The Poor Wealthy

It’s always distressing to see people who either have all the outward show of being intelligent and well-educated or who are in positions of power behaving like the village idiot, clearly incapable of stepping back from themselves enough to look in the mirror. Granted, it’s a difficult thing to do, but one of the drawbacks of having power is that you have to use it wisely and to do that you have to examine your motives.

This is not about morality, it’s about practicality. Wield your power irresponsibly and mindlessly and you’ll reign supreme for a while, but ultimately whoever you’re trampling on will rise up against you with a force that your power can’t overwhelm. I’m not just talking about despots either, although they illustrate this beautifully. There’s almost a formula for how events play out.

They gain power undemocratically, or even democratically. Then it goes to their head and they begin to bleed their subjects dry. They surround themselves with sycophants, and convince themselves that they’re acting in the country’s best interests. Eventually they’re fit only for the lunatic asylum. One day their subjects begin to say we’ve had enough. They protest. They’re ignored. Their protests get louder and more physical.

Protesters get brutalized, arrested, violated. They get angrier and more violent. Further suppression follows, bloody and violent. Surprisingly no doubt to the despot, their power isn’t so effective any more. They go into denial. Their sycophants start deserting them. The world either intervenes or doesn’t but severely criticizes them and they become outcasts. They insist they are doing nothing wrong.

They refuse to leave. They say they will die in the country that they were born in. The sycophants that are left beat their chests with bravado as they nervously look around them and calculate the odds. The rebellion doesn’t stop, no matter how much and how bloodily the subjects are violated, no matter how more sophisticated the despot’s weapons of suppression.

The despot goes down still protesting. It never happens any other way, unless the despot has some capacity to step outside of themselves to look at the consequences of their actions and get out sooner. As in Egypt. In countries where the democratic process is more sophisticated, the violence is mostly absent, but the process is the same.

It’s always the middle class that starts out naive and believing, willing to work like dogs for the sake of God and country. Proud of their democracy, proud that change happens peacefully and that they can have a hand in it. Not always able to grasp the extent to which their good-heartedness and commitment get exploited. Not always that able to step outside of themselves either and see that they’re letting themselves be doormats.

But democracy has an inherent flaw. It’s supposed to be the best system for the exercise of freedom. It would work well in a country where there’s no greed, where leaders and all politicians genuinely work for the better of the individual and the country as a whole. But failing that perfect scenario, gradually greed and power takes less and less responsibility (pays less and less tax) and exploits the good qualities of the middle class who pay more tax and get lower salaries until their morale and their lives are eroded beyond endurance.

The erosion has only one possible ending. People start to protest! A new leader emerges who sees that the danger isn’t just imminent, it’s upon the country, and something has to be done to restore the middle class, because it’s always the engine of any society. The leader wants the middle class to get its just rewards, and for the wealthy to pay fair tax. The powerful class clings panic-stricken to its position, terrified of giving an inch. Which nicely reveals exactly how powerful they really are.

What’s mind-boggling is the childish transparency of their excuses. Namely if you raise taxes for the wealthy they will leave the country, you will discourage investors (the implication being that they only invest in the US because they can exploit and not contribute their fair share). The best one is that you will be taxing all the small businesses who will fold and job creation will cease. Enter John Boehner, with that sulky look on his face, moaning about the poor wealthy.

It’s mindless. Pity the seemingly civilized, educated, sophisticated individual who appears to not have much better of an understanding of what makes society run smoothly than a Middle Eastern despot.

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Salman Rushdie and Fareed Zakaria on the First Amendment

On CNN the other night Fareed Zakaria asked Salman Rushdie whether he thought CNN should have aired the anti-Islam video and shown the cartoon ridiculing Mohammed by the magazine Charlie Hebdoe.  Rushdie said yes, because CNN’s job is to report the news, not to censor it out of fear.

He said the First Amendment was the most important part of our western civilisation, and that the west should not be held hostage by fear of inflaming fundamentalist passion.  There have been plenty of cartoons, videos and films denigrating the Pope but Catholics don’t go on a killing spree about it.  Is that because they’re not really passionate about their religion?

Of course not.  Rushdie added that when one sees a stupid Youtube video, the healthy and normal response is to say it’s a stupid video and move on with your life.  And that deliberately inflaming people’s passion with it is about politics and power, which has nothing to do with religion.

It’s an old business, using religion as a guise to mobilize those prone to violence.  It’s a frightening business these days, when entitlement is so out of control.  I have found myself giving into the fear that fundamentalists prey on – if you do something don’t we like we kill you.  Even Christiane Amanpour seemed pretty convinced that it was irresponsible to create and print the derogatory cartoon.

I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with her or not, or whether I thought it should have been aired.  But when Rushdie spoke, I realized that if you give in to the fundamentalist threat it’s a slippery slope.  Pretty soon you’re not reporting anything they do.  In case you inflame them more.  Here’s the truth, they’re inflammable.   And that kind of neurotic abuse of power doesn’t diminish when you kow-tow to it.  I admired Rushdie for his courage and solid good sense.

This situation reminds me of when I was a child.  A Catholic priest asked me what I would do if I was given a choice to denounce my faith or lose my life.  I was very clear about it, because I was already disenchanted with Catholicism.  I’d lie, of course.  But now, if I was given the option to support fundamentalism – by not criticizing violent criminal acts – or lose my life, it wouldn’t be such an easy choice.

Fundamentalists, regardless of their religion and whether they’re from the Middle East or the West, are bullies with no respect for life, a lot of repressed anger looking for an outlet, and an exaggerated entitlement.  They seek to destroy freedom of speech.  Salman Rushdie was right.  The First Amendment is one of the most important rights we have in the west.  Give it up and you violate your soul.

More Washing on the Line – My Love Affair with Italy

    A photograph taken of the Piazza del Campo in ...

I love washing hanging on a line. When I visited Italy I was entranced by sheets hanging out across streets or from window to window, nonchalantly billowing in the dappled breeze.  I loved that about Italy.  Although Armani came in at a close second, I’ll admit.

I remember the first day I saw that washing, in Siena, late summer, the day I fell in love with Italy.  I went to visit the Duomo, to feel the grandeur, and watch the old women in black who kneel for hours muttering imprecations to the Virgin Mary.  “ Madre, per favore, il mio sposo, mi ha fatto male per troppo tempo.  Prendelo, prendelo, Le prego.  Mi da qualche anni di liberta!” “Virgin mother, please, my husband, he’s done me wrong for too long now.  Take him away. Take him away.  I beg you.  Give me some years of liberty!”

Imagine: your husband dies and you wear black for the rest of your life.  Actually, imagine your husband drives you mad but he doesn’t die.  Then eventually the Virgin Mary answers your prayers, takes him off your hands, and you can’t even wear colourful clothes to celebrate. No wonder they mutter darkly those women.  The men don’t wear black or mutter in church, though.  I wonder why.

Well I steeped myself in grandeur and satiated my curiosity about old women praying, then it became somewhat oppressive.  So I went outside, giving fervent thanks to the powers that be that I’d shuffled those Catholic rules off .  To celebrate, I climbed the stairs which take you to the top of the part that was never finished, but which gives you the view anyway.

Italy does fill your heart in some unearthly way, I admit it. I stood for a while, drinking it in, Toscana in late summer.  Bells rang for someone far across a valley.

With my heart full I descended the stairs to a small cafe, with a couple of tables on the street.  I sat down in the late summer sun, drinking my coffee, nobody else in sight.  The air was still and it was very quiet, early afternoon; that time in Tuscany when everybody is doing whatever they do behind closed shutters.  Sleeping off a hearty lunch of pasta, gnocchi di patate, pollo arrosto. Chianti.  Pane.  They eat more food in one meal than I do in a week, those Italians, no wonder they need to sleep it off.

A solitary person or two strolled by.  A small slinky black cat with a paw that was half white, half ginger, came up to me and stroked itself against my leg.

I knew better than to lean down to it – that makes them run away – so I just let it do its thing.  Replete, I.  And there across the street was somebody’s washing, hanging out of the window, waving in the slight breeze.

My my.

Getting Rejected by Agents, Believing in Yourself and Not. Giving. Up.

Writing can be a lot of fun.  The world of publishing isn’t.  Well, not all the time.  Definitely not while you’re trying to get into it.  I guess any meaningful journey feels significantly lacking in anything vaguely resembling fulfillment now and then.

I’m looking for agents, so my book can be a real live one as well as an ebook.  Finding and  researching them to make sure they’re right for me is laborious and time consuming, but it’s exciting when I hit on one who seems perfect.  Which I did two days ago.  Daniel Lazar works for a New York agency, Writer’s House, and he seems straightforward, has a sense of humor and a big heart.

His bio blurb says “If you think your pages can make me hold my breath or miss my subway stop or even laugh out loud…”  I like that.  So I sent him my proposal – which I’ve worked on for weeks, editing, re-editing, thinking it’s just fine then realizing it’s not, throwing it out, starting again.  If I still worked on a typewriter my room would be littered with crumpled up rejects.

People say don’t invest in outcomes, don’t get attached.  What a lot of crap.  It’s impossible to write a book and not hope that the world will love and respect it and you’ll sell millions of copies and make it to the New York Best Seller list.  People who don’t let themselves have that dream are scared of disappointment so they shut it down.

Today I understand them a little better, although I still think it’s half living.  I got an email from Daniel.  So soon!  All agents say you’ll only hear from them if they’re interested.  My heart leapt – he loved my proposal and me, he wants to read the whole book, this is it, I’m on my way, New York here I come!  Heart thudding I opened the email.

It was from his assistant.  “Daniel asked me to reply…your project does not seem right…”.  Damn.  It’s like a mini-death, there’s no way I could prepare for how heavy my heart feels, and all the crucifyingly criticial crap that comes flooding into my head.  About my book being not good enough for a reputable agency, me being a ridiculously lousy writer, a dreamer without a hope in hell of ever succeeding…

But now I don’t feel so bad.  Daniel, divine as he is, obviously isn’t the right agent for me.  It doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there somewhere.  There must be.  Perhaps we’re moving towards each other already in ways neither of us is aware.  That’s how life works.  All I can do is play my part.  I’ve already sent to a bunch of other agents, and I’ll carry on sending to some every day.

I’m getting together with SEO Afficionado Vernon Chalmers on Friday to discuss my marketing strategy.  I’ve nearly finished the thriller script and I’ve started on the crime novel.  I’m going to carry on, no matter what, and hope like hell my fate isn’t like Van Gogh’s.  I might go mad and end up penniless – but I’m familiar with both those states so it doesn’t bother me too much.  At least I shan’t lose one of my ears.  Ha.

Getting your work into the world can be hard.  Some people are born into an environment that predisposes them to success, but many aren’t and part of the journey is developing a belief in yourself and your work.  The only way that belief can grow is through getting rejected, and learning not to give authority to the messages in your head that say the rejection means you aren’t any good.

The real enemy isn’t the world, or agents or publishers, it’s in your own head.  Conquering it is a fight, it’s one of the hardest things in the world.  But it’s the good fight, and the better you get at it, the more you stand behind yourself deep in your heart.  That’s when the world starts responding to you, duh.  There’s no way past the impasse but through it.  And it’s indisputable that you can only make it onto the list of people who might succeed if you don’t give up.

Fear of Success, Letting the Wild Animal out of its Cage

Attention please..three horses, put on their b...

Attention please..three horses, put on their best face! (Photo credit: jimmedia)

Writing or doing anything creative can be a real challenge, even if you aren’t doing it in the hope of earning fame or fortune or daily bread or any bread, or even just a bit of attention, even if you’re doing it just for yourself.  There’s something about it that’s scary.  Some kind of message in your head that you have to be perfect, you have to live up to an impossible standard that can’t be pinned down.  Pressure!

There’s something else, too.  It doesn’t cost anything materially to write, but the doing of it puts you at the coal face of your existence sometimes.  It defies logic.  The thing is, that part of you that needs to be let out, no matter what the mode of expression, is like a wild animal in a cage.  Keep it imprisoned and it either implodes in a way that impacts on you physically or you go a little or a lot crazy.  Well, let me speak for myself, it’s what happens to me.

I feel powerless, enervated and useless.  I get scared of life and people and I start debating the pointlessness of doing anything.  It’s a slippery slope from there, although the great thing about life is that I always get to a point where it’s unbearable and I’m provoked into crashing through whatever emotional or mental barrier is in the way of expressing myself.  Just do it! finally prevails.

What a relief.  Even if I’m not at all inspired and nothing of much sense comes out because my thoughts are all over the place and my focus is out of focus, the fear goes away once I actually start, get my hands dirty.  The pleasure of the doing is all that matters and my world view shifts in an instant.  Action is always easier to deal with, even if it’s challenging, than the debilitating debate should I shouldn’t I can I can’t I and what’s the point.  I suppose it’s because we only have power when we act.

I think the fear that rises up with non-action is pretty existential and getting beyond it can be a huge challenge. When you’re expressing yourself, even if you’re not doing a brilliant job of it, even if you tell yourself and the world you’re not creative, you have released some part of you that is authentic.  It’s you in the raw.  The first time we’re like that is when we’re babies.

We didn’t know it wasn’t okay to express ourselves.  But for many people their earliest experiences of being in their power were punishing, whether parents meant to punish or not.  Don’t be powerful is the most potent message visited upon children, overtly and covertly, by family members, society, religions.  We take all of that in at the time we’re most receptive.  It registers without our even knowing it, and becomes part of how we operate, how we respond to life.

I believe it turns into an inner, very ingrained expectation of being emotionally brutalized if we let that raw, creative part out and it controls us in adulthood.  Fear of success – If I let myself be powerful will you be threatened and attack me.  Will you leave me, abandon me – it can be hard-wired into every part of our being.  The weirdest thing is how we can be so unaware of it in childhood and adulthood.  All the excuses we make for not being able to do things – excuses that we believe – are a cover up for that immense fear.  But I’ll be annihilated if I let myself out.

Beliefs we’re controlled by are hard to dismantle.  I’ve tried so hard for much of my life to do it using my thinking brain.  It didn’t work.  I guess it’s because our thoughts aren’t what bond us.  Our emotions are.

New York’s Park in the Sky – From Dream to Reality

Image from http://www.thehighline.org

Pretty picture, huh.  No it isn’t some wild overgrown African city, it’s New York 30 feet above street level, part of a project which turned a disused elevated railway running through Manhattan into the city’s elevated park in the sky.  I love the American capacity to think and dream big and turn those dreams into magnificent realities.

In 1847 the City of New York authorized railroad tracks down Manhattan’s West Side.   It was a great idea, but it caused a lot of accidents between traffic and freight trains.  One of the streets it crossed, 10th Avenue, became known as Death Avenue, and men on horses, the West Side Cowboys, had to ride ahead of trains, waving red flags.

It got so bad that in 1929 the New York Central Railroad and the City and State of New York created the West Side Improvement Project, part of which was a 13 mile long High Railway Line 30 feet above street level.  It was designed to go through the center of blocks rather than over avenues.  It connected directly to factories and warehouses, so trains carrying milk, meat, produce and goods could roll right inside buildings without interrupting traffic.

It put the Westside Cowboys out of a job, I guess, but for everybody else it was great until interstate trucking made rail transport redundant.  The last train ran in 1980, pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.

In the late 1990’s two ordinary guys, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who lived in the area, founded Friends of the High Line to protect it from being demolished.  They had no experience in urban planning or dealing with the City, but they saw how gorgeous the line would be as a  public open space.  They ploughed through bureaucratic red tape and managed to get City support and funding to save a portion of the line and lay out a planning framework over the next three years.  And the project had wings.

In 2003 a design competition was held.  720 teams from 36 countries entered.  By now it had become an international project and Mayor Bloomberg had agreed to City funding for it, and the State of New York had come on board.  The team chosen included a landscape architecture firm, an architecture firm, experts in horticulture, engineering, security, maintenance, public art.

The first phase of construction started in April 2006, and by June last year it was complete.   2.3 km of self-seeded wild sections, others with lush lawns, benches and boardwalks, and others with more formal landscaping.  And a river runs through it.  30 feet above the chaotic traffic in downtown Manhattan.  And all because of two guys with a dream and the gutzpah to do something about it, to start even though they didn’t have any knowledge about how to finish.  And they had the patience stay with the dream until it had become a reality.

What a great way to step out of history.  If you let them, dreams will have their way.  The image below is what the line looked like before it was developed.  To learn more and see some really fabulous pictures on the High Line site, click the link: http://www.thehighline.org or either of the images.

English: New York Central Railroad elevated ra...

Image via Wikipedia

Richard Quest In Davos With Bob Diamond The Unapologetic Banker

English: Richard Quest, volunteering with Habi...

Image via Wikipedia

There was a time when I thought that anybody running a country or a company or organisation was in that position because of extraordinary ability.  I know now that it isn’t true but some part of me is still reluctant to accept it.  For example I just can’t get my head around bankers who have ruined whole economies and got away with it – in fact who still get monumental bonuses.

Richard Quest has interviewed a few of bankers in Davos over the last week, and it’s mind boggling how they rationalize their behavior and that of their kind.  Remorse?  You must be kidding.  Mr. Bob  Diamond of Barclays (sounds like a Charles Dickens character) became chief executive at the beginning of 2011.  In 2010 he was head of Barclays Capital.  That year he got a £6.5m bonus, on top of his annual salary of £250,000, and a long-term incentive award of £2.25m contingent on future performance.  £9m in all.  His staff shared £2.5m.  It’s obscene.

He has said before that he thinks the time for remorse and apology from bankers is over.  What remorse and apology?  The world is still waiting.  When speaking to Richard Quest, he also said that it’s important to take emotion out of the equation.  And he said it with a serious face.  He’s feeling very virtuous as he accepted a much smaller bonus this year – £1.8m in shares and a deferred award of £4.7m in shares and contingent capital – bonds that convert into shares.  It’s still obscene.

And now of course he’s staunchly backing bankers’ rights to be paid well for performance.  But here’s the thing, what do these guys think their salaries are about?  Well, Bob and his kind can carry on living in their bubble but it’s going to burst eventually.  I wonder how any of them would cope if somebody destroyed their private little economies with recklessness and greed.  I doubt it would be by suggesting the guy who anihilated them be paid an obscene bonus.

Richard Quest didn’t ask very pressing questions in his interview, but his attitude to Diamond was sober, fairly disapproving and clearly critical.  Water off a duck’s back, though.  That’s some pretty over-permissive entitlement Mr. Diamond has.  In some ways I envy it.  Survival of the fittest, grab what you can.  I could certainly do with a bit more entitlement than I’ve got.  But his is out of balance, I think, so he’s got to be paying a price at some level.  He doesn’t look like a happy man.

These bankers, even though they don’t behave like it, are still human and are subject to the same laws of cause and effect as we all are.   Greed at some level is fear-driven.  And I hold onto the idea that somewhere inside every greedy, fear-driven bully beats a lonely heart.

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dic...