26 January 2017

Rx: Failed

The Great Degeneration
by Niall Ferguson

Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too, including our own in Sri Lanka) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.

This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.

The Great Degeneration was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.

So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall, he is right.

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of ageing, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism and brainfucked by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.

04 December 2016

Grunt Work

The Human Division
by John Scalzi

This isn’t really a novel. It’s a series of short stories held together by an overarching meta-plot and common characters. The bigger plot never resolves, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions at the end of the book and allowing for the continuation of the Old Man’s War series. Some reviewers have compared it to a TV serial, but books of this kind have a well-established history in literature – see, for instance, the Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. As a reader, I’m comfortable with the device and welcomed it in this book.

I found the stories interesting and often funny, though some of the jokes are designed to elicit groans rather than laughter. The characters are stock – military surplus for the most part – but lovable, mostly people with jobs to do and problems to solve. If anyone reading this is old enough to have ever enjoyed Robert Sheckley, they’ll find Scalzi’s set and setting familiar: working stiffs and grunts caught up in bizarre situations, leavening their tribulations with questionable humour.

This is problem-solving SF. Some of the problems are technical and some are human (if you count sentient aliens as humans, which you should). There are whodunits and what Martin Amis once called whydunits. They’re a mixed bag but then, variety is the spice of literature. On the whole, I liked them.

What you won’t find here are marvellous passages of visual description and world-building, alien strangeness, metaphysical trippery and all that sense-of-wonder stuff. In fact, the visual depiction of characters, settings, spacecraft, etc., is kept to a minimum. This is the other kind of science-fiction: the techy, Analog kind. And none the worse for that. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I plenty enjoyed reading it the first time.

18 July 2016

Manipulative Bastards


As a child and as an adolescent, I was far too busy being tossed about in my own emotional storms to think too much about what other people were feeling. As a result, I often failed to see trouble coming.

Furthermore, I have always had very strong opinions, which, in my youth, I saw no merit in concealing.

This combination of traits took a very real and probably measurable toll on my life, making academic and professional achievement difficult and causing problems on a social and personal level also.

The problem came to a head during my early years in advertising. Helpful bosses and co-workers advised me to pay more attention to other people and their feelings – as a means of getting everybody's working day to run more smoothly, as well as improving my own career prospects. Advertising, of course, is all about manipulating consumers’ emotions, but the people who told me this were more concerned about the emotional impact I was having on colleagues and clients.

I took their advice.

Psychology has fascinated me since a very early age, when I began reading far too much of it in an effort to figure out what was wrong with me. What I had learnt trying to help myself over the long difficult years of youth gave me insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings, too. Now, with my eyes turned outward rather than inward, I found it pretty easy to understand people and – as long as I was feeling fairly calm myself – persuade them to my point of view. It took some time, but I found I could do it so well that I eventually began getting work as a facilitator for planning workshops and seminars in the international development sector, managing the conflicting agendas of aid donors, recipient government representatives, different stakeholder groups and so on. In the communications business, too, I developed a good reputation as a presenter and trainer.

I continued to be thought of as a potentially difficult and even slightly dangerous character, but this was intentional; I had no desire to lose that edge, because it was useful to me. Instead, I learned to manage it and apply it judiciously, at moments when it would have the desired impact and achieve the end in view.

In my social life, however, I didn’t bother so much with emotional management. I preferred to take my friends and loved ones as they were, and to respond to them as naturally as I felt like doing. Except (sometimes) in very difficult, confrontational situations, I put my hard-earned psychological insight to one side, speaking and acting as the impulse took me. Of course, at times, particularly in intimate relationships, a certain consideration – and judicious self-control – are essential and expected. You end up walking a fine line between honesty and ‘naturalness’ on the one hand and the need to keep your partner calm, happy and interested on the other.

The reason I did not always deploy my hard-earned emotional and psychological insight was that I felt that in doing so I was being a bit of a fake, and certainly manipulative of others. I didn't feel like an honest man doing it.

I won’t say this is why I still have a reputation for being a bit ‘difficult’, though; I have no doubt that I am still genuinely clumsy and blind to people’s real thoughts and feelings most of the time. But nowadays, if I’m being a bit provocative or insistent upon a point or even downright rude, it’s usually because I mean to. When I do lose my self-control it’s usually over some trivial but annoying incident on the street. The chances of my being murdered in a road-rage incident or some such are really far too high for me to be writing about emotional intelligence at all. But I am a very different person from the one I used to be half a lifetime ago.

The point of all this self-revelation is simply this: while everybody kept telling me to be more insightful and accommodating of others’ feelings, I always thought of emotional insight as a double-edged sword. I thought I was all alone in this regard, however, until I read this article in the Atlantic. It’s about ‘the dark side of emotional intelligence’ and in it I learned that others, too, have come to the same conclusion as myself, and have begun studying the phenomenon, too. It’s a fascinating article about something we all experience, and I urge you to read it.

Of course, it may be that the author just manipulated me into thinking it’s good...

26 February 2016

A Very Old-Fashioned Future

Imperial Earth
by Arthur C. Clarke

I just re-read this after an interval of roughly 35 years. Written to commemorate the US bicentennial in 1976, it’s basically propaganda for space travel and technological innovation, aimed at young Americans. It’s set in a future where space travel within the solar system is common, colonies have been established on (at least) Mercury, the Moon, Mars and Titan, and the American political model, tempered by a degree of enlightened authoritarianism, has been extended throughout the Solar System.

The central character is a man from Titan, locally rich and very powerful, who is travelling to Earth to clone himself an heir. He does not, however, behave as you might expect such a person to behave. Instead, he comes across as a cerebral, tentative, effete introvert – a bit like the author himself, then. The other characters are even less convincing – they’re just outlines, not even cardboard cutouts.

But the point of the book is not the characters. It’s the gee-whiz technology and the surprising science facts. As a young reader, I found these sufficiently diverting. Sadly, I no longer do. Part of the trouble is that here we have Clarke in ‘prophet of the Space Age’ mode, but his prophecies are trivial and cockeyed.

He himself once divided insufficiently radical predictions about the future into two kinds: failures of nerve and failures of imagination. In this book, he displays few failures of nerve, but several, unusually for him, of imagination. He foresees (at least implicitly) the personal computer, the mobile personal assistant, the mobile communicator and the internet, but he doesn’t put them together and completely fails (as, to be fair, everybody did) to realize the massive consequences that would result from their amalgamation.

Consequently, his vision of how information is distributed in his imagined future is very centralized, bureaucratic and in some ways almost authoritarian. And when he gets down to the details of user interfaces, menus and things like that, he visualizes a very clunky, library-catalogue-type presentation, not terribly user-friendly at all.

What seems to be missing is any appreciation of the effect of competitive consumer capitalism on the design and presentation of technologies. Its absence here may tell us something useful about the distinction between ‘constructive’ technologies (whose consequences may be foreseen) and ‘disruptive’ technologies (which change our lives in unpredictable ways). Having failed to imagine the disruption, Clarke ends up profiling a future that looks more old-fashioned than the reality of our present day. Actually, it looks a bit old-fashioned even from a 1976 perspective.

To sum up: this is an entirely disposable part of the Clarke canon, lacking any of the sense of wonder he deploys to such magnificent effect elsewhere. Avoid unless bored and seriously stuck for reading matter.

12 February 2016

The Horror of Being Human

A People’s Tragedy: 
The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
by Orlando Figes

This is probably the best single-volume work about the Russian Revolution ever printed in English. It was written after the Soviet archives were opened, making a vast mass of new material available to historians and significantly changing the story as it had been previously understood in the West. It is also the work of an author determined to depict what happened in Russia during those terrible years as fully and truly as possible, and to make his picture as free from bias and ideological distortion as possible.

Although the author has since covered himself with ignominy by committing certain unprofessional acts, the decline of his personal reputation should not affect critical appreciation of his work. This is a great book, and I do mean great.

Although it is well written and far from indigestible, I did not find it an easy book to read. The real difficulty was neither its awkward size nor the great mass of facts and statistics it contains, but the distressing and depressing nature of the story it tells. Every possible permutation of human injustice, callousness, venality, stupidity, viciousness, brutality and, to speak plainly, evil, occurs in it. Every atrocity you can think of was committed in Russia during those years, as well as every atrocity you could never think of. Every time we turn a page, thinking the depths of human depravity have been plumbed, another scene of the tragedy unfolds, and we find that we have not touched bottom yet. To reach the end of this book – and to know that the period it covers was merely the prelude to a longer and even bloodier tragedy, the reign of Stalin – is to find oneself despairing of human nature.

Yet, hard as it is, every adult who possibly can – it is no book for children – should read A People’s Tragedy. We need to know these facts, to remember this horror, to realize what we are capable of. Because the Russian Revolution was not made horrific only by its leaders, or only by the Bolsheviks, or, indeed, only by anybody: it was a collective effort, in which everyone from Lenin and the murdered Tsar to the humblest of the peasantry played their part. It was a plague of evil, of cruelty and oppression and despair and the thirst for blood, which infected almost everybody in Russia and even spread beyond the borders of that country.

It could have infected me, if I’d been there. It could have infected you.

And it could happen again.

Even as I write, citizens of the world’s richest and most comfortable countries, resentful at the expanding separation between – no longer the rich and the poor, for not many are really poor in those countries, certainly not as people in Tsarist or Revolutionary Russia were poor – but between the elite and the masses, are flirting again with ideologies and divisions some of us had thought discredited for ever by the horrors of the twentieth century. In less advanced countries, like this one, where the horror was never fully felt or comprehended, the danger is even greater. The Great Isms, those insatiable old ghouls, are rising once again, because people have begun to forget that, in Figes’s words,

The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do is to treat its citizens equally, and strive to ensure that their free activities are directed towards the general good. After a century dominated by the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism, one can only hope that this lesson has been learned.

Read this book – it will not be easy, but read it anyway. You need to. We all need to.

30 January 2016

Anglophony, Old & New

The following originally appeared as a comment on a post appearing on the Reviewing & Editing Project Facebook page. I felt that what I’d written deserved a post on my own blog, so here it is.

Many people today think it was a post-Independence Ceylon government that abolished education in English. This is not strictly true. The decision to educate most Ceylonese in Sinhala or Tamil was originally made in 1870, following the Morgan Committee report on the Central Schools Commission. From that time to this, English education in Ceylon has been — apart from teaching English as a school subject, and apart from one government school, Royal College — left to private providers. Originally these were Christian missionary and church organizations, later the so-called ‘international’ schools.

Education in English cost money — quite a lot of money if you wanted a good one. Only a privileged minority could afford it.

The actions of various post-Independence governments then resulted in a period when even the private provision of education in English was all but banned outright. Although this was illiberal, deliberately provocative and ultimately disastrous for the country, the number of students directly affected by it was quite small. Mostly, they belonged to the aforementioned privileged minority – members of the old colonial comprador class.

(I, though relatively less privileged, was one of the lucky ones. I just made it under the rope. The year after I sat them, the option of taking one’s senior school qualifying examinations in English was scrapped for all subjects save English itself.)

That old English-speaking elite is almost gone now, and not a day too soon. Perhaps there was a time when it could have been integrated into the bigger social picture and become a vital national asset. A few of its members, true patriots that they were, still managed to achieve this, but more generally the historical moment for reconciliation and integration, if it ever existed, had already passed several years before Ceylon achieved independence. Instead of integrating, the elite emigrated.

With the demise of the Anglophone elite the coterie of soi-disant (and mostly manqué) scriveners who were part of it — all those brave souls who struggled self-consciously to produce a ‘Sri Lankan’ literature in English — are vanishing too. Considering how little work of value they ever produced (the best stuff has always been done by outsiders like Regi Siriwardena, Carl Muller and Shehan Karunatilaka), they are not much of a loss, and in sociopolitical terms, their extinction is long overdue. Still, one feels obliged to acknowledge their passing.

But meanwhile, and gratifyingly, enormous numbers of ordinary Sri Lankans have acquired a working knowledge of spoken and written English, partly at school but mostly from private tuition classes and the media. They’re hardly masters of the language, but they get by. Perhaps, some day, a few of them will fully embrace the language and go on to produce works worth reading in it. There are hopeful signs, though there’s a lot of word salad about too. But even if no Sri Lankan ever wins the Booker Prize, it’s hardly a big deal; a non-Anglophone country does not need an English literature.

What Sri Lanka does need, desperately, are vibrant Sinhala and Tamil literatures created by people who are not mediaevalists, reactionaries or narrow-minded ideologues. And make no mistake, they are emerging. I don’t know much about the Tamil literary scene, which is mostly, I suspect, dominated by South Indian writers and publishers; but in the last fifteen years or so, the Sinhala publishing scene has exploded. The last time I attended the Colombo Book Fair, I was astonished by the amount there was — both original writing and works translated from English and other languages. It was, to be quite honest, a revelation.

I believe that is where the future lies, and it can’t come too soon for this country.

28 December 2015

All Steak, No Sizzle

The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

As a musician and music lover with a strongly developed sense of history, I have great respect for the late Alan Lomax and his work as a musicologist. This one man studied, recorded and preserved an improbably large share of the extant corpus of American folk music. The influence of his recordings and writings on the development of popular music in the late twentieth century is matched by no-one else, not even Bob Dylan. Without Lomax, Dylan might never have existed. More broadly still, black American music might have had a harder struggle and possibly even failed to find a mass white audience without his efforts, which means the great musical explosion that resulted from this cultural conjunction couldn’t have happened without him either. The world owes Alan Lomax an incommensurable artistic debt.

I was excited when I picked up this book. The little I knew about Lomax – his shoestring travels across America with a recording machine in the trunk of his car, his risky encounters with redneck cops, prison wardens and the suspicious poor, his adoption of the blues singer Leadbelly, his tireless championship of black causes, his troubles with Senator McCarthy and the FBI, his purist rejection of artists like Dylan who put the material he had discovered and preserved to their own artistic uses – made it plain that he had been a thoroughly fascinating character, the sort of man about whom it would be impossible to write a dull book. This, after all, was the fellow who ended up rolling in the dirt with Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 after Grossman caught him and Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to a power cable while Dylan and his band were on stage. How could a book about a man like that be boring?

Oh, easy. Just leave it to John Szwed. An associate of Lomax during the great man’s later years, his attitude towards his subject is adoringly, obsessively hagiographic. In this plodding, barely readable book, the arc of Lomax’s life-story is lost to view under a leaden mass of irrelevant detail. It seems that Szwed was determined to capture every move and gesture made by his subject, to describe and comment upon every essay, article, letter, postcard or shopping-list that Lomax ever wrote, regardless of its relative importance or thematic value. This suffocating mass of fact completely obscures what is really important in Lomax’s story. One of the most important traits of a biographer or historian is selectivity. Szwed appears quite incapable of it.

He is also incapable of admitting any serious faults in his hero, despite the evidence – given to us here in as much tedious detail as everything else – that Lomax was manipulative, selfish and self-serving, and tended to exploit and betray the women in his life. The author finds excuses for it all. Lomax was academically and politically quarrelsome – but in this book it’s always the other guy’s fault. Szwed does not even scruple to slap on a coat or two of whitewash if the occasion demands it. Having abandoned sequential reading about three-fifths of the way through the book, I skipped forward to see what the author had to say about the Newport incident and found that he barely mentions it, and then only to dismiss it as ‘apocryphal’. This is simply untrue; several eyewitnesses have gone down in print with their descriptions of the incident and there is no doubt that it happened.

This dreary, misleading book has only one redeeming quality: the obsessive depth of its scholarship with respect to matters concerning its subject. Perhaps one day a real historian or biographer will find it useful as a map to the territory and produce a really good biography of Alan Lomax. There’s no doubt that one is needed. This isn’t it.