Pope Francis and the End of Clerical Celibacy

Pope Francis, already deemed a great herald of progressive change in the Catholic Church (more so as his more traditional arguments get little or no attention in the general press), a few weeks ago hinted at changes to the rules of clerical celibacy in what turned out to be an explosive interview in Espresso.

As the pope acknowledged, clerical celibacy was not widespread even in the Latin Church for the first 900 years of its existence – and maybe even after that. Today, however, that specific sacerdotal vow has come to be a major identity marker for Catholics. This might have a lot to do with the fact that neither mainstream Orthodox nor mainstream Protestant churches practice it; the very distinction makes it all the more important.

This makes sense from a sociological point of view, as group identity is strongly dependent on real or fictional differences to the outside world that can serve as boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

In both Orthodox and Protestant theology, moreover, it also makes intuitive sense that being different is a sign of virtue: for the Orthodox, it is a sign of not having veered off the path; for the Protestant, is a sign of having scraped away man-made tradition and found the path again through scripture.

For the Catholic Church, however, Francis’s reference to the traditions of the Eastern Church as a legitimate concern makes sense. Being ‘catholic’ in the literal sense invariably involves seeing your organization as a big tent in which all divisions, no matter how many millennia they span, are ultimately temporary. Thus, while both Eastern and Northern Christians can be content with being part of the few who are saved, the Catholic shepherd must always try to gather his flock, even if that means changing the way he does so.

Historically, the introduction of clerical celibacy was part of a wider shift of family practices that the Catholic Church successfully imposed upon itself and the elites of Europe; it is one of the biggest intentional programs of social engineering not carried out at the tip of a sword in European history. The Church successfully disbanded with a number of Germano-Roman family practices, including the wider clan system (since marrying even remote family members was outlawed), the Roman adoption practice, the Judaic levirate (otherwise commanded by God in the story of Onan) – and the inheritance of clerical office.

Obviously, the change was not fast-paced: for most dynastic leaders, giving up their right to pass on any kind of inheritance to their progeny was deeply illogical and contrary to the very reason of power. The change did occur, however, not least as orders of monks gained in importance within the Church, and the canon regular – clergy who have taken monastic vows –became a more prominent figure.

The celibate faction also had a strong, anti-Semitic argument on its side: inheritance of office seems Jewish, since Jewish tradition has it that the Kohanim and other priestly clans are granted specific priestly rights and duties – and Jesus, the highest priest, was not of the Kohanim. As anti-Semitic sentiments were often running high in Latin Europe (and much more so than in the Arab world), being seen as pro-Jewish was a major legitimacy problem.


Pope Francis,  photo from vatican.va

The issue of issue: a question for the father.

Theologically, the major argument for clerical celibacy is, as many other doctrines that seem contrary to parts of scripture, a Pauline one. As celibacy has been practiced in many religious traditions both before and after the birth of Christianity, the discussion about the value, positive or negative of worldly signs of piety, was already raging in the first centuries CE.

Famously, 1 Timothy 4 reads (in the English Standard Version): “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

Timothy thus, like Pauline readings, can be enacted as a an argument for the New Covenant as replacing the old one, and that the Mosaic rules governing human behavior – such as which foods to eat or to abstain from – have been cancelled, since such foods (and, presumably, other objects regulated in especially Leviticus, such as clothes) are ‘made holy by the word of God and prayer’.

However, it obviously also contradicts the notion of holiness through abstinence, a fact that has been pointed out by both Orthodox Christians (who never adopted celibacy in the first place) and various Protestants (who revolted against it, and made marriage a litmus test for priests and bishops to prove their anti-papist stance).

The Bible, however, is obviously an anthology whose editors were not too concerned with the coherence of its message. The Pauline argument for celibacy is scripturally based on 1 Corinthians 7, especially verses 7-8: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” Out of its context, it indeed does seem that Paul advocates celibacy as a purer way of life (purity being a main concern of the ascetic faction that Timothy argues against).

Even Corinthians, however, deals with the seemliness of marriage and says nothing explicitly about clerical abstinence. That such leeway is granted to the unmarried and widows does appear, in context, to be more of a matter of respite given to those unfortunate enough to become spinsters or to have husbands who passed early: to make sure that they were not treated as outcasts as was often the case, especially in the lower orders of society.

The Catholic stance admits as much: “we grant that the motive here appealed to is in some measure utilitarian”, states the Catholic Encyclopedia on 1 Corinthians 7.

However, the cult of virginity is strong within the Church, and today, 1100 years after inheritance of office was a major concern for the Church, this explanation has become the strongest official one, together with the paternal allegory that also serves the reasoning behind barring women from clerical office: the priest as the father of his parishioners, whom he guides and looks after. If he had biological children of his own, he would have to look after them first, and his parishioners second, with which they would not be served properly.

What was novel about Francis’s statement, then, was that he acknowledged a historical reality that Catholic scholars are fully aware of: the institution of celibacy is purely a man-made one, also in a theological sense (i.e., not just for the outside observer, but also for the inside practitioner). The Catholic Church traditionally has had few problems with admitting as much, as it has given much weight to what is also itself saw as derived practices.

Lately, however, conservative Catholics, just as conservative Protestants – traditional opponents – have reacted with similar conviction in galvanizing their stances on a number conservative issues as they have found themselves pushed further and further back by a liberal world order. That is why issues of sexuality became the main focal point for both groups: anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraception.

Francis’s statements were thus explosive because they reminded Catholics who might otherwise have forgotten about Catholicism not being defined by the distinction to other Christian traditions; that the Catholic Church could indeed endure, as Catholic, without clerical celibacy.

How plausible is this change, then? In the short term, not very. Francis is unlikely to survive long enough to see such a change carried through. His immense popularity in an age of rising inequality and social liberalization, however, might make it difficult for his detractors in the Church to elect another Retzinger as his successor. The unwillingness and inability of the conservative Popes in handling pedophilia in the Church – the immediate reason for Francis to even discuss celibacy – have also made the progressive cause easier.

Still, Francis is more likely to let a hundred flowers bloom and let non-celibate practice slowly seep into the mainline Church, apart from its already existing enclaves within Anglican converts and many Eastern Catholics. The main strength of the Roman organization has always been its ability to contain various practices and only enforce a very small core of beliefs upon all. Francis just signaled that celibacy might be leaving that core, signaling to those for whom it matters that they could find amnesty, and with time even acceptance, if they were to take up official family lives.

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oxford. Ask Foldspang Neve


The demand for higher education is soaring. So what’s wrong with the academic job market?

By Ask Foldspang Neve

As the aspirant white-collar youth of China, India and a number of smaller, emerging economies continuously demand more tertiary education, providers of such education often report that it is still more difficult to find employment. It seems the market clears at a much lower level than possible. Two issues make up the puzzle: a bottleneck formed by institutions and misperceptions about their prospects among (future) academic job seekers.

According to the Institute of International Education, an American think tank, there were 194,000 Chinese students in the United States in 2011-12, up from 158,000 the year before, or an increase of 23 %. Back in 2005-06, the number was only 63,000, adding up to a 307 % increase over six years.

For Indian students, the trend was also going up for, even though the increase was less rapid. In 2005-06, the plurality of foreign students in the United States were Indian, numbering 76.000. In 2011-12, that number had risen to 100,000, or a 32 % increase.

Those years of course were witnessed the transition of Western economies from overheating booms to long slumps. For Western universities, ‘overseas students’ can seem irresistible as they supply massively to budgets that have taken hits from public funding cuts or lower returns from trust funds.

The few years since the 2011-12 academic year witnessed the effects of the same recession reached (especially) India as well; a declining rupee made it less affordable for Indian students to go abroad (see table below). At the same time, India sought to expand its own number of universities. Thus, by 2012-13, the number of Indian students in the United States had dropped to 97.000. By contrast, the number of Chinese students has continued to soar, reaching 236.000 by 2012-13. This also coincides with a period when the renminbi was allowed to appreciate against the dollar, conversely making American education more affordable for Chinese students.

Exchange rates and foreign students - a partial relationship

Exchange rates and foreign students – a partial relationship

Sources: iie.org and x-rates.com.

However, the macro trend is still that more and more foreign students are seeking Western education despite fluctuations in the number of students from specific countries.

Looking at the relationship between supply and demand of education in non-Western countries explains much of this increase young people going abroad. In India, the nation’s most prestigious schools have now for some years had nominal acceptance rates below even the most selective American and European top-tier institutions.

The University of Delhi and the various branches of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) are consistently ranked among the top school in India for arts, sciences, and engineering (the latter of which fields has a much higher profile there than in most Western societies).

As the New York Times’ blog The Choice related in 2011, the acceptance rates of even the most selective American institutions can seem appealing to Indians otherwise competing for entrance to Indian institutions. In 2013, some courses, like computer science, required a perfect score of 100 % in the entrance exams at some of the constituent colleges of the University of Delhi; this has also happened several years before. A number of other programs with high (perceived) earning potentials had cut-offs at only a few percent below.

For the ITT, the soaring demand for higher education led undergraduate acceptance rate to dip below 2 % in 2011 as reported by the NYT. For comparison, the acceptance rate at Harvard University – currently the most selective American college – was 6.2 % in the same year (for the class of 2018, that number had dipped slightly, to 5.9 %). And for a more comparable institution, MIT, the rate was 9.6 %, or five times higher. All the same, the low rates of acceptance at the American elite schools have been the subject of considerable debate. It also is part of that comparison that while ITT and the University of Delhi might be prestigious in the Indian context, they are relatively poorly ranked universities on a global scale, whereas their American counterparts have both topped world-wide rankings.

With such an expanding market, and with that kind of competition, one should think that new competitors to older providers would continue to appear; or that current providers would increase capacity continuously. Whereas it is true that many state institutions in both Europe and the United States have increased the intakes quite rapidly over the last decade, the institutional setting as a whole is still remarkably unstirred.

The persistent low intake of students at elite institutions has both substantial academic causes as well as other, social reasons. Academically, many elite institutions provide, as part of their offering, not just relative selectivity, but also small absolute scale. The best examples are found in more prestigious American liberal arts schools and in the tuition-based Oxbridge system.

The other, social origins of educational selectivity, whether one prefers to think about them as signaling effects, i.e., in the language of economics, or as the replication of elite status, i.e., in the language of sociology (it should be said that for all other purposes than this, these two models are unlike), the value of elite education to the individual and her family is not least the perceptional changes graduating from such an institution engender in others.

But one thing is the question of why current institutions are going to expand. Another question is why so few new ones have appeared.  Exclusivity itself does not explain why Europe has only witnessed a single new institution, the London-based New College of the Humanities make an attempt to journey into the market for elite education (and then only while receiving much flak from the established British academic community, where many saw it as part of a wider commercialization of society). If one’s competitors are poorly ranked and still offer admission only to a tiny fraction of applicants, how can this not be a good market for future educators to enter? Getting a PhD these days should mean steady business.

If one has recently talked to just small samples of graduate students, it is clear that many feel at least uneasy about the job market they are facing upon graduation. Many recent or soon-to-be graduates report back on having sent surprisingly high numbers of applications out without success. This is true even for the student populations at the world’s top-ranked research universities.

A common explanation for this phenomenon is that graduate students have multiplied while research funding has stayed stagnant or that is has even shrunk. However, with such a market for tertiary education as the one developing in recent years, would it not make sense for the market simply to clear at a much higher level? How can simultaneous rises in the production of academics and in the demand for the services that academics provide lead to both steeply declining acceptance rates for students and worse employment prospects for doctoral candidates?

Poor job prospects with more customers?

These stock photos should meet up more often. Sources: gatech.edu and bbc.co.uk.

There is one (rather obvious) theoretical observation to make before proceeding. In tertiary education (especially), institutional capacity is key to the supply of education. Individual academics cannot, as in pre-modern Europe, set up shop and hope for great results; at least not when it comes to collegial appraisal (they might, as is common in France, tutor privately, which brings cash, but little recognition). As only institutions can award diplomas that are recognized by employers, the market clears between, on the one hand institutions and prospective students, and on the other, between institutions and prospective academics, but not between students and academics directly.

However, looking at the unemployment rates for PhDs, another point becomes clear: though important differences among academic fields and generations probably exist, prospective academics are, on average, still better off than any other group in society.

Notice that in the Atlantic article linked to above, it is claimed that “[t]he pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work — especially in the sciences.”

However, the accompanying graph (see below) shows a period reaching back to 1991. At that point, unemployment-upon-graduation rates ostensibly were at c. 29 %; by 2011, they had risen to c. 34 %. In between, they had fluctuated between c. 32 % at its previous peak in 1996 and c. 27 % in 2001. Overall, a very slight positive trend in unemployment-upon-graduation might be detected, but it certainly is too small to be called out as a ‘bust’.

And as you will notice, the clearest trend is that a higher share of graduates have landed a post doc upon graduation, while fewer have a (professional) job. Which is, presumably, how the graduate population at large would want it.

Employment for PhDs in the US - upon graduation. Source: The Atlantic.

Poorer prospects? Maybe not. Source: The Atlantic.

The main reason for these high numbers are that they are supplied by schools who, in this specific data scheme, lose contact with graduates upon graduation. Thus, everyone who has not landed either a post doc or a professional position by the day of their graduation will be listed as jobless. Such a measure is bound to massively inflate numbers. More importantly, however, there is simply not enough of a trend to be detected to come to such dramatic conclusions.

As can be seen from the below table snatched from the website of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, levels of education still work as a linear predictor of levels of unemployment. Thus, the 2013 rate of 6.1 % unemployment covered a range ranging from 11.0 % for those with less than a high school diploma to only 2.2 % for those with a doctoral degree. The conventional wisdom of the recession hitting those with the least education thus still seems to hold true.

Levels of unemployment are still very much predicted by educational attainment

Levels of unemployment are still very much predicted by educational attainment

In the West as a whole, the picture is roughly the same, although there are notable, if predictable, exceptions. In 2013, unemployment rates for people with theoretically based tertiary education ranged from 1.5 in still petrol-booming Norway to 10.4 and 11.4 in Spain and Greece, respectively. Most countries, however, experience unemployment rates for the highest educated hovering between 4 and 6 %. The EU-21 (which, of course, includes both Greece and Spain) average was at 5.1 %.

As unemployment rates for the lowest educated groups go beyond an astonishing 50 % in some OECD countries, the real differences in unemployment are still based on class divisions, not geography. Even if these OECD numbers do not differentiate between master’s degrees and doctorates, the picture in Europe is not far from that in the US, even if slightly less favorable for job-seekers.

One tempting conclusion would be that current grad students are not informed by unemployment statistics for their own group when they panic, but by a wider, dual narrative: that competition in the academic field is rising, propelled by greater intake to grad schools; and that of the wider recession (and political crisis) in the West, which, contrary to the above analysis, claim that the well-educated are hit as hard as the lower middle and working classes this time (by now, a rather common NYT trope; one could speculate that part of the reason for its persistence is that this story might resonate strongly with its readership whose children are often themselves college graduates and had, hitherto, thought themselves near-impervious to such hazards).

At the same time, however, the institutional bottleneck is probably a real phenomenon. That should also help explain why another threat to academic hopefuls, the practice of some universities to keep teachers in non-tenured adjunct positions endlessly, seems to be constantly rising. An increase in elite-level tertiary institutions would also entail a rise in faculty positions, because neither academic prestige nor a research-based education can be delivered by adjuncts who are not paid to conduct such research (or, for that matter, enough to live without food stamps). Now, that would be real change.

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oxford. Ask Foldspang Neve

Do networked communications really facilitate political revolutions?

The difficulties of measuring the relationship between social Internet usage and political struggle are so great that claims about it are almost never based on evidence. 

By Laurin Weissinger

Since the start of the Arab revolutions in 2010, the Internet and mobile communication are widely considered to be useful indicators when it comes to political uprisings and revolutions. Commentators, journalists and academics alike have talked and written about how Internet communication has been important or even crucial to these movements. Western news outlets made use of the rather uncontrolled information flows from Egypt, Syria and Turkey for reporting but also tried to utilise online activities as a way to understand and predict outcomes. The respective potentates in Egypt, Syria and Turkey reacted blatantly: communication surveillance, deactivation of networks, and sabotage were used to assume control over the communication flows. And it is not contained to the East, either. The vast surveillance machinery used by the United States and its allies shows that governments worldwide recognise the centrality of digital communications and has sparked debates around the globe.

While the optimism has become more restrained and reserved after the Snowden leaks, many public intellectuals and academics have argued that the switch from mass media to networked communications was a shift conducive to democratisation and political freedom. Their arguments seem sound: in theory and at the moment in practice, the Internet is the most conducive medium known to us for expressing minority opinions and releasing information that is considered problematic for those in power. Such open spaces are particularly useful in democratic uprisings to gain support and make one’s (usually oppressed) voice heard. While potentially true in theory, things are not that easy; neither are Facebook or Twitter such democratic spaces in general, nor is the link between democratisation and Internet activity that clear and obvious.

Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution

Even when Facebook is down, Tahrir Square is up and running (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr).

The flaws of uncritically linking the Internet to democratisation are manifold, and I would like to focus on four of them: The first is that the idea of a democratic and open Internet is flawed. Second, the complexity of social interaction during revolutions is an important but often overlooked element. Third, data and methodology are often insufficient to properly link digital communication to democratisation. Fourth, when considering the bigger picture and the international arena, the Internet and digital communications are a much lesser factor in decision-making than the press make them out to be.

First and foremost, it is important to note that unlike in the early days, contemporary data communications networks are not democratic infrastructures; and neither are they overly fail-proof or difficult to control. Many countries are connected to the world by one to three glass fibre nodes and therefore, controlling or at least, tapping, the bulk of the information outflow is not immensely difficult. Furthermore, the group of entities that have a profound influence on the infrastructure is not that great either: Less than ten providers serve the overwhelming majority of users in any given country – in most cases, the number is closer to five.

On the social level, things are mostly the same: while decentralised services do exist, a few giants dominate the social sphere of the Internet – Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and a few others make up most of the traffic. More than 60% of all Internet-enabled devices communicate with Google servers alone. All of the above-mentioned companies govern their own social spaces and have censored voices or given out personal information, which was later used to hunt down members of the democratic opposition. They have their own agenda and those fighting for democracy and civil liberties can hardly count on them.

Second, revolutions are messy. We rarely see a clear-cut situation. Most of the time, things are much more complex: Various groups with differing interests change alliances; followers shift and dormant groups get “activated” by incisive activities or events. And most importantly, conflicts within the opposition as well as within the current power elite are very likely. Trust, personal networks, support for various groups, and even political opinions may change quickly.

No internet today

Not today, either (Photo: GraciolliDotcom / Flickr).

Social networks, and digital communication as a whole, resonate with such a situations but can be an important factor themselves. For example, switching off communications is a typical measure taken by oppressive regimes. However, when and how to do it is a difficult strategic choice: what is turned off cannot be surveyed and depending on various factors, the lack of communication options may calm the situation but also spark additional protests. For Egypt, this point has been made: when the Internet and mobile networks were switched off, people had to hit the streets to stay in the loop, increasing the number of protestors. Understanding such situations is difficult, even on the ground. Therefore, simply monitoring activity rates and making conclusions based on such superficial data is analytically unsound. This leads us to the third point: methodology.

 The argument that activity on the Internet or social networks underlines their importance for democratisation is short-sighted: the way people communicate in general has shifted towards digital communication and consequentially; an increase of activities during incisive times is not at all surprising. People use their digital devices during political struggles, since it is the way we communicate today – but this does not mean that otherwise, communication would not take place in one way or the other. The biggest part of the increase is likely the resonance of other events or simply communication without tangible consequences.

The particularity of uprisings and the messiness of social interactions during such insecure times also impact the accuracy of day-to-day metrics, which incidentally work very well in stable situations. However, during revolutionary struggles, behavioural patterns change: some people may choose to voice their opinion on Facebook, others may choose switching to more secure ways of communication. Without the toolkit of intelligence services, even monitoring of raw data flows remains difficult.

Most researchers focus on the Internet giants due to accessibility and their relative importance. In consequence, their analyses neglect other forms of digital communication, like e-mail or blogs. Furthermore, due to the particularity of revolutionary struggles and a lack of comparable data, interpretation is difficult: How much is a Like on Facebook worth, is Twitter a useful tool for the process of deliberation, and can we be sure that the interactions we see on social networks are representative of what is actually going on? Unfortunately, even in the context of stable situations, we clearly lack a good understanding at this point in time.

Both the potentates and the revolutionary groups are aware of the Internet and its reflexivity: not trying to influence the picture being painted by their own followers and the users in general would be dangerous and imprudent. Strategy matters, and therefore we may not see a good representation of events, or a clear picture of what is going on. We may also oversee a lot of things, which are kept off the radar deliberately. Conclusively, what we see when monitoring social media is an incomplete picture, which different actors and groups try to spin in their favour. The biggest part of what we measure is noise, while the signal is difficult to find.

Fourth, we may not forget that while the Internet surely does show us sides of conflicts we have not seen before, its impact is not that great. Information flows matter a lot and can have a big impact but as the conflict in Syria shows, prove for mass murder of civilians widely available on the Internet does not necessarily cause a definite reaction.

Millions of Likes on Facebook are nothing compared to signatures of President Obama or President Putin. Unlike most Facebook users, they hold tangible power: they have political influence and heavy weaponry to fall back on. Indeed, public opinion at home can have a great deal of leverage on political decision-making but the outcry is normally insufficient to cause a quick change of strategy. Economic interests of elite actors, military strategy, and international relations are much more important for political leaders abroad than a petition by their citizens or atrocities published on Facebook. The struggle around the (non-) intervention in Syria is the perfect example.

In conclusion, we see a change of times. To a huge extent, communication has changed to digital forms but it is much too early to conclude that this new form of communication is democratising. Indeed, pictures, videos and texts flow and do impact abroad but we are likely to overestimate their weight.

Firstly, the Internet is not democratic and easily controlled by states and corporations alike. Surveillance and censorship are easily put into place, and with the right tools such measures can be incredibly effective.

Second, revolutionary struggles are complex and messy: the impact of an action may inverse itself very quickly and judging what caused what is difficult for out- and insiders alike.

Third, most measurements and data points taken by proponents of the “democratisation” camp are questionable: we lack complete data, we lack data points to compare, and we often lack a sufficient understanding to make appropriate conclusions. This is not to say that the Internet does not have an impact but rather that the basis for such fundamental claims has yet to be established. At the moment, digital communications seem to have had a positive but often overestimated impact – but without any doubt, potentates have learned and more powerful censorship and surveillance techniques are waiting around the corner.

Fourth, as unfortunate as it is, the recorded suffering of vulnerable individuals and the support by people from abroad is not the most decisive factor in the international arena. Indeed, digital communication may change a lot in terms of how we communicate and how we learn about struggles but if it proves to be democratising is yet to be seen.  At the moment, and for the most part, political change seems to be decided upon elsewhere.


Laurin Weissinger

Laurin Weissinger is an MSc student in sociology at the University of Oxford. He works on the social impact of modern technology.

The use of the images above is permitted under the Create Commons License. For specifics, see the Creative Commons license page.

The Great Divergence? Why Russia and the West Are Moving in Opposite Directions on Gay Rights

Never mind capitalism versus communism and democracy versus autocracy. More than anything else, Russia is still a patriarchy. 

By Darja Irdam

While LGBT movements have been winning more and more political support in the Western world in the last decade, the position of sexual minorities in Russia has recently become particularly alarming. Not only has the government adopted the law prohibiting ‘propaganda’ of homosexuality among Russia’s youth, but the ruling party – United Russia (UR) – is about to accept a law preventing homosexual couples both in Russia and abroad as well as single citizens of countries which allow homosexual marriages from adopting Russian children.

The main explanation that the government has for these measures is that it perceives any declaration of the mere existence of homosexuality – which is what is called ‘propaganda’ – to be morally destructive and particularly harmful for children as it “imposes distorted perceptions about human relationships” on children who do not yet have a “stable outlook”.

The government officially calls it ‘defilement’ to teach children about women harboring romantic love for other women and men loving men. In Russia, this is not a controversial stance: it has the support of all the major political parties and the majority of the population. Why is that?

Putin hunting, 2010

What women want

The development of Western European values promoting tolerance, non-racism and sexual freedom is a recent phenomenon. So it is in the West: less than half a century ago did the US witness attitudes change towards its severely discriminated black population while gay marriages were almost unthinkable as late as in the 1990s. Modernization theory predicts that most of the time, societies become more liberal as they develop economically and educationally. So, perhaps, as in other countries, homophobic trends might be fuelled by Russia’s inhibited socio-economic development. If this is true, the problem might be gradually ameliorated when the society is rich and happy enough to pay attention to more liberal values. However, the grounds on which Russian homophobia thrives seem to lie in the culture and the deeply embedded social norms.

That said, it can be useful to approach the issue of Russian homophobia from a different perspective: perhaps, apart from reassessing their own negative position on homosexuality, the sexual majorities, too, have something to be concerned about here? Let us consider two problems, which transcend the majority-minority relationship. The first problem is that the unusually dominant Russian state has a monopoly over establishing what normal is and where the boundaries of abnormality lay.

The government declared that Russia has a traditional set of values which contradict with the European ones mainly when it comes to liberal acceptance and tolerance. Clearly, such Russian values seem to fit fairly well within the paradigm of Orthodox Christianity, disregarding of the sizeable Muslim, Jewish and atheist populations of the country and allowing little potential for modernization. Even during Putin’s first presidency, and more so after Medvedev temporarily took over the steering wheel, a lot of political attention was paid to promotion of traditional family values, which were tightly intertwined with religious practices. UR has been particularly inventive when it comes to developing the religious nationalism context for its policy proposals. Not only does it draw on an eclectic range of contemporary, Soviet and Imperial-era narratives; it has reached as far back as the Christian Rus’ – the presumably Greco-Romano-Nordic warrior colonialists whose founded the polities that over time morphed into the Tsardom – for myths that can legitimize the patriarchy.

Gender roles continue to be very traditional: the accepted norms are still a brutal masculinity and an obeying, soft and flexible femininity. Hence, men have always been expected to be bread-winners, warriors, and politically informed figures (who by definition support the state); while women were supposed to be mothers, care-takers, domestic laborers, active tax-payers and supporters of their male partners. Only historical circumstance added slight variations to women’s roles and virtually exclusively when it was beneficial to the state.

Consequently, not only the Soviet state, but also modern Russia led by President Vladimir Putin has been actively promoting the culture of machismo. Consider, for example, Putin’ regular appearances with his torso bared, fishing or hunting like an exemplary masculine hero. But Putin is not simply a bad boy: he is also, at times, presented as a ‘tender beast’. His image as a sex-symbol who can still be trusted has been so successful that popular culture depicts him as an ideal husband for all Russian women, as he “does not drink and would not batter” his wife. Russian machismo is very different from, say, its Italian variant, as a Russian man is not expected to be pretty, groomed, well-dressed and creative when it comes to courtesy. He is not supposed to sing or dance, he is not supposed to write poetry and create miracles in the kitchen A real Russian man is supposed to be a manual worker, a proletarian; he is expected to have big fists, to smell like a factory, to be a bread-winner, to eat substantively and to hold his liquor.

Such a machismo exerts a dual pressure as it does not only establish requirements for men, but it also defines the way that women are supposed to be. A woman who does not prioritize reproduction in her early twenties is widely perceived to be a ‘careerist’, while a woman who has not got married while at college, who values her independence and is not afraid to lose relationships in her pursuit of a more desirable partner is either an unlucky spinster, a sexually unsatisfied predator, or a lesbian.

Such a traditional position for women can seem milder than the corresponding one in many Muslim cultures. After all, Russia has gone through a partial sexual revolution. There is a relatively tolerant attitude to cohabitation, divorces, new relationships, and women mostly enjoy social independence.

However, since the Soviet transformations of gender roles was (only) an economic one, as opposed to most Muslim women, women in Russia are supposed to work outside their homes as much or more than their male partners. Just like Muslim women, however, they are still not seen as equals or potential leaders. Thus, the state takes a very ambiguous stance on gender roles, one that is economically modern, but socially traditional. It expects the woman do to the work and the man to hold the status.

Soviet era poster reused in modern Russia

“One child is good, two children are better!”
– At least when reproducing is a duty.

This is not an easy balance to maintain, however. When, in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many women were forced to become their families’ breadwinners, they took to socially illicit trades such a personal entrepreneurship, which was frowned on by society. Since such work would shame the household if undertaken by the father of the family, it was left to women. But economic status does influence social status in Russia, too, and many men took to drinking and apathy when their social usefulness expired. It seems that homosexual and other ‘non-traditional’ gender roles are thus seen as even more dangerous in Russia than anywhere else, since they threaten a highly valued, but already very vulnerable patriarchy.

Add to this the continuous focus of the Putin administration on reproduction as not only the right, but the ‘duty’ of every citizen. As with many other social policies, it is a legacy of the Soviet past. Unlike much of the West that revisited their biopolicies after the Second World War, the USSR and its dependencies if anything intensified them to make up for the demographical catastrophe that had befallen them during the war years. Since Russia still suffers from a grave demographic illness – it only just recovered its shrinking population despite having a higher birthrate than, for example, the United States – it is understandable that policy-makers are concerned. However, instead of alleviating the problems women are facing when they carry out their dual roles by creating decent child-care facilities and paid leave schemes, for example, the state seeks to enforce that dual role even more.

At the end of the day, it looks like the problem here is in the very nature of Russia’s regime; in the ‘illiberal autocracy’ of the post-Soviet era. The concept of free choice just does not exist for the government. The president claims that homosexuals have exactly the same rights as all other citizens. Yet, sexual minorities are not allowed to have children, which the state perceives as ‘normal’. It turns out that the legislation prevents gays from having a right that all other ‘normal’ citizens have. Besides, gays now find themselves facing flexible and highly opaque legislation: the government has the right to penalize ‘homosexual propaganda’, it does not provide a single clear definition as to what such propaganda includes. Such malleable legislation has been used by President Putin for a while: just think about the laws on international NGOs being ‘foreign agents’ infiltrating into Russian politics to pose threats to the order and stability; recall the laws on taxation which led to the seemingly endless and highly selective hunt for some (but not all) of the oligarchs; consider the multiple arrests of opposition leaders. The government uses a lot of resources and media attention on what appears to be nothing else than a nationalistic, anti-Western securitization.

To show that it truly is a guardian of traditional moral norms, the UR has extended its role to an international actor. By stretching its laws outside its own population and by preventing foreign citizens from adopting Russian children if they are individually suspected of homosexuality, if their country of residence allows for homosexual marriages, or if they are American, “Russia is creating preconditions for more responsible policies on adoption” abroad. While in a liberal international community such a stance can be considered as one of the alternative subjects to discussion, sadly, Russia leaves little place for dialogue. Current and previous attempts of international human rights actors at preventing homophobia in Russia are according to Putin’s government “aimed at the destruction of our state and the erosion of its spirituality” and amounts to an “imposition of a foreign moral framework”

It is unlikely that the attitude of the state to its gay population and to their international supporters is specific to sexual minorities. It is a broader and a deeper problem of a fundamentally illiberal government. Using imaginary threats to enhance its nationalism and its patriarchal state is an art Russia has been practicing for a while. And with traditional male roles under further pressure from economic modernization, and as the government gains more and more confidence in facing the rest of the world, things are unlikely to change any time soon

Darja Irdam

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with a particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class

The case against attacking Syria

By Ask Foldspang Neve

At the moment of this writing, American, British and French warships have already been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean in large numbers. So have a record number of Russian vessels, monitoring the situation and giving the Russian leadership the widest range of options to act.

Last Monday, when US Secretary of State John Kerry gave his casus belli speech, which was later reinforced by the vice-president, and then the President himself, it was apparently preceded by the activation of his diplomatic phone tree. Suddenly, the leaders of all of the most interventionist Western states suddenly put a strike on Syria on their respective agendas. While it is not noteworthy in itself that the European states that live under American military protection are also keen to follow the American lead, it was surprising how the rather heterogeneous group of leaders all made almost synchronic and similarly worded statements to their public audiences.

None of these leaders thought that there was much reason to deliberate the newly inspired policy. Most must have hoped that the grizzly televised images of hapless Syrians killed by chemical weapons were enough of an argument. However, Kerry’s speech obviously not only covered what everybody believes: that using chemical weapons is a crime and a moral offense. It also accused the Syrian leader Bashar Assad of ordering the act, stating that the troubled dictator had incriminated himself by not allowing the UN inspector team onto the site  of crime until four days had passed and important evidence of the crime allegedly had been destroyed  afterwards.

Nato attacks on Libya. Source: Human Rights Watch

There is no right way to kill the innocent. Scene from Libya after a NATO airstrike, 2011 (Source: Human Rights Watch).

Apart from the fact that such evidence cannot easily be destroyed and will last for years, this is all well and good. However, following the same logic, it is hard not to argue that it is equally incriminating that the American policy right now is to defy the stated UN wish to carry out the inspections to the end. In other words, it cannot be true that Assad is deemed guilty because he delays the access of the inspectors, and that we are then not willing to wait the few days it would take the same inspectors to carry out their investigation. If the military option is really based on punishing whoever is guilty of using chemical weapons, surely it must be important to know who that was? And surely, if such proof really existed in any shape apart from that prior to the attack on Iraq, it would have been presented to the public to galvanize us into demand for action?

As of the time of publication, we simply do not know who committed these crimes. Just declaring that the culprit is the leader we like the least, and who is an ally of a prime geopolitical challenger, does not count for evidence; on the contrary, coming to that conclusion should lead to suspicion of any such evidence. Interventionists must carry the burden of proof; the default cannot be that missiles are fired or troops are deployed.

Moreover, the British concern for consulting the Security Council is an obvious sham. Since the war in Syria has important proxy aspects to it,  the Russians would never allow a military intervention against the Syrian regime, much less so before actual evidence of Assad’s guilt has been presented. After what Russia’s policy establishment consider a blunder on Libya, this defensive stance is only further legitimized internally. The hasty British Security Council consultation, which would have been technically much more appropriate after the verdict of the UN experts team had been made public, was thus a diplomatic gambit aimed at securing two things: Showing to the British public that Brits care about international law; and at the same time, that the United Nations is a failing institution incapable of solving real problems due to averse Russian and Chinese reactions.

There are, at least, two lessons we could have learned from the war we started in Iraq. Firstly, that having good reasons to believe that a dictator stockpiles or uses chemical weapons is not a good enough reason to actually go to war. Intelligence reports might be wrong from the beginning, or they might be used in biased or even knowingly wrongful manners by the leaders receiving it. The latter, of course, was what neoconservative politicians and thinkers did as a prelude to invading Iraq. So far, no clear evidence of Assad’s guilt worthy of public scrutiny has been displayed to the public. That should be a bare minimum before war is declared.

For all we know at the moment, the atrocities could have been committed by a rogue general, by one of the many jihadist rebel groups who do not refrain from beheading Syrian Christians and using child soldiers, or by a faction of the increasingly embattled and desperate Syrian National Council trying to force the West to intervene on its behalf. What we do know is that Assad would have very little incentive to use the chemical weapons now that he looks like he could be winning the conflict by traditional means. Given that president Obama bound himself politically to respond if chemical weapons were in fact employed, it must have seemed pretty obvious to the politically savvy Syrian strongman that the Americans would feel a need to respond to any such action.

Secondly, there is very little that we can hope to achieve by military intervention, even assuming that we knew Assad to be the perpetrator. As the New Yorker’s George Packer appropriately put it, we all ‘want to pound the shit out of him’ (if not for the chemical attacks, then for his blatant disregard for human lives in general), but at the same time, ‘firing cruise missiles at Damascus’ prevents nothing about the tragedy going on in Syria. As we should have realized about dictators by now, they have a sword hanging over their heads. This is also why they cannot step down; their very rule is also the only guarantee of their continued safety, and that of their families. So as Packer puts it, Assad is ‘a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.’

What we do know from interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that military action short of permanent conquest and possible colonization (which can work if our desire is to create liberal institutions) is rather futile. Those, of course, would require us to compromise with our morals on an unprecedented scale, to mobilize a war effort much greater than those mobilized for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for us to stay in the subdued country indefinitely, none of which seem appealing to Western voters or leaders. With such concepts out of vogue, euphemisms abound. The ‘military intervention’ is a favorite. Changing the term we use for a phenomenon does not change the phenomenon underneath, however: a war is still a war, and all war is terrible.  Like in Libya, the scenario most similar to the present, the wrong people always get killed. Western missiles hitting Damascus, like those hitting Tripoli, will inevitably slay innocent Syrians, and if their deaths do not even have a realistic chance of changing the situation in Syria for the better or affecting the future calculations of cornered autocrats, then their blood will be on our hands.

Ask Foldspang Neve

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on politics and religion from sociological and political science perspectives.

After the Snowden leaks: Why Europe needs a true federation

Even though the Economist was right when it recently called for Europeans not to throw the first stone in the diplomatic row over American spying on them, the argument behind this comment – that America still protects Europe, so Europeans should stay quiet – was wrong.

The problem with American spying is not just the use of clandestine methods; it’s the fact that European states on their own are too weak to do anything about it, and too unwilling to cooperate to change that fact. Instead of accepting their lot as tributaries, the inhabitants of the old world should start making American protection unnecessary.

There are different opinions on the benevolence of the American hegemon that has been part of giving Western Europe peace for the last 68 years. While some see it as a capitalist empire, no better than the British one whose dual role in world-policing and self-enrichment it overtook, others see the American umbrella as the only entity capable of saving Europe from itself and its Eastern neighbors. No matter the relative verisimilitudes of these claims, one thing is for sure: contrary to what Europeans continue to believe, the American government is not there to keep Europe and Europeans safe, and neither should it be.

Of course that would surprise only few Americans, but many Europeans seem to have grown so used to living in client kingdoms that they have de facto assumed American neighborliness to suggest that the American government is also theirs. The due attention that American elections get is a powerful symbol of this: it sometimes seems that Europeans forget that they are not eligible to vote in American elections.

Having long left their own great power status behind, even the intermediate European powers have been content with only weighing forcefully in against much poorer or outnumbered opponents. The principled stance that the French and British governments took when facing the Libyan crisis is hard to find when the matter is Russia intimidating its neighbors. Such bigger matters are safely left to the Americans to handle. If that means being subject to the unbounded desires of the American security apparatus, so be it.

The most docile European states are those that need a narrative of their intimacy with the United States as a plausible threat against the cooperation with their European neighbors. Northern European countries with the United Kingdom and Scandinavia in front have long played this game.

As of lately, Central and Eastern European countries with Poland in front have joined that camp as well. They are not swayed by Western European promises to keep them safe from Russian aggression, and they, too, see the benefit of making credible the threat of disengagement as a lever to get a better deal in the EU budget negotiations.

 Poland, of course, has especially bitter experiences with depositing her national security in the hands of others and has, at the same time, been especially keen to play the role of a major European Union player, on par with Spain and Italy or even with France and Germany (Poland fought a long battle over the Common Agricultural Policy as part of its accession agreement). All this is understandable given the short-term interests of European nation-states. It has little to do with serving European interests, however.

 After Edward Snowden made facts of assumptions on the American policy of intelligence gathering in Europe, however, Europeans should be reminded that America ultimately sees itself as alone in the world. That is probably why Charles de Gaulle’s old dictum that ‘France has no friends, only interests’ is often – ironically – attributed to Henry Kissinger speaking of the United States.

Nonetheless, it is true: with Germany apparently classified as an intelligence object in the same rank as China and Iran, Europeans should be reminded that there it bears a cost not to be able to protect one’s sovereignty. If this was not abundantly clear from the negotiations with an increasingly self-assured and hostile Russia, there should be no doubt left when a supposedly progressive American president is behind a program much more comprehensive than anything Putin would have been capable of on Brussels soil.

 This lack of a European entity that is able to stand up for its own interests is largely attributable to the internal politics of EU member states. While all inter-state bargaining is difficult, the last decade and a half of progress for the national-conservative movements of Europe has made it even more difficult. By now, all Northern European countries have far-right Eurosceptic parties that must be taken into consideration by the major parties of the political center when they express their stance on European matters.

Bizarrely enough, even though majorities of the European population support the real cornerstones of European cooperation, such as the free movement of labor, centrist politicians seem to keep believing that keeping your mouth shut until the topic goes away is the best way to counter criticism of the European project.

The American and European Union Flags - copyright: forbes.com

The twin flags of the Western Alliance

For a long time, this might have been true, at least electorally speaking: criticism of the European Community came from both left and right, and no matter where centrists moved, it was like walking in a minefield. However, in the same period of time that criticism from the right has blossomed, much of the isolationism on the left has died out.

This is probably not least attributable to a change of strategy: instead of merely seeing the European project as a neoliberal plot to overthrow national welfare schemes, progressives started working through the European institutions to work for their own results on a grander scale than what could be achieved in member state parliaments. They have slowly started to realize that instead of promoting ever more protectionist policies doomed to ultimate failure (if capable of giving small amounts of instant gratification from voters), the European Union is a polity that as well as any other can be used to promote key agendas of the left.

Not so on the far right. As yet, the national-conservative movement still seems to feel that it has the momentum among voters and party members to simply increase its criticism of the supposedly antinational scheme that is the EU. In this way, mainstream conservative parties have taken over paroles once only heard on the political fringe; nowhere is this more obvious than in Britain, of course, where conservative backbenchers continuously threaten Prime Minister David Cameron with causing his downfall if he doesn’t ‘stand up to Brussels’.

Although these junior conservatives cannot threaten mainstream party members with primary election challenges – a favorite tactic of American Tea Partiers – their pressure has been enough to make Mr. Cameron lead Britain even further away from the Continent (which is, in practice, almost synonymous with ‘France’). However, mainstream conservatives everywhere from France to Sweden have started to appropriate some of the policy of the far right in an attempt to cover their flanks. In some cases minorities in the conservative parties now propose anti-federalism not only as a pragmatic measure to ward off the far right, but as a core project to supplant the many false starts that their parties have had lately (and who now remembers much of the Big Society?).

However, Northern-European national-conservatives still seem to be in such a state of euphoria over having found a cause for struggle which is not just anti-statist that they have left even the most obvious implicit questions about the potential outcomes of their policies unanswered. Primary among these is the question of what status European states have in the world.

As was also recently noted in the Economist, America’s share of the world economy might be shrinking, but Europe’s economy is shrinking in absolute terms. With it goes most of its already rather diminutive political clout. And with clout goes security and self-determination. Eastern European states have long been bullied by their old imperial master to the East. Estonia was the victim of the most comprehensive cyber-attack on a sovereign state in 2007. And before that, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder left many shocked when he took up the position as the chairman of Nord Stream AG, the consortium set up to build a pipeline leading gas directly from Russia to Germany, creating a feeling that the former German Chancellor might not keep his loyalties straight. Schröder’s was nominated to the position by the national Russian gas giant Gazprom, which he himself had insured against financial risk a few weeks earlier while still in office.

Hence, far from being a hypocritical outcry about the purported villainies of the United States, a strong reaction from the European populations to the American spying scheme would be a healthy one. But it should be directed where it hits home: at national parliaments. Much good would come out of the security crisis if it became part of the European population finally forcing their state parliaments to give up federal issues to Union politicians, who then would have to be elected in Union-wide elections. Contrary to what nationalist politicians repeat over and over, there is nothing that European institutions would like better than to be ruled by elected officials who would then have the mandate to wage Union-wide politics on appropriate matters. But they have to be given that mandate first, and only national governments and parliaments are able to give it to them.

An outcry over the spying scheme is appropriate, not because the American government is doing anything that is more despicable than what European states are doing themselves. (This dictum could be repeated with regards to foreign colonial wars as well, about which Europeans still forget that not only the United States knows how to defend its imperial interests.) But in European societies, such activities should at least be committed by somebody who can be held accountable to the European population. As fond as Europeans might be of him, Barack Obama is not.

This cannot become reality, however, as long as Europeans keep insisting on living in a continent of micro-kingdoms, which will ultimately be met with the same fact of life that the ancient Melians did, neighboring both Sparta and Athens: “That justice in human reasoning only gets considered in a relationship based on equality, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on politics and religion from sociological and political science perspectives.Ask Foldspang Neve

Islamists, neo-liberals or authoritarians: Who are the elusive AKP?

By Darja Irdam

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on the cover of the Time magazine in 2011, the Western audience had been hearing about him for a while. What attracted most attention was his successful economic policies, his quest to reduce smoking and testosterone-fuelled fight with Shimon Peres over the Israeli-Palestinian question. He also was more successful than any of his predecessors in moving Turkey towards EU membership, even though that does not say much; this was not least by rebutting European fears of Turkish membership equaling hordes of impoverished Anatolian peasants suddenly being inside the Schengen border. But until the end of May, the West cared very little about Mr. Erdoğan’s behavior at home. The last month of popular protests and Mr. Erdoğan’s handling of them changed that. But what do we know about the prime minister and his mysterious party – the AKP?

Erdogan and Peres. Copyright:  AP photo/Keystone/Alessandro Della Bella

Erdogan and Peres – uneasy allies.

The AKP was formed by Mr. Erdoğan in 2001, after he was released from prison where he served a sentence for “anti-constitutional activities” carried out as a member of the  radical Islamist Refah, or Welfare, Party, itself a successor to several banned Islamic parties. As in other persecuted political movements, jail time gave Mr. Erdoğan some of the political credibility he needed with the most conservative political actors before leading them towards the more moderated policies necessary to align with centrist voters. The centre-right party he created immediately enjoyed remarkable succes. Already by 2002, the AKP won a majority of the vote, and formed its first government. Since then, the AKP has won every national election.

One of the keys to the AKP’s success is that from the very beginning it managed to pool influential people from a number of parties with different political orientations. Since politics in Turkey is incredibly focused on individuals even by the standards of contemporary professional politics, this was instrumental in addressing all of the different segments of the electorate that have since voted for the AKP. This segmentation again leads to a surprisingly mixed set of policies in different spheres:

In foreign policy, the AKP follows a pro-Western and a pro-EU course. At the same time they have been successful in maintaining a strong pro-Middle East agenda. The AKP tries to claim a very special role among its Muslim neighbors. Playing of conservative Muslim family values, the AKP tries to position Turkey not as a father of the Middle East, but rather as a favorite elder son: the guardian of tradition who bows down to religious leaders, but also secures the family interests in the world. The aim is to use Turkey’s good relationship with the West, to be the only guarantor of Muslim interests and diplomatic advocacy in the EU and the US.

Thus, the AKP pays great attention to regional cooperation and especially supports the poorer Middle Eastern and central Asian countries. To consolidate its success, the AKP has been trying to ensure the dissemination of its basic philosophy abroad. Thus, the AKP has been active in promoting Islamic religious knowledge and an “Islamic way of thinking” both regionally and globally, mostly targeting countries with major Turkish migrant populations. This has been important especially in securing the support of the most obvious segment of the AKP electorate, rural working-class voters, who like their counterparts in the West are generally conservatively minded. Being a major emigrant nation, targeting a foreign audience also makes sense: family networks are strong, and if émigrés come to see the AKP as a defender of their interests abroad, chances are that their families will reward the party at the polls.

The economic policy of the AKP is especially impressive when compared to the non-existent economic policies of the main opposition parties, the Kemalist CHP and the nationalist MHP. As opposed to the those two, the AKP has a modern and pragmatic approach to economic policy.

Whereas the opposition parties make grandiose, but empty claims like “We want to make Turkey competitive on the global market” (as the MHP likes to say), the AKP gets into the nitty-gritty of infrastructure, trade, research and investment. When, at times, it seems like the opposition have very little interest in how to actually improve the economy, the AKP provides tangible and often detailed solutions. The AKP seems to be the only comprehensive pro-business party among the heavy-weights of Turkish politics. This explains the second most important part of the AKP’s electorate – urban and rural entrepreneurs and leading Anatolian businesses.

A veiled elite - the first families of Turkey

The veiled first families of Turkey exemplifying decorum.

This alliance of business and conservative voters also generates paradoxes. For example, the AKP often talks about promoting female entrepreneurship, while at the same time, the official party website groups women-related issues with its policies for the disabled. Some years ago, the AKP was promoting fertility among the population of 70 million, by advising every family in the AKP electorate to have at least three children. As if this was not enough, last year the AKP officially declared that three kids is no longer sufficient, and instead every family should have five. Needless to say, same-sex families are completely out of the question in the family policies of the party. This is a clear indicator of how the party perceives the role of women in a country where there is almost no public financial support for children, only very restrictive maternal leave policies and women are still legally discriminated against in divorce legislation.

While no surprise to the Turkish reader, it might come as a novelty to the international audience that the AKP has been leading an ambiguous discourse on the role of religion in public affairs. On the one hand, they deny any claims of “Islamism” and AKP officials try hard to maintain their ‘mildly religious’, democratic image. On the other hand, the same officials often exalt the virtues of religion for AKP policy-making. Mr. Erdoğan himself argues that a compromise between Islam and secularism is unthinkable: according to the Prime Minister, those two forces create opposing magnetic fields and hence, cannot coexist. In a tribute to the most conservative voters, Mr. Erdoğan also publicly announced that authority does not rest with the people of Turkey; instead, state power “without doubt or exceptions belongs to God”. When it comes to humanism and his approach to his own electorate, Mr. Erdoğan describes his ideology in another powerful (if slightly cryptic) statement: “he loves the creations for them being created by the Creator”. If there has been any doubt in the West, the half of Turkish population who does not vote for the AKP is not in doubt that the AKP is determined to bring religion back, with a vengeance.

In other words, there seems to be no way around the fact that Islamic social conservatism is the very raison d’être of the AKP. Where the party is really different from its banned ancestors is in its professionalism and political pragmatism. Practically all of the ruling members of the AKP are married to veiled women and their daughters also wear the veil. In the Turkish context, this serves as a clear indicator of religious traditionalism, a symbol that is easily decipherable by any Turk. The ideological influence of the religious philosopher Fetullah Gülen on the AKP elite works the same way. Mr. Gülen, an exile in the US, is often perceived as a progressive Muslim thinker in the West, but like Mr. Erdoğan, seen very differently by Turks. The philosophical teachings of Mr. Gülen emphasize the danger of committing any of the cardinal sins, which include leaving prayers uncompleted, consuming alcohol, claiming the equality of men and women, gambling and women not covering their hair with a veil. ‘The other half’ of Turkish women, at least, are not in doubt: should Messrs. Gülen and Erdoğan continue their political winning streak, Turkey will soon no longer be a free country for them.

That seems to be a likely outcome, however, taking into account the party’s ambitiousness and professionalism, its ability to address surprisingly conflicting segments of the electorate, its international promotion of religious paradigms through education and its strong reliance on rather conservative schools of Islamic thought. The AKP was an instant success, a real people’s party led by a charismatic leader and a supporter of the public moral. The question that remains is whether the AKP is democratic enough to continue thriving in the 21st century, especially now that Turkish protesters see their anger met with sympathy in the international community? The next few years will show.

Darja Irdam is Darja Irdamcurrently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also  worked and studied for several years in Istanbul and Izmir.


Lessons to learn from #OccupyGezi

By Darja Irdam

The protests that have been taking place in Turkey for a week have received extensive international attention, and even some support from representatives of different ends of the Turkish political spectrum. Moreover, no matter how hard he tries to ignore them, the protests now got the attention of Turkish Prime Minister and AKP party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It seems that a minor protest rooted in environmental concerns have by now reached deep into the political wounds of the country. Could this be a turning point for the hitherto invulnerable AKP? At least, it has seemed like this battle had been coming for a long time; and the question, of course, is whether anything will really change.

However, no matter how things end up, one of the most important lessons learned is that of #OccupyGezi’s media victory. As it turns out, a hash-tag operation really can get a lot of attention even when the mainstream media outlets find it in their best interest to pretend that nothing happened. As in many other such protests, however, it is quite clear that most of the attention gained from such operations is from like-minded individuals in other countries. To what extent the protests are going to engage anyone else than secular intellectuals is another matter.

"Protests In Turkey Turn Violent" - unknown source.

While the attention that #OccupyGezi receives in the social media is enormous, previous experiments with democracy in cyber space remind us that it is debatable whether this will lead to tangible results on the ground. Nevertheless, such cyber spaces seem to create a demand for information on their own, stimulating a production of news coverage in different kinds of media all over the world. Whatever medium the protesters manage to occupy, it does seem to encourage Western observers to rethink their position on the AKP.

For years, Turkey’s ruling party has been perceived as a “mildly Islamicist party” (as the Economist-coined moniker goes). The PM, whose long-term agenda has been to establish Turkey in a firm position as a guarantor of both peace and tradition in the Middle East while claiming a place in Europe, has been surprisingly successful in creating a rather positive image of the AKP in the West.

However, soaking peaceful activists in tear gas can hardly be referred to as democratic in the liberal tradition (although, to be fair, it is really not unknown in any Western country either). For many Turks however, and members of the secular middle class in particular, the PM really crossed the line when he declared that his parliamentary majority allowed him to do whatever he wanted, no matter the amount of protests it created. While technically true, it is a dangerous course to run in country with a long and ongoing history of repressive majorities facing stiff resistance from a host of minorities.

Although it is, of course, important that the international community finally sees the darker side of Erdoğan’s government, it is even more crucial that Turkey’s own citizens are finally beginning to stare into the abyss. But what is going to change? The sad answer is probably: not much.

Man in teargas attack, unknown source

Erdoğan has already declared that he is sure of the support of his voters and his ability to mobilize even more of it, which even in sheer numbers will outweigh the boiling and furious minorities. He can say this, because the AKP received 49.8 % of the Turkish vote in the 2011 national elections, translating into 327 of 550 seats in parliament. This is one reason that the situation in Turkey is little like that in various Arab countries: Erdoğan’s popular government is rather akin to those run by the Muslim Brotherhoods than that of the governments the brothers toppled.

So this is exactly where the main problem lies: whereas a window of opportunity is now wide open, the opposition does not have much to offer to the furious people. To see why, simply ask which party in Turkey is the most professional? Which party manages to keep the political and personal scandals of their members under strict control? Which party has a clear political agenda and a clear action plan to implement that agenda? Correct, it is the AKP.

An insufficient, indecisive, unprofessional and vague opposition, which is even deeply fragmented among itself in terms of ethnicity, religion and class, simply will not be able to offer people anything more attractive than what the AKP has for them. Of course Erdoğan has finally been shown that not everything the AKP does will be supported by his growing electorate or given a blind-eye or will only be protested quietly by his current detractors.

But did he not already know that? Turkey has long ago crossed the point where simply demonstrating your discontent to the government is helpful. The government has the support of the absolute majority. The time has come to act and to act differently, cleanly and sharply. The opposition parties must get together. As they are catering to very different parts of the electorate, this need not result in electoral cannibalism. By now, only a united opposition will be able to break through the AKP’s parliamentary majority. This, the opposition can learn from the AKP.

One of the more popular twitter logos employed by protestors - source unknown.

Another lesson that we can learn from #OccupyGezi is that finally, the sense of dissatisfaction has grown enough to push people who would stay away from the dirt and blood of politics back into the streets. For a long time, most people, and especially educated professionals, preferred to withdraw as the feeling of helplessness grew in the face of the unstoppable power of the AKP. Now they are in action again, which gives hope that the new Turkish opposition, uniting different political, religious and cultural views, can find common grounds to act for a more inclusive and liberal Turkey.

The best place to start would be to keep strong and united by not turning a beautiful political struggle into petty acts of vandalism and anarchy as it happened in London and in so many other places recently. Though playing clean is difficult when you are being targeted by teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets, only an angry, but non-violent game will deny the government and its supporters the chance to label the protestors as hooligans.

The thin line between exposing the truth about the AKP and turning the protests into empty aggression must not be crossed now. Instead of leading the people forward in their revolt against the totalitarianism of the Islamic rule, it will only give the AKP the opportunity it needs to introduce an even more reactionary policy.

Darja Irdam

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also holds an MA in sociology from Koç University in Istanbul, where she worked and studied for several years.

The math behind the Holy Spirit

By Ask Foldspang Neve

[note: this essay was published just a few hours before the election was over at a few minutes past 6 GMT; as it turns out, Conclaves really are unpredictable].

Papal elections are not like any other ballot out there. Indeed, looked at with modern eyes, it is difficult to tell whether it is best compared with the election of a president or a vote held in Congress. It is steeped in a deeper mystery than even the American Electoral College, although the Catholic college has no Floridian Cardinals who show up two weeks after the ascension of a new Pontiff and pretend that producing their own little puff of white smoke matters. Compared to the US Senate of the 113th Congress, the electorate is also even more male (100% compared to the Senate’s 80%) and aged (median age is 72, compared to the Senate’s 62) though the College of Cardinals is the more ethnically diverse (65% white, compared to the Senate’s 93%) of the two. In theory, what makes the election of the Pope truly unique, though, is the fact that it is not meant to be an election at all. Rather than ‘deciding’ on the new Pope, the two-thirds majority needed to appoint Benedict’s successor is really thought to be only a means of communication of the Holy Spirit that has descended on the crowd. In practice, however, there is another feature of the papal elections that make them special: due to the math behind the Dove’s descent, it is almost impossible to make any accurate estimates of who will end up with its divine favor.

Moreover, we will quite possibly have to wait a while to find out. At any rate, much longer than almost any other election, and that with an electorate that is just about one-millionth the size of the electorate that reappointed Barack Obama for the US presidency a few months earlier. But just how long could it take for 115 well-educated, elderly men to find a leader among them? Well, it can take weeks, and the reason for that lies in the special election system that depends on a two-thirds supermajority. Welcome to an institution that makes even a filibustered election in the US Senate look like a painless decision-making process.

Popes come and popes go, but the Holy See is forever. After Benedict XVI abdicated on the last day of February, the College of Cardinals has gathered in the Sistine Chapel, where they will remain from yesterday until they have chosen the new head of the single largest religious community in the world. Since the election is resolved by a two thirds majority, it has often taken many days, sometimes even months, to find a winner. In return, the voters have them found the absolute ruler of the Church, who is in principle capable of speaking infallibly on matters of Catholic dogma. As such decisions might affect all 1.2 billion Catholics, it is obviously an appointment of some importance (some prominent Catholics, though, beg to differ with the last statement).

Titian - The Descent of the Holy Ghost (c. 1545), Venice.

Titian – The Descent of the Holy Ghost (c. 1545), Venice.

It has not always been a given that the pope should be at the center of the church. Just as Europeans today discuss which political matters ought to be decided in Brussels and which ones are properly resolved in the capitals of the member states, the clerical-political elite of medieval Europe assiduously discussed how authority should be divided between episcopacies, the monasteries, the abbacies, the synods and the Pope. Conduct the simple experiment of exchanging the list of Catholic authorities with names such as Parliament, Supreme Court, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and you will see the resemblance. And like the discussions in contemporary Europe, clerics and other authorities were not only disagreeing about who had political competence; they also disagreed about the Kompetenz-Kompetenz to solve those issues. The situation of today is, in other words, only just as complicated as it has always been.

The wisdom of these somewhat arcane procedures is more difficult to apprehend unless one knows a little about the causes for their introduction. Over the course of history, the church faced a series of challenges designing a fitting electoral procedure. Different methods were introduced, often with little or no prior knowledge of the consequences of selecting one technique instead of another. Today, the social sciences have developed a number of tools to analyze votes and electoral behavior, and employing these, we can explain why Benedict’s successor has to be found so laboriously. We might even learn from history about the different troubles facing the elected institutions of both Europe and the US today[1].

One of the primary trade-offs when implementing an electoral system is between stability and speed of decision-making. In a qualified majority system like the Catholic, stability has been emphasized over speed. However, this needs qualification: stability here means the lack of a credible alternative after the election, a very real concern in many polities. It does not mean predictability, of which there is very little in the papal elections. The reason for this is the very difficulty of obtaining a two-thirds majority. As voters progressively realize that their preferred candidate, though maybe strong, will be unelectable, they begin speculating about more unusual alternatives whose election will not be an outright defeat in the same way as the election of another major player might. Moreover, as the electorate is (most often) identical with the pool of candidates, it is possible to strategically put divisive candidates in play. Even given that they might not win in the first couple of rounds after they have entered the ballot, their presence might make other voters change their allegiance, as more electors realize that their de facto set of options has expanded. However, contrary to plurality voting, divisive candidates have a psychological effect rather than a purely mathematical one: since a candidate needs a two-thirds majority no matter the number of Ralph Naders in play, the effect is more to show the futility of supporting the original candidate.

This has quite often led to the election of popes who never looked like winners beforehand. John Paul II was such a dark horse. The last pope to abdicate before Benedict, Celestine V, is another good example. He was elected after an 822 days-long election. Before he was elected pope, he was a local hermit, with little official interest in church politics. As pope, he promptly reintroduced the harsher rules for papal elections of Gregory X and then stepped down. In total, Celestine wore the pallium for only five months and eight days, that is, less than a fifth of the period that it had taken to elect him. This means that despite what bookmakers say, we know very little about who will become the next bishop of Rome. This is not even due to the famed secrecy of the Conclave and its members, the Cardinals. As the unpredictability arises from the institution itself, even the Cardinals don’t know for sure.

The majority rule employed in the college until 1179 for determining papal successions gave rise to its own, internal problems that in turn left the institution open to outside interference. A special problem arises when there are more than two candidates (and more than two voters) in an election using simple majority rule. Often known as the Condorcet paradox of voting, named after the French enlightenment philosopher and mathematician Jean Marie de Condorcet who first pointed to its existence, the problem consists in the voting system being able to produce non-conclusive results; that is, not producing a unique winner. If we have an electorate of three voters, {1, 2, 3}, and a set of three candidates, {A, B, C}, the following ranking of preferences can appear:


Voter 1

Voter 2

Voter 3

1st priority




2nd priority




3rd priority




From the above table can be seen that with the given preferences, no candidate would stand a pairwise comparison with any other candidate in terms of satisfying voters’ preferences. Thus, if A is chosen as the winner, both voters 2 and 3 will prefer C to A as the winner. If C is then chosen, both voters 1 and 2 will prefer B to C. It goes the same way for B. In more formal terms, it can be said that simple majority rule is like to produce the following electoral cycle:

A > B > C > A > (…), where > denotes an electoral majority.

Normally it is assumed that the individual voter has transitive preferences, that is, if a voter prefers A to B and B to C, she also prefers A to C. The general problem, then, is that even when individual voters (or coherent coalitions of voters) have transitive preferences, it might not be possible to achieve social transitivity. The problem exists when voters act sincerely (as contrasted to tactically) and extends to most of the policy space, that is, for most combinations of voters and preferences, unless voters have essentially equal preferences. Furthermore, only very slight changes from the set of stable preference orderings reintroduce intransitivity to most layers of the field (that is, even to ordering among the top preferences of most voters). In other words, a simple majority system is extremely unlikely to create a system of complete transitivity.

The problems incurred by this paradox are multiple. It points to the fact that most electoral results formed by a majority will, paradoxically, be less satisfactory to a majority than some other option. This can lead to different problematic situations. The first is impossibility in reaching conclusions. If different choices cannot be ranked socially using the election method in question, the electorate cannot easily come to a conclusion. Even if they do, there is a great likelihood that the route to that decision is created through agenda- setter manipulation. The second is the risk that a party in the election will not respect the result altogether, which will lead to competing results or the breakdown of the electoral institution.

This is possible in a surprisingly simple mechanism. When individual preferences are aligned as depicted above, (i.e. prone to producing cycles under majority rule) an individual who can control the pairing of votes can lead the electorate to any position in the policy space of his choosing. In the figure below, the preference set {A, B, C} from before has been continued, with three voters each preferring their marked positions; S is the starting consensus. Now, in a finite number of steps {S, Z…Z’’’}, the agenda-setter is able to move the consensus over the marked positions. The farther away from S, the wider each voter’s indifference circle will become and the bigger steps the agenda setter can take. In the figure below, A and B prefer Z to S. However, then B and C will prefer Z’ to Z. That position, however, is less preferred to C and A than Z’’; finally, A and B prefer Z’’’, the agenda-setters preferred position, to Z’’:

Agenda Manipulation

Agenda manipulation under simple majority rule.

But in the 1100s, the times they were a-changin’. The church was coagulating into a self-owning entity. Hence, its interest in not being shaken by schisms and bloodshed became organizational, and as such became more likely to trump dynastic impulses to disregard church safety. Although contestants for power internally, the newly established College of Cardinals and the Pope had a concurrent interest in keeping the organization a unified whole. Even though the Cardinals were still mostly drawn from the high aristocracy, they increasingly prioritized office interests above dynastic goals upon their ascension, sometimes to the expressed displeasure of their kin. Just as the members of the European Commission are given powerful incentives not to act as representatives of their native countries, the preferences of the cardinals also increasingly came to be shaped by the structure of the church. This in turn strengthened the position of the church, which again made it more attractive to obtain official positions within it and keep these offices as independent as possible.

Until 1163 it was still the prerogative of Roman ecclesiastics to elect the Pope; hereafter arose the custom of including individual external members as well. Not surprisingly, the first external member was a German-speaker. His name was Conrad of Wittelsbach, the archbishop of Mainz. To some southerners, this must have been the equivalence of taking dictates from the ECB today. As the Italian cardinals in the current election still number almost a fourth of the College, it is quite obvious that some members still feel that the election of the Roman bishop should be kept an internal affair.

To ensure that everybody recognized their authoritativeness, Alexander III decided to proclaim his new election rules at the Third Lateran Council in 1179, speculated by the scholars Josep Colomer and Ian McLean to be inspired by the Venetian voting system in place at the time. No matter whether you regarded the highest authority on the rules of the church to be its general assemblies or its presidency, you would have been accommodated. It was made clear that cardinals of all three sacramental orders were entitled to cast their vote and at the same time the two-thirds rule was established. It was intended to make it less likely that the elected pope would face opponents who themselves held credible claims to the honor. However, the price paid for this was immense difficulty of reaching a conclusion. To counteract this, the Conclave (literally, ’with key’, that is, under lock) was developed by the Roman authorities. Gregory X even decided that the Cardinals had to live in increasing discomfort as the days went by with no result, so that in the end, they would be served only bread and water. This ought to make them to tune in to His frequency. More important than the temporary loss of comforts was probably the simultaneous loss of profitable tithes, which members of the conclave were not entitled to while in session. While not especially effective, instituting such a rule for today’s political classes would probably prove popular among their jaded electorates.

Ask Foldspang Neve

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on religion and politics from sociological and political science perspectives.


1] The technical properties of the papal voting systems were first analyzed in a 1998 article by Josep M. Colomer and Ian McLean in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, which this essay draws on.


How do we get Eastern Europe on the wagon?

By Darja Irdam

Eastern Europe is well known for its grim weather, grumpy service, gorgeous women, Communist past and excessive alcohol consumption. In fact, a Western mind struggles to understand how people can drink so much on so many occasions and likewise, how people can drink what they drink (because often it includes spirits literally not intended for human consumption). Excessive drinking in those parts of Europe does not only cause near-permanent damage to the image of their countries, the economic efficiency of labor and the crime rates, it also comes with the price tag of many human lives, including those of children. Naturally, alcoholism is a matter of concern for many, if not all, Eastern European governments, yet at the same time, alcohol taxes are sources of significant revenue for governments chronically struggling with deficit budgets. So what can be done to prevent people from drinking themselves to misery and is it rational for the state to do something about it?

“Only 56 per cent of adult males would
survive to the day
 (and the drinking party)
of their 65th birthday.”

To begin with, let us consider the extent of drinking and the range of alcohol-related problems. According to official statistics, excessive drinking was not so grave an issue before the collapse of the USSR. This was especially true of the Baltic States, which were famous for having the highest life-expectancy rates in the Soviets. Of course, the average Vanya would drink even in Soviet times, but somehow, they would find a way to stay alive. By the mid-90s, however, only 56 per cent of adult males would survive to the day (and the drinking party) of their 65th birthday. One of the main causes of this sharp decline in life expectancy was drinking and the consequent alcohol-related problems.

The period of rapid transition in which the new countries of the former Soviet Union went from central planning to a market economy was characterized by the coming of one economic cataclysm after another. The policy of mass privatization accompanying acute transition caused a skyrocketing level of unemployment, and together with delayed or withheld wages, it resulted in a dramatic impoverishment of the broad population. Even the people who held on to wage-paying jobs and were not paid in kind witnessed their purchasing-power being hollowed out in a matter of months. Millions of people responded desperately by drinking. Alcoholism became most prevalent among middle-aged men, the demographic who found themselves in the most hopeless economic situation. The effect on public health did not take long to appear. Along with an increased incidence of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory system diseases, the level of suicides directly related to alcohol consumption grew by 70 per cent. The levels of both alcohol poisoning and drunk homicides in Eastern Europe were roughly 10 times that of Sweden. When the numbers for the whole post-Soviet zone are taken into account, it turns out that about 70 per cent of men and at least 50 per cent of all women would have been considered heavy drinkers by Western standards. According to the UN, the habit of drinking away the problems caused by turbulent socio-economic changes in the early 90s took a toll of 10 million human lives.

“The state should controlnot prohibit
the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries.”

Apart from the direct health impact of excessive drinking, alcohol consumption is also significantly correlated with unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary life-style. These, in turn, increase the risks of the health problems of modernity: obesity, various cardio-vascular diseases and cancers. In other words, Eastern Europeans started suffering from white-collar diseases without getting the white-collar jobs Alcohol even causes risks for the reproductive health of the population. High alcohol consumption among women might cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, leading to growth deficiencies, facial anomalies, and problematic developments of the central nervous system in children. On top of that, drinking is directly related to the increase of HIV/AIDS rates of the heterosexual population, including representatives of better-off socioeconomic groups.

So, moral considerations aside, the harm caused by alcoholism to human health is obvious. It is also difficult to argue that increases in tax revenues can compensate for the millions of lives lost in the labor force and among taxpayers. Now, what should the governments do to improve, or at least to stabilize the situation? Prohibition is out of the question; Eastern Europeans have some painful memories of that from recent history. Alcohol restrictions imposed in the USSR by Gorbachev’s government in 1985 stabilized drinking only for a short time. While people in developed countries, like Finland, can afford taking weekends off to escape the world of highly priced alcohol in Estonia where they drink themselves unconscious, people in less wealthy countries will simply switch to alcoholic substitutes. Thus, people drink aftershave (sold with fruity fragrances – raspberry and lemon – to make drinking a more pleasurable experience for gourmets) and homemade booze (which comes in ‘mild’ variants as well as versions fired up by everything ranging from guano to medicaments and photographic developer). Therefore, simply cutting off official supplies will not work.

If we try to look for more effective policy solutions proposed by the leading academic studies, it is clear that scholars emphasize the ability of the state to control, not to prohibit the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries. Some recent public health studies demonstrate that a combination of policies together form the most effective prevention of alcoholism on a population level. Those should at least include limiting the access to alcohol in space and time and an increased alcohol tax. Moreover, it is important to make all alcohol subjected to taxation, rather than simply to increase the taxes for hard liquor.

“The ability to hold your liquor
is one of the defining features of manhood,
male pride and virile glory.”

However debatable from an economic perspective, it is generally advised in the literature to introduce state monopolies on alcohol sales: spirits should only be sold by state-approved vendors, and not even at licensed sale points. Besides, it has been proven that a reduced number of hours when alcohol can be legally purchased leads to a remarkable decrease in homicides and accidents, while a higher legal age for buying alcohol significantly reduces the frequency of drunk driving.

Eastern European politicians should stop daydreaming about eventually arriving at a sober society. Heavy drinking, for all its individual impact, is primarily a social problem. Hence, it requires a state-level solution, even if there is no easy cure and might sometimes short-circuit the free market. Apart from considering the policies discussed above, it is important that governments implement programs aimed at informing the population about the harms and risks associated with drinking; advertisement restrictions might also be considered.

However, Eastern Europe is still Eastern Europe, and has a long culture of heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is considered one of the most important symbols of the machismo so cherished in those parts. The ability to hold your liquor is one of the defining features of manhood, male pride and virile glory. It is also an inevitable condition for an active social life especially among the young. Only nerds and cowards abstain; cool guys prove their virility by drinking ‘za zdorovye’. Holding such ideals, it is no wonder that drinking is so prevalent. After all, culture is one of the strongest advertisements imaginable. It is time for Eastern European politicians to realize that a healthy lifestyle should not just be the prerogative of individual hipsters and boring academics, but a task for the government to promote to the entire population.

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class.