what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Optimism, realism and scepticism


First, a welcome to my new readers from the Ukraine – northern neighbours who, my statistics show, have been my most faithful readers over the past week.

I wanted to return to the issue of what has been learned from all the reforms which Britain has attempted in the running of its public services and machinery of government in the past 40 years (raised in a recent blogpost) but have been distracted by the glorious weather which followed the few days of cold and mist. 
First snow of the autumn was on the Bucegi mountains opposite on 22 September (see shot above) but the afternoon sun on the terrace has soon had me stripping off. Today is the third in a row of such superb weather and makes me even less inclined to pop down to Bucharest for its current festival of radio orchestra music. Bucharest inspires very different feelings in me from Sofia – and indeed from some other ex-pats who love the place.
For me Bucharest is only a stopover for better places – but don’t let me discourage those who want to taste its “blowsy charms”. The Sarah in Romania blog is one of the most sympathetic to (if also angry about) the city and marked Bucharest’s birthday with an appropriate post -
This is not a post to list the hundreds of dreadful, illegal demolitions. It is not a post to slag off Mayor Oprescu and the architecture commission, nor the Chief Architect of Bucharest. I have written many of those and it's neither the time nor the place. I say only that after 553 years, while everyone else is trying to improve their cities, renovate rather than rebuild wherever possible, underline the beauty of their architecture and highlight their history whether it be joyous or tragic and syphon traffic away from the centre in order to make things so much more pleasant for citizens, Bucharest is attacked and disfigured by greedy, corrupt, lousy parasites right from the top down to the very bottom.
Those who move a finger are few and far between. I know they exist, that tiny 10%. There are associations, NGOs and individuals who care VERY much. But it seems like a flea up against a tsunami...This was a city where beauty stood on every turn, where every corner was a photo opportunity and where history, patrimony and heritage mattered.  A city (and a country for that matter) which valued education and promoted learning, where the university was renowned and the doctors admired. A city (and country) whose musicians exuded incredible poetry through symphonies and suites and whose concert halls were filled with names that would wow any 'mélomane'. Yes, times were hard, of course they were. But, on the whole there was respect and far more pride than we find today. There was elegance. 
Of course, one can still find beauty in Bucharest - that quiet, shy, almost reticent loveliness that brings a lump to one's throat every time one is confronted with it. You only have to read further back on this blog (and so many others besides) for examples. Perhaps, for the visitors as well as for many Bucharest residents, one must be told where to look - the splendid streets around Dorobanti, the hidden villas behind Unirii, the oldy-worldiness of Tineretului, the charm of what's left around Cismigiu on all sides, the elegance of Cotroceni and Icoanei - and that's just for starters. Bucharest demands to be loved. Few of us actually do. Indeed, there IS beauty.
I have also been rereading some books – eg Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Promoting the idea that happiness is within your grasp is in the interests of corporations trying to bamboozle an overworked and underpaid workforce. It's also favoured by churches trying to get rich quick off the American dream. Ehrenreich traces the fad from Calvinist self-control through Christian Science to blatant assumptions of the holiness of cash. Informing the uneducated and unmedicated that their plight is all their own fault is followed up by instructions for making anything you desire – from a new TV screen to a trip to Mexico – "materialise" through mind control. The censorship of negative opinion combines perfectly with the American policy of each man for himself in the best of all possible worlds.This is the philosophy that gave us the smart bomb, the space programme, sub-prime mortgages, plenty of psychopaths and Sarah Palin. Ehrenreich writes that America is unsurpassed in one area: "the reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news". .
Even right-wing newspapers reviewed the book positively.   
Ehrenreich savages the instigator of Positive Psychology and finishes on an important note about the importance of realism if not scepticism – an important theme in this blog. I hadn’t until now realised the possible significance of my latest little publication – on Bulgarian realist painting

The USA, as a reassessment of a 1960s classic reminds us, has a long tradition of what the book's title calls anti-intellectualism - 
there arose an ethos, a romantic conviction, that a popular democracy should favor "the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and the well-to-do." Practical experience mattered more than imaginative thinking, and vital emotion trumped anemic rationality. "Just as the evangelicals repudiated a learned religion and formally constituted clergy in favor of the wisdom of the heart and direct access to God, so did advocates of egalitarian politics propose to dispense with trained leadership in favor of the native practical sense of the ordinary man with its direct access to truth. This preference for the wisdom of the common man flowered in the most extreme statements of the democratic creed, into a kind of militant popular anti-intellectualism."

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