be us!” by the Aboriginal participants of this multicultural barbecue. It leads us into the latest Australia Day ad, a dramatic departure from its predecessors for several reasons but most notably the fact that not a single person says the words “Australia Day”. In 2017, a year when the City of Fremantle has already made the decision not to celebrate Australia Day on the 26th, this is important.

So, what kind of ad is this? It’s certainly not without its flaws. And it’s had its detractors, who make excellent points about the exploitation of Indigenous suffering and glossing over the small matter of genocide in order to sell meat. But I’d like to look at it for a moment through the lens of national mythology. Indeed, this is Australian mythology presented as just that – an imagined version of the country’s origin story that feeds into an idealised version of its society today.

Bearing in mind that it’s designed to appeal to as many people as possible (in order to increase lamb sales), it’s interesting how closely they’ve been listening to community feedback in order to present a story that would have broad resonance. It’s come a long way from the leaked draft of the script that caused so much consternation back in November. And while it’s full of the daft and heavy-handed stereotypes that often seem to typify Australian humour, the most interesting thing this ad does is position its Aboriginal characters as the neutral, relatable main characters of the story amidst a cast of caricatures. By centering their perspective within the narrative – fictionalised and glossy though it is – the ad frames the arrival of foreign peoples on Australian shores as a story about Indigenous Australians, in which they are empowered with the right to welcome newcomers to their beach, and in which those newcomers must confer and interact with the Aboriginals as equals. It’s a direct challenge to the national myth that says Europeans “settled” and “civilised” a wild, uninhabited territory when they landed in Australia. And drives home the point that non-Indigenous Australians are all, at one point or another, boat people.


It’s also not really a story about January 26th – the day is pointedly avoided in conversation (“What’s the occasion?” “Do we need one?”) and really only nodded to for a couple of seconds with the “First Fleet” line. Instead it’s a story spanning hundreds of years (admittedly only a fraction of the 40,000 years Indigenous Australians have lived on the continent), and builds the idea of the nation of Australia as a party that everyone’s invited to. It not only builds it, in fact – it sells it. And not even the most bitter 1930s-throwback tantrum from white dudes who are upset that they’re not the only ones on television anymore can change the fact that it does, in fact, sell.


To be honest, the ad itself is not particularly virtuous. But its value can be found in the way it reflects changing (and profitable) attitudes in Australia. The country’s struggle with its national identity and diversity is far from over, and it’s probably a very long road until full recognition and reparation is given to all the people who’ve suffered under Australian nationalism – just last week, another illustrative advertising campaign saw a billboard featuring two young girls wearing Australian flag hijabs taken down after threats were issued targeting both the billboard company and the girls. But the MLA ads are perhaps a good sign that slowly, glacially slowly, attitudes are changing.

So, Aussies, don’t buy lamb on Australia Day – or do, whatever floats your (immigrant-bearing) boat. The more important conversation is about the existence of the day itself. But amidst the soul-crushing year we’ve had these last twelve months, maybe take a little bit of joy from knowing that maybe one day soon we’ll see change in the right direction.



PS: In case you haven’t seen enough batshit crazy lamb ads to sate your appetite (and possibly turn you off eating lamb forever), here is the 2013 ad in which the entire marketing team completely lost its damn mind:


Brexit: From Dear God What Happened, to Dear God What Next

So. The unthinkable has happened. As we glumly watch the markets plummet, the hate speech blossom and the political leaders trip over themselves trying to flee the havoc, it’s difficult to resist the urge to collectively grab half of the British population and shake them while screaming that one line from Planet of the Apes:

Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this article for some time now, but every day there is some new dramatic revelation to deal with.

Shall we start from the beginning? Actually I ought to start this piece with a disclaimer – I’m not British, nor am I living in the UK. In fact I’m the only writer on this blog who isn’t, at the moment, but I believe my fellow authors are still attempting to rebuild their lives in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of #Brexit.

It’s been a week since the Brits took to the polls to vote on a question that has been contentious and divisive from pretty much the birth of the European Union: should the UK be part of the EU, or not? Back in February The Economist gave a pretty good overview of the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but in essence it boils down to a few major points.

The first is that the UK, although not a founding member of the EU, has played a crucial role in its development since even before it joined in 1973, with Winston Churchill named as one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the EU. Perhaps the most quintessential example of Britain’s early relations with the Union is Margaret Thatcher, who spent the mid to late 1970s campaigning vigorously for the UK to be part of a closer European Union, only to turn around once in office as Prime Minister in the 1980s and decry the political and economic disadvantages the UK was suffering as a result of the EU. Her resistance to EU governance precipitated the end of her leadership, and her views on Europe became progressively more critical as the decades passed. Thatcher’s legacy in Britain, while hugely divisive, is undeniable – and many are citing it as a direct influence on the outcome of this referendum. The irony, of course, is that the working class – the demographic that hated Thatcher most passionately – has ended up championing the same side of the debate.

There’s rather a lot of irony in this whole situation, to be honest.

The second major point is that the UK has been perhaps the most reluctant major player in the EU for some time. Thatcher played a huge role in the development of the single market (primarily in securing Britain rebates in said market), but the UK opted out of two of the most crucial tenets of the Union: the Schengen Agreement, which we’ve discussed before, and the common currency or ‘Eurozone’. All Member States of the EU are obliged to be part of the common currency (eventually) and the free movement agreement, although Denmark also opted out of the currency and Ireland joined the UK in rejecting Schengen in the interests of maintaining their pre-existing free movement agreements. Basically the UK is the kid who’ll come to your birthday party, but he’ll sit in the corner and refuse to play musical chairs or wear a party hat, and then will insist on deciding how the cake should be cut.


“You better not be giving my piece to those immigrants!” [x]

In the wake of the financial crisis that shook the Eurozone and sent corresponding waves through the UK (who helped bail out Portugal and Ireland, but not – contrary to popular belief – Greece), an already shaky faith in the EU was further damaged by the ascension of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, who are part of a larger pantheon of exceptionally awful hard-right political parties on the rise across Europe.

It was in this political climate that British Prime Minister David Cameron pressed the big red button that will end the world. Struggling with divisions within his own Conservative party, Cameron took a gamble that won him the election last year: he promised the Eurosceptics of the UK that there would be a referendum on British membership of the EU if he was re-elected Prime Minister.

He was giving a decision that would normally be left to Parliament, advised by experts and lobby groups and whoever else, to the population itself. The problem, of course, is that the European Union and particularly the UK’s membership of it are extremely complex topics that a large percentage of the population don’t understand. It’s the problem that has led to so much frustration and anger about the EU in the first place, and it’s also the problem that led to so many people voting Leave without understanding what they were voting for or what the consequences would be.

To be fair, anyone who tells you they know for sure what the consequences of the referendum will be at this stage is straight up lying. There are no certainties. This is uncharted land, and we of Europe are stumbling through it with a compass made of twigs, leaves and a depressing combination of cynicism and naivety.

Here’s what did happen, though, in the immediate aftermath. Cameron jumped ship faster than a rat leaving the Titanic, if that rat had somehow also steered the ship directly into the iceberg. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and key campaigner for the pro-Brexit camp, backpedalled just as hard as he could on some of the key pledges that were made to the British people during the campaign, along with a number of Tory MPs. The British pound plummeted, dragging several European markets with it, and international financial markets freaked all the freaking way out, shedding 2 trillion USD worldwide. Scotland, which had based its decision NOT to leave the UK two years ago in no small part on its desire to stay part of the EU, and voted strongly for Remain, deployed Nicola Sturgeon to start kicking ass and taking names. And Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, delivered ice-cold shade directly to Nigel Farage’s face:

So for the moment, chaos reigns. It is perhaps the biggest crisis the UK has faced for many decades, and nobody wants to take responsibility for it. Will Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Will England be left alone as Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales decide they’d rather be part of the other Union, actually? Can the UK ever be friends with Europe again?

EU Summit in Brussels


European policymakers are now left with an unenviable choice. Britain’s exit from the EU comes only one short year after the same debate in Greece threatened to destabilise the entire bloc. They will have to act decisively in order to prevent the fallout from ripping the European Union into very small angry pieces in the coming months and years. Do they extend a hand to help mitigate the damage the referendum result is likely to do to the British economy and society, and particularly to the most vulnerable people in the country? Or do they demonstrate exactly why leaving the EU is a very bad idea, and make an example of Britain’s impending misery?

It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are already taking as much advantage of the situation as possible in order to further the far-right Eurosceptic movement in their own countries. These movements are vehemently xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic, and they expose Europe to the dangers of division and isolationism that lead to conflict.

Meanwhile, racist and xenophobic outbursts have been reported all over the UK in the wake of the referendum as the dregs of society are emboldened by what they see as a validation of their hatred. Economic recession will hit the poorest in society hardest, and it’s a very real possibility at this stage. What’s more, the burden of repairing the longer-lasting consequences will fall to the youth, who above all other demographics overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.

It’s also not clear what the UK’s role on the world stage will be in the future. When the UK joined the European Union, the British Empire was still a thing. Thanks to its colonial past, England has been a hub for international exchange of goods, finance, business and culture for centuries.

Uh, thanks, colonialism?

But now it’s facing the possibility of being entirely alone, without advantage or unity. What does the future hold for an isolated UK? For an isolated England?

The future probably doesn’t hold a second referendum, despite that petition going around (which, hilariously, was actually set up by a pessimistic Leave voter before the results were announced). Perhaps Scotland will try and block the UK’s exit, but to be frank, the dangers of going against the outcome of the referendum at this stage really need to be considered. Commitments were made, and the democratic process yielded this result, even if it is an extremely terrible decision made by an under-informed public and influenced by a line-up of people who will not be treated well by the history books. If the UK government decides to renege on its commitment, there will be a lot of extremely angry extremely hard-right people across the country, fuelled by self-righteous fury. We are only five years distant from the riots in 2011 that swept through the country like a rabid feral cat – they were driven by rage against inequality, and in the end a lot of the rage behind the Leave campaign stems from a similar, though disastrously misdirected, place.

It’s also not clear how the rest of the world is going to be affected, once the rush of tweets and think-pieces (including mine) dies down. Many are looking westward in abject fear of the US election in November and the prospect of Trump riding the rising wave of right-wing populist into the White House. But I’m done prophesying doom for today, so I’ll let Samantha Bee explore that one:



[Header image source:]

Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.


On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.


They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.


“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.


Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.45.41 PM

If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.



PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

Intertwined Destinies: On Böhmermann, Brussels, and German-Turkish Relations

When I started researching this article two weeks ago, the current furore around German comedian-turned-international-scandal-item Jan Böhmermann was merely a blip in the post-April Fool’s day round up. It was with mingled bewilderment and frustration that I watched the news unfold in the following days – frustration not only at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s squashing of free expression both within his borders and internationally, but also because I was hoping to get ahead of the curve in English language news coverage of the incident. Once John Oliver’s got hold of a topic, though, you can be pretty sure everyone’s going to hear about it.

Yes, just about everybody is talking about the so-called “Schmähkritik Gedicht”, which more or less translates to “slander poem”. Böhmermann, who hosts the popular satirical comedy show Neo Magazin Royale, wrote the segment in support of his fellow entertainers at extra-3, whose own toe-tapping satirical song about Erdogan was already drawing ire from the Turkish president:

(Turn on subtitles for the English translation)

“Je suis extra-3!” declared Böhmermann, after carefully explaining (apparently to Erdogan himself) that the freedom of the press is a protected right in Germany under Article 5 of the Grundgesetz, or German Basic Law, and as such extra-3’s song constitutes legal, valid political criticism. “There are instances, however,” he continued, “in which – there’s art, there’s artistic freedom, that’s permitted, and on the other side, there’s – what’s it called? ‘Schmähkritik’.”

“When you defame people, when you insult someone,” supplied his colleague Ralf Kabelka, helpfully.

“Do you understand, Herr Erdogan? That can actually be prosecuted… Maybe it’s a bit complicated, perhaps we’ll quickly explain with a small example,” Böhmermann said, and proceeded to recite a rather grandiose verse in which the Turkish president was, among other things, accused of fucking goats, oppressing minorities, beating girls, and enjoying fellatio with a hundred sheep instead of sleeping (it is, we should note, not clear who was doing the fellating). “But these are things we’re not allowed to say, right?” interjected Böhmermann at several points.

Cue uproar, and – as Böhmermann himself predicted – legal repercussions.

This is a tricky situation for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or rather, as Spiegel Online is declaring with delighted morbidity, it’s a harbinger of doom for her leadership (to be fair, declaring that Merkel is doomed is Spiegel Online’s absolute favourite hobby right now).


They’re building up their Anguished Angela/Mournful Merkel picture gallery [x]

The main cause of tension is the fact that Merkel has been determinedly brokering a deal with the Turkish government that would see refugees arriving by boat in Greece returned to Turkey, in exchange for the same number of refugees being resettled in Europe through more official channels. The ‘one in, one out’ arrangement is already being carried out, with Syrian refugees arriving in Germany and Finland in early April. The plan has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups, with UNHCR declaring that it violates European and international law by returning asylum seekers to a third country (that is, neither the country they are fleeing nor the country in which they sought asylum). Merkel, however – along with other European leaders – is desperately hoping that this will abate the never-ending political nightmare that is European refugee policy.

Syria. Aid distribution in Yarmouk camp

The political nightmare has nothing on the actual nightmare playing out right now [x]

In her efforts not to alienate such a key player in this crucial plan, Merkel has allowed for Böhmermann to be prosecuted under German law – albeit an archaic and little-used law forbidding insults against foreign heads of state, which the Chancellor has subsequently vowed to get rid of by 2018. A little too late for Jan, certainly. But this episode in German-Turkish relations is part of a much larger picture, and in fact is contributing to tipping a much larger set of scales than simply Erdogan v. Böhmermann.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been researching this article for a couple of weeks. In late March, I visited my friend Betül Gülsen in Hannover, who wanted my opinion on something.

“What do you think about the reaction to the Brussels attacks?” she asked me. “I mean, compared to the reaction to the explosions in Turkey.”

“Well,” I answered her, “I’ve heard almost nothing about Turkey, and almost nothing but Brussels in the last week.”

Betül nodded. “I don’t think they’re going to treat every terrorist attack the same, but why couldn’t the government put the Turkish flag up on the Brandenburger Tor [Brandenburg Gate] after Ankara or Istanbul? Just doing that one thing, just to recognise that we are part of this country, and that those attacks have a real effect on a lot of Germans and people who live here. Why can’t they include us, if they can include Belgium?”

Why, indeed? There have been countless arguments written about how not all terrorist attacks are equal in the eyes of Western news media, even when two incidents happen within days of each other in two European capitals. This article can’t hope to contribute to that wider conversation right now – the fact of the matter is that the case of Germany’s response to the attacks in Turkey and the attacks in Belgium occur within a very specific context, which adds another, more urgent layer to that question: why didn’t Germany stand in solidarity with Turkey the way it did with Belgium?

Betül is Turkish German – born in Turkey, and raised in Germany, she is one of approximately 2.71 million people residing in Germany who have at least one Turkish parent. Turks are the largest immigrant group in the country, and have formed an integral part of German society and culture since the Gastarbeiter (or guest worker) programme of the 1960s and 70s resulted in a wave of immigration.

This instance, in which there was such a large influx of foreign workers – and more specifically, a large number of Muslims – invites comparison with Germany’s current struggles to integrate new arrivals in the country. The persistent racism with which the Turkish population has struggled for many years is already showing its larger, more threatening face to refugees in the form of such extreme right movements as PEGIDA.


Although the only movement worth comparing to PEGIDA is a bowel movement [x]

The German government did issue a statement of solidarity with Turkey (and also Côte d’Ivoire) on March 14th. Merkel made a statement of condolence and solidarity for the families of ten victims, including eight Germans, of the bombing near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet in January of this year. But it doesn’t really compare to the explicit, deliberate and deeply felt reaction to the horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels.

“The frustration stems from the fact that not projecting the Turkish flag on the Brandenburger Tor seems symbolic for Turkish people living in Germany as: Try as hard as you can (or don’t try), you’ll never be a proper part of the German society,” Betül explained to me. “Like, you’re good enough to build up this country after World War II, but apparently not good enough to sympathise with you in terms of solidarity with your families.”

Clearly, there are political motivations behind the German government offering unconditional alliance and support to Belgium and not to Turkey. There are numerous complex relationships in play, not least the ever-looming question of Turkey’s accession to the EU, which many commentators (including German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble) have ruled as impossible, despite Turkey’s long and influential shared history with Europe.


Erdogan’s personal politics are significant here, too. His government’s flagrant abuse of human rights would make any sane politician wary of aligning themselves too closely with the Turkish administration.

But surely there must be a middle ground here. Isn’t it possible for Germany’s government to separate its criticism of the Turkish state with its empathy for the Turkish people (who are, after all, in many cases also the German people, and also the primary victims of said human rights abuses)? Indeed, it’s in the government’s best interests to mitigate the ongoing marginalisation of Muslims and foreigners in Europe and in Germany specifically – after all, it’s increasingly clear that the primary cause of extremism is alienation, which is leading to severe rifts in societies such as France’s.

This is not at all to say that the Turkish population of Germany poses a terrorist risk. On the contrary – Germany’s extensive Turkish population presents the perfect opportunity for a Western European country to genuinely embrace cultural and religious diversity, in a clear and unambiguous manner. They’ve been part of Germany for over half a century, and are already well on the way to full inclusion in German identity and culture and the best possible outcome of Germany and Turkey’s already tightly intertwined futures. But Germany must be prepared to meet them in the middle.

This doesn’t mean sacrificing criticism of the Turkish government (and indeed, in response to the scandal, UK-based magazine The Spectator has set up a competition to insult Erdogan for a prize of £1,000, so there’s more incentive than ever). While Jan Böhmermann has received accusations of racism for his Schmähkritik, there is little doubt that his criticism was aimed squarely and exclusively at the Turkish President and not at the population in general. I really want to show you the clip (with the all-important context, although it’s all in German), but it’s being taken down at lightning speed all over the internet, so there’s no guarantee this link will still work even at the time of publishing this article:


As for Betül, she wrote a letter of support to Herr Böhmermann assuring him that not all Turks felt the same way about his poem (which received a mixed reaction in the Turkish press), although she expressed frustration that he’d made it so easy for Erdogan to come after him in the courts. Nevertheless, she’s promised to send him baklava.



PS – if you want to see some of Böhmermann’s work in English, then this video followed directly after the Schmähkritik segment:

[Header image credit: FOCUS Online]

Love is a Battlefield: The Politics of Same-Sex Unions in Italy

Marriage equality is arguably one of the most defining socio-political developments of the 21st century, with 18 countries worldwide now recognising the right for two consenting adults in a committed relationship to enjoy the same legal protections and tear-jerker flash mob proposals regardless of their sex or gender. It’s a movement which in 2015 alone gave us everything from the staggering expat #HomeToVote pilgrimage for Ireland’s historic referendum, to the frenzy to produce the most viral “Love Wins”-themed advertisement, to the straight couple who hilariously threatened to get divorced if marriage equality passes in Australian parliament – prompting a predictable reply from the internet.



Marital joy and the rainbow flag industry: both on the rise in 2015 [x]

It’s a movement that has seen significant gains particularly in Europe, with the Netherlands leading the charge towards a brighter, sparklier future, as it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, the number of countries in the EU that allow same-sex marriage has risen to 11, with a total of 22 countries providing some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

The latest country to join this group is Italy, with the Senate passing a bill to allow civil unions for same-sex couples in late February. While the bill still has to pass the lower chamber in order to become law, it is widely regarded as a sealed deal – although one that comes as something of a compromised victory for LGBTQ activists.


Like this, except instead of cake, it’s vital and fundamental rights. [x]

The bill that passed the Senate lacks crucial legislation that would legalise the adoption of children by the partner of the child’s biological parent. The so called “stepchild adoption” provision became the central bargaining chip in negotiations over the bill, and saw the process delayed by several days after Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party walked away from a deal with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in mid-February. The deal would have kept the provision in the bill in the face of conservative opposition and amendments, however M5S ended up boycotting the final vote altogether. It’s a cynical move from a formerly laughable party (literally – Beppe Grillo is most famous for his career as a comedian) making rapid gains across the political spectrum, as it spots an opportunity to get more conservative voters on side.


Because, y’know, you can’t make a governmental omelette without breaking a few standards of common decency.

In the end, the Prime Minister hastened the process by calling a confidence vote on the bill, an audacious move that would have seen the government obliged to resign if it did not pass. By removing the stepchild adoption provision, however, the Democratic party were able to come to an agreement with the centre-right Nuovo Centrodestra party that allowed for a final vote supporting the legislation by 173 to 71.

Of course, the civil unions bill, which has been debated in the Senate since January, has faced significant opposition from several quarters. As might be expected, one of the strongest forces opposing marriage equality in Italy is the Vatican, which despite being a separate sovereign state is still permitted to loudly voice its opinion on Italian politics thanks to the complexities of the Patti Lateranensi or Lateran Treaty, established in 1929. Nevertheless, Renzi none-too-gently informed the bishops’ conference where to shove it after its leader Angelo Bagnasco weighed in on the democratic process.

Protesters also voiced opposition to the Vatican’s stance, taking to the piazzas with giant alarm clocks and asking politicians to “wake up,” presumably to the fact that it’s already a quarter past 2016 and they are late to the gay marriage party.


It’s not the kind of party you can be fashionably late to. [x]

But how does marriage equality fare across Europe? On a global scale, those 11 countries in the EU represent a whopping 61% of all countries that have legalised same-sex marriage (add Iceland and Norway to the equation, and Europe has a whole 72% slice of the delicious equality pie). But while much has been made about how Italy is dragging its feet as far as its Western European neighbours go, there is significant – and in some cases surprising – inconsistency in the EU.

Germany, Austria, Northern Ireland and much of Central Europe confine the rights of same-sex couples to civil unions, with accompanying limitations to various aspects of marriage such as adoption rights.


I’d like to thank the designer of this graph for allowing me to make a pun about the EU’s chequered record with gay rights. [x]

Considering Germany’s attempts to present itself as a progressive leader in recent years (and months) it’s puzzling that they haven’t managed to get this sorted out sooner, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is no closer to allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot, even after Catholic stronghold Ireland proved you don’t have to choose between #LoveWins and the Lord.

When the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) weighed in on the debate in Italy last July, it found that by not offering equal protection to homosexual couples as it did to heterosexual couples, Italy was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Given that the purview of the ECtHR extends to all 47 members of the Council of Europe (almost twice the number of member states in the EU), this is a not insignificant precedent to set. Sadly, like many European-level governmental and legislative structures, the ECtHR suffers from an inability to enforce its rulings beyond portraying the offending member state as a hypocrite.

The fact that the provision most often denied to same-sex couples is adoption only compounds the tragedy of this situation. Nothing screams hypocrisy quite like denying parents legal rights to their children in the name of “defending families”. Reinforcing social ostracism, marginalisation, and the idea that a mother should have to carry around a paper saying she’s “allowed” to care for her child is reprehensible, and particularly stupid considering there are good arguments that legalising gay marriage would give Italy an economic boost it sorely needs.

Fattoria Tregole Wedding Photographer

Because everybody loves a wedding in Tuscany, no matter what your sexual orientation may be.

But if the history of the fight for total marriage equality in Italy is anything to go by, the battle is far from lost. Just look at former Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, who in 2014 casually brushed away Italian law to recognise the marriages of 16 same-sex couples, and presumably proceeded to enjoy the full benefits of 16 different reception buffets, open bars, dance floors and hours of tearful, heartfelt speeches. And while the Interior Minister dismissed Marino’s signing of the marriage contracts as merely “[giving] these very respectable couples his autograph,” it speaks to the growing pressure for equal rights in recent years, in a country where the struggle for equality has been fierce and its victories hard-won.



Asylum Seekers and Denmark: A Tale of Three Treaties

Denmark – a country primarily known for its pastries, its Vikings, its mopey Shakespearean princes and its superlatively happy population – has recently been gaining the incongruous image of a small-time mob boss, shaking down newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees for their valuables before letting them into the country.


“Give us your non-sentimental lunch money in excess of 10,000 kroner, punk” [x]

In an attempt to offset both the political and financial costs of the current refugee crisis, the Danish parliament has approved the so-called “jewellery bill” allowing police to search incoming asylum seekers and seize non-essential items without sentimental value that are worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner, or about £1,000. These goods will apparently help fund the welfare expenses of some 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, although since the bill’s implementation on the 5th of February this year the measures have generated exactly zero kroner.

Indeed, some commentators are of the opinion that the measure is intended to be a symbolic deterrent rather than a revenue generator, although it’s hard to say which is more destructive for one’s faith in humanity – the idea that the government wants to claim what little possessions refugees might have managed to drag halfway across the world with them in order to sweeten the welfare pot, or the prospect of trying to compete with countries like Hungary for Worst Place to Be a Refugee.

Although it’s taking a lot of heat at the moment, Denmark is far from the first country to employ these tactics in recent years. Australia’s soul-crushingly terrible deterrent policies regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat have inspired wannabe copycats in Europe, and are now vying seriously with Apartheid and Rolf Harris to be the shittiest thing Australia has ever exported to the rest of the world.




When your immigration policy is being praised by the Dutch Donald Trump, it might be time to rethink your life choices. [x] [x]

In fact Denmark is joining the company of countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and parts of Germany in requiring refugees to surrender their valuables in exchange for asylum. While these bills are undoubtedly kind of a dick move, they are far from the most worrying political motion currently in play. In the midst of this entire ruckus, the Prime Minister of Denmark has actually called for the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention to be revised to a more convenient version that would reduce European countries’ obligations to provide asylum.

This is serious business. The 1951 Refugee Convention is used as an international standard for the protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights, and was set up in the wake of the last great crisis that saw millions of people displaced from their homes. There are 147 countries party to the Convention worldwide, including all the EU member states. It is the oldest and perhaps most well established of the three treaties or agreements that are currently having the greatest impact on refugee policy at a European level. To understand why Denmark is calling for revisions to one of the most important humanitarian documents in history, we have to understand how these three treaties interact.

So what are the other two? First up is the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between 26 countries (22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). In essence this means you can travel from Treviso to Tromsø without ever needing to show your passport or change visas, which is good news for people who hate train delays, airport queues and immigration paperwork (read: everybody). The inimitable CGP Grey explains a little about how Schengen fits into the EU’s whole deal here:


The other treaty to consider is the Dublin Regulation, also sometimes referred to as Dublin III. It primarily aims to be a mechanism by which everyone can decide which state should be responsible for dealing with an individual’s claim for refugee status. The BBC has helpfully put together a 90 second video that gives an overview of the Dublin Regulation here:


This is where things get complicated, for two main reasons. As the video above points out, under the Dublin Regulations there are several countries that end up taking a disproportionate burden of responsibility for asylum seekers entering the EU due to their location on the coast or southern edges of Europe. Since Dublin III usually dictates that the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU should be responsible for that person’s application, Italy and Greece end up in the position of either processing a huge number of applications or throwing their hands up and letting people move inland to other, less bureaucratically clogged states.

In fact, this leads to the second complication – due to the Schengen Agreement, asylum seekers can in theory travel unhindered through Europe until they reach a country where applying for refugee status might be easier/be more desirable/take less than five freaking years. After years of complaining about the Dublin Regulation’s ineffectiveness, Germany chose to stop enforcing the rules by which asylum seekers might be returned to other countries in August last year. Around the same time, Denmark – which is sandwiched between two of the countries with the highest number of applications for asylum in all of Europe – started receiving a huge amount of foot and train traffic travelling north from Germany to Sweden and promptly freaked out. Since January, national borders have been reinstated between Germany, Denmark and Sweden in an effort to control the movement of people northwards. Many see this development as the beginning of the end for the Schengen Agreement.

European regulations and treaties are complicated beasts at the best of times. The European Union is basically held together on the premise that its members want to be part of the great European project, and by agreements that they all want to operate under common rules to streamline economic and social processes. While there are courts and political systems to act as instruments that uphold various laws and treaties, when it comes down to it the consequences of breaking such agreements are often more along the lines of severe side-eye and a lot of snarky comments about how the offending Member State can’t be trusted to keep its word.


“And on Wednesdays, we take in acceptable quotas of refugees.” [x]

The suspension of the Schengen Agreement and the condemnation of the Dublin Regulation could mean that these treaties will be renegotiated and restructured to address the changing situation in Europe – in Dublin III’s case, this process could begin as early as March. While these measures will certainly have complex long term ramifications for asylum seekers, refugees and (especially when it comes to Schengen) Europe as a whole, a project as vast and (relatively) new as the European Union is necessarily going to see some changes over time as it figures out what it is and what it’s going to be.

But the Danish government’s call to rethink the 1951 Refugee Convention is a different ballpark altogether. 65 years after it was brought in, the Convention remains crucial to the work of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and underpins the fundamental notions of who refugees are and what their rights should be. At a time when more people than ever before are left vulnerable by displacement and conflict, the notion of reducing those protections in such a core piece of legislation is almost unthinkable. After all, we seem to have enough trouble even considering refugees as human at the moment:


All this isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. A great number of Danes are deeply concerned with the plight of refugees, and there have been some fantastic local outreach and integration initiatives within the country. But as long as politicians are willing to use the plight of refugees and asylum seekers for political gains, there is a very real danger that even the most basic of human rights could be under threat.


Stalking Stellan Skarsgård: On Sweden, Data Protection and the Roma

In mid December, the Swedish police once again found themselves in hot water. Just two years after scandalous revelations surrounding the existence of a police registry of Roma people (whose inclusion was seemingly based primarily on their ethnicity) made international headlines, the national radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio revealed that police have been keeping a registry of the Roma beggars on Sweden’s streets for over a year. Given that the police’s disciplinary board has been grappling with the last case as late as this Monday, you’d think they’d have trod a bit more lightly around gathering personal information of ethnic minorities for secret centralised databases. But how important is it for the police to have impunity in the collection of information in order to tackle crime? And how much do we care about the protection of our personal data, anyway?

The 2013 Skåne registry scandal saw a widespread outcry from people who were understandably pissed off that their toddlers and dead relatives were apparently being tracked by police for no reason other than that they were Roma. There were even some coy attempts to deny that the name of the registry, “Kringresande” or Travellers, had anything at all to do with the ethnicity of the people in it.


Centralised registries of Roma people in Europe have, historically, not had the best outcomes [x]

People whose names were on the Skåne registry were awarded 5,000SEK each in damages after it was found to be unlawful. But that registry was primarily branded as super dodgy due to the fact that a) nobody kept logs of who had accessed the database, or why, and b) it didn’t really seem to serve much of an overall purpose other than being, as the Swedes say, “bra-att-ha” (good to have). The police have been careful to point out that the new registry is allegedly serving the greater purpose of tackling human trafficking among immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and doesn’t exist simply because they really like having lists of names lying around… just in case.

Roma commentator and public figure Hans Caldaras claims there are sinister intentions at work in the registry’s creation and the photographing and interviewing of beggars by police, namely the expulsion of Roma immigrants from Sweden. Given the minority’s history in both Sweden and Europe in general, you can see why he’d be concerned. But while there are possibly less intrusive ways of investigating human trafficking than taking a Humans Of New York approach to gathering evidence, it should be noted that Sweden as a whole has a startlingly open approach to personal data and its availability.


This attitude towards not hiding anything tends to translate to real life, too [x]

Fun fact: unless they’ve gone to considerable effort to have their identity protected, everyone who’s registered in Sweden has their full name, birthday and address posted online, information that is helpfully provided by the Swedish Tax Agency. Sites such as collect all this data together in an easily accessible website, so that if – for example – you felt like tracking down the whereabouts of renowned Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, you could do so with breathtaking speed and accuracy.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.58.42 AM

That’s an actual photo of his front door up there.

The site also tells you what kind of car he owns, and suggests you send him flowers on his birthday as though he’s your long-neglected great-uncle. Sites like go one further and will tell you he’s married, that he has two corporate engagements, and for the very reasonable price of 10SEK (about 82p) they will let you know whether he’s ever had a mark on his credit rating. For 29SEK (£2.37) they’ll even let you take a look at his tax history. This information is available about every single person registered in Sweden. It took me some time to realise this meant me as well, a lowly student immigrant who doesn’t have a multiple-film contract with Marvel (but may or may not be hiding from a shady past in a French emu-smuggling cartel).


We’ve all got something we’re running from [x]

Seeing my own front door on that website was a shock – I don’t actually remember explicitly consenting to all this information being made available to all and sundry, but it seems to come with the territory of living in one of the least corrupt nations in the world. Of course, neither I nor my good friend Stellan has our ethnicity or even nationality recorded on those websites, nor do we have hundreds of years of systematic persecution to act as a cautionary tale. And being included on a nation-wide and slightly stalkerish website is not the same as being included in police records so soon after a scandal on the scale of the Skåne registry.

On the same day the news of the new registry broke, the Guardian reported that an agreement had been reached on a draft of new EU-wide data protection rules. The proposed legislation will make it easier for law enforcement agencies within the EU to coordinate and exchange information, while simultaneously promising greater protection for individuals’ right to privacy. It’s clear that in the wake of the Paris attacks last November that there will be a greater demand for intra-EU law enforcement cooperation in future, but we should be cognizant of how such integrated systems might affect the way in which our data is accessed and used. Moreover, we should be mindful of how it might affect groups who have been persecuted rather than protected by such systems in the past. It’s a complicated topic, and one that only tends to produce headlines when they’re about scandals such as Skåne or the possibility of teens being booted off Facebook. But if worrisome registries can arise in a country with a system as scrupulous as Sweden’s, it might be worth taking at least a cursory look at who’s gathering our information – and why.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 8.09.19 PM

Unless it involves reading all this, because seriously. Besides, what could go wrong?