Control Freakery

I was astonished and appalled to hear of Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, especially because of the reasons he gave for it – that ‘Vladimir Putin has his country under control.’

I was reminded today, at the Gardens of Marqueyssac (8.80 EUR and open every day of the year), of how much I dislike control. The gardens comprise several acres of topiary overlooking the Dordogne. My friend Caroline and I bicycled from Siorac en Perigord, an easy mild up and down of about 20 km, on empty roads in bright late summer sunshine through a largely uncontrolled landscape. Uncontrolled, but not unmarked by man.

These gardens, by contrast, illustrate man’s appetite for crushing domination, his determination to tame, torture and distort nature so that nothing of wildness, or colour, or spontaneity remains. Of course, Topiary can be an amusing adjunct to a garden that is more than simply sculptural or architectural, a garden, for example, containing borders and flowers. Perhaps, for a very few moments, if you’re in the right kind of mood, a bush that looks like a bunny rabbit can amuse.

But if all that you can do with your trowel and your master’s degree in landscape architecture is trim and shape, then it’s not enough. If you like box and little else then these gardens might indeed be your Garden of Eden, but if you find it a gloomy shrub, and if its imperfections worry you, or if you dislike its sour smell, then these gardens will depress you, unless, in your view, control is the highest aspiration of mankind.

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I greatly prefer the illusion of wildness that the English Garden cultivates. If there is control (and of course there must be) then it is subtle. It is exerted only so that flowers and shrubs can thrive as themselves. Set the starting conditions and step back, barring a little weeding and dead-heading.

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So should it be in politics. What is it that Trump could possibly admire about the kind of control that  Putin has achieved, or, in fact, failed to achieve. Total control of the press, of the judiciary, and the political landscape. Total control over his own wealth. Total control over his henchmen – well, perhaps not entirely. Is Russia a country to emulate – where corruption is rife, where bureaucracy stifles enterprise, where homophobia and racism thrive and are not discouraged by the state or by the police, where lies surround every foreign military adventure?

Is that what Trump wants for his own country? This kind of total control?

Look at these ailing, distorted box hedges and lament. Gardens need freedom, as do nations.

 

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Making America Great Again

There’s a sneaky video doing the rounds of Facebook – Not the Greatest – that purports to pour honest cold water over the idea that America is the Greatest Country in the World. Its caption is ‘The Most Honest Three Minutes in Television History’ and it supposedly shows the response of an unnaturally passionate and eloquent panellist to the question ‘Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world’ posed naively by a young woman in the audience.

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It’s produced and published by a media company called NextNextNow, and it’s obviously scripted. It’s entirely dishonest from the start. But spookily clever.

You think for a moment that the idea is to take down those stupid American Supremacists. The ‘panellist’ reels off statistics on prisoner numbers, child mortality, educational standards, exports and health, in order to prove that America isn’t the greatest except in some rather unattractive ways.

But watch carefully what happens next. The video morphs into a misty-eyed nostalgic account of a time when America truly was the greatest country in the world, the most innovative, the most moral. The implication, clearly, is that American can be made the greatest again with the right man in charge, perhaps.

Listen to what the panellist says:

‘We sure used to be (the greatest).’

‘We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We made laws and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged war on poverty not poor people.’

Now hang on a moment!

Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, Iraq, capital punishment. And on the positive side, health care reform, gay marriage, etc.

When was this golden age when America was the shining beacon of morality?

It’s a clever video, never more so than when the man says:

‘We never identified ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.’

Which means, of course, that just because you voted for Obama last time you mustn’t think that you can’t vote for Donald this time round.

It’s also subtly anti=establishment. It’s designed to appeal to the cynical and to the angry. The message is that clichés and received wisdom must be rejected, together with all the establishment assumptions. Most of all, don’t trust those in power. There used to be ‘great men’ but there aren’t any great men any more to whom you can turn.

It is clever, evil nonsense. And it’s a very sneaky ad from the Trump camp.

Don’t get taken in. The most honest three minutes? Pernicious nonsense!

There is no greatest country in the world. What does ‘greatest’ mean, anyway?

 

Like, Utterly Awesome!

Heathrow Airport has nothing on the regional airport at Yogyakarta in western Java. At least not in terms of welcome, but that’s the same wherever you go in Asia – an utterly awesome welcome that puts our sourpuss European ways to shame.

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For example, the baggage hall at Yogyakarta Airport boasts its own ‘bing-plink-bing-bong’ gamelan band, accompanying  a singer whose vocal technique, though it produces a strangulated feline noise, is not completely unpleasant (but then. perhaps Montserrat Caballe and Shirley Bassey sound alien to the Indonesian ear). And it’s not because baggage delivery is especially slow. It’s meant as welcome and entertainment for the travel-weary passengers arriving in the cultural capital of Indonesia.

It’s well known that the gamelan inspired the British composer Benjamin Britten, who used the sonorities of the instrument extensively in his last opera Death in Venice, and I can’t help thinking that the related vocal technique influenced the later singing style of Britten’s partner Peter Pears. Judge for yourself.

A musical welcome to Jogyakarta!

Yogyakarta is, amongst other splendid things, a dormitory town for tourists visiting the great 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobodur. It’s only a ninety-minute drive from the Hotel d’Omah on the edge of Yogyakarta, where my Mexican friend Federico and I were staying. The temple lies at the foot of jungle-clad hills and it’s utterly awesome too having survived intact for more than a thousand years of rain, damp and earthquake. Fortunately the tolerant strain of Islam that predominates in Indonesia doesn’t require that it be blown up.

The temple is not all that it seems, though. It may be a multi-layered progression from the realm of desire, through the realm of forms, to a formless Nirvana at its summit, but it’s also a tourist trap, though not of the kind you might imagine. At the weekend it teems with teenagers on a trap-an-English-speaking-tourist-ask-some-questions-and-take-a-photo-with-him-or-her mission.  Marauding gangs of girls or boys, though never the twain together, ambush you around every corner, oblivious, it seems, to the spiritual temptations of Buddhism, intent only on first snaring you and then improving their English. It’s actually rather fun to be so much in demand (though, ultimately, of course, sheer vanity). The sheer joy of it all adds to the Nirvana of the experience.

The questions are all the same, and have probably come from the same course book, and so, just occasionally, after a dozen repetitions in the blazing sun, it’s a challenge to the contemplative state.

What is your name?   Adam

Where are you from?   I’m British but live in the Czech Republic.

How did you get here?   By plane and car.

What do you think of the temple?   I think it’s, like, utterly awesome.

Yes, after a while, you begin to answer in, like, a teenage Facebook English.

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We tried to divert attention onto a lone American tourist, who’d travelled to Yogyakarta from Japan, where he teaches English. He was a paragon of tolerance, as we were, but expressed surprise at the friendliness of these boys and scarf-clad girls.

‘I wondered if I should tell them I’m from the US,’ he said, ‘but it seems ok. They’re not at all what I expected Muslims to be like.’

Well, no, they are not as the prevailing American view of Islam would have them be, the view promoted by ignorant madmen such as Donald Trump, who rant unchallenged poisonous nonsense about the religion. If only Donald had the patience, stamina and spiritual thirst to huff, puff and pout his way to the top of the temple of Borobodur, the world might not be so much at risk.

We’re staying at a hotel that’s also bubbling over with welcome, the beautiful Hotel d’Omah on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, owned and run by the wonderful and kind Warwick Purser, who came to Indonesia from Australia many decades ago, and has never really left. This is the place to stay. It’s Nirvana….without the teeming teenagers.

Pride and Prejudice

Yesterday, in City of London, I attended The Economist’s first event on the subject of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Diversity and Inclusion – Pride and Prejudice – an event held over nearly 24 hours on a rolling schedule in Hong Kong, London and New York.

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The Economist has been campaigning consistently for economic and personal freedom for two hundred years, and this event was held to promote discussion of the economic case for inclusion (pride), and the economic costs of exclusion (prejudice).

The event was hosted in London by Zanny Minto-Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, and attended by representatives of the LGBT community and their allies. Speakers, on site or via video link, included:

  • The Mayor of London
  • The Chief Executive of Arsenal Football Club
  • The President of the World Bank Group
  • The Director of the CIA
  • Lord Browne (former Chairman of BP)
  • Sir Martin Sorrell (CEO of WPP)
  • Activists, HR specialists, economists, and interested spectators

Some of them are members, and some of them are allies of, the LGBP community. Who knows which, or cares?

Debate covered:

  • How to calculate the additional cost to an individual of being LGBT
  • How to calculate the cost to an economy of prejudice and exclusion of the LGBT community
  • How global businesses and Governments can foster inclusion in LGBT-hostile countries

Vivienne Ming, Founder and Executive Chair at Socos, presented her company’s fascinating research into the ‘tax’ imposed by society on membership of the LGBT community, the additional lifetime cost to an LGBT individual of compensating for prejudice. These are costs arising from the harder work, better schools, and higher qualifications LGBT individuals need in order to achieve the same success as their non-LGBT peers. I didn’t entirely understand how this research was done, but it involved comparing data on hundreds of thousands of people trawled from the internet.

  • The additional lifetime cost of being a gay man in the UK is around 35,000 GBP.
  • The additional lifetime cost of being a lesbian woman in Hong Kong or Singapore is around 700,000 GBP (this cost reflects gender discrimination as well as LGBT discrimination)

This is what it costs to achieve the same as a straight man or woman. It’s largely wasted cost.

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, spoke of research the World Bank will sponsor into the economic cost of prejudice, costs arising from the exclusion of talent from the economy, of emigration and of the utterly wasteful enforcement of legal prohibitions. He explained the controversial position he adopted on loans to Uganda, which, he argued, placed LGBT people in danger if Uganda’s discriminatory laws were to be passed and enforced.

Is it any wonder, everyone asked, one after another, that countries and cultures that habitually exclude the LGBT community are less innovative, and usually poorer. Three million jobs created in Silicon Valley might have been created in the conservative mid-Western states of the USA if young and talented LGBT people had felt equally comfortable in their home states. And is it any wonder that cities with thriving LGBT communities, such as San Francisco, London, Berlin, and New York, have the highest number of start-ups in the world?

Is it any wonder that Moscow, Singapore and Jeddah don’t incubate novelty and that talent emigrates?

There was interesting and lively discussion, indeed considerable disagreement, on how business and Government should encourage change. Should they refuse to participate, and absent themselves from this or that country or event, or should they demonstrate inclusion by example and through participation? Should they advocate quietly, or campaign publicly?

Of course, the answer is that it depends on the circumstances. Sir Martin Sorrell noted that the adoption of public adversarial positions doesn’t work in China, and activists suggested that global campaigners should take the advice of those who are locally oppressed. Others emphasised the importance of role-models, others cautioned business and Government against making things worse by being too vocal.

But everyone agreed that the rise of populist leaders and extremist ideology, including buffoons such as Donal Trump, as well as the contraction of civil society in the emerging world, are a threat to progress on LGBT inclusion.

The LGBT community is everywhere, represented in all walks of life. From my perspective the greatest progress is not only that we can stand up and make our case but also that when we do so, we look just like everyone else.

Thanks to The Economist for joining the campaign. I look forward to the next event.

 

 

Unwise Words

I have nothing but loathing for Donald Trump and his policies, and I’ve heard more than I can bear of his aggressive, petulant, American supremacist nonsense. I fear him, but if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, which after her huge victory in South Carolina now seems increasingly likely, he probably can’t win the Presidency. He’s preaching to the converted at the Primaries so the adulation he’s enjoying almost certainly isn’t representative of the electorate at large.

But I found myself in sympathy with him yesterday, even admiring of his response to the outrage that emerged when he unwittingly re-tweeted something Benito Mussolini supposedly wrote or said. (See BBC.)

‘It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.’

Of course, it’s the kind of nonsense that macho-nationalists write, but I don’t see that it’s particularly pernicious, as nonsense goes. I don’t agree with it, though not because I’m a vegetarian, rather because I wouldn’t mind living 100 years in a pleasant green field, and Perhaps also because lions have very bad breath. But to criticise Donald Trump for unwittingly re-tweeting the quotation is just plain silly. Bad people say good things, and do good things, and good people say bad things, and do bad things. Hitler was nice to animals.

So, when Trump responded, ‘Mussolini was Mussolini… What difference does it make?’ I sympathise. Other, establishment candidates, would have attempted all sorts of strenuous and embarrassed damage-limitation moves, but not Trump. He didn’t know it was something Mussolini wrote or said, and he didn’t give a damn.

Sensible dietary advice from a very bad man…

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I Googled ‘good things that bad people said’ and found many pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of, or flowed from the pens of, evil dictators:

An action committed in anger, is an action doomed to failure. (Genghis Khan)

It takes less courage to criticise the decisions of others than to stand by your own. (Attila the Hun)

Faith moves mountains, but only knowledge moves them to the right place. (Joseph Goebbels)

I call on you not to hate, because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking. (Saddam Hussein)

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot. (Lenin)

Don’t drink at all, don’t smoke, you must exercise and eat vegetables and fruit. (Robert Mugabe)

And another one from Benito Mussolini, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Inactivity is death.

 

The Inane Idea of Leadership

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I’ve heard and read more than I can bear about ‘Leadership’.

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Browse through the Group posts on LinkedIn and you’ll see hundreds on the subject (these are from the Project Management group):

These took me just five minutes to find.

I’ll never read a single one of them, not only because of the split infinitives, and the incorrect capitalisations, but because the entire concept, like its twin ‘success’, is utterly inane and entirely chimerical. Though I have to admit that ‘The Leadership Style of Anna Hazare’ does tickle my fancy a little (it turns out that he’s a 74-year-old former soldier fighting corruption in India, but I couldn’t read beyond the point where the writer introduced ‘four types’ of leadership).

I suspect that ‘leadership’ is originally an American concept, even if it’s caught on like a global epidemic amongst those who read and write for LinkedIn. I think of strong-jawed pioneers leading waggon trains into the unknown, slaughtering Indians as they go. I think of the ‘right stuff’ that took America’s astronauts to the Moon. I think of George W Bush leading the nation on a futile expedition to Iraq and of Donald Trump vowing to ‘make America great again’, by which he means ‘the greatest’. It’s essentially a military ideal closely linked to conquest, and it’s lauded in a country where too many Generals have made it to the White House.

I don’t believe in ‘leadership’. I don’t believe there’s an important quality you can distil from the mess of other qualities and characteristics that ordinary or exceptional people possess that is the very essence of ‘leadership’. Those who define it, train themselves in it, or chase after it are deluded. Those who crave it in others, wanting merely to follow, are yet more foolish.

Leaders find themselves ‘leading’, the best of them reluctantly, in virtue of their ideas, their courage, their determination, their principles, and their intelligence, sometimes entirely in virtue of their ability to delegate decision-making to others, or to achieve a consensus amongst their peers. The best are cajoled into the role (just as the UK’s Speaker of the House of Commons must be dragged to his chair following his election). The best don’t shoulder their way forwards and upwards. Sadly, it’s all too often delusion, ignorance, obstinacy, ruthlessness, self-interest, cruelty, skilful myth-making or obsession that inspires obedience in some and makes others into leaders. I think of Putin.

Let’s not forget that what we admire in today’s leaders we might revile or reject in them tomorrow. ‘Fred, the Shred’ who led the Royal Bank of Scotland to supremacy amongst the UK’s high street banks was later stripped of his knighthood when the bank nearly failed. Even Churchill, the right leader in 1940, was defeated at a General Election before victory was won in the East. Cecil Rhodes is not what he was.

Political leadership usually ends in failure. In business too, elevating the concept of ‘leadership’ to pre-eminence in the Pantheon of business ideals is plain stupid. Let’s hear much less about it and about its equally inane, intellectually vacuous twin, ‘success’.

Trumped by his own petard

I don’t usually take pleasure in others’ disappointment, but what a relief to see that Trump has been trumped by Ted Cruz at the Iowa Caucuses. In his concession speech there was a welcome hint of bubble burst, of bluster fallen flat. Not that Ted Cruz is my cup of tea, either, but he’s a more or less civilised and rational man by comparison.

Trump is entirely ridiculous, nothing more than a self-obsessed demagogue, streetwise but foolish, and I would think it a danger for the world if he were elected President.

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Three cheers, though, for Hillary Clinton’s winning of the Democrats’ Caucuses. I want to see her in the White House. She is described as a ‘flawed’ candidate, but who is not?