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Entries in Switzerland (9)


They don't breed vegetarians in Switzerland

As seen in Saas Fee





Evolution prevents revolution, political edition

I was thinking today about the diminishing effect of democracy as a progressive force. Democracy is (or at least, should be) entirely a numbers game, so it is very effective in creating change when the majority are denied a right. When, however, it is a minority that is denied a right, democracy is often found lacking. When the vast majority of the population were below the poverty line it was straightforward to petition for welfare, education and social mobility. Now that we have pulled a majority over the poverty line, that same majority tends to look with contempt on those remaining underneath.

One of the most interesting examples to me is the diverging history between England and France. Prior to 1214, both countries were absolute monarchies, yet in 1214 King Philip II of France decisively crushed the armies of King John of England at the Battle of Bouvines. From that year on, the fate of the monarchies of two countries seperated. King John, weakened by defeat, was forced to slowly capitulate on the absolute rights of the monarch, signing the Magna Carta in 1215. King Philip II, by contrast, passed on the crown to his son, Louis VIII, who ruled with even more authority. For 500 years, the influence of the Magna Carta led to a slow erosion of the monarchy and a strengthening of the rights of the people, with limited elections in 1265 and a slow progression to the English Bill of Rights in 1689. The writers of the Magna Carta certainly did not want the common people to have independent rights, but the effect was to provide a release valve, where social pressure for equality could boil over and produce minor changes. In France, by contrast, the iron first of the King prevented any social change, with the French Revolution of 1789 the final result. Now, 800 years after the Battle of Bouvines, France is a modern Republic, while in the UK the monarchy has still been able to hang on, by just giving up drips of power every hundred years or so. Evolution prevents revolution.

Another interesting comparison is between South Africa and Switzerland. Switzerland was one of the cradles of equality, considered to be a functional democracy since 1848, and yet women did not achieve the right to vote until 1971 - a 123 year wait! South Africa, by contrast, was the posterchild of injustice until 1994, when Nelson Mandela won the first multiracial elections, with the jump in equality occuring simultaneously in men and women. And this is not just true on gender equality, South Africa now has a more liberal constitution with regards to sexuality than Switzerland. I would hazard a guess that among the population, Switzerland is less homophobic than South Africa, but at the constitutional level the polarity is reversed. By becoming a democracy earlier Switzerland locked in some profoundly regressive policies, while South Africa, writing its constitution in 1997, does not have these archaic notions of the 19th century engraved in stone.

Or look at democracy in the United States. While it was not the first democracy, the democratic movement in the US was one of the earliest and among the most significant. America, in principle, became a democracy in 1776, yet women only gained the vote in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964. Today among the functioning democracies, the United States has among the most unrepresentative Congress, with 5 million citizens denied the vote due to geographic location (Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the other territories), another ~5 million with voting rights removed due to criminal records. And don't get me started on the Senate, where a resident of Wyoming has a vote >65 times more powerful than a voter in California, or the two party first-past-the-post system which essentially locks out independents and third-party candidates.

The point I am trying to make is not that the US has a bad democracy (although it does), it is that when the democratic revolution occured in a country early, the revolution locked in some very undemocratic ideals. Countries that had later democratic revolutions were more able to learn from the mistakes of others, and the pressure-cooker of social inequality had longer to boil before it exploded - creating a greater leap forward.

I've given a handful of examples, but of course it is easy to come up with counter-factual examples. Does the principle hold true in general? What would you see if you plot the year that a country became a functioning democracy versus the number of years women had to wait to participate in that democracy? The graph below shows an inverse relationship - indicating that the earlier a country became a democracy, the longer on average women had to wait to gain equal voting rights. The first stirrings of democracy gave rights exclusively to rich white men, who (once they gained power) were happy to keep power exclusive to themselves. Countries that had to fight longer for democracy were more likely to grant it simultaneously to all.

Description of graph: A scatterplot of the year a country first became a democracy, versus the number of years that female suffrage was delayed. The year of first democracy was taken to be the year that the country first achieved a Polity score of 6 or above, indicating basic functioning democracy. The data of female suffrage was taken from wikipedia. All countries for which both data points were available were included. Countries are colour-coded by region - red indicates the Americas, blue Europe, orange Pacific, green Africa and purple Asia. The trendline is calculated across all countries as a linear regression, and has a r2 value of 0.803.


What are the political implications of the observation that incremental change can actually be a detriment to reaching the destination? Could the message be to insist on total equality in a single step, as partial equality may simply entrench the remaining inequality? In sexuality rights I can imagine this as a real risk. I would have preferred to see a bill before the US Congress granting full equality based on sexual and gender equality, rather than the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" alone. To me, if we could have kept same-sex marriage and gay military rights as a single cohesive issue we may have reached the destination of equality faster. Likewise the idea of "civil union" may undermine the push for marriage equality. Denmark was the first country to pass civil union rights, with the registreret partnerskab in 1989, ten years later France passed the pacte civil de solidarité, before any country in the world had legislated for same-sex marriage. Today the LGBT communities in Denmark and France are still living with second class rights, with the social conservatives using civil unions as a shield against same-sex marriage.


A Swiss culinary attempt to horrify the entire world

I was just minding my own business at a conference in the Swiss ski resort of Davos when the lunch staff hit the world with a culinary monstrosity. Walking down the lunch buffet, there were seven different non-vegetarian options. "Ah", I thought, "the token vegetarian meal will be final option". Sadly no, the final option was tofu wrapped in bacon.

Tofu wrapped in bacon? There may not be two other foods on the planet that have such mutually exclusive fans. Plenty of people love bacon, but it is safe to say that these people tend not to be tofu nuts. Likewise, a lot of people enjoy well cooked tofu, but these are not the same group who will fry up a plate of bacon for breakfast. While the other meals got gobbled up, the tray of bacon-wrapped tofu remained high, and bacon-lover and vegetarians alike shuddered with horror at the spectacle of two foods intertwined that should never have met.

On the plus side of Swiss hospitality, the pub we went to last night had a large (and lazy) St Bernard sleeping peacefully on the floor. Once or twice it heaved a long sigh, stood up, walked a couple of paces and then collapsed in exhaustion in its new location, but apart from that the St Bernard could have passed as an adorable welcome mat.


The Rhine Falls

It was a beautiful day so we caught the train from Zurich to Schaffhausen (near the German border). The old town centre of Schffhausen is beautiful but deserted, with beautiful old buildings painted with elaborate murals and painted statues of Swiss mercenaries scattered over the town. We had a slow walk down the Rhine to the Rheinfall, the largest waterfall in Europe. It is only 23m high but the width and speed of the water give it an impressive water flow. It was such a pleasure to be able to walk hand-in-hand down a wooded pathway in the Swiss mountains.

We arrived in Zurich an hour early, so we basked in the sun of a perfect day (32 degrees) in the park behind the train station, relaxing for the final moments of our long weekend in Switzerland.


May Day

Now it all makes sense. I was really surprised at how heavy the police presence was in Switzerland. Police surrounding our hotel in Basel, a squad of riot police in Zurich blocking off streets. Each time we went to the park in Zurich we saw police give youths milling around fully body searches. When we caught the train from Zurich to Schaffhausen police got on and gave Lydia's ID the most thorough testing it has ever seen, using the special readers to check all the safety features. The idea that the Swiss police were really heavy handed didn't really fit well with the image I had of Switzerland, but now in retrospect it makes sense, with large demonstrations across Switzerland. Still, using water cannon and rubber bullets on 12,000 after a few people got drunk and into a fight seems to be an over-reaction.  


In Zurich

Some cities are unloved just due to their place in the schedule. For me, Helsinki was my first touch down in Europe, and I still treasure the city. Athens might have earned accolades if I had seen it before the spectacular ruins in Syria or hadn't been explosively ill during my time there. St Petersburg has a warmer place in my heart than Moscow - is it just because one was my first taste of Russia? In any trip around Europe the number of photos a beautiful cathedral gets is inversely proportional to the amount of time you have been travelling.

In this way I think Zurich suffered slightly from my itinerary. An hour after leaving Lucerne, Zurich felt dirty, gritty and abused. The imposing police presence and innumerable drunk youths probably didn't help. After a day away to visit Liechtenstein, however, Zurich was able to show us her pretty side. In the beautiful weather the parks, buildings and river were simply gorgeous and my earlier scorn for Zurich metamorphosed into admiration.


The land of lakes

I had always pictured Switzerland as the land of mountains. High snow-capped peaks with shepherds yodelling to each other across canyons. After Lucerne I'll now think of Switzerland as the land of lakes. In retrospect it makes perfect sense for the tiny villages to be settled on the fertile edges of the glacial lakes of Switzerland - unlimited water, more mild climate and natural defences against any invaders. Lucerne is a magnificent (and achingly beautiful) example of the benefits of living on the shores of the lake. Bounded by Lake Lucerne, the Reuss River and the mountains, the only way into Lucerne was across the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge). At any sign of invaders the citizens could burn the 204 metre bridge, cutting them off from the outside. This was obviously a sufficient deterrent, as the bridge hasn't been taken down since 1333, making it the oldest wooden bridge in Europe.


Off to Switzerland

One of the fringe benefits of being a scientist is the travel (it is certainly not the hours or the pay!). I had to meet a colleague about some research, so off to Basel! My first taste of Switzerland was hotel rooms and laboratories, but friends were able to show me around the nice buildings and excellent pubs and I had a blast. The city is really quite beautiful, a nice bled of the old and the modern, and it was nice to see the grand old Rhine so close to the source, a pristine bubbling river of glacial melt full of fish, rather than the sluggish utilitarian river we know downstream.