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

Monday, November 30, 2020

Snippets – Telling stories

1. Think Tanks do not, these days, generally get a good press. They have been increasingly seen as cheerleaders for the exploitative causes of billionaires such as Charles Koch – with funders of more progressive causes such as Soros and Gates being in a tiny minority

But Enrique Endizabal is a well-intentioned technocrat who, a decade ago, set up an interesting Foundation called On Think Tanks to 

“study and support the development of such policy centres”  

It is a very active website and had just published the 2019 report on the activities of some 2800 think tanks throughout the world as well as videos from its recent 2020 virtual conference from which I’ve taken just one example – on story-telling about which I have written a few posts eg Passion as Servant of Reason and Stories we Tell

Perhaps the most powerful expose of the role of marketing in perverting our natural inclination to tell stories is Christian Salmon’s little book Storytelling – bewitching the modern mind (2010)

An obvious question to ask those who support Think Tanks is about their ethical practice – about how they can allow into their ranks those who receive money from the likes of the Koch brothers and who are in the business of deliberate deceit?

Sadly I could see no reference to Codes of Conduct in their section on communities of practice

2. Resilience – and the strength of our social systems

My favourite blogger is the Canadian survivalist who has a typically thoughtful post questioning whether the much vaunted concept of “resilience” can really be relied upon to get us through the intertwined challenges which lie ahead for the human race - 

What exactly are our “social systems”? They are, in essence, a vast array of tacit agreements on how we will individually and collectively behave. These agreements are built on a mutual trust that it is in the collective interest of everyone to respect them. Some examples:

·         Contribution to shared services: We agree to pay a fair amount of taxes, tithes or similar payments to finance what we agree to be “essential services” — our collective health, education, roads, communications and other infrastructure, and “defence” and “security”.

·         Abiding by laws: We agree to respect and uphold the laws of the land, even when we don’t agree with all of them.

·         Unified response to crises: We agree to subordinate our personal interests to some extent to the collective interest in times of recognized crisis (wars, depressions, “natural” disasters).

·         Allow governments to do their best: We respect governments to have the collective best interest of the whole population in mind, even when we disagree with what they see that best interest to be.

·         Universal rights and responsibilities: We agree to respect a broad set of rights and freedoms for everyone, and to amicably and peacefully resolve differences when these rights and freedoms are perceived to conflict. These rights include property rights. These rights and freedoms come with a commensurate set of responsibilities, including the responsibility to ensure one’s property doesn’t harm others, and the responsibility to dutifully discharge one’s debts so as to not undermine confidence in the system of exchange.

 

Since the 1980s — just 40 years ago — most of the population in most nations has moved from a profound respect for these agreements to a position of no longer accepting most or all of these agreements. That is neither a good nor a bad thing in itself, and it is certainly understandable given the current utter dysfunction of most of our human systems. But the prevalence of this new antipathy towards any basic social contracts has profound implications for social cohesion, locally, nationally and globally. 

3. An Alphabetical Approach to Journalism

In the world of anglo-american journalism there are only a few editorial names who commanded deep respect amongst journalists over the past half-century – Katherine Graham of The Washington Post; Harold Evans of The Sunday Times and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian.

The first died 20 years ago and the second 2 months ago. But Rusbridger has just produced a highly accessible guide to modern journalism called “News and How to Use it” - reviewed here by the Guardian   

In an age of information chaos, a good newsroom is, to me, as essential as the police force, the hospital, the fire station or the prison.

 

Covid-19 could not have announced itself at a worse time in terms of the question about whom to   believe. Survey after survey has shown unprecedented confusion over where to place trust. Nearly two-thirds of adults polled by Edelman in 2018 said they could no longer tell a responsible source of news from the opposite.

 

This was not how it was supposed to be.

The official script for journalism was that once people woke up to the ocean of rubbish and lies all around them they’d come back to the safe harbour of professionally-produced news.

You couldn’t leave this stuff to amateurs or give it away for free. Sooner or later people would flood back to the haven of proper journalism.

 

This official narrative was not completely wrong – but nor was it right in the way the optimists hoped it would be. There was a surge of eyeballs to mainstream media sites, but it was too soon to judge if the increased traffic would remotely compensate for the drastic loss of revenues as copy sales plummeted and advertising disappeared. It normally didn’t.

At the very moment when the UK government recognized journalists as essential workers, the industry itself looked more fragile than ever. Surveys of trust showed the public (especially the older public) relying on journalists, but not trusting them.

Another Edelman special report in early March 2020 found journalists at the bottom of the trust pile, with only 43 per cent of those surveyed holding the view that you could believe them ‘to tell the truth about the virus’. That compared with 63 per cent for ‘a person like yourself’.

 

Now, four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical – which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be? This book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working journalists of how they are viewed by the world outside.

 

Now, four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical –which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be?

 

This book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working journalists of how they are viewed by the world outside.

 

I have written in these pages about techniques, about transparency (or lack of it), about the people who own the press and how their influence works. I have written about some of the most celebrated practitioners of journalism and realise that, even after days spent looking into some of their work, I still have no measure of how much they should be trusted.

 

If that’s true of me, having worked in this imperfect trade for forty years or more, how can we possibly expect an average reader to navigate this maze? Should they pick a brand rather than an individual journalist? We have seen all too clearly how institutions change. Titles that were once incorruptible, or at least honestly campaigning – the Telegraph, the Express, the News of the World come to mind – can mutate into organisations that are ethically and editorially challenged. Why, at their worst, would anyone single them out for trust?

 

And then there are things that, as I’ve come to write this book, I find myself unable to explain. I can’t see why an industry that is fighting for trust and credibility would knowingly employ columnists who, for instance, are ignorant of the truth of climate change. Why would you do that? If journalism is trying to persuade sceptical readers that it is the safe harbor of reality, why would it handsomely reward and celebrate people for writing rubbish?

The book is highly readable – its entries are a series of mini-essays in alphabetical order and can be accessed at News and How to Use it: Alan Rusbridger (2020)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Lessons from a Life

 Charles Handy has been one of the few writers who has really touched and inspired me on my journey of the past 40 odd years.

It’s not easy to describe his appeal - since he is best known as Britain’s most eminent management guru and such people are normally publicity-seeking charlatans (see Huczyinski (1993) and Micklewait and Wooldridge)

Handy’s first book “Understanding Organisations” (1976) was written after 5 years’ experience of helping establish the country’s first business school and was indeed one of the few books on management available in Britain at the time. When the huge new Strathclyde Region set up a small group to review its departmental structure, the Chief Executive gave us a Peter Drucker paperback to give us ideas – it was the only paperback on the subject available….  “Understanding Organisations”  was written for the practising executive – management “students” didn’t exist then! There is an artificiality and technical smartness in the writing of management textbooks – but a humility and moral power in Handy’s writing. 

His next book - “Gods of Management” (1978) – was a shorter one which told the story of the 4 types of organisational culture. It was a superb read and was reflected in presentations I subsequently did in Central Asia in the early 2000s to help officials set the “one-man management” principle they were familiar with against alternative systems….

And Handy had a rare knack for anticipating the future – somehow he’s able to peer into the tea-leaves and help us make sense of the new worlds are emerging and to do so in the most crystal-clear and elegant of language. He did this first in The Future of Work (1984) when he coined the phrase “portfolio work” to describe how our careers in future would be a mixture of time-limited projects and also invented (in "The Age of Unreason” 1989) the phrase “shamrock organisations” to describe the form the organisations of the future would take – the (small number) of core workers; those on contract; and part-time workers. His books have had an increasingly chatty approach – helped probably by his experience of doing a lot of “Thought for the Day” pieces for the BBC which taught him, he says, to compress his thoughts into 450 words or so. For a very graceful assessment of Handy’s role and significance see this article

He’s reached the advanced age of 88 – and I was delighted to discover, on a recent visit to the little English bookshop in the nearby park, that he produced last year a little book 21 Letters on Life and its Challenges. It takes the format of short epistles for his grandchildren - summing up what he feels he’s learned about life.

It’s such a delightful read that, for my own benefit, I felt I needed to make a note of the main points of each of the chapters

Chapter Title 

 Key Points

Things Will Be Different

 

List of some key words whose meanings have changed dramatically in a lifetime (“chip used to be piece of wood or fried potato”) and the scale of change in that period – not least work. We are now “Creatives, Carers or Custodians”

The Human Imperative

 

But the really big issues and questions don’t change.

“Trust but verify”

Life’s Biggest Question

 

Emerson’s advice – “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded”

Doing the best you can with what you’re best at

God or What?

 

In the new diversity, can we tell right from wrong?

Aristotle has twelve virtues: 1) Courage – bravery and the willingness to stand up for what you think is right; 2) Temperance – self-control and restraint; 3) Liberality – kindness, charity and generosity; 4) Magnificence – radiance, joie de vivre; 5) Pride – satisfaction in achievement; 6) Honour – respect, reverence, admiration; 7) Good Temper – equanimity, level-headedness; 8) Friendliness – conviviality and sociability;  9) Truthfulness – straightforwardness, frankness and candour; 10) Wit – sense of humour; 11) Friendship – camaraderie and companionship; 12) Justice – impartiality and fairness

Everyone Can Be Wrong

 

Closed and open answers; Galileo and Copernicus; Handy’s portfolio/clover idea – and the initial reaction against it

Curiosity Does not Kill the Cat

Travel with curiousity in your backpack

How Clever Are You?

 

Different ideas on the subject (Howard Gardiner). Schools have a strange notion

“I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who” (Kipling).

Life Is a Marathon not a Horse Race

Defects of competition; Be your own master

Who You Are Matters more than What You Do

His wife photographs subjects with 5 objects to illustrate their different identities. Idea of “street wisdom”

Keep It Small

 

Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” Robin Dunbar’s organisations of no more than 150 and key groups of 5, 15 and 45. Federal systems best

You Are not a Human Resource

Pity Drucker used the management word – “work should be organised; things managed and people led”

You and Society

 

Complicated letter – suggesting we have excessive regulations; that rep democracy should be upheld

Life’s Changing Curves

 

We should start afresh before we are forced to

Enough Is as Good as a Feast

The Bushmen had a 15 hour week – the money poisoned everything (Rousseau)

Handy separate NEEDS from WANTS (concept of free work)

It’s the Economy, Stupid

 

His father’s “stipend”; His wife’ separation of “investment” from “consumption” “Money and fulfilment are uneasy bedfellows”

‘We’ Beats ‘I’ all the Time

If there is a common purpose; Never take friendship for granted

When Two Become One

He confesses to selfishness in how he treated his wife

What You Can’t Count Matters More Than What You Can

“McNamara fallacy” means that mush of life gets pushed into 3rd or 4th place.. eg love, hope, kindness, courage, honesty and loyalty

The Last Quarter

 

future generations can look forward to last 25 years of their life being free of financial worried

You Are Unique

We have 3-5 identities

My Last Words

 

What he recommends for his grandchildren - Learn a foreign language, a musical instrument, a sport (individual better); write a diary and fall in love

 It’s a similar concept at the heart of my own Dispatches to the Next Generation and indeed Handy's little book inspires me to go back and look again at my draft - since the last version is from June...and is clearly too abstract and impersonal....it's subtitle "a bibliograph's notes" say it all! 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

“Rebel Ideas” – at last recognition of the importance of divergent thinking

For some time I’ve been playing around with an interesting proposition – that those who straddle different “worlds” – be it of nation, class, profession, academic discipline – are not only more original in the ideas they produce BUT are also able to communicate these ideas more clearly to the general public than specialists stuck in more “homogeneous” worlds….

And it’s interesting that we often hang the label of “outsider” on such people

A post earlier this year indeed explored this issue in a rather daring way - by simply listing the names which came into my head as exemplars of clear, accessible writing and then – AND ONLY THEN – trying to identify anything to suggest their “outsider” status (whether in country, discipline, ethnicity or even gender). The result was quite stunning – with such “outsider” status being immediately identified for no fewer than 17 of the 18 names

Only a week earlier a post entitled In Praise of the Outsider had looked at a few academic economists who chose to break out of their narrow worlds and give us superbly-written analyses of modern capitalism.

That indeed was the moment when I decided to change the name of the blog to that of “Peripheral Vision” – basically to honour those who break out of the “tunnel vision” of their homogenising worlds and offer us fresh ways of seeing the world

This notion of the potential benefits of conflicting pressures I had first expressed in a diagram I scribbled some 40 years ago when I was exploring with students the different and indeed conflicting roles open to politicians (depending on whose voice they listened to) – to which I gave such names as  “populist”; “ideologue”, “statesman” and  “maverick” - and found myself suggesting that the most satisfying role was in fact the apparently impossible one of trying to identify the common element which came from the diversity of voices.  

I have this past week been reading the first book I have come across which recognises the importance for organisations to encourage such conflicting perspectives - it is Rebel Ideas – the power of diverse thinking; Matthew Syed (2019) which starts with the failure of the CIA to pick up the warning signals of the 9/11 attack and attributes this to its all-white homogeneous culture. It then looks at a variety of disasters (including an Everest mountaineering tragedy and an aircraft failure) in which participants failed to speak up at crucial points simply because of their junior status in the command structure

The book goes on to argue that  

Our social networks are full of people with similar experiences, views and beliefs. Birds of a feather flock together. We tend to bask in the warm glow of nicely agreeing, mirroring, parroting, corroborating, confirming, reflecting together. Entrenching in each other’s blind spots. That is where fads, stock-market bubbles and other bandwagon effects come from.

You need diversity. Diversity not only based on demographics but on cognitive diversity. The need for differences in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles.

 

More important now

Cognitive diversity was not so important a few hundred years ago, because the problems we faced tended to be linear, or simple, or separable, or all three. The critical point is that solutions to complex problems typically rely on multiple layers of insight and therefore require multiple points of view. The more diverse the perspectives, the more extensive the range of potentially viable solutions a collection of problem solvers can find. We need to address cognitive diversity before tackling our toughest challenges. It is only then that team deliberation can lead not to mirroring, but to enlightenment.

 

Here are some numbers to support diversity:

- A study by Professor Chad Sparber, an American economist, found that an increase in racial diversity of one standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25 per cent in legal services, health services and finance.

- Germany and the United Kingdom found that return on equity was 66 per cent higher for firms with executive teams in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity than for those in the bottom quartile. For the United States, the return on equity was 100 per cent higher.

- A diverse group of six forecasters, while individually less impressive, would be 15 per cent more accurate.

- A study by the Rotterdam School of Management analysed more than three hundred real-world projects dating back to 1972 and found that projects led by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior person in charge.

- 43% of companies in the Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, rising to 57% in the top thirty-five companies.

- Those who studied abroad had ideas that were rated 17 per cent higher than those who had not.

Many companies hire all these great college kids with all sorts of backgrounds; all kinds of ideas brimming in their heads — only to watch them gradually remoulded to ‘fit’ the culture of the organisation. At most meetings, communication is dysfunctional. Many people are silent. Status rigs the discourse. People don’t say what they think but what they think the leader wants to hear. And they fail to share crucial information because they don’t realise what other people lack 

Groups typically need a leader, otherwise there is a risk of conflict and indecision. And yet the leader will make wise choices only if they gain access to the diverse views of the group. How, then, can an organisation have hierarchy and information sharing, decisiveness and diversity? This is the question that has dominated management books for decades, and the approach has typically been to position hierarchy and diversity in an inherent conflict.

Dominant leaders are, by definition, punitive. This is how they win and sustain power. They are also less empathetic. They don’t feel that they need other people, so don’t tend to take their perspectives or read their emotions.

The Silo Effect is another fascinating book on the subject produced in 205 by anthropologist Gillian Tett who is also an experienced correspondent for the "Financial Times" and author of an important book on the global financial crisis - "Fool's Gold". Here she explores "groupthink" in 8 stories of organisations as different as hospitals, city halls, Facebook, hedgefunds, Chicago police and Sony.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Ango-american liberalism runs out of puff

A September post was devoted to a book called Fantasy Land - how America lost its Mind (2017) which was a highly readable intellectual history of that country – emphasising its Puritanical beginnings and the role this has played in American exceptionalism.

A few weeks ago, the author, Kurt Andersen, published a sequel to the 2017 book - “Evil Geniuses - the unmaking of America, a recent history” (2020) - which explains how conservative forces, horrified by what the 1960s had released, got their act together to forge an agenda and bankroll a reaction which brought us neoliberalism.

I’ve seen this story told many times - of how the Mont Pelerin Society spawned a multiplicity of neoliberal ThinkTanks but this is the first time I’ve seen such a clear explanation of the connection with the polarisation of American society…..

And it’s a nuanced story too – giving due recognition to the (generally ignored) anti-government streak I so well remember in the 1960s and early 1970s – which attracted even a “young leftist” like me to writers such as Saul Alinsky and Ivan Illich. 

More to the point it was the sentiment that drove the US Young Democrats of the late 1970s and 1980s (like Clinton and Hart) to break with the “oldies” who had been carrying the torch for the New Deal and to side with the new economic right….  

It was, after all, a Democratic House which gave Reagan the licence to drive forward deregulation. The full story of the implications of the Democrats’ disowning of the leftist/populist tradition is told in Goliath – the hundred year old war between monopoly and democracy; Matt Stoller (2019) 

There were two things I particularly appreciated about Andersen's book

- First the element of mea culpa. Andersen is writing the book as an economic liberal who has been slow to understand how a non-stop process of marginal and largely unnoticed adjustments has amounted over 4-5 decades to a dramatic socio-economic shift. At several points in the narrative, he pauses to make a very useful summary of these changes.

 - his skill in summarising key books to give us a superb intellectual history 

I had promised this would be the follow-up to my last post about the direction the United States has taken in the last fifty years – but a short article by Pankaj Mishra has persuaded me to widen the thrust of the post beyond America’s shores to the bastions of liberalism everywhere.

Strongly critical, as always, of Western ethnocentricity, Mishra starts in typical vein 

The late Tony Judt, born in 1948, once spoke of the “pretty crappy” generation he belonged to, which

 

“grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political.”

 

In Judt’s view, too many of his intellectual peers moved from radical postures into the “all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security” in the 1970s and 1980s as the postwar consensus in favor of the welfare state gave way to neoliberalism; they were especially quick to internalize the popular belief when the Berlin Wall fell that liberal democracy and capitalism had “won.”

A similar worldview prevails among a still younger generation than Judt’s. Its members, beneficiaries of an even more complacent era, the end of the cold war, are entrenched in senior positions in the periodicals, television channels, think tanks, and university departments of Anglo-America. Growing up during the triumphalist 1990s, they assumed that American-style democracy and capitalism had proven their superiority;

 

……A newspaper columnist from India, China, Ghana, or Egypt is unlikely to be recognized as an authority on global affairs unless she can demonstrate some basic knowledge of Euro-American political and intellectual traditions. But most Western scholars, let alone newspaper reporters, do not have even a passing acquaintance with (the richness of) Indian, Chinese, African, and Arab history and thought.

I don’t pretend to know (or care) much about political philosophy but I am aware that, in 1971, the American liberal analytical philosopher John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice” in which he laid out the apparatus of justice theory that became the dominant conceptual framework for subsequent theorizing about politics among philosophers and many political theorists in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. 

The impact of Rawls’s theory on the landscape and language of political philosophy was immense. Only a decade after the publication of “A Theory of Justice”, one bibliography listed 2,512 books and articles engaging with Rawls’s thought. For his followers, Rawls became a patron saint, the visionary behind an egalitarian dream of distributive justice. Among his critics, he was known as a neo- Kantian individualist who adapted the toolkit of rational choice and decision theory and viewed individuals as at once self- interested economic agents and autonomous moral persons.

They saw him as providing a philosophical rationalization of a liberal welfare state or, worse, a defence of the conservative status quo that implicitly framed America as a land of liberty and civic freedom.

 

In his wake, political philosophy was remade. Philosophical liberalism became synonymous with Rawls, and political philosophy synonymous with a kind of liberalism born of postwar America. Even many who opposed it were shaped by it. By the late twentieth century, Anglophone political theorists operated in the shadow of justice theory

I’m quoting from a new book “In the Shadow of Justice – postwar liberalism and the remaking of political philosophy” which looks an important and highly accessible critique for these times when anglo-americans at least are questioning the future of the liberal part of our tradition. The LSE review blog which I value gave it a useful review - 

Using the core liberal question – whether a society can be justified to all its members in light of inequalities – as a point of departure, she traces the emergence of two liberal principles: firstly, the principle of civil liberties and personal rights; and secondly, the principle of equality. The key assumption underpinning the latter principle is that economic inequalities should be tolerated if they improve the situations of the least advantaged in a society.

The particular focus of the book is on the revival of political thought brought about by Rawls’s justice theory following a period of economic depression and World War II that had left philosophers unable to think about justice.

The bulk of the book is made up of critical commentaries on political events and intellectual debates that shaped political liberalism in the US and Britain in the post-war era.

 

There are several powerful arguments animating the eight chapters of Forrester’s book.

In Chapter Four the author grapples with some of the attempts to reconstruct and rethink Rawls’s framework, before turning to the problem of the future (6) and the New Right and New Left (7), Forrester brings into the conversation concepts of markets, choice and responsibility. In Chapter Eight, she conclusively shifts attention to the limitations of political philosophy and makes a strong point for questioning the currency of liberal thought to understand the times in which we live.

Forrester illuminates how Rawls’s justice theory survived the radical protests and the rise of the New Left of the 1960s, the hollowing out of the welfare state in the 1970s and the New Right’s assumptions about the nature of politics, institutions, personhood and the individual in the 1980s.

Notably, what appears as a conflict at first glance – the idea of distributive justice pitted against neoliberal pledges for privatisation, financialisation and institutional interdependence – is revealed by Forrester to have become a story of profound philosophical success. As many political theorists deployed ideas surrounding markets, choice and responsibility within a Rawlsian framework, liberal egalitarianism subsequently became the dominant mode of theorising by the 1980s.

Engaging with a number of influential critics, such as Bernard Williams, Judith Shklar, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor, Forrester shows how liberal thought increasingly came to be detached from concrete political experiences

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Moronic Inferno?

The world’s eyes have been fixed, these last few weeks, on the United States – and many of us have struggled to try to make sense of a country with such extremes of both good and evil, wealth and povertyIn the 1960s I found America an inspiration – whether its social scientists such as JK Galbraith, A Etzioni, M Rein and D Schoen or its political activists such as JF Kennedy, , Marin Luther King and Saul Alinsky. By the 1970s its ugly side started to show itself in the Vietnam War and Nixon - and, like many others, I duly turned against it. In recent years, indeed, we have started to ask the same question we used to ask about Germany – how can a country be both so exemplary and so awful? This is the first in a series of posts about that question…..

Of all the tens of thousands books written about the United States, one of the most gloriously impressionistic must be Martin Amis’ The Moronic Inferno – and other visits to America (1986) – a series of essays mainly about literary figures beginning with an assessment of Saul Bellow’s venture into 1980s Bucharest – “The Dean’s December”. Amis had been asked a couple of times about writing a book about America to which his response had been 

America is more like a world than a country: you could as well write a book about people, or about life.

 At the end of the book Amis explains that 

“I got the phrase 'the moronic inferno', and much else, from Saul Bellow, who informed me that he got it from Wyndham Lewis.

Needless to say, the moronic inferno is not a peculiarly American condition. It is global and perhaps eternal. It is also, of course, primarily a metaphor, a metaphor for human infamy: mass, gross, ever-distracting human infamy”.

 

“One of the many things I do not understand about Americans is this: what is it like to be a citizen of a superpower, to maintain democratically the means of planetary extinction? I wonder how this contributes to the dreamlife of America, a dreamlife that is so deep and troubled. As I was collating “The Moronic Inferno” (in August 1985, during the Hiroshima remembrances), I was struck by a disquieting thought. Perhaps the title phrase is more resonant, and more prescient, than I imagined. It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality”. 

And, when, in 1987, I eventually made the first of what were to be several trips to the US it was “The Moronic Inferno” which accompanied me  

I’m currently well into a quite fascinating intellectual history of the America of the past half century Evil Geniuses; The Unmaking of America: A Recent History - which actually makes a pretty good job of explaining the country - and about which I will write more fully later…For the moment I want merely to place on record what one Brit made of the country some 33 years ago…

Thanks to the German Marshall Foundation I was on a 6 week fellowship to understand the implications of the deindustrialization which we were experiencing in the central belt of Scotland – in which America, as usual, was ahead of us…..Specifically I wanted to explore how local communities (eg in the Pittsburgh area) were dealing with the effects of the closure of their steel mills. I was lucky enough to be “embedded” in the various municipal organisations with interests in community enterprise (including a brief period in the Chicago mayor’s office at the height of one of their schools’ crises) and soon found myself amazed by the role of charitable Foundations in this sort of work. 

I could feel the energy in the air.... I came highly sceptical about the US system but left slightly chastened - identifying no fewer than nine features of their local development process as ones from which we could learn – 

- bringing together younger potential local leaders from different sectors (corporate, trade union, religious, academic, charity, activist) in Community Leadership programmes  

- scanning for strategic work : the active, participative role played by the private sector in the process of setting the regional agenda in places like Chicago was impressive

- more pluralistic sources of Local Funding for community development work (the scale of corporate and tax-free grants to Foundations)

- coaching : the way community economic development skills were encouraged

- marketing : of voluntary organisations

- affirming : affirmative action in Chicago Council was handled very systematically in areas such as hiring and sub-contracting

- negotiating : the flexibility of the planning system allowed local councils to strike deals with developers to the direct advantage of poorer areas.

- persevering : the realism about timescale of change

- parcelling into manageable units of action: the British mentality seemed to prefer administrative neatness to permit a "coordinated" approach. American "messiness" seemed to produce more dynamism.