The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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How capitalism has failed us

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin… our homes are covered with mortgages, labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… The fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes … tramps and millionaires.*

The failure of capitalismYou might be forgiven for thinking that was something that came from the mouth of a modern Democrat lamenting on the decay of America and the rise of the rich under Donald Trump and his Republican minions. But you’d be wrong: it’s actually from the late 19th century. It was the preamble to the platform of the People’s Party, back before American politics was dominated by just two parties. Between 1870 and 1900, there were at least nine or ten political parties running for office in the USA, some of which merged or morphed into others in that period.

It’s not so much the number of parties that identified the era, but that America had a much more diverse political culture with a much wider range or platforms and perspectives from which to choose. And there was a lot more leftist, activist sentiment than today.

At least some of the issues and problems faced by the nation in the late 19th century were the same as they are today. The great and increasing disparity between the working classes and the rich was causing enormous social and political upset, just like today. People took to the streets to protest about it. Violently and often. Our Labour Day holiday is the result of workers’ protests. May Day celebrates the protests for an eight-hour workday. Our child labour laws came from similar protests.

But today, we don’t seem to have much of an organized protest movement to challenge the control of the government by the rich. Alvaro Sanchez, writing on the Common Dreams website, noted,

Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally. Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye.

An Oxfam report on wealth inequality is headlined, “Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing.” The Oxfam website notes:

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”

Many of the economic and social conditions today are frighteningly similar to those in the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), the time of the industrial revolution and the monopoly capitalists.

Yes, there was Occupy Wall Street, a short-lived protest movement that launched in 2011; it gave us some hope that people were not going to tolerate the wealth inequalities and pro-rich tax policies of Western governments, but it faded away after barely a year of action. Fickle media attention moved on.

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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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