Last month in Switzerland, a mountain guide owned up to desecrating crosses along the mountain trails near Gruyere and was subsequently arrested.
The mountain guide declared he acted because he wanted to start a public debate about the relevance of crosses in the mountain setting. He believes the cross to be a symbol of death, power and violence and should not be in the greatest of communal spaces: the mountains. He asserted that crosses no longer possess common cultural glue and it’s time to take them down – time for a culturally neutral landscape where peoples of all beliefs can walk unhindered by images of other peoples beliefs. At one level this resonates with me. I find corporate advertising, symbols of death, power and violence offensive in public spaces and the problem for the Swiss is that the mountain guides argument is similar to that which propelled the minaret ban – freedom from other people’s sacred symbols.
Perhaps as a result of its obsession with neutrality, direct democracy, strict federalism, and its banking industry, Switzerland has an unfortunate history of forsaking ethics if the price is right. Presently it looks like a squirming Golum, easy to manipulate, difficult to like, and blinded by an obsession with the ‘precious’. Much the Swiss hold dear – privacy, hands off foreign policy, Christianity, and special bank accounts – has come under threat in the last few years. Their unique form of government has resulted in a public discourse that often flashes with prejudice and intolerance. The campaign against minarets last year was fanned by posters depicting minarets as missiles, the burqa as militaristic dress, and anyone with a grain of sensitivity found them downright offensive. It was a scandal that the minarets, not the posters, were banned. Despite outcries from people of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Islamic faiths, human rights advocates, the US State Dept, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and Colonel Gaddafi (throwing a tantrum back on his throne), the minarets were banned, leaving many Swiss liberals to scratch their heads. But historically the inconsistency of Swiss morality, its hypocrisy, has itched many heads – lest us not forget those who simultaneously hid Hitler’s money while saving Jewish lives. The minaret poster was recently sold at auction for lots of cash – the commodifaction of racism at its most crude. All too often it feels like the Swiss are up for sale.
Gaddafi and men like him have been using Switzerland as a playground for years. In summer Geneva is awash with rich people come to splash around their tax-free untraceable bank accounts under the European sun. In 2007 Hannibal Gaddafi, the second son of Gaddafi, was in Geneva doing his normal princely summer thing when the Swiss police arrested him and his wife for assaulting their domestic staff. Mug shots of Hannibal and his wife were splashed over the Tribune de Geneve. For a brief moment there was relief that the rich were not exempt from Swiss law. Then the diplomatic fallout rained down: under pressure from Bern, the charges were withdrawn, Geneva had to apologise to Hannibal, two innocent Swiss businessmen were arrested in Libya on trumped up revenge charges, all Swiss visas to Libya were cancelled, Gaddafi commenced suing the Canton of Geneva and madness ensued until the minaret ban provoked Gaddafi into declaring jihad against Switzerland. The Europeans stuck the boot in, claiming the Swiss were using the Schengen treaty only when it suited them and, to this day, an innocent Swiss man languishes in a Libyan prison while Hannibal is free to sit beside his father.
What also illuminated the Swiss hypocrisy was the arrest of Polanski. As I write this, just up the road and over the border, Polanski sits in his chalet writing trembling blogs about being a victim to international backstabbing. Whatever one thinks about Polanski needing to do the time for the crime and celebrity exemptions from the law, Polanski has been prancing around Switzerland freely for years and no-one blinked an eyelid. In my opinion, the timing of the UBS scandals in Switzerland and Obama’s subsequent lunge at the sacred secret Swiss bank account, coupled with internal politicking in the US, influenced the Swiss decision to hand Polanski over on a platter, in the hope the Americans would back off. The debates about Polanski’s crime have overshadowed the greater mess that Switzerland is in: desperately trying to maintain their tax haven status and the capacity for rich foreigners to negotiate personal tax regime with local authorities, while simultaneously placating the Europeans and Americans who, since the financial crisis, are champing at the bit to get their taxes back. Even further backstage many developing nations have been screaming for years at Switzerland to return the dirty money of their citizens.
Bringing it back to home turf, my lovely Fox terrier dog, Sally, died recently. Living with my parents in the bush she did what she was born to do, and hunted down a snake. Dad tried to get it off her but she ran away and thrashed it until it was dead. To her it was a game and Sally went to sleep happy – but never woke up. Seems if you play with snakes you might get bitten. If you rely on secret bank accounts for a proportion of your national GDP you get into messy situations with despots. If you ban minarets and keep all other religious icons in currency, the sacred historical cross cut across your flag and sprinkled over your mountaintops looks precarious. It is fair enough to not ‘like’ something, but when self-righteous preferences, like the banning of minarets, become enshrined in the law and curdle into human rights violations, justice slips out from under your feet and can come back to bite you on the behind. And sometimes, despite having lots of secret bank accounts, you can’t buy justice back.