Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: December, 2016

The search upstream

At the beginning of his book Danubio, Claudio Magris jokes about the impossibility of finding the true source of the Danube. The closer you get to it, the less definite the answer seems.

Living in the Grisons as I do, I often puzzle over the source of the Rhine and what counts as part of the Rhine. The so-called Anterior Rhine rises in the Surselva highlands, apparently at a lake, and the Posterior Rhine rises further south, somewhere near the mountain called Rheinwaldhorn. These two Rhines have their confluence at Reichenau, and then the Rhine flows past Chur and through a valley northwards to empty into the Eastern end of Lake Constance. It flows out the Western end of the Lake, past Basel and then up into Germany, heading for the North Sea. I have often wondered, as I take my walks along the young Rhine near Chur: who says this is “the Rhine” anyway? And who says the part that flows out of the far end of lake Constance is the same river? It all seems pretty arbitrary. And yet we think of each of the mighty rivers of Europe as springing from a tiny Alpine or similar mountainous source.

“Upstream” and “downstream” are powerful metaphors for both historical and logical derivation. Logically, the more complex and diverse is supposed to derive from some simple principle. Historically, the complex and diverse but related is supposed to “spring from a common source”.

So it is with languages in the Western world, beginning with the exploration of Indo-European in the 19th century. Linguists dreamed of discovering an ancient language from which all the others could be derived: an Ursprache spoken in a supposed Urheimat from which the original Aryans had migrated. First many thought it was Sanscrit. Then the idea imposed itself that the proto-language had been lost, but could be reconstructed scientifically.

As time went on, however, competing ideas muddied the waters, as it were. The “wave theory” proposed that linguistic innovations arose among the derived languages and spread to one another over time. The “substrate theory” proposed that the differences between the derived languages were caused by the influence of non-Indo-European languages spoken in the corresponding regions of Europe. Today the picture does not seem as clear as it once did.

Yet we still long to find the one source upstream which will explain the whole “river system”. Alas, there may not be one, any more than there is one indisputable source of the Rhine. There may be no unifying explanatory principle for all the downstream variety – just more variety upstream. The code of codes, the code that explains all the other codes, may be an illusion.



At a Christmas market

Everywhere in the German-speaking world there are Christmas markets. There used to be a few well-known ones. These became a tourist attraction. Now every city and town in the German-speaking world wants to get in on the act. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Alsace, streets and squares of old cities are lined with brightly-lit booths selling seasonal merchandise and street food. The “old town” or historic centre of cities and towns, with narrow cobblestoned streets and squares with old buildings, provides a perfect backdrop for these things. When you see strolling minstrels performing, you could think yourself back in the Middle Ages. Even in the most Scrooge-like mood, one could not fail to get into the Christmas spirit walking around one of these markets.

In Chur, where I live, there used to be the Andreasmarkt, which was held on the feast of St Andrew, November 30, and that was it. Now an expanded market goes on until Christmas. Glühwein steaming in vats, and Bratwurst roasting over charcoal grills are the characteristic smells. The weather is cold, and you see folks in warm coats and tuques. You see St Nicholas but only on December 6th, his feastday. The eve of each Sunday of Advent is announced by trumpeters playing from the steeple of a city church. The idea of the Christmas market seems to appeal to people and you see plenty of shoppers.

In the meantime, world news has caught up with Christmas markets, given what happened at the one in Berlin. At the Christmas market in Basel, where I am now, there are ominous security precautions. Concrete blocks have hurriedly been put into place in the access streets, making it impossible to drive trucks onto the Cathedral Square, where a major part of the market is set up. It seems absurd to think of Christmas markets in conjunction with murder and mayhem, but that is the situation that has arisen.

There is an effort to maintain normality. The people are not staying away, either. They like to go. Christmas markets have become part of the Christmas season. When people can get together in open spaces on particular occasions of the year, it gives a feeling of good neighbourliness and encourages civic spirit. Yet clearly there are those in our midst who think that because people elsewhere in the world are suffering – which they certainly are – there should be suffering here too.

Reporting citizens’ forums

Last week I talked about Flemish Belgian writer David van Reybrouck’s pamphlet “against elections”. He praises the recent innovation of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which discusses ideas for legislation and constitutional change, and which contains 99 ordinary citizens chosen by lot, plus a chairperson (a judge). He thinks there should be more of this, instead of everybody going to the polls every few years and then leaving all decision-making up to the politicians.

However, putting a group of people in a room and telling them to talk is not quite the answer in itself. Politics is no stranger to the committee. The trouble with committees is that viewpoints cancel each other out and that the consensus that emerges is well-nigh meaningless; or else the “spontaneous hierarchy” effect takes over, which means that some people succeed in dictating their views while others are ignored. There has to be some way of ensuring that all participants speak their minds and are heard.

Again, in any citizen consultation, the essential point is to hear what the people are saying, but also to understand what they mean.  This means that we need some kind of record and analysis of what is said at the meeting. Verbatim reporting usually turns out to be too much, while impressionistic notes are far too little. There needs to be an independent rapporteur who captures everything that is being said but also makes sure that all viewpoints are heard.

Some years ago I developed such a method for the rapporteur role based on the precedent of conference interpreting.  The rapporteur at a consultation meeting can best be compared to a simultaneous or consecutive interpreter at a multilingual conference. In conference interpreting, the interpreter listens to what each speaker is saying, and, almost simultaneously,  translates it into the target language for the benefit of participants who are speakers of that language.  In the case of an extended intervention by one speaker, he may wait until after the intervention is concluded and then interpret it consecutively (as it is called).  It is important to understand that the conference interpreter does not provide a mechanical word-for-word translation.  Instead, he gives the meaning, the sense of what has been said.

That is precisely what the rapporteur does according to my method.  He captures the meaning of what is said, writing it on his computer screen.  The rapporteur does, however, often use the terms that the speakers have used, if those terms seem to have some significance to the participants which should be brought out in later analysis.

It is important that the rapporteur operate in “real time”, as a conference interpreter does.  This enables him to provide feedback to the discussion as it unfolds, using an overhead projector to show what he has heard. This regular feedback clarifies to the participants what they have been saying, if that is needed.  It helps to keep the discussion on track.

When the rapporteur has done the first part of his work in “real time” the text of the meeting (ephemeral, volatile, spoken language) has been captured for further consideration and analysis. He then proceeds to analyze this material and summarize it. Following further input, if any, from the participants, this becomes the report of the meeting.

I suggest this could be used as an approach for citizen forums, and could serve as a tool for participatory democracy.



Election fever and neverendums

There is a great deal of headshaking about democracy in the Western world these days. In this or that country the people go to the polls, and the majority make some cringeworthy, self-destructive decision. (Think of your own examples.) Part of the problem is, of course, that too many people stay at home. The rate of political participation is in decline. People do not seem to feel they have a stake in politics, and the political establishment is less and less responsive to the concerns of ordinary folks. What’s to be done?

Flemish Belgian writer David van Reybrouck has written a pamphlet “against elections” which has become known in translation around Europe.

He is against relying on elections for democratic decision-making. He advocates doing it by lot. The Athenians often did it that way, as he points out, and it’s still used in our legal systems for picking lay judges (juries). Yet after the great 18th-century revolutions, the American and the French, modern democracy became equated with elections, and with elected parliaments making the decisions on behalf of the people. This has resulted in the growth of a “political class” who do not really represent the interests of their constituents, but have become highly skilled at getting elected and reelected.

Reybrouck praises the recent innovation of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which discusses ideas for legislation and constitutional change, and which contains ordinary citizens chosen by lot. He thinks there should be more of this, instead of everybody going to the polls every few years and then leaving it up to the politicians.

Reybrouck’s pamphlet has aroused plenty of interest in German translation, including in Switzerland. Now in Switzerland, they have “direct democracy”, which means that citizens with an issue on their minds can trigger the holding of national and local votes on everything under the sun instead of leaving it to parliament. The Swiss approach would horrify Canadians, who started complaining about “neverendums” when there was more than one popular vote on Quebec sovereignty.

Anyway, the Swiss seem to think that they do not need to pay attention to Reybrouck’s ideas, because they already have the answer. This is missing the point. Direct democracy, which guarantees several nationwide and regional votes a year, stimulates political debate among the public, but it is looking more and more unsustainable – people just are not voting at the rate they should. Turnout is often poor. One can speak of voter fatigue. Again, the system is often manipulated by the political parties, who get their pet issues publicized this way. Still there is no way to give the system up. Swiss believe in it almost religiously. It also supports a whole industry of journalists, political pundits and pollsters who would be out of a job if it was curtailed.

Which brings us to another issue that must be a cause of voter fatigue – polling. This is a caricature of democracy that distracts people from the real thing. Politicians and journalists love polls, even though they are often found to be catastrophically wrong on election night.

The Swiss tabloid Blick ran an article on Reybrouck’s ideas. At the end, there was – a reader poll. Surely this is the most eloquent comment on the topic there could be:

“Is the author right in his critique of democracy?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Here now I’ve got to vote – again!”