Saturday, 3 November 2007

To all my enemies...whoever you are....


A good few years ago I remember a friend of mine telling me his experiences of growing up in South Africa during the last years of apartheid. Conscription to the army was still compulsory for young white men during this period, and Mark (my friend) recounted a particular story concerning his older brother, who was conscripted for 2 years: Upon joining, Marks brother, with a bunch of other 19 year-olds, were given their first briefing by a fierce, grizzled Afrikaner sergeant.
“The enemy is out there, and watching at all times.” The Sergeant bellowed. “We must strike quickly and crush the enemy. The enemy will do everything the destroy us. We must be strong.” Mark’s brother gingerly put his hand up.
“Excuse me Sir……who exactly IS the enemy?” The Sergeant glared at him, before replying:
“We don’t have that information at this time…….but when we do, we’ll let you know.”
This tragi-comic story is very relevant in the current ‘war on terror’ environment, because it highlights an uncomfortable truth….we seem to need enemies, even if we don’t know who they are. The sense that there is something or someone, some group or institution out there, who can be blamed for the things that threaten us or go wrong in our lives can provide a sense of balance, even comfort, to our existence. This is a need played on by successive governments and institutions, both good and bad: The cold war has given way to the war on terror, but there is a rich vein of form here throughout history: The crusades; the religious wars of early modern Europe; the political revolutions of the 19th century and the dictatorships that followed. The need to provide an unseen enemy is played upon in the writings of Orwell, Kafka, Machiavelli, Swift and St Thomas More in their various political utopias and dystopias, and in a sense, the need for us to believe in ‘the enemy’ is what unites the politicians in the White House with the fundamentalists in the caves of Afghanistan.

Yet there is something deeper here: I think we get the enemies we choose, and that our nemeses are often a reflection of ourselves much more than they are of the world ‘out there’. It’s no coincidence that the compensation and litigation culture has sprung from a period of unparalleled economic individualism (2% of US GDP is now litigation fees!!!)This has led us to believe that there must be someone financially responsible for our misfortunes. Being used to economic advantage has led us to look for enemies who can compensate us.

We create enemies from the most surprising of sources- I remember, when I was a child, the calm of a hot summer’s day being punctured by a cry of pain from my Dad, who was in the garden. I ran out to find him standing over a hammer, which was lying on the lawn, hitting it repeatedly with my cricket bat. When I asked him what was wrong, he replied sheepishly that he had hit his thumb whilst hammering the nail and was ‘teaching the hammer a lesson…..’ Here was a grown man pouring all his anger at his own lack of dexterity into humanising an inanimate object!

On a deeper level, the need for enemies to balance and explain our lives can permeate the collective unconscious: The personification of the devil as a creature with horns and hooves in European literature and iconography can be traced to the later medieval period: Prior to this, from the period of the Christianisation of Europe up to the early medieval period, the devil was normally personified as a human being. Why the change? It coincided with the invasion of Europe by the Moors and (separately) the Mongols. When Alien-looking foreigners started to threaten Europe, so subconsciously the devil was portrayed as one of these- a dark and threatening Alien creature.

The enigmatic Dutch medieval artist Heironymus Bosch brilliantly illustrates this in his painting ‘Christ carrying the cross’. Note how Christ is almost ignored by the crowd, who seem to be venting their anger on themselves. I think Bosch is making the clear point here that their condemnation of Christ is in fact a condemnation of themselves.

So our need for enmity can be portrayed as a need to personify our fear and insecurities. I for one will be seeking to understand and explore my enmities, and face them with strength and courage.

And who or what are they specifically?.....well I’m afraid I don’t have that information at this time, but when I do, I’ll let you know….

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Is Democracy a good thing? Part 2

After an inexcusable period of absence I return to my assault on democracy, with the assertion that the most democratic systems are often…..well….the most undemocratic

Take the hereditary principle- power passed on through family and birthright. Few would argue that this stands as one of the most undemocratic systems. Much of the history of democracy has been the overthrow of this principle: The French revolution overthrew the monarchy and aristocracy in favour of popular/assembly rule; The English civil war arose from Parliament refusing to recognise Charles I’s divine right to the throne; the American revolution and resulting independence defeated the same principle.

Yet consider this: When looking at Europe, what do the UK, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have in common? In the context of this discussion, they all still have hereditary monarchies, however the actual answer to the question is more profound: All of these countries have remained free from tyranny and dictatorship throughout their early modern history, whereas those that have ABOLISHED the hereditary principle in favour of a more ‘democratic’ system- France, Germany, Russia, Italy- have all fallen prey to absolutism, dictatorship and tyranny. (Spain of course was a dictatorship under Franco and then restored the monarchy for precisely the reasons we are discussing). This a startling thought, yet unquestionably backed up by historical fact……democratic systems produce undemocratic results.

Why is this? Well a country needs a head of state, and the reality is that a head of state without political affiliation (as a monarch usually is), with a neutrality undelivered by more progressive systems, actually guarantees fairer governance. Two examples further prove this- our own House of Lords being the first. When Blair came to power the House of Lords was descried: A bunch of gin-slinging aristocrats, who were there through hereditary right rather than being elected, and then spent the afternoons falling asleep in the pews. However the House of Lords has, over the post-war period, been one of our best checks against undemocratic action and bad governance. It is because of the Lords that we don’t have the death penalty in this country. Literally countless times they have thrown back legislation to the commons, and often blocked autocratic measures. They are particularly good at sensing when the government is rushing through legislation solely based on the opinion polls. This is because they have a largely unaffiliated viewpoint- they are free to make judgements largely without political colour……or they used to be. Enter Tony Blair, who on wave of ‘modernity’ and ‘cool Britannia’ mounts a huge campaign to rid the Lords of hereditary peers. To be replaced by what? You guessed it- Blair has appointed more peers than any other post war prime minister (all of them Labour, of course). So our quaint but democratic institution has been replaced by cronyism, mirroring exactly the experience of those European countries. Quad Erat Demonstandum.

France is the other case. France has just had one of the largest turn outs to a general election in modern times (largely because the candidates put on a great scrap). But the French people are very politically acute, and when you look below the surface (as they do far more than us Brits) the flaws in the system are interesting. France is a hugely bureaucratic state- created originally by Napolean, enshrined by the third republic, and then modified by De Gaulle. This enormous bureaucratic engine has created distance and distrust in the people- Jaques Chirac’s party and past have been under intense scrutiny for apparently huge corruption. Most of the senior politicians in France have passed through the Ecole Nationale de Administration- an elite political finishing school in Paris. Known as the ENArques- this elite political clique have a startling habit of running the country without reference to the people. The bureaucratic state allows them to pass legislation easily without checks and balances. Think about how controversial nuclear power and the nuclear question was in the UK in the 80s- by contrast, France passed most of its nuclear power resolutions easily and without fuss (talk to any Greenpeace member about the French government….). Yet the point is, the French people are comparatively uninvolved in the discussion. The power of the ENArques had led many French people to believe that power is permanently in the hands of les Autres (the others). However the French people react to this in their own unique way- they don’t hesitate to ignore or take direct action over laws they don’t believe in- hence lorry blockades at Calais, and a host of other protests (mobs took to the streets on the night of Sarkozy’s election). The lessons are clear- bad democracy leads to bad laws which the people ignore or subvert. As Blaise Pascal, the great French Glass Bead Game player said in the 17th century- as soon as people start evaluating whether laws are good or bad there is a problem; they must have the confidence to believe the law is the law.

The reality is that all powerful institutions have their ‘ENArques’ and are prone to corruption. As Hermann Hesse observes in the Glass Bead Game-‘all countries and systems have their aristocracies’, meaning that power is always unfairly balanced towards a few. The challenge, as Churchill once observed, is to find the ‘least worst system’, and it so happens that the most seemingly-undemocratic, can deliver the least-worst results.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Rugby tour, Buddhism, and the worst place in the world to take a vegetarian

I’ve had some great feedback from friends and colleagues to this blog, although a common comment is ‘wow- it’s pretty intense’- I guess art, philosophy, happiness, good, evil, democracy, spirituality- can get a bit heavy. I was reminded of the 18th century Scottish Philosopher David Hume’s letter to a friend, where he commented on how, after spending hours wrestling with logic and his theories of reality, all of this was made to look mundane after a few minutes in the company of good friends.

So…..in sharp relief to the Glass Bead Game, I pen this post on my Blackberry in the lounge at Madrid airport, returning from rugby tour with the incomparable Hackney RFC, otherwise known as the Griffins. Nothing like a rugby tour to make you forget the futilities of philosophy- in fact I don’t think I’ve ever felt less like a Glass Bead Game Player- have had about 2 hours sleep in the last few days, my body is shaking from toxic poisoning; my ribs are badly bruised/possibly fractured from the game; my knee is swollen from falling off a chair in the midst of a ridiculous drinking song; my voice hoarse from delivering a rendition of Donna Summer’s ‘I feel love’ whilst half naked….I’ll spare you any more imagery. Safe to say we won comprehensively against the Madrid university side we played, and that the match itself was largely incidental.

On the way over, on the plane, I departed from my normal distraction from the safety announcements- dipping into Pascal’s Pensees- in favour ofre-reading Siddartha, one of my favourite Hesse books. The story of Siddartha’s search for spiritual fulfilment, including an encounter with Buddha himself, reawoke my recurring view that I should try and become a VEGETARIAN. I see the strong link between vegetarianism and spiritual clarity as evoked by many eastern religions, and as the flight landed, resolved to give it a try……

…..safe to say this resolution was subsequently blown out of the water, not only by the general diet on tour, but particularly by multiple visits to the spectacular Musee Jamon or Museum of Ham. Only found in Madrid, this chain of delis is a mix between a butchers shop and a tapas bar. We discovered the Musee Jamon on Sunday, and spent large parts of the day there drinking beer and eating pig. The Musee is a remarkable place- a large bar forms a quadrangle in the centre from which enormous plates of different cured hams and meats are dished up, with healthy wedges of Manchero cheese and bread. Vegetables are either prohibited, or, in the spirit of the Spanish inquisition, have gone into hiding. There are no chairs/seat- these are deemed unnecessary- and hanging from every part of the ceiling and walls are enormous cured hams- Serrano, Iberico, blood sausages. Here the Spanish stand proudly consuming as many parts of a pig as one can cure, smoke, dry and slice- and we were enthusiastic participants. It’s certainly different to visit a museum where you can eat the exhibits- not really an option at the Tate. I looked on, mid pig-fest, at Matt, our burly prop, and a Vegan (!), as he surveyed what must have looked to him like a huge mortuary. This really must be the worst place in the world to take a vegetarian

The common consensus was that such a flagrant display of carnivorous intent would be greeted with an outcry in London (combined with guilty but eager participation). I suspect this is the case, but her in lies the point. You have to admire the Spanish (and the French) for their joyful political incorrectness: If you’re going to gorge on meat, you should be prepared to expose yourself to the bare realities of what this entails. It’s the awkward British internalising of guilt-on everything from vegetarianism, to sex, to racism- that does much to create the absurd politically correct culture we find ourselves immersed in.

I still think there’s a strong link between vegetarianism and asceticism though, so watch out Bhudda, I’ve admired the spirituality and calm of your followers for a long time, and am prepared to explore some of your tenets.

In fact, in feel a meditation coming on now……..”Oooooooooh……I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, I feel love, I feel love….”












Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Jade Goodey for prime minister?

To make my first point on democracy, consider the fate of the Godfather of philosophers and Glass Bead Gamers, Socrates.

Socrates was tried in Athens in 399 BC- Athens- the epicentre of ancient Greece and home of democracy. Socrates came to the attention of the elders of ancient Greece because he was strange- he looked strange (squat and snub-nosed), and had the irritating habit of walking barefoot through the streets of Athens, stopping complete strangers, and asking them questions: What did they consider beautiful? Could they define art? What was bravery? And so on. This method of Socratic dialectic is still at the root of much modern philosophical thought and logic. Socrates was a hugely virtuous, creative and intelligent thinker. He lived simply- eschewing wealth and position- and sought only knowledge, wisdom and truth, inspiring a whole generation of Greek thinkers, notably Plato, and an entire tradition of Western Philosophy.

Socrates once visited the famous Oracle at Delphi, renowned for her wisdom. He asked her, ‘who is the wisest man in Athens?’, and not recognising him, she replied ‘Socrates’. Now Socrates knew this was not true, as he recognised fully his own failings. He therefore concluded that true intelligence comes from recognising your own ignorance.

The elders of Athens grew suspicious of Socrates and put him on trial. Athens was the greatest city in the world, and had high social conventions- one in 3 members of the populace were slaves, women were prevented from political or public life, social roles were highly structured. Socrates made enemies through questioning some of these conventions, not maliciously, but merely enquiring whether the BELIEFS Athenians had come to accept were routed in TRUTH or CONVENTION? Three powerful citizens petitioned for him to be tried on the basis that he had disrespected the city’s Gods, and was corrupting the young.

Enter Athenian democracy: The court of the Heliasts was a large wooden building with benches for the jury and platforms for defence and prosecution. A jury of between 200 and 2,500 people would decide on verdicts by a show of hands. This was a mirror of Athenian custom as a whole- 2 or 3 times a month, all male citizens were invited to gather to vote on important questions by a show of hands. However, in an echo of our own times, there were flaws- not everyone could be bothered to turn out, so decisions were often made by a skewed subset.

Some 500 citizens were in the jury on the day of Socrates trial, however they were not experts in any sense: They included an unusual number of the old and war wounded, who were motivated by the payment for going, rather than any sense of justice. Socrates answered his charges honestly and eloquently. Why would he try and corrupt the citizens of Athens, he asked? Since a corrupt Athens would only do harm to him- an Athenian citizen. When the initial guilty vote didn’t carry the requisite margin, the court read out an attack on Socrates penned by one of his condemners- equivalent to reading out an article from the News of the World and presenting it as objective evidence. The second vote him guilty and Socrates was sentenced to death. He drank his famous cup of Hemlock, despite having the option at any time to admit his ‘crimes’ and go free. He chose truth over popularity, conviction over the easy road.

Herein lies the first flaw of democracy- allowing ‘the people’ to choose their government, or decide the guilt/innocence of their peers relies on ‘the people’ being open-minded and wise. Otherwise they will make judgments based on ignorance, or no judgements at all. Consider the huge drop in people voting at general elections, despite the fact that we are hugely fortunate to have the freedom to vote at all. ‘Voter apathy’ is often blamed on political parties- they have become so bland and superficial that voters can’t tell the difference/don’t care. But some of the blame has to lie with the electorate themselves- if they were interested enough in political issues, they would care enough to vote, but they don’t. Similarly, the tabloid press may be salacious in their editorial content, but no one forces the populace to go out and buy 3 million copies of The Sun every day. The tabloids are a reflection of their readership- of what people want to believe. As uncomfortable as this may be, we largely get the media we deserve, and we get the democracy we deserve. New Labour’s shift to bland, conviction-less psycho-babble was a calculated move to stay in power for as long as possible- for it reflected the growing state of the electorate. Unforgivable though their shallowness in enhancing this has been, we the people have nevertheless allowed our dumbed-down apathy to accommodate such a government, and thus have to take a major share of the blame.

What are the implications for society if this continues? Do we really wish to allow an increasingly flaccid western society to make key decisions such as who rules, and who is guilty or innocent? Put yourself in Socrates position- would you really want be tried by your peers? The table opposite shows the top UK search terms on Google in the first quarter of this year- a sad indictment of what is really important to people’s every day lives. When the News Of the World ran their famous campaign outing paedophiles, several people were wrongly attacked due to mistaken identity, and a paediatrician(!) was beaten up on the South coast. Such incidents of mob justice show the danger of granting un-fettered democracy to a shallow and ignorant populace- a triumph of popularity over truth, echoing Socrates time.

Jade Goodey for prime minister? Shilpa Shetty for Chancellor? Pass me the Hemlock






Is Democracy a good thing?

To mark my return to the Glass Bead Game I thought I’d start with a gentle and uncontroversial proposition- I wish to attack on the notion that democracy is inherently a good thing. I will over the course of the next few posts state my case as follows:

Democracy is progressively flawed because:

1) People are becoming more ignorant/apathetic
2) Seemingly undemocratic power systems often produce the most democratic results
3) Acting in the name of democracy gives institutions and governments a heightened sense of their own morality- often resulting in dire consequences

I will finish by suggesting my own, no less controversial alternatives.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Art- good? Bad? Or useless?

“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. …..it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” Oscar Wilde, the picture of Dorian Grey
Oscar Wilde’s the picture of Dorian Grey is a joy to read. The famous story of a beautiful dandy, who never grows old, whilst a portrait of him locked in his attic reflects the sin and destruction he wreaks. However the preface to the book, a mere page and a half of unfettered Wilde commenting on art, is in itself a jewel. Not only does this set some of the key themes for the book, but Wilde exposes, in joyfully nonchalant fashion, some of the key elements of our relationship with art. Because art is beautiful we tend to imbue it with undue meaning. Art has the power to move us, therefore sometimes make the erroneous conclusion that art (and indeed artists) must have some intrinsic moral worth. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all.”

Because Mozart’s music is so beautiful it is somehow ‘good’, and Mozart must be a good/virtuous person to have created such beauty. We make the same mistake about people- how often to we assume that a good looking person has more intrinsic qualities- leadership, confidence, ability- than an ugly person? According to psychological studies, all the time: Studies show attractive students get more attention and higher evaluations from their teachers, good-looking patients get more personalized care from their doctors, and handsome criminals receive lighter sentences than less attractive convicts. A London Guildhall University survey of 11,000 33-year-olds found that unattractive men earned 15 percent less than those deemed attractive, while plain women earned 11 percent less than their prettier counterparts. "Good-looking men and women are generally judged to be more talented, kind, honest and intelligent than their less attractive counterparts," writes Dr Gordon Patzer, who has spent 3 decades studying physical appearance and its impacts.

Wilde’s book in part plays on this error- the young and beautiful Dorian captivates those around him, which allows him to lead a debased and destructive life, recorded in the satyrisation of his portrait. Anthony Burgess drew on similar irony in a Clockwork Orange, where Alex’s love of Beethoven coexists with his acts of ultra-violence. Nabakov’s ‘hero’ of Lolita is an extremely handsome and intelligent man, whilst at the same time being a paedophile.

In fact art, and by implication beauty, are amoral. Plenty of great artists were, and are, terrible human beings- Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism; Philip Larkin’s predilection for pornography; the novelist Arthur Koestler, recently denounced as a rapist; the great painter Modigliani's drunken rages and the suicide of his lover and child. And the great human gift to create can be used for startlingly destructive purposes. Graham Greene’s short story ‘the destructors’ recounts how a group of bored teenagers imprison an old man, and systematically deconstruct his house until it is an empty shell. The organisation of effort, precision and artistry with which they go about their task is every bit as creative as if they were constructing a new building, sculpture or monument. In a stroke of stark irony, their ringleader, nicknamed ‘T’, is the son of failed architect. A study of how the Nazis approached the construction and planning of Auschwitz reveals terrifying creativity and ingenuity- used for despicable means.

‘Creative destruction’, in this sense is not an oxy-moron, as to create and destroy are actually symbiotic. How are we to make sense, therefore, of this co-existence of opposing forces?




The Dorian Grey story is also one of superficiality in many senses- Dorian has unending beauty, with none of the struggle necessary to achieve it- and almost as a reaction to this, an inner evil corrupts and destroy him, reflected in the painting. The duality of the story has many precedents- perhaps most notably the Faust story- where a doctor sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve greatness and everlasting life. There is no short cut though, and destruction and unfulfillment follow. The Faust story is believed to have originated in medieval German mythology- It received many literary treatments, the most famous of which was that by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s 19th century version is an important departure however- it follows the standard story with one key difference: Faustus is not condemned to damnation, but rather achieves salvation at he last minute, through relating the temptations and struggles of the devil as part of his place in the world and in nature. Faust comments about Mephistopheles, the devil, “ though which art evil yet does forever good”. There is an important message here- that evil, if viewed as part of life’s struggle, can help us to overcome and progress as opposed to being something we should just avoid- “Whoever strives in ceaseless toil, him we may grant redemption".

Frederick Nietzsche, a patron saint of Glass Bead Gamers recognised this view of evil as a struggle in the ancient Greeks, whose Dionysiac festivals allowed lust and darkness an expression, but in an environment where they could be controlled. They ‘granted to evil and suspicious a moderate discharge’ therefore seeking to REGULATE darkness rather than DESTROY it. (Alain de Botton’s fabulous ‘the consolations of philosophy’ lays out Nietzsche’s views with great clarity).

Nietzsche went further, his love of gardening providing a perfect analogy: At their roots, plants can look ugly and strange, and below ground a terrible and destructive battle rages as the roots seek to establish themselves and fight for existence. But this ultimately leads to fruit and beautiful flowers above ground.

Therefore we should not expect beauty and creation, two of the fundamentals behind art, to be without huge tempestuous difficulties and destructive forces- these are NECESSARY, and an embodiment of art itself. Any number of great artists and their struggles to live, battle weakness and darkness, yet create beauty, bear testament to this. The creation of the universe itself bears witness- order through chaos, beauty through destructive forces, evolution through seismic change. Or from a theistic perspective, God’s creation of the world involved war in heaven.

Therefore we should accept dark forces as an inherent part of art, while seeking to regulate and control them. And except that these dark forces, as explored above, are bound to manifest themselves in terrible as well as wonderful outcomes. It is when they are separated, as in Dorian Grey’s dual existence, than self-implosion occurs.

Wilde sums up art in the closing line of the Dorian preface: "It is completely useless.” Typical Wildean cynicism. Yet as Wilde famously described the cynic as he who ‘understands the price of everything and the value of nothing’ maybe we should appropriate: Art is useless, therefore does not warrant a price tag, yet its VALUE is in what it reveals about it’s creation- an embodiment of the struggle between DARK and LIGHT that is in all of us


Thursday, 8 March 2007

Ich bin ein Berliner


I’m currently in Berlin- a city that never ceases to fascinate.

It’s the 4th time I’ve been, and being lucky enough to be well travelled, I have to admit that Berlin continues to defeat me. It’s not an easy city- sprawling, no obvious centre, requiring prior or local knowledge to really benefit. And then there’s the history……..I first came here in 1993- only 4 years after the wall came down. It may as well have still been in place- the sharp divide between east and west- Mercedes on one side of a street, Trabants on
the other- was amazing. Every time I’ve been since its like encountering a new city- so much has changed- Berlin is a city in constant flux- is it progressing? Escaping its past?

That first time in ’93 I had an amazing encounter. I was with a friend, standing by a remaining chunk of the wall, not far from Checkpoint Charlie. Were approached by a short, fat, dark moustachioed man in his mid forties. He greeted us in clipped, Germanic English, with diction better than many Brits (not uncommon). His name was Arthur (pronounced Artoor) Braun, and he had lived in Berlin all his life. He had heard us speaking English and wondered if he might walk with us for a while- so he could practice his English, in return for giving us a native’s tour of his home city. We eagerly agreed.

The next 3 hours were incredible. We walked a lot, saw much, but more than anything we talked- incessantly, compulsively, uncontrollably. Arthur was a taxi driver, a native of Berlin who had never travelled- an unremarkable man-but one with a fierce interest in the world and in life. It is for men like Arthur that Copeland wrote ‘Fanfare for the common man’, and Joyce composed Ulysses- for they see in their every day lives beauty and meaning.

Arthur believed Berlin was indeed still a divided city. The wall would never come down. He had grown up knowing he had an aunt in East Berlin, whom one day he hoped he would see. The wall came down and he did see her…..but it was awkward: The guilt of the West Berliners….the chip on the shoulder of the East Berliners….it was never the same… the divide had driven a trench in the hearts of the people. Maybe one day it would change….. and being back here- I think it has.

Arthur was sceptical of the European Union, which was gathering pace back then. He believed that Germany would always be the pivotal country in Europe- its geographic and economic position ensured this- and that after the wall came down the French, realising this, started driving the EU as a reaction to a resurgent Germany- tying them into a confederation (many respected political commentators absolutely concur with this). The Brits however saw through this- but then the Brits and the Germans are so similar. As Arthur said, “Europe is composed of beer drinkers and wine drinkers…”

He was bitterly upset that Germany, historically the land of philosophers, poets and composers, had in the modern age become synonymous with genocide and extremism. I said that unfortunately art does not go hand-in-hand with morality- great artists can be horrendous human beings (I will devote a post to this soon- it’s a subject that fascinates me). He agreed- (he was close to tears at this point)- he said the German psyche desperately wanted to believe that the genius of engineering, music and literature were signs of a deeper good, yet the events of the 20th century had proved otherwise.

Finally, after 3 hours of discourse, we parted at my hotel on the Kurf├╝rstendamm. Arthur’s parting comment was that England’s much-disputed 3rd goal in the 1966 world cup final against Germany was never a goal in a million years….

And that was it- a brief meeting- a wonderful few hours of shared obsessions. Fate brings people together in this way, and heaven knows who writes the scripts.

Who knows what has become of you Arthur, my dear and fleeting friend. But as I again stroll the Kurfurstendam, it will be with a distant hope of meeting you again. And I will always believe that you are still strolling through the shadows of Kreuzberg, remonstrating against the EU, shedding tears of outrage and passion, a remarkable individual upholding and embodying all that is beautiful and great in your nation…..

……and it f***ing well was a goal !!!


Wednesday, 7 March 2007

The Information age- are we better off?


The ‘information age’ has empowered us hugely, or has it?

James Garfield, US president in the late 19th century once said “Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”

The information age has surrounded us with a convergence of technology and information the like of which the world has never seen. More people have access to more knowledge and information than at any time in human history- surely therefore, ‘popular education’ in the truest sense (not just people going to school, but people having free access to culture and learning) should, in parallel, be at its apogee. And if popular education is at its most advanced, then freedom and justice should be prevalent all over of the world, right?

Of course this is not the case. But why? Particularly when you consider how freely accessible knowledge is. Consider the following:

The average newspaper contains more information in a week than a 17th century person would have consumed in a lifetime
• The majority of American children now go online before they can functionally read
• The number of people who learned English in China last year outnumbered those who speak English as a first language in the rest of the world put together
• People are creating and sharing information on an unprecedented scale. A University of Berkeley study reported that in 2002 humankind created 5 exabytes of stored data (print, film, computer data)- the equivalent of 500,000 libraries of congress EVERY YEAR. there are 50 million blogs on the internet, and the that number is doubling every 6 months; Wikipedia, the web-based encyclopedia compiled by users has over 2 million articles.
• Google, where much of the world’s knowledge is indexed and made accessible has more computer servers than there were computers in the world in 1970


But is all this knowledge actually enriching us? My fear is that this huge advance is not being accompanied by actual cultural development, for several reasons: 1) There are political and cultural groups who fear this democracy of information- the Chinese government are a prime example- all of the major internet search engines having famously had to censor their results- a search on ‘Tiananmen square’ on Google China will not pull any references to the 1989 massacre Conversely there are plenty of groups seeking to utilise the information highway to destroy freedom and justice- cults, fundamentalist groups, terrorist, etc.
2) A large population of the world does not have access to the information superhighway- poverty still disenfranchises through preventing popular education in all senses.

However one can reasonably expect humanity to continue to triumph, or improve its record on these 2 issues: Just as Soviet Russia crumbled, China will have to embrace some form of democracy- (in the 2nd decade of this century their youth working demographic will shift against them- leaving them probably not enough young people to sustain their current economic growth- huge social/cultural change will be needed); fundamentalism and extremism ultimately destroy themselves; and global poverty is at an all time low thanks, in principal, to the rise of China and India as economic powers.

However my concern is not so much with those who are being PREVENTED from accessing the information age, as the decline of those who ARE. A sage once said that the danger with the technology revolution was not that computers would become more human, but that humans would become more like computers.

And ultimately, the reality of the information age is that it’s a product of computer mechanisation on a huge scale- with relatively few humans involved- as opposed to a collective human development. Google may have made the world’s knowledge universally accessible, but that doesn’t mean that people are consuming it. Look around you, and you see a society perpetually plugged in and switched on- play stations, mobile phones, Blackberries, laptops, ipods. But are the people at the end of these devices more knowledgeable, more culturally informed? Or are they merely outsourcing their entertainment to ‘the network’? Has the information age enriched us, or have we have become flesh-based hard disk drives?

Consider this parable: When at boarding school I remember hearing the poem of the Ancient Mariner on the radio. It transfixed me and desperately sought it to read it. Now this was in 1986, so if I wanted to read this poem for myself, I had to go find it in the school library. The problem was it wasn’t there-the volume of the Oxford Companion of 18th century verse had mysteriously disappeared (like so much else at my school). So, I had to wait 5 days for the weekly minibus trip to the nearest town, when I was able to borrow it from the public library. The anticipation of that trip, of actually getting the poem was so great that when finally in my hands, I devoured it over and over again, and can still recite much of it to this day. The point being, the THRILL of this discovery was in the CHASE. Nowadays, I need only tap ‘Ancient Mariner’ into Google and up it pops- no challenge at all. But the problem with this is that, knowing that so much information is at our fingertips, I think we don’t seek it out, safe in the comfort that it’s available if we want it. The comfort of the availability of information can, if we’re not careful, turn us from thrilled seekers to passive receivers.

And when you look behind some of the startling figures above, the realities are somewhat different: a relatively small percentage of the Wikipedia community actually edit and contribute- the majority passively view. Similarly, Technorati estimate that of 100 people engaged in a blog, on average 1 will create original posts; 9 will supply comments whilst 90 will passively view.

My point is that the huge democracy of information is actually being utilised and originated by a comparatively small bunch of people. The majority are either passively receiving, or using the advancements to make their lives EASIER not RICHER. Glass Bead Gamers will not be content with using the information age as a comfort-blanket of ANSWERS; they will utilise its power to ask vital QUESTIONS. And the more people who utilise it in this way, the more popular education, freedom and justice will truly advance.

So, we must rejoice in our new democracy, but not forget to vote! Lest we become idle and immobilised on the sea of human knowledge- like the Ancient Mariner:

Day after day, day after day
We stuck, nor rythme nor motion
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean

Monday, 5 March 2007

The Hermit and the Shepherd

My Irish Nana told me this story when I was young……..



Once there was a man who was considered the wisest and most knowledgeable in his land. He was revered and respected by everyone, and many people sought to be like him, and to attain his position in society.

On day, the man decided that, as he had achieved so much in his life, he needed to go and search for God. In order to do this, he decided to withdraw from society- to become a hermit. He would go and live in the remotest cave he could find, where he would seek to find and understand God. So he left his home, and travelled to the remotest cave in the land.

There he remained for a year. He wrangled with himself- God was nowhere to be seen- he argued and debated with himself, but God was nowhere to be found. He poured every ounce of his energy into searching and seeking to understand and know God, but in vain. Finally, he became angry and frustrated, and in a fit of rage scrawled in large letters on the cave wall:

GOD IS NOWHERE

He stormed out of the cave and walked off into the wilderness- a broken man.

Later that day, a shepherd wandered into the cave, in search of a missing sheep. As he looked around he saw the writing on the wall. Being poor and badly educated, he could only barely read, so he had to trace the letters individually, speaking them out loud as he did so:

“ G-O-D, God……..I-S, is……N-O-W, now…..H-E-R-E, here……God is now here….GOD IS NOW HERE!”

The shepherd was overjoyed- he ran out of the cave shouting “God is now here!” He ran back to his family to tell them the news, and they rejoiced at the news that they would be saved.

There hermit in this story seems to me to represent 21st century western society- rich, gifted, complex, advanced- yet paralysed by the over-expectation that this brings, so that we are often bitter and unfulfilled. Developing societies often retain their simplicity, their innocence and are accepting of what they have.

Therein lies the road to contentment…………….

What is happiness? I prefer to go with Aristotle's definition- that it is the thing one does solely for its own sake. So if you follow Socratic dialectic- someone may wish to have a facelift ;why do they wish this? Because it will make them look younger. Why? Because looking younger will make them feel better about themselves in comparison with their peers. Why? Because feeling better about themselves will make them happy. There is nowhere else to go from here- happiness is the end result, the end of the line, the thing one does solely for its own sake.So why in a world with so much advancement is happiness so elusive? For me the nature of this advancement is the problem- in western society we are richer, older, healthier than ever before. We have access to more money, information, resources and people than even our post-war parents. And all of these things give us choice, too much choice, and too much complexity. We have so much choice that we are prevented from making the simple decisions- is feeling younger in comparison to my peer group really necessary for greater self esteem?


The World Values Organisation recently conducted an extensive survey on which countries in the world were the happiest- and how what constitutes happiness changes from country to country.What's the happiest country in the world? NIGERIA. Nigeria has the highest % of its population declaring themselves happy. Now Nigeria is an extremely violent country (Lagos is one of the murder capitals of the world) and poverty affects large swathes of the population, yet they are the happiest people on earth. And they're not alone- 3rd world countries are generally happier than developed countries, in this and other studies (the USA comes 16th, the UK 24th)Throughout this study the recurring theme is that the choice and complexity of 'developed' society does not lead to happiness.
As a postscript to my example of cosmetic surgery above, The Washington Post reports that women who can afford the luxury of breast implants are more than three times as likely to commit suicide. Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post that studies in Finland, Sweden and the U.S. all show the same reaction. This isn't true with women who’ve had mastectomies, only with those who enlarge their breasts for cosmetic reasons.
Being able to spend money this way is an incredible luxury, so why does it leave women so depressed? Researchers think that women who want this kind of procedure think it will solve their psychological and dating problems—and then find out it doesn't.
So with greater choice comes greater expectation, and bitterness when this is not fulfilled.
On of the worrying things from the World Values Survey is that old people are happier than young people, even though BOTH groups think that young people are the happiest.
Scientists say that older people forget how happy (or unhappy) they were when they were young, while young people simply assume that they won't be very happy when they're old.
Kids becoming teenagers these days in western society are faced with so many expectations- material, emotional, sexual- combined with ‘choice’ and the apparent attainability of fame and riches without application, that its not surprising they are trepidous about the future. Albert Camus once wrote ‘modern man will be remembered for fornicating and reading the papers’, and that was 50 years before reality TV!

But why do some third world countries appear happier despite being in great need? Enter the Hermit and the Shepherd………….

The Paradox of our times......

At the end of the 19th century the US patent office recommended that it be closed down. Why? Because it believed there was nothing left to invent…………

A breathtaking thought when you consider the monumental advances of the 20th century.

But then couple that thought with another……..studies conducted at the beginning of the 21st century show that western society is the unhappiest its been for 50 years. This is a statistical fact, because happiness is a physical thing- it can be measured by how much serotonin is in the body- and these levels are at their lowest for half a century. (see my next post more a detailed global study on happiness levels).

So in a hundred years we’ve moved from believing we were at the high point of our development, to being the unhappiest we’ve been, despite being richer, more knowledgeable and healthier than at any time in human history.

Why is the richest and most advanced incarnation of humanity so f***ing miserable?

I seek to answer this question in my next few posts, calling on a Hermit, a Shepherd and an Ancient Mariner…….

Welcome to the Glass Bead Game

This blog takes its name from a novel by Hermann Hesse, the German writer, and one of the greatest literary figures humanity will ever witness. In the book, the Glass Bead Game is an ascetic game played by cerebral athletes, who find a way of representing all of the threads of human knowledge- literature, science, history, philosophy, music- through a series of symbols. These symbols, represented by glass beads, are then placed by the players in continuing patterns, representing the links between the themes. The game is devised by the intellectuals as a defence mechanism against a superficial and individualistic society, as a way of protecting knowledge and the love of wisdom in the face of relentless dumbing down. Sound familiar?

This blog has no such lofty pretensions- but it takes the spirit of the Glass Bead Game as its starting point: In the context of the 21st century, a Glass Bead player could be anyone who seeks to think, learn, reflect, and share this love of knowledge with others. In the context of our frenzied, advanced and ultra-complex age, a latter day Glass Bead Game player can be anyone who pauses to think, to ask questions, to muse on the ‘why?’ as well as the ‘how?’ You know a Glass Bead game player as soon as you meet them- they’re people who ‘get it’- people who thirst for knowledge and are curious about the physical and metaphysical around them. The dumbed-down vision that Hesse portrayed in his book is arguably more real to us in 21st century than he could ever have imagined- together we must protect our minds and, ultimately, our freedom, through playing our own version of the Glass Bead Game. I provide my own humble views as a starting point, embracing in true Socratic fashion that in attempting intelligence I reflect only my own ignorance. Please contribute as freely as you like- all free thought and examined lives are worthy of record.

A lot of the stuff here I have pouring over in my mind for years, and is influenced by a huge range of sources. People write for different reasons- for expression, for therapy, for clarity. This blog is dedicated to the crazy diamond who inspired me to believe I had something worthwhile to say.