Saturday, March 20, 2010

Readings & Thoughts - This Week: March 20th

It is only fitting that I end the week reading the eloquently written Why Britain Is Feeling Bleak in TIME. Catherine Mayer captures the mood correctly: A stumbling pound, a rickety recovery, an uncertain future. The institutions stand undermined, Met Police, House of Commons, No. 10 Downing Street, the NHS, in case of Britain [the Church does not matter much here]. The leadership options are uninspiring, and the whole prospect of election, due possibly on May the 6th, looks like a waste of time. Gordon Brown's claim of solidity, solidity as in spending public money to prop up failing banks and bankrupting everyone in the process, is pitted against David Cameron's funk, the fashionable style of saying everything correct without meaning it. We can only hope that Mr. Brown will someday learn to listen and Mr Cameron will learn to say things he really means.

In the middle of all this, I applied for my British passport. It sure contradicts my feel that the economic recovery will be led by Asia - I see many examples every day - and even the European business ideas, which dominated the world for such a long time, are in the middle of a grand retreat. I feel the doom-and-gloom in Britain every bit as much as anyone else; I get energised when I get to Asia on business trips and discuss the immense possibilities. But, as my actions demonstrate, I have not given up on Britain.

Catherine Mayer's article touches this point in passing, and despite a number of disappointing developments that may give an impression in the contrary, the two things that made the British society resilient even in the face of decline are tolerance and humour. Those values still linger. England in particular remains one of the world's oldest democracies in the modern sense and one of the most liberal, secular societies. I cherish the life here, not for the material comfort, but for the freedom and good sense that normally prevails in all conversations. I think Britain remains a great place to learn about the world, and to form, if it is still needed, a world view.

I have read a few interesting books this week, which I must also mention here. The first was a simple history of Templars, called The Templars by Piers Paul Read. The subject is fascinating, not just in the historical context, but also in understanding the development of a membership organization and the dynamics of its decline. There were many asides: I was fascinated by Richard Plantagent's plans to make Jerusalem a common place of worship for Muslims and Christians, and somehow he appeared more modern than Binyamin Netanyahu; Frederick II's secularism and understanding of Islam, as well as the commitment of Louis the IXth and his sacrifices, made up a fascinating historical narrative. But, my interests were particularly drawn by Phillip La Bel, the French king who destroyed the Templars. Philip's actions obviously had deep and long-ranging consequences: the undermining of the papacy with the destruction of its military order, the economic balance shifting to the state, not to mention the plots and sub-plots about Templar treasures, which sparked the modern blockbusters like the Da Vinci Code.

The other book I read is completely different in style and content, but fascinating on all counts. This is a short monograph called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert O Hirschman, which is path-breaking and famous by its own right, but I must admit stumbling upon it in the Barbican Library. With my crowded schedule, it almost seemed absurd that I could manage to read a work of theoretical economics, but this book is brilliantly written and address very relevant issues of our day. The concept revolves around the existence of sub-optimal performance, which is a no-no in economic theory but very real in practise, and the reactions of the buyers, who can either exit [leave, shift to a competitor, or stop consuming altogether] or voice [complaint, return, organize demonstrations]. Hirschman explores the impact of Exit and Voice, compare them and contrast the conditions where one or other may occur, and finally expounding a theory of loyalty in the context of the organization's reactions to exit or voice. The treatise is relevant not just to business problems of retention and satisfaction of customers, but also to greater social problems, like the one in Britain, where the voters are now eschewing their usual Voice option [vote in democratic context] and opting for Exit [migration, not voting etc] instead.

The third book on my reading list this week was an equally improbable How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev's masterly history of Irish Americans, who took no time to transition from the ranks of the oppressed to the oppressor. The central theme of the book - the white race is a socially constructed category - is of enormous interest to me, an immigrant myself. The book chronicles the journey of the Irish, who are 'blacks in Europe', from the low social strata in America to the ranks of the privileged class, who will eventually fight against the abolition of slavery. I have previously read and was deeply influenced by Paulo Freire's The Pedagogy of The Oppressed, and this book was an illustration of Freire's concepts in real life.

Finally, if I have to sum up this week, I shall talk about the deep crises of institutional authority that was experienced all over the Western World. It was not just the secular authority of the House of Commons or of Congress on the other side of the pond. The allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was uncovered in Germany and Netherlands, and the cover-up allegations reached the person of the Pope, triggering speculations about the resignation of the Pope, something that has not happened, formally, since Gregory XII's resignation in 1415. The events over the week showed that the Catholic Church remained in denial of its responsibility despite the worldwide outrage. The apologies issued by Pope today for the abuses in the Irish church sets out no penalty or create no system of accountability. This is likely to destroy the moral authority of Catholic Church altogether, even in the parts of the world where it is seen as a liberating force. The next book on my reading list is God Is Back, John Micklethwaite's enquiry into the global rise of religion; coincidental, but how very relevant at the time when the Catholic Church is falling apart.

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