Edersheim starts the book on a brooding note, by talking of how managements can no longer steer companies assuredly anymore....more The Engines of Democracy
Edersheim starts the book on a brooding note, by talking of how managements can no longer steer companies assuredly anymore. She says that something is wrong with all businesses in this century — they are overwhelmed, by the amount of information and change that keeps coming their way and the strain placed on them by the call for continuos innovation. Why? Because successful people wants to hold on to yesterday — to things, ideas and habits that made them successful — they don’t know how to free themselves and embrace the new fluxing reality of the day.
This is where she believes Drucker has a great and immediate role to play. His greatest asset is his “ability to liberate people” according to Edershiem. This ability involves the creation of tools of thinking and acting that allows ones strategic ability to adapt as fast as the environment — primarily by giving the CEOs or the managers the faith to trust their own judgement and thinking once again, instead of just clinging to whatever has chanced to work before.
Hitler and The Dangers of Management Failure
While this might seem like something that should concern only the business world, in Edersheim’s hands, Drucker assumes much greater importance — he becomes the modern messiah who has to guide a faltering world. This is because in Drucker’s conception, the vibrancy of business and their direction is a guiding force for the direction of society itself.
The book thus represents Drucker’s driving passion for making organizations and management work well in the present to create a better tomorrow. The importance and need for great management derives directly from its importance as the vibrant driving force of society.
Europe’s economic free-fall in 1930s and the organizational failures were, to Drucker, directly connected to poor business and government management. The lack of a viable economic engine in Europe is what bright Hitler to power.
Without economic opportunity, he wrote back in 1933, “the European masses realized for the first time that existence in the society is governed not by what is rational and sensible, but by the blind irrational and demon forces.” He says that lack of an economic engine isolates people and they become destructive.
The Fragility and interdependence of our economic system and the enormous cost of failure along with the studies on the rise of Fascism and Communism further confirms Drucker’s view of the critical need for vibrant businesses in any economy to be able to function.
The Marauder’s Map of Questions
In interpreting drunker, Edersheim has focused on today — the crazy times. The focus is on using the past learnings to drive future change, and to initiate them today. But more than the intent of the book, it is the method that should interest keen readers:
Drucker was famous for his Socratic style of questioning - forcing people to step back and think and arrive at answers - it was part of the ‘liberating’ that he was acclaimed for. This freedom to question and to accept new answers were part of that ‘liberation’.
Edersheim has used Drucker’s most insightful questions (that a company/management should ask itself) to structure every chapter in the book along with some insightful case studies as illustrations.The case studies are woven around them as model ways of posing these questions and the answers that were arrived at thus.
As we read, we are also encouraged to think through how and where we could pose these questions ourselves and how we might answer them. It is a very consultative book in that sense
The book can best be described as a prep course for a long journey. The minimum essentials are to have a good map handy, to have the best vehicle outfitted and a good driver at the helm. The books is structured around these key requirements.
The first chapter lays out the map, ‘looking outside’ before using the famous Drucker concept of “looking in from outside” — laying out the importance changes that makes this century so crazy and dangerous for business.
The windshield of the car is the imaginatively titled ‘Marauder’s Map’ — what you see this changing environment through - the map is always in flux, changing along with the people, events and ideas; and what we need to understand is that it has to be accepted on those terms.
Chapter 2 is about the guy at the steering wheel - The Customer. The one who should be setting the direction and driving every change, every turn that the organization should take and also changing the map in the process.
Chapter 3-5 are the fundamentals needed on the journey — the four wheels: innovation, collaboration, people and knowledge.
Chapter 6 is about the the Decision mechanisms, Discipline and Values that connect all the fundamental things (well, wheels) together and gives shape to the vehicle that is the organiation - the chassis.
The last chapter is about the CEO — forced to think outside the box always, he stands outside the metaphor too!
The Engines of Democracy
According to Drucker, the world wars were a point of management transition - of transition from a mercantile economy to an industry economy — and resultant tensions between policy and reality.
Drucker believes that we are now in another critical moment of transition — from the Industrial economy to the knowledge-based economy — and we should expect radical changes in society and business and we haven’t by any means seen them all yet.
The Lego World, or Competion-less Capitalism
Drucker calls the modern world a Lego World — a world where corporations do not compete anymore, but are interchangeable (and sometimes unique) lego blocks that fit together in unique ways to provide specific value oppositions to the customers. Drucker throws a direct challenge to the “World Is Flat” viewpoint. He says that it is so only from an industrial viewpoint. But it is not flat from the viewpoint of organizations. There is plenty of rom for uniqueness — it is all about the coming together of the right Lego pieces.
In Ducker’s view, the current Economic Engine is facing its great threat in more than a 100 years — can modern corporations learn to be be strategic collaborators rather than than unilateral superstars??
The book repeatedly emphasizes Drucker’s conviction that Businesses are the critical engine of a thriving society — of a society that values individuals and rewards achievement, and Management is the key factor to keeping it running.
Business isn’t just business. It is the economic engine of democracy!
And liberated managers who can ask the right questions are needed to rise to this occasion and meet the grave challenges that are being posed of us.
The book is about learning to ask those few key questions.(less)
This book is a series of interviews with top management ‘gurus.’ It is full of business ideas from these — some of world’s leading business thinkers....moreThis book is a series of interviews with top management ‘gurus.’ It is full of business ideas from these — some of world’s leading business thinkers. It will not turn a bad business into a good business. Nor will it turn a bad businessman into an entrepreneurial genius. However, what this collection of interviews offers is a smorgasbord of business ideas:
Pick and choose. Some you will find risible. Others will strike a chord. Others still you may remember and act on. In the final analysis, ideas are nothing without application.
The Table of Contents is quite valuable and can serve as quick reference. I am basing my quick summary on it. Please feel free to ‘pick & choose.’
Section 1: Leading the Way
1. Warren Bennis: Geeks, geezers and beyond
Warren Bennis analyses Geeks and Geezers — which compares leaders under the age of 35 (‘geeks’) with those over 70 (‘geezers’). His basic argument is that tough situations make for tough leaders.
Best question: You argue that crucibles are important in people’s development. But can you create your own crucible?
Kanter uses The Change Toolkit — to create Web-based versions to empower people to make change more effective. To give these skills to everyone so that change management – essential to leadership – becomes more widely understood and practiced. This is a way to empower people – by giving them the tools.
Best Question: Is the western heroic view of leadership still appropriate?
Answer: If we think of the western notion of leadership as cowboy leader- ship, the tough heroic stuff, it is no longer very appropriate. My view of leadership is probably more Confucian than cowboy.
The best leaders have somewhat universal characteristics. Leaders are more effective when they are able to create coalitions, develop and use a support system, encourage, listen and develop other people. Those sorts of attributes tend to transcend cultures.
3. Manfred Kets de Vries: The dark side of leadership
PSYCHOANALYSIS Meets Management Strategy: He talked about why companies crave heroic leaders – and what happens when executive egos get out of control. de Vries is asort of pathologist of organizations. People would ask me to look at organizations that they thought were going in the wrong direction — for looking at the darker side of organizations, and particularly the darker side of leadership. How do leaders derail, what goes wrong? How can you recognize the signals when things go wrong and what can you can do about it?
You can argue that 20 percent of the general population is relatively healthy; 20 percent is relatively sick; and the other 60 percent some- where in the middle. That applies to most people I meet. If you are a CEO you usually have a ‘magnificent obsession’ and that comes with a price. You are obsessed by certain things having to do with business. You may not have the greatest talent for other parts of your life that may result in negative side effects such as a high incidence of divorce.
The real disease of many executives, CEOs in particular, is narcissism.
4. John Kotter: In the field
There’s no one who has spent more time talking to managers. That is about the claim to fame.
5. Daniel Goleman: Maxed emotions
Spread the gospel of emotional intelligence to a largely grateful business world — It is based on the notion that the ability of managers to understand and manage their own emotions and relation- ships is the key to better business performance.
Section 2: Selling the Future
6. Peter Schwartz: Thinking the unthinkable
An internationally renowned futurist, Peter Schwartz is a leading advocate of scenario planning – a technique that helps organizations ‘think the unthinkable’ by creating alternative stories, or scenarios, about how the future might pan out.
Claim to fame: He assembled a team of futurists to envision the world in 2058 for Steven Spielberg’s latest film Minority Report.
7. Watts Wacker: Fringe benefits
How do you practically look to the future when things are changing so rapidly?
The way to do so it is to look at what is called the fringe.
Basically, the fringe is three deviations away from the mean. If we want to see the parts of the future that are seeable we need to look at the fringe because the fringe migrates to the middle.
Trends that are peripheral today become mainstream tomorrow. Keep a sharp eye!
8. John Patrick: The attitude thing
Very general. Best let the Guru talk:
What is the right attitude?
It is an attitude that includes the ability to think globally but act locally, think big but start simple, think outside-in instead of inside-out, be able to accept ‘just enough is good enough’, engage in trial by fire, transform to a model of sense and respond instead of the traditional model of plan, build, deliver. This attitude comes from the grassroots thinking that was part of the evolution of the Internet. It’s hard to describe. Young people tend to have it but it’s not really an age thing. The masses of people in the middle layers of large organizations often don’t have it. The bureaucracies of large organizations have shielded them from the new way of thinking and, in some cases, Darwinian instincts have caused them to bring up their own shields.
9. Charles Handy: Reflections of a reluctant capitalist
No other management theorist’s world view encompasses the irresistible rise of the flea, the crumbling of the elephants and a written constitution for business. In addition, the world according to Charles Handy calls on the business world to rethink the money-obsessed mindset of executives and to look for a reason for business beyond simply increasing shareholder value.
10. Philip Kotler: Marketing in the digital age
Kotler wrote Marketing Management, still the definitive work on marketing and the text-book on every marketing student’s shelves.
Subsequently, Kotler has applied marketing theory to a huge variety of new areas – nonprofit organizations (museums, per- forming arts, hospitals, colleges, etc.), social causes, places (cities, regions, and nations), and celebrities. Along the way he has coined phrases such as ‘mega marketing’, ‘demarketing’, ‘social marketing’, ‘place marketing’, and ‘segmentation, targeting, and positioning’.
It is no surprise to talk about e-marketing then, right?
Best question:What is the best marketing job in the world?
Answer: The most satisfying marketing job is not to sell more Coca-Cola or Crest toothpaste but to bring more education and health to people and make a real difference in the quality of their lives.
Section 3: People Power
11. Derrick Bell: The ardent protestor
Derrick Bell is one of America’s most forthright and best-known commentators on race and ethics. He protests for their rights and makes it a part of business strategy. Commendable.
12. Jonas Ridderstråle: Emotional capital
Core Competencies to PASSION! Companies talk a lot about core competencies but they are meaningless without core compassion, actually caring about what you do, why you do it and who you do it with.
Organizations can start by hiring people with a passion for their business. In reality, companies actually steer clear of passionate people. They would rather hire dull, reliable people than passionate enthusiasts with an appetite for change. They fill their ranks with people who want the future to be the same rather than people who want to invent the future. One thing we can be sure of is that the future will not bring more of the same.
13. Leif Edvinsson: The context’s the thing
The context around the workers matters most:
The big issue now is the context around the knowledge worker. The context surrounding knowledge workers has become tougher. Research suggests that 20 per cent of our health is related to the architecture which surrounds us – work space design, sound levels, smells, types of seating and so on. Context matters.
So the challenge of intellectual capital is also very personal and health-oriented. One important dimension of this is to replace offices with other meeting places or knowledge arenas, such as knowledge cafés. We have to have space to clear our heads to seize our own opportunities. In years gone by, people took the waters in search of physical restoration. Now, we need mental spas, places where we can renew ourselves and our minds. After all, we have the potential for hundreds of billions of thoughts per day.
The opportunity cost of not seizing these opportunities is enormous. This is brain economics; the care for the talent potential. I think it was Peter Drucker who lamented the inefficiency of the knowledge worker. He was right. You, as brainpower, can work positively and usefully for 4–8 hours per day. Thereafter, your effect is likely to be a negative one.
14. Tony Buzan: Brain power
Buzan is best known as the creator of Mind Mapping®, a ‘thinking tool’ once described, colourfully and not altogether helpfully, as the ‘Swiss army knife of the brain’. A mind map is a kind of mental shorthand. Arguments and ideas radiate in tentacles from a centre point.
His central argument is that the magical powers of the human brain remain largely untapped. Our greatest asset is allowed to wallow in ill-organized, poorly-directed lethargy. Unused muscles rapidly lose their tone.
15. Marshall Goldsmith: Coaching for results
Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world’s best-known – and best-paid – executive coaches. What else? Yeah, he gets results. Don’t ask me how. Didn’t you see the word ‘coach’?
16. Kjell Nordström: Tribal gathering
How should companies differentiate themselves?
The starting point must be a neat niche, a funky few, a global tribe. You need to understand your particular tribe better than anyone else. You must know what makes them tick, what scares them, what gets them out of bed in the morning, what turns them on. The tribe is the basic unit of business. If you don’t know who your tribe is or anything about them, you are not going to stand out from the crowd.
So what’s the message?
If you focus your energy on creating and then exploiting an extremely narrow niche you can make a lot of money. The tribe may consist of one-legged homosexual dentists. It may be lawyers who race pigeons. But if you manage to capture these customers globally, you can make a lot of money. There are riches in niches.
17. Tom Stewart: Intellectual capitalist
Intellectual capital can be crudely described as the collective brainpower of an organization. The switch from physical assets to intellectual assets – brawn to brain – as the source of wealth creation has been underway in the developed economies for some time. As an advertisement for Deutsche Bank put it: ‘Ideas are capital. The rest is just money’.
Section 4: Strategic Wisdom
18. Gary Hamel: The radical fringe
He calls for radical innovation in business, telling companies that they must continually reinvent themselves, not just at times of crisis. His landmark book, co- authored with C K Prahalad, Competing for the Future, was BusinessWeek’s book of the year in 1995. Its 2000 sequel, Leading the Revolution, was also a bestseller.
We have to systematically train people in new ways of think- ing. We have to create new metrics. Most of the metrics companies use – ROI, EVA, and so on – push us into thinking simply about incremental improvements. We still have a very deep belief in management processes, which are the antithesis of innovation.
19. Costas Markides: Escaping the jungle
Imagine you find yourself in the middle of a dark and hostile jungle. If you want to get out of the jungle, do you need a strategy?
Think about it. In the dense foliage, you cannot see beyond a few feet. You want to get out of this jungle but you don’t know how and you don’t know which way to turn. There is total uncertainty. How then can you get out alive? Well, the last thing you want to do is to stay still, paralysed by uncertainty. You need to analyse your position based on the available information and then decide on a direction. That’s the first principle of strategy – the need to make difficult choices based on what information you have at the time. You take stock, gather information based on that and then start walking. The worst thing is to stay still. That’s the second principle of strategy – the need to stop analysing and start doing, even if you are not entirely sure that what you are doing is going to turn out to be the right thing.
So, what needs to change?
We need to train people how to think, not what to think.
20. James Champy: What re-engineering did next
Champy and Hammer established re-engineering as the big business idea of the early 1990s, creating a whole new consulting industry.
His recent book, X-Engineering the Corporation, argues that managers must now look beyond re-engineering and cross (as in X) boundaries they’ve never crossed before. The walls between a company, its customers and its suppliers – and even between competitors – are falling, he argues. The advent of the Internet makes it possible to redesign processes across organizational borders.
James Champy talks about what the re-engineering revolution achieved, how it was hijacked by corporate downsizers, and why X-engineering is the next big thing.
21. W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne: Strategic moves
“Smart Strategic Moves” are needed. Yes! You guessed it — I didn’t get how this is anything different.
22. Henry Mintzberg: Searching for balance
Henry Mintzberg talks about why MBAs and shareholder value are killing business, and the need to bring balance to the capitalist system.
Solzhenitsyn said that a society that has no rules like the communist society is abhorrent, but a society that only stays within the letter of the law – he had the United States in mind – is not much better.
Best Question: What’s wrong with MBAs?
Answer: Basically, my objection is that MBA programmes claim to be creat- ing managers and they are not.
The MBA is really about business, which would be fine except that people leave these programmes thinking they’ve been trained to do management. I think every MBA should have a skull and crossbones stamped on their forehead and underneath should be written,‘Warning; not prepared to manage’.
And the issue is not just that they are not trained to manage, but that they are given a totally wrong impression of what managing is; namely decision-making by analysis. The impression they get from what they’ve studied is that people skills don’t really matter.
So they come out with this distorted view. I’ve seen it over and over again where people have MBAs and go into managerial positions and don’t know what they are doing. So basically, they write reports and plans and do all sorts of information processing things and pretend that it’s management. It’s killing organizations, and I think it’s getting worse over time.
One more:Is Michael Porter’s Five Forces framework still relevant today?
Porter’s Five Forces is a wonderful way to analyse industries but it has nothing to do with making strategies because there’s no creativity in it. It’s just an input for a process, not the process itself.
23. Sumantra Ghoshal: The rise of the volunteer investor
Errr… leadership as voluntary investment of human capital?
Well, that’s it folks. Have fun wrecking your business.(less)
This book is primarily a detailed exploration of animal emotions (such as empathy) and on how they stunni...more Our Animal Nature: A Glass Half-full Approach
This book is primarily a detailed exploration of animal emotions (such as empathy) and on how they stunningly correspond to the human.
Two main threads of thought emerge from this correspondence:
1. The need to recognize animals as much closer to us and to treat them with that respect, empathy and humaneness.
2. An optimism that the “better angels of our nature” are as deep-wired in us as the baser instincts that we call ‘animal instincts’. Both aspects are animal instincts with long evolutionary histories and are not mere impositions of civilization. This means that the better aspects of human nature are not as brittle and prone-to-breakdown. No thin veneer of civilization, no nature red in tooth & claw, no “Lord of the Flies” scenarios. This is optimistic because this allows us to place great confidence in fundamental human nature and not just in institutions that control it. This reminds me of 'Paradise Built in Hell.'
While I completely subscribe to this second argument, the first left me slightly uneasy. To me it was not a necessary argument. It is also a, perhaps unintentionally, negative assertion. Implicit in it is the assumption that a species/animal has to be closer to human beings to deserve dignity of life. It is a powerful emotional argument to claim that a species is close to us and share our emotional inner life, but it is also discrimination. Life is rich and diverse; there is no reason to draw a ‘degree of separation’ from the human to measure how well a species must be treated. That is just another version of the anthropocentric world-view that de Waal works so hard to denigrate in this book.
That said, the idea that the majority of our most exalted virtues have parallels throughout the animal kingdoms and is an essential part of the evolutionary mechanism bodes very well indeed. It made me much more cheerful in my quest towards understanding how our species can live at peace with the rest of the world.(less)
I love reading introductory books. It helps to pick one up on a regular basis. Thankfully the market is overflowing with them. I have found that somet...more I love reading introductory books. It helps to pick one up on a regular basis. Thankfully the market is overflowing with them. I have found that sometimes it is more invigorating to read one than to read specialist books with lots of ideas and suggestions. The intro frees up space for you to think and work with the basic tools. That is useful if you are in marketing, especially when the daily rigors allow little room for theoretical reasoning.
This is a decent introduction and covers a lot of ground without being obscure or loading up with technical terms. Not too many references either. On the other hand, it doesn’t give much in terms of detail. The author keeps it light and focuses on explaining terms and the logical connections between them, all the while keeping the structure of an organization in view, thus making sure that the reader understand the concepts in context. Recommended for a quick glance before diving into text books.
"Hello, Bastar" is a scary book to read — it shows how organized, serious, wide spread and entrenched the Maoist movement...more The Revolution That Was Not
"Hello, Bastar" is a scary book to read — it shows how organized, serious, wide spread and entrenched the Maoist movement really is.
This book is an authentic and detailed introduction to the Maoist movement, brought to you through some brave investigative journalism. It is also an excellent introduction to the Maoist viewpoint (yes, ideology) and operational strategies too. Trying to figure out first hand the issues and the conditions that gave rise to and sustains the revolution (if one may call it that, if not please use insurrection), Hello, Bastar goes a long way towards expanding the reader’s understanding of what is really involved. Pandita deserves plaudits for that.
This is especially so because, for the ordinary reader, the only access to the movement is through the popular press. To such an ordinary reader of the newspapers (or worse, a watcher of news channels) the key question is inescapably one of violence — the first image that the word ‘Maoist’ conjures up is of dense forests, gunfire and knives. But Pandita shows that this is a very selective image, even a censored one that is shown to us — in fact, the question of violence is secondary. The real question is one of inclusive development, human rights and the very core of democracy itself: Participation & Voice.
The Urban/rural/tribal oppressed are the ones most targeted for recruitment to the movement. They are recruited primarily by giving them human dignity, by giving them a voice — this is a clear indictment on the massive failure of government that afflicts these areas. The question is: In a democracy, why don’t they already have a voice?
The very existence of the Maoist movement is a present and clear signal that there is a void, created by a a government that opted to withdraw and leave the people to their own devices. Of a government that left class and caste oppression fester for so long that the tribals and villagers found it safer to opt for violent revolution over democratic option.
The Naxalites are only filling the void created by the Government.
But I believe that in spite of this, the movement, at a fundamental level, is still misguided — at least in terms of ideology and methods if not in sentiment.
At the same time, while I do believe that the Naxal leaders are misguided, the way they have achieved legitimacy is nothing short of miraculous. To run a quasi-govt for so many years is no mean achievement. Which again points us to the crying need for proper government in the area.
In any case, the question is whether it is inhumane to consider a well-intentioned (at least in propaganda) movement misguided? And my answer is, Yes. That is because it is a democratic country, and they could have done the same under the strictures of a constitution that was framed with express intention of social revolution. It could have been an vindication of the revolutionary potential latent in our constitution. It would have taken longer and would not have had the romance and urgency of a revolution. But with enough effort and mass education, they should have been able to command mass support, for the government and bring about change without the massive violence. Revolution too has proved to be interminably wrong. The same energy invested more constructively could have truly revolutionized the lives of the people in the affected areas, and perhaps beyond. I think the existence of the Maoist movement is a double disaster — perpetrated first by the missed opportunity for a democratic government to rule well; then by well-intentioned revolutionaries who opted to follow the ideologies blindly and visit devastation to the people who supported them, rather than choosing the more practical and productive options available.
All that is in the past, the burning question of the day is to bring about a resolution that is politically feasible. The human scale of the tragedy that has been unfolding is unimaginable. And it might be time to accept that it is the needs of the people who live there that has to be the primary consideration, not the race for power by the two sides contending for power over them. It is the obligation of the nation to deliver to the people of the affected areas their due: Participation. They should be allowed to choose for themselves.
Looked at in this perspective, the answer should not be to suppress the movement but to empower it and bring it within the overall democratic framework — this is precisely the greatest strength that a democratic framework has. And we should employ that to end the double-fold suffering inflicted on the poor ordinary citizens of the area who are caught in the crossfire.
One option that seems feasible to me is this: How about an election supervised by a third party (say UN) in which the Maoists contest along with the other major parties? At the end of which a separate constitutional status could be awarded to places where the Maoists win, which would allow them to institute the major reforms, which they will make part of their campaign commitments. We can also institute safeguards to ensure that the usual aftermath of a revolutionary victory in which the victors in turn become the oppressed is avoided by allowing a democratic revolution of this sort. In my readings, I have not come across such an option being discussed, even though it sounds perfectly obvious to me. I hope it gets political currency soon. I will try to elaborate on this in a separate article, preferably in the mainstream media.
Mention of the media brings me back to the book. As I said, the newspapers feed us the story through a perception-filter. The editorials may talk of some of the issues more humanely but the headlines always scream at us, demonizing the Maoists. A book like this is important to read to ensure that the human faces stay with us in the midst of this assault. The civilian society condoning military repression is unpardonable, especially when it is uninformed confinement. The least we can do is to take the effort to understand more and then react according to our won best ideals. Popular pressure is the only way to make the government seek more civilized (and democratic) ways of settlement. As long as we conveniently turn a blind eye, the government cannot see either.
As the afterword by the jailed Maoist Ideologue, Kobad Ghandy says, understanding the Maoist viewpoint is important for the furtherance of dialogue. That is an important goal toward which this book is aimed. I would only add that understanding the lives of the people under the Maoist sway is also important — to give moral force and direction to the dialogue, to ensure that it is no longer conducted through spitting gunfire.(less)
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!
This is history told through a patchwork of breezy anecdotes — that might not even fit together well enough, but still achieves the objective remarkably well. The narrative flits in and out across the world, now Australia, now India, now Afghanistan, now Congo, and so on. The idea was probably to allow the reader to visualize through these series of picturizations the full magnificence that was the Empire.
More than the anecdotal nature, the selection of anecdotes themselves is curious. They are largely personal anecdotes, dealing with individuals. The historical narrative is stitched together from these short, quick personal sketches.
The Middle Path
While enormously interesting, this selection also betrays the by-default-note of imperialistic apology writ large over such an approach. It is hard to talk of individuals without touching the picture up with romanticism, especially when only eulogizing records exist, the crushed ones having not kept individual/personal records, especially when Morris searches out the medium-level players, not the Viceroys, Governor-Generals, Kings and Ministers — the on-the-ground players — who exist now only in British-written annals or diaries/letters and loom larger than life, as they had to.
This is a new method to the rhetoric of imperial defense, at least to this reviewer — the Imperial Progress across the world is shown from a middle view — the view of the decent men and women who participated in the everyday pushing along of the imperial cart.
But why focus on them?
Why leave out the two ends of the spectrum - the Imperial Station Masters and the common men among the imperial subjects?
Because this middle view is surprisingly conducive to showing a decent and forgivable view of the Imperial ‘Progress’ — a on-high view would expose the despotism, racism and blatant menace that accompanied the progress; while the bottom view would expose that the word ‘progress’ is way beyond an excusable misnaming of the imperial process.
I still do not give the book less than a middling star rating since the language is good, the prose is breezy, and it is a decent reading experience. It is extremely light reading and is a good parlor-table book, enjoyable and non-thought provoking.
It is hard to capture that spirit when tackling a momentous period. The author attempted and captured that brilliantly. She also manages to make me feel defensive and a complete prig for criticizing such a breezy and good-natured account.
That is the strength of the book and the danger. The author does starts with a frank admission of bias, adding to the breezy tally-ho approach, forcing any offended readers to forgive her and just enjoy the journey. I am sorry to report that it can easily work. I was caught off-guard many times, especially when it was the other countries that were the subject of discussion. Only when the focus shifted back to India was I able to detect the prejudices of the breezy account.
In fact, how Morris would treat the 1857 Revolt (not mutiny!) was something I looked forward to — I knew that would act as a touchstone to how I would judge the book’s biases. True to expectations, she shows the ‘mutiny’ as a bumbling no-show and the britishers as magnanimously outraged avengers. It is treated as a complete farce. That decided it for me and from then on my reading was much more alert to undertones.
I noticed how trivial details are lovingly dwelt on, to convey the full sense of a nostalgic lost world; while tragic events such as the burning of the Summer Palace in Beijing (an event that left such a psychological scar on Chinese history) are passed by with a single breezy sentence: ‘a well-placed blow to Tartar pride.'
What is most noticeable, however, is that the only subject people (empires enemies) who are given a semblance of humanity are the Boers and the Australian settlers — both European in origins, of course. The Irish is also given a more personalized picturization but there is a thread of hostility and reductionism detectable there too.
Sample a selection:
... when in 1897 good old Queen Victoria celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne, the nation made it gaudily and joyously a celebration of Empire. Never had the people been more united in pride, and more champagne was imported that year than ever before in British history. What a century it had been for them all! How far the kingdom had come since that distant day when Emily Eden, hearing upon the Ganges bank of the young Queen’s accession, had thought it so charming an invention! What a marvellous drama it had offered the people, now tragic, now exuberant, now uplifting, always rich in colour, and pathos, and laughter, and the glow of patriotism! In 1897 Britain stood alone among the Powers, and to most Britons this isolated splendour was specifically the product of Empire. Empire was the fount of pride. Empire was the panacea. Empire was God’s gift to the British race, and dominion was their destiny.
Or, consider the excuses set forth in this little passage:
Not many people doubted the rightness of Empire. The British knew that theirs was not a wicked nation, as nations went, and if they were insensitive to the hypocrisies, deceits and brutalities of Empire, they believed genuinely in its civilizing mission. They had no doubt that British rule was best, especially for heathens or primitives, and they had faith in their own good intentions. In this heyday of their power they were behaving below their own best standards, but they remained as a whole a good-natured people.
Their chauvinism was not generally cruel. Their racialism was more ignorant than malicious. Their militarism was skin-deep. Their passion for imperial grandeur was to prove transient and superficial, and was more love of show than love of power. They had grown up in an era of unrivalled national success, and they were displaying the all too human conceit of achievement.
Sure. I buy that. Yeah.
It also has to be said that occasionally she does try to knowingly mock the empire to show detachment but inevitably slips back into a gloating romanticizing of the empire. The account on Irish history also helped me with my reading of Joyce - another positive for the book. Also, THERE IS AN INDEX!
A Non-Intellectual Defense
So in effect, it is a non-intellectual defense of Empire, deftly done by by providing personal accounts, by telling the reader — “but look, see how swell these guys were?” It is emotional manipulation. And quite effective — It is hard to feel anger towards most of the characters on which the book rides. I feel that is quite a psychological powerful impression that the book can leave. Even more so for being true, most of these middle-level guys in probability really were swell guys.
[ About the cartoon - As Japan apologizes to Korea, a group of people from other colonized nations wonders when their colonizers will issue a similar apology. ]
Even though cringe-inducingly triumphalistic throughout, this is good historical time-pass. It is recommended in that spirit. As long as the readers stay alert against taking an ideological impression away from the reading of the Empire as a good nature, well-intentioned beast that never knew that it was doing anything wrong and got up and left as soon as it realized.
The problem with all such defenses of Empire is that they are inevitably operating on the premise of a false dichotomy — that of being able to separate (or even prove the existence of) positive and negative sides to colonialism. Which is just the wrong way to look at subjugation and exploitation — it does NOT matter if positives were there. Mistakes were made, deal with it. Denialism will get us nowhere. Imperialism was not genial bumbling. Sorry.
“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
What are some of the toughest temptations for the historian to resist?
1. Looking for Concrete Causes
2. Looking for Dramatic Turning-points
3. Looking for Direct Consequences
Keegan’s history is dry and that is precisely why it is so good.
Keegan tries hard to fall into these traps. He knows that he cannot afford to keep his history dry. He knows that these traps are exactly the ones which can juice it up. But luckily, he does not (or could not) juice it up.
Keegan’s strength is his military analysis and command of the tactical decisions that punctuated the war the war. He tries to dress up the book beyond this by talking about ‘the mystery of why a continent at the high of its powers went to war’ & ‘the Second world war was a continuation of the First’ & ‘the race for naval supremacy perhaps started the process’ occasionally, but except for lip service at the beginning and the end of the book, these are left as mysteries.
Looking for Concrete Causes
Keegan does not easily take sides. He does not show one side as good and one side as bad. There is No Demonizing involved. He does not blame any one country for precipitating the war (well, at least not in his actual account - as you will see, I discount certain parts of the book). He does not even condemn specific war practices or instances (except book burning — he does hate the Germans in those few pages. Well who wouldn’t? Book burning is just BAD), instead he shows us how desperate all sides were and how willing to push any sort of limits to escape from this war that had become a hell beyond what they could have imagined.
Keegan’s war is not a grand Good vs Evil, or a Defense of Democracy/Civilization, or whatever else.
It is a bunch of misguided leaders bringing destruction upon millions. At the same time, the leaders are not crucified either.
In the end, Keegan maintains a very balanced approach that never tries to apportion blame for causing the war.
Instead he leaves it as a Mystery #1. Good.
Looking for Dramatic Turning-points
A good story teller cannot lack for ‘turning points’ in war, as evidenced by many titles that talks of the battle that changed the war (insert Somme, Marne, etc. here).
But the most common temptation is to cite the American entry as turning point. And conversely to show the U-boat mishap as the big-stupid-decision. But was it really?
Without Germany’s precipitous surrender and without Austria and Ottoman’s ethnic dissolution that followed this, it might not have mattered as much. I am not denying that it did not affect the mood of the army, but Keegan’a account shows clearly that it is not just the Army’s mood that matters. The atmosphere back home matters as much.
The long British blockade of trade into Germany, which forced them to resort to U-Boats again which in turn brought Americans to turn the screw even more... You see where we are going? The ‘turning point’ was a screw that was truing and tightening all along.
Technology: Keegan does slip a bit at times and tries to show the influence of communication technology (esp radio) and military technology (esp tanks) but again, hedges it by showing us how contingent that too is. The British were ahead of the Germans in tank-tech, but it was purely fortuitous. Neither were using radio tech on the ground. Again, this was not rally a technological limitation. Consider how within two years radio was everywhere, so were tanks.
This teaches us an important lesson: Modern wars are not about strategy, technology or leadership anymore. It is about how long a country manages to keep its people in illusion. The longer they can, the better their shot at winning.
This leads us to another trope to push: to say that ‘Democracy was the secret weapon.’
After all, if popular sentiment was so crucial and if the non-democracies were the ones who couldn’t handle a long war, that is the logical conclusion? We can take for example the Russian revolution, the German civil unrest and the Austrian ethnic strife - samples from both Allied and Central forces - what unites them? Lack of Democracy! Bingo.
But we do this only by conveniently ignoring that it could easily have been France that fell prey to civil unrest, or Italy. Or even Britain for that matter. They did all revolt at some point after all — both their armies and their peoples. So it couldn’t have been democracy alone then?
The overall sense Keegan’s narrative conveys is one of a Precarious Balance of Power discovered by powers who thought war all too easy, perhaps deluded by the easy victories they were accustomed to in their colonial possessions.
None of the countries involved were prepared for a long war (or even for a short one). And accordingly, hardly any army had made real progress in 4 years. The war was conducted mostly in stalemate. Where progress was made it (what little of it) was more due to one army folding up from exhaustion, moral or material.
These tended to be reversed almost immediately. Any ‘turning points’ were just the winds of war, of morale - just as in The Iliad when war seems to turn at the urging of the gods giving morale to the men. What seemed decisive at the moment soon turned out to be just another exercise in stalemate. Nothing on the field seemed to decide how this stalemate could be broken. The really major shifts in fortune were usually due to events far from the battle-filed.
The lack of clear turning points in the narrative means that until the last few pages, the reader can hardly believe that the war was headed towards any specific conclusion. And when it is over, there is a sense of disbelief. After all that, it was just over? Just like that?
We can well believe what the world too must have felt… it must have felt incomplete.
That thought, along with the details of the harsh treaty forced on the vanquished, leads us to the final thread Keegan tries to explore in his unfulfilled quest to spring one of the historiographic traps — The unity of the two wars & thus the origins of World War II.
Luckily, he does it in what must now be recognized as his standard modus operandi — by setting it out in the introduction, leaving off during the actual narrative and picking it up again in the conclusion. Deft move, eh? After all, if this is his thesis, this too is not supported by the actual account of the war.
Mystery #3. Great!
So why did I feel the book was so great?
In fact, the five stars you see above are a direct consequence of the modus operandi I described above. The five stars are for the entire book minus the introduction and the conclusion, which are the only places where Keegan tries to alleviate the dryness of his narrative with juicy historiography. Yes, the dryness gets him full marks.(less)
As I read The Euthyphro, I started to realize why it is considered one of the most dramatic of the Dialog...more The Ominous Dialogue: Socrates aka, Josef K.
As I read The Euthyphro, I started to realize why it is considered one of the most dramatic of the Dialogues. Set as a prelude to the Grand Trial, Euthyphro is a disturbingly ominous dialogue.
So, instead of seeing this as one of the usual glib dialogues of Socrates, where he employs his sublime skill to teach his debating partner and thus help him ‘examine’ and gain more meaning out of his life, I tried to re-imagine it… and found it quite unsettling. Let me share the experience here.
Imagine a common man who has been condemned for heresy (For details see here: by Meletus) but cannot understand the nature of what this ‘impiety’ it is that he is being accused off. Desperate, he tries to get some answers from a representative of the ‘orthodoxy’ who he is confident is the expert.
He receives an early answer that is a tautology:
That being pious is simply being loved by the gods; being loved by the gods is achieved by being pious.
But to his logical mind this cannot do, since one needs to know first what the gods do in fact love. Pious acts and people may indeed be loved by the gods, but that is a secondary quality, not the ‘essence’ of piety — it is not that which serves as the standard being sought.
The definition proposed does not help him understand why his own actions are impious, without which he cannot defend himself.
But he is undaunted in his faith and keeps pressing E in the hope that once he can reason out the essence and nature of what this impiety is, he will be able to show his accusers that he meant nothing like it.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
In the course of discussion, multiple (well, five) definitions are canvassed about what constitutes piety:
1. The prosecution of wrongdoers
2. Whatever is agreeable to the gods
3. Whatever is agreeable to ALL the gods
4. The requirements concerned with ministering to the gods
5. Expertise in prayer and sacrifice to the gods
As S & E discuss, each of these is rejected in turn:
All the definitions seems to Socrates to be contradictory. How, he keeps asking, are we defining an ethical property such as ‘being pious’? To him, all Euthyphro is doing is giving examples of particular actions which are already known to possess the property, without what they have in common.
And without an underlying definition, how could we know that an action even has the property we are trying to define?
And even more perplexingly, how could one ever prove that any particular action satisfied a requirement such as ‘it has to be agreeable to the gods’? How can proof even be solicited in such a case? Who decides what is agreeable?
For example, when Socrates asks Euthyphro how he could show that all the gods approve of his prosecuting his father in the circumstances he has described, Euthyphro evades the question.
After these convoluted turns, he realizes that they have arrived back at the same tautology:
The pious act is pious because the gods love it; and they love it because it is pious.
Socrates is confused.
Is the pious act pious because the gods love it? Or do the gods love it because it is pious?
Surely the piety cannot consist in their approval of it.
Then how can the same property also be the ground for their approval?
The predicate ‘pious’ cannot therefore be equated with 'loved by all the gods'. Even if all pious actions and persons are loved by all the gods, their being so loved is only an attribute of them, and not the essence of their piety.
What then is the essence? How can Socrates know when he is not being pious? The tautology surely cannot help him in everyday life!
The Euthyphro Evasion
Socrates tries to point this out to the orthodox-representative who reiterates his conviction about piety being what is approved by the gods, pretends to be busy and hurries away.
He does not realize that this is what the religious orthodoxy always does. He does not realize that as he claimed during the dialogue, we should hold tight like to the legendary Old Man “Proteus” and never let go. We should question them till they take their original form and answer us straight.
Instead, our Kafkaesque hero is left standing, confused — mourning that if only he could understand better, he could have had a chance in this ‘pious’ world…(less)
“As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies, Stephen said, from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image.”
~ James Joyce, Ulysses
“The Universe is the externalization of the soul.”
To attempt to review this now would be like trying to review a book after finishing the first couple of chapters. There is no way to do justice to it, or to even be sure of what one is prattling on about. So seasoned readers, please do excuse any over-eager generalizations or over-enthusiastic missteps.
Poetry in Proust
There is an atmosphere of grandness that is felt as one reads this initial book, everything is charged with a sense of premonition, as if these are all musical notes that are being played for us now in a subdued key, and exquisite as they are, they are all going to reappear in grander forms later.
There is a sense throughout of stage being set, themes being set forth and of being invited to an extremely long composition that could last a lifetime if the reader is engaged enough.
On the other hand, every paragraph I read seemed to me self-contained, like understated poetry; like a leaf so brilliantly illuminated that it outshines the whole tree, until you move your gaze to the next, when the same magic is repeated again.
Proust as Teacher
There is greatness in this work and it is beyond the obvious literary value or aesthetic pleasure that it provides. Proust also liberates literature in a way, in being so unapologetically, irrepressibly romantic about everything in life!
Thus the narrative runs on with undisguised romanticism and wide eyed enthusiasm for every detail of life. There is no attempt to tone anything down. There is none of that tendency for manly acceptance of the drollness life or of a skeptical indifference to its inevitable ugliness.
Everything is lived to its fullest and described as it should be lived. It almost feels like a fairyland, so fully heightened are the colors and emotions of Marcel’s life. Until we realize that that is exactly how rich inner lives always are, if we only surrender to the sense of wonder that drives our lives. If only we could recapture the color and the poetry.
Proust teaches us how to live.
Some of the notes (as in musical notes) that struck (a chord with) me the most, and which I know will leave a lasting impact no matter how they are modified or reinforced in the later chapters (books) are:
Proust As Madeleine
The Proust experience opens a portal to one’s own childhood — to a re-creation of one’s entire life, in fact.
This re-creation enables one to embark on the path of one’s own memories as well - to resurrect one’s childhood paths and travel them, think of fears and of flames.
Like remembering the pond one used to walk by, rediscovering the beauty and the colors that surrounded our lives…
Memories come thick and fast as we savor the Madeleine that is Proust.
The Intimate Acts of Creation
“Our social personality is a creation of the minds of others”
Thus we no longer need to hunt for the memory-objects wherein our pasts are locked away. The reading itself serves that function. And as we recreate thus our internal world, Proust also teaches us how we created the external world around us:
Just as the world is constructed after dreaming, the whole structure of society is created anew from birth for each child. We all reinvent it and then propagate it. Unless we choose the other ‘way.’
Discovering slowly class and social barriers. Understanding now how we might have been indoctrinated unconsciously…
We come with freedom and then the ties slowly bind us — constraining us, showing us already defined paths. This crystallization of our future path is what we later call our life, the path we travelled. By which we define ourselves.
How we created and defined and imbibed social relations, including superiors and equals, in an intensely solipsistic fashion. Just as when Marcel meets an aristocrat, first sees her as an ordinary person, had expected to be more, is seen to be not, and is then recreated based on the expectations — invented in short.
One example by Proust is enough to call up a hundred more of our own.
Aesthetic Oneness with Proust
Thus, you find yourself drawn into the world Proust is sketching. The involvement deepens to an immersion where the ordinary, everyday world dims and fades from the center of attention, you begin to understand and even share the feelings of the characters on the page — under ideal conditions you might reach a stage where you begin to participate in some strange way in the love being evoked.
Now, if at that moment you were to ask yourself: “Whose love is this?” a paradox arises.
It cannot be Marcel’s love for Gilberte, nor Gilberte’s love for Marcel, for they are fictional characters. It cannot be your own love, for you cannot love a fictional character. Could it be memories evoked?
Could it be that both Marcel and Gilberte exist no longer in what you feel as love as you read about them? Could it be that the emotion exists at another plane of existence now?
In any case, it is a peculiar, almost abstract love without immediate referent or context — left to you, the reader, to actualize and bring to life.
A Sanskrit aesthete would ease your anxiety by explaining to you, probably with examples from Kathakali, that you are at that moment of paradox “relishing” (asvadana) your own “fundamental emotional state” (sthayi-bhava) called “passion” (rati) which has been “decontextualised” (sadharanikaran) by the operation of “sympathetic resonance” (hrdaya-samvada) and heightened to become transformed into an “aesthetic sentiment” (rasa) called the “erotic sentiment” (srngara).
This “aesthetic sentiment” that is so subtly wrought in us is a paradoxical and ephemeral thing that can be evoked by the novel but is not exactly caused by it, for many readers may feel nothing at all during the same instance in the book. You yourself, reading it again next month, under the same circumstances, might experience nothing.
It is, moreover, something that cannot be adequately explained on analytic terms, the only proof for its existence is its direct, personal experience.
The evocation of this intense personal experience is the highest function of art.
But there is one more aim that art can have — to not only evoke it but also make you aware of how it is done. This rarified level of achievement is what Proust reaches. Proust makes you one with his world but also makes your personal experience with a piece of art concrete, through his own narrator’s experiences coming alive in what he is to eventually create out of everything he (and now you) passes through in these pages.
Proust allows us to not only experience sublime art but also its very creation.
Proust as Meditation
There is a breathlessness for the reader in everything in Proust, as we try to squeeze out meaning from every word and expression, every chance direct address by the narrator. These meanings and themes we might squeeze out are charged with special gravity in Proust — since we know that we have to remember them, we have to take them along with us in the long journey that awaits us. We cannot afford to be careless in this first sojourn. If we miss any key now, we might encounter a beautiful door that will refuse to yield later.
This effect does not depend on truth, it does not matter whether what we get out of this early reading will be valuable in reality later or not. The possibility is enough to invest a special sort of magic into the reading. A stillness of expectation, of anticipation is created. That atmosphere can be stifling or it can be as expansive as a zen garden.
One might feel lost in it or one might feel oneself in the presence of a literary holy grail. For me, I could not even tolerate the disturbance rendered by my own breathing when I read. I wanted total stillness.
The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the cent...more 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.
Greenblatt is a good story-teller and delivers good entertainment value here, but not much informative or educational value,...more The Anti-Climactic Swerve
Greenblatt is a good story-teller and delivers good entertainment value here, but not much informative or educational value, except as an enticing short introductory to Lucretius, Bruno and Montaigne.
As Greenblatt acknowledges, there is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped our own world. Despite this awareness, he has tried to trace out The Swerve - “of how the world swerved in a new direction” by telling a little known but exemplary Renaissance story - the story of Poggio Bracciolini’s recovery of Lucretius’s poem, ‘On the Nature of Things’ (De rerum natura). This one poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation—no single work was. But, Greenblatt tells us, this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.
Majority of the book is given over to the ‘dramatic’ search for old documents, by a Poggio who suddenly found himself with a lot of free time. But, to me, that is not the ‘enlightenment’. The enlightenment is what followed afterwards. Of course, these book-hunters deserve to be lionized for their sacrifice and great service, but they were pursuing an obsession and most of them never played with the ball tossed by the ideas they uncovered.
To me the really exciting part of renaissance is what happened once these millennia old, forgotten, but radical ideas were injected into a culture that was held to the whip by militant power-hungry Christianity — liberating humanity from the crushing weight of being the center of the universe, the human mind from the chains of the fear of a future torment that is bound to follow any original thought (original = blasphemous).
That is when the real alchemy happened - when different brilliant thinkers tried hard to reconcile their fervent theology to the irresistible intellectual and poetic force of the ancient arguments; when the few truly free thinkers found the best sort of patrons, the ancients, to support their cause; and when all these elements reacted against each other and created something new and wonderful - just like Lucretius’s reviled atoms.
That is the truly exciting story. That is only touched on by Greenblatt, after spending 4/5th of the book on Poggio’s quest, then towards the end, we are given a sneak peak on how various thinkers reacted, of the spectacular beauty of a larger cultural movement that included Alberti, Michelangelo, and Raphael, Ariosto, Montaigne, and Cervantes, along with dozens of other artists and writers. Some of the ideas touched upon include (in loosely chronological fashion, listed here to redeem the book by highlighting the best parts):
- Lorenzo Valla’s early reaction through On Pleasure (De voluptate), an early, highly noncommittal dialogue dealing with the Epicurean ideas.
- Thomas More’s Utopia - which tried very hard to integrate the Epicurean ideas into a society of equality and communism, even as Moore kept them grounded on firm Christian principles.
- The diminutive Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno, who was turned into one of the boldest thinkers on the touch of Lucretius’s poetry. Bruno was perhaps the first real intellectual successor to Epicurus and Lucretius, the one who truly took the ball and ran the full distance and dared to assert a new and dangerous world view (Bruno is only one example of much intellectual activity that erupted, out of which most kept silent, unlike Bruno).
- Machiavelli’s formulations, which could arguably be said to have touched the feared extremes of the philosophy.
- Copernicus, and others, who got support from all this intellectual ferment to explore new boundaries and push human understanding.
- Others like Galileo, who could then go further, even if timidly.
- To pave the way for Descartes, Newton… and so on and so forth, the illustrious list extends to our day.
And even in the arts, the explosion was evident, with Cosimo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, etc., to Montaigne and others, and soon through Bruno’s visit to England, Spencer, Donne, Bacon, and eventually Shakespeare (who was a friend of a friend of Bruno’s!) and Ben Johnson (who had a copy of Lucretius). Soon, the printing press made these irresistible ideas even more irrepressible, until they were everywhere, just like the original atoms. Until, through Jefferson, traces of Epicureanism was embedded in the very constitution of the next great democracy that emerged, in the Declaration of Independence - The Pursuit of Happiness.
How splendid would that intellectual history be, if presented in its full richness and anxiety, with all the various threads and many tensions given stage space!
I know there are other books that explore this explosion and the dance of magnificent ideas, but I really felt let down that the story closed just before the drama began. Bit of an anti-climax. This richly researched biography of probably the most important book-hunter in history is not a must-read or an indispensable book. The best result would be an increased curiosity for the great works that enliven its pages.(less)
Many animals, especially mammals, have evolved social mechanisms to aid in survival. But a few exceptional species, such as...more OBSERVING THE HUMAN ANIMAL
Many animals, especially mammals, have evolved social mechanisms to aid in survival. But a few exceptional species, such as wasps, bees and ants, have taken this to the extreme and these are the species that dominate the planet today. They can only be termed as "UltraSocial”.
Humans can also be included in this elite list of earth conquerors. After all, we live in the ‘Anthropocene’ now.
Wilson asks us to view humans as not an completely exceptional species, in spite of their great achievements and in spite of the natural bias that arises from the fact that they are our own species. If we truly want to understand the human species, understanding that they form part of a continuum in nature is essential - socially, cognitively and genetically.
If they are truly unique, then they are a lost cause.
Instead, being extra humble and situating the human emotions and social inclinations (including violence) in a larger framework of ‘possibilities,’ is what Wilson proposes to do in this book. By ‘possibilities’ he means behavioral and social options/range that has been exhibited by the many species - identify this entire range and then try to understand where the human species is situated. Even if precariously!
"Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function" than to keep intact the genetic material.
To Wilson, morality, altruism, generosity, self-sacrifice and even pleasure, and all other human ‘virtues’ are evolutionary outgrowths of the structure of the human brain, which itself was evolved as a survival mechanism. Since all social structures, including political structure and religions, then evolve from this basic raw material, they are all manifestations of our basic nature. (Further discussion of Cognitivism & Religion. Linked.)
However, even as they are manifestations of our basic nature, Wilson tells that they are not direct manifestations of our genetic imperatives, as it is the ‘super’ insects. Instead, our ‘extreme’ social traits are in fact hypertrophied versions of our instincts. The social instincts exist but our societies take them to either extremes - achieving heights of classical civilizations and also the depths of cannibalism in the same ‘civilization’. This is due to the fact that our ‘Ultrasociality’ is not natural. It is an uneasy amalgam of hypertrophied traits and needs to be propped up with care.
The Impatient Species
It is this uneasy Ultrasociality that makes human societies a tough act to pull off consistently. We are not naturally ultrasocial. Unlike ants who evolved it genetically, over millions of years, we went part of the distance genetically, then got impatient and went on a fast-forward culturally.
The leap to agriculture and state societies some 8,000 years ago represented a rare but highly successful evolutionary transition to “ultrasociality,” a type of social organization seen in only a handful of species, including ants and termites. Ultrasociality is characterized by a full-time division of labor, specialists who do not aid in food production, sharing of information, collective defense, and complex city-states.
So we end up with an even more organized structure than what the ants have, but have not their ultra-instincts that make it a breeze for them to keep up their ultrasociality. We are not wiling to submit our individuality for the group. Of course, we have a strong tendency to do so — Experiments have shown that it is shockingly easy to elicit a sense of solidarity among a group of strangers. Just tell them they’ll be working together as a team, and they immediately start working together as a team, all the while attributing to each other a host of positive qualities like trustworthiness and competence. But in spite of our team-building capabilities, we always think of number one eventually.
[ On the other hand, Ant societies don't go into massive societal/cultural collapses and dream of the past glories of their own Roman Empires of yore. ]
Also, we are not consistent in defining our groups - unlike ants who base it on strong evolutionary grounds, our cultural evolution has allowed us softer more nebulous decision-making capacities about group-formation. So we can define arbitrary ‘others’ and launch wars, and can even defy our own in-groups and go psychopath against our own societies!
This analysis points to the source of constant conflict in human societies — of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and more importantly of ‘us vs ‘me’. And in the final analysis, what human conflict cannot be slotted into these two categories?
Science as a Substitute for Instincts
All this leads us to the depressing analysis that we cannot depend on cultural evolution alone to solve our problems. While an optimist like Pinker can point to statistical evidence to show that violence is ‘declining’, we should also realize that humans have a historic record of violent pendulum swings in violence - and this ties in very nicely with Wilson’s thesis that social evolution tries to reign in individual genetic tendencies with a variety of means but eventually they reassert themselves and civilization breaks down again. So the famous ‘Fear of Decline’ that we mock scholars/historians of having could very well be a natural tendency of human societies - because our social instincts just cannot match up to our social ambitions!
What hope then?
The best alternative would be to initiate sufficiently thorough investigation into these very instincts and evolutionary predispositions. So that we can build our societies in a more informed fashion. Stressing the virtues of cooperation can be a more nuanced approach to human nature than the “selfish gene”/economic man worldview, but the dark side to human cooperation must be understood if we are to realistically assess our present circumstances.
This is where a discipline like Sociobiology is of great value - The best way to correct mistakes in our social evolution is to understand our mental evolution and the best way to do this is by accepting ourselves as animals and conducting comparative studies through the discipline of Sociobiology… We should figure out what level of social and institutional complexity our brains (instincts) can tolerate and take a step back and build our future societies around that.
The sociobiological perspective put forward by Wilson is quite sound and holds up well even decades after being canonized as a classic work. If any criticism can be leveled, it would have to be at his refusal to use politically correct language. This is deliberate because Wilson considers there is no scope for political correctness in science, especially when the need for a harsh and unalloyed look at Human Nature is more urgent than ever.
This book is a must read precisely because it fully lives up to that highly ambitious title!(less)
At first glance, the title of the book might give the impression that it is an esoteric defense of some Vedic ‘secret’. It is true that...more The Open Secret
At first glance, the title of the book might give the impression that it is an esoteric defense of some Vedic ‘secret’. It is true that some spiritual teachers like to emphasize the esotericity of works to claim the easy defense - “you are not spiritual enough to understand such works” - to western scholars.
Contrary to this, Aurobindo approaches the text like any genuinely curious scholar and puts together a coherent interpretation of the hymns, seen more from the Upanishadic tradition than from the materialistic/ritualistic tradition that is adopted by historic commentaries. His object is not to veil, but to uncover; not to assert that the meaning is secreted away in an inaccessible spiritual realm, but to show that the meaning is easy enough to access consistently.
Useful to understand one potent way of looking at the Rig Vedic hymns - what Aurobindo calls the ‘psychological’ way - suffusing the hymns with psychological symbols.
In addition, Aurobindo’s interpretation is also based on a fascinating philological exploration of the hymns. Even more importantly, this reading helps to understand the multiple meanings of the many commonly used sanskrit words and comes in very handy to understand the meanings of the hymns independently even if the reader doesn’t want to travel the road prepared by Aurobindo.
While it should not be taken uncritically, Aurobindo’s criticism of early brahmin and western scholarship is also vital to a good understanding - especially so since scholarship available to the modern reader is heavily biased towards those interpretations.
As Aurobindo is not hesitant to say, this is only an exploration of possibilities, an attempt at uncovering the spiritual ‘Secret of the Veda’ from the elaborate ritualist vein under which it is enclosed - he constantly invites us to adopt a particular symbol and see ‘how far it takes us’ - only if he feels it consistently applicable throughout the hymns does he adopt it. This is quite reasonable and I found it acceptable to quite a degree.
The biggest contribution Aurobindo makes is to establish an alternate framework for the Rig Vedic symbols and to ground them in credible first-hand research and scholarly commentary. The beginning reader would be served well to consult Aurobindo while reading the original hymns. However, the reader should also be aware that in translation Aurobindo departs greatly from what might seem at first glance to be the ‘evident’ meaning of the hymns - but this is only because he has chosen to elaborate the symbolic meaning that he believes he has uncovered.
This is useful but should not be read in isolation. The best way would be to treat Aurobindo as one more commentary along with Sayana, Dayananda and the modern scholars, read all of them and then form our own interpretations of the original sanskrit hymns.
This book only gave me company through the early Fire Hymns, after which I have been left to my own devices by Aurobindo. Even though I skipped ahead with him and read the ‘selected’ hymns, I am not sure I will come back to his translations when I read them again in the course of my own progress.
In think that is okay, for even as we part company, his method stays with me.(less)
We often come across teachers or books getting us to understand a philosopher. It is only common sense, they say. See, this is t...more Aristotle IS Everybody
We often come across teachers or books getting us to understand a philosopher. It is only common sense, they say. See, this is their thought: in a nutshell. See how easy it is? You already knew all this. You just have to remember that this guy talked of it first.
You read those and come away with a feeling that you now understand the philosopher. Worse, you might come away feeling that the great guy was so wrong! Surely you are quite smart if you know more than Aristotle!
Well, not quite, right?
As Newton said, we see farther by standing on the shoulders of many many giants and only because we stand on their shoulders. We cannot stand there and then tell them haughtily that we can see farther - they constructed the whole edifice of thought we stand on.
Ok, I am mixing metaphors here. Let us drop the shoulder metaphor and take an edifice metaphor.
So, these thinker over the years have built a complex edifice on which we can stand and look at the wonder of the universe, exult in many logical puzzles and best of all, enjoy many material pleasures derived from the techniques developed while building the edifice.
But it is not those manifestations of knowledge that matters. We are not smarter than the ancients because we can use a laptop and ‘google’ up anything we want. That is no way to judge the achievements - after all, we don’t even have to climb the edifice. We are plopped right on top - what then, if any, was our achievement? We can't just run around the top of the edifice, fiddling with our shiny toys. We have to be either looking outwards or inwards - in fact both. (Nothing smart about playing with a 'smart' phone.)
It is the edifice alone that matters. (Well, just for emphasis. Don't call me out on this)
We have to direct all our energies to examining it, the intricacies of its structure. We have to climb down and examine its foundations. We will never grasp it fully, but we have to be Janus like - we have to stand on top and look farther but all the while we have to probe (and prop up) the edifice ever deeper.
It is as much the responsibility of the ones born onto the shoulders of the giants or to the tops of this edifice to look farther as to probe the structure itself.
Coming back to this book, Adler is one of those teachers who wants to show us how easy Aristotle is. The danger is that we might walk away believing that it is true, thinking that Aristotle only talked about these really obvious things. Instead of feeling smug about knowing what Aristotle thought about , we would do better to understand how he thought of such things that went on to become obvious - the highest distinction that ideas can hope for.
Time to look at the foundations.
One interesting thought was Aristotle’s concept of Justice. Aristotle considers the Pursuit of Happiness or the Good Life as the ultimate goal of a human life. For this we need wisdom to identify, courage to persevere and one more ingredient - since we are political animals, we need justice to ensure that impediments don;t pop up through others. Hence Justice becomes a very selfish motive, unless we also want Justice so that others can pursue the Good Life. Of course, for a person pursuing the Good Life, the best outcome is that everyone around him/her is also pursuing the Good Life. Aristotle goes on to say that it is the very duty of the state to aid in this Pursuit. What a noble conception of the need for a State.(less)
It is amazing how so many popular references and common senses are found here. Aesop finds his echoes throughout the high flying philos...more AESOP'S ECHOES
It is amazing how so many popular references and common senses are found here. Aesop finds his echoes throughout the high flying philosophers and through the earthy grandmothers, not only engrafted into the literature of the civilized world, but familiar as household words in daily conversation of peoples, across borders. It is all pervading. And to top it off, such great pleasure too.
Wisdom, and simplicity, and entertainment - through unforgettable stories - what more could be asked?
Aesop: The Origins
The most famous of Greek poets, Aesop was born about the year 620 B.C., by birth a slave. He was owned by two masters in succession, and won his freedom from the latter, as a reward for his learning and wit.
As a freedman in the ancient republics of Greece, Aesop now had the privilege and the permission to take an active interest in public affairs; and Aesop, raised himself to a position of high renown - a political ambassador of sorts. In his desire alike to instruct and to be instructed, he travelled through many countries. And in his discharge of his commissions, is said to have, by the narration of some of his wise fables, reconciled the inhabitants of those cities to the administration of their times.
Here we can detect and understand some of the common themes that run through these fables - those of keeping to one’s appointed place/station, the utility of inherent strengths which might not be easily visible and of the perils of overreaching.
These, and other, but still few, simple strands of wisdom is reinforced again and again in different situations - which is the essence of the craft of a fabulist.
Aesop: The Fabulous Fabulist
The Fable, like any Tale, will contain a short but real narrative; it will seek, like any Parable, to convey a hidden meaning, but by the skillful introduction of fictitious characters; and it will always keep in view, as its high prerogative, and inseparable attribute, the great purpose of instruction, and will necessarily seek to inculcate some moral maxim, social duty, or political truth.
And yet, even when trying to realize profound human truths through itself, it so conceals its design under the disguise of fictitious characters, by clothing with speech the animals of the field, the birds of the air, the trees of the wood, or the beasts of the forest, that the reader shall receive advice without perceiving the presence of the adviser.
Thus the superiority of the counsellor, which often renders counsel unpalatable, is kept out of view, and the lesson comes with the greater acceptance when the reader is led, unconsciously to himself, to have his sympathies enlisted in behalf of what is pure, honorable, and praiseworthy, and to have his indignation excited against what is low, ignoble, and unworthy.
This format also required the fabulist to keep a unity of character throughout - The introduction of the animals as characters should be marked with an unexceptionable care and attention to their natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient, even as they are made to depict the motives and passions of men.
Aesop’s fables achieve this unity and consistency so throughly that now they have passed into popular consciousness. Indeed, we can even assert that these animals, as we know them today, were created in these Fables!
Aesop: The Companion
Aesop's Fables are valuable companions. These stories pack much distilled wisdom in them and can be employed with great effect. It is said that a few good stories are better moral equipment than the best tracts of philosophers.
Even Socrates is mentioned by Plato as having employed his time while in prison, awaiting the return of the sacred ship from Delphos which was to be the signal of his death, in turning some of these fables into verse from what he had committed to memory over his long lifetime.
Socrates, like Aesop, understood that we are all moralists, seeking the human judgements that inform ours, and other’s actions. But morality forced down by edict can be very forbidding. This forbidding notion of morality was what inspired the philosopher Bertrand Russell to remark that the Ten Commandments ought to come with the sort of rubric which is sometimes to be found on examination papers of ten questions: ‘Only six need be attempted’.
It is noteworthy that Socrates tried to emulate in his own teaching method the technique of the great fabulist - of letting the listener arrive at his own conclusions, or at any rate, avoiding the biggest pitfall any teacher can fall into - of being perceived as a moral superior.
In how Socrates shaped up as a teacher, we can very well see why the most earthy and yet the loftiest of philosophers considered Aesop’s fables to be masterpieces, a constant source of companionship and teaching - and also a manual on teaching well.
"Stand-up economist" Yoram Bauman wants us to learn more about climate change, and he intends to...more
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.
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.
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:
Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual.
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.
This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Sometimes the only force that can take you through to the end of a book this bad is the sweet thought of revenge: of how...more How to Define Dangerous Books?
Sometimes the only force that can take you through to the end of a book this bad is the sweet thought of revenge: of how you are so going to maul the author in your review once the book is done and dusted.
This is a book that is so painfully badly written (500+ pages of tripe!) that ordinarily it should not merit much thought, but the fact that it tells a story that so many would want to hear, and might believe too easily, makes it dangerous nevertheless, and worth discrediting.
Also, the idea of giving voice to the victims, of inverting the historical bias of “history is written by the victors” is quite interesting. This was the reason I could not resist picking up the book.
The Tale Of The Vanquished: The story of the Ravanayana has never been told. Asura is the epic tale of the vanquished Asura people, a story that has been cherished by the oppressed castes of India for 3000 years. Until now, no Asura has dared to tell the tale. But perhaps the time has come for the dead and the defeated to speak.
Written through a distorted prism of historical victimization, this book is simplistic beyond imagination, is replete with misprisions, and makes no attempt either to capture the poetry of the original epic or show any sort of fidelity to its philosophy. Instead it mangles every aspect of it.
The author is clearly a Dravidian fanatic and tries every angle to work his fever-pitch hatred into the epic and its ‘historical atrocities’.
In effect, the author wants to fan the North-South Divide (the Aryan Vs Dravidian political flame) and the caste divide, and is extremely vitriolic in his language throughout. The hatred is obvious in every page.
The two main threads running through this atrocious and fanatical novel are:
1. Hate the North Indians, they brought all evils into society.
2. Our only weakness is our lack of unity, let us band together, Brothers, we are the original rulers of India before these intruders came into our lands.
The basic thesis is this:
India was originally ruled by the Asura kings and Tamil was their language and it was high culture and complete equality and what not - a la Mahabali’s paradise - celebrated through the Onam festival of Kerala - the book assumes that fable to be the default condition of India. In a classic nostalgic narrative, this Mahabali’s India is evoked throughout as the Golden Age of India. According to the author, then the ‘Aryan Invaders', a bunch of uncouth barbarians came and overthrew the Asura kings (all due to their own lack of unity) and established an uncultured primitive society throughout India. Yes, the barbarians not only won every war but they conquered the whole of the sub-continent - and this is in spite of the fact that the Asuras were so advanced in technology that they even had flying chariots (the Pushpaka Vimana) and stuff. Go figure.
Then the main narrative takes over - Ravana, an ambitious youth, rebuilds some semblance of the original glory of the Asura’s and eventually starts capturing back the mainland from his base off it in Sri Lanka. During one of his conquests, he fathers a girl child who was abandoned and then adopted by the king of Mithila - yep, Sita is Ravana’s daughter in this narrative - can’t have the good guy indulging in random abductions, can we?
Then Ravan watches with great sadness as Sita marries Rama later in life and decides one day that her life with Rama will never be really cool and abducts here - in her own best interests, mind you - because the Aryan society mistreats women and Ravana doesn’t want that for his daughter. So in keeping with the high moral principles of the Asuras, he kidnaps her and keeps her captive against her will - way to treat them equal, eh?
Rama launches an attack and as usual (but not before Lakshman disfigures and rapes Ravana’s sister, provoking the now pacifist Asura king), the lack of unity is the undoing of the Asuras - Ravana’s own brother plots to dethrone him.
Eventually Rama triumphs and then institutes the caste system, Sati system and every known evil - all dictated by the Brahmans. India degenerates into all sorts of chaos and loses her position as a moral force and a political force in the world. The dark ages descend and Rama was the initiator, Ravana was the last hope for the Tamils - the golden age was lost forever.
Now the funny thing is that the whole novel is written at a time when the whole Aryan Invasion theory has been thrown out of the window, more or less. It was part of the ‘divide & rule’ policy and this author wants to bring back those heydays of old. It is politically motivated twisting of facts. There is hardly any justification for the inventions that the author has indulged himself in.
1. Ravana’s father was Visravas - Ravana was an aryan himself in all likelihood. (+ He is known to have followed the Vedic rituals that are so derided in this book - and technically that was the criteria for Aryanhood, just as Vibhishan in this book does)
2. Ravana was a North Indian himself too, before traveling down south and capturing the kingdom that belonged to Kubera (who is himself supposed to be Ravana’s brother - an earlier wave then?). So if anything, he must have been one branch of the Aryan Invasion that spread across India (as per that theory)
3. Dark skin is not a characteristic of Non-Aryan, nor is white skin a characteristic of Aryan:
- Rama was himself dark-skinned.
- So was Krishna, later (and Arjuna, for good measure).
- So was Vishnu himself, the supposed god of the ‘white-skinned’ Aryan race (btw, Shivites Vs Vishnavites is another virulent theme of this book - Vishnu worshipers are shown as the uncouth Aryan stock while Shiva worshippers are the Dravidian stock, according to the author.)
4. Sita is Ravana’s daughter purely because she is dark-skinned? By that logic, Rama too could have been an Asura prince? What, if any, racial conflict is the Ramayana supposed to portray then?
5. Plenty of Rakshasas were fair skinned and hence cannot be a simplistic racial characterization.
6. Dravidians are not always dark-skinned - stereotypes are for idiots, surely?
7. Recent genetic studies have shown the racial stocks to be hopelessly intermingled throughout India and gives no evidence of any distinct racial divide between North and the South.
8. Except for the language, not much divides the so called Aryan and Dravidian culturally, genetically, religiously or historically. Even the linguistic divide shows the potential for being bridged as a common ancestor for proto-Tamil and Sanskrit is investigated.
9. One more thing, the book boasts of being 'Ravanayana.' The name 'Ramayana' is formed from 'Rama' and 'ayana', translating to "Rama's Journey," not "Rama's Story." Shows the level of knowledge that was brought into this 'rewriting' of Ravana's (and his people's) story.
A Note to the Readers
Dear Readers, the author is clearly misguided and the book is clearly a fanatic’s attempt to rekindle old hatreds. Please do not take it literally. Take it as an inventive, if extremely badly written, exercise in reversing the so called historical bias of victors, and leave it at that. It merits no historical discussion, and is definitely of no political relevance.
This book is a blatant attempt to fan anti-brahminism, North-Indian hatred, and basically blame every ill of society on this ‘historical injustice’. It does have a call for caste-solidarity, but even that is not a noble call, considering that it is caste and not class that is being called to unite.
For me, the scary thing about this is that such sentiments are already high in many cities. So many North Indian friends of mine complain about the increasing xenophobia towards them in South India, even in metropolitan cities like Bangalore. Speaking in Hindi in Chennai is a sure fire way of being discriminated against. Similarly, the North Indian cities too are treating the South Indians in a derogatory manner and treating them as encroachers.
The stereotypes that are popular about ‘Tam-Brahms’, ‘Mallu accent’, ‘the gali-speaking Delhiite’, ‘chinkis’, ‘Yuck, South Indian idli-dosa??’, ‘the uncouth Bihari’ etc., are all manifestations of this. Not to mention the crudeness of delusional movies like Chennai Express: Ayyo, Rama, what’s aappening?
This mutual alienation is very dangerous and could easily be the cause for major riots in our densely packed cities. This sort of fanatical historical narratives only add fuel to this fire and should not be encouraged.
Instead of banning books that ‘offend’ religious and racial sentiments, we should be more careful of such works which provoke those sentiments and tries to convert them into blind hatred. Those are the dangerous ones.
Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and app...more War is Boring
Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and apparent objectivity the things that happen around him and to him - practical and prosaic and always pragmatic about everything. People die and bombs explode in the same paragraph as the one where breakfast was considered with equal interest, and he takes it all in his stride.
As best as I can tell, the action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916 and before the end of the war. Place references and political references come and go without troubling the narrator too much - he is not to be bothered with such details. His context is not simply this war, but all wars and the notions of honor, heroism and patriotism - all of which he looks at with pristine incomprehension.
War always generates backlash, even from the Mahabharata and the Iliad to the many anti-war epics over the ages - the honor and glory that war is supposed to provide is questioned in its aftermath. The bloodlust and the fever-pitch cries of honor precedes war and then they calm down into searching questions about what those terms mean or into scathing parodies.
I am not entirely sure whether Farewell to Arms is a sober questioning of these virtues or a shambolic parody of them. It is never quite clear whether Hemingway is making fun of war or just expressing profound ennui. Especially when he combines Love with War, and both seem to get the same treatment, it becomes even harder to deduce whether Hemingway is ridiculing war and its virtues or life and its delusions in general and including love also into it. After all, the famous ending doesn’t leave us with much to pick up the pieces after.
The narrator tells the often ugly truth about war, without even trying to be anti-war in any way. By depicting daily life, he achieves it without an effort. It is the prosaicness of action, the utter lack of drama that becomes the most significant force in the narration - even his injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti.
All this combines to show up war as a hideous game, but one entirely not worth the bother. There are so many subtle ways in which he trivializes war, always retaining the impression that it is not a conscious effort, as if he was not even telling us anything about the war, letting it remain in the background as a boring humm.
“The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else's college.”
We are not even allowed particularly intelligent characters to liven up the drudgery of our reading, the novel is full of the Ordinary, the exceptional striking in its absence - and the readers are left disoriented, repeatedly trying to remind themselves that they are in the midst of the greatest and most destructive war humanity had yet known.
In the end, war is exposed as not only meaningless but boring. Usually war writers exploit the Pathos of war, Hemingway walks right inside, shows us around and escorts us out after having shown us the utter blandness of the ‘heroic’ exercise.
Even the “Love Story” is constructed out of the boring bits and of repeated bland conversations that seem almost never-ending and droll. Here Hemingway is probably playing us again: instead of the usual technique of showing the pleasant bucolic scenery of distant daily-life and contrasting that against gory war scenes and thus asking the reader to thirst for the war to end, Hemingway places both the personal and the public sphere next to each other, exposes both and yet somehow derides war through this. I am not yet sure how he does that, but my feelings wherever I encountered this tells me that he does it well.
Hemingway’s notorious fault is the monotony of repetition, and he has always been considered a better short story writer than novelist - the short form plays into his prowess for portraying ironies in short staccato beats. In A Farewell to Arms, he brings both his strengths and weakness as a storyteller and makes them both work for him masterfully. He converts the act of boring the reader into an art form and into an exercise in supreme irony. Very effective. Almost as effective as comedy, if you ask me.
While it is hard to interpret AFarewell to Arms as hopeful, to me it was so, though in a subtle way. It leaves us the hope that if only more soldiers could be like the Tenente and just walk away from all the boredom, even though only boredom awaits in normal life, things could be better.
To me the most striking impression of all, in a work filled with unforgettable impressions, was the sheer acceptance exhibited by the narrator: The hustle of the war, his own life, and the entire world even seems to move past the stoic Tenente who is left a mere spectator, but who never seems to question the events that unfold.
This captures the spirit of the war and also of the times.(less)