Thursday, February 21, 2013

Untoward Ideology

Over the years, I have developed a high regard for a number of people, and delight in their company every now and then. (Over a similar number of years, I have developed a disdain for a number of idiots, but why dwell on the inane?)

I was, therefore, happy to share a luncheon at the Manor with a good friend , Cecil George, who had spent most of his career in the provincial civil service. He was now retired, and  described his time in government as going from total oblivion to relative obscurity. This was a tad too twee -- Cecil had made a major contribution in the areas of education and economics, and had received a number of plaudits from various Ministers of the Crown.

He had taken early retirement, but not without regret. I wondered about this, but will let him speak as to why.

"Time was, my Lady, that the work of the civil servant consisted in giving a particular Minister the best advice you could. The Minister didn't have to take that advice, of course, and this was as it should be. Ministers are publicly accountable, and you are not. For a long time, even when the advice was not to a Minister's liking, you did get credit for pointing out sundry pitfalls and traps that might occur in pushing forward a given policy.

"Then everything changed.

"Suddenly, you were being asked to support a given policy, even to the extent of writing speeches outlining  how brilliant that policy was. Ideology was corrupting what should have been a critique of a proposed policy. This extended to all political parties. It was as if the government Ministers could no longer tolerate any criticism of their thinking, and only sought support. Time to get out."

Cecil's point was a good one. Politicians driven by ideology forget that not all of the electorate voted for them, and indeed, in a first past- the- post system, there are often more votes cast against the winning candidate in term of percentages. This would be acceptable if the successful candidate was aware of this, and came to the common sense conclusion that he or she represented ALL votes cast.

Sadly, this is not the case. Wrapped in ideology, whether right or left, all too many politicians seem unable to break free and look at the whole, rather than just a part. The result is a kind of disenfranchisement, where one side only gets to romp in the sun, while any other point of view remains in outer darkness.

And when ideology is really pernicious, a ghastly deadlock can ensue. The best example here is perhaps the U.S. Congress, as the long suffering American people know well. They have rated Congress below cockroaches, root canals and colonostomies, and it is difficult to argue with that perception.

A good poring over Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is called for on the part of today's politicians, but I suspect that is a call made in vain.

At which point Cecil and I opened a second Veuve Clicquot.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Of China and St. Valentine

A bit late with this, due to an unexpected trip to Ottawa and an extremely interesting session at the Chinese Embassy. Lasted two days, an unusually long time, and an indication that the issue under discussion was Important.

You see, from time to time, the Chinese and I have been known to share, well, let's just say, 'diplomatic pleasantries' that have proved useful to both sides. To say more would be telling, although what I can say is that the Socialist Paradise of North Korea is becoming a Problem. Indeed, China has moved beyond just feeling 'edgy' about the situation to something verging on alarm. All this because the current Kim likes to play with nuclear toys -- a far more dangerous habit than that of his father, who restricted himself, for the most part, to Barbie Dolls.

China finds it cannot pin this nuclear tinkering on America or Japan, its usual 'default' nations when things go awry.* It might even have to take some form of, wait for it, ACTION. Hence the extended meeting.

I made some suggestions. They commented. We will see what happens.

One cannot, however, dwell forever in the world of realpolitik -- unless you are Henry Kissinger. I am not he, and in that the Chinese dialogue occurred mostly on February 14th, I think it only fitting that I at least pay some homage to that day's patron -- St. Valentine.

As far as I can tell from some cursory research, there were two such saints.

One surfaces in Rome, where he devoted his time and energy to assisting Christians to not go to prison.  For this, in due course, he himself was imprisoned. While thus incarcerated, he apparently restored the sight of his jailor's daughter, but in 270 AD was clubbed to death. (It is unclear if the two events are related).

The other St. Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, was martyred a few years later.

Surprisingly, neither saint has anything to do with choosing Valentines to confess regard for another. This custom originates in the Roman Lupercalia, where gifts were given to celebrate the coming of Spring and associated with the mating of birds. Those gifts have now been reduced to cards containing some of the worst poetry ever written.

Happy Valentine's Day to all.

* In this 'default' arena, the leader by far is Israel. All Arab nations will automatically blame Israel for any and all things that occur that are not to their liking, ranging from droughts to floods, any outbreak of disease, any death that is somewhat suspicious, up to and including being responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. Where is the Old Testament God when we need him?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Of Twitter, Tweets and Twits

I was only fourteen years old when I first encountered the word "tweet". By this time I had left my home (such as it was, in a backstreet in Naples) to go to England.. The move was made possible by winning a bountiful scholarship from the Manzoni Foundation for an essay on Alessandro's Manzoni's seminal novel, I Promessi Sposi* which apparently unearthed a new insight that no one else had spotted -- the fractured relationship between Griso and Fra Cristoforo. But I digress.

In any event, the word "tweet' swam into my ken through cartoons featuring a small chick with a lisp who was convinced he had seen a pussy cat. (I later realized that the word "chick" could have quite another meaning, but that's neither here nor there). Here, however, we are concerned with the word tweet, and a meaning some distance removed from -- Hah! I just remembered! -- an entity called Tweety Bird.

Today, the word is part and parcel of something called Twitter, a communication network that allows instant messaging between various electronic mobile devices. One plus is that these messages, or 'tweets', are restricted to 140 characters, definitely a Good Thing, and supported by the phrase, found in Hamlet: "brevity is the soul of wit."

In reading various tweets, however,one quickly discovers that wit is sadly lacking, and all manner of embarrassing situations have come to light, much to the chagrin of a number of politicians and celebrities, two types that exhibit just how damaging ego can be when it is out of control. In other words, twits.

Yet, to draw on Matthew Arnold for a moment, one must "see life steadily and see it whole." Hence this instant messaging has had a powerful impact on those societies that have made strenuous efforts to pretend that their citizens are mushrooms and always kept in the dark, usually by religious or political ideologues. The 'Arab Spring' would not have erupted so quickly without such communication, and China's leaders are continually being forced to address injustices brought to light and circulated to millions. And the latest and widely circulated outcry in India about an absolutely heinous gang rape has stirred an entire country to action.


I say "perhaps" because of the inordinate difficulty of penetrating religious or cultural biases. These are firmly rooted, and those in charge are loathe to give up power. Indeed, some jurisdictions go to extreme length to curtail the use of communication mechanisms such as Twitter. Step forward, North Korea. Step forward, the tribal areas of Waziristan. Step forward any area dominated by the Taliban.

Yet I have hope, for things are progressing rapidly. As I believe Geraldine Ferraro in her run for the U.S. Vice-Presidency once stated: "It was not that long ago that people thought semiconductors were part-time orchestra conductors and that microchips were very small snack foods."

So let us progress, keeping in mind the adage, 'everyone is in favour of progress, it's the changes they don't like.'

* "The Betrothed", although I suspect most readers had figured this out. The work is regarded as the Great Italian Novel, and is found in any Italian school curriculum worthy of the name. --Ed.