Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cherchez la frau.


Among the criticisms of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the Euro debt crisis, the accusation of being a self-interested ego-maniac driven by childish fantasies of power is not among them. That is, at least outside a fringe of people whose understanding of Germany begins and ends with the Nazis. Merkel appears (perhaps strategically) to suffer visibly from exhaustion with the brio and bravado of her southerly neighbours. She, matronly, them, like boys tousling over a toy or playing at king of the castle.

Conversely, many criticisms of former President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, were of the short-man and tiny-prick variety. He was too ambitious, too brash, too vain, too physical, anti-intellectual, and so un-french. It makes me wonder whether it matters to the future of the Euro and the European Union that Merkel is a woman.


Politics is all about cliches, caricatures and playing to type, and so in these uniquely ridiculous circumstances it seems reasonable to suggest that Merkel's nature - if it may be said that women have a distinct nature - could plausibly include some feminine stereotypes.

Ostensibly serious people elected to represent the people of Greece, Spain and Italy do not seem above suggesting that Germany is simply trying to take over Europe again, and so to suggest that Merkel's womanhood is a factor in her approach to the crisis seems tame by comparison. To discriminate based on sexism is morally and politically bankrupt, but to ask whether the grains of truth that spawn stereotypes may be in play - it could be revelatory, if even only accidentally.

Disclaimers and kow-towing to orthodoxies aside, many men will wager some very dear stakes that a woman will prefer to lose on principle than subsist on compromise. Men are criticized for having opaque and anachronistic honour codes that cause them to bully and fight, but surprisingly most of these are evolved from chivalric or pre-medieval versions of the Code Duello that pervade cultures around the world. Anyone who has ever seen women fight knows that they are only satisfied by the death or maiming of their opponents. The sexist view is that women are irrational, but a more likely explanation is that women evaluate stakes and risk differently and perhaps more seriously - leaving us with Kipling's famous warning that the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Merkel is no she-bear, in so much as Thatcher was hysterical. Thatcher built her reputation on being uncompromising, hence her moniker of the Iron Lady. Britain ground to a halt under her confrontations with trade unions, and she calculated that she could literally starve them out and break them instead of compromising on her principles. She used police and military power in ways that only fascists had succeeded at previously. Men make a show of circling one another, fighting, thrusting and parrying, but it is a way of settling differences and establishing dominance in the context of a pack or a herd - usually they leave the other an out that allows the him to save face, and without having to die.

Few women would argue with the view that a girl would just stick a knife in and be done with it. It's not flattering, but for men a fight is a matter of dominance, where for a woman it is one of survival. Sexist cliches may not stand up to academic criticism, psychoanalysis, or social scientific studies, or the work of gender studies people who have dedicated themselves to deconstructing these myths, but they reflect variations of deeply held beliefs of people who (for better or worse) have been granted the right to vote - and hence have political consequences.

If we can accept that Merkel has a feminine nature, she will make decisions first as an individual, then as a woman, then as a German, and perhaps eventually as a European. It means that she will on some level be resisting a natural urge to treat the fatuous posturing and bold lying of her southern neighbours as the impudence of boys. She will not budge, not an inch, because her approval will come from her electorate, and not from those she cannot treat as her peers. To her they are children. Merkel is in the same trap that Margaret Thatcher fell into, which is that she is powerful so long as she appeals to principle and does not deign to compromise. But the iron will that has made her powerful is now an anchor caught in a crevasse during a political sea change.

The very meritocratic values that have supported the rise of women into leadership roles - a reverence for competence, principle and credentials - are also a trap that will snare Merkel, and Germany. The crisis will reward those who will exploit it by being bold, first-moving and unprincipled. Even though politics is a zero-sum power game, in which a hard bargaining leader can maintain power, (for a time) - power is seized through dealing and compromise. If Germany's dominance loses perceived legitimacy -  power will not be regained on merit.

Already Euro leaders have begun to isolate Germany as the "buzz kill" state, out of touch, staid, and unready for the challenges that lie ahead. Boys rebelling against a matron. Electorates in France, Italy and Greece are voting not for technocrats, but demagogues. Merkel is a fine leader in a civilized environment, but the skills required to weather this crisis are not the competence and merit that brought her to power.  Merkel is right to deny concession-free bailouts to periphery countries, but being right isn't always enough to win, and she risks martyring her government and Germany's central role to this principle.

Can a woman win? Of course, but some of her personal challenges will be unique. It has been two decades since Margaret Thatcher resigned, and in spite of her tremendous reforms that turned Britain back from the very brink the peripheral nations are facing, and that she did so by being uncompromising, what we remember most about her is that she lost.

It may be sexist to compare Merkel and Thatcher this way, being that it is only based on them being both women and heads of western powers. But, they came to power in the context of a modern civilization that has rewarded women on merit, and so they have been able to govern based in democratic principles. The Euro and global monetary crisis threatens the very civilization that enables them to rule based in principle. The crucial compromises to resolve it will be messy, opaque, showy, and must necessarily allow the peripheral nations an out that allows their populace to save face. 

Germany has elected her, Europe has conceded to her, but the populist precedents being set in periphery elections suggest they may not be ready to follow her. It is not that Merkel's demands for austerity and resistance to eurobonds will prevail or not because she is a woman, but a bias in her strategy is consistent with ingrained feminine roles, and it may require deeper personal reflection about how long she should continue to reject compromise.



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