Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Pessoa's national poems

I have previously made some unflattering comments on Pessoa's writing on this blog, in particular on his 'Book of Disquiet'. After a pause for reflection (and to revive my will to live after his depressing prose), I have embarked on another dangerous liaison with Pessoa's output, this time his Mensagem (Messages).

The poems in Mensagem are the only ones he ever published himself, so they surely reflect to some degree how he wanted to see himself and his work. They are mainly a collection of short pieces on historical figures or critical historical moments of Portugal. Mostly written around the mid to end 1920s, they represent a curious seriousness and lack of healthy distance to the Portuguese national project.

This is the more remarkable for the fact that at this time, Portugal was firmly in the grip of Salazar, who installed a right-wing authoritarian regime with all the trappings of fascist imagery (although Salazar's regime was certainly not fascist, old newsreel clearly documents how much it adopted proto-fascist symbols).

This lack of critical distance to the nationalistic imagery is odd given that at the time of writing, Pessoa must have been well aware of the (short and violent) pedigree of the nation as a unifying project. He must also have been familiar with alternative ideological trajectories, such as the internationalistic rhetoric of communism and socialism. Given that he wrote plenty of prose and poetry for the drawer, there also appears to be no need to write for the censor.

So, why this strange unquestioning proximity to Portuguese 'nationalism'?

I think one reason lies in his lack of humour. There is not a single instance in his 'Book of Disquiet' or in Mensagem where Pessoa uses irony or humour as a rhetorical device. This creates the impression of an overly serious (if not slightly depressed) author.

The second reason may be his mistrust of human behaviour as a trope for realism. Pessoa's world is populated with unreal heros, mainly historical and distant, who cross the dangerous seas or plant the Portuguese banner in hostile places of the world. Whilst they explore the universe, their inner world of feelings and motivations remains hidden. There is a strange contrast here between the excessively introspective character in the mainly auto-biographical 'Book of Disquiet' and the heroic world of explorers in his Mensagem poems.

In a sense, Pessoa may not have trusted his own poetic devices to portray the world as a representation of this inner world of feelings of his heros. So, all he is left with is either the recounting of glorious adventures or his own emotional universe.

But a poetry of human heroism and unbending will is of little interest to others. Where Pessoa stopped short of exploring the meaning of human actions as a reflection of their visions, art begins to flourish. That's why his poetry has a strange shallowness, despite some wonderful turns of phrases.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The puritans are coming!

Britain has long enjoyed a relatively liberal attitude to sex and nudity but this is under attack from two fronts. On one side, Muslim campaign groups are mounting serious pressure on women to 'cover up' in many communities in the UK, while on the other front, some puritan groups are currently running a campaign to prohibit the display of 'too much flesh' in public.

There is little that can be said about the Muslim threat to a sexually liberal Britain. Where religion comes into the equation, the struggle for personal freedoms and rights usually lose out to bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

The other campaign is more interesting since it is allegedly run by feminists who object to the display of scantily clad female bodies on magazine covers. This campaign is odd in many respects. First, because it undermines the feminists' own cause to battle bigotry and sexual violence by arguing consistently that nudity is not an invitation to rape. There have been famous marches and demonstrations in some cities in the UK and the US and I certainly sympathise with their cause.

The object of debate: porn for some, sexual freedom for others

Yet, this contradicts the recent campaign to prohibit any displays of women's bodies in bikinis or underwear in public places. The campaigners argue that this 'objectifies' the female body for sex. My response is: so what? I would hope very much that every human body is an object of sexual desire for at least one other person. We are by nature an object of other people's desires. But the fact that we are so much more than this, does not mean that objectification should be banished. It would be a pretty boring world to live in.

So, this latest campaign appears more in tune with the old puritan desires to de-legitimise bodily functions and may be animated by a deep discomfort with sexual instincts. Neither of which leads to a happy life I suspect.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

How charitable is the Church of England?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently been embarrassed by the financial investments of his own church. While he was ranting against Wonga, the high interest pay day lender, it was revealed that his own church had invested in Wonga for a handsome return.

The church claims to have a charitable function in society and as its religious purpose recedes increasingly into the background, it is the church’s work for the poor that becomes the bedrock of its moral impetus. But what about its charitable purpose? How effective is it? 

Hypocrite or saviour of the poor?

The short answer is: we dont know. Neither the Anglican Church nor the Catholic Church ever open their books to public scrutiny to allow us to test their claim to help the poor. Whilst every other charitable organisation in the country is obligated to detail exactly how much they spend on fund raising, staff, and core charitable programmes, the churches refuse to publish these data. 

So, strictly speaking we have actually no evidence whatsoever where the money goes that we drop into the collection box at the church's exit. For all we know, they may just as well use it to pay for their gold-embroidered frocks and man-servants at the Bishop’s Palace. 

So, besides its important role to provide pastoral care, we dont know much about how effective the church is as a charitable organisation. Their charitable status hails from a time when we granted any religious organisation a charitable motivation per se, but those times are over. In fact, it has been these very established churches that have fought tooth and nail against other religious organisations to be granted the same privileges (think of Anglican Bishops sitting in the House of Lords for no apparent reason or justification but that it is an 'established church'). 

It is about time we know more about how effective the Anglican and the Catholic Church are in dispensing aid to the poor. The first step would be to open their books to public scrutiny. By becoming more transparent in financial affairs, the Archbishop Welby may just make the transformation from hypocrite to moral crusader. Perhaps. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

On the elusiveness of the common good

It always seemed to me that the interwar period in the 20th century is one of the most fascinating historical periods in contemporary history. Whilst some countries veered to the extreme left to state communism, others turned to fascism and right wing authoritarianism. 

The tendency of Marxist historians to lump the latter two together under one category is now widely discredited. However, there are still many white spots in our knowledge about Pilsudski’s Poland or Franco’s Spain despite the more nuanced approach towards these regimes nowadays. 

It would be deeply flawed to term this renewed interests in some of the right wing authoritarian regimes of the interwar period as historical revisionism, which would somehow suggest a more positive appraisal of their past. Spain under Franco was a brutal dictatorship which extracted enormous human costs from its population over the decades. 

Yet, there are some aspects of these regimes that make interesting reading. Pilsudski’s attempt to navigate the country through turbulent times and defending its territory against two murderous neighbours is probably one of these fascinating examples of history that defy easy description. 

Salazar’s Portugal may be another. I have always been fascinated by the strange melancholy that suffuses Pessoa’s writings which somehow seemed to reflect a pessimism bordering on apathy. Whatever the greatness of his poetry, the time in which he lived must have contributed somehow to his despondency and hopelessness. Salazar’s Portugal (he gained power in 1926 and governed until 1968 when he suffered a stroke) strikes a distant observer as a country preserved in aspic. Although Portugal made some progress towards modernisation in the fifties and sixties, it remained far behind most of its Western European allies in terms of economic and social development. 

There is little written in English on Salazar. A search on Amazon produces fewer than half a dozen books but I stumbled over a contemporary account of the man and his country by a British writer. Michael Derrick must have had some Catholic sympathies since his book, written in 1936, is full of praise for the Catholic (yet non-clerical) undertones of Salazar’s regime. 

There can be no doubt that Derrick was a fan of Salazar’s political vision, a corporatist state without political parties or full democratic representation. There is little doubt that Salazar's corporatism is more of a smokescreen for an at times merciless dictatorial regime. 

Yet, Derrick contrasts Salazar’s politics with those of the previous ‘liberal’ government which he describes as a series of ‘squabbles and inter-factional struggles’. And this is where it gets fascinating, since Derrick’s account may just reflect a widely held belief at that time about the shortcomings of democracy. 

First and foremost, there is the notion of the common good as something that is opposed to factional interests. Salazar’s (and Derrick’s) answer to the dilemma of factional strife in society is to invest the idea of the common good in one person, and perceive of it as an immutable entity closely aligned with a set of traditional values and ‘ever-lasting’ social practices. 

It is this hope that there is a fixture in the ever moving universe on which people can peg their life that appears oddly moving today. It was of course a forlorn hope and one that had to disappoint as Salazar’s regime became ever more oppressive. And it is the belief that a notion of the common good could somehow be defined beyond the the clash of interests that is instructive. As Salazar’s regime became increasingly an apparatus to secure the positions of a small social and economic elite, it revealed the hope for a predefined common good as a mirage. 

This leads us to the most instructive parallel between those authoritarian regimes and our own politics. It is was not so much the lack of any separation of powers, or any checks and balances, but the deep belief that there was to be an idea of the common good that ought to be shared by all which animated those regimes and provided some semblance of legitimacy. This belief can be detected in many other ideologies as well, be it Marxism (think of the ‘right consciousness’) or Rousseau’s armour propre (in small communities). 

Neither Salazar’s nor Franco’s regime of course today passes the test that probes the relationship between their declared aspirations and the realities of brutal oppression and persecution of political oppositions. But their avowed belief that there must be something else beyond a common good emerging out of a political 'squabble' or conflict of interests in society reminds us of the weakness of liberal democracy. It is a weakness that we should celebrate as it gives voice to the lack of alternatives to public debate and open discussion. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Should we be quiet about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

There are plenty of things we may get agitated or angry about, but there are few things that concern us directly. This is probably more true in politics than in any other part of life. We hold strong opinions and voice these unhesitantly when it comes to political issues, often without asking whether this matters to us imminently. 

The internet may have accelerated this phenonmenon not least by widening the realm of those able to contribute. But does this make for better debates and, perhaps even more importantly, for better solutions to problems? 

One element of any debate is how we remain emotionally engaged to any issue at hand and, at the same time, retain a critical distance to those very emotions that seem to guide us for better or worse in forming our opinions. So the question arises: what does the expression of our opinion contribute exactly to any given issue? And if we conclude that it does little to further the debate, should we just shut up? 

Philosophers tell us that the biggest stumbling bloc on the road to a balanced debate is our lack of knowledge. That does not just include factual knowledge, but experiential knowledge as well. We are simply not party to all things human in this world, and hence rely on third party reports. Why should this distance to experience matter? Let's take an example. 

We all have strong opinions on what the root causes are of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, as well as on how to solve it. Many of these opinions may be formed after onerous and honest research into the facts of the issue. Yet, few of those who have strong opinions on the matter have probably visited either Isreal or Palestine, and probably even fewer have lived there for a sustained period of time. 

So, where does this leave our debate on the issue? I believe that, given that human understanding always operates with limited knowledge, we need to look at other principles that may guide us what we ought to do in highly controversial issues that have no immediate relevance to our own lives. 

One such principle is perhaps about how to prevent bringing our emotions to bear on a situation that have less to do with the parties involved than with our own circumstances. It seems that no one is helped if we articulate our own opinions in a way that reflect mainly our own perspective rather than that of the parties involved. Consequently, perhaps the best we can hope for is to be conscious of how anger at perceived injustices mainly answer to the needs of our own psyche. Consequently, if our anger does little to contribute to solutions, perhaps we should refrain from anything that may inflame the conflict between those involved in a dispute. 

Does this mean that we should never voice our views on any issues unless we are directly involved? Certainly not. Parties to disputes are often just as guilty to widening the parameters of the debate as we are by looking for support in the most unlikely corners of the world. What the world thinks matters in searching for solutions to local problems. 

However, overall, I suspect, there is little to be gained from weighing into a debate that matters to us only through our emotive responses. In a sense, all we do then is to speak to our own emotional needs. That does not sound like a good guide in navigating the complexities of political problems. 

The slow death of the NHS

Since I came to this country in 1992, the NHS has been in perpetual crisis. First, it was long waiting times, then poor cancer care and treatment outcomes with unusually high death rates, and finally, it was people unnecessarily dying in hospitals.

The answer of politicians is to throw more money at the NHS in a desperate attempt to shore up its capacities to deal with chronic diseases, long term illnesses and complex health problems of an aging population. But the real culprit in the demise of the NHS is a fundamental change in the health care needs of people and the huge financial burdens of medicine developments.

As the body for vaccine licensing in the UK published its latest shocking report, it has become clear that a tax based health care sector is creaking at the seams and is becoming untenable fast. The development of medicines has traditionally been the domain of the pharmaceutical industry, but something significant has happened over the last decade. As diseases became ever more difficult to analyse and combat, medicine development has become ever more costly. Developing an effective vaccine can easily take 20 years and cost 100 million pounds as the various substances are tested and go through a plethora of trials to improve their composition and ensure their safety.

These are enormous entrepreneurial risks and practically no company can take these risks on their own today. So, governments have stepped in and underwritten some of the financing risks of some vaccine developments. While that means broader shoulders for the risks, the costs can be devastating for the health sector as not all vaccine developments are successful.

What does that have to do with the NHS? Spiraling costs in medicine development and care delivery mean that the NHS will always fall short of caring adequately for everyone. And that has been the principle of the NHS since its inception: ration the care to those most at need. Yet, the latest decision of the Department of Health clearly shows it is not the most vulnerable who benefit from the rationing principle. What guides bureaucrats in Whitehall is a lifeless formula which decides who lives and who dies in the NHS.

This problem wont go away. In fact, it will get worse unless the government will find new sources for significant investment in the health sector. There seems to be only one answer. Open the NHS up to insurance based services. It would provide a new income for the NHS and would allow patients to decide how much they want to pay for the care they think they need.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The BlackBerry Q5

Until yesterday, I had a Blackberry Curve (yes, people like me are still around) and when I asked my IT person at work if there is some guidance on how to hook my email account up to my Blackberry he just quipped: 'We dont have that info anymore, Blackberry kind of been dying lately.'

That may be true but the new Q10 and Q5 were supposed to turn the fortunes of the best Canadian export around. And as a die-hard BlackBerry fan I made the jump and bought the Q5 a couple of days ago before my old Curve got stuck in the same for good.

A larger keyboard, but plenty of mysterious 'gestures' needed to operate it

So, what's the verdict after two days of the new Q5? Sadly, I have to say that I doubt that RIM will revive its luck with this one. The Q5 is certainly bigger and flashier. In fact, it is so big, it feels a bit like a brick in the hand. That may be a plus for people who prefer large screens, but Blackberry users often stuck to the RIM products because of the email and the BBM. If you wanted a large screen, you would chose Samsung. And if you preferred touchscreen, you got an iPhone.

The Q5 retained the (physical) keyboard but made it bigger. That may suit some people, but it takes getting used to. Coming from Curve, typing on the Q5 is a bit like changing from a three quarter Cello to a full sized one: you have to stretch your fingers. The keys are now spaced far wider and after a while you realise, that some keys are gone completely. The Q5 has no 'back' option, nor can you close a webpage. Once on it, they will stay open until you clear the history.

The biggest problem however is a whole plethora of new fangled 'gestures' which allow you to navigate the system. I say 'allow' but the impression is more one of the device granting you what it wants. Time and time again, I got stuck on pages and applications until I accurately performed those 'gestures'. And the Q5 is a strict teacher, believe me! It can take a while and more often than not, your 'gestures' are not instantly understood by the Q5 which means it does what it wants, more or less. Talking of the ambiguity of 'gestures'!

So, overall, the Q5 takes some getting used to and I have to say, I lack the time and patience to learn it. So, back it is to my old Curve. It might just make another two months. Perhaps I just have to bite the bullet and get an iPhone then.

Monday, 15 July 2013

On burglary, manslaughter and the Trayvon Martin case

The acquittal of Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin has aroused the suspicion that racial profiling is at the core of the death of the teenager. The jury also acquitted the neighbourhood watchman of manslaughter and it is this part of the verdict that is hard to understand from a European perspective.

The UK courts have encountered similar cases over the last couple of years, where people have defended their homes against burglars (which Martin was not, although he was trespassing on private property) with unusual force, sometimes leading to the death of trespassers. Yet, in contradistinction to the recent verdict in the Zimmerman case, justices in the UK have been guided by the notion of appropriate force in reaching their conclusions and convicted property owners who shot intruders.

It seems to me that the UK legal system has got things right in formulating a degree of proportionality which is to be found at the base of every retaliatory action. In other words, if somebody attacks you, you may defend yourself to prevent harm coming to you or your property but only to the extent that unnecessary harm to you and the other person is avoided. Incapacitating or even killing the other person cannot and should not be a legitimate goal of preventative action.

The circumstances of Martin's death have not been resolved as the trial unfolded. It is still unclear who attacked whom, which would be a critical piece of information to build a case of self-defence for Zimmerman. Yet, even so, the outcome strikes me as implausible even if Zimmerman had been attacked first. The use of deadly force is something that should be left to police authorities in extreme cases. Something that is hardly applicable to a neighbourhood watchman challenging a teenager with an ice tea and some sweets in his hands trespassing on a gated community.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Why the Tahrir Square protests are a danger to democracy

Egypt is once again engulfed in political upheaval. This time it is the democratically elected president Morsi who is under attack from street protesters. This morning, on the Today show, the BBC correspondent quoted a protester saying that the army is their friend, as long as it would support the protests.

The irony of the current situation does not escape anyone's notice. Whilst only a year and a half ago, the Tahrir square was filled with protests against the army and its grip on society, now the 'democracy' camp is hoping that the army will impose 'democracy from above'. What is going on?

In essence, Egypt is transitioning slowly from a politics of protests to a system of negotiated politics. Neither side is good at this newly won freedom. And whatever would emerge through negotiations, a sizable minority will not like the outcome. At the heart of it stands a misguided view of what democracy is all about. Those protesting on Tahrir Square presume that they own politics, that their vision of Egypt society is the only legitimate one. They also believe (wrongly, I think) that protesting legitimises their demands in a similar way as it has happened previously as they gained the favour of the world opinion in their fight against the Mubarak regime. Back then, however, street protests were a legitimate way to change things since the political space for free argument and debate had not been created yet. Things are different now.

Democracy is not a shouting match. It is based on a willingness to compromise and to accommodate conflicting viewpoints. Tahrir Square can never be a birthplace for democratic institutions. Street protests are not a suitable arena for a meaningful dialogue between different factions of society. In a sense, then, the protesters on Tahrir Square are mistaken when they think that their demands are resembling those two years ago. Morsi's presidency is not the same as Mubarak's.

Morsi has a democratic mandate, and the willingness of the protesters to make a pact with the army will only serve the old regime. As so often with democratic transitions, some people who have been emboldened by direct democracy will have to be frustrated for true democracy to develop. It is time for Morsi to become the champion of Egypt's democracy the country needs. And it is time for the protesters on Tahrir Square to go home.