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!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

100 years in Sofia

Nothing beats a good storm – when, that is, you are safely ensconced in an attic flat!
For spectacular rolling thunder, Sofia is almost as good as Sirnea, my old house in the Carpathian mountains. And this summer in Sofia has seen a lot of storms…..helped by the majestic Vitosha which towers over the city. Early afternoon, as we came back from some gallery viewings, the sky was beginning dark threats over the mountain but it took until 5pm to hit! Two and more hours later, the car alarms are still sounding... 

The British Embassy is celebrating its 100th anniversary here.
Amazing to imagine it opening in the aftermath of the two Balkan Wars - just as the First World War was starting. I’m no fan of such places – although I needed twice to register my presence within their stuffy walls. First in Uzbekistan 2001 when Al-Queeda gained mountain passes near its capital Tashkent (this was –sadly - before Craig Murray’s time); then in spring 2005 Kyrgyzstan (no Embassy) when there was a revolution and we were given special visas by the Embassy in Kazakhstan - then just across the border.
The encounters with the personnel of both places were very civilized – which is more than I can say for its representation in Bucharest!

But I have to say that the most impressive diplomat I ever met was Klaus Grewlich – then the German Ambassador in Bishkek. He had been the Ambassador in Baku between 2001-04 (I was there from 2002). I was planning a major Conference of its municipalities to mark the end of our 2-year project. He took a special interest in it as the Ambassador of the presiding EU Presidency of 2007 – inviting me first to his office to brief him; and then, on the day, catching me unawares by asking me to take over as Chair in the afternoon when he had to leave. He had demonstrated a superb grasp of the Road Map I was presenting to the Conference.
He became an active academic at various German institutions and wrote an interesting piece (in German) in 2010 on The New Great Game but died, very sadly, in June 2012 I have just discovered.....RIP

But back to the Brits - to mark its 100th anniversary (who knows – it could be the last!), the Sofia Embassy is inviting ex-pats and visitors to contribute to a special blog. I’m now working on my draft – which has to be more on Bulgaria than Sofia

The painting is one from the superb exhibition which the National Gallery of Sofia has put on this summer of Alexander Moutafov's paintings......Hurry - it closes next week........

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Openly Conspiring?

Good ideas come when I’m in the bath or swimming – and the pool this morning gave me another idea for the website name - “Open Conspiracy”……It appealed for three reasons
- I like the idea of people working – or breathing (spir) – together (con)
- the contradictory effect of the 2 words
- It has a more aggressive quality which “common ground” lacks

What I hadn’t realized is that it was the name of an HG Wells book which was variously entitled The Open Conspiracy (1928) and What are we to do with our Lives (1931)
The links give both editions. It seems to have elitist and rationalistic overtones which grate these days but his introduction to the later book includes this section which rings bells with me for my present endeavours 
I am a writer upon social and political matters. Essentially I am a very ordinary, undistinguished person. I have a mediocre brain, a very average brain, and the way in which my mind reacts to these problems is therefore very much the way in which most brains will react to them. But because it is my business to write and think about these questions, because on that account I am able to give more time and attention to them than most people, I am able to get rather ahead of my equals and to write articles and books just a little before the ideas I experience become plain to scores of thousands, and then to hundreds of thousands, and at last to millions of other people.
And so it happened that a few years ago (round about 1927) I became very anxious to clear up and give form to a knot of suggestions that seemed to me to have in them the solution of this riddle of adapting our lives to the immense new possibilities and the immense new dangers that confront mankind. It seemed to me that all over the world intelligent people were waking up to the indignity and absurdity of being endangered, restrained, and impoverished, by a mere uncritical adhesion to traditional governments, traditional ideas of economic life, and traditional forms of behaviour, and that these awaking intelligent people must constitute first a protest and then a creative resistance to the inertia that was stifling and threatening us.
These people I imagined would say first, "We are drifting; we are doing nothing worth while with our lives. Our lives are dull and stupid and not good enough."Then they would say, "What are we to do with our lives?"And then, "Let us get together with other people of our sort and make over the world into a great world-civilization that will enable us to realize the promises and avoid the dangers of this new time." It seemed to me that as, one after another, we woke up, that is what we should be saying. It amounted to a protest, first mental and then practical, it amounted to a sort of unpremeditated and unorganized conspiracy, against the fragmentary and insufficient governments and the wide-spread greed, appropriation, clumsiness, and waste that are now going on. But unlike conspiracies in general this widening protest and conspiracy against established things would, by its very nature, go on in the daylight, and it would be willing to accept participation and help from every quarter. It would, in fact, become an "Open Conspiracy," a necessary, naturally evolved conspiracy, to adjust our dislocated world. 
I have thought and written a lot about this Open Conspiracy since first it dawned upon me as being something that was bound to happen in people's minds and wills. I introduced it in a novel called The World of William Clissold, in 1927. I published a little book called The Open Conspiracy in 1928, into which I put what I had in my mind at that time. It was an unsatisfactory little book even when I published it, not quite plain enough and not quite confident enough, and evidently unsure of its readers. It already looks old-fashioned to me now. Yet I could not find out how to do it better at the time, and it seemed in its way to say something of living and current interest, and so I published it—but I arranged things so that I could withdraw it in a year or so. That I have now done, and this present book is to replace it.
Since that first publication we have all got forward surprisingly. Events have hustled thought along and have been hustled along by thought. The idea of reorganizing the affairs of the world on quite a big scale, which was "Utopian," and so forth, in 1926 and 1927, and still "bold" in 1928, has now spread about the world until nearly everybody has it. It has broken out all over the place, thanks largely to the mental stimulation of the Russian Five Year Plan. Hundreds of thousands of people everywhere are now thinking upon the lines foreshadowed by my Open Conspiracy, not because they had ever heard of the book or phrase, but because that was the way thought was going. 
The Open Conspiracy conveyed the general idea of a world reconstructed, but it was very vague about the particular way in which this or that individual life could be lived in relation to that general idea. It gave a general answer to the question, "What are we to do with our lives?" It said, "Help to make over the New World amidst the confusions of the Old." But when the question was asked, "What am I to do with my life?" the reply was much less satisfactory.

Of course, if you tap "conspiracy" into a search engine, you will attract some peculiar sorts....but perhaps "openly conspiring" has a more liberal tone? 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dealing with Sofia's Past

The day started early with the urgent chimes of the venerable Church Cyril and Methodius and the 5 disciples – whose birthday it apparently was.
I’m not normally in Sofia in summer – although the currents around the Vitosha mountain and the trees in its streets and courtyards do offer relief from the summer heat which has not been as evident as usual. Lots of rain – indeed severe hailstones at the beginning of the month. Cars were banged shapeless.
The flat I’ve been renting (from December 2012) is a West-facing attic flat in a very central (Khan Krum St) classic 1922 building – with a leafy courtyard, gratefully populated by cats who are well looked after by the city’s older citizens.

The Sofia City Gallery has now introduced entry charges - but at such a reasonable level I can forgive them. 1 euro for adults – 2 euros for a family ticket – and free for senior citizens. So I had no problems parting with 5 euros for a book about “unknown artists from one picture” which focuses on a famous 1952 painting by one Asen Vasiliev of some 20 Bulgarian painters examining and discussing a painting. The magisterial figure of Vladimir Dmitrova – known as “the Master” – dominates the group and the book identifies each of the painters, sketches their lives and gives an example of their work.

The book is exceptional, however, in being the first I know to detail (in English) the circumstances of the cultural crackdown in the late 1940s on Bulgarian painters. But it does so in the strange elliptical fashion I have begun to recognise as the true Balkan way…..
I know something about the events – and the artists affected…..starting in the early (but vicious) days of the September 1944 communist takeover with the unexplained death in prison of graphic artist Raiko Aleksiev and soon affecting such famous artists as Boris Denev, Nikola Boadjiev and (royal aquarellist) Constantin Shtarkelov – none of whom figure in the book. Instead the text focuses on Alexander Zhendov, a good communist satirist who strongly objected to the wooden bureaucrats who were foisted to lead the cultural struggle against modernism…..Other good communists such as the great Ilyia Beshkov are simply not mentioned………
The nepotic (or "Balkan") nature of the editorial process is still evident in many of the new art books produced here.....eg the large one celebrating 120 years of art produced by the Bulgarian Union of Artists a couple of years ago. The images are great but the text tells us little beyond of the dates of the various artistic Associations, some of the names of the key artists and vague hints of struggles and conflicts.....And some curious omissions - perhaps these were the more independent-minded artists who weren'y "belongers"?

I had hoped to see the exhibition in the Vaska Emanouilova Gallery – a largely unknown branch of the Sofia City Gallery in a lovely garden beside Boulevard Dondukova. It was supposed to be open – but wasn’t. Coincidentally, the Loran Gallery was showing paintings of Shtarkelov and Boadjiev and will mark September 9 1944 with an exhibition of banned artists.   

Going to the Dogs

I stayed in Koln last year for almost 3 months and was a regular visitor to its various bookshops and bookstalls. One post looked at the fairly negative picture of contemporary German society which was to be found then in the pages of the books on the shelves of these shops.
On the same note, Der Spiegel has a nice little feature in its current issue on the atmosphere in the towns and villages on the route of this year’s Tour de France, making the point that
Stacks of books at a local bookstore are dedicated to a new genre in French literature: the downfall. It includes titles like "Reinventing France," "France, a Peculiar Bankruptcy," "If We Only Wanted To, "When France Wakes Up," "A Dangerous Game in the Elysée," "Fellow French, Are You Ready for the Next Revolution?" "France, A Challenge" and many, many more.Around two dozen such titles were published last month alone. They always seem to have the same central message as well -- that things can't continue as they are and that France is in decline. It seems like the term "déclinisme" has already emerged as its own school of thought.
Two dozen sounds an amazing number….I well remember the blitz of critical books with titles such as “The Stagnant Society” which hit us in Britain in the early sixties. They clearly helped pave the way for the election of a Labour Government in 1964 after 13 years of post-war Conservative rule.
Nowadays, such books are just water off a duck’s back.
As a genre, I think I prefer the social histories – which give a better sense of perspective or books which plot the development of literature over significant periods of a country eg post-war Germany

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seeking common ground; puzzling development???

The website name – and its “tags” – are clearly crucial choices for a new website which actually wants to attract traffic. So far the tagwords I’ve suggested are
Capacity development, Civil service reform, citizen action, Community development, corporate power, democracy, democratization, governance, institutional Capacity, local government, machinery of government, media, modernizing government, protest, public administration reform, training, Central Asia, Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, Scotland, Bulgarian painting, Romanian painting, social democracy, social change….
You can see my problem!

I was pondering “Conviviality” as the website name not so much for of its epicurean connotations as the link with the writings of the sadly forgotten Ivan Illich of the 1970s – particularly his “Tools of Conviviality
I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.
And I also have a weakness for words with a Latin root – such as “com-panion” (breaking bread with); “con-spiracy” (breathing with) etc Perhaps Illich is not so forgotten – The Atlantic Journal had a piece about him only 2 years ago  

But I’m really looking for a name which reflects my interest in establishing a “common ground” or agenda amongst social and political activists with which the power structure and elites can be challenged in a sustainable manner. “Exploring Common Ground” is an obvious one. And I’ve looked at various metaphors relating to borders – one of my favourite writers EG Hirschmann entitled one of his books “Essays in Trespassing” and the concept is discussed here. It seems increasingly difficult - and yet necessary - for people to cross intellectual disciplines/borders and the word "trespass" is such a negative one that "bordercrossing" might be better.
But "exploring/seeking common ground" has a head start on the other names......

Except that I recall the titles of the two little books I produced in the 90s - "Puzzling Development"; and "In Transit". 
I still like both - the first for the play of words - the first can be either adjective or verb!
And "in transit" connotes movement and travel - indeed I used it as shorthand for "transition". 
Unfortunately the website name is taken - but "Puzzling Development" is not - and, in my time, I have puzzled -
- regional development
- urban development
- community development
- institutional development
- capacity development

More recently, I have been daring to question the whole concept of development. Perhaps I should run with that one? Except that the direction I want to go now is seeking/exploring (the) common ground.....

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A New Adventure

Most websites are institutional – and promotional. They are there to sell you products, services and, in some cases, ideologies. The new website I am planning will simply provide good material and writing to help and encourage people to work together for a better future.
I’ve had both a blog and a website for almost 6 years – almost 1000 blogposts and about 20 papers on a website focused mainly on issues of capacity building at both national and local levels in several countries but mainly in what we previously knew as the “Eastern bloc”.  
But my interests have always been broader – as is clear from the blog which has had several series devoted to such subjects as training, capacity development and technical assistance; and to different aspects of Scotland, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany. It has also teased out issues on such themes as political parties, universities, corporate power and the global crisis. A short post earlier in the year tried to explain this.

I’m running out of website capacity but, for 100 euros a year, could simply upgrade with no limits. But I’m thinking instead of setting up a free-standing, “unhosted” facility. It will hopefully force me to focus more clearly. It’s not so much a question of what I want to say – that’s a bit too self-centred…..and I’ve always tried not just to give credit to others but indeed to seek out the voices which were expressing what I felt more clearly. Its rather that I want to try to spend more time distilling the essence of the “concerned writing” of the past few decades which can be found (if you search hard enough) in a variety of places.

I have a lot of experience at both high-levels (professional and political); and (in depth) in about 6 countries; and both extensive and broad reading. This is a fairly rare com- or rather decet (!) bination.
And that is indeed the problem – that the “tags” I want to use – such as “capacity development” and “community”, “municipality” – let alone “governance” and “social change” – are so dry, hackneyed….and, ultimately, meaningless. 
I accepted that my current website is a professional one – with a very limited readership. But I want the new one “to attract traffic”!
And that affects its name ....I have a lengthening list……in which “Conviviliaty” looms large…

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

New Website in the offing

I have decided to create a new website! I’ve actually had one since 2008 – a free one hosted by Freewebs to which I’ve uploaded almost 50 papers – mostly mine. But it has never had much of a profile (to put it mildly) and is now reaching the (very generous) 41 MB capacity which is its limit.
I eventually tracked down, in my electronic library, a large manual about building a website which UNESCO created in 2005 - but found this simple set of instructions much easier to follow – also this one 

I’m lucky in having access to the young Bulgarian who helped me design my book Introducing the Bulgarian Realists – how to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings (which included a CD) and, more recently, to format my little E-book Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey on the website
Now I’m busy briefing myself on the various technical options so that I can talk sensibly to him about the direction the site should take. Basically I just want an attractive site with papers, images and text which show my passions and encourage others to follow them……
Most websites are institutional – and are waving one sort of flag or another.
Blogs are more personal but do not, as far as I am aware, have the capacity to permit the uploading of the large quantity of papers, files, images and videos I would want.
I am unusual in being interested in such a wide range of things and in having amassed such a large library – physical and virtual……So this looks to be a fairly unusual sort of website…..

Any advice would be appreciated….

Management and economics as the new Religion

Epiphanies (or “Eureka!” moments) are memorable – and I therefore remember some ten years ago being in the flat I had for a couple of years in central Bishkek. I was flicking through a book I had picked from my kitchen shelf - Reformation –Europe’s House Divided - and suddenly realising that the intense disputations about religious doctrine in this period were remarkably similar to contemporary economic disputes. Other people, of course, have developed this theme of the religious role taken by modern management and economics – for example Susan George in her 1994 book Faith and Credit - a tough critique of the World Bank which was the subject of a brilliant satire here
In the early 90s, a book actually bore the title Economics as Religion  – and its Introduction can be read here 

You would think that “Management” offers an easier target since it patently has less reason to claim scientific status - not that this has prevented such claims being made! Charles Handy’s Gods of Management is actually about “cultures” of management and resists the temptation to explode the pretensions of management gurus.
It is not easy to find a book on “management as religion” – although there are several classics which have a go at the management gurus and one of them (Russel Ackoff) actually (and famously) wrote A Little Book of F-Laws 
Eventually my search produced a 1997 book The Faith of the Managers - when management becomes religion 

So much damage has been done to the arbitrary drive for “Efficiency” that one would have thought the time is overdue for a savage critique of the religion of management,
There is, of course, an academic discipline called “Critical Management Studies” one of whose foremost proponents is Chris Grey whose small book about studying organisations is a clear and powerful read. But the discipline as a whole is a let-down and rarely offers good insights - "Against Management" is a good example

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's Good to Talk

In the late 60s I became a fan of “participative politics”. First in the small “ward” to which I was elected; then in 1971, as chairman of a major municipal Committee in a shipbuilding town of 70,000 people organising annual Conferences; and, in the early 80s , convening six large Conferences of community activists in a Region of two and half million people. Reports and actions followed. Focused, communal talking has, for me, been an important social glue.

I’ve now stumbled on the idea of “Unconferences” which apparently
sprang out of the experience that many conference goers have – that the real value of some conferences comes from the conversations over coffee and lunch rather than the lectures themselves. Lectures didn’t engage and often inhibited discussion – one person standing at the front of a room of peers holding forth.
Conferences reflect the power structure of an organization - the distinctive feature of “unconferences” is set out in this table 
Before I knew what was happening, I was in a world of “barcamps”, “brewcamps” and knowledge cafes  - all of which reminded me of the idea of World Cafes which I had last heard of almost a decade ago in a book called The World Café – shaping our futuresthrough conversations that matter (Berret-Koehler 2005) which described the dialogues taking place throughout the world by using an informal format (set out like a café) of small tables at which 4 people sit initially to discuss a question which has been carefully prepared. After 20 minutes everyone (save one) changes places – and the previous conversation is summarised.
But the world café site seem no longer active with their last high profile activity (in Prague) being last year 

Further thought took me back to the Search Conferences (described in this paper) of Eric Trist and Fred and Marlyn Emery 
There’s clearly some money to be made from this structured searching and its easy to be cynical.

Time was when you needed people for such events – but Open Source seems to have changed all that

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Missing intellectual fare

Where do we go for a journal which speaks to the increasing number of people who are alienated from politics, corporate power and the media; who want more than empty slogans; and who are keen to read well-written pieces by those whose reading is extensive enough to make them aware of their own limitations?

Not to newspapers whose deadlines make the required quality of writing and scope of reading impossible – although Le Monde and Die Zeit (a weekly) try hard. 
Sensible people go to the New York. London and Dublin Reviews of Books. While preparing this post, I came across this helpful list of the 50 “best literary” journals but they are American and limited to magazines judged to be literary. The Nation makes the cut but, for some reason, The New Republic and The Boston Review don’t. Not literary enough?

Over the past few years, I have several times commented on the lamentable choices for those of us looking for deep, non-partisan and well-written coverage of key issues facing Europeans. In 2011 I talked about “gated communities” 
The barrier to our understanding of development in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically.

In 2012 a blogpost talked of a “european failure of knowledge management” and blamed journalists - although it is clearly publishers who are at fault. Later that same year a post tried to express the need more clearly 
In my days, we had the magazine Encounter (Der Monat in Germany) which gave me stimulating articles by renowned French, German and Italian writers, for example, but was then discovered to have been funded by the CIA and soon folded. Where is its equivalent these days? Le Monde Diplomatique and Lettre International perhaps - except there is, sadly, no English version of the latter - and only a short version in English of the former (whose language is, in any event, a bit opaque).
In 2004 Carl Fredrikkson wrote an article about the need for a proper European public space where ideas were exchanged across national boundaries and Jan-Werner Muller returned to the issue earlier this year with an important article entitled The Failure of European Intellectuals?But I am actually asking for something simpler - clear and insightful writing about different European societies. The recent publication on The Inner lives of Cultures could give us only one European system!

 And, at the beginning of this year, a post entitled Indifference to European Differences posed a simple question
there are tens of thousands of journalists and academics churning out articles in (hundreds of) thousands of journals in the general field of politics and social policy. Can we not think of a way of making the better of these pieces more accessible - in various European languages?? That's the Eurozine concept - but they're selecting from a rather precious bunch of cultural magazines whose language doesn't take many prisoners!
One of the factors which gets in the way of even this simple idea is the specialisation of political, professional and academic silos - just have a look at the lists of academic magazines at publishers such as Elsevier,Sage or Wiley. Twenty- odd years ago journals such as Parliamentary Affairs, Political Quarterly, West European Politics and Government and Opposition offered civilised reading. Now, with the exception of Political Quarterly, you get highly specialised  topics with boring technocratic prose.

Of course, the weekly Courrier International and Project Syndicate bring us syndicated pieces from around the world – but these are from newspapers and therefore suffer from superficiality.
Perhaps I’ve been missing something….I google “lists” and come up with an interesting table of about 150 political magazines covering key countries. But nothing I didn’t already know.
By the way, the current edition Government and Opposition – on The Power of Finance - can be downloaded free – article by article (until mid-August). And the journal Governance does have a useful blog which picks out worthwhile articles.

I liked the way the original editors of The Nation expressed its philosophy way back in 1835
The Nation will not be the organ of any party, sect, or body. It will, on the contrary, make an earnest effort to bring to the discussion of political and social questions a really critical spirit, and to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration, and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred.
But where is the political equivalent of Granta?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Common Sense of Visionaries

We are all inspired by Stephane Hessel who, in his nineties, produced the short book (“Indignez-vous!”) about the global crisis and inequality which touched millions. But I hadn’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs who is apparently still campaigning in America at the age of 99. A journal devoted to art and politics called Guernica has a fascinating interview with this Chinese-American philosopher who has been refusing to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns. The opening chapter of her book – The next American Revolution; sustainable activism for the 21st Century - has echoes, for me, of Robert Quinn’s hugely underrated Change the World

Most of us operate with an “instrumental” or “agency” view of social change. We assume that “a” causes “z” and that socio-economic ills can therefore be dealt with by specific measures. But a couple of decades ago, an approach – variously called “chaos” or “complexity” theory – started to undermine such assumptions. Writers such as Margaret Wheatley and Quinn have shown the implications for management practice - but few activists have.
Lee Boggs puts it as follows
I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking. But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.
Quinn’s book was produced in 1996 and is an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change – those who imagine it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn exposes the last for what it normally is (despite the best intentions of those in power) – a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people.
As the blurb says – “the idea that inner change makes outer change possible has always been part of spiritual and psychological teachings. But not an idea that’s generally addressed in leadership and management training.

Quinn looks at how leaders such as Gandhi and Luther King mobilised people for major change and derives certain principles for “change agents” to enable them to help ordinary people achieve transformative change. These principles include recognizing our own hypocrisy and fears; “going with the flow” and “enticing through moral power”

Monday, July 14, 2014

Balkan Struggles

Can a Greek historian (even if one who now teaches at an American University) cast aside his preconceptions and offer the English-speaking reader an understanding of “the Balkan Wars”? This is the question I have after reading Andre Gerolymatos’ The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond

It was one of two books I bought recently to help me throw some light on the two 1912-13 Balkan conflicts in which first Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia united to fight (successfully) the Ottomans and then divided to fight one another. I quickly discovered that the book is mistitled and that the Balkan wars to which the title referred are in fact the various struggles (not least between brigands) and bloodletting which have characterised the area for centuries. It is none the worse for that wider focus. The second book – by a Serb – has the narrower focus.
this book is a work of cultural sociology in seeking to uncover the patterns of history that have led to constant conflict, the choices that led to cycles of endless acts of retribution, the cultural scripts of martyrdom, betrayal, and defeat that have led to the nursing of grudges. There are a lot of people who come off looking very poor in this book, whether it is exploitative Phanariot Greeks in areas like Moldova and Rumania; the Ottoman sultans (even when in reform mood); or the brigands whose oppressive and exploitative ways was a result of and contributed to chaos and anarchy throughout the Balkans. But towering above all this is the two-faced nature of the interest of the “Great Powers” in the region

We know little of these wars in the West – coverage of the ethnic cleansing of the 90s focused on older struggles, not on the events of 100 years ago. And there were very few commemorations in 2012 and 2013 – particularly in Bulgaria which risked (and lost) everything by its wanton attack after the cease-fire on its previous ally Serbia in order to try to win the disputed lands of neighbouring Macedonia. Illusions of a lost grandeur! Of course, with my interest in Bulgarian painting of that period, I come across frequent references to the time many of my favourite artists spent as war artists in this period….

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Black Dog

The trip to Zarnesti is always a pleasure – down the spectacular road on the narrow ridge which separates Moiecu and Pestera villages on either side below (with the mountain ranges behind them); through Bran and then left at the old village of Tohani with its saxon houses; then the short run in open country with the side of the Piatra Craiului range towering on the left. The trip this time was for dental purposes – my partner’s not mine – and I was able to use the time to visit the amazing 16th century Gothic church in the centre (opposite the municipality) which has stunning mural paintings – from 1515! I have to confess that I have neglected this aspect of the country’s painting heritage and could immediately sense the difference in colour tints – clearly coming from the Catholic west rather than the Byzantine church whose painting style alienates me. 
My daughter, at the same time, was visiting the area further north and brought back beautiful shots from the village museum in Sibiu.

So when, on Monday, I came across a book on Gothic Mural Paintings of Transylvania by Dana Jenei – as well as one on the Wooden Churches of Salaj (North-west of Cluj) by Ana Barga, I had no hesitation in buying copies, both being in English.

The Humanitas bookshop (next door to the English Bookshop) also had an intriguing-looking 2001 book called The Noonday Demon – an anatomy of depression by Andrew Solomon which had received rave reviews – not least one from Joyce CarolOates

Like most achievers, I have known depression – fortunately only for a few years in the last half of the 1980s. In my case the causes were external/contextual rather than chemical/genetic – strong elements of manic depression – I worked myself very hard. So I was able (slowly) to identify the root causes and even have a stab at understanding the trigger events and therefore be in a better position to deal with it when it next reared its head.
It didn’t help that I was living in dark, damp Scotland! I would basically hibernate for the winter months – during 3-4 years.
I tried therapy - but was too good with words for that really to be much help - and fairly quickly gave up lithium. 

What I did was to make a fundamental change to my life – I left my family, my job and my country! That was 24 years ago – and only in 2010 suffered again – for about 6 months when 2 projects were really screwing me up – one in Beijing. Since the experience, I think I have a different attitude to life – I have become more grateful for my blessings…

So it’s a condition for which I have a lot of sympathy. And am always pleased when a prominent person (like Stephen Fry) comes out strongly about his experience.
In my days (almost 30 years ago) there wasn’t all that much to read – although I do remember the anguish of Philip Toynbee’s diaries 

Solomon’s book is a big one (more than 500 pages) which mixes harrowing tales of his own case with those of others and extensive research (the bibliography and notes account for the last 100 pages) But is a real page-turner (I’ve almost finished it in 2 days).
In the extent to which it peeled back lives,  I was reminded of the way Theodore Zeldin dealt with individuals in his marvellous Intimate History of Humanity

The Black Dog is how (manic-depressive) Winston Churchill referred to his condition. Sadly that did not seem to help advance the need for its proper recognition let alone treatment.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why we disagree about "wicked problems"

For years I’ve been searching for a book which did justice – in a clear and generous way - to the complexity of the world we inhabit; and which helped us place our own “confused take” on “wicked problems” into a wider schema. Hood’s 1990 book “The Art of the State” (mentioned in the last post) is one of a handful in these.
But by far and away the best book is one I’ve just finished reading this week– Why We Disagree about Climate Change – understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity by geographer Mike Hulme.

Hulme’s book clarifies the climate debate by using seven different lenses (or perspectives) to make sense of climate change: science, economics, religion, psychology, media, development, and governance. His argument is basically that –
·       We understand science and scientific knowledge in different ways
·       We value things differently
·        We believe different things about ourselves, the universe and our place in the universe
·       We fear different things
·   We receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change – and interpret them differently
·       We understand “development” differently
·  We seek to govern in different ways (eg top-down “green governmentality”; market environmentalism; or “civic environmentalism”)

Climate science is an instance of “post-normal science” (p. 78). In today’s contentious political context, scientists must more than ever “recognize and reflect upon their own values and upon the collective values of their colleagues. These values and world views continually seep into their activities as scientists and inflect the knowledge that is formed” (p. 79). 
Post-normal science also challenges how expertise is understood. People with varying backgrounds want and need to weigh in on important issues of the day, including climate change. Hence, natural science must cede some governance to wider society and some ground to “other ways of knowing” (p. 81). In post-normal science, moreover, people acknowledge that there is much that we cannot predict; uncertainty is intrinsic to climate change issues. The public and their political representatives may want certainty, but it is not available in regard to the behaviour of a chaotic system such as climate (pp. 83-84).

In chapter four, “The Endowment of Value,” Hulme offers an exceptionally well-informed review of debates carried on by people with very different evaluations of what ought to be done about climate change. He remarks: “We disagree about climate change because we view our responsibilities to future generations differently, because we value humans and Nature in different ways, and because we have different attitudes to climate risks” (p. 139).

Similarly, in chapter five, he maintains that: “One of the reasons we disagree about climate change is because we believe different things about our duty to others, to Nature, and to our deities” (p. 144). Hulme describes a host of competing but important views about such duties, including monotheistic stewardship of Creation, the responsibility to care for life, environmentalism as a religious discourse, the moral imperative to care for Gaia, and romantic views of nature.
Theologies of blame arise, one of which accuses individuals of responsibility for climate change, another of which accuses socio-economic systems

Hulme maps the cultural categorization scheme of individualists, egalitarians, hierarchalists, and fatalists onto ecologist C.S. (“Buzz”) Hollings’ notion of the four “myths” about nature (p. 188).
      Hollings’ myths, which describe the degree to which people think of nature as stable or unstable, are represented by four pictures depicting different arrangements of a ball in a landscape. The degree of natural stability is indicated by whether the ball is situated so as to resist change of location (nature as stable) or whether the ball is situated so as to be easily moved (nature as unstable).
·         The first picture, nature as “benign,” depicts a ball sitting at the bottom of a U-shaped landscape. According to this view, favoured by individualists, nature is capable of maintaining or reestablishing its current organization despite human influence, such as introducing large amounts of C02 into the atmosphere. Human-friendly nature will continue to operate within boundaries favourable to human life, so the risk posed by climate change is low. In other words, we do not have to “turn back the clock of technological change” (p. 190).
·         The second picture, nature as “ephemeral,” shows the ball as unstably perched atop a steep hill, thus easily thrown out of kilter by human interference. This view of nature, favoured by egalitarians, indicates that the risks posed by climate change are high, such that excessive fossil fuel use will likely lead to climate chaos and the collapse of civilization.
·         The third picture, nature as “perverse/tolerant,” shows the ball at the bottom of a deep valley formed by two hills. According to this view of nature, favoured by hierarchalists, nature is somewhat unpredictable, but also relatively resilient, if managed appropriately. Guided by scientific knowledge, we can develop predictive abilities that will allow us to formulate policies needed to limit climate change.
·         Finally, the fourth picture, nature as “capricious,” shows a ball sitting on a line. According to this view, favoured by fatalists, nature is basically unpredictable, given that its behaviour is influenced not only by human behaviour, but also by countless other factors, including many unknown to us. Climate will continue, as ever, to pose change and thus risk to humans, some of whom will cope, while others will not. For the fatalist, climate change of one sort or another will continue even if industrial civilization immediately grinds to a halt (pp.188-190).
 After entertaining the possibility of viewing climate change as either a “clumsy” problem or even as a “wicked” problem (one so complex that some proposed solutions end up undermining other solutions), Hulme concludes that climate is not a “problem” to be solved at all. Instead, it is an opportunity to transform how we understand ourselves and relate to one another.
The opportunity favoured by Hulme becomes clear in his discussion of what he calls the four leading “myths” of climate change: Lamenting Eden, Presaging Apocalypse, Constructing Babel, and Celebrating Jubilee.
All four myths are taken from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which retains some of its original animating force, even though it has become marginalized in secular Euro-American cultures. They are
     ·         Lamenting Eden is the myth adhered to by postmodern greens who bemoan the loss of pristine nature and simpler ways of life.
·         Presaging Apocalypse is the myth adhered to by traditional conservatives who depict climate change in terms of calamities that exact cosmic retribution for human depravity, notions with a long and often  critically unscrutinized lineage.
·         Constructing Babel is the myth adhered to by rational moderns who, as in the Genesis myth of Babel, seek to become like God by developing technological power. Whereas the peoples at Babylon sought to build a tower reaching to heaven, contemporary geoengineers propose technical means to gain control over climate.
·         The fourth and final myth, Celebrating Jubilee, is consistent with Hulme’s vision of what climate change can do for us. Jubilee takes its name from the Jewish Torah, according to which every 50 years “soil, slaves and debtors should be liberated from their oppression.” Metaphorically, then, Celebrating Jubilee encourages us think about climate change in terms of morals and ethics, and “offers hope as an antidote to the presaging of Apocalypse” (pp. 353, 354)
An excellent comparative review of Hulme's book can be read here.