Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Book Review – Rutger Bregman, Humankind

illustrationI was going to start with what I dislike about this book, but that would be contrary to its whole ethos. I had in my head that there was something opportunist in Bregman’s prose, and hence the man himself. I have to say that this book could be life-changing, or in the case of oldies like me, a bit of a booster, like one gets to top up a vaccine every now and again. In life I can see myself slipping into pure cynicism. Bregman is a check on that. So I am going to change the criticism to give readers some idea of how I should be thinking rather than the way that I have come to think.

So, here is the re-writing of my original first paragraph (I’ve moved what was the original first paragraph to the end of the review for anyone who is remotely interested).

Regular readers know that I do not watch much television, though I did when I was a child. As I got older and was allowed to stay upillustration later and watch adult television, my father insisted that we watch documentaries rather than sit-coms and soaps (we’re talking the 1970s). The format was always the same: an expert or knowledgeable person (or both, James Burke, right), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense, even then. With hindsight, one of the reasons for the no frills was limited bandwidth. Broadcasting hours were fewer back then, and there were no specialist stations. It was broadcasting in the true sense. There was insufficient airtime to waste on unnecessary graphics, or choreography. In recent times, I have been reading much more than I used to – the pandemic has helped. I have noticed a style of writing in popular non-fiction (a genre that I have traditionally avoided out of snobbery). It is akin to current TV documentary style. There’s a soundtrack, an extended narrative with cliffhangers and expansive prose. I realise that this book in this style is not produced for me. Though if it gets people engaged with science, current affairs, art, philosophy, then all well and good.

SONY DSC

I started reading this book, not because I want to be convinced at how kind humans can be – which is the point of the book – but because I know Bregman is an important commentator. I finished it, incidentally, because I wanted to be convinced of how kind humans can be. Bregman made a big splash at Davos in 2020 in telling rich people that they should pay their taxes, and in the US when he took on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. He is not going away in a hurry. I commend him for that because ultimately he is on the right side of history, albeit a white history. But the style of writing is not entirely to my liking but I know this view is not shared!

The first part of the book seeks to debunk the hypothesis that there is a human predilection to violence and being beastly to one another. I have not checked the veracity of many of the claims made in the book, but here are a few that I really want to be true:

  • blanket bombing of populations in war does not result in the surrender of those subject to it
  • soldiers do not like shooting at other soldiers, even if they are deemed to be the enemy
  • Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction; left to their own devices, boys will create order and manage their way through
  • the people of Easter Island did not engage in tribal warfare that decimated the population (colonialists did that)
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment was a contrived hoax to enhance the reputation of social psychology and academics

illustrationThe philosophers at the heart of Bregman’s analysis are Hobbes and Rousseau. The Hobbesian world is that of the Leviathan – the human need for strong leaders, discipline and order to prevent a state of chaos, barbarism and cruelty. The Rousseau-ian world is one of the social contract, cooperation and common interests regulating behaviour. Bregman makes the argument that it all started going wrong when private property was conceived, when people – who became powerful and rich – were able to enclose common land and exploit it for private gain. These people built a civilisation on slavery, private property and the exploitation of natural resources. This has been a theme of other books that I have recently read; namely, Adreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain.

There’s a chapter on Stanley Milgram and the “shock machine” – an experiment in 1961 where volunteers administered electric shocks of up-to 450 volts to so-called “learners” in an adjacent room. Milgram was Jewish and, claims Bregman, devised the study to to offer an explanation for the Holocaust. People follow orders, hypothesised Milgram, irrespective of the implications, genocide being one of them. All is not, however, as it seems. Bregman argues that the experiment did not test obedience, as stated, rather it tested goodness! The subjects, although paid, participated because they believed that the research would result in a contribution to knowledge. An explanation for the Holocaust was a worthy study. There was trust in the research and people in white coats who kept insisting that they needed to continue to administer the electric shocks for the research to be valid.

It was also the time of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Bregman’s case for human kindness could not exclude a discussion on the Holocaust. I do not have the authority or knowledge to engage with the terms of Eichmann’s guilt. What is recorded is that Eichmann presented himself as someone who just followed orders. Hannah Arendt who witnessed the trial first hand coined the term, banality of evil, to capture the essence of the Eichmann phenomenon as she saw it from the courtroom. There is much debate about exactly what she meant, though it was largely interpreted as her accepting Eichmann’s defence. Bregman concludes that Eichmann’s motive for his actions was actually a commitment to a cause that he believed would lead to a better society, however perverted.

What about the German citizenry who fought to the very end of the war, despite the inevitability of both the eastern and western fronts being breached? The evidence points to camaraderie, argues Bregman, rather than ideology as the cause of seemingly pointless resistance.

More optimism

Bregman takes us with him to visit some interesting people. For example  trained nurse and economics degree dropout, Jos de Blok (right), not someone I’d previously been aware of. He runs a large healthcare company in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg. He does this not by dillustrationesign, but as a consequence of working in the sector and realising that it the care service was not fit-for-purpose. Care is not delivered optimally as a product (i.e. commoditised) and by people who get their orders hierarchically, rather by people who work in small autonomous teams. De Blok is not unknown; he is in receipt of the the Royal Society of Arts’ Albert Medal. Previous recipients of this medal have been Stephen Hawking (physicist), Tim Berners-Lee (the www) and Francis Crick (DNA). So, he’s in good company.

Then there is the story of the transition of South Africa from Apartheid state to inclusive democracy under Nelson Mandela. The period between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the presidential election in 1994 was precarious. I was aware of the ugliness of Eugène Terre ‘Blanche and his Afrikaner Volksfront. I was not aware of the Viljoen twins. The family resource meant that only one of them could go to university. Constand said that brother Abraham should go. Constand (left) joined the army and became a senior officer in the South African Defence Force in Apartheid South Africa. Abraham studied abroad and found himself irreconcilably parted from his brother and aligned with the ANC and Mandela. Constand joined Terre ‘Blanche. I’ll leave it there – it is worth reading the book just for this section and only goes to raise my emotions. Mandela is the leader that we all need.

If any reader thinks that I have covered everything in this book, I have not. It is packed with ideas about positive reforms: education, democratic, penal, protest and warfare! The protest issue is so pertinent as I write at a time when the USA is convulsed by the racist Murder of George Floyd. Drawing on a study by American sociologist, Erica Chenoweth: “In the real world, she thought, power is exercised through the barrel of a gun. To prove it, she created a huge  database of resistance movement going back to 1990. ‘Then I ran the numbers,’ she wrote in 2014. ‘I was shocked.’ More than 50 per cent of the nonviolent campaigns were successful, as opposed to 26 per cent of the militant ones. The primary reason, Chenoweth established, is that more people join nonviolent campaigns. On average over eleven times more. And not just guys with too much testosterone, but also women and children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Regimes just aren’t equipped to withstand such multitudes. That’s how good overpowers evil – by outnumbering it.” (p359). At a time of Covid-19, however, maybe not.

Bregman keeps caveating his narrative with admissions of imperfection in the characters and methods he presents. Deliberative democracy works sometimes, not others. There are some truly bad people around – power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely in Lord Acton’s famous phrase. But Bregman is right, too, that if we treat one another badly in our places of work, jails, schools, communities, we cannot be surprised if it is reciprocated. We have seen during the pandemic real goodness in people, communities coming together to help one another and even the act of self-isolating and observing the lockdown are unexpected demonstrations of togetherness. Let us try to retain some of that as we move on, starting with the rewriting of my first paragraph.

Here is the original first paragraph:

The more I have been reading recently, the more I have seen this style of writing. Now, I do not watch much television these days. But when I was growing up – I know I keep going on about this – television documentaries used to have an expert or knowledgeable person (or both), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense. One of the reasons for this succinctness, I imagine, was limited bandwidth. TV programmes did not start showing until late afternoon and TV stations shut down by midnight, apart from at the weekend. And then it was half-past midnight. There was such a shortage of airtime, so every minute mattered. Hence the quality of the output. Bregman’s book is a documentary with music, and is excrutiating for it. Moreover, it is extremely patronising: “This may get a little technical, but we need to understand where he went wrong” (p88). It then proceeds to be not very technical.

Pictures:

Bregman: Victor van Werkhooven

James Burke: https://archive.org/details/james-burke-connections_s01e10

Jos de Blok: https://www.josdeblok.com/biography/

Constand Viljoen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constand_Viljoen

 

 

 

Pillar boxes and buses

On 21 March I uploaded my first pictures from my new project, Pillar Boxes and Buses. So, the challenge is, photograph UK pillar boxes with the added challenge of getting a bus, preferably one that is moving, inpillarbox the frame, too. My latest reel of film came back today with mixed results. First is a curious box – it is actually embedded into a gatepost of one of the large houses on Marina, in St Leonard’s on Sea, Sussex. Currently there is one bus per hour in each direction on the 99 route. The shot has the added complication of lots of parked cars and scaffolding. The results are not great (right) but I’ll be back with a faster film that should help with the depth of view (50mm lens, 200asa film and shutter speed of 250th sec f11; 2 April 2020 at 1830). The bus is a ADL Enviro200. The Stagecoach Hastings fleet can be found here.

pillar boxMoving on to Rock-a-nore in Hastings. This one (left) is a free standing GR VI box taken on 21 March in the early evening. There was just not enough light to get the shutter speed fast enough to catch the bus, but actually the motion is quite good. The bus in question was a ADL Enviro200 (Hastings Arrows livery).

 

 

Then on to a box that has been intriguing me for a few days. It is located on Hastings Road in Bexhill close to the Ravensdale trading estate. What is so wonderful about this box is that at a certain time in the day, the sun illuminates it like a spotlight on a performer in a theatre. So, to do it justice I needed a sunny evening and no one really in the way (it is popular with joggers, though I am not sure why. This effort (top right) dates from 24 April at 1845, again with a shutter speed of 250th second, f11, film speed 200 asa. The two additional shots are taken at the same time on the two subsequent evenings. pillar boxpillarpillar
pillar box Next is me revisiting the relatively small free-standing box outside the now dis-used post office on Cambridge Road in Hastings As noted in my earlier entry in November, it serves as a reminder of how post offices are being assimilated into more traditional retail outlets – for better or worse. Anyway, here it is with a bus in the background which I take to be a Scania N230UD ADL Enviro400!
Still in Hastings, this is Queen’s Road, a central loading area opposite Priory Meadow Mall. The box is classic ER Type B. The buses, Scania N230UD ADL Enviro400 (double decker) and ADL Enviro200 (Hastings Arrows livery). pillar
pillar I work in Brighton, and the bus-pillar box opportunities there are substantial. This is the Avenue off Lewes Road in the North East of the town. The box is a classic GR example. The bus is a Volvo Wright Gemini B9TL DP43/28F Built 2013.  Anyone interested in the B&H fleet should go here.

I have a bit of research to do on my pillar boxes now. Some have design names, others seem not to. If I am going to do this right, I need to be adequately informed.

My new photographic project

I got out my Minolta X-300 (left) the other day. There was a film in it; about 10 frames left. Having been on strike for part of the previous month, a bit of photography, I thought, would be cathartic. I took a few pictures of fellow strikers, but pictures of marches are not really very interesting. On this blog I have managed to get quite a following around my photographs of cigarette posters over the last 8 years. One aspect of that is how ephemeral they are. A campaign poster can be up for as little as a fortnight, and then it is gone. So I have captured a record of something that is no more; though the original plan was simply to ridicule the concept of cigarette advertising, not to create a repository of advertising posters. But there you go.

It made me think about other ephemeral things in society. I wish, probably like many others, that I had captured more images of normal life throughout my time (I’m now 55) living in the UK; many of the things that we thought were permanent were not. And things are still changing. I gave some thought to the ephemerality around me. What have I taken for granted and may disappear in the not too distant future? The answer, pillar boxes! So, I began photographing pillar boxes. For those of you reading from abroad, a pillar box is a place to post letters – essentially, hand them over to the post office to deliver to whoever. A service very much in decline.

ER Pillar box, Marina, Hastings, 13 March, 2020

I discovered that many of the very solid steel ones are being replaced. There is an old grand post office building here in Hastings, UK (right) where the boxes have been replaced by much smaller versions reflecting less traffic but also the relocation of the main post- office counter. So, I think, perhaps, that it is about time that I captured the variety of pillar boxes with my camera. However, that does not seem enough. Then I came up with the idea that I should try to combine pillar boxes and another passion of mine – and something else that is ephemeral – buses. I’ve started with the shot (left). With a film camera, it is tougher than it looks. The bus passes a pace, the light has to be sufficient and in the right place. But as a first effort, I’m quite pleased with the result.

The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.

References:

Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO

Women Fashion Power – Design Museum, London (part 2)

DSCF0981The second part of the show continues the chronology but also introduces biography. So for example, various designers are introduced; notably Coco Chanel on the one hand, and Vivienne Westwood on the other. Chanel drew her inspiration from the functional male wardrobe including cardigans, waistcoats, tweeds, trousers, cufflinks, etc. Not forgetting her iconic Little Black Dress of 1926 (left is a version of the LBD from Chanel’s chief designer, Karl Lagerfeld of 1991).

There are some lovely garments capturing the ‘flapper’ period in the 1920s. This seems to have been a opportunity to work shoes into the story. Even I was taken by some of them (see right)DSCF0962.

DSCF0964Elsa Schiaparelli, a name with which I was not familiar before the exhibition, designed on the basis that clothes had to be architectural. The body should never be forgotten and must be used as a frame as used in a building. Whilst I am not entirely sure what this means, and hence convinced, she had a most exquisite jewellery box (left).

Zips arrived in the 1930s along with Rayon, a cheap alternative to silk. There is a whole section on nylon stockings, naturally! And then on to Dior’s so-called New Look. This was, of course, an old look and reverted back to hour-glass figures and generated a market for ‘waspie’ corsets, with Triumph International leading the market.

The 1930s also saw the influence of Hollywood. Female stars were becoming important figures for designers to be associated with. Their ability to popularise designs is familiar to us today. Madeleine Vionnet is credited in the exhibition for introducing the bias cut enabling a flattering cling of clothes to the body and a further release from strict undergarments enabling ever-more revealing evening wear to be worn by the stars. Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis are three of the stars featured.

DSCF0970However, these clothes were still out-of-reach for many women. Publishing houses like Condé Nast guided women in the art of dressmaking and the Hollywood Pattern Company sold patterns to make the stars’ dresses at home (left). All that was needed was a sewing machine.

This link with fashion, entertainment, industry and machines is fascinating. The power, element, however, short of progressive loosening of undergarments, is less well articulated. The re-emergence of the corset in the 1940s indicates how fashion has power over women rather than the other way around. One way of getting round this for the curators of the DSCF0974exhibition is to dedicate a large section to the dress selection of modern powerful women. A couple of dozen women – for example, designers Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, lawyer Shami Chakrabarti, journalist Kirsty Walk, children’s campaigner Camila Batmangehlidjh – donate a garment and explain why it is important to them. This is a bit self-indulgent, a bit of a filler. That said, as the picture (right) shows, one can get up really close to the garments and look at that stitching.

I would say visitors need at least 2 hours to do the exhibition justice. There is a café in the museum, it is worth visiting half-way through to recharge. There is a lot of information to process. A break is needed.

Germany: Memories of a nation exhibition at the British Museum

GermanyNaturally, this exhibition displays an authentic VW Beetle; though you do not need to pay the £10 admission fee to see it. It merely entices visitors in.

First, let me say that I went with my German partner. Her endorsement of the exhibition is praise indeed, knowing all too well that the English, particularly, focus on the country’s Nazi past. This exhibition has something else important to say about the German Nation’s history.

Okay, now to a few quibbles. First, normally I expect to be able to take photographs in an exhibition, not least to upload to this blog. But,book here, photography is not allowed. And it is enforced. One assumes this is to protect the value of the accompanying products that one can buy in the shop including Neil MacGregor’s thick tome (right).

Second, the British Museum is huge. For some reason, the powers that be at the Museum have located this exhibition in, what amounts to, a cupboard. The space is far too small not only for the numbers of visitors, but also the exhibits themselves. And for some inexplicable reason, the British Museum does not seem to have learned too much about exhibiting.

For example, in the years of German hyperinflation, German towns produced their own currencies -they being as valuable as the national currency. Such is the nature of hyperinflation. The towns printed their own bank notes. They were often colourfully printed with very particular designs. In essence, they demanded a very close scrutiny. But the museum has made it virtually impossible to scrutinise these artefacts. They are locked in a glass case set against a wall. They are three or four abreast. Unless one is 2 metres tall, inspecting the detail is impossible.

Strasbourg_clockAnd even those artefacts that are not in glass cases (most seem to be), they are not exhibited at the height that best suits most of us. Take, for example, the exquisite Strasbourg Clock (left). This image features Neil MacGregor, the boss of the British Museum and the author of the book and presenter of the 30-part BBC radio series accompanying the exhibition. The clock enjoys amazing detail in terms of figures and engravings over-and-above the feat of timekeeping technology that makes it work. And rest assured, it is amazing. But actually, I saw more of it on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p028bdxq) than I did at the exhibition. I’m just not tall enough.