Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: January, 2016

If Atlas shrugged…

All week in Davos, just up the road from here, the usual suspects were holding forth on the state of the world under the aegis of Prof. Klaus Schwab, who is a sort of funfair barker to the world’s corporate and political élite.

I wouldn’t like to live in Davos, because for a week every January or February it becomes a high-security zone, and it seems to be getting worse. This time they were watching out for attack drones that might creep up the ski slopes, or suicide bombers that might want to hobnob with the glittering guests. Nothing happened. The only security breach was some young Swiss soldiers getting busted for doing dope on duty. I guess they were bored at the lack of action. Could you blame them?

Meanwhile, this year’s greatest hot-air balloonist was newly-elected Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. He gave a speech that contained every well-worn cliché in the book. But he was “upbeat”. This was said to be in marked contrast with all the headshaking that was going on about the state of the world among the glittering throng. They just loved Justin. Prof. Schwab loved him. In the enthusiasm of the moment, he cast Justin as embodying the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the latest buzz phrase Prof. Schwab is barking. Oh yes, that was supposed to be the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum. What was the conclusion? Who knows? Every year it gets harder for the media to figure out what the latest WEF contributed or even what it was about.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a character subversively asks a hard-working industrialist: if you met Atlas, the giant who bears the world on his shoulders, what would you advise him to do? The best advice to Atlas would be to shrug and see what happened. The implication was that if Atlas shrugged the world off his shoulders, there would at least be a big crash and Atlas would get a lot of attention.

Ayn Rand’s idea in her novel was that a small number of productive, creative and dynamic folks bear the rest of the world on their shoulders, and if they stopped doing so – if they went on strike – the world would grind to a halt and the man in the street would have to acknowledge that we need the gallant few to keep things going.

I have a corollary of my own about this. Never mind the creative and dynamic people, for a moment. The actual élite – the people who go to WEF every year – should be encouraged to shrug their shoulders. My prediction is that nothing would happen. But there would be a few good results: the said élite would free themselves from their Atlas complex, the world would be spared all the hot air, and a lot of Swiss soldiers could stay at home.

I always feel tempted to suggest to Prof. Schwab: you and your guests are so concerned about saving the world from its many sins – how about going on strike? Just shrug. Stop bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders. Just shut up and walk away. What would happen? Nothing. The self-appointed élite of the world with all their hot air have no more idea of what to do than the rest of us. If they stopped making speeches to each other nothing would happen. The world would muddle through – or not.

So (I would tell Prof. Schwab), just let your arms fall helplessly to your sides this time next year and see what happens. To the heroic gesture of the weary giant, the only response – in the eternal silence of the universe – would be the Homeric laughter of the gods.



Requiem for the newspaper

If you grew up with newspapers as I did, it is hard to envisage a world without them. But that day is coming.

Time was, everybody read the newspaper. Everybody. You used to read the newspaper to be informed and to be entertained. It was part of the daily ritual, like morning coffee. You felt involved in the affairs of the world. It smacked of democracy and civic spirit. People used to read the damn thing from cover to cover.

The newspaper was essentially a local thing. It belonged not to a particular country but to a particular city. It made sense on its home turf, where it belonged. In a very small country there might be a national daily. In a place like Canada there could be no national daily.

But time marches on, and the development of technology was killing the newspaper even as it gave it new scope and opportunities. Airplanes meant the paper could be flown to distant cities the same day. Then satellite transmission meant it could be printed locally and be on the street first thing in the morning. Then along came the Internet. What did this mean? Now you could read a particular paper anywhere in the world. You could read Le Monde anywhere, just as soon as the folks in Paris. So why (just) read your familiar local title?

People still read newspapers, but if they are internationally active like me, with a stake in several countries and several languages, they read at least half a dozen on-line. Read? Well, skim, and pick out the articles that really interest you, if there are any. It is entirely unrealistic for any particular newspaper to think you are going to subscribe to and pay for it. It’s just too much bother. Anyway, the thought may cross your mind that they should be paying you to put up with all that intrusive advertising, which is their real source of revenue. It is now axiomatic that no newspaper is worth reading in its entirety.

The old newspaper was a throwaway thing. It was precisely “ephemeral” – it was good for a day. The Greek for newspaper is still ephemerida. Nobody read old newspapers except castaways. Remember “yellowing newspapers”? Now a report or op-ed piece can stay on a website for days, weeks, months, and everybody can see just how flimsy and ephemeral or wrong-headed it was. On the other hand, it can be corrected and improved.

Newspapers are doing everything they can to maintain circulation and revenue. Internet editions were their doom – like lemmings, they couldn’t not take the plunge, but it sounded the death knell of the print edition. Circulation is spiralling downwards everywhere. This is a sunset industry.

What will take its place? There will be news and analysis websites that will simply replace newspapers. They are already there. They too will make the money to pay their bills from advertising, I’m afraid – unless governments decide to subsidize them.

When Jack Ma buys himself the South China Morning Post, is it the end of the world? Is it the end of democracy? Is it the end of Hong Kong as we know it? Good God, should the British never have left? On the other hand, does it matter who owns the South China Morning Post? How long will it or any other traditional paper be around?

Newspapermen, thank you for the two centuries of reading. Thank you for all the times you worked through the night to get the paper on the street. Now it’s time to shut down the rumbling presses for the last time and walk into the grey light of dawn.


Language and soft power

Today language is a matter of “soft power”. This useful notion was, it appears, invented by an American academic, Joseph Nye. Yet the British seem to understand soft power and the fact that theirs rests to a great extent in the English language, whereas the Americans seem not to. Beginning with “Basic English” in the 1930s, the British have turned teaching and promoting the language into a worldwide industry.

Today, that industry focuses realistically on the practical use of the English language for business and technical communication. Who cares about Shakespeare? the adroit salesmen of ESL reason. The language is a world bestseller independent of the culture that produced it. Indeed, part of the myth that makes English sell is the notion that it has no cultural baggage.

People from the Commonwealth have jumped on the bandwagon launched long ago by the British Council and similar organizations. ESL in Australia and New Zealand, for example, makes a lot of money for those nations, even though they have an eccentric accent only imperfectly understood by the rest of the English-speaking world. Their advantage is, of course, their geographical position, conveniently to the south of the huge Asian market.

The growth of world English in the postwar period coincided with the British losing their colonial empire and the Americans becoming the main superpower. The British can console themselves that they are on their way to acquiring a new empire, a “soft” empire (one might say) based on the English language. Of course, the desirability of English is due not to them, really, but to the power and profile of the USA. Yet Americans have not been nearly as active on the language front. Perhaps they think English will advance by itself; or perhaps they think Hollywood and popular music are doing the job for them without any need for government intervention.

European governments have been active in trying to parlay the soft power represented by their languages, though they pale in comparison with the British. The Alliance Française has done a good job for France over the years. The Italians and the Spaniards have their cultural institutes on the same model.

The Goethe Institute has served Germany well too, but there has been a certain reluctance to put the money into it that it deserves. The Germans feel the need to keep a low profile on the world stage due to their bellicose past. However, in recent years it did not seem like that as the EU grappled with the Euro crisis. The perception was that the powerful German economy was calling all the shots. At the height of the war of words between Berlin and Athens, Greek journalist Alexis Papachelas noted that the Germans now focus on using their “hard power” (economic muscle), whereas they have little notion of “soft power”. All they have to offer Europe, he said, is a business plan – which does not go down well in places like Greece which are attached to their independence. I might add that economic power is indeed “hard power”, but it seems to be just realistic, down-to-earth stuff and neutral as regards ideology. Germans may be wary of soft power, because their history reminds them how close to ideology it can be.

The Chinese, for their part, show every sign of seeing the importance of language for soft power. They are promoting their Confucius Institutes with considerable flair. As to how “soft power” relates to ideology, they will no doubt have their own answers.







English on the edge (2)

Who does the English language belong to? The English would say “us of course”. The Americans have been trying to appropriate it for themselves since Noah Webster made a few spelling differences into a matter of national pride. In the meantime, growing cultural differences have had their effect on the language, differentiating it on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Languages have always belonged to national élites; and he who owns language owns discourse. The aristocrat says to the masses: learn to talk like me, and then we can talk. The trouble is, the masses do not have the chance to learn; and if they do learn, they cease to be peasants and forget real peasant concerns. In France, the French language belonged to the Crown in a very special way. The King founded the Académie Française, and told it to watch over his language. The Revolution dispensed with the King but kept his language. Even today, the French language is “in hand”, “under control”. One has the abiding sense that there is someone in charge, someone deciding what is right and what is wrong.

In Britain, English was officially “the King’s English”, of course, but there was a lack of central control like an academy. And once the Americans shook off the British yoke politically, they inevitably did so linguistically too. There was now no core of English, no authority; “the centre cannot hold”.

So English today does not belong to anyone, the way French does. English is an institution with no-one in charge, no-one to say “the buck stops here”. Is this not a sign of freedom? I suppose it is. But it is also a sign of vulnerability to a takeover by faceless interests in the background.

Israeli academic Danny Dor has argued that, far from imposing English on the world, large American companies really impose multilingualism as part of their globalization strategy. They know that their product, or at least the software and documentation that run it, has to be translated into all sorts of “local” languages so that consumers in other countries will use it. He also says that these international players themselves are likely to replace the “local” apparatus of dictionaries and academies as the source of standards for the various national languages. Thus not only English, but other languages too, may cease to belong to their speakers or to their national élites.

In the meantime, English is starting to be appropriated by ESL speakers, who, encouraged by the prevailing anarchy of the language, show all the signs of turning into a separatist movement. For them, English, appropriately streamlined, can become a world language without the approval or input of existing English-speaking élites.

The trouble with English as a world language has always been its intractable core of irregularity and idiosyncrasy. Pidgins, drastically simplified forms of the language, are one answer that has arisen spontaneously. Horrified by this development, the British themselves developed Basic English in the 1930s. This was a rearguard action, attempting to maintain control; it involved cutting down the vocabulary while retaining all the endearing irregularities. But ESL speakers now want to go the next logical step and just simplify the language both in form and vocabulary for their own use. “You don’t own English” they retort to the horrified native speakers. “Who does?” It is a question to which the native speakers have less and less of a convincing answer.