Chancellor of the Free World

Time Person of the Year Angela Merkel

Tranlsation: fuck you, Obama.

The actual article is fair-to-dull. If you want, you can read it here. (But the New Yorker profile is better.)


It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list


There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.

How to pretend to be an intellectual


A while ago I was chatting to a bloke from the French MoD (yes, one of those) and he asked me whether I considered myself to be intelligent.
‘I’m plausible,’ I replied, smugly.
‘Good answer.’

And that’s a large part of the reason I love this Tumblr about the gestures that people use when they want to look clever so much. I’ve used every single one of these ‘Look at me being intellectual’ gestures when speaking in public. Every last one. I am a shallow, manipulative cockbag.

I suspect that their ultimate origin comes from the French “intellectuels médiatiques, for whom it is almost obligatory to flail around like a souk trader if you wish to have any credibility at all. Thanks to TEDx and various related enterprises, these gestures have become a global currency when it comes to conveying a sense of passion and belief in one’s topic. It’s all bollocks of course, some of the brainiest people are terrible speakers (Nassim Taleb, particularly, looks and acts as though he wandered into his sitting room and found it full of people expecting him to give a speech). Moreover, we are all fully aware of the fact on an intellectual level. In general, however, our hearts overrule our heads, and the I-am-an-intellectual gestures work like a charm. Otherwise no one would do them.

For politicians, of course, the opposite is true: you need to restrict your hand-gestures, or people begin to suspect that you’re trying to sell them something. Spin doctors and PR consultancies actually train them to do this, like dressage horses (but less aesthetically pleasing).

The only two that are fully condoned are, in the words of everyone who’s ever made a living adding silly captions to these things:

a) ‘Enormous bosoms’

enormous bosomsb) ‘Huge cock’

huge cock

(You were expecting Vladimir Putin sitting with his legs wide apart, weren’t you? And, while we’re on the subject: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE STOP DOING THAT.)

… Because they convey an impression of solid and earnest sincerity.

Some pols are so successful at doing nothing with their hands that it becomes a career-defining feature:

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel has actually admitted that the famous hand gesture came about just to give her something non-distracting to do with her arms while on official business.

But this doesn’t mean that paying fanatically detailed attention to every micro-gesture is the sine qua non of political success.

Boris Johnson, for example, has based his whole career on letting it all hang out:

And it works for him, because underneath it all he’s smart and ruthless enough to pull it off. If a less gifted or self-possessed politician tried it, the journalists would be on him like feeding time at the piranha pond. Boris, on the other hand, actually manages to use his own eccentricities to gain far more latitude for himself than anyone else enjoys. As various people have pointed out, a string of affairs and illegitimate children and agreeing to have people beaten up would finish anyone else’s career, but Boris can get past it with five minutes bluster and a sheepish smirk because that is what he’s good at. And, more importantly, it’s believable. He clearly doesn’t feel that shagging his way through North London is a big deal, and he’s so sure of himself that he manages to convince the audience too.

Vladimir Putin does the opposite thing, oddly enough, but to the same effect. Rather than going out of his way to look like a politician, he behaves exactly like what he is: an ex-KGB goon. And – as with Boris Johnson – the approach is more effective than the identikit borrowed-from-Tony-Blair politician’s standard issue persona would be.

Take this example (largely because the comic timing of the last line never fails to have me in stitches):

He’s not using any of the little tricks that a bog-standard grifter like me would deploy to focus attention on themselves (if anything, it looks like he’s the one who’s been summoned for a good bollocking, rather than the other way round), and because of that he’s actually more successful in doing so. We all now know that this is someone so scary that he doesn’t even have to make an effort.

Of course, if you want to try this then you need to have the force of character to back it up. Ed Miliband couldn’t decide tomorrow ‘Well, the vague OE schtick works for Boris, so from now on I’m going to do it.’ People might not necessarily pick up on the manipulative undertones of certain gestures, but they can always spot a fake personality:

The Long and the Short of It

Ukraine deal

Captions at the ready…

Height. Has to be second only to ‘who goes through the door first‘ on the list of Inane Shit That Suddenly Takes On Critical Importance In Politics.

The one thing no leader wants is to wind up stuck next to, say, General de Gaulle (6’4) and end up looking infantilised and subordinate, and a symmetrical sine wave arrangement like the one above has the benefit of reducing contrasts… In theory. In practice, I suspect, it not only makes them look like a chorus line about to break into a Moulin Rouge dance number (here, have some mind-bleach), but actually draws attention to the issue.

In this case, clearly Merkel has the advantage. Not only has fortune given her the middle spot, thus making her look like the divine peacemaker, but this is probably the only field in politics where women have the advantage. Not only can they wear high heels in public without it having any serious impact on their polls, but they’re far less affected by the whole sad, Freudian business in the first place. (Well obviously. What on earth did you think height was a stand-in for?)

Putin is 5’7 (I once had to sketch him for an online political magazine – I checked) and often has problems in this field when meeting other leaders (Xi Jinping and Obama are both noticeably taller), but he carries himself well and has the additional advantage of scaring the fuck out of everyone, so it’s minimised. Hollande for his part is, I suspect, generally given an easy ride by the French press when it comes to photo angles and compositions. I’ve run into him in real life, and remember being thoroughly shocked to realise that I am taller than he is. Apparently this had not been evident to me prior to this, so I can only assume flattering photography. He also needs to be told to stand with his shoulders back.

The real winner here has to be Poroshenko, however ( Lukashenko is nearly as tall, but looks like an ex-policeman fired for serious sexual misconduct, so Poroshenko with his JFK haircut and broad shoulders carries it). To be honest, he might as well have insisted on being in the centre of the pictures; God knows he got little enough else out of the process.

Images of the year 2014

For me the one image that summed up 2013 was Evo Morales’ awesome shit-eating grin as he demonstrated to a dude with a crappy camera-phone that he wasn’t hiding Edward Snowden on his plane.

Evo MoralesThis one image was symbolic of a new era of international relations: a more boisterous, more playful, less po-faced era, in which trolling is not just fun but a way to score points.

So what about 2014?

Well, first prize has to go to Natalia Poklonskaya.

Natalia Poklonskaya

And not just because I’m a fool in love (though I’d still go out and annex anything she asked me to annex).

The fan response to Natalia-chan sums up a new attitude towards politics which has been gaining ground over the past year or two. An episteme in which citizens are both more engaged and more detached from the business of government. While inidividuals have never been less interested in ideology, the importance of personal relationships with the centres of power has grown as clientelist systems like Russia, China and India have become more active and more self-confident*. Government is more a source of gossip, and less an object of principled ire.

And on that note, here are some more pictures.

Natalia Poklonskaya 2

Natalia Poklonskaya 3

Natalia Poklonskaya 4

Natalia Poklonskaya 4

Ok. I’m done.

Second place? Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie:

Angela Merkel Caxton Street

Merkel didn’t arrive in politics a born populist (neither, as we tend to forget, did her evil twin, Vladimir Putin), but she was a born politician, and it’s something that she’s learnt and accommodated herself to over the years – to such an impressive degree that she has become far better at it than many for whom it is a natural inclination. She always achieves the necessary verismo, and never misses her mark – the opposite of, say, Ed Miliband, who manages to make any interaction with real people so painfully awkward that even Tories start feeling bad for him. Her gestures towards the home crowd always manage to fit in with her persona while capturing the public mood, and they are all the stronger for being understated.

She’s the first European leader to sense that, as far as international dealings go, personality politics and flashy gestures are the new black. While the others shuffled around the G20 looking like bit-players, she immediately took stock of the irreverent, individualistic tone that had been set at APEC, and threw herself into the role. What’s more, she managed to hit 2013’s key theme of trolling as she did it – her informal Aussie-style meet and greet making the Russian warships moored off the coast look like a sign of insecurity rather than an demonstration of power.

Third place: the APEC red carpet.

(The atmosphere was only slightly soured when Squall Leonhart attempted to assassinate Xi Jinping.)

Because if you’ve got it, why the hell not flaunt it? We pass this way but once, and wealth and power were meant to be enjoyed. If you’re going to have an evil empire, you might as well make it look good. I am cynical and sophisticated Eurotrash, and I was impressed.

Western readers tended to chuckle indulgently (‘Ah, these Orientals…’) at the levels of enthusiasm displayed by regular citizens in China, but then chances are that most of them have never had to bribe an official or pay for women for a company CEO. Money and political clout are – for want of a better word – cool, and all the more so if having them is a matter of survival. In a way it’s less of a new development than a return to a more traditional way of thinking.

In any normal year, the red carpet video would have taken first place – it’s a sign of how fast things have changed of late that it’s languishing in third.

*Literally two minutes ago I was reading a piece about Jackie Chan openly acknowledging that he could have used his personal connections to get his son out of trouble. A year or two back, you couldn’t even have recognised that the facility existed, even to deny having availed oneself of it.

Angela Merkel will never cease to surprise me

Angela MerkelGerman chancellor Angela Merkel received a rockstar reception from rowdy Brisbane pub-goers last night when she dropped by Caxton Street before heading to her hotel.

The Courier Mail reports it was around 11pm when she arrived.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, Merkel appears to be very happy to shake hands with and greet cheering locals.

One bloke even got a selfie out of the appearance.

I’ve never been to Brisbane, but according to my Australia correspondent: “Any foreigner who runs the gauntlet of Caxton Road for a selfie fest at night has balls, just ask the NSW State of Origin footy team. That was a crazy thing for Merkel to do no matter how big your entourage, so to speak. And she’s German, so good luck with that.”

I think we can trace three explanations for this off-piste excursion:

1. “Guess who doesn’t need four warships stationed off shore just to take a walk down the fucking road?”

2. Merkel tends to be a tad sniffy about populist politics, but is – despite this – surprisingly good at it, something that most foreigners don’t realise, and which the German left has learnt the hard way over the years.

3. APEC and the G20 were a showcase for the brash new tuhao politics of the BRICS. Red carpets! Koalas! Massive 64-piece dinner sets! She knows which way the wind is blowing, and has accordingly set course due Flashy Gestures.