Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: October, 2015

Moses and Aaron

At the moment Schönberg’s great unfinished opera Moses und Aron is being put on in a lavish production in Paris. It was broadcast on the French-German cultural channel Arte last weekend. Not only is the avant-garde twelve-tone music a challenge for the listener, but the ideas are too. The opera is based on the traditional Biblical story of Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites out of Egypt, but Schönberg, who wrote his own libretto, put a troubling twist of his own on the story, which is of continuing relevance to our society today.

Throughout the opera, Moses speaks, while Aaron sings. Moses has the vision from God, but he is tongue-tied (tradition says he had a speech impediment) and unable to express himself as a public orator. Fortunately, his brother Aaron is able to fill in for him and shows himself a very gifted speaker, the kind who today would be called “inspirational”. The trouble is that Aaron never really understands his brother’s vision of a God unlike any other, who cannot be visualized or described in human terms. Aaron is willing to compromise with the desire of the people for something they can grasp, love, have faith in. He even goes so far as to make them a Golden Calf to worship when Moses is away for 40 days on the mountain and they grow restless and anxious because nothing seems to be happening. In the end, sick at heart, Moses falls to his knees on the empty stage and exclaims “O Wort, Wort, das mir fehlt” – “oh word, word that I lack!”

In a way, Moses and Aaron might be seen as two sides of the same person. Schönberg seems to be telling us: if you have a vision and give it to the people, hoping to start a movement, you may be successful, but in the end you will be the victim of your own success, for your message will be watered down and distorted, and the movement will develop a life of its own that betrays what you originally intended.

Our age is an age of communication. “Effective communication” is regarded as the supreme skill. But ours is also the age of the negative side of communication – we have learned the destructive effects of propaganda, political sloganeering and slick advertising, and the way they debase language. With his opera written in more troubled times than now, Schönberg puts us once again before the age-old dilemma: uncommunicable truth, or communication that takes liberties with the truth for the purpose of getting the message across.



Walls against the future

The Chinese Emperors built the Great Wall to keep out marauding barbarians from the north, but ultimately without success. The barbarians surged across the border, kept going till they got to the Forbidden City, and set themselves up as Emperors. (The wall is still there.)

The Romans, abandoning their ambition of conquering Scotland, built Hadrian’s Wall to defend the territory they had got, but eventually they had to leave Roman Britain to the marauding Celts and Anglo-Saxons anyway. (The wall is still there.)

The trouble with walls is that they last millennia and stay around to remind us of their ultimate futility.

Today our walls are not so permanent, but we are still building them. We build walls of concrete, steel and barbed wire, to keep out the tide of refugees and illegal immigrants. We may even try a “wooden wall” like the ancient Greeks – a naval blockade in the Mediterranean.

However, there are two inevitable paradoxes to the current situation of Western countries:

  • As an American man said who was helping out unaccompanied minors coming across the border from Mexico: if they all come here, the country will no longer be what they came here for.
  • If we concentrate on defending ourselves by building walls and fortresses, and so doing turn ourselves into a “security state”, our countries will no longer be what we wanted to defend.

The moral is clear but not consoling. They are coming, and yes, our countries are going to change. We could keep them at bay for a while, but we would have to become monsters to do it.

“Holding the line” or “holding the pass” sounds heroic but is really no longer an option. Populations shift, and so do patterns of power, cultures and languages. We need to be clear-sighted in preparing for the changes in our Western societies that are coming whether we want them or not.



Corporate culture, corporate language

We talk about “corporate culture” by analogy with national culture. The idea is a simple one: just as countries like Japan, Germany, Canada and France have national cultures (ways of doing things, world-views, mentalities), so do organizations.

Unfortunately, the concept has come to be use all too loosely by writers who know little about the topic of national cultures or how they work. Managers are supposed to be able to create, reconfigure, recreate and discard corporate cultures at the drop of a hat. However, the whole problem of corporate cultures, like national ones, is that they just seem to be there and prevent change even when it needs to happen. Many a merger and acquisition have failed because of incompatible corporate cultures.

If we talk of corporate culture, we should be able to talk about “corporate language” by analogy with national languages, which are usually associated with national cultures. If as an English speaker you set yourself to learning the French language, you will inevitably learn a lot about French culture. And you might have a shot at describing Japanese culture in English, but you will have to use a lot of Japanese words for intranslatable concepts. Languages are tools for communication, but at the same time they express cultures.

Languages have a drawback, of course: they are incomprehensible to those who do not speak them. It would not do for an organization to have not only a “corporate culture” but also its own language which only those inside the organization could understand. And yet – keeping with the metaphor – within each language there are “dialects” used by social or regional groups which are understood by the other groups of speakers; and particular authors or types of authors have “styles” which identify them. It seems reasonable to think that an organization might develop its own “dialect” or “style” of spoken and written language.

Indeed, one German communication guru, Hans-Peter Förster, has developed a subject that he calls (using an English phrase) “corporate wording”. Now, wording means the choice of words or the way you express yourself generally. Förster believes that each business organization should develop its own way of speaking and writing and use it consistently everywhere – internal communication, external communication, advertising, product documentation, and so on. His idea is that when you get a letter from such a company, you don’t have to look at the letterhead to know who it’s from.

This “corporate wording” is associated with the “corporate design” – the logo you use, the typefaces and graphic features, even the colours you prefer. All these, along with your wording, contribute to maintaining a distinct identity for your organization and keeping it in the minds of consumers and customers.

There is, I think, a lot more to be said about corporate language than Förster in his publications has given us, but his effort shows that “corporate language” like “corporate culture” are useful concepts that really need to be systematized and not just thrown around.


Vancouver as gateway

When I first lived in Vancouver in the 1970s, I was struck by an odd thing: the place was full of people from somewhere else in the world, but it was not cosmopolitan like a European city. In fact, it was a backwater. It was just that all these people people from somewhere else did not count. They might fill the buses and the cafés with their many languages, but they were just talking to each other. As far as public life was concerned, they did not have anything to say. This went especially for the numerous Chinese population. One of the most characteristic things about everyday life in Vancouver, I found, was hearing Cantonese on the street. Native-born Vancouverites of the English-speaking majority grew up hearing it, and it had to be embedding itself in their brains their whole life long, but they never learned to speak it. Why would they? There was nothing being said in this language that could possibly interest them.

In the interval, things have changed. Asia, and China in particular, have moved to the front of the world stage, and it has become important for Canada to look out to the Pacific, if only out of self-interest on the part of its traditional élites, in terms of trade and the economy.

Vancouver in particular has opened to Asia. A lot more Chinese immigrants have arrived, originally because of the handover of Hongkong in 1999; but later immigration has involved other parts of China too. Vancouver has become an “entrepôt port” or a “concession” for China – rather like Hongkong in reverse: China now has a bridgehead on the coast of Canada, rather than the Western powers having their bridgeheads on the coast of China.

Oddly enough, as I found on a recent visit, Vancouver remains the backwater of the West. There is no new thinking coming out of there. There are no ideas from the city that shape what Canada is. That prerogative still belongs to the traditional élites in the east of the country. The Vancouver minorities still have nothing to say, except to themselves, but since they are becoming more numerous and economically powerful, they are quietly beginning to reshape the city in their own image.

The conventional wisdom in Canada now calls Vancouver a gateway city: that means a city by which new people enter an immigrant-receiving country. But gateway for who – and to what? The immigration that counts now is Asian, especially Chinese, due to China’s dynamism. And the immigrants are coming, not to contribute to the wealth of the traditional Canadian élites, but to play their own game.

A new stage is beginning in the history of North America, the most important since the arrival of Columbus. The intrepid seaman landed on the shores of the New World not knowing where he was, thinking he was in Asia, and indeed bearing a letter from Queen Isabella to the Emperor of China. We know the rest of the story. In this new chapter, however, Asia is likely to shape North America – not  Europe.