Opinion

John Lloyd

As the world revolts, the great powers will watch

John Lloyd
Jan 28, 2014 19:20 UTC

Civil wars, those raging and those yet to come, present the largest immediate threat to human societies. Some have similar roots, but there is no overall unifying cause; except, perhaps, a conviction that the conflict is a fight to oblivion. Victory or death.

Syria currently leads in this grisly league. Deaths now total well over 100,000 in the war between the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad,and opposition forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nearly 126,000 dead last month, and said it was probably much higher. More than 2 million Syrians have left their country as refugees, and 4.25 million have fled their homes to other parts of Syria. Last week, a report by three former war crime prosecutors alleged that some 11,000 prisoners had been tortured, many to death, in “industrial scale killing” by the regime of President Assad.

We are watching a relentless horror unfold. The current negotiations between the various factions of the opposition and the Assad government in Montreux may have saved some women and children from the besieged city of Homs, but at the core remains a presently insuperable clash of aims: the regime insists that Assad remain in power, the opposition that he depart immediately. Assad’s forces appear to have the advantage.

Support from Iran and Russia for Assad’s forces is steady and significant. A Reuters report earlier this month said that aid from Russia was increasing. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA, said in Washington last month that an Assad win might be the best “out of three very very ugly options.”

Another ugly option — according to Hayden the most likely — is continuing conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam factions. It could create a larger civil war, dragging one Muslim country after another into deepening conflict over the two branches’ differing interpretations of the legacy of the Prophet Mohammad. The Shi’ite, the minority in the Muslim world, is the majority in Iraq. There the Sunni minority, which had been the most loyal supporters of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, are attacking Shi’ite centers and provoking counter attacks.

CEOs on stage

John Lloyd
Jan 21, 2014 21:57 UTC

Gerrit Zalm, the chief executive officer of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, appeared before his staff in drag last week. In a performance that belied his usually dour management style, Zalm was dressed as his sister, “Priscilla.” He may make a bulky drag queen, but the CEO’s performance as a Madame working in the world’s oldest profession offered a series of brilliant comparisons to the profession of banking today.

Posing in a purple dress with startling red hair, Priscilla gave her brother a lesson in “putting the customer first” from a “flourishing business with a centuries-long tradition.” She noted that Zalm had given up working for leading — a choice that immensely benefited his salary.

“You should start with core values. In my company, we have three: reliability, professionalism and ambition. We try to give the customer a warm welcome. We aim for long-term client relationships and we deliver what we’ve agreed upon.”

French minds turn to scandal

John Lloyd
Jan 13, 2014 21:13 UTC

Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.

Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.

In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.

Journalism’s next big problem

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2014 19:01 UTC

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.

McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.

Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.

An empire dies slowly

John Lloyd
Jan 2, 2014 21:55 UTC

Stalingrad is the center of action in one of the world’s great novels, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, spent months in Stalingrad in 1942 under constant bombardment. The description he gives of those who defended it against the encircling Wehrmacht is of a struggle, often hand-to-hand, across a ruined city between the troops of two totalitarian states. It was the war’s central turning point when the Red Army broke its hold on the encirclement.

Five years after Joseph Stalin fell from favor in 1956, Stalingrad become Volgograd. On Sunday bombs hit the city’s train station and a trolleybus, killing more than 30 people. There is a kind of symmetry in this attack and those that had reduced Stalingrad to rubble. The preservation of the city took a near suicidal feat of arms on the part of the Red Army, which in turn saved the Soviet Union. The bombings in Volgograd were Islamist suicide attacks, and they are likely to be a critical point in the slow death of the Soviet empire.

The passing of great empires can last for many years, and often decades. The effects of the withdrawal of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires from the vast territories they once commanded can still be felt. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s without a civil war like the one that nearly killed the new Soviet state between 1918-21. There have been, however, major conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kyrgizia and a full-on, if brief, invasion of Georgia by Russia. Only the first and the last of these have been extensively covered by journalists. The attack in Volgograd signals that there are more conflicts to come.

  •