You have nothing to lose but your chains

As the unification of retail and investment banking has hastened the gap between rich and poor, the internet and digital communication has hastened our transmogrification into gangs of like-minded, wordy hooligans – haranguing dissenters. It’s been going on for a while; we are only just noticing it now – another benefit of the internet, it reveals our virtues subtly and our faults with pyrotechnic accompaniment. We watch the “comedia grottesco” slavishly. We are all of us becoming populists and this is manifest in our elected officials. The citizens of the United States of America have inaugurated their newest President, Donald J. Trump. His ascension to the highest office in the US is a fine example of the public’s perceived populist leanings and the evaporation of our collective respect for intellect and pragmatism.

Appropriately, while missing both the meaning and the symbolism of the song, Mr. Trump and his wife’s first dance as President and First Lady was to Sinatra’s: “My Way”. The opening two lines of which are: “And now, the end is near, and so I face, my final curtain.” Some clever boffin in the future will draw a line between this and the end of the Trump Presidency as foreshadow, no matter how it all turns out. Still the irony and absence of understanding didn’t dull the applause. As with those who play “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen to rally the faithful to nationalistic fervour, the actual meaning of the song is secondary to the punchline: “I did it my way – born in the USA.” That this goes unrecognized is irksome, but perhaps symptomatic of the deterioration of understanding.

It is interesting to read the papers/web sites and their coverage on the outcome of the election, the potential future, the accusations of foul play – both foreign and domestic – as the people of the US are currently compelled to ponder what will happen next. While it is likely some of it is true, there seems little to be done about it but to entrench one’s self deeper in the malaise of like-mindedness that permeates public discourse. The hateful rhetoric, the intractable position of one side against the next has set a tone which is very likely not about to fade. There will be no reconciliation between the “right” and “left” in the political sphere – though neither right nor left much resemble what they were in former years, not so very long ago.

The US has embraced populism, or at least many have. They have elected an elitist, potentially tax avoiding billionaire based upon a message aimed at “the common people”. Canada did that a couple of years ago and now, as though having discovered some “special sauce”, a “rich” Canadian business man will run for office to oppose the favoured rich-populist liberal who currently leads Canada. In the UK, anger pushed a hairline vote to leave the EU into a movement where now the seeming inevitability of departure has grown. Despite the need for the Parliament to vote for an Article 50 exit from the European Union, the mood seems likely to continue to favour an end to Britain’s membership in the EU. The left in the UK, under the guidance of a populist will push for Brexit, unless a rebellion (which also seems likely) occurs in the Labour Party. Yet, one would be needed in the Conservative Party too to make a difference. Amongst the Public, both the right and left in Britain, like their “New World” compatriots, are venomous and bile-filled in their opinions. There is no view worth having save the one that cannot be discounted – even with fact. “My view – impenetrable.”

World politics is the same. In the Philippines, Duarte makes Donald J. Trump look like a soft-touch weakling, whose rhetoric is by comparison soothing poems for soft masses. The last President was trying to rein in the “tough-guy” President of the Philippines – before he got any closer to China. No doubt, the new US President will attempt the same. Germany, Italy, and Holland all have their populists – “rightists” – whose views are national and isolationist. It seems the time of the Right to behave badly is on the rise. Canada’s foray into “liberalism” was borne more by dislike of the previous right-leaning Prime Minister than acceptance of the policies of Justin Trudeau – whose policies are destined to bankrupt the country, and who stands alone as the only Canadian Prime Minister to ever be formally investigated by the Ethics Commission. Demagoguery sprinkled with populism might better describe Trudeau and Trump, yet the result is the same. They are shades of a deeper disaffection the public has with truth; fact conflicts with their desire to have their opinions validated. What is bad is done to me, not because of me.

We have sunk, globally, to electing a much lower class of politician. Then, we have sunk as an electorate too. Fewer of us – especially in the West – actually get up off our well-fed backsides and vote. As the internet brought us the convenience of being able to whine from the comfort of our own homes, under a pointed pseudonym or through the formidable reason of a well-selected emoji, we are barely able to articulate a position in a well informed and committed manner; we are no longer of the opinion that we should have to engage in the antiquated act of “going” to a ballot box and damaging the environment by using “paper” to cast our vote.  The “Information Age” has been an age of disinformation. We are stupider and more opinionated than we ever have been. Our views are embellished by the “echo-chamber” of like-minded opinion. We are quick to offend and offence. Dare not, in the expression of your opinion, cast doubt or dispersion upon the hallowed opinion of another – especially not while visiting a web site wherein others of similar views should dwell. Speak not of “black” things if you are “white”. Speak not of “LGB” unless you are supportive of “T” and “Q”. Question not the motives of the individual for we are what we “think” ourselves to be and what we think must be respected and must be honoured – in law. To do otherwise is to invite the boundless poison of condemnation. “Stay in your lane.” “Check your privilege.”

Society has changed. One of the discoveries of late has been the old chestnut– if you work hard you will get a good job and a pension – is now bunk. There is a solid argument that this discovery got Donald J. Trump elected. The post-War era bred social programs and perhaps over compensation on the part of governments to provide a welfare state that was ultimately unsustainable in the form they created. They provided too much, and too much was expected. Unions and Management negotiated untenable collective agreements that benefitted the early boomers but was ultimately incapable of providing the same dividends as the developing world matured and globalization became viable. This change in the economies of the world was brought on by the increased acceptance of capitalism, the growth of the free market. The growth of the developing world, raising nations from poverty and backward economies, meant the West faced competition; and, the monopoly they enjoyed in the 50s and 60s began to wane in the 70s. The fading guaranteed markets were harder to gain profit from and others were making good products cheaper. These facts were ignored. Instead of adapting, businesses and unions fought to keep things the same, to fail to change. Behaving in an unchanging manner in a changing world can only lead to destruction. This became evident during the 2000s, when the credit crunch hit. The assumptions of business changed. The realization that pensions, propped up by companies was untenable was demonstrated by no less a company than GM, who was the 3rd largest health care provider in the US at the start of the credit crunch. Yet these failings, the lack of adaptation, these pseudo-charitable distractions from core business, the uncompromising nature of unions, the substandard management of companies and the focusing on shareholder value rather than the health of the companies worked to undermine them; shamefully the blame has been placed on the outsider – the external. The UK suffers because of the EU. The US suffers because of Mexicans and off shore businesses and manufacturing. The outsider is the hated cause of our lack of pensions and profit. A wall will solve our problems. Disconnecting from the wider world will make things better.

While we have greater access to information, we have less use for it. The most hateful term of late is: “The Post Truth era”. For what are we if not what we truthfully are? It seems we are whatever we are willing to say we are. We are what we want. Now, this isn’t true, nor is it factual. Today, facts are not terribly important; or, facts are too important. We eschew belief and faith. We eschew facts. Our intellect has lifted us above the necessity of moral evaluation against a set of “mythical” tenets and traditions; it has caused us to favour only that which can be weighed and measured over the less tangible and harder to quantify, while all the while choosing only those blessed facts which suit our needs. We raise children to be fair and just – to demand honesty and opportunity – then call them “snowflakes” when they confront us with the hypocrisy of the very systems we have allowed to degenerate into machines of favour and privilege, uncompetitive and intransigent. The once grand “free market” has been weighted to favour an ever shrinking group of investment firms and banks, shortening the average life of corporations to 15 years, from 70. “Shareholder value” the grand objective has undermined the corpus, the body, “the corporation”. No longer working toward its own preservation and perpetuation, the corporation can easily source, outsource, and off-shore without a mind for the workforce that were once “employees,” its heart. People belonged, at one time, to a company, a firm. Today, the cheque clears; or, it doesn’t. The corporation is not a thing to be preserved but a thing to be exsanguinated and broken up.

 

Our individuality and “specialness” has made us expendable to those who once valued people and now value things, and raised our own opinions of ourselves above the very societies we live within. Society should serve me! We no longer accept what we are, our own limitations. It is unfair and wrong that this one has more than that one, regardless of how it might have been attained or what effort expended. We curse “elites” and demand to be led by those “outside” the world of tradition and experience. Yet, the randomness of birth and genes, when it comes together into some admirable formation, is viewed as though it is something which should be lauded and aspired to; when in fact, it is no more than a fortunate merging of chromosomes. With the same click of the mouse we pass over the long considered and laboriously crafted view of kindness and charity, or seek to find its blemish so it might be discredited.

We have and are the world we made.

Our own ignorance and willingness to defer our responsibility has elected Donald Trump, has considered Justin Trudeau a “leader”, has set the UK on the road to exiting the European Union, and given ideologues like Marine LePen a real chance at political office. It is time we woke up and started reading books again. Turn off Facebook. Drop out of our echo chambers. Block the “Brietbarts” and the “OccupyDemocrats” sites and demand real objective news – no editorial without an op-ed, no comment without a rebuttal.  We need to take our minds back before they are lost to us forever. The alternative is slavery.

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“Stay in your Lane.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad?CMP=fb_gu

“Stay in your lane” is a comment referring to a statement or opinion made by a member of a group who has commented on a group “different” from their own, usually the one uttering the title phrase. In North America this is most recently manifesting as the “white” person commenting about a “black” issue and being told to “stay in your lane” – as any such comment, good or bad, is an appropriation of culture or cause. The “white” person should not comment as such a comment rather than being empathetic or sympathetic is, in actuality, offensive as it constitutes appropriation of the culture or experience of the “black” person or group.

Lionel Shriver, the author, gave a speech to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. The text of the speech is provided in full by The Guardian – please follow the link. In her address she outlines the reasons that this type of thinking is wrongheaded when applied to the authors of fiction. I would suggest it is wrongheaded in all occasions. This notion of appropriation, of “staying in your lane” extends to music, politics, and other social forms. Ms. Shrivers speaks to the plight of the author of fiction when confronted with criticism over writing a character that is ethnically, gender, or sexually different than the author. This idiocy would have each of us remain fast to our own experience. Ms. Shrivers lists but a few of the literary works of art that wouldn’t exist if the author had chosen to stay in their lane.

The proponents of identity politics would have us eat our own foods, drink our own drinks. The notion of diversity is not one of separation but sharing and exchange. An author must create characters from life, or be accused of being exclusionary. Likewise, much art is made trite by the tokenism of placing a character of one group or another within the narrative solely to serve as an example of the diversity of the story. As with all things, balance and honesty rule. That does not preclude, as Ms. Shrivers points out, that some authors will do it badly. But, that’s bad writing, not appropriation. There are other aspects to this argument though. Solange Knowles spoke to this in a recent blog that is getting comment and publication on the internet.

http://saintheron.com/featured/and-do-you-belong-i-do/

Solange Knowles has recently posted an essay on her website decrying the challenges of being a black in a “white space.” There are no “white spaces”. However, there are places where one is among many. If that makes the person uncomfortable then soul searching is required. If, however, which is what Ms. Knowles eludes to, one is made to feel uncomfortable solely because that “one” is different, then that is entirely another matter. We should have an expectation of fair treatment. However, should Ms. Knowles have chosen to remain in her lane and not to appropriate “White” German culture by attending a Kraftwerk concert. Of course not. The notion is as idiotic as an author being dragged over the coals for writing a story from the perspective of a woman, if male, or an English character, if South African. Yet, I suspect it is less likely that Ms. Knowles will be accused of appropriation. The accusation of appropriation is no less racist than the purported act. Still, discomfort felt by Solange Knowles by the behaviour of those around her and the criticism of authors who refuse to “stay in their lanes” comes from the same root. That root needs stamping out.

Remembrance Day and the wearing of the poppy

English: A remembrance poppy from Canada, worn...
English: A remembrance poppy from Canada, worn on the lapel of a men’s suit. In many Commonwealth countries, poppies are worn to commemorate soldiers who have died in war, with usage most common in the week leading up to Remembrance Day (and Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand). The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert Fisk doesn’t wear a poppy. He’s not going to glorify murder by the wearing of that ‘wretched flower.’

In Fisk’s view the poppy is a ‘blood drop on our breast.’ He decries remembrance as selective as we do not mourn the fallen of Flodden or the Boer War and led on by an ‘orgiastic’ poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Canadian John McCrae we endorse the murder of more humans by displaying the poppy on our clothing.

Mr. Fisk’s hyperbole aside, does he have a point? For himself certainly, he is of the view that war is murder. He sees such actions as crimes. How could someone so convinced of his own rightness be persuaded to any other viewpoint? They can’t. This is his view. He sees the poppy as a symbol of murder. McCrae is a propagandist of government sponsored and perpetual murder of humans.

In his Op Ed on the subject, (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/poppycock–or-why-remembrance-rituals-make-me-see-red-8927751.html) Fisk outlines his observed hypocrisies and wrongs; he describes the lack of tears for some and the crocodile tears for others all the name of the murder machine that is war, and the sponsorship of it by government. He will not endorse war and murder by wearing such a symbol.

Fisk is a respected journalist. He’s covered war. He must know what he’s talking about or at least, what he’s convinced himself of and stated in his article. Yet, Fisk fails to convince others – an easy majority of readers of his own article disagree with his view. I certainly do.

Fisk’s opinion is founded on the assumption that there is a malicious desire by governments, and for that matter people at large, to actively murder each other and to promote such murder.  His narrow view can’t envision the notion of failed avoidance, mistakes, and state sponsored criminality as a cause for war. This latter case evident in more than one conflict. He is bereft of any notion that lifts sacrifice like that committed by our soldiery to a level where it might be remembered as that – sacrifice – separated from the cause and all the more noble because it was in many cases offered in spite of these causes.

On the eve of the battle of Agincourt in Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare has his character Williams state:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’

Yes, it is the ‘King’s’ fault. The King led these mindless masses time and time again into war, and thus the King is to blame. Let us not celebrate the cruel and murderous King by wearing this wretched flower!

Shakespeare however was not done on the subject and his response, spoken by the disguised Henry, sums up what both ‘Williams’ and Mr. Fisk have forgotten:

“So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him…

…but this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services…

… Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s
soul is his own.”

Mr. Fisk fails to remember that the poppy is the symbol of personal sacrifice – not of the states’, the state’s policies, or the rightness or wrongness of the cause which rendered loss. It is the personal sacrifice of each and every soldier that is represented by the wretched little flower I happily wear on my breast. Mr. Fisk would do well to remember whom Remembrance Day is for and why the poppy is not a symbol of murder, state policy, or some mindless adherence to a poem.

Kind regards,

Stephen Fry is wrong

Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles.
Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The BBC runs a recurring programme called the Intelligence Squared debate. The topic for this particular edition was, ‘this house asserts the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece.’

The Parthenon or Elgin Marbles are friezes taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early eighteen hundreds, after purchasing them from the Ottoman Empire. At the time, Greece was a vassal province of the Ottomans. Elgin saved the marbles from target practice, being ground up for lime, and repurposing as building material. These particular examples reside in the British Museum, one of the three great Museums of the world. There are other examples elsewhere.

Over the past thirty years or so the Greeks have, to varying degrees, demanded and requested the return of the marbles. They have never sought legal action to draw these artefacts from the halls of the British Museum. No court has ruled against British interests in this matter. Ownership has, both in terms of evidentiary proof and preservationist effort, been established as lying with the British Museum.

The arguments for the motion mostly revolve around the promise that a follow on effect of demands from other nations would not occur. Other treasures in the British Museum would not be subject to the call for the return of purported antiquities by nations represented in the Museum.

Mister Fry hung his argument on ‘how classy it would be’ if the Elgin Marbles were returned to Greece. He further embellished his view by comparing the purchase of the Marbles from the Ottoman Empire as to a deal done with Nazis. Really Mister Fry, are you wholly shameless in this politically correct desire to see all rights and wrongs past, set to level on a scale of your own making? ‘Classy’ what exactly is that? It is populist drivel. Yes, it elicits a cheer from the dewy eyed who see former empire as a reason for shame; but, in reality it is hardly a valid viewpoint and certainly insufficient foundation upon which to base both legal and educational policy. Moreover, Mr Fry’s selective view that this only applies to the ‘Marbles’ because ownership is clear (in his mind at least) is ridiculous. Another example brought up in the debate referred to the Rosetta Stone – ‘no one knows who owns that’, proclaims Mister Fry. It was Egyptian, taken by the French and similarly wrested from them by the British. All objects in Museums had ownership at one time or another. Sir, if we are to apply your ‘classy’ logic equally and freely, the halls of every museum would be emptied by the petty desires of local politicians. In their yearning to embellish their own positions by pointing to recovered treasures they, have neither the ability to appreciate or properly care for, they would with the satisfaction of having law on their side, repatriate carefully maintained history to internment as tourist kitsch and devices of political self aggrandisement.

That ancient Greek civilization is the seat of democracy and that Britain likewise the seat of modern democracy, has nothing whatever to do with the Marbles – the assertion there is a debt owed by Britain for this noble example is flawed. Moreover, Mister Fry paints a picture, falsely; that the taking the Marbles is analogous to Britain taking your neighbour’s treasures while his house is on fire, for safe keeping, then refusing to return them upon the departure of the Fire Brigade. No Mister Fry. Britain did not renege on any such arrangement. Regardless of the revisionist history being lofted as the cruel machinations of Lord Elgin, the Greeks were in no position to, nor did they behave in a manner that suggested, they sought to preserve their historic treasures. Centuries of neglect preceded Elgin and no tradition of preservation existed. Elgin saved the Marbles. They are rightly maintained and protected by the British Museum.

Stephen Fry’s pitch however suits the time. There is a strange tendency amongst some to want all to do penance for the past. The British Empire was a cruel and barbarous agency and acts committed by it should be addressed, nay compensated for by today’s government. Pardon? While I would decry certain behaviours of the past as no less cruel and inhumane than those perpetrated today by the likes of Syrian politicians, I would not seek out the resulting progeny of the Iroquois who were provided with Small-pox ridden blankets to dole out millions in compensation any more than such a claim would hold validity in a court. Our lesson from these behaviours is prevention and we have no guilt to bear lest we permit the reoccurrence of such atrocities.

Stephen Fry is wrong, to return the Marbles will set a policy and legal precedent that will see the Machiavellian efforts of tin-pot dictators and local politicos trump sensibility and obtain the return of artefacts preserved with care for decades. Mr. Fry and his followers fail to recognise the understanding garnered from these efforts, the otherwise impenetrable barriers lifted due to this gathering and study. It is folly to return the Marbles or any other artefacts to boost Greek tourism or prestige. The former will not save Greece its debt and the latter will not be restored by displaying stones from a temple long left to rot by the predecessors of those who now claim their value.

I have a great deal of respect for Mister Fry. He is clever in the best sense of the word. In this matter however he has been short sighted, succumbing to a populism that frankly should be a serious concern for all. It is a failing to condemn the past in lieu of establishing the preventions needed for the future. Populism encourages this self-flagellation. It is unhealthy. Surrendering our protections of antiquities for the sake of populism and political correctness is wrong and must be stopped.

The result of the debate – For the motion a significant win! – Populism wins over common sense. Mister Fry tweeted – ‘Justice for Greece’. Hogwash, more grease for the populist wheel.

Kind regards,

Libya, and three lessons from Robert McNamara and the Fog of War:

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Ca...
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence (1961-1968) - Image via Wikipedia

I have been struggling for some time now to find something sensible to say about Libya. One of the constraints I have set myself has been to try to avoid heaping criticism upon the West for their involvement in the first place, or NATO for providing so clear a sense of why the organisation is in need of reconstitution and serious self-examination.

Having taken a dim view of the enterprise in the first place, one might be forgiven for believing I may have some ‘sour grapes’ over the success of the endeavour. From the West’s perspective, it has been a success. It would be disingenuous to fail to admit it. NATO’s ultimate achievement has been positive and from the perspective of effects on the ground well executed. For my part, I have to confess the result is thus far impressive and the absence of Colonel Gaddafi from Libya’s government is a definite good.

The application of power by the West, in this instance, has provided regime change without all the inherent destruction, post conflict looting and murder, and sectarian violence that plagued Iraq. In the case of the latter, the Administration of George W. Bush failed to understand or plan for the transition of Iraq from dictatorship to democracy. Stripping the nation of its political infrastructure, military, and police resulted in chaos. Yet, unlike Iraq, the Libyan venture is one where the West is acting in support of a rebellion, albeit one thrown together due to the euphoria created by some surrounding nations’ more or less peaceful ousters of oppressive governments. The rebels, as disjointed as they were, provided the West with something much needed in Libya, absent in Iraq, a downtrodden group to support. In Iraq, it was impossible to side with the Shi’ites without alienating the Kurds, or to demonise the Sunnis and create further division. In Libya, the ability to support the rebellion – a nonpartisan (apparently) group, permitted a politically expedient lie to serve as an impetus for the ultimate good, being the removal of Gaddafi.

“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” – Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson.

UN Resolution 1973 was enacted to protect civilians in Libya from undue harm by the regime. This was accomplished in the very early days after the ratification of the resolution by stopping Government forces from attacking Benghazi. After that accomplishment, NATO became the Air Arm of the rebels, tactically striking Government positions, nullifying their advantage on the ground, and making regime change through rebellion possible. This was far outside the scope of service agreed by NATO supporting nations. As well, it is clear this limitation was never intended to curtail NATO strikes. So, under false pretence NATO went to War on the side of the Rebels. The result, as we see is the removal of a dictator – surely a good.

“Proportionality should be a guide in War.” – Robert McNamara

Either by design or fortune, NATO has taken the words of Robert McNamara to heart. NATO airstrikes, easily demonstrable as being in excess of the mandate, were surgical, tactical, and effective. Moreover, they minimised civilian – that is to say non-combatant – casualties. This restraint is praise worthy. While it may annoy the Russians and the Chinese whose opposition to the resolution (which was withheld as neither attempted to veto it), the fact of the matter is the use of air power in this instance has been wholly responsible for permitting an under equipped, under-trained, and tenuously organised force to overwhelm a standing army. Luck and design has combined to provide a positive outcome.

Progressively, the rebels became better organised and armed. This is largely due to NATO personnel on the ground (we assume secretly) and the delivery of arms – admittedly from the French, and perhaps from others. In concert, Airstrikes and the fundamental breakdown of the Libyan army resulted in a sudden collapse, after significant bloodshed. Tripoli was taken with limited fighting and the remainder of government forces are either deserting or insignificant. The rebels have won. All that remains now is mopping up remaining clusters of hard line supporters of the Colonel.

This is the critical point of the conflict. Libya’s rebels, now in a position to form a Government, are the victors. NATO and the West are not. This should not be taken as a lack of recognition by the new Libyan Government – in fact, quite the opposite. But two key actions by this new government are telling.

The first: The New Libyan Government has said no – and rightly so, to UN Peacekeeping boots on the ground.

The second: The have recognised those who supported them and those who didn’t.

These two decisions are representative of something the West needs to understand. It is time to gracefully step back from the conflict and allow Libya to find its way. Support offered cannot be imposed without undoing the good created through NATO’s efforts. Transforming the current state into a factional and violent parody of Iraq serves no one. As well, this opportunity has provided the West with a positive result from actions in the Middle East. These have been few and far between in the last decade.

On the first decision, keeping foreign troops off Libyan soil is critical to the legitimacy of the new government. This government benefits from the fact that none of its members were appointed by Western powers. Demonstrating control and imposing authority from Tripoli over the whole of the country will not come from without. Rather, the difficult task of uniting the patchwork makeup of Libya’s former Rebels into a government will be difficult enough without having to justify or endure foreign soldiers on street corners. Thus far, the new government has managed well, insisting the population remembers this is their country, looting and raiding of government facilities has been minimised, and essentially non-existent. The police are already on the streets in Tripoli, restored soon after the city’s fall to the rebels. These are good signs, albeit very early in the process.

The second decision is recognition of the West, and those Middle-Eastern nations who supported the rebellion and a signal to those who would have supported the Colonel. It is good for Western self-confidence and optics that it has come out on the positive side of a Middle Eastern conflict and Russian and China have not. This may sound petty, but frankly the scales have been far out of balance over the last decade and righting them is something that needs doing. The world operates better with a balance between East and West. This is a good start. Further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq will contribute more. Peaceful support for Tunisia and Egypt will also contribute.

On the negative side, one could begin a long series of speculations on how the West will make a mess of this positive and fail to deliver on the promise of support for Arabs and the Arab spring. Yet, while there are serious risks, they haven’t emerged yet, and may not. The risk of hawkish or isolationist future US President’s aside, and a second dip in the EU economy occurring should not minimise this moment of success and opportunity. Nor is it certain these risks will occur, or even if they do limit the ability of the Middle East to stabilise.

Taking another tip from Robert McNamara, the West should: “Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.”

While this latest intervention has gone largely well, it would be wrong to suggest this success is the portent of a new paradigm in Western intervention and support for democratic nation building. The West needs to re-think is role. Given economic and political challenges, this is both sensible and likely shall yield better results than presupposing a magic bullet has been found to addressing dictatorial regimes.

By comparison to past behaviour, Western application of power in this matter has been restrained, credible, and carefully applied. I freely admit I was wrong to presume this would degenerate into a ground war, ending in another Afghan or Iraqi outcome, that is to say, years of pain before progress is observed.

The US back seat in this has been a key factor in the success of this mission. On the face of it, the US has reputational issues that very well may have limited their effectiveness, secondly it is right that the US expects its NATO allies to step up and lead where they can. True, some of their NATO partners are decidedly dependent upon US help, supplies, and intelligence. Still, expecting others to tow the burden is not unreasonable. In this, both the US and NATO need a further coming together.

As we go forward, watching the turns and twists of events in Libya, it is possible at this moment to suggest and hope it will all work out. In saying this, it is still possible to be optimistic. All the players are saying, and seemingly doing the right things. The West remains restrained, the new Libyan Government seems focused on its people, and the Colonel remains in hiding, sending out the occasional tirade and series of ineffectual threats. He has become a parody. If he remains so, for a while at least, it may serve the New Government more than his capture or death. Competence is always highlighted to a greater degree in the presence of a clown – even a cruel and murderous one such as Gaddafi.

Kind regards,

Public Sector Unions – Challenged by tradition

A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford du...
A strike in Oxford - Image via Wikipedia

Public Sector Unions throughout the Western world are coming under scrutiny. The protests and conflict in the Northern US is not characteristic solely of the US or its spate of polarised politics. Canada, Britain, Germany, France, and the US are faced with serious debt, serious economic challenges, and there are, or should be, no areas where serious review and evaluation should not take place.

At stake is not merely the notion that expenditure should be cut. That would be both imprudent and likely result in the fate of all blindly executed efforts to cut budgets, a reduction in quality and service. Rather than simply reducing costs obtaining value for money is really what needs to be obtained and validated.

While the public suffers under the yoke of lost savings, increased gas and heating oil prices, and diminished opportunities, public sector unions have unwisely chosen to try and hold the line on the benefits they have accrued over years of boom times.  Unwillingness by civil service management to confront the Unions without the support of politicians, who often depend either on the support or avoiding the anger of unions during elections, has in large part contributed to the state government finds itself. This battle between the Unions and Government has been a long time coming. Sadly the accumulated bile on both sides of the argument is likely to be a disservice to both.

While the heads of governments have realised the challenges and risks associated with these times; the Unions supporting the Public Sector have largely missed this recognition of the need for change, at least in themselves.

Certainly there are different ways of addressing the challenges the economic crash has presented to Western Nations. While each side of the political spectrum may agree or disagree with government action, it is universally agreed that action is demanded.

Cognitive dissonance in the collective minds of Public Sector Unions is a profound failing. That action should happen, but not to us, is the view of many union leaders and a disservice to the public they serve and the membership they claim to support.

While it is within the purview of a Union to negotiate the best deal possible for its membership, it is unreasonable to presume that in times of austerity due to calamity as we face now, that these members should be spared any inconvenience. Reduction in pay, or other compensation, a lack of increases should be considered both sensible and inevitable. Yet, more is needed. Public Sector Unions need to rethink their role and that of their membership. They need to consider and strive for value.

While there is a practicality and sensibility to collective bargaining, it cannot undermine the budgets and fiscal responsibilities of the governments supported by the Unions. Collective Bargaining is a negotiating tool, representing many as one. It is not, nor was it meant to be a means of holding hostage public interest and extracting unreasonable compensation regardless of performance.

Pay for performance is universally a fear of Public Sector Unions. It must not remain so. In the private sector the notion of pay for performance is well known and practiced. While it may be trite to say, it is unfair to presume that anyone least of all the public tax payer should see their tax dollars doled out without regard for value. This should be the first and foremost concession made by unions. To achieve this however, union membership must shed some traditions that once were foundational to their operating mantra.

First among these is mandatory membership. Unions should not be able to impose membership and thereby a structure of seniority and permanence on potential participants. Some might argue that without mandatory membership, Unions would be impotent and unable to support the employees they are intended to represent. Yet, this would presume that constant representation was required. It is not. In fact, it is largely this very notion that has created an adversarial relationship between management and staff that has caused this disparity in private/public sector compensation, sensibility, and effectiveness.

While there was a time when labour was grossly abused by oligarch like management practices and there were no small justifications for a strong union to protect workers, those days are largely over and labour laws have taken the place of the picket line. Now, strikes are not about workers rights and fair treatment, but money and benefits.

Recognising that any employer should obtain a full day’s work for a full day’s pay is the baseline for employment. Unions should be equally interested in removing poor performing members as employers. In fact, if Unions took the view that poor performance reflects badly upon all members of the union, there would be less tolerance amongst union membership and fewer hurdles to the removal of lacklustre performers. However, more important is rewarding good performance, the encouragement of staff to strive to greater achievement and the fostering of innovation. It is wrong headed to believe that simply because a worker is employed by the government and thereby the ‘taxpayer’ that he or she should not be rewarded for good performance. In fact, it should be insisted upon. Through years of resistance to performance reviews and assessments, unions have created in reality and impression the image of a grasping, passive-aggressive lump occupying a seat with the full knowledge that no force in the universe short of a full pension can evict them. This impression undermines both the dedicated workers who do make a positive and consistent effort, but also creates an environment of drudgery and barriers to success. Managers do what staff could do because they lack faith in the quality of work they will receive. Staff members are unable to take on greater responsibility because a ‘brother’ union member will report their failure to abide by the collective agreement. Unions have come to be an impediment to their own success.

Unions of course did not turn out this way alone.

Management practice needs to change as well. Staff development, career planning, training, objective setting, review, assessment, and strategic planning are skill sets that are seldom practiced in the government workplace – at least in tandem. However, changes to how management deals with the Unions must also be developed. In fact, many structures are already in place. Governments are familiar with the request for proposal and bidding processes. Unions should be enabled, with management support, to ‘bid’ on work within the government, new projects, and to propose new innovations. Management should partner with union members to form teams to address both the ongoing services and new innovations.

Yet, its unlikely in the short term these two groups will come together voluntarily. Where then is the catalyst for such innovative thinking?

It should be with politicians.

The application of a new strategic relationship between management and staff in government departments and agencies is key to finding a reasonable accommodation between the need for fiscal responsibility and value, and the kind of positive employment experience that Unions often talk about, but seemingly seek to undermine. Politicians have a responsibility to focus on the strategic, on the long-term benefit. Yet, this would require courage on their part to potentially risk missing the short-term benefits that can be easily pointed to during election time. Hobbling the Unions today will play will at the next election, but likely not afterwards and in the election following. Short-term thinking should not be a quality of political office.

Lastly, if unions are to remain viable, then they should off load the cost of pensions and healthcare from their employers and take on the responsibility for providing these services for their membership. These opt-in services would permit the Unions to demonstrate an important aspect of corporate citizenry that they do not today. As part of a pay for performance culture, union members would be keen to provide viable and value added services; through these, they would create security and capability for their employees. As well, they would remove the administrative burden from government of managing health care and pensions. While this would not necessarily result in lower wages, it would lower overhead operating costs for governments. In addition, it would provide workers with greater control over their pensions and healthcare, without being seen as a burden to the taxpayer.

While efficiency may result in a reduction of overall staffing, unions – like management will need to adapt. Moreover, unions and management will need to focus on core services and capability. Those services that are niche based, may enable former union members to offer up services to government, as part of outsource and contract agreements.

Yet, this is an effort that will require courage, motivation, and perhaps years to fully leverage.  Whether the politicians can set aside their rhetoric, management it’s ignorance, and unions their unnecessary antagonism is debatable. Certainly, the kind of talk that is going on today in places like Britain, the US, and France suggest that the time is not ripe for such innovation. As such, the results may be imposed to the detriment of all involved.

Kind regards,

 

On Huckleberry Finn, Words, and ‘Splendid’

Cover of "The Adventures of Huckleberry F...
Cover via Amazon

I like the word splendid. Recently, in a previous post I was presented with the opportunity to use ‘Splendid’ in a sentence. I have to confess to a certain gratification, a sense of overall satisfaction bestowed upon me by the simple fact that I could use a word I seldom pull from my lexicon. Splendid.

Words can be wonderful fun. Sitting listening to a well-spoken, cleverly delivered speech, an interview where two quick witted participants fence, or merely engaging in a cross the counter chat at the local ‘In and Out’ store can deliver unto the listener a comforting and reassuring impression that the world is indeed not falling into decay or the intellectual abyss.  Having a pleasant read, allowing one’s self to happily become caught up in the text is a wonderful escape.

Clothes – another word I like almost as well as splendid. I find I like to ‘say’ clothes rather than read it. Say it with me slowly, ‘Clothes’. It has a certain ‘Sound Sex’ to quote Stephen Fry, a kind of sensual single syllable, multi-syllabic-ness that seems to suggest there’s more to the word than appears in the simple enunciation of it.

Taken on their own, words are wonderful.

Of course, words don’t stay alone; they congregate at the whim of the author or speaker. They band together in one instance like a chorus, in another like a mob. They are the framework upon which ideas are mounted, or the gallows from which condemnation hangs.

I like words. I find most of them appealing and can’t, for the life of me, think of one word I don’t like. No matter how crass, impolitic, rough-hewn, or degenerate no one word strikes me as bad. Even the favoured swear words have their place in the lexicon. The words that are banned or replaced in favour of political correctness have a special place. It is a failing to presume there is any other word that so completely and utterly sums up the degradation, history of abuse, demoralisation, and contempt that is embodied in the word: ‘Nigger.’ Slave doesn’t cut it, though ‘slave’ is a perfectly good word. Slave is not the ‘right’ word; nor is it in this context the ‘correct’ word. In the newest edition of the classic Huckleberry Finn, words deemed ‘offensive’ have been replaced with words that apparently won’t offend. No thought has been given by the professor, who came up with these changes to the offense caused by so completely altering the meaning of the book, the story. By exchanging the word ‘Nigger’ for the word ‘Slave’, he has inexorably pulled a filter, a gauze of acceptability over what is intended to be a word that rankles the throat, that sticks there with every utterance and permanently etches the fact of human abuse of another human into the reader’s mind. No one can read the original text of Huckleberry Finn and come away with any impression other than a negative one of the notion and practice infused in a nation that would brand those among it: ‘Nigger.’

As I said, I like all words. Yet, I recognise there are some that should only be pulled from the shelves of vocabulary with the greatest care and others that while contextually correct in by-gone days, should be left aside from modern usage save in reflection of those past times as a reminder of how conditions were. One cannot retroactively make an era polite and inoffensive by changing the words of that era. In fact, it is sometime prudent to pull out and dust off these callously used words. It does us well to be reminded sometimes of who we once were.

Words are reflections of ideas and while I would never advocate their careless and unfeeling use, there are times when the blunt instrument is the right one. However, we need not dwell on any one word. There are thousands to choose from. We are blessed with a dictionary so overpopulated with words that one could clog the synapses with the excessive use of their verbal and written chewiness. Words are egalitarian. They, and nothing else, deserve to be referred to as such. Anyone can use words; they have only their desire and willingness to stop them. While there are great words and little ones, right words, and correct words, there are no wrong words. I have said in the past, and others have said it better, context is all. There is a word for every moment and every audience.  Words should be used without fear.

Despite this wondrous freedom words provide and the blessings of those whose nations recognise the notion and fact of ‘Freedom of Speech’, some words should be used with care. Fair enough, as with all things forethought is always a good thing. However, if at all possible, use them all. Embellish and exaggerate. Use great heaping spoonfuls of words to dress and ornament your ideas. Buttress your notions with arching terminology, with the rich and sturdy descriptors that have through the ages been accumulated for liberal use. Grow your idea in the fertile earth of variety.

In the end, it all comes down to words. What will you say? What will people say about you? What will they say when you are gone and all that remains are the words you have left behind, the masses of them in terms and phrases, advice, and thoughts strung together over a lifetime spent using them. I can only think of one word I would hope for, ‘Splendid.’

Kind regards,