what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing about Romania - part III Histories

Three names stand out for English speakers for their efforts in trying to make sense of this complex country – Lucian Boia, Dennis Deletant and Tom Gallagher. The first for the sheer courage and fluent coherence of his prolific writings (he is 70) on the history of the country – particularly his valiant and so necessary work on demystification and demythologising; the second for the intensity of his focus on the communist period; and the latter for the uncompromising critique of the corruption of the post-communist political class. 

Boia is a delight to read – and two of his key books can be read in full and in English online -
Dennis Deletant’s Hitler’s Forgotten Ally – Ion Antonescu and his regime 1940-1944 (2006) is a departure from his books about the Communist period of the country.

In 2005 Tom Gallagher gave us in Theft of a nation – Romania since Communism and followed it up in 2010 with a typically trenchant expose Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong

An ex- Us diplomat, Ernest Latham, wrote recently Timeless and Transitory - 20th century relations between Romania and the English-speaking world 

A fourth historian deserves a mention - the Scot, Robert Seton-Watson who played an important role as journalist and academic a hundred years ago in assisting the aspirations of the various nationalities which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire break free of Vienna. Sadly, however, his "History of Romanian People" is no longer available.  

Interestingly the lovely Pallas edition of "Romania" edited by John Villiers and produced in 2009 has a nice bibliography (at page 347) which lists almost 50 books about Romanian history!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Writing about Romania - part II novels

It’s important to recognise the various genres which can be used to try to penetrate the soul of a country. Travelogues may be the easiest but there are also
  • novels;
  • histories;
  • social and cultural histories (including jokes);
  • memoirs and diaries;
which I will cover in this series of posts. The other important genres are
to which I will try to do justice in 2014.

Novellists can presumably give fuller vent to their imagination than other categories of writers and 

Miklos Banffy’s Writing on the wall – The Transylvanian Trilogy gave us a wonderful picture of the privileged slice of Transylvanians living in the first couple of decades of the 20th century  .
Banffy’s trilogy was originally published in Hungarian in the 1930s and has taken all of 75 years to become appreciated in the English-speaking world as the literary masterpiece it is  - the three books are
Gregor von Rezzori is one of the most neglected of writers from this area which has been variously part of Austro-Hungary, Romania and now Ukraine.
An Ermine in Czernopol (1958) ostensibly centred on the curious tragicomic fate of an Austrian officer of supreme ineffectuality gathers a host of unlikely characters and their unlikelier stories by way of engaging the reader in a kaleidoscopic experience of a city where nothing is as it appears-a city of discordant voices, of wild ugliness and sometimes heartbreaking disappointment. Rezzori "summons the disorderly and unpredictable energies of a town where everything in the world is seemingly mixed up together, a multicultural society that existed long before the idea of multiculturalism". This book is effectivelt part of a trilogy - with the other two books appearing in the "memoir" section which follows.

Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy is rather now overshadowed by Banffy’s magnum opus. The first part of Manning’s trilogy focuses on life in Bucharest at the commencement of the Second World War   and was produced in Britain in the early 1960s

Novels by Romanian authors focusing on Romania which are worthy of mention include -
If you want to know more about Romanian writers - then there's a good list of 100 contemporary writers here (although the most famous - Carterescu - is missing!!); and an excellent book Romanian writers on writing (2011) edited by Norman Manea. The link will give you the list of another 100 more classic writers.  

Foreign novelists’ works using Bucharest as a location include -
update; I’ve since come across this ten-page bibliography on writing about....Transylvania 

Travelogues - about Romania

Romania is a large country – but remote - several days of driving are required before travellers from northern Europe will reach Bucharest in its south. Hardly surprising therefore some have chosen to walk or cycle!
I have identified at least a dozen Travelogues for this first part of a series about books about Romania -

The most famous was Patrick Leigh Fermour whose trilogy of his walk from the English Channel to Istanbul in the 1930s was finished only this year.
A few years later Sacharverwell Sitwell used motorised transport and gave us Romanian Journey (1938) 

In 1999 Alan Ogden published “Romania Revisited – on the trail of English travellers 1602-1941” but the same author also edited an Englishman’s description of Romanian villages in the 1930s – “Romanian Furrow - Colourful Experiences of Village Life”; Donald Hall (Author) and Alan Ogden (Editor) (2007). Sadly neither of these books are currently available.

“Stealing from a deep place” by Brian Hall (1985) recounts experiences touring by bicycle through Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, a two-year trip (1982-1984) made possible by a travel fellowship. "He focuses", the blurb tells us, "on the political milieu which has led to food shortages and inadequate housing for a growing proportion of the population. Among the private citizens of the countries visited, he found great warmth and curiosity coexisting with an avarice and mistrust brought about by necessity".

Clearly travel was easier after 1989 – although only 4 books seem to cover the 1990s -
The last few years have seen a little more interest –
  • Moons and Aurochs; a Romanian Journey; Alan Ogden (2007) is impossible to find
  • Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker (2010) an upper-class Englishmen who chose to live first in Maramures and then in Transylvania for a few years, conducting a couple (admitted) of love affairs with gypsies in the course of the latter - but writing beautifully before disappearing to Italian and English country houses
  • To Romania, with Love  by Tessa Dunlop (2012) perhaps belongs better to the memoir section which will follow shortly
  • Never Mind the Balkans – here’s Romania by Mike Ormsby (2012) is difficult to categorise - amusing sketches of contemporary life in Romania written by an ex-pat
  • The way of the Crosses; Peter Hurley (2013) is a genuine traveller's tale which I wrote about in my previous post

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kindness in Romania

One man who met with great kindness here was Irishman Peter Hurley who made a snowy pilgrimage from Sapanta on the border with Ukraine arriving in mid December last year in Bucharest, overnighting mostly in village houses on the rural tracks he was using.
I was prepared to dislike the book he has just published on his journey - as another example of outsiders imposing themselves on unsuspecting locals - noting that a quick flick indicated that there was no mention of other books written about the country. 

But Hurley is not your typical expat – resident in the country for almost 20 years and developing a variety of musical and rural networks from his work some of whom are tapped for hospitality. Most of his overnight stays, however, are made in houses he chances upon late in the evenings as he finishes his daily treks and whose impecunious residents clearly take to this eccentric visitor. His vignettes, with a different pen, might have been found intrusive but Hurley's help create a gallery of highly sympathetic portraits of people living off God's land.... 

The book’s descriptions of the landscape make it a charming read and it contains several positive stories of (sadly rare) cooperative work in some villages for the production of milk and apple juice; of those practising craft skills which are (also sadly) disappearing; and of at least one good priest doing (very) good work (interestingly in Cristian near my own village).  
The book is entitled The Way of the Crosses - from the habit he adopted of prayer at the small roadside crosses (troite) he meets on his way. He says early on that he does not consider himself a religious person but he certainly seems to have made amends during his journey! As an agnostic myself, I might have found this note jarring - but the author's basic goodness rescues that and clearly inspires those he met. We can do with more of this in our lives!

The book has spurred me to make a list of the books I know of in English about Romania. A year back I had posted about good guides to the country and referred to a list I had found in one website And, in 20102, I also did a guide to blogs about Romania
But I know of only one (short) list of books which have Romania as their focus – whether novels, histories or whatever and that is in the blog Bucharest Life - although John Villier's "Romania" (Pallas Guide) had almost 100 book references (mainly histories) 

So thank you Peter for inspiring me to make what is probably the first real attempt at such a list of books in English about Romania. Currently it has 35 books on it - novels, travelogues, memoirs and histories.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Law-breaking in Romania

One of the few signs of public kindness left in Romania is.... hitch-hiking. At the exit of all cities you can see a few people waiting for lifts – which they will generally get in 10 minutes or so. As you leave the car – after a trip of 50 kilometres say – you will simply put a note worth a couple of euros in the driver’s hand as you leave. But hitch-hiking in Romania is being banned – with the guilty party now designated as the driver (as if we were the customers of prostitutes). 
So where does that place me when I am on the 6 kilometre stretch of track from the main road to the village where I live in the summer when I encounter villagers? No justification has been given for this stupid new law which, hopefully, will be ignored by all, not least the police (as it was for a previous effort some years back apparently). As if Romanians were not being crushed enough!

I referred some months back to a great book of black and white photographs of Ceaucescu‘s Romania by Andrei Pandele  which got a nice review on the BBC magazine. 
The author of the piece, Tessa Dunlop, wrote a novel recently about the period – To Romania with Love 

Finally, for those who want to know more about aspects of Romania’s history, there is an interesting review of the second-world war dictator Antonescu here

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ideas and Institutions

The last section of de Botton’s book deals with institutions and has a few simple but effective graphs comparing the scale of annual spending  eg (a) of the Catholic Church with that of Proctor and Gambles; and (b) of Pringle crisps in UK with that for all books and poetry published in that country! These graphs really make the point very powerfully about the impossibility of individual writers making any impact on national affairs. The text then offers the following sentence -
The challenge we face is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with organisational tools (many religious in nature) which stand the best chance of giving these ideas due impact in the world (p299)
De Botton’s book is one of those rare ones which emerge from my reading with a mass of underlining, pencilled strokes, ticks and just a few question marks. It helped remind me of various issues which have cropped up from time to time in the blogs over the past few years but to which I have not devoted enough consideration, such as -
  • How we can reinvent the ethic of social responsibility
  • The need to honour those individuals who embody the “good life”
  • How the discontent if not rage so many people have about the commercial, political and financial elites can be translated into effective social action.  
  • The importance (but marginalisation) of cross-boundary (inter-disciplinary) work and writing 
  • the neglect (and importance of) literature and history in giving insights to contemporary issues

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Against technocracy

We talk loosely about the moral emptiness of the modern world – perhaps particularly at this time of year when consumerism is so much in our faces. “Me-me” has become the central driving force and egocentricity the name of the only game in town. An increasing question for many of my generation is how to develop a coherent set of stories and messages capable of persuading our societies of the need to change track – and in what way? To some of us it seems that a rediscovery of the ethic of social responsibility is an important part of the answer. But our educational institutions seem unable to deal with values
 We are by nature, says de Botton in Religion for Atheists, "fragile and capricious - beset by fantasies of omnipotence, worlds away from being able to command even a modicum of the good sense and calm that secular education takes as the starting point for its own pedagogy". However, he continues -
...ideas need not just to be presented, but also repeated. The Christian calendar does this, as does the set daily liturgy.
Secular society, on the other hand, leaves us free - presenting us with a constant stream of new information, and prompting us to forget the lot. It expects us to spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us, and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. It’s the ‘news’ which occupies the position of authority in the secular sphere which the liturgical calendar has in the religious one. Matins become the breakfast bulletin, vespers the evening report. Its prestige is founded on the assumptions that our lives are poised on the verge of transformation due to the 2 driving forces of modern history: politics and technology. Religious texts, by contrast, are written on stone, books are few and thoroughly absorbed.We are familiar enough with the major categories of the humanities as they are taught in secular universities – history and anthropology, literature and philosophy - as well as with the sorts of examination questions they produce: Who were the Carolingians? Where did phenomenology originate? What did Emerson want? We know too that this scheme leaves the emotional aspects of our characters to develop spontaneously, or at the very least in private, perhaps when we are with our families or out on solitary walks in the countryside.
In contrast, Christianity concerns itself from the outset with the inner confused side of us, declaring that we are none of us born knowing how to live; Christianity is focused on helping a part of us that secular language struggles even to name, which is not precisely intelligence or emotion, not character or personality, but another, even more abstract entity loosely connected with all of those and yet differentiated from them by an additional ethical and transcendent dimension - and to which we may as well refer, following Christian terminology, as the soul. It has been the essential task of the Christian pedagogic machine to nurture, reassure, comfort and guide our souls. p112-13
I rarely miss an opportunity to castigate the modern university for its ever-increasing compartmentalisation of knowledge and marginalisation, indeed stigmatisation, of inter-disciplinary work. If ever an occupation deserved the accusation of insidious conduct of the “trahison des clercs” it is the modern academic – in their ivory towers and, with a few honourable exceptions, being indifferent to the fate of humanity. As de Botton puts it -
The modern university appears to have little interest in teaching emotional or ethical life skills, much less how to love their neighbours and leave the world happier than they found it. Scripture used to do this; and since the C19th the hope has been that culture could replace scripture in helping people find meaning, understand themselves, behave morally, forgive others and confront their own mortality. So we could turn to Marcus Aurelius, Boccaccio, Wagner and Turner instead. It’s an odd proposition – but maybe not so much absurd as unfamiliar. Novels do impart moral instruction; paintings do make suggestions about happiness; literature can change our lives, philosophy can offer consolations.But while universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual info about culture, they remain uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom. ‘So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.’ (page 111).
Christianity meanwhile looks at the purpose of education from another angle, because it has an entirely different concept of human nature. It has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death - and most of all in need of God.
John Wesley used to preach on being kind, staying obedient to parents, visiting the sick, caution against bigotry. He said ‘I design plain truth for plain people: therefore… I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and as far as possible, from even the show of learning. My design is… to forget all that ever I have read in my life.’ (page 120). 
‘We on the other hand have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely consent to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul.’ (p 121) Maybe we need a new kind of university, one which had a dept for relationships, an institute of dying and a centre for self knowledge.Then there’s the method – impassioned preaching makes a difference to the engagement and impact. ‘Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.’ (p131). Summary: Religions teach wisdom; secular societies offer information.
This was a good post - exactly two years ago - on some lessons from trying to build the capacity of democratic institutions in transition countries

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rediscovering civic bonds?

I missed the Romanian Book Fair of November but there is currently a small Christmas book fair for a week in the Peasant Museum nearby - where I picked up a copy of Alain De Botton’s most recent book – Religion for Atheists (2012) - also Orhan Pamuk’s early Silent House; and 2 translations into Romanian (Louis de Bernieres’s Captain’s Corot’s Mandolin; and de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy) (2000)

Critics tend to take a condescending view of de Botton (inasmuch as they bother with him at all) which says a lot about them. I’m half way into his book and find it one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’ve read this year ...And what a charming and well-written book compared with the hard, unforgiving stuff which comes from atheists (I've always counted myself an agnostic). 
Parts of it remind me of Theodor Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity (copies of which I used to give to people); and other parts of The CharacterStrengths and Virtues Handbook edited a decade ago by Martin Seligman
The first link to the book gives a positive review which captures the appeal of the book rather nicely -
....throughout the book he identifies areas where he believes secular society fails to provide community or help people cope with challenges in their lives, and points to religious practices and institutions which nonreligious people might wish to appropriate to fill the gap. Indeed, de Botton’s approach to religion seems fueled by a profound disenchantment with modern secular society, which he views as impoverished by the loss of practices and modes of thought that religion colonized.
The challenge facing atheists,” de Botton claims, “is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.” Religion offers “well-structured advice on how to lead our lives,” which de Botton contends the secular world often fails to provide. The challenge for modern atheists is to offer such structure (and rituals) in a non-religious way.
De Botton examines ten areas in which valuable insights may be derived from religious practices, and gives numerous creative suggestions as to how the secular world might reclaim them eg
  • Noting how religions use food to bring strangers together in a structured way, he offers the “Agape Restaurant,” in which diners will be encouraged to meet new people and share aspects of their inner lives.
  • He notices that religious values and even consumer products, harnessing the arts and music, are branded and promoted far more passionately and effectively than secular values, which raises powerful questions regarding how well humanists are spreading their ideas.
  • He proposes that university lecturers might be trained to present their ideas as passionately and dramatically as Pentecostal preachers — a proposal that this graduate student (and veteran of countless dreary lectures) finds delightfully provocative (if somewhat absurd).
The very format of the book is an example of the approach De Botton is trying to encourage - at least every fourth page consists of a black and white photograph (here it reminds me of the wonderful A Fortunate Man (1967) by John Berger and Jean Mohr). 
In combination with the clarity and beauty of the text and the double spacing, this makes the book highly accessible!
And this more extended assessment also summarises the argument well -
We are seldom encouraged officially to be nice to one another. It offends our libertarian beliefs and risks paternalism. JS Mill said the only grounds for state interference in people’s lives is to prevent them harming others – not for their own good. Religions however have never held back. Libertarians doubt we can know what virtue is, or how to instil it in others – they have no moral bedrock. The only exception is childrearing, where parents do favour intervention over neutrality in their desire to bring up their children. And yet the results are not good – freedom does not always bring only good things; ‘our deepest wish may be that someone would come along and save us from ourselves.’
Religions however do offer guidance on how to live. They know that to sustain goodness we need an audience – it helps to know someone is watching (most marriages would work better if we thought that!). Clergy may tend to speak as if they alone were in possession of maturity and moral authority – but Christianity acknowledges that we are actually all infantile, incomplete and unfinished – and calls it Original Sin. It creates a moral atmosphere in which people point out their flaws to one another and look for improvement in their behaviour. Fresco painters put up virtues and vices as models and warnings – eg Scrovegni Chapel.
 What would it be like if we had similar images on advertising hoardings – eg advocating Forgiveness?Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls to prayer.
A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would try to redress the balance of messages that reach its citizens away from the merely commercial and towards a holistic conception of flourishing.
True to the ambitions of Giotto's frescoes, these new messages would render vivid to us the many noble ways of behaving that we currently admire so much and so blithely ignore… We don't only need reminders of the advantages of savoury snacks. p88 
This post about the "10 essential virtues" gives a good summary of what "secular" as distinct from "religious" or "commercial" values mean. In my next post I will give excerpts about the book's key chapter on Education... 

The moral depravity of the Romanian political class - continued

The political class in Romania surpassed itself last week. Without any warning or discussion they passed a draft law to protect themselves against prosecution for corruption. Under the proposed law, the president, members of parliament, and lawyers would no longer be classed as public officials, thus protecting them from charges of abuse of office, bribe-taking, conflict of interest, and other corruption crimes, Officials who have been convicted of such crimes may be exonerated if the bill becomes law.
 The bill has not yet been sent for President Basescu’s signature. He can return the bill for revision only once.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta – on his return from Nelson Mandela’s funeral -  seemed to accept on 12 December that the law needed to be discussed again, and if it is endorsed by legal experts, that Romania should ask the European Commission to say whether it breaks any of the country’s international obligations.
The anti-corruption agency DNA says 28 parliamentarians are on trial or serving prison sentences for corruption and more than 100 mayors and deputy mayors are on trial for financial crimes. The bill sharply contradicts Romania’s obligations under European and UN anti-corruption agreements, the DNA said.

One frequent blogger on things Romanian sets the scene and gives further detail here

Friday, December 13, 2013

Honouring Evil in Hungary

I lived in Hungary for almost 2 years – in 1995/96 – and then spent another couple of years across its border in the area between Nitra and Bratislava. Frankly I felt uneasy in the country. I lived in Miskolc and Nyrghhazy which also borders the Ukraine and Romania. 
I wondered why EU money was going into the area since so many of the houses were more substantial than those I was used to in, for example, Scotland. 
And there was an arrogance about the officials I worked with in local and regional government systems which worried me – I will never forget what a youngish official wrote in the brief report he supplied after his study-visit to an EU member country – “The one thing I have learned is that there is nothing to learn from this country”!   

Last month in Budapest a new statue was unveiled to a dangerous man. Right in the heart of the city – in Szabadság Tér (Freedom Place) – there now stands a monument to one of Hitler's closest allies: Admiral Miklós Horthy, the "regent" who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944. My thanks to the amazing blog by Hungarian Spectrum for this story -
The bust stands in the church of the notorious Calvinist minister Lóránt Hegedüs Jr, an incurable antisemite and admirer of the British historian and Holocaust denier David IrvingHegedüs was the first person to bless the Horthy statue; then Márton Gyöngyösi, an MP of the extreme-right Jobbik party, addressed the congregation, declaring Horthy to be "the greatest statesman of the 20th century".The mind boggles. Historians have taught us that the Horthy era was one of the darkest chapters of Hungarian history; this is common knowledge. His present-day glorification is scandalous. The disgraceful anti-Jewish laws, the deportation of more than half a million Jews to the death camps, sending the entire Hungarian second army to be annihilated by the Russians – all these and many other crimes are connected to him. He was one of Hitler's closest associates and stayed loyal till the bitter end. Neither God nor the radical right can ever whitewash his name.How shocking it is that a large proportion of Hungarians ignore and deny these facts. To them it's simply an issue of freedom of speech and thought: if someone wishes to erect a monument to Horthy or to Ferenc Szálasi (the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party, and head of state from 1944 to 1945) in their church, vegetable garden or shed, it is considered his or her private affair. Some people claim that the bust of Horthy – at the top of the stairs leading to the Hegedüs church – is, in fact, on private property.
Antal Rogán – a spokesman for the governing Fidesz party – is worried about Hungary's negative reputation abroad. He has every reason to be troubled, because the country is responsible for some of the worst news within the European Union. Let's face it, there are no Hitler statues in Germany, and in Austria they are constitutionally forbidden. The same is true of Mussolini in Italy, Pétain in France, Ion Antonescu in Romania orJosef Tiso in Slovakia. None of them is being commemorated and extolled.True, there were a few hundred demonstrators in Szabadság Tér who protested against the ceremony, many wearing the yellow star. They deserve our gratitude and admiration for their courage. If only there were more. Members of the congregation and the mob told them to go to Israel, Brussels or the Danube, referring to the events of 1944-45 when Szálasi's Arrow Cross thugs shot several thousand Jews so that they fell into the freezing river.
History cannot be erased, nor forgotten. Discovering and understanding the past is the duty not only of governments and political parties, but also of the people, the whole nation. We must face it together – even when it is not pleasant – and try to learn from the consequences. Hungarians have not yet been through this process.
Last month in the city of Miskolc, in north-east Hungary, a group of fascist youngsters participated in a spectacular book-burning ritual. Among the works consigned to the flames were the collected poems of Miklós Radnóti.Radnóti was a wonderful lyric poet, one of the giants of Hungarian literature. On a forced march to the Nazi death camps in 1944, he was brutally murdered. His killers' successors are now murdering his works. Why? Because he was a Jew.And the police were standing by, doing nothing.
The Economist had a brief article last year which said -
Even young thinkers on the right are critical of the growing nostalgia for the 1930s and the Horthy cult. Tamas Novak, writing in mandiner.hu, an influential conservative blog, said that statues should not be erected to either Miklós Horthy or János Kádár, Hungary's long-serving communist leader, and squares should not be renamed in their honour. "Both deserve contempt, and their main goal was their political survival."Horthy era-writers are also being rehabilitated. Three far-right novelists will be reintroduced into the national curriculum this autumn, including József Nyírő, who was an open admirer of the Nazis. A commemoration was recently held in Nyírő's honour at a Budapest cultural centre. The centre is named after Miklós Radnóti, a Jewish writer and one of Hungary's greatest poets, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis.
And last month The Economist updated its comments 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What We Leave Behind

On this day, the anniversary of my father’s birth (in 1907 I think), it is appropriate that I offer a book today for “slow reading” which has the subtitle “exploring workplace issues from a Christian perspective”  and a main title  Questions of Business Life. It’s by Richard Higginson (2002) who is Director of Studies at the Ridley Hall Foundation in Cambridge and who will hopefully forgive me for taking the liberty of uploading it to scribd - since it is a fairly rare assessment of the ethical implications of issues such as global capitalism, corruption, marketing, sustainable development, E-commerce and the purpose of the company.
Its opening story makes an amusing use of typologies -
Fascism: You have two cows. The government takes both, hires you to take care of them and sells you the milk. 
Communism: You have two cows. You must take care of them, but the government takes all the milk.

Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

Enron Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then create a debt equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred through an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The Enron annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more!

How people remember us was the subject of a recent post – although obituaries are not quite the same thing. My father was so loved that his church was packed out for his memorial service. I delivered a short address at it – all of 25 or 26 years ago - and spoke about his love of books and of travel. 
I pity those who think that they will be honoured for the goods and possessions they have amassed eg, according to a cutting portrait, Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon who relentlessly has removed anything and anyone who has stood in his way. 

We are honoured and respected for the intangible things we give others – in my father’s case, pastoral care which knew no bounds. Down and outs would beat a path to his door and would generally leave with some coins which we could ill afford. He was not only a Minister (ultimately of two churches (or congregations as we call them in Scotland) but (very unusually then for a Minister) also a Town Councillor and magistrate and, for quite a few years, a Prison Chaplain. 
It was he who gave me my love of books and travel (which I see also in my daughters). 
In a famous line, TS Eliot wrote that “old men should be explorers” and my father was exploring until almost the end. He died when that light of curiosity faded from his eyes.

This is an oil painting of my father which a Bulgarian painter, Yuliana Sotirova, did a few years ago from a black and white photo I gave her. It's an extraordinary likeness. 

Slow Books?

The title of my last post was tantalising – but perhaps a bit opaque. Clearly it was an allusion to the slow-food movement which is not only a fun-way of making a protest against globalisation but one which
strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader Slow Movement in protest against “fast food”. Its goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local small businesses are paralleled by a political agenda directed against globalization of agricultural products. The movement has since expanded globally to over 100,000 members in 150 countries. 
I wasn’t aware of the phrase “slow books” – it just came to me in a creative flash. I was not really surprised, however, to learn that the phrase has already been coined – although fairly recently as I see from this March 2012 article in The Atlantic and this (rather local) 2009 website. In 2009 there was even a small book entitled Slow Reading 

The Atlantic article, however, seems to take a fairly restrictive definition of a “slow book” namely a literary classic and actually discounts non-literary books – on the argument that stories are better for one’s brain -
Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka's "The Country Doctor"—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)
Let me push, however, for a wider definition of a “slow book” . 
"Slow food" is an entire process - it is the preparation, production and consumption. And abhors the formulaes, specialisation and slave labour which the logic of modern production and ownership systems require eg in MacDonald's and Amazon 
I would therefore suggest three elements define "slow books" 
  • a certain sharing of the reading experience, whether through book clubs, reading groups or blog sites. 
  • Non-literary  books eg history, the arts and the social sciences should certainly be included - if written clearly and showing originality. We are talking intellectual sustenance here! We should, as a result of the digestion, feel better and see the world in a different way!
  • And slow books are those which have emerged from a process which includes small publishers; independent and second-hand bookshops; and which honours and sustains the actual crafts involved in making a book including book design, typeface and binding skills. 
"Slow books" (like slow food) stand against marketing and "commodification" (sorry about the word!) and are about the relationships of real authentic people - whether as writers, readers, craftsmen or suppliers. 

update; a review of a new book - Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

Monday, December 9, 2013

Slow Books

Those of us searching for some clarity about the current global mess of the world are inflicted with a great deal of noise. How do we filter out the loud and simplistic messages and verbiage with which we are battered every day - and find the voices which really help us as human beings get a handle on this mess?
In addition to turning the television to the wall; cancelling all newspapers (living in the Balkans helps!) and unhooking yourself from the drug of “best-sellers”, I would suggest you try to find the more humble voices who pay proper respect to others ("standing on the shoulders of others") - who have posed good questions; who have patiently sifted the appropriate books (of various disciplines) to find answers; summarised them and – best of all – classified them into typologies…….
One such typology is grid-group theory - otherwise (and rather clumsily) known as "cultural theory"
Grid-group theory claims that viable modes of social patterns can be traced in the grid (action) and group (identity) dimensions. The answers to the two crucial questions: ‘who am I?’ (group) and ‘what shall I do?’ (grid) have vast consequences for most of the major decisions people make. The basic structure of the theory used here is presented in Figure 1 here 
The model generates four main types of societies.  At the far end of the continuum lies the highly individualist "weak group, weak grid". A "strong group, weak grid" society, on the other hand, is one of "enclaves", strongly−bounded groups impermeable to outsiders, but characterised by informal, highly personalised relationships within. The weak group, strong grid constitutes the "isolate" social form. 
Matthew Taylor has summarised the 4 quadrants in the following way -
The egalitarian paradigm; This sees benign change as being driven bottom up through collective action by those who are united by shared values and status. The idealism of egalitarians (emphasising the possibility of equality and the power of shared values) tends to leads them to feel that nature (including human nature) is vulnerable and has been corrupted. Egalitarians see individualists as selfish and irresponsible and hierarchists as out of touch and overbearing.
 The hierarchist paradigm
This sees benign change relying on leadership, authority, expertise and rules. As long as these things are in place then the potentially dangerous cycles and vagaries of nature can be managed.
Hierarchists see the other paradigms as naïve and unbalanced, but may accept each has its place as long as the hierarchy allots and regulates those places. 

The individualist paradigm    
This sees benign change as the result of individual initiative and competition. The aggregate sum of individual actions is collective good.  It’s OK to take risks because nature is resilient to change.
While individualists recognise the need for some hierarchy (more in theory than practice), they see the other paradigms as self-serving; hierarchists and egalitarians are hiding their own interests behind their paternalism and collectivism, while fatalists are simply excusing their laziness or lack of talent.

 The fatalist paradigm        
This sees successful change as unlikely and, in as much as it is possible, random in its causes and consequences. The world is unpredictable and unmanageable.
Fatalists view the other paradigms with indifference or scepticism, although they will tolerate them for the sake of a quiet life, or to help justify their own inaction.  

Life's Brief Span

I’m clearly getting morbid in my old age! A book in the underground shop at the University got me thinking at the weekend – it was the New York Times Obituaries of 2011-12! I failed to buy it simply because it was (of course) too heavily dominated by Americans – and I can access the archives here. Odd that no one has yet thought of getting European Commission funds to compile a set of obituaries of Europeans – drawn from such European “heavies” as Die Zeit and le Monde perhaps!
I was reminded of how readable and quirky the Daily Telegraph books of obituaries had been (as are the weekly Economist obits) and led then to The Guardian series of “other liveswhich honours those less celebrated perhaps but whose lives were marked by dedication and thoughtfulness.

Elizabeth David was Britain’s most celebrated food writer – and her hundredth anniversary was nicely marked in this piece. And here's a lovely piece about the Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died recently - in a highly readable journal. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What is to be done?

The discussion thread to the David Simon article is worth looking at. It confirms my view that few people are taking the time or trouble to explore the feasibility of the various paths which are open to those of us appalled with the behaviour of our commercial, financial, media and political rulers and systems.

Let’s try to set out what most thinking people would probably agree with (after some argument)–
  • The mixed economy we had for almost 40 years after the war was a good system for us in the West
  • It kept power in check
  • Economic globalisation has, however, now undermined the power which working class people had in that period – probably irretrievably
  • Neo-liberalism has supplied instead a thought system which justifies corporate greed
  • All political parties and most media have been captured by that thought system and the elite which now rules the world
  • Privatisation is a disaster
  • It has undermined both the capacity of western states – and the trust people had in the public sector of those states
  • It is no longer possible to see a “countervailing power” which would make these corporate elites pull back from the disasters they are inflicting on us
  • Bricks are perhaps part of the answer (also “suicide missions” of the elderly!)
  • The ruling elite understand this threat – which is why it has been building up an Orwellian “security state” ready to act against “dissidence”
  • But the beliefs which lie at the dark heart of the neo-liberal project do need more detailed exposure
  • We need to be willing to express more vehemently the arguments against privatisation – to feel less ashamed about arguing for “the commons” and for things like cooperatives and social enterprise (inasmuch as such endeavours are allowed)
  • to feel less ashamed about arguing for “the commons” and for things like cooperatives and social enterprise (inasmuch as such endeavours are allowed)
  • to take more strength from appropriate points in history and 
  • to take the time to find and talk with those who can distill the essence of what others have been saying..........We don't need to reinvent the wheel - and should beware those with ready answers!
By comparison have a look at what some Germans were saying in June 

Breaking out from an insane world

It’s highly appropriate that, at the end of the week during which I have been thinking and about blogging the difficulties what, for lack of a better phrase I have to call “social reform”, a blistering article appears.
I won’t spoil the effect by revealing, for the moment, the identity of the writer. What is important for me is that the author gives central place to the notion of a “re-balancing” of power and systems. Have patience – the excerpt is a long one! So I’ve taken the liberty of adding some headings……
The notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we're going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.
The great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection. It's pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don't let it work entirely. And that's a hard idea to think – that there isn't one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we've dug for ourselves. But man, we've dug a mess….
 Some history
A working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages was turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn't need, and that was the engine that drove us.
It wasn't just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.
And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.
The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn't matter that they won all the time, it didn't matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.
 The big mistake
Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It's astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don't need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I'm not connected to society. I don't care how the road got built, I don't care where the firefighter comes from, I don't care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It's the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.
And so in my country (the US) you're seeing a horror show. You're seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you're seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You're seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.
 I’m no pansy!
I'm utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument's over. But the idea that it's not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn't going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that's astonishing to me.
And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That's the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.
 But things can’t go on like this!
Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.
The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. 
OK at this stage I have to tell you that the author is the guy who created and wrote one of television’s best series - “The Wire” – one David Simon who has delivered this amazing blistering address  He goes on the say -
And that's what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.
 The great horror show
That's the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we've managed to marginalise? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people's racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalised and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.
And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realised it's not just about race, it's about something even more terrifying. It's about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?
So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody's going to get left behind. We're going to figure this out. We're going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.
……..Or we're going to keep going the way we're going, at which point there's going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody's going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there's always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I'm losing faith.
 Looks like we have to throw bricks
The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn't there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.
The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what's a good idea or what's not, or what's valued and what's not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.
Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process.
So I don't know what we do if we can't actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I'm arguing for now, I'm not sure we can affect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.
This emphasis on the importance of balance was the focus of a very good (but neglected) paper which Henry Mintzberg published in 2000 about the Management of Government which starts with the assertion that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 but "the balanced model” ie a system in which there was some sort of balance between the power of commerce, the state and the citizen. Patently the balance has swung too far in the intervening 20 years! Mintzberg is a very sane (Canadian) voice in a mad world – ás is obvious from this article on managing quietly and his ten musings on management
I mentioned his paper on the blog a couple of years ago when he seemed to be writing a book about the need for re-balance but his website contains now only a promise of a pamphlet. Mintzberg is one of the few people familiar with the relevant literature who could develop an appropriate typology to help us move forward from the desparate shouting......