Monday, July 31, 2006

The Madness of the Max

Three cheers for aggressively straight Christian hunk-icon Mel Gibson's fall from grace.

Gibson achieved the remarkable rabble-rousing hat-trick of allegedly, according to various news sources, being caught driving drunk, going on a berserk anti-semitic tirade and making rude, R-rated comments related to the physical appearance of an LA county policewoman.

However, to the probable relief of his millions of true-believing fans, he seems nevertheless to have managed to make it through the night without breaking any one of the ten commandments. (Indeed, as Gibson pere has made comments which one might associate with Holocaust denial, young Mel could be seen as fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of the fifth commandment.)

I think this points to what is thus far an underreported angle on the Gibson story: the basic insufficiency of Old Testament morality in the fight against modern anti-social behaviour.

Later, Gibson released a somewhat vaguely worded statement expressing some kind of general regret for the incidents.

That's nice.

To this point, though, he has yet to suggest that he has given up on the ultra-traditionalist Catholic doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, meaning that he believes those without a superior morality such as his own are eternally damned. Yes, that means - most likely - you and me. (I mean, I don't believe this sort of fairy tale, but still, it's not so nice for someone to make this kind of assumption about me.)

And, charmingly enough, he would seem to think that this would extend to his own wife.

According to MSNBC:

Gibson was interviewed by the Herald Sun in Australia, and the reporter asked the star if Protestants are denied eternal salvation. “There is no salvation for those outside the Church,” Gibson replied. “I believe it.”

He elaborated: “Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

This must be it, then: what women want.

And a fine redeemer of the values of sad, degenerate and atheistic Hollywood he is.

However, since a great deal of modern Christianity seems to revolve more around 'do as I say' than 'do as I do', one might after all see Gibson's drunken foolishness as rather more mainstream than many true-believers would care to admit. But since so many self-professed Christians seem incapable of taking a joke or even understanding the notion of satire itself, it may be that we need to revert to a far more simple level of discourse in our dealings with them.

Schadenfreude, as I said, is a very useful emotion. And I for one am making the most of it.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Auf Wiedersehen, Wal-Mart

Well, as of today, Germany can count itself a few points ahead in the civilisation race.

Wal-Mart has announced that it is officially withdrawing from the German market. After eight years' of losses, it is selling its 85 stores to a German chain, Metro. This follows the recent closure of its South Korean operations, and an increasing tide of criticism in various parts of the world - including crucially within the US - about working conditions and the effect of their stores on the quality of local economies.

These days, in the face of the vastly increasing crapness of modern life, victories, however small, should be vigorously celebrated. Capitalism may have won the Cold War, but the struggle to decide exactly which of its multifarious forms will come to dominate the globe has barely opened.

While this is a battle which might lack the clarity and drama of the old struggles (let's face it, the European social market, as relatively preferable as it is, is hardly the sort of thing to set your socialist soul alight or get you singing the Internationale), its relevance to people's everyday lives should not be understated. Union spokespeople appeared this evening on German news programmes, and they seemed generally (and genuinely) happy at the announcement. It seems that a lot of this is due to the fact that the German chain which will be taking over Wal-Mart's stores is a party to union agreements on wages and conditions, issues which - here as elsewhere - have been a sore point between Wal-Mart and those interested in promoting living wages in the retail sector.

But beyond all the issues of wages, working conditions and workplace romance, Wal-Mart's failure in the German market - as well as its departure from South Korea and its apparent difficulties in some other markets such as Japan - suggests the limits of globalisation à la Americain.

In Germany, as in some of the other markets in which Wal-Mart has failed, one factor may have (strangely enough) been the issue of price itself. For example, with a well-developed market of cut-price retailers, German consumers are already spoiled for choice. Die Discounter (yes, the word has migrated into German so thoroughly that many Germans may believe they invented it) such as Aldi or Plus have long been a presence in German towns. And German consumers are nothing if not skilled at finding the best deal (i.e., they are cheap, cheap, cheap).

But as Sy Schlueter, chief executive of investment house Copernicus in Hamburg argues, there were perhaps other, more culturally significant failures by Wal-Mart. As reported in USA Today:

...Schlueter said consumers rejected some of Wal-Mart's signature features, like stores outside of town centers, employees required to smile and heartily greet customers, or baggers at checkouts.
All three factors are a serious mistake in Germany.

First, and most importantly, Germany still maintains a fairly vigorous culture of high-street/main-street shopping. Sprawl doesn't seem to have hit Germany nearly as hard as many other countries (such as the US and Britain) and Germans don't so far seem to be nearly as keen on the idea of the ex-urban big-box landscape which is more familiar, for instance, in French suburbs. (It is my theory that the French are the most American of Europeans, but please don't tell them will only make them angry.) This is not to say that such things don't exist here in the Federal Republic, but they are comparatively rare and more niche-oriented.

Ikea, for instance, seems an exception, but this is on the one hand because Ikea has at least created a somewhat intriguing version of cool practicality. This evaporates fairly rapidly if you spend more than, say, 10 minutes at one of their stores on a crowded Saturday afternoon, but still, even the most counter-cultural hipster need not feel too embarassed at owning a few pieces of furniture with Scandinavian names. Additionally, Ikea offers a kind of inexpensive cafe eating experience which remains reasonably stylish and - judging by my own experience - seems to appeal to Germans of all ages. Ikea, as thoroughly globalised as it is, remains in some way deeply European. But there is nothing - nothing - remotely cool about Wal-Mart.

Germans are accustomed to shopping in pedestrianised city centres. Take a look at these pictures. Where would you rather shop?


Or here?

In the US, this point has long become moot. The town where I grew up used to have a main street which was not only picturesque, but which was perfectly practical. You could buy anything you needed there, go to the bank, check out some books at the library, spend some time in a park and just...enjoy the view. I have fond memories of going there as a child. (It was a serious coming-of-age experience when I was finally allowed to ride my bicycle 'into town' where I spent an inordinate amount of time at the book store and library. Hanging out at the local pizza joint was an essential part of teenage life. Are kids today someday going to wax equally nostalgic about Wal-Mart parking lots?)

However, these days, like most traditional main streets - despite extensive efforts by the town government - it's largely a dead zone. With memories of earlier, more pleasant forms of mixed development a fast-receding memory (or, for younger people, not even that) the notion of driving the SUV to an anonymous box somewhere on the edge of town to load up on low-priced crap you don't need becomes a normal, indeed sensible, choice.

German towns are just now beginning to struggle with the sort of thing that began to kill towns in the US as long as twenty years ago. It does seem, though, that they're trying a bit harder to resist, and it doesn't seem as if most Germans are as eager to adopt the big-box solution.

Second, the bit about bagging. This is not a German tradition, as far as I can tell. This was, in fact, one of the difficult experiences I had adjusting to German society. In Germany, you bag your own groceries, and as German cashiers are extremely quick, getting the hang of buying, bagging and paying all at the same time (in a foreign language!) takes some time. There was a period in which I was afraid to go shopping. (This is now long gone. But still, some scars remain.) I think that if Germans see someone bagging their groceries, they - knowledgeable about how much labour costs in Germany - assume that they will be needlessly paying more for a service they don't even want or expect. They'd rather bag their own groceries and feel as if they're getting a good deal.

Third, the similing and greeting. As I've mentioned before, this whole exuberant friedliness just not German. If you're too over-the-top friendly to a German, they begin to suspect that you want something from them. And that makes them uncomfortable.

Perhaps there are limits to globalisation. Perhaps, under the skin, not everyone in the world is an American at heart. Perhaps this only means buying at a national chain rather than an American one. But at least that might be something. And I, for one, will take a certain pride in living in one of the world's few Wal-Mart-free zones.

Tschüß Sam.

Es war sehr nett, dich kennenzulernen!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

One of the most enjoyable moments for a historian is the serendipitous stumbling across of some odd fact or other which you weren't looking for. Indeed, I feel sometimes that much of my career, such as it is, has been built on these kinds of unplanned chance encounters with stray bits of historical detritus. There may be a broader point to made here about the power of contingency versus the forces of historical inevitability, but that's a discussion for another time.

The opportunities for practicing what we might call Felicitous Accidental Research vary, depending for instance on the period under study. During an extended period working at the Public Record Office in Kew (I know, it's now called the 'National Archives', but - having now reached a sufficient age at which to be stubbornly old-school about a thing or two - I've still not accepted the change) I got to know a guy working on a doctorate in medieval history. The amount of primary sources available to him for his topic - something on the meaning of lordship or vassalage as I recall - were fairly limited, largely written in Latin and consisted mainly of scrolls which had to be arduously and carefully unrolled, weighted down so that they would lie flat and then inspected with a magnifying glass.

I didn't envy him. He did, however, get to work with a very cool ultraviolet light thingy which made the faded parchment more readable. There was something about that particular combination of 800 year old documents and modern technology which had its own special cool-factor (one of the few available to medievalists, I suspect). But, as he admitted, the odds of running across some amusing little pop-cultural nugget among medieval manorial records was slim. Perhaps an obscene drawing or two among the margins. But that was about it.

We modernists, by contrast, are as often confronted not by the problem of scarcity but rather by an overabundance of ephemeral, largely meaningless cultural details. (Indeed, an entire field, 'Cultural Studies' has in the last couple of decades been built on this foundation.) Anyone who thinks that the 'information age' began in Steve Jobs's garage should think again and spend some time in the microfilm department of their local library. For instance, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, newspapers and magazines, were already a mass phenomenon.

They're the most enjoyable sources around; they are also among the least efficient.

Why? Because it is impossible to search through them without finding things which have nothing to do with the topic you're researching but which you can't resist reading.

Having spent most of my time researching the nineteenth century, I've turned more recently to the period 'between the wars', so in this case, the 20s and 30s. (I suppose, looking at human history, one could say that any period anywhere could be labelled as 'between the wars': our current predicament in Europe is not knowing exactly when that next one will be. Of course, this is a 'problem' which many people around the world would be glad to have.)

What I'm working on right now is a murder trial from 1928. It's certainly gripping enough itself, featuring as it does a fatal arsenic poisoning, a brutal history of domestic violence, plenty of family infighting, vicious gossip, evidence of sexual perversion and enough dramatic courtroom confrontations to fill a whole season of Law and Order.

The case was a massive media event and front page news in many of the national papers. This is great, as it has provided a mass of documentation and commentary for me to work on (though, I have to say that the very wealth of information means that there are times when I do perhaps envy the medievalists with their little bundles of manorial records...)

Again and again, though, I've been stopped by some story in an adjacent column, or some photos or screaming headlines with nothing to do with the trial. Some are simply amusing. Others I wish I had the opportunity and time to follow up further, hinting, as they do, at something possibly significant about British society in the late twenties. Some of them sound as if they could be from last week. Others are a reminder how much truth there is to the notion that the past is a foreign country.

There's really nothing I can do with them professionally. But it's a shame to leave them there in the archives. So, I decided I would start an occasional series (to appear...well, whenever I feel like it) in which I share some of the more interesting ones.

Today, there are two.

I offer, for your consideration, the following, from the Sunday Express, 22 July 1928:



A discussion in Esperanto on the price of ices at a dance led to the wedding at Brixton registry office yesterday of Miss Betty Barker and Mr. Leonard Noel Newell, editor of "International Language."
Mr. Newell and his bride are both employed by a London insurance company, and at one of the firm's dances they discovered that they both spoke Esperanto, the international language.
The acquaintance ripened, and Mr. Newell said to a "Sunday Express" representative yesterday that he put the greatest of international questions, "Will you marry me?" in the language which had begun their friendship.


They left London yesterday for a Continental honeymoon, during which they will attend the twentieth universal congress of Esperantists, at Antwerp next month.
Discussing the language as an aid to marriage a keen Esperantist at the wedding recalled the case of a Finn and German girl who met at one of the congresses, and, not understanding each other in the native tongue, conducted their courtship in Esperanto. Two young Esperantists who can speak only the international tongue have resulted from the marriage.
When Mr Jackson Coleman, a London barrister, was married to Frau Muzza Schonau, an Austrian, at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury, about two years ago, the service was conducted in Esperanto.

This mix of internationalist ideology and interwar geek romance is somehow irresistable. The globalisation of love? Nothing new.

The second story is from the Sunday Express from 1 July 1928. One of the relevant background issues which is not mentioned here, is that the summer of 1928 was one of the hottest on record (to that point: as we know, such records were made to be broken). There were a lot of sartorial-moral questions being asked that hot summer.



London girls can be turned off a tramcar if the conductor thinks that their skirts are too short.
This extraordinary state of affairs is revealed in the following letter from a reader--

To the editor of the "Sunday Express".
Sir, Can you tell me under what rules or regulations a tramcar conductor is entitled to tell a girl that her skirt is too short?
I am a married woman, and when in a tramcar bound for Victoria the other day my baby's foot accidentally caught in my dress and pulled my skirt about two inches above the knee.
Two minutes later the conductor asked me if I would mind pulling down my skirt.
When I apologised, he said airily "Oh, I don't mind, Miss, but other people on the tram might."
Victoria, S.W. S.K.


An official of the London County Council tramways department said to a "Sunday Express" representative yesterday that the conductor had acted according to section 11 of the bylaws and regulations made by the Ministry of Transport.
This bylaw states that --

"Persons whose dress or clothing might in the opinion of conductors soil or injure any part of the carriage or the dress of the other passengers, or who in the opinion of the conductor might for any other reason be offensive to passengers, shall not mount upon, enter, or remain in any carriage, and may be prevented from so doing, and if found in any carriage shall on request by the conductor leave the carriage upon the fare, if previously paid, being returned."

The official added:
"We seldom have any trouble with any of our conductors, and we have nearly four thousand. They are usually tactful, and use the powers entrusted to them with every care for the interests of the corporation and passengers as a whole."
An official of the London General Omnibus Company said: Our conductors are expected to act with discretion should the occasion arise.

My grandfather was a bus conductor. I wonder if he ever had cause to make use of 'Section 11'.

If so, I hope he was 'tactful'.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mad Dogs and Englishmen...

I never thought I would come to hate the sun so much. But as another sunny day in a long row of them marches relentlessly toward its sweltering noontime peak, I think hatred would be an appropriate term. Roll on autumn, I say.

In some ways, I can't complain too loudly, since this summer I'm working from home and can avoid things like crowded, overheated subways and buses or working in offices seemingly designed to serve the double function in summer as saunas.

In the Guardian, Alok Jha takes a detailed look at the perils of the heat. It's amazing to think that in 2003 there were tens of thousands of deaths across the continent as a result of the heatwave in that year. (This is the year in which we - living then in Trier - tried to buy a fan and found every store in the town had sold out. The next spring, we bought one in preparation for another scorching summer...which turned out to be rather cool. Isn't that always the way?) One commentator in Jha's article calls this the worst natural catastrophe on record in Europe (which is doubtful, since the 1755 Lisbon earthquake seems to have been more deadly, but why quibble on details?)

One of the reasons for the high death rate was surprise: many parts of Europe were beset by temperatures which are highly unusual. In 2003, apparently, Britain recorded its first temperature of over 100 degrees fahrenheit, a temperature which I recall being fairly common in the American Midwest where I grew up and the mid-Atlantic coast where I later lived. It seems that all European countries are now better prepared, so lets hope this year is better.

What's struck me, though, is that in thinking about summers in my childhood, very different kinds of memories seem to be called up. Above all, there is the curious recollection of spending at least part of the summer being cold.

The American love of air-conditioning is something that many Europeans find to be odd. Many of the German students I taught in language classes complained about this. In recalling their stays in guest homes in America during a high-school year or other extended stay, they reported having felt uncomfortable all the time, they were convinced that it had made them ill and they were outraged at all that....waste!

They're right. Despite the relative discomfort of recent summers, there are many personal and social reasons why air-conditioning is more a problem than a solution. Air-conditioning in itself is not a curse, of course. There are situations in which climate control is called for, like in hospitals or for the elderly. But Americans, in my experience, overdo it. While living in Baltimore and Washington, where I experienced heat - and more precisely humidity - like I'd never imagined in the Midwest, I used to have to take a sweater to work in the summer. I remember having a nearly constant sore throat and a lot more illness when I worked in air-conditioned buildings.

It seems that this is beginning to revenge itself, as one sees in the now annual crises surrounding the electricity supply. Moreover, there is something perverse in the fact that producing all that cold is contributing to what is making the Earth so hot.

Ah, but for a six-year-old, it all seemed different...

There was that delicious feeling of coming in from from the blistering heat of a suburban Chicago summer to bathe in frigid, machine-cooled air. Mass quantities of ice-cubes would await me there, and the thought of freshly poured 'sun tea' (brewed by the sun in gallon jugs on the front steps) is one of those memories which brings back a host of sensory impressions, from the cold-bittersweet taste, the feel of ice cubes against my lips, the clinking of ice against glass. For a couple of months, the cold air transformed our otherwise modest family homes into oases of refreshment. There was also, of course, the constant, increasingly frustrated reminders of my parents to 'close the door!' lest that precious - and expensive - substance leak out.

I imagine most Germans don't have these kinds of memories of childhood. I suppose, oddly enough, they mainly remember summers as, well, hot. While air-conditioning isn't, of course, unheard of in Europe, it's something I've rarely run across in Germany in private homes. In some supermakets, department stores, yes. But at home? It seems a rarity. (This may be one reason why the German ecological footprint is less than half of that of the American one, though I'm not sure what it's exact contribution to that would be.)

It seems, though, that the heat waves are here to stay. Will this change things?

I hope not. It's in some way tempting to reach for the easy technical solution. But cooling everything everywhere would be unsustainable, and there are, in any case, alternatives. To some extent, coping with climate change will require changes in lifestyle.

As Jha notes in his Guardian piece:

The climate models are unequivocal in their pessimism for the future. But the notion that extreme heat will become a fact of life for Europeans does not necessarily imply an unchecked increase in related deaths. King says northern Europeans can learn a lesson or two from their neighbours to the south. "If you go to a country where people are used to the heat - if you go to Greece, say - the Brits are all out lying in the sun, the Greeks are sitting in the shade. The Greeks will leave their houses with all their shutters closed so the sun doesn't go in through the windows. They will run grapevines on the outside of their houses so the walls are shaded. It's all a matter of adapting to a hotter climate," he says.
We've been doing our best. In fact, I was amazed how effectively a house can be kept cool using this strategy. For a while I had mistakenly kept all the windows in the hope that getting some 'air' in would keep the place cooler. This was, of course, futile. Now, we close up all day long and close the shutters. They are amazingly effective. (You may be thinking I'm an idiot for not knowing this, but where I grew up, shutters - where they were present on houses at all - seemed to be there to be merely decorative.) As a result, our old masonry house keeps itself remarkably cooler than the outside temperature. We only open the windows at night. With a couple of well-placed fans, this works wonders. (I don't know if this would work as well in typically American wood-frame houses...)

And it costs...nothing.

And in terms of lifestlyle, there may be nothing all that bad in learning something from our Mediterranean neighbours to the south.

Siesta anyone?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Just (don't) do it

I have been resisting writing about the current Lebanon crisis. This is partly because I’m far from an expert on Mideast history or politics, and this is one of those areas where details come to take on an important, indeed iconic, relevance: specific massacres, diplomatic minutiae, factional histories, map coordinates and UN resolutions are all carefully inserted into supposedly impregnable arguments about why one side is all right and the other all wrong. I’ve long been of the opinion, though, that you don’t need to know everything to say something, and, besides, these days any halfway awake person is quickly able to assemble a reasonable arsenal of data and perspectives about what’s going on there.

No, my reticence is mainly because in my experience debates about the Middle East almost inevitably tend to become locked into an all-too-familiar spiral. They quickly degenerate into frustrating exercises in futility and rancor, much like the recurrent diplomatic peace processes which surface and then sink with depressing rapidity. In this, they resemble a lot of other debates, such as those about abortion or the existence of God.

Follow any online debate about the Mideast – say, at the Comment is Free site at the Guardian – and watch the quality of discourse wilt as the power of vox populi is unleashed. Of course, people are dying, so one could say that civility among anonymous commentators (the vast majority of whom are living in places which are not being bombed) is probably the last thing with which we should concern ourselves. Such etiquette might seem superfluous and/or elitist, or it may even be viewed as a kind of censorship privileging the opinions of the powerful. (On the other hand, I think that the rules of discourse, like the rule of law, are a hard-won accomplishment of modern civilisation - one of those, unlike some others, which is worth holding on to - and should be maintained and, when necessary, defended.)

Furthermore, aside from the fact that all the newspaper commentary and blogosphere ranting in the world is neither going to stop a single rocket from slamming into a Haifa apartment block nor prevent a single Israeli missile from tearing open a bus full of fleeing refugees (or, even more horrifyingly as reported today, into two Red Cross ambulances), I’m not sure where the current standard of debate is to take us. Make the slightest criticism of the Israeli occupations and you’re an anti-Semitic appeaser of Islamo-fascist terror. Point out Israel’s legitimate security concerns and the possibility that eliminating – or at least seriously reducing – Hisbollah’s military capability may be a good idea (and possibly essential for any future regional peace) and one is quickly labelled a Zionist-imperialist stooge.

The possibility that a reasonable person might hold both of the above thoughts simultaneously – that he or she might think there is an enormous backlog of horror caused by both sides in this struggle but nevertheless avoid political schizophrenia – seems to rarely be admitted. There’s a great deal of for-us-or-against-us on the part of those partisans identifying themselves either with Israel or with the Palestinians, Lebanese or Muslim world more generally. And I suppose were I Israeli or Lebanese or Palestinian I would be very tempted to join in. It’s very true and worth saying that all lives have the same value, but it’s unlikely that any of the groups involved are going to see it that way. This is something generally true for most people everywhere: the currents of tribalism run deep in the human psyche, and there is nothing ‘natural’ about peaceful coexistence.

There is, in the end, more than enough hatred and legitimate grievance in that region to easily fuel a half-century of terror and counter-terror to match, and probably even exceed, the previous one.

This is not to claim that since both sides have been wrong, there is no way of making distinctions. As far as I’m concerned, no amount of Israeli settlement activity on land to which they are not entitled and no extent of wall building (both of which I oppose) can justify the nauseating suicide bombing campaigns unleashed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (I would like to think that all reasonable people, and liberals and leftists in particular, could condemn things like that without punctuating it with that seemingly inevitable conjunction, ‘but’; however, I’ve often been often disappointed on that score.) Moral questions aside, if you’re really interested in seeing justice for the Palestinians, you should in any case be able to see that those tactics – and the subsequent democratic election of their authors – has been a political setback. At the same time, one doesn’t have to be hostile to Israel to see that the bombing of Beirut and the – not quite indiscriminate, but certainly careless – use of military force in civilian areas is not helping its cause either. Or that a viable Palestinian state is the only long-term way forward to an even minimally hopeful future coexistence.

We all know this somehow. But it’s depressing to contemplate how many of the commentaries being written today could simply have been pulled out of a desk from two decades ago and still sound as timely. I wonder whether they’ll be able to be published again in another two decades, with only slight changes to the names of the personnel involved. Part of me is furious with both sides. But to be honest another part of me really wants to have nothing to do with any of them.

Which brings us to the increasing talk of Western intervention, to the sending of troops to keep the warring parties apart and, of course, to ‘keep the peace’. And here, it seems, is where I feel compelled to say something. The German defence minister, Franz Joseph Jung, has spoken up for a NATO force to ‘stabilise’ southern Lebanon. Fortunately, this is, so far, all talk. Real enthusiasm is hard to find so far, and it’s unclear how much of this talk is about reality and how much is posturing for the sake being seen to ‘do something’ (or at least say something about doing something).

However, given the current state of things – which I don’t see changing dramatically any time soon – I think Simon Jenkins has made a strong argument against militarily intervention. Does anybody really think that a sending (another) large force of European and/or American soldiers into the Middle East is a good idea? Are they going to be able to disarm Hisbollah? Are they going to be seen as occupiers? How long will it take for a car bombs to wipe out a NATO patrol or two and for the first calls to bring the troops home to emerge? When, after all, are they going to leave? When the situation is ‘solved’? When it is ‘stabilised’ (at which point, the debate will presumably then turn on the notion that removing the troops would be destabilising)? I assume that a precondition for sending a UN or NATO force would be some kind of ceasefire agreement between Hisbollah and Israel. But what if this peacekeeping force proves to be ineffective at maintaining this agreement and, as a result, Israel seeks to re-enter south Lebanon again: would NATO then be willing to use force to stop them? That would be a nightmare, but wouldn't anything else reveal their 'evenhandedness' as a sham?

I would criticise Jenkins for this, though: he too broadly condemns the notion of intervention. There are many who do the same, and it is strange to note that similar arguments seem to emerge from leftist anti-imperialists and right-wing isolationists. (Do people never notice this about their own arguments?) Jenkins, for instance, is contemptuous of situations such as Kosovo or East Timor, where, however, imperfectly, intervention has proven to be a success (in the sense of being better than their likely alternatives). He throws these into the same basket with the much larger-scale, and somewhat successful, operation in Afghanistan and the even larger-scale (and largely disastrous) invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This is unfortunately a common position: once again, one is either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something called ‘intervention’. And again, those who oppose it are isolationists or cold-hearted and those who favour it are imperialists. And the discussion goes on and on. (This is like the argument in US politics about ‘government’: is ‘the government’ good or bad? Well, of course, effective government action is good and poorly run government is bad. As we have recently experienced…)

Intervention by external power can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing, and there is no magic formula to tell us which is which. But a few obvious principles can provide guidance here. The most important is that morality should not be the only consideration. It may certainly be the case that we have the strong feeling that ‘somebody should do something’; this is often a sign of people's capacity for empathy and concern for others, one which has grown with the ‘process of civilisation’ and through the expansion of the ‘moral circle’ in much of the world. However, calling for intervention can also be, we have to admit, a rather cheap way of expressing our concern for others.

Along with moral criteria, an important question for any intervention would have to be: can it work? Do ‘we’ (the intervening power whoever that might be) know what we’re doing? Is it likely that intervention will make a bad situation worse, or will simply prolong a particular agony which, however horrible, could be better left to run its course?

I can imagine that this last question strikes some as cold-blooded. But what’s happening in Lebanon and northern Israel is hardly a unique event; it is rather a fairly good example of what community-based human hatred looks like. And it’s not as if history and the present world don’t present us with enough examples of that phenomenon.

Thus, it’s a good idea to work out a perspective on military intervention which makes sense and is well fitted to the world we find around us. It’s my view that the two most stark possibilities on offer – from the trigger-happy neo-con crusaders to the no-war-ever-for-anything utopians – are, to put it nicely, insufficient.

What’s sobering to consider is that what we’re seeing today is not even the worst face of this kind of chronic ethnic enmity. Recall briefly the case which for many progressives has become the quintessence of Western indifference: Rwanda. I remember that when news broke of the killings there, I was among those – generally on the left – critical of the lack of activity on the part of the US and Europe. In retrospect, however, what exactly should have been done? In terms of scale, keep in mind that in a matter of about six weeks in mid 1994, some 800,000 Tutsis, about 11% of Rwanda’s total population, were killed. They were massacred not just by well-organised, centrally run military units (which could be bombed from the air), but rather by irregular militias and, often, simply by neighbourhood gangs.

Here, the term ‘intervention’ shows its utility as a handy euphemism of its own, as handy as ‘collateral damage’. If one asks whether ‘the west’ should have ‘intervened’, many would likely agree. But should the west have sent a military force to stop Hutu militias from killing, if necessary by shooting them? How should the west have prevented neighbours from murdering their neighbours? By taking the sides of the Tutsis, would the intervening force inevitably be drawn into a longer-term struggle over political power?

Was it wrong not to intervene militarily in Rwanda? I’m not so sure anymore.

I was against invading Iraq. However, I was not automatically against invading Iraq, something which set me at odds with a lot of the left at that time whose reaction to Iraq (and to terrorism) was somehow insufficient. What is the left-wing/liberal response to dictatorships? When to intervene? Was ‘containment’ really a better strategy, and wouldn’t that make ‘us’ in some way responsible for the continuing terrorisation of the Iraqi population?

I think these are serious questions, ones which too easily subsided amidst the joy of Bush bashing and feeling good about standing up to imperialism.

Much like the term ‘civil war’, ‘intervention’ refers to a range of activity. The imposition of ‘no-fly’ zones in northern and southern Iraq were an ‘intervention’, as was the embargo. The former was a very good idea, the latter was far more problematic. I thought that the case for invasion was, ultimately, not convincing. My problem with some parts of the left, however, is that they couldn’t envision a case being made.

The most persuasive argument was made by Christopher Hitchens, essentially on the grounds of removing a brutal dictator who was oppressing his people and sooner-or-later would again threaten other countries. There’s been a lot of ink (and bile) spilled around this argument, which has only been extended recently in the Euston Manifesto dispute. (Suffice to say, I agree with many of the individual points of the Manifesto, but as its overall aim seems to be mainly to retroactively justify invading Iraq by moving the issue onto the broader plane of principle, I remain sceptical about it.) Unfortunately, this debate has degenerated – sadly, on all sides – into a fairly squalid series of personal attacks. I don’t agree with everything Hitchens has written (increasingly, when it comes to Iraq, I came to disagree with just about all of it), but I do think he (along with Nick Cohen and Paul Berman) have provided the noble service of revealing a problem on the left, which is that it seems to have a problem coming up with a coherent and realistic perspective on the use of military power.

But the argument seems to have become stuck on the issue of whether to ‘oppose’ or ‘favour’ the use of military intervention and the usual name calling and flippant dismissals have continued apace.

This is a fairly stupid turn for this argument. And, again, I don't claim to have any higher wisdom on this, but I can only use myself to suggest that this matter is a lot more complicated than much of the debate seems to allow.

I favoured intervention strongly in Kosovo and think in retrospect that it took too long to intervene in Bosnia (here the moral argument was joined by the conflict’s location in the heart of Europe and the relative possibility that intervention could rapidly succeed). I think UN intervention in East Timor has more recently helped it to make positive steps toward emerging from its terrible history (caused by other kinds of intervention). I hope that the small EU force being sent in support of coming elections in Congo help that nation to achieve some kind of stability. I think the no-fly zones maintained in northern and southern Iraq by the US, Britain and France were a good idea, though they were no solution to the problem of Iraq. I thought toppling the Taliban was justified and that keeping them out of power a worthwhile mission. None of these cases has been without second-thoughts or criticism, but on-balance, I think they stand up to realistic scrutiny.

But I was against invading Iraq since – though I had mixed feelings about many of the arguments being presented – I feared it would lead to a situation even worse than the one which preceded the war. (I think any honest appraisal of the modern world has to consider the possibility that anarchy is as much, if not more, a threat to people’s well-being than tyranny.) I think the current trajectory there confirms my fears. (But I would much prefer to have been wrong about this.) And I think it’s safe to say that military intervention in Iran would be madness.

For the reasons stated above, I feel the same about a intervention in Lebanon.

So which side of the ideological fence does this put me on? Are these the signs of an imperialist agenda? The craven decadence of a naïve pacifist leftism?

I hope to have convinced you that it is neither of the two, and that holding debates about interventionism along such lines is absurd. There are many things which should be done and can be done. (One of them is to provide humanitarian relief to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by this nightmare and to exercise as much political pressure as possible on any side which can have a positive influence. As former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has pointed out, as crazy as it seems, there are opportunities here for a long-term peace.) But there are other things which should be done but can't be done. And there are things which more clearly should not be done.

In this case, given the situation so far, a bad intervention (and I think that any military intervention by the US, EU or NATO would fare poorly) would be far, far worse than no intervention at all.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Joy Division

Something intriguing appears from Jennifer Senior at New York Magazine on the subject of happiness. Apart from learning the useless-but-intriguing fact that the smiley face seems to have been invented by a Massachusetts graphic designer in the 60s who failed to trademark it - 'it belongs to the world' as it is put in the article, and that's something which certainly warms the heart - we find out about the rapidly emerging semi-academic field of happiness studies. Unfortunately, it seems that the happiness specialists really can't tell us definitively what makes us happy, or even whether striving for happiness is really a Good and Important Thing.

But there are some intriguing findings

Consider what we could call the geography of happiness (I think we should call it 'joyography'):

Paradoxes abound. Nebraskans think that Californians are happier, but a study done by the Princeton Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests they aren’t. One might expect the homeless of Fresno to be happier than the slum-dwellers of Calcutta, but another study suggests they aren’t (probably because Indians don’t live in social isolation, as our homeless do). In a 2003 poll by the Roper organization, the Danes, the Americans, and the Australians rated themselves the happiest (Australian buoyancy, such an enduring mystery—they’re like an entire nation of people who can’t relate to Chekhov). Other polls have found the Swiss happiest, and the Canadians always do well (hardly a surprise to anyone who knows Canadians). Compared with their purchasing power, Latin and South Americans are much happier than one would imagine, and the Japanese are less so, though being happy in Japan might not be a value per se. And every survey agrees on one point: That the people of Eastern European nations—Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Latvia, Belarus, and Bulgaria—consistently rank themselves the least happy, with Russia coming in especially low.

The relative happiness of Germans is not mentioned here, unfortunately. Even after five years' living here, I couldn't really say where they'd end up on the international happiness league table. The Germans, I think, have a very complicated relationship with happiness.

(Germans have a Very Complicated Relationship with many things - patriotism, history, immigration, football - and this is one of the things which makes them so fascinating.)

The complexity, though, might seem curious, as they only have to look as far as their national anthem to find a fairly good formula for happiness. 'Unity and law and freedom are the foundation of happiness', it straightforwardly proclaims, encouraging Germany to 'bloom' in the glow of this happiness.

Seems simple enough.

A somewhat different - and in many ways far simpler - roadmap to Joyville emerges from the - now rarely, if ever, sung - second verse of the original poem written by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841:

German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song,
Shall retain in the world,
Their old lovely ring
To inspire us to noble deeds
Our whole life long.
German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song.
One wonders what potential impact a switch to this anthem might have on tourism, but it's unlikely that that experiment will ever be made.

Unity, law, freedom, wine, women and song. Germany should be the happiest place on Earth.

At least on the surface, though, the Germans would appear to be having none of it. In fact, along with being export champions, Germans are well accomplished in another discipline: griping. They are fantastic complainers, and ever since I arrived, I've had the pleasure of witnessing a kind of collective national depression which has lifted only recently, and perhaps only temporarily, during the World Cup. (Note to happiness researchers: you may want to study something called the 'Klinsmann Effekt'.)

Despite living in a society which is highly prosperous and well-ordered, with relatively little crime, corruption, poverty or inequality, most Germans seem to think their nation is in a state of advanced collapse. (One should not, of course, overlook the real problems facing Germany, high structural unemployment being one of them. But, really, for all their problems, they're managing to maintain a civilised and decent society. Try to imagine the United States after a decade of 10 percent or more unemployment...)

Of course, there is a certain joy in complaining, so all that grumbling may be producing its own kind of serotonin rush. After all, in complaining, we establish the claim that we know what's going on (even if it's going wrong) and therefore establish an image of ourselves as alert and knowledgeable. Such status gains are a surefire ingredient in personal happiness. Furthermore, complaining amidst a group of like-minded gripers also forges a sense of togetherness and community.

Now that I think about it, could it be that this culture of complaint brings us closer to what might be a little known German success story?

Might it be that the route to happiness lay not in avoiding hardship, sadness and darkness, but rather in embracing it?

For instance, one of my favourite German words is Zweckpessimismus, which is a kind of calculated pessimism. It involves predicting, preferably vocally and repeatedly, that the worst case scenario will come true. The Zweckpessimist declares that all plans will come to nothing and that there is no hope.

It is a brilliant and useful tactic.

Before the World Cup, there was a great deal of this about, leading to a consensus that Germany would probably go out in the first round. Everyone was mentally prepared for national sporting embarrassment. The result: unprecedented national euphoria when the team managed to reach third place.

Or consider Schadenfreude, the finding of pleasure in the misfortune of others. I don't think there's any more of this feeling in Germany than in other places, but I do think that the Germans have done us all a great service in creating such a great term for what is a universal feeling. The ability to embrace Schadenfreude is a rewarding adaptation in the happiness stakes. There is, after all, a lot of misery and misfortune around. Why let all this potentially valuable, joy-producing raw material go to waste?

Finally, there is the happiness to be had in avoiding unnecessary social pleasantries. Germans are not unfriendly, although they are fairly restrained among strangers, especially compared, say to Americans, whose hyperactive friendliness and relentless optimism Germans find not only somewhat insincere but also rather exhausting. And it's true: it is really draining to have to be 'up' all the time. Moreover, there's nothing more depressing that having to display a positive mental attitude when you don't feel like it.

It seems, then, that all indications to the contrary, Germany may be a secretly happy place.

My notion that the Germans are on to something receives some expert support in the New York piece itself from a few researchers who argue that the single minded pursuit of happiness may be itself a problem. Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, argues that our potential for happiness (our 'dispositional optimism') may be largely innate, so there's no point in straining to learn happiness (and, I suppose, failure in this effort would bring its own depression). In Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching Barbara Held questions - I think helpfully - the automatic assumption that happiness is in itself a moral virtue.

But I think the finest commentary comes from Adam Philips, who detects something sinister and unproductive in the pressure to be happy:
“It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism.”

[...] Phillips declares happiness “the most conformist of moral aims.” “For me,” he continues, “there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing—the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.

“It seems to me that if you were to take a rather stringent line here,” concludes Phillips, “then anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion.”

So, nothing is more depressing than the pressure to be happy.

But it goes further than this. As Senior points out, depressives are in fact more likely to be realists and to make accurate assessments about the world around them. Optimists tend to delude themselves about the extent to which, for example, they can control a particular situation.

Given the problems facing the world, whose approach to solving them would you trust more: a nation of depressive realists or one of delusional optimists?

Just as many Germans are, I, too, am pessimistic about the future.

So get out there and spread the good news.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Running on Empty (Words)

A recent spate of articles has been making a surprising – and counterintuitive – suggestion: not only may current ‘hybrid’ cars (such as the Toyota Prius) not be all they’re cracked up to be, efficiency-wise, they are less efficient than most typical SUVs, even the hideous-for-many-reasons Humvee.

This remarkable conclusion derives from a study by Art Spinella, President of CNW Marketing Research. Spinella and his team applied a very important green principle to examining the environmental impact of different vehicles: their ‘dust-to-dust’ energy costs. This means not only taking their fuel efficiency into consideration but also the energy expended upon things such as R&D, the making of component parts, transportation, repair and maintenance and disposal. Hybrids, since they employ highly advanced composite materials and motor technology, score quite high on the R&D and production energy-usage scale. So, taking everything into account, it would seem that there is no reason for people in general (and Americans in particular) to change their vehicle purchasing habits. As Shikha Dalmia put it in a gloating article at Reason: ‘Now here's a catchy slogan for the next Save the Earth campaign: Have you hugged a Hummer today?’

Terribly droll. But while I enjoy seeing a specious bit of conventional wisdom punctured as much as anyone, there was something about this story which didn’t seem right. Sure enough, a thirty-second search brought up an article from which provided a few key missing points. As in any vastly detailed, mathematical analysis of efficiency, the original study made some key assumptions crucial to its final conclusions. One of them was that a typical hybrid car would run for 100,000 miles while a typical Hummer would run for three times that amount. This assumption, of course, drastically shrank the overall energy cost per mile driven for the SUV while raising it for the hybrid. (The Reason article did mention this assumption, but gave it far more credibility than it seems to deserve.)

There was another key point given insufficient airing in the articles which reported it. This was the obvious point that, although as cutting edge technological products hybrids have a far higher R&D energy component, the more years they are produced, the more these costs will be amortized, just as they have long been with the old-school, off-the-shelf components of the Hummer.

As the author of the original study himself points out – something ignored, for instance, in the Reason article – the Hummer’s energy advantage will be short lived. As hybrid technology develops, its per-unit energy costs will sharply decline, which, in combination with their superior fuel efficiency, will make them far and away superior to gas-guzzling SUVs, even when analysed in terms of their dust-to-dust energy costs.

As reported at, Pinella believes

‘It would be totally different in three years. The hybrids will look
significantly better. The new hybrids they are developing now—the new ones that
I've seen, Prius III and Prius IV—are so much more simplified. They'll do what
the current versions do, but with far less complexity, lighter motors, more
recyclable parts, and longer lasting components. The current Prius, for all
intents and purposes, will be the Model T.’

It is troubling enough to see the wilfulness with which a detailed, carefully argued and cautiously laid out scientific study – which in no way ended up hostile to the further development of hybrid technologies – has been spun into something marking the death knell for environmentally-friendlier autos. Some of this is simply incompetent - or dishonest - reporting, much of it aimed at an audience with generally poor skills in scientific and mathematical reasoning.

But beyond all the specious number crunching, it was the self-satisfied tone of many critics of alternative technology and environmentalism which so stood out. From between the lines comes the joyful shout of ‘gotcha!’ as the environmentalists – those naïve elitist dilettantes – get their deserved comeuppance. (See the sarcasm dripping from Dalmia’s quote above.) For some, this whole discussion seems to revolve not around the questions of efficient resource usage or pollution, but rather about tarring environmentalists as yuppie liberals with a smug sense of superiority who deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

The battle over the environment is no longer (if it ever was) one mainly about facts, but instead part of a broader culture war, with environmentalists increasingly being stereotyped (once again, after a period of relative popularity) as naïve, foolish and liberal elitists. Thus, for some time, the anti-environmentalist verbal barrages have been most often fired from the right (where, either for reasons of greed or God, the environment is dismissed) or from the libertarian free-marketeers, who seem to see environmentalism only as a new excuse for big-government to mess with people's freedom.

The political imbalance is, however, not as stark as it seems, either in the past or the present. While vast amounts of environmental damage ensue from profit-driven capitalist enterprises and the consumerist lifestyle which it supports (or which supports it, depending on your view), the environmental record of ‘real-existing’ socialism was grim, whether in its Stalinist or Maoist flavours. (I heard a radio report only yesterday on the improvement in the water quality in the Elbe immediately following the collapse of the GDR. The hitherto largest nuclear disaster in world history will always remain a stain on the environmental record of the left. And China? I don’t even know where to begin…)

Closer to home, the West has always seen no shortage of blue-collar contempt for those who would stand in the way of mining, logging or industrial activities for the sake of water quality or biodiversity. In Europe, where green parties have established their own niche in the local political ecologies, the distinctions are somewhat clearer, as unlike in the US, unions and environmentalists don’t have to necessarily tolerate each other’s presence on the same team. As a result, the strains between red and green tend to come more out into the open. They resulted in some of the most dynamic tensions of Germany’s previous red-green coalition government (which, in many ways, were more fundamental, than many of those being staged in the current conservative and social-democratic one.)

Whereas left and right economic policy tends to be simply about producing more, green thinking at least raises questions about what we produce and how it is produced. And this, of course, points to a difficult – and perhaps insoluble – conflict of interests and raises disturbing questions about our lives as producers and consumers. It suggests that we may have to live differently, and, at least in a material sense, with less.

This is an unpopular message, and probably one of the reasons why the green movement will remain a niche interest. In a system where, even today, we are told that more is better, regardless of what it is or how it is produced, greens are the only ones who – however partially or imperfectly – seem to raise the truly fundamental (and therefore truly radical) questions.

The answers, of course, are a more difficult matter. And it is likely that the most promising ones will not only emerge from a single political tradition. European green parties have traditionally been critics of consumerism and profit-driven exploitation. They have also, however, often put themselves against big-government statism and the centralising tendencies of the left. If this position independent of left and right has allowed the greens to be highly creative, it has also been the source of their most destructive internal centrifugal forces and, furthermore, guarantees a continuous debate about their political identity.

Indeed, green parties tend to have their own shortcomings, such as a generally paranoid attitude toward science and sometimes romantic notions about peace and war. Moreover, although the mainstream versions of most political traditions have shown a criminal disregard for the environment, there have been streams within all of them which have taken a different view. In an important sense, environmentalism doesn't simply 'belong' to the greens.

There is, furthermore, no reason to see environmentalist perspectives as contrary to issues beloved of the right, whether national security or economic vitality. The goal of reducing dependence on oil should warm the hearts of any security-obsessed right winger, just as the economic potential of becoming a leader in green technologies (something which Germany has been doing with some success) should be good for business. (An article from yesterday’s Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests that the US market is already beginning to shift slightly away from SUVs and toward more fuel efficient cars, most of them non-hybrids.)

Which brings us back to the hybrids. Hybrid cars are not going to save the planet (and, indeed, the whole debate around efficiency is a distraction from question of whether we need fewer rather than better cars). However, the argument about them raises a broader issue. The development of new technologies, which in the long term will be essential to improving efficiency in resource use and reducing ecological impacts, will often, at first, involve things which seem inefficient, such as higher R&D costs or a period of subsidisation until they have become developed enough to compete in a market already dominated by longer-established technologies. These costs will be unavoidable in many cases, and accepting them will require a certain amount of political will: on the part of consumers, voters and governments.

But as long as environmentalism is perceived either as a partisan political opinion or as a merely faddish (but nevertheless self-righteous) lifestyle choice, there will be a great tendency for it to become the target of critics who will simply see it as some kind of alien imposition on their version of the good life. In some cases, this perception is real: there are political perspectives which are truly incompatible with green thinking. But in many cases, this is not so. Developing a sensible, sustainable approach to the environment will most likely not be based upon ideas from any single political tradition. Instead the thinking and approaches which will have to emerge will have to be a cross-breed of different principles and compromises among them, an amalgam of perspectives on humanity and social organisation and a mixture of technologies and new models of how to live.

It will be composed of many different elements. It will, in short, be a hybrid.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Unintelligent Design

Steven Heller has a fascinating article about the design and typography sins of the Bush administration. Admittedly, poor font choice could be seen as the least of their crimes and misdemeanors. But still, as Heller puts it:

What’s wrong with a little more attention to detail? Will it make government bigger? Will it eat into the tax cuts for the rich? Will it make the nation soft? Beveled edges and Photoshop drop shadows may be fine for candy bar and football logos, but they don’t give our country the credibility it wants or, for that matter, deserves. In the final analysis, good typography is patriotic.
Alongside aesthetic concerns, there is the question of the messages being transmitted by certain kinds of design. There are many good visual examples on offer alongside the article, but just consider this one:

Not only is it ugly, it is - at least in my view - distinctly sinister. (Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia....) Furthermore, it does seem strangely ambiguous: is 'plan' meant here as a noun or as an imperative verb? I mean, is the message 'We have a plan for victory', or instead, 'For God's sake, somebody out there please plan for victory, since we have no idea what we're doing!'

Perhaps I have underestimated their sophistication after all: it really is an achievement to be sinister and ambiguous at the same time. Is this a plot to sow confusion among our enemies?

Momus has some thought-provoking comments on Fuller's article. He makes, for instance, the plausible suggestion that the trashy hideousness of White House graphic design is not a question of incompetence, but rather a conscious part of the Bushies' populist communications agenda:

I'd argue that the "good design" Steve is advocating ... will never be adopted by this right wing populist administration because what Steve and I would call good design would be seen by Rove and Bush and Cheney as liberal design. They'll keep giving us "bad" design because it's populist. This regime's distrust of design professionals maps to their distrust of the "liberal media". Just as they see "the liberal media" as biased, infused with the values of sophisticated left- and right-coast urbanites who characteristically vote Democrat, so they see designers as incarnating the same values. Visual bias, we could call it.
This is a good point, but, like so many other aspects of this administration, it raises an interesting conundrum: to what extent are they merely bad at being good and to what extent are they good at being bad. Put another way: is their rule truly as clueless and shambolic as it seems or is their apparent incompetence (whether with regard to hurricanes, budget planning, wars, science policy and the rest) all part of a well-thought-out (if evil) plan?

I've been thinking about this for a long time now and still can't honestly say which I would find worse.

A sinister ambiguity indeed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Over at Reason, there is an intriguing review of Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield's book, Manliness. The book's argument, such as it is, is summarised by reviewer Cathy Young as follows:

Men - the manly kind, at least - are by nature strong, dominant, aggressive, self-confident risk takers. Women are the weaker sex, dammit, and they ought to face this fact, stop trying to be men, and temper the excesses of manliness with nurturance and gentle criticism.

Mansfield, Young points out, has been riding this hobby horse for several years now, bemoaning the loss of an older and presumably more genuine male lifestyle and its replacement by some kind of post-feminist wimpism.

Two thoughts, however, come spontaneously to mind on reading several of Mansfield's comments. The first: how did this guy get a job at Harvard? The second: it seems an awfully strange thing to say that what the world needs now is more aggressive masculinity.

It would be easy enough to laugh off Mansfield's nostalgia for a world of 'real men' were it not for the fact that, as Young points out, he seems to be part of a broader movement. Indeed, 'a conservative cult of manliness has been on the rise for some time now.'

The cult of manliness is visible enough, but it's not only been on the right. It was not all that long ago that Susan Falludi was touring round with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk bemoaning the plight of modern men bereft of a solid masculine identity. Fight Club (first published ten years ago, believe it or not) was itself a vivid - if ultimately unsatisfying - exploration of modern manhood. The right-wing version of all this agonising about modern men is far more predictable; it is also, in many ways, less sophisticated than even Fight Club's rather one-dimensional advocacy on behalf of the male of the species.

It may often be the case, as Mansfield writes, that 'the manly man struts and boasts'. It is also true that such behaviour has been a central element in the mainstream sex-roles of most customary cultures. But not only did the traditional manly man strut and boast, he also fought regularly with and (somewhat less regularly) killed his equally boastful brethren.

Which raises the question: do conservatives longing for a return of 'traditional manhood' really know what they're in for? If so, they should be a little bit more honest with the American people. (Such honesty has not been a conservative strong point in recent times - another 'traditional value' bites the dust - but there we are.)

In my book on nineteenth-century English violence, I focused on the tradition of ritualised street fighting among working-class men. There was also, of course, a more well-known tradition of aristocratic duelling. The English were by no means alone in ritualising the inevitable conflicts among their rather touchy, honour-obsessed strutting males, as historians such as Thomas Gallant, Roger Lane and Pieter Spierenburg, among others, have pointed out. Historical research on this topic is now extensive.

There were many, many differences in detail between the fighting cultures, say, of the Greek Mediterranean, early-modern Amsterdam or nineteenth-century Chicago, but they were also remarkably similar in that male 'honour' - in one specific form or another - was highly prized, and challenges to it entailed its defence through the threat, and sometimes the use, of violence. The results were also similar: it was not uncommon for men to kill other men for what, to an outsider, would seem minor slights. In many of these societies, the most common form of homicide was the killing of a man by another man as the result of an argument. And such conflicts were a prominent part of public life, particularly for the vast majority of peasants and the urban working classes.

Bloody bar brawls: is this what social conservatives want?

Alongside the 1950s, the period most beloved of social conservatives is something loosely known as the 'Victorian' age (a term which strangely enough even seems to be used by patriotic American conservatives who are presumably proud of having thrown off the royalist yoke). But a closer look at that time makes clear that these manly men, of course, not only fought other men in a stand-up fair fight, but also used no shortage of physical brutality in keeping their wives and children in line. (When it came to the children there were many women who eagerly partcipated in avoiding the sparing of the rod, and, of course, there have always been those anomalous marriages in which the wife has abused the husband.)

The right of men to use 'disciplinary' violence was not unlimited, and recent histories have sometimes emphasised that there was a great deal more public and official concern for abused women already emerging, say, in the nineteenth century than previously assumed. However, anyone calling for the reinstating of 'traditional' gender roles should be aware of what this really means. As the author of the most detailed recent study of male violence in the Victorian era, Martin Wiener, has pointed out, 'In the modern world, one of the most fundamental obstacles to social order and peace has been the nature of males.'

This is a lesson which not only history but also any halfway alert glance around at current society should teach. It may be that homicide rates have declined overall in America over the last decade or so, but there remain no shortage of 'strutting, boastful' young men out there willing to wreak havoc if they feel 'disrespected'. There they are in Britain as well, where the weekend streetfight seems, if anything, to be making a comeback. 'Honour killings'? Very traditional, them. Looking more broadly at the most crisis-prone areas of the world today, it becomes difficult to mourn (or even discern) a decline in traditionally male virtues such as aggression, dominance and the violent defence of personal, family or national honour.

It seems to me, then, that Mansfield and the other people mentioned by Young as longing for some kind of return of manliness (and is it just me or is there something creepy about conservative women getting together at supposedly intellectual roundtables and celebrating the return of the stud?) really don't know what it is they're talking about. They can't really want 'manliness' in its traditional form - since the hard-drinking, hard-fighting and womanising behaviour it entails would seem to contradict their other core values.

Nevertheless, they've fallen in love with the notion that liberals, feminists and intellectuals have stolen something essential to their (imagined) narrative of national greatness. So, it's not so much manliness itself as its idea which appeals to them. Not manliness, but maybe what we could call 'manliness-ness', the destruction of which they can add to a long list of grievances against the left (and modern conservatism seems increasingly something based entirely on grievances). But their 'manliness-ness' is a caricatured, non-reality-based fantasy of an imaginary lost ideal.

Two contradictions (at least) become apparent. One is that social conservatives, who ostensibly want social cohesion, are encouraging forms of behaviour which are more violent and socially destabilising (or am I somehow missing how pub brawls and domestic violence serve to promote family values?) . The second is that social conservatives are using a vocabulary as to what is 'natural' while, in other areas of their ideology, rejecting the most fundamental understanding of nature which humanity has ever developed: evolutionary theory. If you reject seeing human beings as animals, what value can arguments from 'nature' have? (The recent farcical attempt to enthrone the emperor penguin as an exemplar of monogamous family values revealed this as well as anything else.)

Of course, there are many liberal, right-thinking sorts who have their own mistaken notions: one related to sex differences and another about the basic goodness of humankind in the state of nature. The assumption that there are no meanigful biological or innate psychological distinctions between men and women was - always - a fairly dubious one, and it is increasingly being undermined. Even a simple cross-cultural survey of the history and anthropology of violence should suffice to crush the more absolutist varieties of social constructionism. And what we now know about tribal, hunter-gatherer societies (the type of social organisation in which Homo sapiens spent the longest period of its more recent evolutionary development) suggests that they are typically plagued by chronic warfare as bloody, on a proportional scale, as the twentieth century's (and possibly more so).

There is no need to call for a 'return' of traditional manliness. In many ways, it's never gone away. Most advanced societies, however, have to some extent succeeded in containing it, through a combination of legal, social and economic trends. That it lurks there, however, behind a far more civilised facade was one of the central - and most insightful - suggestions of David Cronenberg's recent film, A History of Violence.

Why do there seem to be so many, on both the left and the right, who idealise either a naive primitivism or a bloody traditionalism? Are the real, though partial and always unstable, civilising achievements of the past couple of centuries really to be held in such contempt?

Those who do long for a return of the 'real man' should be careful what they wish for.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Apocalypse soonish

So, we're doomed then?

I've been reading Jared Diamond's latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, over the last few weeks. It is, admittedly, perhaps not the best selection for bedtime reading, since the overall image it paints of human beings and their abilities (or lack thereof) to live sensibly on this little blue planet is the stuff of nightmares. Diamond traces a series of past societies (Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Norse Greenlanders among others) and some modern ones (Rwanda and Burundi, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, China, Australia and the state of Montana) to examine the success - or more often failure - of human societies. Clearly, Diamond's story (as he clearly states) is skewed by his emphasis on collapse. Not every society, as do some of those he discusses, ends up in a deforested, blighted landscape plagued by incessant warfare and occasional cannibalism.

But some do. Moreover, alongside the more extreme, lurid closing chapters which some societies have written for themselves, the parallels which Diamond draws between some of the preliminary mistakes made in the past and those of the present are even more unsettling.

Although he emphases a variety of causal factors (external hostility, collapses in trade, disease, poor political choices), the main villain in Diamond's story could be summarised in one word: unsustainability. The exhaustion of the soil, the destruction of ecosystems and the over-exploitation of natural resources do not necessarily lead to immediate societal collapse. They can instead lead to a gradual, chronic worsening of living standards, increased tensions among and between societies (leading to internal unrest, widespread individual violence or war) and the slow extermination of a large portion of the non-human life on this planet.

By this point, assuming that you are still reading, one of two reactions has probably taken hold: nodding in despairing agreement or an eye-rolling frustration with doom-saying green pessimism. (Diamond is more positive than most environmentalists about the possibilities for change, and his book is by no means entirely pessimistic.) Environmentalists are often accused of 'crying wolf', but critics should reflect on their poor choice of words. At the end of that fable a wolf did in fact appear, and the presumed imaginary threat proved to be real.

I sensed I could hear that wolf scratching at the door more loudly after viewing Austrian director Erwin Wagenhofer's gripping documentary film We Feed the World, which takes a close look at the way modern food is produced.

As the website notes:

A quarter of Vienna’s residual waste consists of unconsumed food, most of which is still perfectly fit to eat. At the same time the number of starving people in the world is increasing steadily: 852 million people suffer from malnutrition, most of them in Africa and Latin America. Even in rich industrialised countries around 10 million people do not get enough to eat.

[...] Analysis carried out by the ÖAMTC Academy in 1997 revealed that even a classic Viennese breakfast with all the ingredients – bread rolls, ham, cheese, milk, sugar, eggs, yoghurt and breakfast drinks – sourced in Austria is the result of at least 5,000 kilometres on the road. If you give yourself the additional treat of a kiwi fruit from New Zealand, you can add a further 1,250 kilometres to that total – and that’s after 20,000 kilometres on a freighter.

[...] The environment also suffers: from the direct impact of pollutants on the one hand and high energy use and its concomitant contribution to climate change on the other. For example, a kilo of strawberries flown in from Israel costs almost five litres of petroleum oil before it reaches the supermarket shelf as compared with a kilo of strawberries from an Austrian farm which uses only 0.2 litres.

Highly industrialised food production leads, certainly, to 'cheap' food. It can only be seen as 'low cost' however, by looking exclusively at its market price. Otherwise, as this film (and the soon-to-appear film of Eric Schlosser's excellent book Fast Food Nation will probably also make clear) it exacts an enormous price in terms of environmental degradation (whether in Europe - see Spain's vast landscape of hideous, water-hogging greenhouses - or in the Brazilian rainforests being converted into soybean fields to feed first-world livestock, or in the over-fished oceans) social inequality (the disappearance of small farms and independent fishermen and their replacement by an unskilled, low-wage agricultural work force; the vast overproduction in American and European farms which make establishing a viable agricultural sector impossible for many developing countries) and cruelty to animals.

We are well accustomed to apocalyptic scenarios in which the world comes to a crashing end. Nightmares of social collapse are certainly well anchored in American culture. (I know several people who made emergency plans at the Millennium and at least one person who has seriously discussed building some kind of protective bunker in his basement.) From post-September 11th reactions to terrorism to the popularity of the Left Behind series, there seem to be no shortage of signs that there are a lot of people who expect the world to go out with a bang. There are also quite a few who confidently expect various things (the market, scientific ingenuity, the American spirit, etc.) to triumph over these problems, giving us the comforting message that all can continue as before.

There is a more likely, I think, though in itself fairly uncomfortable possibility. Rather than the all-encompassing disaster or the bright new future, one can see current trends as pointing to a different kind of apocalypse: one which is already underway, and one, much like the proverbial slow-boiling frog, which we won't notice until it is too late. (When I say 'we' in this case, I mean most people in advanced industrial/post-industrial societies: as Wagenhofer makes clear, there are large numbers of people who are already getting it in the neck, and who have been for some time now.)

The most likely result is a future in which there is a slow, grinding restriction in standards of living for the West (combined with an increasing gap between rich and poor) as well as an increase in social collapse, starvation and resource wars for those living in un-developed countries (and those from wealthier countries who go to fight them).

The good times, for many, won't come to an end, and there'll be cheap greenhouse strawberries (and t-shirts and flat-screen TVs) for the rest of us. There will be enough 'progress' for the market evangelicals to claim that there was nothing to worry about all along, but enough periodic disaster to feed our hunger for the ultimate end-time. In short, rather than a societal collapse as something which might or might not occur at some point in the future, it may rather be something that is occurring before our eyes. (In many ways, I think that the chronic physical and psychological degradation this involves has been well expressed the fiction of J. G. Ballard, but that's a discussion for another time.)

Most likely, the much feared (or much longed-for?) crash will probably not come. Human societies are, in general, fairly resilient things. But it is a resilience which is often bought at the price of savagery.

For human beings, most of whom crave clarity (even if it's disastrous) and who have a very hard time dealing with ambiguity, this may be an unsatisfactory conclusion. Much like the person to cut down the last tree on Easter Island, we don't even know how far gone we already are.

Monday, July 17, 2006

And little gnomes stay in their homes

The recent death of Syd Barrett has caused a lot of people to muse about the tragedy of the Pink Floyd co-founder's life. The short version: from the brink of rock stardom to the brink of madness and a long, slow fading out of the public consciousness into cult obscurity in his mum's basement.

There is indeed a lot to mourn in this trajectory. Pink Floyd's first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was a music milestone and still sounds amazing today. (Actually, I think it's aged a lot better than Sgt. Pepper, but I appreciate that not everyone might see it that way.) Who knows in what directions Barrett might have led the band if some combination of hallucinogens and an innate inability to deal with sudden stardom hadn't caused the breakdown which led the other members of the band to abandon him. (There does seem to be a certain bitterness that some people have about them doing this...but, really, can you blame them?) His solo albums (especially the first one) were themselves uneven masterpieces. So, yes, Pink Floyd's losing Syd can be seen as a loss for any of us who had an interest in the kind of music they were making.

And this music has been important to me for a long time. It was in junior high (so, about 1982/83) that I discovered Pink Floyd. The first of their records I bought was Dark Side of the Moon (and yes that's record as in vinyl). I liked the later albums too, and I think for a while there, the dark, heavy albums like The Wall and Animals really became my focus. But there was always something about Piper and Saucer full of Secrets (and the Syd-penned singles) which dug into my brain and would not let go. Songs like 'Astronomy Domine', 'See Emily Play', 'Lucifer Sam' and 'Bike'.

I'd forgotten Pink Floyd's music for a while. About a decade, actually. But over the past year and a half or so, I've been rediscovering a few of the interests of my youth. And it's a delight to find that they're not all crap. (Strangely enough, it was listening to the Flaming Lips which re-flipped my psychedelic rock switch. There's a lot of their music which is very clearly Floyd-inspired.)

In terms of rock music, Barrett was indeed a genius able to put together deceptively simple words and melodies to create something memorable. It is a shame he didn't make more of it. But I've been wondering about the emphasis on the 'tragic' nature of his life's story.

From some accounts, from the mid seventies onward he lived a quiet life of painting and gardening, living partly from royalty checks and partly from diability benefits. He dropped the old nickname and reverted to his original name, Roger. He showed a singular reluctance to talk about the old days to the parade of reporters and obsessive fans who wouldn't stop bothering him.

OK, he lived in his mum's basement rather than sticking with what was to become one of the biggest acts in rock history.

But what if Roger was much a much happier guy than Syd? What if a variety of simple pleasures was preferable to worldwide stardom? In his best music, Barrett provided a glimpse of another world, or maybe more accurately, he simply provided a more interesting view of the real world. A mysterious, sometimes dark and sometimes childlike world. It's never seemed to me that that was a world which had very much to do with success and megastardom.

What if his path was not a tragedy, but rather the logical extension of his art? (Which is something far different than saying it's an example to follow...)

I never knew him. And neither did 99% of the people who are commenting on his life. But I thank him, retrospectively, for his music.

And I hope he was happy.