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, April 30, 2012

Nomad

Clearing the flat here in Sofia for a 4 month absence - during which my landlady may rent the place out. 
Michael Palin's BBC 's "Other Europe" series has him today on BBC Entertainment here in Bulgaria in the Plovdiv gypsy quarter; then onto in Edirne in a container lorry; and then in Istanbul at the Bosphorus. As I watch, the idea comes of renting a flat in Istanbul for 6 months or so from next spring. This at the same time I am contemplating buying a flat here in Sofia - or in the old part of Brasov! 
Tomorrow early I hope to leave Sofia and cross the Danube border at midday before the returning Romanian holiday-makers from the Black Sea cram the border. Then on to the Carpathian house for last-minute tuning before making the drive through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Belgium to Scotland ( via the Zeebrugge overnight ferry) by mid-May

Verily I am a nomad! Indeed I was just counting how many addresses I've had over the last 25 years - it works out at 25, a new one each year on average. That's why it has sometimes been impossible for me to fit some bureaucratic requirements eg informing of change of address!! Scottish courts used to (may still) have a term for people like me - NFA (No Fixed Abode). As a young magistrate in the 1970s, many of the miscreants who appeared before me were so designated. "Nomad" or "peripatetic" sounds so much better!     
At a time when commentators are trying to work out how the 20% of French voters who supported Le Pen's candidacy for the French Presidency will cast their vote in the second round next Sunday, it's useful to read again what was in my blogpost of 29 April last year about populism

The sculpture which I recently bought at Astry Gallery is, aptly, called "Paddling his own canoe" and is by Petra Iliev

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Great art in Sofia

A flurry of artistic activity, starting on Thursday morning with a visit to the designers of my booklet on Bulgarian Realists to organise the CD which will accompany it (with 800 photos of Bulgarian paintings of that period); and to get an initial rough copy. 
This last was particularly needed to take with me to the midday invitation I had received to visit what had been the home of one of Bulgaria’s great painters - Tsanko Lavrenov. The invitation came from his grandson (Plaven Petrov, now the owner of the Loran Gallery) who has turned the flat in one of Sofia’s nice old areas into a great showpiece for this self-taught artist from Plovdiv. 
Born in 1896, Lavrenov viewed with suspicion the new artistic trends coming from Western Europe, wanting instead to establish a style more faithful to local traditions. He spent considerable time in monasteries in the area and on Mount Athos, studying the paintings and books in the archives. He was a close friend of Zlatyu Boaadjiev and Danail Dechev. 
Plaven had been impressed that a foreigner was so interested in Bulgarian art as to prepare and publish – at his own expense - a booklet on the subject. Over wine, we explored some of the peculiarities of the Bulgarian market. Then an inspection of the superb collection he has of his grandfather’s paintings. He was kind enough to present me with this print signed by Lavrenov himself.

Evening saw another great Vernissaj at Vihra’s Astry Gallery – this time showing some of young Maria Raycheva’s output from a visit she made recently to Paris.

Notre Dame and the Seine must be the most over-painted subjects of all time. Tackling them again runs therefore the risk of boredom – the artistic equivalent of a cliché. 

And I feel that the painting shown behind Maria in the photograph does fall into that category. 
Others, however, do show a really original touch – including a couple I bought. 



And while there, I also bought two fine 
bronzes - by Petra Iliev. 

This is her "Lady with Double Bass"





Friday morning, it was a visit to the Sofia City Art Gallery’s special exhibition of Ivan Nenov, another of Bulgaria’s greats -  but this time in the modernist style. 

He lived to the grand old age of 95 and apparently remained active and dignified to the end. 

He is known for his portraits of women on the beach or at windows but, over his long life, was very versatile and went through different stages. He traveled extensively in the 1930s and took part in international exhibitions of modern art in Italy and Germany.

However, he was declared a formalist in the 1950s and, for almost a decade, could not exhibit his works. Instead he focused on ceramics and mosaics. In 1975 he managed, somehow, to give his first solo exhibition in Sofia (previous attempts had been thwarted). Rehabilitated in the late 1950s, he was elected in 1994 an academician in the Academy of Sciences.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Peeling the layers of the onion

The way the media control our politicians (and shape the way we look at the world) was laid bare by yet more stunning information thrown up by the continuing investigation in Britain of the operations of News International (the Murdoch Empire). We didn’t learn a great deal from the appearance of Murdoch and his son some months ago in front of the UK Parliamentary Committee on Culture – except perhaps that he has a beautiful young Chinese wife and suffers (as does his son) from memory lapse. But an official inquiry (Leveson ) is now looking (in public) and in detail at the behind-the scene operations of media owners, their contact with politicians and their ethics. It has revealed, for example, howthe Scottish First Minister (Alex Salmond) bought the political support of Rupert Murdoch  - the the News International (NI) newspapers suddenly, as result, switching from hostility to the nationalist cause to support. Even worse, the inquiry has laid bare the private contacts there were between News International lobbyists and the Minister who had the authority to decide whether NI would be allowed to take-over a new TV media channel. Polly Townbee has a powerful article on the story which sets out very well the political issues which are at stake. The article should be erad by everyone - 
The picture emerges of a party deciding long before coming to power to gift Rupert Murdoch a media and cultural dominance beyond anything seen yet. So much is known already: the Prime Minister made a hasty speech threatening to abolish the regulatory agency which tries to ensure competition and standards in the communication industry (Ofcom). . The relevant Minister (Hunt) rejected Ofcom's advice to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission. Cameron was completing what Margaret Thatcher began – and all for what? Fickle support from Rupert Murdoch's press.
Thatcher broke every rule, twisted every regulation and bent EU law to give Murdoch a newspaper and television dominance unthinkable in the US or most countries. We have ranted and railed helplessly over the decades, pointing our finger every time politicians of any party kowtowed to the man they feared. Democracy was bound to be suborned. That's precisely what competition law is there to prevent: monopolies are monsters. Is there anything so exceptional about Rupert Murdoch? He's canny and fly, but probably no more so than many sharp-witted businessmen who spot their chance in a flabby market.
All he has done is exactly what Adam Smith (the real one) famously said every businessman does given half a chance – corner markets and conspire against the consumer. The success of his business was built on gaining the edge by evading regulators and avoiding taxes, as all companies will unless stopped. So let's not obsess over his character.
 If you think this is a navel-gazing media story, here's a reminder of what Hunt was about to unleash on the country, with Cameron and George Osborne's approval. If Murdoch were allowed to own all BSkyB, within a year or two he would package all his newspapers on subscription or online together with his movie and sports channels in offers consumers could hardly refuse, at loss-leading prices. Other news providers, including this one, would be driven out, or reduced to a husk. His would be the commanding news voice. Except for the BBC – which his media have attacked relentlessly for years.Sky's dominance over the BBC is already looming: now past its investment phase, Sky's income is multiplying fast at £5.5bn a year, against the BBC's static £3.5bn. Sky's growing billions can buy everything, not only sports and movies, but every best series: the BBC trains and develops talent, predatory Sky will snatch it. Nor is Sky that good for the Treasury: for every £1 in Sky subscriptions, 90p flees the country, straight to News Corp and Hollywood in the US.
The BBC is remarkable value for money: Sky subscribers can pay £500 a year, the licence fee is £145 for masses more content. Sky is parasitic, as its own subscribers watch many more hours of BBC than Sky, so Sky would collapse if the BBC denied it its channels. Yet the BBC still pays £5m a year for appearing on its platform, a deal struck by Thatcher to help Murdoch.The sum was cut, but in all other countries commercial broadcasters pay national broadcasters for the right to use their content – not the other way round. The BBC should be paid a hefty fee from BSkyB to compensate for the 16% cut it suffered, partly as a result of Murdoch lobbying. The cut was pure spite, since the licence fee has no connection with Treasury deficits. Pressure persists to deprive viewers of listed national events saved to watch free on BBC: Wimbledon and the rest would go the way of Premier League football.
If it does nothing else, this scandal will stop the government daring to give anything more to Sky. Much as the Tories detest the BBC – which, like the NHS – stands as a defiant symbol of non-market success, expect no overt attacks on it for a while now. But the BBC charter comes up for renewal in 2017: a Tory victory at the next election would liberate them to follow their vengeful instincts.Jeremy Hunt was within days of giving Murdoch everything, because the government wished it. A token gesture would have put Sky News behind Chinese walls, but on all previous precedent, soon his newspapers, print, online and TV would have merged into a single newsroom. That would require repeal of the law imposing impartiality on broadcasters.
But already Murdoch's friends were softening up opinion against old-fashioned, dull TV news, unsuited to the rowdy, opinionated internet era: Fox News would soon be here. If the arrival of Murdoch's kick-arse Sun was a shock, we'd look back on it as an age of innocence compared with what Fox would do – look what it's done to US politics.Cameron has said it is his ambition to finish Margaret Thatcher's work. As she privatised nationalised industries, so he would marketise the public sector, with his NHS commercialisation and his promise to put all public services out to tender. The dismantling or shrivelling of the BBC would soon have followed. If the Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, had not exposed the hacking of a missing and murdered girl’s phone in the nick of time, all would have been lost – an odd way for the BBC to be reprieved.
The 81-year-old under scrutiny this week rambled a bit and remembered nothing to his own detriment. He was an unsatisfying villain, as most are. But the villainy here is not about one man. He stands as an Adam Smith lesson in the primacy of competition law and what happens when politicians let the free market rip to do political favours.
A famous British politician (Aneuran Bevan) once wrote a book in which he compared his search to discover where power lay in Britain to the peeling of an onion - each layer stripped, there was yet another beneath it. With the current, public inquiries in Britain, we seem to be getting to the core......

I couldn't find an appropriate painting to illustrate the title - and have used this instead this Stanio Stamatov painting which was pulled out of the Shumen archives specially for me to view.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Some relevant social science work!!

The British Academy has been a rather mysterious body for me which only impacted a year or so ago when I noticed a fascinating discussion they had organised around an important book  The Strange Career of British Democracy produced a  few years back by one of the country’s best political scientists - David Marquand. 
Today I was alerted to a series of papers they have commissioned and produced under the title New Paradigms in Public Policy which consists of what look to be clear and stimulating papers by such key names as Gerry Stoker – Buildinga New Politics; Peter Taylor-Gooby Squaring the Public Policy Circle; Andrew Gamble – Economic Futures; and Ian Gough - Climate Change and Public Policy 

Their website (above) indicates a body which is playing a very important role in encouraging the application of social science minds to the problems we face in contemporary society - 
The British Academy, established by Royal Charter in 1902, champions and supports the humanities and social sciences. We are an independent, self-governing fellowship of scholars elected for their distinction and achievement. Our purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally and to champion their role and value. As a Fellowship composed of nearly 900 distinguished scholars, we take a lead in representing the humanities and social sciences, facilitating international collaboration, providing an independent and authoritative source of advice, and contributing to public policy and debate
The painting is a Dobre Dobrev - a demonstration in Sliven in 1945

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Introducing the Bulgarian Realists

What would be achieve without deadlines? Or,as Doctor Johnson said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”!
The knowledge that I will be away from Sofia for some four months at least has put sufficient pressure on me to be able to fill in a lot of the gaps I had in the text of my draft booklet on Bulgarian Realist painting of the last century – and to decide to go for a modest first venture of a 60 page booklet with an accompaning CD Rom.
Yassen (here in the Konus Gallery) and Evelina (in the Dobrich municipal gallery) have been very helpful in supplying me with much needed information on a dozen or so of the painters. But, typically, I keep encountering at this stage, new artists and new information.
First a glorious 1987 book on the satirist Marko Behar (1914-73) which my friend Alexander Aleksiev drew to my attention on Sunday at his tiny Alladin’s cave at 38 Tsar Asen St.
Behar combined elements of Grosz, Kollwitz and Beshkov – but was very much his own man. I imagine him a bit like Bert Brecht – the German poet of the period.

And then late Monday afternoon, I was cycling around various galleries to ensure I had the right names and addresses for the Annexes to the booklet and went into the Lorian Gallery which I discovered recently at 16 Oborishte St in the University area. Recently moved to this location, they have a smallish display downstairs with more expensive stuff upstairs eg a Tanev. They have started to produce special books on artists – and I was shown a delightful one on an artist I had never heard of – Margarita Milidjiiska. And their current exhibition also introduced me to another new painter (for me) – Boris Dankov who produced charming landscapes in the 1960s.

Anyway, at 08.30 this morning, I duly delivered the final text of the booklet - now entitled Introducing the Bulgarian Realists - how to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings - to the designers.
The painting at the top of the post is my latest acquisition a Georgi Velchev who lived from 1891-1955.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Balkan idyll in the sun?

The latest issue of Vagabond has an interesting article on the fate of many working class Brits who were attracted a decade ago by British TV programmes to buy cheap property in the Bulgarian countryside. The piece is called British homes across rural Bulgaria lie empty. Where have all the people gone? and makes the following interesting points -
The Britons who came at this time had never had the financial assets to dabble in UK property, nor any experience of speculation. Obsessed with land ownership and investment potential, the idea of a life in the sun without a mortgage was just too big a dream to pass up. By day, they would wrestle physically on village streets and by night, sedated by the tropical chirping of crickets, cheap alcohol and impossibly attractive waitresses, they would discuss their numerous purchases and renovation plans.
It was basically so damn cheap and easy, the exchange rate was good and the Bulgarians more than willing to ship old baba off to a flat in town, vacating the decaying village home, previously considered worthless. Everything was for sale and everything was within their budget. We felt like Allan Sugar and Donald Trump all rolled into one!
But few actually thought about the implications of a life spent in a rural village. Might not self-sufficiency be difficult, when you have never looked after a plant or a pet before? It’s not actually sunny all year round. Winter can be bloody freezing and then there is the complex Bulgarian language.

The British in Britain harp on endlessly about immigrants who can't speak English. They harbour a deep resentment against anyone who would have the audacity to arrive on British soil without being absolutely fluent in English. Taking up residence here, this irony goes unnoticed as they proceed to shout louder and gesticulate more wildly, in the hope that Bulgarians will understand. Few villagers would really expect you to arrive speaking their small nation's incredibly difficult language, but they do appear a little shocked that most have no idea of Russian, French or German, all languages many "simple" rural people can actually use rather well.
Welcome to neo-colonialism on a village scale. My wealth here gives me status and power. If you want a share, speak to me in Enger-lish!
Not surprisingly the number of British residents here in Bulgaria has fallen dramatically - from a peak apparently of about 40,000 in the boom times to about 5,000 now. Even for those prepared to make an effort to integrate, there have been pitfalls to navigate -
Many have fallen foul of unscrupulous British agents and tradesmen who preyed on gullible and frightened newcomers. Naturally distrustful of the foreign and non-English speaking Bulgarians, they turned to their fellow expats for assistance, only to lose everything. Stories of thousands of pounds sent for renovations which were never started, theft s and houses sold several times over are the expat urban myths of rural Bulgaria.
Loneliness, culture shock and alcoholism have also played a significant role, as have unrealistic financial planning or the complete lack of it in some cases. These people, however, have largely returned home, tail between their legs, once again to plug back into our cosy little social security system. Maybe that's the point to all this. We are a spoilt and privileged nation, and with the numerous financial safety nets Brits have to fall back on, we have little need for research or planning prior to making these life-altering decisions. If it all goes "belly up" we can go home and start again, courtesy of the State. We will be OK. A house, an income, healthcare and education, all for free. We can take enormous risks on crazy, un-thought through dreams based on little more than sunshine, and not worry about ending up with nothing, destitute and ruined. Maybe if we had to plan more and actually think about what we could lose, we wouldn't take such insane risks with our families' futures.
But, that said, it's these very same attributes that have brought some Britons to successfully integrate in villages across Bulgaria. This new and vital human influx has given many rural communities a tiny but significant fighting chance, against the mass tide of urbanisation and the possibility of remaining on the world map for a few more decades to come.
The wood carving was one of two I have just bought from Svetlin Mitov who is a great wood sculptor who has a stall  at the corner of the SUM building near the Mosque.This original cost only 40 euros!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Moving On

My run down to Sofia on Monday coincided with the Easter return to Sofia – the last 80 kilometres of the (generally 2 lane) Balkan Highway which is normally a delight was this time pretty stressful with the Testerone Teddies aggressively racing right up to the bumpers of cars they considered inferior.

Just 2 weeks to close down here before I start the long run to Scotland for an important event there in mid-May. I find it very difficult to contemplate leaving Sofia’s charms – even although there is every chance I will be back in the late autumn.

The deadline puts some much-needed pressure on my project about Bulgarian realist painting of the past century. Tomorrow I see a designer about the possible next possible step. That is a small booklet which would give brief details about 175 Bulgarian painters - with a CD containing images of about 1,000 paintings. Depending on its reception, I could then develop to the book I had originally imagined.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Easter in Sirnea

A wet Easter Sunday here in Sirnea. My old neighbour, Lucita, brought me yesterday some small meat offerings and a couple of painted eggs; and at 08.00 this morning I received a call from Viciu down the hill which started with the greeting Hristos a înviat! (Christ is risen!) to which I was able to give the appropriate response Adevărat a înviat!(He has indeed – or does it mean His Resurrection is the truth??
The call carried an invitation to come for an Easter brunch (and small Tuica) at 09.00.
He had been up all night – at the church with the rest of the village from 01.00.-04.00! And hadn’t slept since. I felt duly ashamed.
I had noticed how few visitors there seem to be in the village this year – only one car in the hotel car-park and no sound from the guesthouse down on the mainroad from which there are normally sounds of gaiety on such holiday weekends. Viciu reports a television comment that people had been going to Bulgaria instead – cheaper and nicer!
According to tradition, there shall be no partying, no weddings, no having fun and not a great deal of anything in fact during Lent, unflinchingly observed by many in Romania, right up until midnight on April 14th. Only when the priest emerges from his church with a candle (around 00:10) to declare that ‘Hristos a înviat’ can the faithful who have abstained from smiling, sex or chocolate for the past 40 days once again indulge their desires. And then only after the biggest meal of the year. That meal will invariably be lamb (miel). Indeed, Easter is the one time of the year Romanians eat lamb, and it can easily be found in shops. Every part of the lamb is used: the head goes in the soup, the organs are used to make ‘drob’ (a kind of paté), and the legs are slowly roasted in red wine and served with roast potatoes and spinach.
You should also be prepared to eat more than a few hard boiled eggs. Before the main meal (which, we have yet to mention, gets eaten after the return from midnight mass, at around 1am) eggs are cracked.
Dyed in bright colours (often, but not always red) on Good Friday, hard boiled eggs are cracked between family members with the words ‘Hristos a înviat’ and response ‘Adevărat a înviat’. The eggs should then be eaten.

I’m not into development issues so much at the moment – but this is a good discussion of an issue which has been vexing that community recently - Results-focussed reporting. The piece is written by one of the community’s most thoughtful writers - Owen Barder – who also does a good podcast series on development issues called Development Drums. The latest interview is with Tim Harford who is a journalist at the Financial Times and the author of The Undercover Economist and, most recently, of Adapt: Why Success Always Begins with Failure. In this interview, he talks about the implications for development of his idea that successful complex systems emerge from a process of trial and error and suggests three principles -
you need to try a lot of different things; they need to be small enough that failures will not ruin you; and you need to be able to distinguish success from failure, which some systems are very ill-equipped to do.

Living in truth - part II

A current example of someone living in truth - a committed American soldier sick of the lies the American public are being told about the "progress" in the Afghan War -
Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel, 48, drew up two reports containing research and observations garnered from his last tour. As part of his job he had criss-crossed the country, travelling 9,000 miles and talking to more than 250 people. He had built up a picture of a hopeless cause; a country where Afghan soldiers were incapable of holding on to American gains. US soldiers would fight and die for territory and then see Afghan troops let it fall to the Taliban. Often the Afghans actively worked with the Taliban or simply refused to fight. One Afghan police officer laughed in Davis's face when asked if he ever tried to fight the enemy. "That would be dangerous!" the man said. Yet at the same time Davis saw America's military chiefs, such as General David Petraeus, constantly speak about America's successes, especially when working with local troops. So Davis compiled two reports: one classified and one unclassified. He sent both to politicians in Washington and lobbied them on his concerns. Then in February he went public by giving an interview to the New York Times and writing a damning editorial in a military newspaper. Then – and only then – did he tell his own army bosses what he had done.
Davis pulled no punches. His report's opening statement read: "Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognisable."

The report detailed an alarming picture of Taliban advances and spiralling violence. Afghan security forces were unwilling or unable to fight, or actively aiding the enemy. That picture was contrasted with repeated rosy statements from US military leaders. His classified version was far more damning, but it remains a secret. "I am no WikiLeaks guy part two," Davis said.
He foresees a simple and logical end point for Afghanistan – civil war and societal collapse, probably long before the last US combat soldier is scheduled to leave. He says the Afghan army and police simply cannot cope and the US forces training and working with them know that, despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "What I saw first hand in virtually every circumstance was a barely functioning organisation often co-operating with the insurgent enemy," Davis's report said.
The document was also damning about the role of the US media in reporting the war - slavishly repeating the military handouts.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Living in truth

Forgive me if this post strikes some as sacriligous. I am not myself a religious believer - although I do have a strong sense of the sacred. I do not find it easy to relate to the character of Jesus Christ - and his name has been used to support so much humbug and injustice. And, with so many other religions, is divisive. I prefer this Easter to remember Václav Havel (who died so recently) for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth. I missed Jeffrey Sach's tribute in December -
The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth – scientific, ethical, and personal – a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger, and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth, and battles it relentlessly. Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel’s plays, essays, and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe’s Communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it – honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.
The Power of the Powerless” was one of his most influential essays - a reflection on the mind of a greengrocer who obediently puts a poster “among the onions and carrots” urging “Workers of the World—Unite!” In gentle, ironic but scathing prose, Mr Havel exposed the lies and cowardice that made possible the communist grip on power. The greengrocer puts up the poster partly out of habit, partly because everyone else does it, and partly out of fear of the consequences if he does not. Just as the “Good Soldier Svejk” encapsulated the cowardly absurdity of life in the Austro-Hungarian army, Mr Havel’s greengrocer epitomised the petty humiliations of “normalised” Czechoslovakia. The people pretended to follow the Party, and the Party pretended to lead. Those shallow foundations were vulnerable to individual acts of disobedience.
Just imagine, Havel wrote, ...that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth ...
That would bring ostracism and punishment, but imposed for compliance’s sake, not out of conviction. His real crime was not speaking out, but exposing the sham:
He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system...He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade…and exposed the real, base foundations of power…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal…everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety ...
The phrase “living in truth” was Havel’s hallmark. No single phrase did more to inspire those trying to subvert and overthrow the communist empire in Europe. Jeffrey Sach's trbute continues - 
Havel paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment, and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage, and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom – and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president.
Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed in part because of the miracle of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the Soviet empire – and who paid for it with years of internal exile.

These pillars of moral leadership typically drew upon still other examples, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. They all believed that truth, both scientific and moral, could ultimately prevail against any phalanx of lies and power. Many died in the service of that belief; all of us alive today reap the benefits of their faith in the power of truth in action.
Havel’s life is a reminder of the miracles that such a credo can bring about; yet it is also a reminder of the more somber fact that truth’s victories are never definitive. Each generation must adapt its moral foundations to the ever-changing conditions of politics, culture, society, and technology.

Much of today’s struggle – everywhere – pits truth against greed. Even if our challenges are different from those faced by Havel, the importance of living in truth has not changed. Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. As those in power destroy the environment, launch wars on false pretexts, forment social unrest, and ignore the plight of the poor, they seem unaware that they and their children will also pay a heavy price.
Moral leaders nowadays should build on the foundations laid by Havel. Many people, of course, now despair about the possibilities for constructive change. Yet the battles that we face – against powerful corporate lobbies, relentless public-relations spin, and our governments’ incessant lies – are a shadow of what Havel, Michnik, Sakharov, and others faced when taking on brutal Soviet-backed regimes.
In contrast to these titans of dissent, we are empowered with the instruments of social media to spread the word, overcome isolation, and mobilize millions in support of reform and renewal. Many of us enjoy minimum protections of speech and assembly, though these are inevitably hard won, imperfect, and fragile. Yet, of the profoundest importance and benefit, we are also blessed with the enduring inspiration of Havel’s life in truth.
Yesterday's post was about one German historian's exploration of his Grandfather's difficulties in describing (let alone justifying) his behaviour during Nazi times. The same day, a Frenchwoman wrote a moving tribute to a 94 year old Frenchman, Raymond Aubrac for his role both during the French Resistance and througout his long life -
The Resistance – comprising only a handful of valiant and fearless men and women – is the one event in contemporary history that we French, as a nation, desperately cling to. Generations of French people have indeed lived with the moral burden of Vichy France. Every French family hides tales of passive collaboration with the Nazis. Collectively, as a nation, we have survived shame thanks to De Gaulle and a few men like Aubrac.
What is most admirable with Aubrac, whose wife died in 2007, is the fact that he fought all his life against injustice. He and Lucie were always present at protests, speaking out, tirelessly visiting schools, writing columns in newspapers, battling and arguing, with as much passion as reason. Stéphane Hessel, age 94, is the same: after striking a storm last year with his pamphlet Time for Outrage! (3.5m copies sold), he campaigns to keep the Resistance's beliefs alive in the face of rampant inequality and intolerance.
At a time of continued conformity, consumerism and hedonism - it is such lives we need to exalt.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Coming to terms with evil

We Scots have had a special relationship with Europe – the North Sea, for example, gave us special access to Russia and Poland in medieval times. Our architects left their marks in Tsarist Russia – and our traders established a quarter in Gdansk which was still active recently. And the Protestant faith was also a factor which created links with (North) Germany.
My father was one of a few Scottish pastors who developed a “Reconciliation” mission in the post-war period there – focussing on Detmold, Heiligenkirchen and Bad Meinberg areas in Nord-Rhein Westphalia. He took us with him on at least one trip there in the mid 1950s and it is to this I owe my (mainland)  European orientation and (in all probability) the direction my life has taken - particularly in the past 20 years in central Europe and Central Asia.
One of my fond family memories is my father wading through the various parts of the weekend Die Zeit newspaper - printed on special thin but glossy paper - which was flown over to him. Not surprisingly I excelled at German and French at school - and started out on a language degree at University (which I changed half-way through to an Economics and Politics one)

In 1961 I ventured to a Polish student work-camp – via Berlin – and will never forget the sight from the train of a still-bombed out Wroclaw. The next year I spent some weeks at a summer school at Gottingen University – where I was introduced to the post-war stories of Heinrich Boell.
In 1964 I spent 2 months living and working in Berlin (thanks to AISEC) where I encountered for the first time the fervour of an old Nazi – the mother of my girlfriend of the time.

For these various reasons, I have had a particular fascination with the issue of how the Germans have tried to come to terms with the terrifying social transformation of the Nazi period. One of my treasured possessions during a 1980s visit was a collection of letters written by ordinary Germans trying to make sense of what was going on around them in the early and mid 1930s.
After an initial period of silence, it appeared that by the 1980s the schools were making a good job of helping the new generation face us to their past.

German historian Moritz Pfeiffer asked his granddad what he did in World War II, and then fact-checked the testimony. His findings in a new book shed light on a dying generation that remains outwardly unrepentant, but is increasingly willing to break decades of silence on how, and why, it followed Hitler -
Germany has won praise for collectively confronting its Nazi past, but the subject has remained a taboo in millions of family homes -- with children and grandchildren declining to press their elders on what they did in the war. At least 20 to 25 million Germans knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, according to conservative estimates, and some 10 million fought on the Eastern Front in a war of annihilation that targeted civilians from the start. That, says German historian Moritz Pfeiffer, makes the genocide and the crimes against humanity a part of family history.

Time is running out. The answer to how a cultured, civilized nation stooped so low lies in the minds of the dying Third Reich generation, many of whom are ready and willing to talk at the end of their lives, says Pfeiffer, 29, who has just completed an unprecedented research project based on his own family.
"The situation has changed radically compared with the decades immediately after the war," Pfeiffer, a historian at a museum on the SS at Wewelsburg Castle, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The generation of eyewitnesses evidently wants to talk now, at least that's my impression. Towards the end of one's life the distance to the events is so great that people are ready to give testimony."
"Immediately after the war, conversations about it between parents and children appear to have been impossible because it was all too fresh," Pfeiffer continued. "Now the problem is that no one is listening to that generation anymore. As a source of information, one's relatives are largely being ignored. But one day it will be too late."

New Approach to Questioning Relatives
Oral history has become increasingly popular, even though personal reminiscences are chronically unreliable as they are distorted by time. But Pfeiffer took a new approach by interviewing his two maternal grandparents about what they did in the war, and then systematically checking their statements using contemporary sources such as letters and army records.
No one has done this before.
He juxtaposed his findings with context from up-to-date historical research on the period and wrote a book that has shed new light on the generation that unquestioningly followed Hitler, failed to own up to its guilt in the immediate aftermath of the war and, more than six decades on, remains unable to express personal remorse for the civilian casualties of Hitler's war of aggression, let alone for the Holocaust.

His recently published book, "My Grandfather in the War 1939-1945," (published in German only) is based on the interviews he conducted in 2005 with his grandfather, named only as Hans Hermann K., who was a career officer in a Wehrmacht infantry regiment. His grandmother Edith was too ill to be interviewed at length but he analyzed many of her letters. Both died in 2006. Both of them supported the Nazi regime and Pfeiffer admits that they were morally "contaminated," like millions of ordinary Germans of that generation. He describes his grandmother Edith as a "committed, almost fanatical Nazi."

'No One Can Say What They Would Have Done'
But the project wasn't an attempt to pass judgment on his grandparents, says Pfeiffer. He only wanted to understand them. "No one today can say what they would have done or thought at the time," he said. "I believe that people will learn a lot if they understand how their respected and loved parents or grandparents behaved in the face of a totalitarian dictatorship and murderous racial ideology," Pfeiffer said. "Dealing with one's family history in the Nazi period in an open, factual and self-critical way is an important contribution to accepting democracy and avoiding a repeat of what happened between 1933 and 1945."
Hans Hermann K. was so good at goosestepping that he was briefly transferred to a parade unit in Berlin. Edith joined the Nazi Party and was so zealous that when she married Hans Hermann in 1943, she provided documentation tracing her Aryan roots all the way back to the early 18th century -- even SS members were "only" required to verify their racial purity back to January 1, 1800.
During the course of his research, Moritz Pfeiffer found large gaps, contradictions and evasive answers in Hans Hermann's testimony -- regarding his purported ignorance of mass executions of civilians, for example.

Grandfather Fought in France, Poland, Soviet Union
Hans Hermann was a lieutenant in the famous 6th Army and fought in the invasions of Poland, France and the Soviet Union, where he lost an eye in September 1942 when a shell exploded near him. His wound probaby saved his life. Shortly after he was evacuated back to Germany for treatment, his unit was sent to Stalingrad and virtually wiped out. Only 6,000 men survived out of the more than 100,000 that were taken prisoner by the Red Army at Stalingrad.

Few would disagree that Germany as a nation has worked hard to atone for its past, unlike Austria and Japan which have cloaked themselves in denial. Germany has paid an estimated €70 billion in compensation for the suffering it caused, conducts solemn ceremonies to commemorate the victims and, above all, has owned up to what was done in its name.
Companies and government ministries have opened up their archives to historians to illuminate their role in the Third Reich, and a late push in prosecutions of war criminals is underway to make up for the failure to bring them to justice in the decades after the war.

But millions never confronted their own personal role as cogs in the Nazi machinery.
Hans Hermann was no different, even though he readily agreed to talk to his grandson.
He was born in 1921 to an arch-conservative, nationalist family with military traditions in the western city of Wuppertal. His father, a furniture store owner, regaled him with stories about his time as a lieutenant in World War I, and it was instilled in him at an early age that the war reparations of the Versailles Treaty were exaggerated. The store boomed after Hitler took power because the new government provided cheap government loans for married couples to buy kitchen and bedroom furniture.

In the interview, Hans Hermann was frank about his attitude towards Jews in the mid-1930s, when he was in his early teens and a member of the Jungvolk youth organization, which was affiliated with the Hitler Youth. Asked by Moritz whether he thought at the time that the racial laws banning Jews from public life and systematically expropriating their property were unfair, he said: "No, we didn't regard that as injustice, we had to go with the times and the times were like that. The media didn't have the importance then that they do today."

Part 2: 'We Had to Keep Our Mouths Shut'
But Hans Hermann didn't join the Nazi party, and said in 2005 that he opposed the Reichskristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938 pogrom organized by the Nazi regime in which thousands of Jewish stores and synagogues were attacked and burned. "That wasn't right. We were angry about the violence and the fire in the synagogue, that wasn't our thing," he said. "That was the SA, that was the SS, we rejected that … But we couldn't do anything, we had to keep our mouths shut."
Asked about the invasion of Poland and the executions of civilians, Hans Hermann was evasive, at first describing relations between the German army and Poles as "friendly" and saying he knew nothing about mass shootings of Polish civilians at the time.
When pressed by Moritz, however, he admitted he knew about killings being committed by the SS, but added that the Wehrmacht had nothing to do with it -- a typical attitude that reflected the long-held myth that regular German soldiers weren't involved in atrocities.

Pfeiffer said he found his grandfather's indifference to the suffering of the Polish population, 6 million of whom died in the war, "staggering" but, again, typical of the response of many Germans of his generation.
In 1941, Hans Hermann took part in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. He was in the Infantry Regiment 208 of the 79th Infantry Division, and he said he knew nothing about criminal orders such as the German army's infamous "Commissar Order" -- that all Soviet political commissars detected among the captured must be killed.

'Hardly Believable'
Asked about the Commissar Order, Hans Hermann said: "I didn't hear anything about that, don't know it. We were behind the combat troops who were the ones taking prisoners."
Pfeiffer refuted the claim that his grandfather's unit took no prisoners. He found the war diary of the 79th Infantry Division which records that 5,088 Russian soldiers were captured between August 5 and August 31 alone. Between September 20 and 25, a further 24,000 were taken prisoner.
Even the ones who weren't shot dead on the spot had a slim chance of survival. More than 3 million of the 5.7 million Red Army soldiers captured by German forces in World War II died, a proportion of almost 60 percent.
Pfeiffer said his grandfather as a front line officer and company commander would have been subject to the order to weed out the political commissars from among captured Red Army soldiers and have them shot. The historian said he couldn't ascertain whether his grandfather ever had to take such a decision. But historical evidence exists that the 79th Infantry division carried out the order.
Also, historians have proven that the 6th Army, which Hans Hermann's division was part of, carried out war crimes and massacres, and assisted in the murder of 33,771 Jews in the ravine of Babi Yar in Ukraine at the end of September 1941.
Pfeiffer said it was "hardly believable" that his grandfather didn't know anything about the mass killings. Hans Hermann also said: "The Bolshevists were our enemies, that was clear and we had to be guided by that. But those who greeted us with salt and bread on their doorstep, they couldn't be enemies, we treated them well." He didn't say what happened to civilians who didn't greet the troops with salt and bread.


'Spellbound by the Words of the Führer'
Pfeiffer's book also presents letters written by his grandmother Edith that showed her ardent support for Hitler. On Nov. 8, 1943, she wrote to her husband after hearing Hitler speak: "I am still totally spellbound by the words of the Führer that were stirring and inspiring as ever! I glow with enthusiasm … One feels strong enough to tear out trees."
In his interview, Hans Hermann expressed criticism of the Allied bombings of German cities. "How could that be possible, against the civilian population!" He made no mention of German bombing attacks on Rotterdam and Coventry in 1940.

He was taken prisoner by American forces in Metz, France, in October 1944 and didn't see his wife again until March 1946.
Pfeiffer concluded that his grandfather wasn't lying outright in his interviews, but merely doing what millions of Germans had done after the war -- engaging in denial, playing down their role to lessen their responsibility.
It led to the convenient myth in the immediate aftermath of the war that the entire nation had been duped by a small clique of criminals who bore sole responsibility for the Holocaust -- and that ordinary Germans had themselves been victims.

Germany has long since jettisoned that fallacy. But Pfeiffer admits that his book didn't answer a key question about his loving, kind grandparents who were pillars of his family for decades.
"Why did the humanity of my grandparents not rebel against the mass murders and why didn't my grandfather, even in his interview in 2005, concede guilt or shame or express any sympathy for the victims?"

'Moral Insanity'
When asked whether he felt that he shared any of the collective guilt for the Holocaust, Hans Hermann said: "No. That is no guilt collectively. No group is levelling this collective guilt, it's differentiated today, in historical research as well. The individual guilt of people and groups is being researched."
Pfeiffer writes that his grandparents were infected by the same "moral insanity" that afflicted many Germans during and after World War I: "A state of emotional coldness, a lack of self-criticism and absolute egotism combined with a strong deficit of moral judgment as well as the support, acceptance and justification of cruelty when the enemy was affected by it."
Those are damning words. Pfeiffer said his grandparents' generation probably had no choice but to suppress their guilt in order to keep on functioning in the hard post-war years when all their energy was focused on rebuilding their livelihoods. "It was a necessary human reaction," said Pfeiffer.

The Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- the confrontation with the past -- got a much-needed push with the 1968 student protests. For many, the atonement didn't come fast enough. German author Ralph Giordano referred to the "Second Guilt" in a book he wrote in 1987 -- the reluctance to own up to the crimes, and the ability of Nazi perpetrators to prosper in postwar West Germany.

Pfeiffer hopes his book will encourage other children and grandchildren of eyewitnesses to follow suit. "I think conversations like the ones I carried out will bring relatives together rather than drive a wedge between them," he said.
Pfeiffer's original intention had been just to write a family history for personal use. After he interviewed his grandfather, he edited the transcript and presented it to the family at Christmas in 2005.

'Non-Verbal Admissions of Guilt'
But he had noticed omissions in his grandfather's testimony and had asked him to submit to a second, more rigorous interview in summer 2006. Hans Hermann agreed. Unfortunately, Moritz never got the chance to conduct it. Edith died in June that year after a long illness. Overcome by grief, Hans Hermann died six weeks later.

Asked how he thinks his grandfather would have reacted to his book, Pfeiffer said: "I think he would have initially been shocked about the unsparing presentation of his life story and wouldn't exactly have been delighted at my critical comments and conclusions. "But I think he would have spent a long time examining it and would acknowledge the factual analysis and the fact that I wasn't trying to discredit him or settle any scores."

Pfeiffer sees a big difference between what the dying generation is able to articulate and what it is actually feeling. He detected what he called "non-verbal admissions of guilt" in his grandfather's behavior. After the war, Hans Hermann encouraged his daughter to learn French and hosted French pupils on exchange programs. He also supported the European integration policy of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, and avoided going to veterans' reunions.

In 2005, he was outraged at first by a research report Pfeiffer co-wrote at the University of Freiburg about the involvement of the Wehrmacht in war crimes. A few weeks later, however, he told his grandson: "I have thought a lot about it -- and there's some truth to it."
Moritz Pfeiffer: "Mein Großvater im Krieg 1939-1945. Erinnerung und Fakten im Vergleich". Donat-Verlag, Bremen 2012, 216 Seiten

Blog feedback

Flying blind at the moment. Blogger is not able to give me the usual statistics on readership (numbers. country, posts etc) - just when I was beginning to hit a hundred a day. Of course, its impossible to identify the hard core of readers - and one can only guess about the reasons for the sudden surges in readership (generally my inserting a weblink in a discussion thread). Wish I could identify how many of those who come this way actually stay.......Not that this would affect what I write about!!

In the meantime a nice quotation from Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrow of an American (about a son trying to track down the truth about his father) hit home -
His was an illness that besets the intellectual; the indefatigible will to mastery. Chronic and incurable, it affects those who lust after a world that makes sense (page 176)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are contemporary English and North American novels "gutless"?

There’s a very good discussion thread in today’s Guardian stimulated by an article which suggests that contemporary English and North American novels are gutless – “Sadly, the article argues, literary writers in these countries today seem to have no time for politics” (He recognises that Scotland and Ireland are different).
The discussion which follows is a serious one - some agreeing with the author's contention and offering reasons for the lack of contemporary Orwells; others profoundly disagreeing and offering examples of good political writing. I've selected just three of the offerings -
John Le Carré is someone I´d count as a political author, one of England´s best authors and someone whose status as a "genre writer" perhaps means he´s not given his due compared to the likes of Amis, McEwan and the other overrated stars of English Literary Fiction. While he doesn´t have the linguistic showboating of Amis, you learn far more about the way the world works and the fact that his works are allegedly thrillers has nothing to do with his intelligence and unwillingness to dumb down or sugar coat an essentially bleak artistic vision of humanity and the operations of power.
Really, good writing always transcends genre simply because it has an intelligence and craft and originality that stops it from being "generic". If a book is good its irrelevant what genre it is placed in as a matter of marketing speak. Bad literary fiction is genre fiction as well simply because it is "generic" in that sense, while good writing whether it be le Carré or Roberto Bolaño makes the notion of genre irrelevant.
When I say good writing there are many ways to be "good" of course. Le Carré isn´t a great stylist, in the way that say James Kelman or William Faulkner might be, or rather while he does write well, the style isn´t really what he is about, but he is a great drawer of characters and elucidator of the mechanics of the world. Whereas really what does Amis have which gets him so much attention?

Chakrabortty's chasing a packaging problem - if it is a problem. The book industry has strangled itself with high-cost hardback (auto)biographies of such distasteful entities as Blair, Bush, Brown, Darling, Prescott, Jobs, Lawson... not to mention its surrender before the supposedly fascinating lives of z-list celebs. Nevertheless, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Richard Dawkins, Howard Zinn and Chomsky (among many others) have managed to get opuses out that I'd qualify as deeply political. It's more that subversion and protest has shifted to a better packaging. Film. Inside Job, Slumdog Millionaire, Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Farenheit 911, SuperSize Me, Frozen Planet, Munich, Darwin's Nightmare... Wider audience, greater impact, just as good as a book, extra commentaries on the DVDs. Chakrabortty may merely be suffering from a nostalgia for the printed page (and theatre, but the audience there is pitifully limited) but don't let this make you think that eloquent, hard-hitting, informed protest has ceased to be

I question the premise of this article unless the author objects to the lack of explicit, didactic political advocacy in fiction. I have read quite a few novels published in the last 15 years that are clearly political in their dissection of societal behavior and values: Pamuk's Snow (a wonderful book in the style of the late 19th Century Russian masters), Ballard's Super-Cannes and Millennium People, Le Carre's Absolute Friends, Ellroy's White Jazz and American Tabloid, Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads and Takani's Battle Royale, among others. All of them explicitly critique existing social and political conditions, encouraging us to ponder alternatives
If the mood takes me, I'll perhaps offer some thoughts of my own.
Here in my Transylvanian village of Sirnea, the Easter celebrations have already started - with the priests' incantations echoing around the valley. Very touching.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Making sense of our lives

It’s perhaps appropriate that my thoughts this Easter week have turned to basic questions such as
• How can we make sense of the life we lead?
• What is a good life?
• Can we learn from those who live a good life?
• How can we best remember such people – and what they stand for?

My father, for example, led a very full and “good” life - so did other, public-spirited people I worked with in Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s. When they died, they were sorely missed by thousands of ordinary people whose problems they had dealt with – in my father’s case as a Minister of the same Church (“charge”) for 50 years.
I was disappointed, however, to find that they had left behind few (or no) personal reflections on the dilemmas they had faced and lessons they felt life had given them. My father’s weekly sermons may have shown patterns of concerns (even if they were not exactly personal notes) but he seems to have thrown them away on his retirement (at age 75). On the other hand, bookstore shelves groan with biographies and autobiographies of the Great and Not So Good – mostly exercises in self-aggrandisement.

For years, I’ve been worrying about this apparent bias against the modest, self-less servant we find at local levels. I became cynical about the British Honours’ system largely because noone nominated or accepted my father for such recognition; whereas I knew many on high salaries in public service who were avid for an Honour and whose patience and avidity duly paid off. Arise Sir Robert!!

We Brits are not very good at remembering the dead. In Bulgaria, they have the custom of posting a sheet with details and a picture of a deceased person on the door of their building and church. It remains there until the ravages of time erase it.
In Romania, ceremonies are held at set (lengthening) intervals from the date of the death.
My father got a Memorial Service – but then silence. The website of the church he nursed for 50 years had its centenary celebration recently – and its website did not even mention him. The Museum/library complex he served as (a very active) Chairman for many years has been absorbed within the town’s municipal services – although its curator remembered him fondly when I talked with her some years ago about possible ways to commerate him. An annual Lecture? An annual award?
I dithered and took no decision.
And even when a rare book gets to be written about one of these self-less servants (eg Geoff Shaw who died in 1978) it tends to be read only by the faithful and has no internet profile. That’s one aspect of the internet I have seen little discussed – that it whitewashes people of my father’s generation out just as mercilessly as Stalin did.

In the meantime I am a child of my immodest age and fill the airwaves with papers and blogthoughts. Overkill! Search for the nuggets! I readily admit that I use writing to explore my uncertainties.
And yet theree is an arrogance there as well whcih seems to know no bounds – I have even been contemplating a Trust to be established after my death to help pursue some of my concerns!

And here we get to the heart of this post. I know that I have done little in my life that is in itself special. But I am very much a man of my hubristic times – who absorbed the critical optimism of the developing social sciences in the 1960s. But someone with endowed with enough self-confidence to admit ignorance and doubt; with wide reading; and with no little luck. I was lucky enough to hold a senior (but background) political position at an early age. And also lucky enough to be able to reinvent myself at age 50 as an international consultant. I have, therefore, been priviliged to have
• seen politics and policy-making in action from upclose in different countries for forty years
• had access to the academic literature on the subject
• viewed it all through a sceptical and vaguely anarchistic prism

Surely, I like to think, this combination of praxis, knowledge and reflection (and of international experience) has given me insights others (more specialised and focused) don’t have?
We are all, of course, different – in the cards fate deals with us; and in what we make of them. Perhaps, therefore, it is utterly unrealistic to imagine that we would do anything differently from the mere fact of reading how a wiser and better person had tackled an issue. I will never forget the written response of a Hungarian official on the proforma I had given those who made a study-visit in the mid 1990s - "the one thing I have learned is that there is nothing to learn from other countries"! And the same message was in the poster I had in my office in the 1980s - "In my next life, I will make the same mistakes - but earlier"!

Of course, case-studies are an iportant part of MBA studies. And, in my field of government and policy-making, we still need more flesh and blood cases. There is still too much abstract theorisising - too much aping of a discredited 'economic rationality' model.
We all seek for meaning in our lives - its perhaps difficult to accept that everything is accidental and random!.We are all more interesting than perhaps the normal rules of conversation allow us to demonstrate. Some years ago, we were all being encouraged to write (short) autobiographies setting out the key time-lines in our life and then exploring questions such as –
• How did your upbringing affect your life?
• What do you consider your greatest achievement?
• Your greatest failure?
• Your most noble failure?
• Your most interesting experience?
• Your greatest passion?
• Your most challenging project?
• How would you like to be remembered?

Perhaps we talk too much. Writing is a tough master – it exposes the fallacies and gaps in our thoughts. Have any of my readers tried out this sort of autobiography, I wonder? Was it useful?

In conclusion - I have to confess that I don't actually know where all this takes me in my own question about what I have learned from my various political and project experiences which is worth passing on!!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hedonism as the new default system?

A banker with links to the oil industry has commented that my blog indicates that I wear a rather large “hairshirt”. I would like to think that only someone with such an exploitative background could make such a comment.
But I fear that the notion that individual pleasure is the default style and that those concerned with social injustices are strange aberrants has become much more widespread than we think.
I’m actually as hedonistic as the next person in my pursuit of good experiences - be they good wines, blue sea or mountain landscapes.
But I’m old enough to know that selfish behaviour (in whatever form it takes – injustice, exploitation etc) destroys lives and has to be fought. Otherwise this becomes (as it is becoming) the default behaviour.

Martin Niemöller, prominent German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor, put it very eloquently 70 years ago
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Why public provision makes economic sense

The blog has made several references to the Nordic social model. At a time when neo-liberal attacks on the "welfare state" are as strong as they have ever been, it is important that a properly strong response is given to these attacks. The argument is that public goods make strong economic sense. And this is well stated in a recent Social Europe article 
there are many misunderstandings of the Nordic states, even by sympathetic commentators. The most common one is that the state is portrayed as a very costly undertaking that by its high level of taxation becomes a hindrance to economic growth. This reveals a misconception regarding what the welfare state is about. The largest part of this type of welfare state is not benefits to poor people but universal social insurances and social services (like health care, pensions, support to families with children and public education) that benefit the whole, or very large, segments of the population. These goods are in high demand by almost all citizens and research shows that having these demands covered by universal systems in many cases becomes more cost effective.

The economic theory about problems of asymmetric information in markets is well suited for understanding this. Although this theory is quite technical, the logic is very simple. For example, in private health insurance systems, the costs that such information problems lead to (overtreatment, overbilling, the administrative costs for insurance companies screening out bad risks, the costs for handling legal problems about coverage) can become astronomical as seems to be the case in the United States[2]. Universal systems are much more cost effective in handling these problems since risks are spread over the whole population and the incentives for providers to overbill or use costly but unnecessary treatments are minimal.

The second misunderstanding is that such welfare states by necessity come with heavy handed bureaucratic intrusion and paternalism (“the nanny state”) and that it cannot be combined with freedom of choice for various services. This is for the most part wrong. An example is the publicly financed school system in Denmark and Sweden that are full-fledged charter systems. Public schools compete with private charter schools that are run on public money and have to accept to work under the same national regulations and education plans. For example, they have to accept students without any discrimination concerning their learning abilities. This can be compared with the intrusive inquiries and testing used by many private schools in the US in their admission processes. The same choice systems have been developed when it comes to health care, elderly care and pre-schools in the Nordic countries. Simply put, public funding of social services can very well be combined with consumer choice and respect for personal integrity.

A third common misunderstanding about the universal welfare state system is the neo-liberal argument that high public expenditures is detrimental to market-based economic growth. As shown by the economic historian Peter Lindert, this is simply not the case. In a global perspective, rich states have a level of taxation that is almost twice as high compared to poor states. And when the rich western states are compared over time, the evidence that high public spending is negative for economic growth is simply not there. This is also shown when the leading international business organization, the World Economic Forum, ranks countries’ economic competitiveness. The Nordic countries come out at the very top, far ahead of most low tax/low spending countries. In addition these states have their public finances in good order, simply because people are willing to pay taxes for the services that are proven. And lastly, when it comes to measures of human well-being, the Nordic countries outperform all other known social models. Thus, the future of the state looks bright, provided it is modelled on the Nordic model.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cold Transylvanian idyll

I was premature in removing the snowbound Transylvanian valley from the blog masthead! I arrived a few hours ago in my mountain house for my first visit since mid-January to find the village wearing a newly-endowed cloak of light snow. Apparently, in my absence, the snow has been at least two metres and covered cars and some houses – but my roof and verandah have survived the pressure. Although there is still no running water….and the gas-stove hose seems to have given up the ghost. So the kitchen fire was duly kindled – and supplied the heat for everything.

And lots of books and paintings were duly transferred – with less difficulty now that the cowpath at the bottom of the garden has been upgraded to a track which can sustain the car. Not quite the dual carriageway I had feared in the autumn - although various assets such as the gate and a pile of construction material have been stripped without consultation by the municipality). And the lack of water may be due to the road construction!
Tomorrow the car has its bi-ennial technical test – which will hopefully allow me to make the last trip to Sofia (and its swimming and fitness facilities) in a few days before vacating the flat there at the end of the month. Sad to leave the aesthetic thrills I get there – but its good to be back in this country house with its views, library and music….