Atlantic is offering a fun story about how we came to the idea that witches ride broomsticks. I am not sure that I buy the whole tale, but I am pretty amazed by the idea that people used a rye spore to get high.
Atlantic is offering a fun story about how we came to the idea that witches ride broomsticks. I am not sure that I buy the whole tale, but I am pretty amazed by the idea that people used a rye spore to get high.
Imagine it is 1983, and you are the sole operator of a Soviet facility that monitors missile launches in order to anticipate a nuclear attack. Suddenly all of your warning lights and sirens go off. Indicators show that the US has launched 5 nuclear missiles that are headed directly toward the USSR. What would you do?
This really happened and I won’t tell you what Stanislov Petrov, the man at the helm, did. You’ll have to read that for yourself. But thank the Lord that he did it. He may have saved us all.
It is not often these days that you see references to Sir Robert Walpole and Lord Bolingbroke in political commentary. So I give Ross Douthat some credit for giving this a shot. Douthat argues that US republicans have a lot to learn about Lord Bolingbroke’s opposition to Walpole and the whigs. Nice argument. But do they?
Douthat does make one good point about Walpole. Walpole was the ultimate insider. He ruled as the first real prime minister of Great Britain in the 18th century. He did it in alliance with the king (rather than against the king). And he made the whig party into a coherent political machine. The tories had no such coherence, and so they were relegated to a minor role in the political scene for many years as a result. Douthat is right so far on these facts. Hmmm … but did Walpole hurt the country? Douthat does not say so directly, but he suggests that Walpole was indifferent to the needs of the country as he catered to an elite. Here, btw, I would take issue. For example, Walpole presided over a time of peace and prosperity - both of which were very much in the country’s interest and both of which Walpole attended to.
Bolingbroke was one of the failed tories who wanted to get rid of Walpole and counter whig power. Here things get a bit weird about Douthat’s treatment of the man. It was not until long after Bolingbroke passed away that newly energized tories like Disraeli refer back to him as a sort of hero. So it was not Bolingbroke the politician that offers anything — he failed at doing politics. It must be something else. What?
Douthat points to Bolingbroke’s argument that the tories needed an effective opposition to the whigs in power based on a philosophy that was good for the country (rather than just an elite). He wanted the tories to be the “country party” and he painted the whigs as the “court party”. BTW, Burke thought that this argument was a yawner. But ok.
Did it work? Well, not quite as simply as all that. Many, many things had to happen before the tories could make a big political come back — and a lot of those things related to the shift from 18th century to 19th century thinking. And get this — Disraeli’s success in re-making the tory majority was based on his own courting of royalty and empire building as the populist thing to do. Ooops. The tories as the country party? That depends on what you mean by “country”. Much later, Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) tried to energize the rabble for the tories but let’s face it: the tories never really became the party of the people. Thatcher might be the closest the tories got to real populism and that was at best a temporary phenomenon.
But Douthat wants us to believe that the democrats have become a modern “court party” that should inspire a “country party” revolt. He says
There really is a kind of “court party” in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions — interventionist, corporatist, globalist — have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a disconnect between this elite’s priorities and those of the country as a whole. There really is a sense in which the ruling class — in Washington, especially — has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs.
And perhaps modern republicans have been reading their Bolingbroke after all. Their opposition to anything the Obamatrons have tried to do has been rabid and protracted as Bolingbroke would have advised. And in doing so, they have evoked populist arguments that they are heroes fighting against the Washington crowd. Bravo! They keep saying that this opposition is based on principles. Bravo! But as time goes on, this looks more and more like BS. Like fighting the ballooning federal budget deficit when it is actually falling. Ooops.
Here is where we get into republican voodoo land. Do republicans have a populist plea to make? Are they the party of the people? I find this to be rather amusing because it ignores that the republicans are perceived to be anti-people in at least four major respects. First is the perception that they are anti-women in light of their rabid opposition to the exercise of abortion rights. It will be hard to gain populist traction when you alienate close to 50% of the population. Second, they are perceived to be anti-immigrant and rightfully so given their protracted resistance to reform of immigration law. And why? They have no strong populist backing for this position other than from fringe racist groups. Third they appear to be anti-minority in their attempts to make it harder for minorities to vote. Fourth, they appear to be anti-safety for their rabid opposition to gun control. While there is strong support for protection of 2d amendment rights, there is also strong support (over 90%) for getting registration of gun ownership - which republicans have killed on behalf of the gun manufacture lobby. And who is on the other side here? Parents of slain kindergarten children. Yikes! We won’t even get into gay politics, where republicans also missed the populist boat.
Finally, let’s face it, the republicans are pro big business. They had a chance to fight this perception. The Obamatrons gave them an opening when they went soft on the big banks after 2008. The republicans had a chance to play the anti-elitist banking card. But they didn’t do it. And now democratic Senator Warren from Massachusetts seems to have the lead on that policy front.
So Ross, where will this populism emerge from? From the religious right … yet again? Haven’t the republicans been riding that horse long enough? What is new here?
And here we get the core argument - from perceived opposition to Obamacare. Funny thing though. Republican governors are asking their electorates not to sign up for health care insurance under this policy change —- even though it is clearly in their interest to do so. Hmmm … is this the type of “country party” that will ride a wave back into the White House?
I just don’t think so. In fact, I think the whole idea of republicans as the country party is wishful thinking at best. A far more fascinating aspect of their political strategy is how out of touch republicans are with mainstream thinking and how little they seem to care about it. Perhaps like a headless Walpole, but without the power. From the Maddow blog, this excerpt about republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah on Obamacare funding
Lee added that “this really isn’t about Republican versus Democrat. It’s not about liberal or conservative. This is yet another instance of Washington versus everyone else.”
Actually, no. This is a group of right-wing lawmakers against their own party, the other party, and the needs of tens of millions of American families.
This is a brief follow up to my overly long post from the other day that I entitled “When is Something Over?“. In that post, I struggled with the question what Estonians should hold onto and what we should let go of from the recent past that we call “occupation”. It is a sensitive, big and difficult question. Oh … and BTW, I think it is an urgent one as well.
What is the urgency? Burke argued that power abhors a vacuum. For this reason, maintaining continuity and stability in governance can be seen as a value in itself. Maybe. But this dynamic applies more obviously to the imagination. Imagination abhors a vacuum. If we lose track of the storylines that inspire us, we more easily fall prey to hucksters selling inspiration by the thimblefull.
This was Drucker’s point about the nazi’s in his book “Adventures of a Bystander”. He argues that the inter-war period in Europe was singular for its huge failure of imagination. The horrors of the first war had created a vacuum of imagination that was filled with nostalgia for pre-war stability. He writes
The obsession with “Prewar” was like a miasmic smog pervading everything, paralyzing everybody, stifling all thought and imagination. The obsession with “prewar” explains in large measure the attraction Nazism exerted. … (and why) there was little resistance to the Nazis anywhere until a country had first been taken over by them. … Nazism was loathsome, but it was, in Charles Lindbergh’s phrase, “The Wave of the Future” when everything else was trying to be “The Wave of the Past”.
It is a sobering reminder that we need to look carefully at the storylines we live by now if we hope for a happier future. And if we cannot securely link past to present and present to future on our own terms, we are vulnerable. Put another way, we either create our own agenda, or one will be created for us.
So tomorrow will come, but it is still far from clear what type of tomorrow it will be. That is for us to shape now. And we start by clarifying what we should hold onto from the past and what we need to let go of.
Riding the bus back from Tallinn yesterday, I watched James Mangold’s 2010 movie “Knight and Day“. It is an entertaining movie for a bus ride, full of improbable action sequences and light comedy. But I was glad when it was over. BTW, I had the same feeling from watching the recently released version of The Great Gatsby. The reason is that both films tended to overwhelm me. They were too much. You don’t just get swept up in the action and visuals, you get bowled over by them. So while both movies were fun, I didn’t regret leaving either of them behind.
And that got me thinking. I was on the bus coming back to Tartu from the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Occupation Museum in Tallinn. At the ceremony, I had listened to the various solemn speeches about how we should remember the past. The message, of course, is that the past is not really over. The past should remain part of our lives and the lives of our children. Especially the kids. They have had less direct experience of those days, so we need to show them and teach them what “occupation” was like.
Well, that is the conventional wisdom. That we stay “grounded” when we tell the stories of our origins. But to be honest, like the above movies, the Estonian occupation story has various overwhelming aspects. The occupation started as a side show preparation for a war that would be ignited somewhere else and would mainly concern other peoples and foreign ideologies. Then suddenly the war raged into the Baltic region with locals getting swept up in the fighting. But still, it was not really our war, except of course, to fight for our survival. Then came the post war occupation that went on and on and on — for fifty years — for what? Who knows. We were either part of Russian expansionist fantasies or an ideological experiment or perhaps both. No one asked us to be part of either. And then the Soviet Union rather suddenly collapsed. Here too, the collapse of the Soviet system was not brought about here and was not mainly about us. Yes, we had our “forest brothers”, dissidents, “singing revolution” and so on, but the Soviet Union did not collapse directly from these things.
Stuffing all this into a single story creates a mess. While it is our story, it is mainly about forces from the outside that for a time were overwhelming for various reasons. In that sense, it was like a terrible storm that blew in, lasted over half a century and then suddenly blew over. Meanwhile, the world we emerged back into had radically changed from the one that we knew from before the storm. It is no wonder therefore, that a lot of folks would like to leave that story behind in order to grab onto things that they have more control over and to re-connect to the world as it is developing now.
I am sympathetic to this urge to move on in order to create new things. Life is short and there is much to do. At the same time, we fool ourselves if we believe that we are free of the past. What happened has many ongoing effects - both positive and negative. So there is some tension here. What should we hold onto? Holding onto the wrong things becomes a dangerous distraction. Flannery O’Connor (among others) told that sort of story rather well. And what should we let go of? Letting go of part of who we are is self-destructive. I am reminded here of Milan Kundera’s novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.
I was absorbed in thinking about what to hold onto and what to let go of long after my bus ride ended. I was still thinking about it as I strolled through the old park on the hill towards home, and even still as I groped for the keys to my house. It was intensely distracting. And it still is.
What follows is the best I can do to offer an answer to that question. This may or may not be an answer that resonates with others. It resonates with me.
I think that it is wise to start with what we are obligated to do. We must hold onto and take care of those things that have value to us. That is what makes them part of us. And I think the main value in the occupation story is to grab for the truth of the story. To relentlessly ask and answer what was real about it from our perspective. Those truths may not be as simple and certainly not as pleasant as we would want. And they are not just a grumpy complaint that what happened was unjust — though I believe it was. The effort to find those truths and live by them is the best way to end the occupation of the spirit - that sense of being overwhelmed by the past. So we come to the main question. What truths can we identify here to share? Those we hold onto. The rest, we let go of. And the better we can put those truths into words, the more effective we can be in living with the past. And we can more easily share our story.
Perhaps that is what was bugging me after watching Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz frolic about with their semi-automatic weapons blazing in Jim Mangold’s film. To be blunt, the story in the movie is patently absurd. And it is brazenly indifferent to its own absurdity. I know. That is what escapist adventure flicks are all about. But the patent absurdity of the film presented a strange match to me of the patent absurdity of the real world Estonian occupation story from our perspective. And while I do not condemn escapist adventure flicks as such, I was suddenly troubled by the brazen indifference to the absurd. Somehow that started resonating in a bad way for me.
As I sipped my coffee this morning, I began to think more deeply about the absurdity of the occupation period. Indeed, I was hard pressed to find things that were free of absurdity — except a dogged struggle to survive. I began to think that we would do well to be more sensitive to how we live with the absurd. And to the extent that the Estonian occupation story provides a template for developing that sensitivity, we should hold onto that story. In other words, the absurdity of the occupation experience that was imposed on Estonia may be what best defines it for us now.
Hmmm … you might question this. Sure the war and its aftermath had absurd qualities (remember Heller’s Catch 22?), but there were many other things too. There was heroism, drama, sacrifice and on and on and on. Why focus just on the absurdity? There is a simple answer. Seeing the occupation as part of a much larger absurdity frees us to focus on creating things that are less so. This is the start of a storyline and it is a storyline that resonates well for me. It connects the past — even its overwhelming aspects — with a present challenge and future hope. Here are a few aspects of that story.
First, we might recall the radical challenge that the Nazi and Soviet occupations imposed on the idea of individuality. We are nothing if we are not individuals. And yet, in the bad old “occupation days”, having an individual story was inconvenient and dangerous. People were deported, tortured and killed because of who they were or knew often with no other reason at all. If this is not absurd, what is? And yet, it was our story. To survive, we had to pretend that we were nobody - except in terms of how we fit into their stories. And given our history, the fit was at best uncomfortable. Of course, it was also absurd.
And yet, the survivors during the occupation period did not stop having their own identity. Some hid it. A few asserted it openly knowing that they would suffer consequences (people like Jüri Kukk). Others found more stealthy ways to “be” and of course, there were grand gestures like the song festivals. But wasn’t it absurd to think that individuality would somehow simply disappear? And even if it could, isn’t even more absurd to think that this would be a good thing? That it is preferable to explain life in terms of ideology rather than identity? Yet Estonians were told that this is the way things are and will stay and that we had to live with it. How is that for an adventure with the absurd?
Flash forward to the present day. Suddenly, it is a truism in the west that empowerment of individuals (building engagement) is the key to unlocking creativity and finding success. We are told that this defines our 21st century challenge to unlock the potential of peer to peer networking and “flatten” institutions. Steve Johnson even writes about re-thinking the role of the state in these terms. Yet while we chase after those ideals, we do well to remember that very, very recently, curbing individuality was the order of the day during the bizzaro period of occupation. So if we believe in Steve Johnson’s vision of the future, we do well to preserve memories of what it was like when those beliefs were under direct and sustained attack. The occupation shows us the absurd effects of attempting to throttle individuality over time.
This is one dimension of the absurdist drama that was at work. But there was a larger and perhaps even more sinister level. These days, it is easy to forget how hopeless the struggle against occupation seemed. Even as recently as 1985, no one in their right mind predicted independence would come at all - let alone in six years. Sure the United States never officially recognized the incorporation of the Baltic Republics into the Soviet Union. But the reality of that incorporation seemed final and most likely fatal to Estonian identity as a people if it long continued.
Estonians had no power, very little influence and no obvious way to bring an end to the occupation. It seemed absurd to think we could. But looking back on those dark days, the refusal to accept this apparent inevitability was a key to maintaining our identity. Call it stubbornness or resilience if you want. Whatever you call it, economists would have a hard time fitting it into a cost/benefit analysis. Why? Because it had an absurd quality to it (in a good way). The mirror image of that good was a strange negative stubbornness of state authorities who persisted in trying to sustain what was a deeply illogical policy direction.
How could they have succeeded for so long? How did they make it seem so impossible to change course? It seems strange now. But this too was part of the absurdity of the occupation story. And as we contemplate how responsive states are to global issues (like climate change, terrorism and such) as well as local issues (as needed for development as well as other goals) we would be wise to recall that the exercise of state authority often has an absurd quality to it. The occupation story is about that type of absurdity in the extreme. As such, it is part of a much larger storyline that is about improving the responsiveness of policy making and implementation from the perspective of those affected by exercise of authority. This is a big, big storyline these days.
Hopefully future generations will think of stories like these as relics of a barbarous past. Like the experience one gets from visiting the “London Dungeon” and its macabre exhibitions like “the history of torture in wax”. As I walked through years ago (yes I confess, I visited this tourist trap) I kept wondering how humans could actually do such stuff to other people. But they did. Our goal would be to create the same reaction to our occupation stories. How could this have happened in light of where we are now and where we think we are going? We have a reasonable hope to achieve this effect as the grizzly stories from olden days and the occupation stories from Estoina are, after all, equally absurd.
So while we wait for this wonderful day when we achieve that effect, we have a pressing task — to fashion stories that move us in the opposite direction — from the absurd to the purposeful. These are the stories that we should live, share with our children, and hope that they will share with theirs, when the time comes. And it will. The first step is to sharply define where we have come from, letting go of what is not essential and holding to the core truth as we see it. And I see our story as vindication of our rejection of the absurdities that framed more than a half century of the experience that we call the “occupation”. That rejection story, I hope, will frame the next generation of stories that take us to a happier place.
The title for this post comes from a Maureen Dowd column where she writes about a lost belief in destiny
… the historian Christophe Prochasson told Le Monde. “After (DeGaulle and Mitterand), the French continued to live on that belief.” Today, he added, this illusion is disappearing gradually and “France is a country in mourning.” What is lacking now in France, he said, is the music of history, “the capacity to contemplate tomorrows that sing.”
What a lovely phrase “the music of history”. And what brings that music to us these days?
A while ago, I would have written a rather ponderous answer to that question. Something about participating in and sharing great stories. But as I read Maureen’s very funny piece, I was reminded of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn playing their roles in “Charade”. Grant says something like this to Hepburn “when you get to be my age, you don’t want to take anything seriously”.
Very funny indeed!
I am re-reading Peter Drucker’s “Adventures of a Bystander” and just finished his chapter on Fritz Kraemer. Kraemer is best known, perhaps, as the mentor of Henry Kissenger. Here is a link to his obit.
Kraemer was a man of principle and his principles are still worth thinking about. Not just because they had a deep influence on good old Henry. More important, we still debate the same stuff about, for example, the need for an independent foreign policy that trumps domestic political concerns, the appropriate focus of that policy, and the role of the great foreign policy leader. Drucker took issue with Kraemer on all three issues and made some good points. But this is the sentence that jumped out at me from his piece
We knew intuitively that we were in disagreement on the answers, yet we soon found out that we asked the same questions. And both Kraemer and I knew even as very young men that the questions matter.
I will follow up with that a bit later.
Things in Egypt are not great as I write this. Their one year experiment with democracy which gave us President Morsi has ended. First there were the huge protests demanding his ouster, which did not look propitious. Then the military quickly ousted him (very quickly, I would say). Now we have rather intense street fighting between Morsi supporters and everyone else. NYT writes
The new violence suggested that the military’s removal of Mr. Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, after protests by millions of Egyptians angry with his rule, had worsened the deep polarization between Islamists who call his ouster a military coup and their opponents who say his removal was the result of an urgent need to fix Egypt’s myriad problems.
It is a mess and perhaps it should have been expected. After all, this democracy thing is new for Egypt, right? Well, it is new — and I think that poses a special type of leadership challenge. And from this perspective, I think President Morsi himself deserves at least part of the blame for what has transpired.
Remember how things looked when Morsi took the stage? An engaged populace was demanding reforms to guarantee more freedom and jobs. A worried military had its finger on the trigger ready to protect its privileges. The legal framework for the power relationships at issue was new and fragile. I would characterize this as a shaky start. One that would require delicate handling and coalition building. Did I mention the word “delicate”? I meant extremely delicate. Morsi is apparently not that great at being delicate. He pushed to centralize power (instead of reform) and took a shot at neutering the military. Hmmm … and so just who were on his side after this, other than the Mulsim Brotherhood?
So now the Muslim Brotherhood has a rather acute political problem. If they accept Morsi’s demise, they accept a lesser role in future power relations. But if they don’t, Egypt will be not be able to get to the next step in restoring some sense of governance. The stage is set for conflict.
My sense is that avoiding this should have been Morsi’s number 1 priority. But I don’t think it was. Oops.
Professor Pinker says that we should be grateful to live in this period. Why? According to Pinker, humanity has never been more peaceful. Lordy!
There is something odd going on here. I trust that the good professor is right. Overall, there are fewer violent conflicts happening now than ever before. At the same time, I think we hear a lot more about the ones that rage on. And we see images of them, so we understand more clearly what “conflict” means in human terms. Fighting and killing do not produce the tidy package that one gets from a James Bond flick.
So while the reality is that most of us are better off, in terms of perception of risk, we are worse off. So we are more sensitive to the negative aspects of conflict and perhaps over-react to the acts of violence that we experience.
But one aspect of this dynamic has not changed much, in my view. It is as hard as ever to get over violence and conflict once it has happened. We think we can do it, but the reality is — as it always has been — that it is harder than it appears to transcend violence.
One tried and true method is to link the conflict to a higher purpose. This is what Lincoln did at Gettysburg. His message was barely noticed at the time (when folks were focused on the killing and suffering). But his message reverberated more and more as the years went by. People have used it again and again to give meaning to the carnage of that terrible war. And we still cling to it.
President Wilson tried to do this after the first great war - remember that the war was supposed to be the “war that ended all wars”? But that message was torpedoed by the folks who didn’t want to end all wars. They wanted a pound of flesh in compensation for the truly terrible war they just fought. They got their pound of flesh — or at least most of it — and a second great war as a bonus. Oops.
And after the second great war? Well, we got rid of the Nazi’s and the Japanese generalisimo’s, right? That was a pretty nice message and Churchill played on it with his “triumph of civlization” idea. But it was not a complete victory over the dreaded “ideologists”. It took another fifty years to get rid of “communism”. Even Churchill acknowledged the “triumph and tragedy” of 1945. So one can make a good case that the war only really ended in 1991.
And what “higher purpose” did we celebrate then? Hmmm … the triumph of capitalism? To be painfully honest, I don’t think that we have reached a consensus on the higher purpose to get over that conflict. While most of us have abandoned the idea that “certainty” is the bedrock of legitimacy in the use of power, we still struggle with the notion with what is “good” in society and what is “beyond the pale”. What is “civilized”, to use a Chuchillian idea. We are perhaps still utlitarians, but embarrassed that we don’t have a stronger moral claim that justifies our “good life”. And we bicker endlessly about the role of morality in regulation of society. It is a not very peaceful peace.
And what about the war on terrorism? What higher purpose will we seize upon to transcend this “war” … errr … assuming that at some point it too will end? This is far from clear. It may be that the transcendence comes from within the Muslim world - not from the west at all. The Muslim world may produce its own new message that takes it beyond the notion of jihad. We will see.
But my point is that we will need some sort of message to transcend the ugliness that has happened. Something that allows us to turn again to look to the future rather than fester in the anger of past wrongs.
BTW, from this perspective, we would do well to cherish those examples of cultures and societies that have actually done this - or are doing it. Who has actually transcended violence and moved on? We can and should learn from their experience.
Estonia is one such place. Estonians suffered greatly from the violence of war and occupation (fifty years of it). Yet, the Estonians are looking forward — not backward. What is happening here that the rest of the world can learn from?
I will come back to this topic during the month of July. Stay tuned!
On re-reading Peter Drucker’s semi-autobiographical book “Adventures of a Bystander”, I bumped into an old idea that Drucker brought out once more.
Europe has never been the same after the first big 20th century war broke out just over 99 years ago (late July 1914). One of the main reasons is that the war wiped out an entire generation of young leaders. This led to two different types of vacuums at the top all across the continent. The first was a vacuum of persons who were trained to lead. The second was a vacuum of ideas about where Europe was going.
Drucker’s story of Count Traun-Trauneck brings out one additional wrinkle. The count was a “noble socialist” before the war. I say noble, because he believed that socialism was the only force that could have prevented the war. And pre-war socialism was dedicated to that end, but it failed miserably. Jaurez’s assassination was not the reason. As Drucker points out through the count, the working classes — who socialists thought would be at the barricades to stop the war — turned out to be some of the most enthusiastic supporters of that war - at least in its early period.
Oops! They were sold a bill of goods, of course. And perhaps this was the real underlying tragedy of those times. The great trappings of might and power — let’s call it majesty — did not deliver wisdom to the leaders of the day. Nor was there a way for the rest of society to see the disaster that was coming. They were all were trapped — leaders and followers — in an end game of majesty. And that end game would include ongoing power games masked as ideological conflict, an incredible rogue’s gallery of self-styled “leaders” of a sort that we are still trying to forget, yet another great war that was even more horrendous than the first, and an uneasy peace and frozen political dialogue that we call the “cold war”.
That damned leadership vacuum! I find it interesting, nearly 100 years later, that no one back then foresaw that particular dreadful consequence of that first great war. That it would decimate the ruling classes of the continent. To the contrary, most saw the war as an opportunity to strengthen leadership by testing valor in the field. No one foresaw that leadership itself would be devoured in the bloodbath that was to come.
My point here is not so much to condemn those who failed to see what was coming. It is to bring out that the institutional structure that supports the development of leadership in society may be more fragile than we think. It was then and it may still be now. Where do our leaders come from? Are they ready to lead us? Are our institutions producing a next generation of leaders who will be wiser than us?
Good questions to ask at any time, I think. And worthwhile to see leadership as an exhaustible resource.