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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

 

How do books succeed?

By getting into the Bestseller lists? By making a few millions? By winning the most prestigious awards of the day?

Wrong.

These are very narrow views on what constitutes success for a work of art, especially literature or serious non-fiction. If we redefine success, we might find that these very things that confers ‘success’ in the short term might be hurting the artist/author the most in the long term. This applies to prestigious prizes such as Bookers as well, as we will see. We might even get an idea of why so few of the Booker winning books seem to be good enough a few years after their moment of glory. (Spoiler: (view spoiler))

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Let us illustrate this by taking an example from this very book. This reviewer has to warn the reader that the example is originally invoked in the book for another purpose though it has been adopted more or less verbatim here, but we need to get into that now. (By the way, the careful reader should also be able to divine why this small essay is can also serve as a review for this book in particular and to all of Mr. Gladwell’s books in general.)

Let us go back to 19th century France. Art was a big deal in the cultural life of France back then. Painting was regulated by the government and was considered a profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a profession today. The Professionals who did well would win awards and prestigious fellowships. And at the pinnacle of the profession was The Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.

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Every year each of the painters of France submitted two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts, bringing their work to the
Palais de l’Industrie
, an exhibition hall built for the Paris World Fair between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on each painting in turn. Those deemed unacceptable would be stamped with the red letter “R” for rejected. Those accepted would be hung on the walls of the Palais, and over the course of six weeks beginning in early May, as many as a million people would throng the exhibition. The best paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated and saw the value of their paintings soar – became ‘bestsellers’. The losers limped home and went back to work.

There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. In short, for a painter in nineteenth-century France, the Salon was everything – the Booker Committee and the Bestseller List rolled into one.

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And now, the twist:

In spite of the all the benefits, the acceptance by the Salon also came with a large cost: for the truly creative and path breaking (let us take for example the Impressionists such as Monet, which is the case study taken up by the book):

1. It required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful,

2. & They risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’ work. 

Was it worth it?

The Salon was the place where reputations were made. And what made it special was how selective it was. There were roughly three thousand painters of “national reputation” in France in the 1860s, and each submitted two or three of his best works to the Salon, which meant the jury was picking from a small mountain of canvases. Rejection was the norm. Getting in was a feat. “The Salon is the real field of battle,” Manet said. “It’s there that one must take one’s measure.”  It was the place where “you could succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.

But the very things that made the Salon so attractive—how selective and prestigious it was—also made it problematic.

No painter could submit more than three works. The crowds were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond. But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little Fish.

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Night after night, the rebels (the Impressionists) argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The problem for the rebels such as the Impressionists was The Salon’s attitude: it was cautious, traditional. It had a reputation to uphold for being the voice of approval. It could not afford to make mistakes.

“Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions,” the art historian Sue Roe writes. “Light denoted high drama, darkness suggested gravitas. In narrative painting, the scene should not only be ‘accurate,’ but should also set a morally acceptable tone. An afternoon at the Salon was like a night at the Paris Opéra: audiences expected to be uplifted and entertained. For the most part, they knew what they liked, and expected to see what they knew.

The kinds of paintings that won medals, Roe says, were huge, meticulously painted canvases showing scenes from French history or mythology, with horses and armies or beautiful women, with titles like Soldier’s Departure, Young Woman Weeping over a Letter, and Abandoned Innocence.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, had an entirely different idea about what constituted art.

They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct. To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais, their work looked amateurish, even shocking, and was repeatedly turned down. They had no hope of making waves in the Big Pond of The Salon.

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The Big Fish–Little Pond Gambit

Pissarro and Monet were smarter. They conjured up an alternative to the shackles of the Salon.

They thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond. If they were off by themselves and held their own show, they said, they wouldn’t be bound by the restrictive rules of the Salon, where the medals were won by paintings of soldiers and weeping women. They could paint whatever they wanted. And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because there wouldn’t be a crowd.

In 1873, Pissarro and Monet proposed that the Impressionists set up a collective called the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. There would be no competition, no juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an equal.

The Impressionists’ exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The entrance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on display, including three Cézannes, ten paintings by Degas, nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Alfred Sisley—a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the Salon across town. In their show, the Impressionists could exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them in a way that allowed people to actually see them.

This was the first exhibition of “Impressionism”. It was here that Critic Louis Leroy took the title of a work by Monet, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ to deride exposure and then went on to qualify these artists, quite skeptically, as “Impressionists.”

The name stuck.

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This historic show brought the artists some critical attention. Not all of that attention was positive: one joke (in addition to the name ‘impressionism’ itself!) told was that what the Impressionists were doing was loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas.

But that was the second part of the Big Fish–Little Pond bargain. The Big Fish–Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.

We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worrying about opinion.” He was right. Off by themselves, the Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new creative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to sit up and take notice.

In the history of modern art, there has never been a more important or more famous exhibition. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a billion dollars.

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In the end, the Impressionists were lucky to make the right choice, which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world. But this same dilemma comes up again and again, and often the choice made is not as wise.

Their story should remind today’s top artists and authors that there is a point at which money and mainstream recognition stop making them and start breaking them. The story of the Impressionists suggests that when the artists/authors strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the Bestseller lists and Booker Lists, rarely do they stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether this is always in their best interest:

1. One of the important lessons the Impressionists could teach the modern artists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all.

2. Another important lesson is that what counts in the end is if you let the Big Pond define you, or if you were brave enough to invent an alternative. The answer might not always be a Little Pond, but it sure can’t be meek acceptance of the current status quo path either.

Think of all the great artists of the modern age who could hardly be defined as mainstream during their own lifetimes, who would never dream of writing for the approval of a committee, who were as far away from honors and awards and money as only exiles could be.

Think of all the books with prestigious honors and the #1 bestseller mark that seem like jokes now.

Think about how so many of our best authors seem to end up producing the same sort of exceptional trash – very well written, but hardly the real deal that would last a century.

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What then can be an alternative for the ones who want to break free? We can talk about one option that our case study suggests – it might not be the only option, and the creative ones can always come up with better option, but the exhortation of this reviewer is a simple one: that the really ambitions artists and authors need to start thinking hard about the best use of their own abilities and efforts.

(Added here from the comments section, for clarity):

To restate, in our day the artists have three options –

1. Satisfy the Bank
2. Satisfy the critics (or impress)
3. Or satisfy their own genius (or impress)

The last being the most risky and perhaps most important one.

So what is the winning option again? For one thing, examples abound of niche novelists’ groups pushing the boundaries of literature, slowly attaining cult status and eventually becoming part of the canon itself. Just as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne weighed prestige against visibility, selectivity against freedom, and decided the costs of the Big Pond were too great, it is time for the really serious to make the same call, of rejecting the conventional trappings of ‘success’ that only serves to limit their possibilities.

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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate ChangeThe Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

My Rating★★★★☆

From the back cover of the book:

“Can’t wait!” —Godot

 

“Stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman wants us to learn more about climate change, and he intends to take us there laughing all the way. After all, climate change is serious business and the best comedy is provided by the most morbid of human fears.

Yoram and Klein’s aims are laudable, and by creating this cartoon introduction (which also throws in a good Big History lesson, to sweeten the pot), they make the ‘gloomy’ topic not only more accessible but also fun to learn about. And that could be an important first step, especially for kids (or those childish adults that run after the shopping carts).

Based mainly on the IPCC reports and statistics, this book is as hard-hitting as any other, but might find itself more digestible even by the nonbelievers. Of course, coming from an economist, there is a marked bias towards ‘market is the Answer’, running throughout the book. It is simplistic and doesn’t put forth any great ideas and the last section was, quite honestly, a waste of time. But the first three educational, non-policy-prescription sections are really worth your time and money.

See here for a quick video guide through the book (you can also donate to the project there): https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/…

You can also get an early b/w peak of a draft of the Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change via this 15-meg 2-to-a-page PDF.

I think this would be a good book to donate to your neighboring school’s library or suggest for your kid’s school, or even stock up for yourself – and hey, it is real eye candy too!

 


This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability

State of the World 2014: Governing for SustainabilityState of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability by The Worldwatch Institute

My Rating★★★★★

We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.

~ Lester R. Brown, Plan B (2008)


MOVING THE IMMOVABLE OBJECT

The State of The World Report 2014 focuses on Governance –  “the most powerful obstacle to creating a sustainable future.”

It is clear that things cannot continue as it is the. The modern caisson of hell is ‘Business As Usual”. That is why the core of the Environmental Movement is Change – but change has three aspects to it:

1. Change has to be initiated

2. Change has to be controlled and directed

3. Transformational change, always brings side effects – they have to be mitigated or hedged against.

Dealing with these three aspects requires good leadership, motivated citizenry and capable institutions – Good Governance, in short.

We need to recognize this and break out of our apathy or even revulsion towards governments. True, governments have not ben responsive, true they have not lived up to their empty promises, and true they have deliberately sabotaged environmental movements – but the answer is not rejection, but reform.

Long before the climate crisis was “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” it was a massive political and governmental failure.

This Report is a call for action for this reform. It asks us to get around the idea that “government is the problem,” propagated by the odd alliance of ideologists, media tycoons, corporations, and conservative economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which has only lead to the sad present condition where the public capacity to solve public problems has diminished sharply, and the power of the private sector, banks, financial institutions, and corporations has risen. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the number of failed states with tissue-thin governments is growing under the weight of population growth, corruption, crime, changing climate, and food shortages.

This is why we need to re-look the role of governance – The Report asks us to start to make concerted efforts to create the kind of local, national and international governance structures that will take us through the ‘Perfect Storm’ we are sailing into.

The Irresistible Force of Environmental Concern and Activism has to Move the Immovable Object that is the current atrophied Governance structures.

The Coming Tide

The massive ecological changes that are predicted, and already underway, is going to change the landscape of human existence and civilization. We are living a pipe-dream if we expect magical technological bullets to stop this. The effects of our rapaciousness are already upon us and the effects will last for centuries, perhaps millennia, and no society, economy, and political system will escape the consequences. That is where we are headed.

Many challenges loom ahead:

Soon, millions of people will have to be relocated from sea coasts and from increasingly arid and hazardous regions of Earth. Agriculture everywhere must be made more resilient and freed of its dependence on fossil fuels. Emergency response capacities everywhere must be expanded. The list of necessary actions and precautionary measures is very long. We are like a ship sailing into a storm and needing to trim sails, batten hatches, and jettison excess cargo.

Without proper governance structures, can we realistically expect to confront and survive changes on this scale? 

What we do know is that citizens, networks, corporations, regional affiliations, nongovernmental organizations, and central governments will all have to play their parts. The twenty-first century and beyond is all-handson-deck time for humankind. We have no time for further procrastination, evasion, and policy mistakes. 

We must now mobilize society for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future. The longer we wait to deal with the climate crisis and all that it portends, the larger the eventual government intrusion in the economy and society will necessarily be, and the more problematic its eventual outcome.


Prioritizing Responses; Avoiding Disaster

A second and related priority will be to reform the global economy to internalize its full costs and fairly distribute benefits, costs, and risks within and between generations. By most reckonings, majority of the costs of economic growth has been, and will be, offloaded on the poor and disadvantaged.

In the face of governmental inertia and corporate capture of many decision-making processes, strong and persistent bottom-up political pressure is needed more than ever, and it should be a directed and strategic pressure, aimed at well thought out reform towards much-needed new economic, political and social governance structures.

Whether we can avoid capsizing the frail craft of civilization or not will depend greatly on our ability and that of our descendants to create and sustain effective, agile, and adaptive forms of governance that persist for very long time spans.

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ADDENDUM: A SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS

All in all, this year’s Report is a very good compilation of the leading thoughts on an important issue, as usual presented in a focused and concise, yet hard-hitting format.

While it is easy to say “Good Governance” is the answer, the more difficult question concerns what is needed to drive the governance process for sustainability forward. The chapters in this book examine not only the obstacles to this process, but also the multiple ideas and possibilities for needed change at different scales – from the level of individual ethics to the minutiae of international policy making.

Here is a quick summary of core ideas from some of the chapters, since the ideas themselves are worth thinking upon and acting upon:

Chapter 1: Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet

Introduces the main themes and sets the stage.

Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual.

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Climate and other sustainability questions cannot be seen solely through the prism of environmentalism. The fight for sustainability needs to incorporate dimensions of social justice, equity, and human rights.

Chapter 2: Understanding Governance

Sets out the core principle so ‘good’ governance, especially for our changing times.

Taking inspiration from Elinor Ostrom’s (2009 Nobel Prize in economics) work, Conor Seyle and Matthew King, while admitting there is no ‘one-size-fit’s all solution’, makes a case for stronger and more involved bottom-up local governance to flourish.

Elinor Ostrom, drew on her experience in small-scale societies around the world to identify eight principles for the successful management of common-property resources:

(1) a strong group identity,

(2) fairness in distributing costs and benefits,

(3) consensus decision making,

(4) effective monitoring of effort and rewards,

(5) graduated sanctions,

(6) rapid and fair conflict resolution,

(7) sufficient autonomy when the group is part of a larger system, and

(8) appropriate coordination between groups.

Ostrom and her colleagues identified these principles, which, when are in place, local communities do a remarkable job of protecting their resource bases even under intense outside pressure.

Chapter 3: Governance, Sustainability, and Evolution

In this chapter, Governance is explored from the perspective of evolution, which makes  a lot of sense when governance is so divorced form nature – it helps to put it back in perspective. Governance systems are the formal and informal ways that humans manage relationships with each other and with the natural world.

John Gowdy, in this chapter, argues that there is in fact an evolutionary basis for the worst forms of governance mistakes and suggests that failing to devise institutions that can mitigate our worst genetic tendencies will take us down nature’s pathway to sustainability, with whatever costs and disruption to human civilization it sees fit to inflict.

Chapter 4: Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough

Monty Hempel asserts that teaching ecoliteracy, while necessary, is not enough to get people to respect the mimics of the planet and operate harmoniously with the natural world; it will need to be combined with ethics training, developing emotional connections to the natural world and appeals to action.

Much attention in environmental education and risk communication has been devoted to the “knowledge deficit” theory of social change, when the real issue appears to be a behavior deficit.

Chapter 5: Digitization and Sustainability

Richard Worthington debunks the idea of  “technology is legislation, ” and cautions that we cannot rely on the digitization of everything to solve the problems we face –  digitization has not increased the number of politically engaged citizens. What we need is concerted action in other, especially political, spheres.

Digitization and media access widens the information and engagement gap. At one end of the spectrum are a relatively few highly informed and active citizens, whose information sources are more biased toward their views than was the case before the advent of digital systems. At the other end are the vast majority of citizens, who have relatively little information or interest in politics, and whose views are subject to the messages emanating from an increasingly concentrated mass media.

Chapter 6: Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual, or Compassionate Retreat?

Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt urge us change the basic approach towards the future, way from a blind hope in technology that reaches extremism like geoengineering and to instead to  opt for an ”ethics first” approach, that would seek reduce human impacts on planetary systems.

 

Our task within the Anthropocene is to re-learn what it means to be a citizen; not just of our earthly community, but of the universe. And it raises sharp questions about whether geoengineering is the latest version of the Faustian bargain struck by a wealthy minority who have brought life’s commonwealth to an unwanted and undeserved, yet fateful, choice.

Chapter 8: Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations

Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke urge us to expand the circle of stakeholders to include the voiceless youth and the generations to come, especially in business calculation and the now infamous short-termism of the ‘discount rate’ – we can not longer afford to ‘discount’ the future!


Chapter 10: Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice – MUST READ

In what is the best written and most eloquent chapter in this Report, Aaron Sachs warns us that we cannot afford to lose sight of the injustices of today’s world when we worry about the apocalypse that is coming. Sachs invites us to instead view the Environmental Movement through a historical perspective and demonstrates why all successful social movements throughout history, have incorporated a strong sense of ethics – The Environmental movement cannot expect to gloss over the injustices of today if it hopes to succeed.

And this should start with what is increasingly derided by a disillusioned community – of taking personal steps and sacrifices towards an ‘impact-free’ life. Yes, all that tripe about switching off the bulbs and recycling is indispensable to a truly ethical approach.

We can be impatient for revolution but we cannot abscond our own responsibility to “Do No Harm”. 

This chapter made me proud again of my own small efforts such as cycling to office everyday. It is easy to question what these sorts of acts can really accomplish – it reinforces the ethical basis of the revolution, that is what it accomplishes.

It gives legitimacy to the rhetoric.

Even the best-intentioned young environmentalists, who often emphasize governance and “efficacy,” tend to scoff at my insistence that they read Thoreau: given the enormity of our problems, what does it matter if one more hermit goes off the grid? But the point of working one’s way through Walden and Thoreau’s other writings is not so much to dwell on his specific actions in the woods as to analyze his way of thinking and his resistance to certain elements of the status quo, to engage with his New England spirit of self-reliance and civil disobedience.

Chapter 14: How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability

Extending the  the focus on Local Governance, Monika Zimmermann discusses that the current locus of activity on climate change and biodiversity preservation lies mainly within organizations of local and regional, not national, governments.

Over the last 20 years or so, pioneering local governments have stepped forward on the global stage to assert their relevance to sustainability initiatives, exemplify commitments, provide and share resources, establish concrete metrics, track progress toward goals, and help spur national and international processes to do the same.

Chapter 19: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses

As Muhammad Yunus argues in his discussion on ‘Social Businesses’ as a way to end poverty, Colleen Cordes examines the parallel “benefit” corporations and their impact on changing the face of business and eventually of investment activity, I.e., finance. This still-new phenomenon of remarkable companies that orient themselves toward a broader array of stakeholders, including their employees and the local communities within which they operate, volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits.

Chapter 21: Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions for a Just Transition

Along with Sean Sweeney in Chapter 20, who argues in favor of greater “energy democracy” that gives workers, communities, and the public at large a more meaningful voice in decision making, Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue here for a fundamental reorganization of all unionization.

They argue that it is also the responsibly of the Trade Unions to protect their members through the coming changes to ensure a ‘just transition.’


Conclusion: A Call to Engagement

Ultimately, then, it is not ‘Government is the problem’, that we arrive at but concentration of power that is thwarting efforts to achieve sustainability. The theme that runs through much of this year’’s report is one of deconcentrating – devolving – wealth and power.

The concluding chapter, is a ‘call to engagement’ by listing out again the variety of political and economic means available to achieve that end.

Sustainability is a socioecological problem. It is a problem for each and every one of us to tackle personally, socially and politically – we need to tackle it on every field simultaneously.

People everywhere must strive to don the mantle of citizenship and commit to persistent engagement in the governing of their workplaces, communities, and nations. Only a steady popular commitment to engaged governance can prevent the future we seem to be headed towards.

The quest for environmental sustainability, social equity, and a deep, deliberative culture of citizen engagement are closely intertwined goals.

 If there is a common theme standing behind the policy ideas and reforms explored in this book, however, it is the necessity of citizen empowerment and citizen responsibility. Call it the first law of political physics: a body at rest will remain at rest until a force is applied to it. When promising governance alternatives are known and seem worth trying out but are not yet happening, then a force needs to be applied to encourage exploratory movement in a new direction. And when governments themselves are unable to muster that force and other actors (such as corporations) are pushing in the wrong direction, an opposing vector can come only from the people.

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This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Force of Falsity

Serendipities: Language and LunacySerendipities: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco

My Rating★★★☆☆

The Force of Falsity

Eco illustrates through multiple examples on what tenuous grounds much of our accepted history of today stands. What we believe, exists. And the belief outweighs the actual existence, or lack thereof.

Each of these stories/examples have a virtue: as narratives, they seem genuinely plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible. The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. Hard to understand without accepting the “Force of Falsity” in shaping perception and thus History.

In other words, what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense and lunacy, truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.

It is not easy sailing, moving through these essays. Eco assumes a familiarity with the Italian language and histories of secret societies, that is hard to summon for the casual reader. But if you can just go along with the flow and accept the few over-shots, the general thrust and playfulness is still enjoyable enough.

The first half of the book on these ‘falsities’ and their impact on history is a delight. The rest of the pieces are half-lunatic essays into the origins of language, from a biblical perspective. It is very hard to follow with the numerous references to biblical scholars and medieval studies and almost exclusive obsession with the more obscure aspects of Dante scholarship.

“False tales are, first of all, tales, and tales, like myths, are always persuasive. And we could mention many, many other false tales,for example, the myth of the Terra Australis, that immense continent that supposedly extended all along the polar cap and subtropical Antarctica. The firm belief in the existence of this land (affirmed by countless maps showing the globe encircled, to the south, by a broad terrestrial band), drove navigators from various nations for at least three centuries to try to explore the south seas and even the Antarctic.

What can be said of the idea of Eldorado and the fountain of youth, which led mad, brave heroes to explore the two Americas? Or the stimulus given to nascent chemistry by hallucinations inspired by the phantom of the philosopher’s stone? And what about the tale of Phlogiston, the tale of cosmic ether?

Let us forget for a moment that some of these false tales produced positive effects, while others produced horror and shame. All created something, for better or worse. Nothing in their success is inexplicable. What represents a problem is rather the way they managed to replace other tales that today we consider true. Although instruments, whether empirical or conjectural, exist to prove that some object is false, every decision in the matter presupposes the existence of an original, authentic and true, to which the fake is compared. The truly genuine problem thus does not consist of proving something false but in proving that the authentic object is authentic.

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And yet this obvious consideration must not lead us to the conclusion that a criterion of truth does not exist and that tales now called false and tales that today we believe true are equivalent because both belong to the genre of narrative fiction.There exists a process of verification that is based on slow, collective, public performance by what Charles Sanders Peirce called “the Community.”

It is thanks to human faith in the work of this community that we can say, with some serenity, that the Donation of Constantine was false, that the earth turns around the sun, and that Saint Thomas at least knew the planet is round. At most, recognizing that our history was inspired by many tales we now recognize as false should make us alert, ready to call constantly into question the very tales we believe true, because the criterion of the wisdom of the community is based on constant awareness of the fallibility of our learning.”

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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

***

I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Tolstoy As Villain: Tolstoy, Tolstory, Tall Story

Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and PeaceRussia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven

My Rating★★★★☆

 

Tolstoy As Villain: Tolstoy, Tolstory, Tall Story

Russia’s defeat of Napoleon is one of the most dramatic stories in European history. The war has been immortalized by Tolstoy in his epic, War & Peace. There is no great puzzle as to why Russia fought Napoleon. How it fought him and why it won are much bigger and more interesting questions. To answer these questions requires one to demolish well-established myths.

It is not surprising that myths dominate Western thinking about Russia’s role in Napoleon’s defeat. What happened in 1812–14 is usually distorted in British, French and American books. Popular works on the Napoleonic era necessarily follow a rather set pattern.

Fascination with Napoleon, with the timeless lessons to be learned from military genius, along with the fame of Clausewitz, generally seen as the greatest of all thinkers on modern war, has meant that the Russian side of the story paled in comparison. And got short shrift. The result is that the Russian side of the story is ignored or misinterpreted, with historians largely seeing Russia through the prism of French- or German-language sources.

The European Myths

The distortions manifest first as sort of colonial racism. Napoleon himself set the tone by finding few words of praise for any Russian troops other than Cossacks – ascribing to them the cause of his own retreat. Blaming defeat on the Cossacks or the weather was useful. Since the French army had no Cossacks and the weather was an ‘unfair’ act of God, no French officer need fear that by invoking these sources of disaster he was questioning his own superior virility or professional skill.

Thus, studies of the 1812 campaign in English mostly concentrate on Napoleon’s mistakes, on the problems created for the French by Russia’s geography and climate. The year 1813 traditionally belongs to German authors celebrating the resurgence of Prussia and the triumph of German patriotism.

The Russian Distortion

Thus the rest of Europe had a complete version of how events transpired. But, what of Russia itself?

In Russia, the later Decembrist revolt and its suppression was the beginning of the exceptionally bitter split between right and left in Russia which eventually ended in the revolution of 1917. The violent hatred between the two camps helped to poison and distort memories of 1812–14.

When it took over the 1812 myth and made it an integral part of Soviet patriotism, the Communist regime to a great extent set such ideas in stone. The historical reality of Russia’s war effort had to be startlingly distorted to suit official ideology in the Stalinist era. Nobles and the Royalty had to be vilified; a folk hero in the form of Kutuzov had to be elevated; and the significance of mass resistance to Napoleon had to be exaggerated.

The Loudest Voice: Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was by far the most important nineteenth-century mythmaker as regards his impact on Russian (and foreign) understanding of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic era. Tolstoy depicts elemental Russian patriotism as uniting in defense of national soil.

War and Peace has had more influence on popular perceptions of Napoleon’s defeat by Russia than all the history books ever written. By denying any rational direction of events in 1812 by human actors and implying that military professionalism was a German disease Tolstoy feeds rather easily into Western interpretations of 1812 which blame the snow or chance for French defeat.

And, perhaps most important in the context of this work, Tolstoy, by ending his novel War and Peace in December 1812 with the war only half over and the greatest challenges still to come, he also contributes greatly to the fact that both Russians and foreigners largely forget the huge Russian achievement in 1813–14 even in getting their army across Europe to Paris, let alone defeating Napoleon en route. Thus, the long, bitter but ultimately triumphant road that led from Vilna in December 1812 to Paris in March 1814 plays no part in his work, just as it was entirely marginalized in the Soviet patriotic canon and in contemporary Russian folk memory.

So instead of being a voice for Russia, this popular or ‘Tolstoyan’ Russian interpretation of the war fits rather well with foreign accounts that play down the role of Russia’s army and government in the victory over Napoleon.

Napoleon himself was much inclined to blame geography, the climate and chance; this absolved him from responsibility for the catastrophe. Historians usually add Napoleon’s miscalculations and blunders to the equation but many of them are happy to go along with Tolstoy’s implied conclusion that the Russian leadership had little control over events and that Russian ‘strategy’ was a combination of improvisation and accident.

Inevitably too, Russian lack of interest in 1813–14 left the field free for historians of other nations who were happy to tell the story of these years with Russia’s role marginalized.

Conclusion

The above is a summation of the basic premise of the book. The author goes on to demonstrate that these ‘stories’ are myths and tries to give a detailed analysis of how Russia really defeated Napoleon. He gives details of every campaign, including logistics, troop recruitment, weather patterns, foreign policy manipulations, chance events, etc. It is fascinating yet quite tedious.

For now, I can provide no comments on the author’s thesis and can only form an opinion after further exploration of the events through other histories. To me, the premise of the book was more interesting and perhaps more important than the actual content itself, which is passably good but never intriguing.

I can comment on whether this really is essential reading or not for explorers of Tolstoy (and students of Russia, by default) only after finishing War & Peace, but for now it does seem to be.

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Posted by on December 25, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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