Lacerating laughter

The American writer T.S. Eliot has been on my mind recently. Preparing a farewell address for my mother to be spoken at the crematorium I decided to conclude with some lines from the Four Quartets, about endings, beginnings and discovering greater knowledge. I have always appreciated his melancholic reflections on the upsides and downsides of human behaviour.

After the funeral I watched some YouTube videos showing the tragic antics of the fool who is currently President of the United States of America. Somewhat extraordinary stupidity was on display in front of the assembled dignitaries at the United Nations in New York, where the President’s boasting and lies prompted a wave of laughter from the audience! Imagine, the supposedly most powerful person on the planet, ridiculed and humiliated by the representatives of almost all other nations, unable to restrain themselves when confronted with the farcical spectacle of a crass mobster telling them that his country is great… Imagine, in the same speech the man not only attacked the Iranian government, the Chinese and other ”socialists” – fairly standard stuff from the “leader of the free world” – he also praised his good friend ”the Chairman” of North Korea (Kim Jong-un), a bloodthirsty and vicious dictator if ever there was one. What values and beliefs has he signed up to, if any?

In reporting from the United Nations session, the American TV channel Fox News – to which Mr. Trumpet is apparently addicted – erased the laughter of the delegates to make the President seem less foolish. Like all the best propaganda machines the people at Fox News know that it is important to manage the truth…

Then, on further reflection I realised that the whole performance disgusted me. As Eliot wrote, one of the gifts reserved for old age is ”the laceration of laughter at what ceases to amuse.” In one sense I know that the best way to confront the absurdity of a president going off the rails is to chortle and smile, to expose his narcissism and delusional rhetoric. On the other hand, the awful truth is that behind the scenes, an odd bunch of white supremacists, “patriots” (sic) and conservative warmongers appear to be gearing up for a showdown, which won’t be a laughing matter.

Equally disturbing is that the Republicans and Trumped up lost the US election in 2016 by over 3 million votes, but still took over “the administration” due to an anachronistic electoral system. To round off their disrespect for the law and to demonstrate that they have no principles, the President has nominated a judge to serve on the Supreme Court who has attempted rape on his conscience. T.S. Eliot was right, in these circumstances laughter only lacerates, as the old men in the Grand Old Party have long since ceased to amuse.

 

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A positive spin on the Swedish election result in September 2018

The first time I travelled through Copenhagen in December 1980 I was en route to Sweden. My caravan has toured different regions of the country many times since then, but I’ve never been to the far north. The Arctic Circle has been out of reach so far in my life!

At the beginning of the 1980s I worked closely with the Swedish members of the youth and peace movement I belonged to. When we lived in Ouagadougou in the mid-1990s we got to know a Swedish-West African family who divided their time between Burkina Faso and the island of Öland in the Baltic. We have visited them several times and have also had enjoyable trips to Stockholm and to the extraordinary archipelago to the east of the capital. Closer to home, we are keen admirers of the beautiful coastline of Skåne where there are wide sandy beaches fringed with pine forests. For those who enjoy the vastness of nature, Sweden is a huge and very attractive destination.

There’s nothing very attractive about the revived national socialist movements that have crept out of the European woodwork over the past ten years or so. In Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and elsewhere, assorted varieties of ”illiberal democrats” have become increasingly influential, with their populist slogans emphasising in particular hatred of foreigners. Sadly, in many countries – including Denmark – these xenophobic parties have been able to dominate the political debate. They have been surprisingly successful in forcing politicians from the centre to concede that social and economic progress is only available for those with particular beliefs or ethnic origin. Outsiders are out!

The Sweden Democrats (“Sverige Demokraterna”) belong to the wave of not-particularly democratic populists sweeping across the continent. But the recent election in Sweden has revealed – contrary to expectations whipped up by the mass media and the social media – that there are limits to what ”decent folk” (liberals) are willing to support and to vote for. Thus although the Sweden Democrats increased their share of the vote from around 14 per cent in 2014 to almost 18 per cent, the parties of the centre and left did not collapse in the face of a populist onslaught. In fact it is possible to argue that Swedish “exceptionalism” was confirmed yet again by the result of the election. In Sweden it seems that the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left and the Moderates do not wish to share the responsibilities of government with members of a party that is rooted in Nazi ideology. Politicians of the centre and the left are willing to make the case for tackling the many problems of integrating immigrants and consolidating an internationalist outlook and have not lost their support as a result.

Maybe my analysis is a bit superficial. I am aware that the multi-cultural, tolerant and open societies that we thought were being built in Europe are perhaps an unrealistic dream. But at least a majority of Swedes appear to be rejecting the ugliness of the extreme right, thereby keeping their country firmly on the map for my caravan’s forthcoming tours!

Once were heroes

A journalist interviewed during a TV documentary about John Lennon observed that he and Yoko Ono’s campaign in the early 1970s to ”give peace a chance” was both naive and spectacular. Did the songs, the protest marches, the ”bed-in” in Amsterdam and the haranguing of President Nixon’s bloody destruction of South East Asia have any impact? Well the Viet Nam war ended and the Americans didn’t win on their terms… Does that make John Lennon a hero on a par with other non-violent protesters, like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King? Perhaps it does, given that he was able to get the message across to millions through his concert and TV appearances.

Why are there no such high-impact anti-war artists in the miserable times we are living, anno 2018? There are plenty of discontented people watching the madness of Mr. Trumpet and his mob-style cronies cooking up hot wars on top of the pointless trade wars that are being launched in the name of America first. Although the Russian rumblings in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are bad enough, it is hard to believe that the US President can sink so low as to threaten his allies in order to increase spending on war (otherwise known as defence). On the other hand, in the distorted trumpist vision, any old lie is good enough if your fans are still fooled by it. Meanwhile assorted thugs around the planet are able to get away with widespread human rights abuses backed by western weaponry or by idiotic ideologies of repression and hatred or by a combination of both.

Of course there are voices of protest; many journalists and writers seem to be highly skilled at dissecting the political economy of the populists. But there is no unifying force bringing the debate on a sustainable future and the organisation of resistance onto a higher level. The law of the lowest common denominator seems to prevail as politicians become smaller and smaller and increasingly unable to project any coherent plans for anything resembling the ”inclusive, eco-development” which the same heads of government sign up to every time there’s a United Nations jamboree (with their expenses covered by the taxpayers…). It is scary to watch the antics of these second-rate (or discount) politicians stuck in the dead-end streets of Brexit, corporate irresponsibility and beggar my neighbour tariff wars…

Surveying the artistic and musical scene I cannot identify any leading lights in terms of alternatives; the entertainment business seems to have bought off all rumblings of protest or co-opted the critical. Well, perhaps #me too did represent a turning point with respect to gender inequalities, but there are few women who seem capable of taking the campaign a step further and challenging the men in charge of the machines of destruction. So we are forced to witness a steady downward spiral of re-armament, confrontation and resurgent tribalism.

The protests of the 1960s and 1970s are largely lost in hazy memory, despite films telling the stories of people like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Although nostalgia is not a very powerful or useful tool, I find myself longing for the clarity of “all we are saying…” and “war is over…” But there are no heroes on the stage in 2018.

A recent sustained argument for “saving Europe from itself” echoes my thoughts. In “Citizens of Nowhere” Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese (Zed, 2018) dissect the attacks on global citizens made by Teresa Maybe and others. The authors put forward the case for building a trans-national political movement for those concerned about the planet, going beyond national borders, profit motives and short-term interests. In noting how the far right dominates European politics the following words resonated in particular:

“Whereas Syriza (in Greece) may have shown that it is possible to be in government without having any power to govern, the far right has shown that it is possible to be a long way from government but have significant power to redefine what is important, what is acceptable political speech and what are acceptable policy responses. A tiny but well-funded nationalist far right, xenophobic group has been able to win the culture wars and shift common standards of decency, but it has only been able to do so due to the lack of moral backbone in mainstream politicians and worse, their cynical complicity. Sooner or later the far right enters into government and few objections are heard…”

From Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei (July 2018)

When we booked a flight to Rome, I realised that we would arrive very late and the public transport connections to the city and our hotel would have closed down for the night. So I booked a pick-up service called Welcome (!) and was informed that Marco Astrologo (!) would be our driver. As it turned out our flight was a bit delayed, the baggage delivery at Fiumicino airport was very slow and Mr. Astrologo had been replaced with another guy whose name I didn’t catch. But at half past midnight we were happy to sink into the comfortable seats of a Mercedes for the 45 minute ride along the autostrada. The driver was initially quite chatty, but we were tired and I was lost in memories of the 1991 film called Night on Earth directed by Jim Jarmusch. There’s a sequence in which Roberto Benigni drives a taxi around Rome late at night with a bishop on the back seat having a heart attack. Not to be missed!

IMG_3124Rome is rather overwhelming and full of tourists in July (not surprisingly…). Many of the massive monuments testify to the power of both the Empire – which expanded beyond the Roman Republic and lasted from 27 BC to 1453 AD – and the Catholic Church. These are not amongst my favourite institutions: widespread slave labour and violence characterised the former and assorted forms of abuse have been common features of the latter. However, with some care it is possible to locate attractive sites in Rome and I was very happy to see the 13th Century mosaics in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (in the ‘photo above), the market at the Campo di Fiori (where there were surprisingly few flowers on sale) and the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). We also checked out the very impressive Pantheon, a 43 meter spherical temple completed by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century, which has a 9 meter hole in the roof to let the sunshine in and dazzle the assembled populace with the light and power of the sovereign.

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We stayed on the Aventino Hill near the church and monastery of the Knights Templar (or Order of Malta) where a keyhole (“serratura”) offers an extraordinary view of St. Peter’s Basilica and where the orange gardens of Santa Sabrina overlook the River Tiber; these are pictured below, by night and by day, with the vast Basilica visible in the background. We ate meals in the Testaccio district, which is far from the main tourist zones and boasts a market with what may be the city’s best pizzeria! On our third and last evening we sat by a busy road junction at a café called the Tram Depot and watched groups of modern Romans chatting and drinking…

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Four days of our trip were spent in the countryside close to Assisi in Umbria. We joined a large group of Danes celebrating a sixtieth birthday. During our stay we had an opportunity to visit the town of Saint Francis and Poor Clare, enriched with explanatory notes by Francesca a knowledgeable local guide. These two dropouts from the merchant and noble hierarchies of the early 13th Century had a big impact in terms of broadening the appeal of the church with their inclusive “pro-poor” messages. There are extraordinary frescos by the early 14th Century artist Giotto and his team showing the life of the saint in the upper church of the enormous San Francesco Basilica. Clare’s remains are kept in a crypt under the church of her name (Santa Chiara).

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The simplicity of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares is largely obscured by the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church. The smell of hypocrisy is in the air around the ubiquitous collection boxes and requests for donations. As I remember, the contradictions reached a peak in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher quoted lines that have been attributed to Saint Francis – “where there is discord, let there be harmony”, etc. – in her inaugural speech as she prepared to launch the Tory onslaught on the rights and welfare of British citizens. At the opposite extreme, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri two revolutionaries analyzing the development of the global capitalist Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000) concluded that Saint Francis had been an original communist militant proposing “all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power and corruption.”

The history of architecture as well as political and social organisation is also on display in Siena, where we stopped for an all-too-brief visit en route to the Arno Valley. The Romans and the Tuscans knew a thing or two about building for longevity and it is fascinating to wander around the medieval city and admire the red brick buildings and the sloping Campo in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, which housed the Republic of Siena’s administration. There’s also an incredible cathedral (Duomo). But I had forgotten to check any guides before we got to the city. So we missed an opportunity to take a look at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of frescos in the council hall painted in the mid-14th Century just before the population was decimated by an outbreak of the Black Death (plague).[1]

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Lucca is another of the old city-states famous for its fortified and well-preserved walls. We went for a day trip in the sizzling sunshine and enjoyed strolling the stylish, narrow streets and large squares, looking at the impressive churches and particularly the Torre Guinigi, which has a hanging garden of Tuscan oaks at the top. By way of a total and refreshing contrast, the Contemporary Arts Center in Lucca was exhibiting black and white photos of America taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson during trips between the 1940s and the 1970s.

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The northern Tuscan hills were also refreshing, even though the temperatures were in the lower 30s (degrees Celsius) during our stay. We drove winding roads to places with names like Buggiano and Piteglio from our base in Massa e Cozzile. Every village seems to be surrounded by thick walls and at each central piazza there are tiny churches with tall towers.

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When we tired of exploring the hillside villages, we went to Montecatini Terme, a spa resort in the Arno Valley. The town is famous for thermal waters, which we tested during a swim at one of the baths. But it has an odd atmosphere, seemingly trapped in an era when such spa towns were in vogue amongst the leisured classes. Every other building is a hotel, but mostly they’re empty. The guests have moved on, seeking wellness and fitness in other surroundings, or simply heading for the Mediterranean beaches to join the summer crowds.

We ended our trip on the autostrada again, early in the morning driving to Pisa airport for the flight to Copenhagen. Fuimicino airport in Rome is also called Leonardo da Vinci and Pisa airport is named after Galileo.[2] Modern Italians are aware of their rich history…

PS Reviewing these notes and pictures I realize that there’s a sub-theme in this record of our trip: towers. Italy is full of them! So is the city where I work, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I was a given a book by Peter Olesen called “Københavns Tårne” (the Towers of Copenhagen, Gyldendal, 2013). Builders through the centuries and all over the world have been reaching for the sky, getting closer to God…

[1] http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/ambrogiolorenzetti/goodandbadovernment.htm

[2] Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the big name of the artistic renaissance in Tuscany. He was also an engineer and a scientist, claiming in his “treatise on painting” (published after his death): “no human investigation can be termed true science if it is not capable of mathematical demonstration.” In arguing for the Copernican model of the earth moving around the sun – in a ”heliocentric” manner – the Pisan native Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) got himself into deep trouble with the Catholic Church and ended his life in house arrest in a Tuscan village. Much has been written about these giants of discovery and imagination; see, inter alia: David Wootton (2015) on the ”Invention of Science” (Allan Lane).

Nicaraguans get fooled (and killed) again, July 2018

Over the past 3 months there have been many tragic reports from Nicaragua, where the erstwhile revolution has gone right off the rails. In what seems like a remote and distant past – 39 years ago in July 1979 – Sandinista Comandante Daniel Ortega drove into Managua on a pickup to announce the end of the Somoza family dictatorship after very bloody uprising. But in the spirit of cold war tension the US government didn’t much like the new rulers in Nicaragua and a ”contra” armed conflict was launched from bases in Honduras. Thus, in the 1980s thousands more Nicaraguans died in the struggle, which culminated in a Central American brokered peace agreement and elections in 1990. The Sandinistas lost power; the people were weary of violence and hundreds handed over their weapons to create a sculpture of rifles in a central square in the capital.

In contrast to the neighbouring countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – Nicaragua has been relatively peaceful since 1990 and relatively unaffected by the drug dealing cartels and gangs which have wrought havoc in the region. Modest economic growth ensured that living standards improved in both rural and urban areas. But when the Sandinistas regained power at the 2006 elections, Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario decided that their family was destined to run the country, subsequently muzzling or buying off any opposition and gaining the backing of the powerful Catholic Church. As born-again Christians, their revived revolution entailed banning abortion under any circumstances and attempting to pacify the citizens with symbols of the good life such as bizarre religious inspired decorations in the streets of the capital.

Many students and young people were not taken in, however. In April 2018 protests erupted after the government tried to introduce a pension reform, which meant that contributions would increase and payments would be reduced. When thousands of people marched in opposition to the new measures, pro-Sandinista mobs and militia were mobilised to attack them. These thugs and sections of the police have killed some 400 protesters since April, many of them in their teens. The students have occupied schools and colleges, as well as the town of Masaya, some 30 kilometres from the capital.

The protesters are demanding that the Ortega clique be removed from power and elections held. Many church leaders and Central American human rights organisations support them. But the Sandinistas, like the Somocistas in the 1970s, refuse to negotiate and prefer to behave like a sect of aging authoritarians denouncing the young people and students as ”coup makers” and rebels.[1] A stalemate seems to have ensued, in which neither the Ortega clan and their followers, nor the students and protesters are willing to give ground. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” sang The Who in the 1970s. In Nicaragua the wheel has turned full circle, the revolutionaries have been corrupted by power and have tried to fool the people into submission. When that wasn’t enough, the government has used the full force of armed repression against “el pueblo.” But the outcome of the struggle hangs in the balance…

PS We lived in Managua from 2002 to 2005 and were able to observe the intrigues and political manipulation by the Ortegas as they prepared to re-assert control. In a strange echo, we have also lived in Ouagadougou the capital of Burkina Faso, where a similar “semi-dictator” Blaise Campaoré, clung to power until a wave of popular discontent (street protests) in 2013-14 finally led to his downfall after 27 years as President… He escaped to Côte d’Ivoire. Where will the Ortegas go?

[1] The Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa has published an article comparing the Ortegas and the Somozas to determine which gang was worst: https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/07/19/politica/2450760-es-daniel-ortega-peor-que-anastasio-somoza

Brief glimpses of urban and rural life in South Asia

At the end of May I flew to Dhaka for a short visit, returning for the first time since 1997. In the intervening 21 years the population of Bangladesh increased by around 50 million! With a total of over 165 million inhabitants and a density of about 1100 people per square kilometre, the country is bursting with human enterprise in all shapes and sizes.

I stayed in Gulshan, the upmarket district of Dhaka, in a mini skyscraper hotel with fine views across the city’s rooftops. Construction is the name of the game in the capital, where buildings are zooming upwards as land is scarce. I watched the sunset and the moonrise through the haze of air pollution next to an odd little infinity swimming pool on the 9th floor.

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During my days in the city preparing an evaluation of development assistance I attended a series of meetings with representatives from different agricultural organisations. Going to and from the sessions in slow moving traffic I was occupied from dawn to dusk. But I also had an opportunity to spend a long day in a couple of villages 50 kilometres from the capital.

We left the city in the early morning when the air was relatively fresh and cool. On the way eastwards we took a wrong turn and found ourselves paying a road toll extracted by an elephant blocking the road. Our driver found some notes and placed them between the folds at the end of the animal’s trunk! I was too surprised to remember to grab my camera…

Bangladesh is a rice economy par excellence; tens of millions of farmers subsist on small plots of land on the fertile flood plains of the rivers flowing from the Himalayas through the delta into the Bay of Bengal. Over recent decades, yields and output have increased significantly, resulting in “food self-sufficiency” (in terms of rice) and higher standards of living. However, the poorest, marginalised farmers have a tough time making ends meet. So farm management training in better production practices, improved nutrition and more effective crop marketing is organised through so-called ”farmer field schools.” Despite the losses in translation from Bengali to English, it was interesting to gain some impressions of progress in the farming communities, not least for the women who bear the main burden in rural households.

Milk collectors and an agricultural adviser

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Children, baskets of brinjal (aubergines) and mobile ‘phones

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Some women show the proceeds from the sale of vegetables

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Paddy fields in the heat of the midday sun

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Women farmers explaining about what they have learnt at the field schools

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Men listening during the question and answer session

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The world is increasingly full of people it seems. But the biggest problem is the global transformation from low income, subsistence economies to middle class consumerism on a giant scale. On my way back to Copenhagen from Dhaka I spent a couple of hours in transit at Dubai airport. The phenomenal growth of trans-continental travel is on display at the sprawling airport, where streams of Asian tourists are heading west while the Europeans go east in enormous numbers. Emirates Airlines operate mostly Airbus 380 aircraft, which pack well over 400 people per flight and generate a significant cloud of greenhouse gas emissions. Embarking on a fully booked flight I reflected on how my carbon footprint is swamped in the stampede…

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Noam Chomsky’s howl

Recently I discovered that the 89 year old American MIT linguist and leftie Noam Chomsky has been lecturing on the big issues of our time: notably the escalating risks of nuclear confrontation and the disturbing denial culture amongst large segments of the population when the problem of climate change is mentioned. Listening to his analysis it is hard to conceive that our species will avoid annihilation one way or another within a foreseeable future. The Republican Party in the USA is given a central role in Chomsky’s analysis: as the greatest criminal organisation the world has ever known, whose members and leaders are determined to make short term profits while ensuring the ultimate destruction of the planet.

Check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwTQsvhq3ew

and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.