Thursday, August 24, 2017

We Think As We Speak

"There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries"

Reading American journalist Suzy Hansen's piece in The Guardian (courtesy of Narratively of August 20th) titled 'Unlearning the myth of American innocence', in which she details her personal experience of what is often described as American Exceptionalism, brings back memories from my post-WWII childhood in the UK. We were living then during the rapid dismantling of Empire while still being taught it was the greatest in history, the only one on which "the sun never set". Folk from a modest island on the outskirts of civilization had sailed out to dominate and settle throughout the globe to a hitherto unprecedented degree. We had brought with us democracy, justice, literacy and fairness - the exceptionalism of Classical Greece delivered up to modern barbarians. 

Our ruling class still studied the Classics at university and spoke with a special accent inculcated during a schooling bottled up as boarders inside privileged and expensive teaching centres oddly known as 'public schools'. Despite the political triumph of socialism after peace came in 1945 and the post-Third Reich embarrassment of still 'owning' colonies, the behaviours and beliefs of centuries of imperial thinking remained implicit in much of what we were taught and heard. Many of those who recently voted for Brexit are old enough to have absorbed the feeling that our way of life was somehow special, and superior to that of other European nations. Watching the current film epic 'Dunkirk' we are reminded how that glorious episode (and the subsequent Battle of Britain in the air) saved that Europe for the Light of democracy.

A conceit of formerly successful imperial nations is that their contribution to history greatly exceeds that of lesser peoples, and this applies to their speech. Just as Latin lived on as a language of religion and scholarship many, many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, so we can expect to see English survive the mid-C20th demise of British imperialism and the already underway decline in the American global hegemony. In the continued use of such imperial speech beyond its founding political support network's disappearance, we witness the perpetuation of the ideas inherent in its phraseology and locus. The thought patterns of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism are likely to remain with us for many years into the future. English is the lingua franca ('the language of the Franks' - the common language of Christian rulers during the Middle Ages) of today's mechanistic and secular Modern Age, and may well remain so right up that civilization comes to end.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Zeitgeist of Zen

Robert Pirsig has died at 88:

I read Bob Pirsig's unique book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" at a time in my mid-life when New Age thinking still held sway and self-realization was my goal. It still stays with me as an extraordinarily memorable read, yet what this book of ruminations on changing times surfacing while biking with his 14 year old boy and an adult friend through the heart of America actually means I still cannot be sure. Years later a Canadian writer from Toronto travelled Pirsig's whole route, also on a motorcycle. His trip reminiscences, inter-weaved with his views on Pirsig's philosophizing, reinforce for me the one-of-a-kind weirdness of Pirsig's take on life seen through the lens of motorcycle care while riding among strange places with difficult companions.

Perhaps one reason I retain after so much time surprisingly strong recollections of Robert Pirsig's ramblings lies within this quote from the NY Times obituary linked to at the beginning: "Mr. Pirsig’s plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castaneda’s 'The Teachings of Don Juan' helped define the 1960s". This 'post-hippie 1970s landscape' was what I encountered when I arrived in North America in 1971. A displaced* person's first few years in a strange new land are usually well-remembered.

* I left home to escape the labour disruption and social turmoil that marched Britain inexorably towards its Winter of Discontent in 1974 (the year of Pirsig's book)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

I Can’t Go Back To Work Anymore

Budgets Are Sexy logo

From '10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Early Retirement', an April 7th posting in this personal finance blog

'I’m Learning and Growing More than Ever' -  

For Example: "I’m reading more than ever. The library and I are on a first-name basis. I’m there several times a week. I’m reading on personal growth, fitness, blogging, and a whole host of non-fiction topics. I also have time to read fiction and am catching up on John Grisham’s stuff, as well as a Batman graphic novel here and there. 

I’m learning from YouTube. You can find videos on how to do anything these days. Now that I have time, I’m learning how to cook (especially grill), how to do simple repairs around the house (I’m not 'handy' yet, but I’m getting there), how to travel hack (still a neophyte but learning), and on and on...

...The big difference (from employment) is that life is so much more exciting."


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Foreign Policy, Courtesy of the New America

A scary prognosis if one is not an American (and maybe if one is?) ---

Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence at a campaign event last summer, when health care reform was but a twinkle in their eyes. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

From the NYTimes Interpreter Newsletter of March 29th ---
"What The Health Care Fight Tells Us About How Trump Would Handle a Foreign Policy Crisis:

Two months (yes, only two months!) into the Trump presidency, the administration’s foreign policy remains largely untested. But we can infer several things about how Mr. Trump might approach a foreign policy crisis from how his administration handled the effort to replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act:-

Coercion over Consensus-Building: Mr. Trump sought to pass the bill not by searching for a set of terms acceptable to key stakeholders, but rather by using sticks and carrots to try inducing individual lawmakers into voting yes. But no set of inducements could solve the underlying political problem, which was that no known version of the bill would meet the minimum basic needs of major Republican factions.
In, say, a crisis over North Korea, this strategy would carry similar risks. Should Mr. Trump seek to pressure China by threatening sticks or promising carrots — rather than look for a policy that is mutually acceptable to China and the United States — he risks only alienating Beijing.

Going it Alone: Mr. Trump saved his sharpest sticks for allies, threatening and pressuring Republican lawmakers, particularly House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. After the vote, he punished those allies with tweets blaming them for its failure.
That could be even riskier in foreign policy. Republican lawmakers aren’t likely to switch parties, so they are inextricably tied to Mr. Trump. But foreign allies can always hedge against the United States.
For example, imagine if China provoked a crisis in the South China Sea. If Mr. Trump responded by telling allies he would punish them if they didn’t join a common front against Beijing, then those allies might calculate they are better off accommodating China and forgoing American support.

Bluffing: Mr. Trump warned Republicans that if they failed to support the health care bill, he would humiliate them by forcing a public vote, but later backed down.
In foreign policy, this could work once, or maybe twice, with each country. Research suggests that individual countries do not judge the United States’ credibility based on how it treats other countries; if Mr. Trump gets caught bluffing against Iran, that doesn’t undermine his threats against North Korea.
However, each called bluff does substantially harm the United States’ ability to influence that particular country. A bluff against Iran would leave the United States less able to constrain Iranian behaviour or deter a conflict. It would also weaken American influence with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that oppose Iran and would feel burned by the bluff.

Grandiose Campaign Promises: Mr.Trump, during the campaign, pledged to deliver universal health coverage while reducing costs. When it became clear this was not in the cards, health care became politically lose-lose for Mr. Trump, leaving him with little incentive to seek a more realistic solution.
Similarly sweeping foreign policy promises could also cause problems. Mr. Trump promised to impose American will on the world while withdrawing from overseas commitments; to dominate adversaries while eschewing allies; and to defeat the Islamic State as well as seize oil from the Middle East.
Almost any outcome in any foreign policy crisis is likely to fall short of Mr. Trump’s promises and disappoint his base That could leave him, as with health care, uninterested in eking out the modest foreign policy successes that are typically the best any administration can hope for.

Falsehoods: The administration’s tendency toward falsehoods included, for example, misrepresenting how the Congressional Budget Office had scored the health care bill.
This could be the riskiest habit to carry into foreign policy. In a major crisis, states avoid a slide into war by carefully telegraphing their actions, goals and red lines. The fog of war would be made denser by administration falsehoods, making an unintended escalation likelier.
This would also undermine the United States’ ability to spur global action against an imminent threat. Consider, for example, the Obama administration’s step, in 2009, to reveal Iran’s clandestine nuclear development, which spurred even Russia and China to support sanctions. If Mr. Trump claimed to have proof of Iranian nuclear cheating, would the world listen?

Impatience: Though the Obama administration spent roughly a year on building support for health reform, including national tours and countless speeches, the Trump administration gave it less than three weeks.
At the end of the process, during which Mr. Trump made few public comments and spent his weekends golfing at Trump properties, he explained his decision to call for pulling the bill: 'It’s enough already.'
This lack of patience could make it difficult to address long-running foreign policy problems such as Iran. The Iran nuclear deal took several years of painstaking diplomacy to achieve. A similar effort seems, at the moment, unlikely from Mr. Trump."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Markers of the Seasons

 Source Wikipedia
Wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day in Dingle, Ireland.

Beginning the late 1960s traditional melodies began finding their way into popular music as part of a transatlantic folk revival which shifted those of us whose origins lay in the British Isles away from the musical products of black America towards an appreciation of our native Anglo-Celtic heritage. In Britain bands like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span utilized new instrumentation and recording techniques to revive and reinvent material from our rich island tradition of balladry.  

Flutist Ian Anderson (namesake only) has long been a leading songwriter in this genre. Back in the winter of 1974 Anderson moved house into the English countryside to record an LP titled ‘Songs from the Wood’.  Here, and in his follow-up album ‘Heavy Horses’, he left behind the American world of little red roosters, cotton fields, sugar shacks and bayous to take us to the world of our birthright - the greenwood, uplands, farmland and the shore - to celebrate our own history and traditions.

I am particularly fond of his composition, ‘Ring out, Solstice Bells’, an upbeat celebration of a time, the midwinter solstice, when Nature is at her gloomiest. Despite rain, sleet, snow and mist, throughout the ages this has been a period for rejoicing.In Roman England and Wales, Saturnalia, the festival of light, heralded the renewal of light in the coming of another year. Candles were lit to symbolize knowledge and truth. Named after Saturn, the god of renewal, Saturnalia’s pagan traditions morphed into Christmas festivities once the Empire became Christian.

Throughout the Celtic lands the arrival of the winter solstice constituted an important marker between the great festivals of Samhain (the Celtic New Year about the time of Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (now Saint Brigid’s Day at the start of February). There is a solstice tradition among the Celts, probably dating from pagan times, of the Wren Boys. In its earliest days they killed a wren but later they created a giant animated lantern to resemble that bird, this to be hounded on all sides by the band of masked Wren Boys as they processed through their village. On St Stephen’s (or Boxing) Day, as their antics symbolized giving chase to the old year to make way for the new, the Boys would regale each house they pass with musical laments for the unfortunate bird, accompanied by pleas for money for its funeral.

Today much of humanity lives cheek-by-jowl in dense urban settings where it is easy to lose sight of ourselves as a part of the living Earth. Continuing to celebrate those days like May Day, Midsummer's Eve and All Hallows Eve that act as markers of the seasons reinforces that we humans are a creature of Nature that needs honour the life-giving passage of our planet around its sun. Reviving and reinterpreting the ceremonial and musical lore of our forbears can play a key role in anchoring us to our origins and fostering a sense of community in a fast-changing world.