Monday, November 30, 2009

Swiss Ban Minarets

Yesterday a majority of Swiss voters supported a motion from the extreme right wing Swiss People's Party to ban the building a minarets.  Read my article published in an Australian e-journal:

Swiss Citzens have voted to ban minarets

Sunday, November 29, 2009

James Lovelock’s Gaia

by Paul Doolan

Lovelock, James.
The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. Basic Books, New York, 2007.
Lovelock, James. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Basic Books, New York,2009

Arguably the world’s most famous scientist, renown began nearly four decades ago for James Lovelock with the publication of his The Ages of Gaia, in which he claimed that the Earth itself and all its living and non-living things behaves like one self-regulating organism. He used the word "Gaia", at the suggestion of his friend William Golding, as a metaphor to describe this Earth system.  Having launched his hypothesis Lovelock, for the most part, stayed out of the following polemic and left it to his followers, who are legion, and his detractors, who were multitudes, to battle it out.  His hypothesis, nowadays generally referred to as a theory, has become increasingly respectable, supported by evidence.  Lovelock, who turned 90 this year, has published two books within the last two years.  They are of a piece – desperate calls for us to change our ways of living.  With the climate storm “whose severity the Earth has not endured for fifty-five million years” on the verge of destroying human civilization itself, we are like, according to Lovelock, “passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail”.
            Lovelock calls for immediate, and radical action.  It is not good enough to simply cut emissions, but we need to change the way we view ourselves and other species in order to change the way we live.  In Lovelock’s words: “we have (…) to stop using the land surface as if it was ours alone.  It is not: it belongs to the community of ecosystems that serve all life by regulating the climate and chemical composition of the Earth.”  Furthermore, we need to counter “the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind.  This false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards, allows us to pay lip service to environmental policies and programmes but to continue with business as usual.”  He emphasizes throughout both books that we are the source of the problem, therefore we cannot be the solution.  The idea that the Earth needs to be saved is absurd and the idea that we can be its saviors is pure hubris (the Earth will continue nicely without us – indeed it will probably thrive without us) and the suggestion that we can be stewards of the Earth is laughable, like allowing goats to be gardeners.
            The source of the problem, as stated above, is our self-delusion that we stand outside of nature, that we own nature.  And the deadly instruments that we use on our assault on nature are what he calls “the three deadly Cs” namely, ‘Combustion, Cattle and Chainsaws.’  We are addicted to the burning of fossil fuels and we continue to chop down the rainforests.  Regarding livestock Lovelock is unequivocal – “If our leaders were all great and powerful, they could ban the keeping of pets and livestock, make a vegetarian diet compulsory, and fund a huge program of food synthesis by the chemical and biochemical industries”.
            Lovelock is skeptical of the new enthusiasm for renewable energies.  Solar power and wind energy can never create the amounts of electricity that we need to power our massive urban complexes.  Instead of taking the radical steps towards real change, there is simply an “ever-growing urge to appear green”.  He is skeptical of the idea of a technical fix – “Whatever we do as geoengineers is unlikely to stop dangerous climate change or prevent death on a scale that makes all previous wars, famines and disasters small”.
            With such a bleak outlook, what are we to do?  Lovelock claims that the first step is to stop fooling ourselves and to face up to the desperate situation that we have created: “We have to stop pretending that there is any possible way back to that lush, comfortable, and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the twentieth century.”  The second step is to persuade our governments to start preparing for the coming onslaught – “Our greatest dangers are not from climate change itself, but indirectly from starvation, competition for space and resources, and war (……) The climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave a few survivors living a Stone Age existence.” The best we can aim for, is to take measures to avoid that Stone Age future, with a few breeding pairs eking out a miserable existence, becoming reality.  The goal of the British government must be to draw up plans that will ensure the survival of civilization.  Lovelock’s recipe includes deciding now how many climate refugees will be allowed in, deciding which areas will be evacuated and lost to the rising sea and which areas will be protected, and most importantly, to cut CO2 emissions radically by undertaking a massive programme of building nuclear power stations.  The third and final step will be the building of new settlements along the coast of the ice-free Arctic Sea, and the eventual resettlement of the few remaining British carriers of the candle of civilization.  Lovelock is emphatic, tens of millions, indeed hundreds, probably thousands of millions are about to die in the near future, and they cannot be saved.  Our purpose therefore, must be to save civilization – our literatures, our medicines and technologies, the memories of our achievements.
            In an age, in which pessimism is considered some sort of   anti-social heresy, Lovelock’s dystopian vision is difficult to swallow.  In a culture founded on the pursuit of happiness, to hold up the mirror and expose our ugliness is simply insulting.  In an economy based on unbrideled consumption, to point out the limits, any limits, is down right contrary.  Lovelock is intent on spoiling our fun.  But perhaps we need to listen.
            I can’t help feeling that somehow Lovelock is enjoying the telling of his tale.  Repeatedly he reminds the reader that the best of what it means to be British was brought out during World War Two.  The enemy today poses a far greater danger than Nazi Germany ever did.  Somehow, Lovelock hopes, that British fighting spirit will once again awaken and stir and perhaps save human civilization. Both books end with a similar scene, set in the near future: with the ice melted and the lands inundated a few survivors are packing their baggage on their camels and setting off northward, to the remaining vestiges of human civilization in the new settlements along the Arctic rim.  I don’t know, but I presume that camels can swim.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Education for the 21st Century: a bad case of presentism

by Paul Doolan

I continually hear calls from education experts who repeat the mantras that good teachers are “teaching for the future” and preparing students “for the 21st century”, (which by and by, started nearly a decade ago). I am amazed at the confidence that is projected when they speak about the future. I was under the impression that a characteristic of the future is, and always will be, that its nature is hidden from us mortals. A future that is known is located already in the present, in the mind of the knower, and, paradoxically therefore, cannot be the future. Educating for the future, it seems to me, would mean educating for the unknown.

But instead, I find those who are already preparing students for the rigors and challenges of the 21st century, to be supremely confident regarding what the future will look like. And it looks suspiciously like the present, just a lot more of it – more sexy technology, more electronic instant communication, more miniaturization, more multitasking, more mobility. But this type of future oriented thinking simply betrays an obsession with the present – what I call “presentism”. I doubt very much if the future will be the present writ large.

The past record would indicate that futures generally spring one or two surprises, some of them benign and some of them nasty. Futurologists of the 2nd century AD might have shared a concern for the increasing costs of defending the frontiers of the mighty Roman Empire, but none could have predicted that within a century a small Jewish sect called Christians will have taken over the empire from within; a century ago no one was predicting the collapse of the Chinese, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, or Russian Empires and the birth of fascist and communist states, yet this all happened within a decade. And more recently, as a friend of mine pointed out, it was investments - or misadventures - in "futures" that led to the recent Credit Crunch.

We should avoid the pretense that we are equipping students with the skills that they will need for the 21st century. We have no idea what they will need. Perhaps a dexterous thumb for using their iPhone while they scan reams of electronic text is what will be needed. Or perhaps the ability to build a raft and use an AK-47? We don’t know, and we should stop pretending that we do.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Berlin Wall and History (or Life) as Disney

by Paul Doolan
November 9th has long been a painful anniversary for the German people. This was the night in 1938, the so called “Night of the Broken Glass” or “Kristalnacht”, when Nazi thugs unleashed their ferocity upon the country’s Jewish population and commenced the journey along the path towards Genocide. On November 9th 1989 the people of East Berlin scaled and finally brought down the wall that separated the city, but it has thus far been impossible to turn that ominous date into one of celebration. However, if you were watching TV on Monday night you will know that now, 20 years after the fall of the wall, November 9th has taken on a wholly new hue, with giant dominoes, pink exploding fireworks, Bon Jovi and Paul van Dyck, as well as an array of old star historical actors like Nemeth, Walesa and Gorbachev playing themselves. The remembrance of November 1989 has, despite the dismal Berlin rain, become a feel good cause for celebration.
On the Saturday before the fireworks Thomas Gottschalk, Germany’s most famous TV personality and celebrity interviewer, presented his prime-time TV show “Wetten Dass…?” The ever happy Gottschalk, wearing a shiny suit, red leather shoes and a big buckled belt, high-fived with the Black Eyed Peas, hugged Robbbie Williams and chatted amiably with a semi-nude Lady GaGa. In Berlin on November 9th, still wearing the same loud buckled belt, he pumped hands with Mikhail Gorbachev, hugged Bon Jovi and led the count-down to the reenactment of the wall coming down. Watched by a collection of celebrity political characters, he enthusiastically called out, “drei, zwei, eins” and the dominoes began their protracted fall as pink fireworks leapt and exploded from behind the Brandenburg Gate. Snow White’s Castle, I couldn’t help think, with its nightly parade of celebrity cartoon characters and its exploding fireworks.
I don’t know what I had expected, but not this tacky celebration of that famous night when the people brought down a dictatorship. The sound-bites from old Cold War warriors, clichéd speeches from “world leaders”, including Obama’s specially recorded message explaining to the German people in grade 2 English the significance of what they had done (had his speech writer had a day off?), the tiring enthusiasm of white track-suited teenage helpers, the truly awful Eurovision Song Contest like music – all of this contributed to my sense that this is history as therapy, history with the nasty bits left out, history as part of the happiness industry, history as entertainment. In other words, with its Snow White Castle and Mickey Mouse politicians, it was history as Disney.
As the politicians sat, well wrapped up against the cold – Vladamir Medvedev and Hilary Clinton, Nikolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel – they were protected from the elements by a waterproof canopy. And what of the people who had actually scaled the wall, the ones who had brought it down? The crowd were left standing in the rain.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Internationalism versus Localism

by Paul Doolan

This is a speech I gave to the graduating class of the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham Council House, Birmingham, UK on June 2nd 2008.

Flying into Britain yesterday I had to consciously remind myself that I was entering a country at war. Enjoying this wonderful city, standing in this magnificent hall, walking across Victoria Square or sipping a cappuccino in New Street, it is easy to slip into an idyllic forgetfulness. Indeed I understand how tempting it must be to throw in one’s lot with Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,

And utterly consum’d with sharp distress,

While all things else have rest from weariness?

It’s extraordinary that a country can execute not just one but two wars simultaneously, in such comfort and with such lack of concern from the home front, where the main anxiety seems to be the price of petrol.

There are intelligent people who wield persuasive arguments that Britain’s invasion of Iraq in defiance of the United Nations was a good thing, even though there are now four and half million displaced Iraqis who are not welcome in Britain, and despite the fact that the documented Iraqi civilian death toll now far exceeds that of the bombing of Hiroshima. The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a war that has now resulted in more deaths than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, was marked a couple of months ago by a small demonstration in London.

A short time later, the world witnessed scenes of Chinese troops violently putting down demonstrations in Tibet. Thousands of protestors bravely turned out in London. But here is my point. The thousands of protestors against the violence in Tibet dwarfed the small number of protestors against the war in Iraq.

Now what is going on here? Could it be as simple as we like Tibetans and we don’t like Iraqis? Buddhists are okay but Muslims not? Was it the fact that it was bitterly cold and raining heavily on the day of the Iraq protest but on the day of the Olympic flame the weather was, a little less harsh? Could it be that British citizens and residents are more upset by violence perpetrated on Tibetans than by violence that is paid for by their taxes and aimed at Iraqis. Or do British protestors believe that their actions will influence a totalitarian government at the other end of the planet while they have given up on their own democratic government at home. Perhaps it is simply blind patriotism that keeps people at home when it comes to protesting against their own country’s actions.

Whatever the reason, it speaks volumes about internationalism when we live in a world where we are able to pick our engagement from a mediated menu of causes while displaying unconcern for the local, or national, that is, the fact that this country is at war. This is one form of internationalism. To be passionately committed to a cause that has no direct bearing upon your life while, being unmoved by issues of a national or local character.

Some years ago I read an interview with the CEO of Starbucks. He boasted that his vision was of a world with just three localities – the workplace, home and Starbucks. Imagine that world: in every city of workers rest after their toil in the same casually comfortable ambience, relaxing to the same music, sharing the same language – "one Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino Grande". Today, a Chinese tourist in Beijing has 65 Starbuck stores to choose from, including one in the Forbidden City, and the soldier in Guantanamo Bay, during a break from guarding prisoners in cages, can enjoy a Spicy Pumpkin Frappuccino Tall.

British writer John Berger has claimed that the aim of the free market is “to delocalise the entire world”. Berger goes on: “The key term of the present global chaos is de- or relocalization ……… the dream of undermining the status and confidence of all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single fluid market. The consumer is essentially somebody who feels, or is made to feel, lost, unless he or she is consuming. Brand names and logos become the place names of the Nowhere.” The Starbucks vision of internationalism, because that is what it is, internationalism, is one that exemplifies I think, this phenomena, where the brand replaces the locality.

My third example of internationalism comes from the arts, namely, architecture. Birmingham city centre has at least one stunning piece of iconic architecture that can easily be placed in the top rank in the world. I mean of course Selfridges department store. Perhaps it is significant that this curvaceous edifice, designed by Future Systems, towers over St. …… Church, symbolizing that consumption has replaced religion in our public values. The world has been watching as the new Olympic Stadium or Bird’s Nest as it is called, designed by Swiss architects and Herzog and Du Meuron, has been rising in Beijing. Norman Forster’s dome over the Reichstag has become emblematic of contemporary, cool Berlin. Frank Gehery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao attracts millions of visitors, and they come to view the building itself as much as the art inside the museum. But here is a little thought experiment. Take Selfridges of Birmingham and stick it in Bilbao, put Beijing’s Olympic Nest in Berlin, transfer Forster’s dome to Birmingham and let lucky Beijing have Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Would these buildings fit into their new surroundings? Well, no they wouldn’t actually. But in fact they would be no more out of place than they were in their original location. The thing is, these massive monuments to vanity never fitted in in the first place. How could they? These international architects, or starchitects as they are known, take no account of the context, or the local, when designing their artworks. The buildings are meant to stand out, not to blend in, and are consequently designed with an absolute disregard for the local context. That’s why they would be equally at home anywhere, because they are at home no where. And that is what makes these architects, perfect examples of Internationalism.

A parallax is a term taken from physics, which describes a gap caused by the displacement of an object when a subject changes its point of observation. A parallax can be a point between any two views which it is impossible to bridge, yet it is the persistence of this gap that allows both views to persist. Sometimes we can view a problem from an international perspective, sometimes from a local perspective, but can we see the problem from both perspectives at the same time?

A friend of mine flies once a year to Belfast, Northern Ireland as a consultant to the ministry of education, tasked with assessing the province’s progress towards implementing a curriculum that will produce global, tolerant citizens. Upon her return home she repeats to me what a funny place Belfast is. She entertains me with hilarious anecdotes about the place – the accents, the food, the innocence and friendliness of the exclusively white locals. It is, she says, a journey back to the 1950s, like entering a time warp. And, according to my friend, there is little sign of that shadow side of the North – The Troubles. She invariably finishes her account with a sigh and a shake of her head, and the rhetorical question: “So what was that all about? What a stupid waste of lives.”

Now my friend has a global perspective. The head of one international school, she sits on the board of another; much in demand as a keynote speaker at international educational conferences, she runs an annual workshop that is renowned among international educators; concerned by issues of injustice and inequity worldwide, she inspires activism among students and colleagues. Yet in her own backyard (she is British), her global perspective lets her down, and when confronted by three and a half thousand assassinations and over 20,000 maimings among a seemingly innocent and friendly population, she is stumped, and left asking “So, what was that all about?”

There is an answer to her question, but it won’t be found if one remains perched above with the global perspective, for this fails to do justice to the ‘locus operandi’ of the participants. To find the answer one has to get down and dirty, in the nitty –gritty of the provincial and small, for it is there, by and large, that most people live their lives, and it is there that the problems, in the eyes of the local actors, are created and the solutions are to be found. If you want to understand the problem, by all means take a global perspective, but remember to mind the gap.

So, the question is: does internationalism always imply a denial of the local? There are a number of examples that illuminate how an international citizen can demonstrate an equal concern for the local or national, as well as the international. One obvious one is the man recently described by the Chinese Party secretary of Tibet as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil with a human’s face”, The Dalai Lama... Whatever one thinks of his tactics no one, not his supporters nor his detractors, will claim that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has shirked his responsibilities to his nation. Though living in exile for as long as I have lived (and, despite my youthful appearance, that is nearly half a century), he has spearheaded the struggle for a meaningful autonomy. But he has also been active at the international level, undertaking a global journey in an attempt to bring psychological understanding and spiritual calm to human beings regardless of their background. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, the Dalai Lama said that “we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity”.

For my other example of a person who exhibits a concern to fight injustice, whether it be on the other side of our planet or right outside her front door, it is apt that I do not have to seek beyond the walls of this room. My vote for world citizen of the year goes to Elly Tobin. Elly is the motor and passion that keeps the College for International Citizenship driving. As well as CIC, just on the side, she organized Celebrating International Birmingham Night, she runs the Young Leaders Programme, she founded Birmingham International Voices, created the very successful Pathways into Education, has taken over the European Summer University and is Principal designate of Joseph Chamberlain Collage. She is as likely to be found involved in a peaceful action exposing human rights violations in Tibet as organising a group of volunteers in Birmingham to campaign the British government on debt relief. Elly confronts bullies, whether they be the leaders of totalitarian states, or British hooligans. She witnessed the terrible massacres of Tibetans in Lhasa in 1987, and used her pen to reveal to the world what was going on. But let me give you an example of Elly’s work at a local level that I witnessed. It couldn’t be more local, because it took place no more than fifty meters from here. One day Elly and I were traversing Victoria Square, where two teenagers had chased a “friend”, who had ended up in the fountain. The sneering teenagers looked aggressive, to put it mildly, as they taunted their friend and prevented him from getting out of the fountain. Of course the square was full of people who, like me, choose to not interfere. Elly suddenly stopped: “I’m not having this” she said. “Ere”, and off she strode to confront the hooligans. Amazingly, they crumbled before her onslaught and apologetically turned to help their friend out of the fountain. “I hate bullying” was what she said to me when she retuned to where I was sheepishly standing.

Elly’s greatest achievement is the College for International Citizenship. I arrive twice a year, deliver my part of the programme, and leave again. It is you, the students, that make this such a worthwhile and enriching experience, and it is the students who keep drawing me back. I think I speak for all the tutors when I say that it is not so much teaching that we do, as learning. It is a true privilege to be involved in a project that is international in the best sense of the word. We study the theories of internationalism and citizenship, but, most importantly, each student brings to class his or her own unique local experiences. This diversity of local experiences are shared, listened too and heard. We learn to think as citizens of the world while we listen to each others stories. The College for International Citizenship teaches us that often, an enemy is simply someone whose story you have not heard.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

History: An Argument with an End

by Paul Doolan

Dutch historian Pieter Geyl penned the now famous line “History is indeed an argument without an end”. But in Switzerland, historical debate is over. Disagreement might mean running the risk of imprisonment.

In a court of law in Lausanne on March 9, 2008 a judge ended a historical controversy by pronouncing that the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is “an established historical fact”. Consequently, Judge Winzap handed down sentence on Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who in a speech in 2005 in this neutral country dared to state otherwise. Perincek received a suspended sentence in jail and a fine of 3,000 Swiss francs.

This raises the issue of the role of the judiciary in implementing state sanctioned historical truth. Few deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. But, as historian Caroline Finkel recently wrote “the devil is in the details, and only genuinely disinterested historical research will establish whether the deportation and death of the Armenians of Anatolia constituted a genocide or not”. With the spectre of jail in Switzerland if you come to the conclusion that it was not genocide, and jail or even assassination in Turkey if you conclude that it was, such disinterested research is unlikely to happen very soon.

The practice of history is gradually becoming something of a risky business. Increasingly Holocaust denial has become an illegal offense in European countries and the European Union has recently agreed that all 25-member states should pass legislation on this issue. At the instigation of Poland and the Baltic States the EU has promised to create a committee that will examine the necessity for also outlawing the belittling of, denial of, or justification for Stalin’s crimes. Meanwhile the French and Swiss parliaments have both made moves to ban outright any sort of denial of the Armenian Genocide. The USA has become the most recent country to recognize the slaughter of Armenians to have been genocide. Turkish authorities have reacted angrily. Indeed they have threatened the French with proposing a law of their own recognizing French colonial policies in Algeria as constituting genocide, and will imprison anyone who denies this. Turkey already uses article 301, which forbids insulting “Turkishness”, to prosecute those of its citizens brave enough to accept the accusations of genocide. These have included Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and the late Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered in January by a seventeen-year-old assassin. We could be facing a future when the historian, before embarking upon her lecture tour, will not only have to check for visas and vaccinations, but will also need to go over a thorough checklist of what opinions are allowed and what are disallowed. Perhaps Kazakhstan would like to declare the Irish Famine a form of genocide and ban its denial.

The majority of commentators regard the actions of the Ottoman authorities to have been a centrally planned atrocity, that is, genocide. Harvard’s Samantha Fox, refers to the Armenian tragedy as being the 20th century’s first genocide. Edinburgh’s Donald Bloxham declared the massacres to be genocide and asserted that the entire discussion around “the G word” is a waste of time. Turkish historian Taner Akcan bravely faced harassment during lecture tours and slander from Turkish nationalist fanatics on genocide denial websites, as well as accusations of insulting “Turkishness” under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, by publishing a number of books calling for Turkey to accept responsibility for the shameful act of genocide. Journalist Robert Fisk has attacked what he sees as the cowardice of politicians, from Blair to Bush, as well as leading US universities and The Wall Street Journal, all of who are guilty of cynical collaboration with the Turkish state in denying the genocide.

So who are the non-Turkish deniers? Fisk quotes Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel: “It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide”. American historian Justin McCarthy claims that the killings of Armenians during the World War must be understood within the context of an internal war and that is does not constitute genocide. Among British historians Norman Stone ruffled feathers a few years ago when he published letters in the Times Literary Supplement claiming that there was no genocide. More recently, he commented on the Perincek case in Switzerland and wrote of a “ridiculous and contemptible business – bad history and worse politics”.

Whenever historical truth has been established, it has been the result of unfettered research, with historians engaging in open dialogue and disputation, testing the evidence and arguing over the interpretations, without fear of persecution. With parliamentarians now calling for majority verdicts on historical issues and with judges in neutral countries handing down verdicts on historical disputes and pronouncing sentence on those who deviate from the state sanctified version of the past, such a view is under threat.

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who has locked swords with the world’s most repugnant anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, perhaps surprisingly, is against outlawing Holocaust denial, considering it to be counter-productive and wrongly implying that we do not have the facts with which to answer the deniers. Upon hearing of the Perencek case she wrote in her blog: “What if the person had been a historian who ….questioned whether it should be termed a genocide….Would that person be sentenced as well? What kind of chill does this put on academic discourse? This is a dangerous Pandora’s Box”.

Some claim to be supporters of freedom of expression, but that this freedom must be curtailed “in extreme cases”. But surely freedom of expression only has to be defended in extreme cases. When everyone is comfortably in the middle, and there are no extremes, there is nothing to be defended. It is only in the “extreme cases”, and especially when one is faced with an opinion that one finds repugnant, that one faces the challenge to support freedom of expression. John Stuart Mill summarised this nearly a century and a half ago: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Pieter Geyl closed his book on an optimistic note: “The argument goes on”. But we are living in an age when mutual assumptions of infallibility are being used to silence discussion, in mutually futile attempts to bring argument to an end.

The Most Ignorant People in the World

by Paul Doolan
There is a joke doing the rounds that goes as follows: What do we call people raised speaking many languages - Multilingual. What do we call people raised speaking two languages - Bilingual. What do we call those poor souls raised speaking only one language - Native English speakers

Some years ago Yale historian Paul Kennedy became involved in a polemic in the pages of Harpers Magazine with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said regarding the health of Arab culture. Kennedy figured that he had hit the nail on the head when he reported that, over a period of five years, only 360 works of literature had appeared in Arabic translation. This, he claimed, proved that the Arab world was incurious, closed and in trouble. But as a reader pointed out in a letter to the editor, the number of translations into English that had appeared in America over the same period was, well, about 360! Only nine of these had been translated from Arabic. In other words, we (I’m using the term loosely, to refer to Anglophones – those burdened with the disadvantage of being so called “native” English speakers.) don’t know the Arab world, we don’t read their literature, we are not in the slightest bit curious regarding what their intellectuals and artists have to say, but that doesn’t stop us from condemning their customs and invading their countries. And then we act surprised at the reception we receive.

Of course it’s not just the Arab world that we refuse to get to know. Only once in the history of the New York Times bestseller’s list has a novel that originally had been published in another language reached position number one – The Reader by Bernard Schink, translated from German. British readers are at least as ignorant as their American cousins. While in Germany about 50% of books that appear are translations, and even in Argentina, with its wealth of Spanish language literature to draw from, translations form half of all books published, in Britain translations make up about 2% of literary publications. Occasionally a well-tested exception slips through. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (original language, Italian), had sold a couple of million copies in German before it’s appearance in English. Joostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World (original language, Norwegian) had sold 600,000 copies in German before an English version could be risked. Germans read the works of cotemporary Dutch authors, Norwegians read the newest Italian writers and the Dutch read everyone, in the original preferably, in translation otherwise

The situation in Australia is probably the worst in the entire world, for, with a few notable exceptions, Australians are dependent on the few translations that dribble in from the already malnourished world of American and British publishing. The sense of desperation is clearly expressed in the Sydney PEN website: “How much of the world are we reading about?” Deputy Chair of Sydney PEN Translation Committee Nicholas Jose adds: “Time and again translation is rendered invisible, forgotten, not in the budget, airbrushed out, and I want to know why.”

What makes this all particularly upsetting is the stubborn pride we take in our own ignorance. When Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, not surprisingly, the Anglophone chorus went loudly “Who?” Indeed George Szirtes responded in the Times Literary Supplement (18.10.2002) tongue in cheek, with an article entitled “Who is Imre Kertesz?” Only two of his works had ever appeared in English, published by small American university presses. None had appeared in Britain, not to mention Australia. But the German world did not react with a “Who?” as six of his novels had been translated from the original Hungarian into German. When Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek won the prize in 2004, some British ‘literary’ journalists, wallowing in their own ignorance, were heard to boast that it was all a deliberate ploy to fool the English-speaking world. No folks, the Swedish Academy doesn’t sit around deliberating “How can we fool the Brits, Irish, Australians, Canadians (the English speaking ones) etc. this year?” They don’t need to. It is we who are doing the fooling, pathetic fools twice over.

Actually, the situation is even worse then the dire issue of translations would lead us to believe. Of course “we” have Indian writers like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, ewho happen to write in our language, no translation needed. Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are immediately accessible and, for the adventurous, there is Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But the average Pakistani educated middle-class reader knows Shakespeare in the original language as well as you do. When was the last time you read an Urdu poet in the original? Or even in translation? Hindi readers will have read Dickens, often in English, but how many English readers have even heard of Kalidasa? In other words, ‘we’ know our literature, and only our literature (“our” referring to language). ‘They’ know our literature too, but they also know their own literature, about which we are not only entirely ignorant – we are even ignorant of the fact that we are ignorant. Take the Indian author Tabish Khair, who writes in English and therefore probably sees the world more or less like any other English speaker, you might think. But he claims that “my universe is not framed only or largely by English: I see the world though the windows of Hindi, Urdu, smatterings of Bhjpuri, Sanskrit, Farsi, Punjabi, Bangala.”

Such has been the rich context of literary elites at least since the time of the polyglot Roman Empire, when the educated spoke a local language but wrote and read in Latin and Greek. Multilingualism, or at least bilingualism, has been and still is the norm for most human beings, but only in the insular world of native English speakers is it regarded as a handicap, and our cultural lives are consequently impoverished. Today, the English-speaking world thinks that thoughts that are expressed in English are all that life can afford. This self satisfied attitude of If its not in English than it can’t be worth saying is a form of global provincialism, summed up by Milan Kundera, a Czech novelist writing in French, “large nations resist the Goethean idea of ‘world literature’ because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere”. In the words of Esther Allen, “English all too often simply ignores whatever is not English, mistaking the global reach and diversity of the world’s dominant language for the world itself.”

In an article in (12/372008) John Töns asked “Are we so naïve that we think the only brilliant ideas in the world are produced in English?” Well, I’m afraid that is exactly what we believe.

From Celts to Post-Modernists

by Paul Doolan

This article was first published in the book Cream: The Best of Zürich - dining out guide 2005.
Celtic people may have introduced us to the delights of whiskey (yes, with an ‘e’) and Guinness, but in ancient times they were not celebrated for their culinary genius. Restaurants were thin on the ground in Celtic Zurich. This changed when the Romans arrived. By the first century AD the area near the Weinplatz had developed into a quarter offering traders and legionnaires taverns where they could gamble, quench their thirsts and satisfy a variety of hungers.

The Dark Ages meant lean pickings on the restaurant front. The townsfolk of Zurich promoted Regula and Felix to the position of patron saints. Pilgrims began to arrive and the business of providing them with food took off. The first entrepreneurs were Franciscan monks. Restaurants Franziskaner and the Barfusser in the Niederdorf are reminders of this period when the friars, or ‘Barefooters’ ran the restaurants. Today’s Cafe Raben on the Hechtplatz is built on the site of a guesthouse that dates back a thousand years and is associated with another pilgrimage – Einsiedeln. Things must have been occasionally rough in these medieval eateries and the City Council ordered that food should be served only after guests had handed in their weapons.

The guilds became the political power brokers in 1336 and their houses developed into fully blown restaurants. Today’s Zunfthaus zur Ruden and Zimmerleauten make up a pretty pair on the banks of the Limmat. In 1350 the town mayor organised a massacre of his enemies in a wine bar in the Niederdorfstrasse 20, so the area’s reputation for being wild is well founded. Some of today’s restaurants have histories that reach back into this age: Zum Storchen has been feeding guests since 1347, Opus since 1474 and Swiss Chuchli has been in the business since 1504.

In 1522 some die-hards defied the Catholic Church by eating sausages on a Friday in Zunfthaus zur Saffran and thereby started the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation wasn’t a good time for restaurants however as the new authorities frowned upon drinking and by the mid-17th century closing time had become 6:00 PM.

By the late 18th century tourism was growing and many laws had lapsed. Hotel Zum Schwert saw the likes of Casanova, Goethe, Mozart and Tsar Alexander I come and stay and its reputation for good food grew. Tea and coffee were added to the menu. By the mid-19th century the Langstrasse neighbourhood, with its mix of European immigrants, was gaining a reputation for cheap restaurants and loose living while in the town centre the age of the great hotels was dawning with the Baur au Ville on the Paradeplatz and its sister, the Baur au Lac by the lake. To drink hot chocolate at Sprunglis and then saunter down to the Baur au Lac for dinner became the height of chic. Zurich’s first ‘ethnic’ restaurant opened in 1874, the Bodega Espanola, and is still going strong. By the end of the century concerned women had founded alcohol free restaurants like the Karl der Grosse (still going today but serving alcohol) and vegetarians had discovered their Mecca in Hiltls – Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.

The 20th century has been a time of firsts: the first self-service restaurant (1901); the first Movenpick (1948) and Migros (1952) restaurants; the first Chinese (1958); the first McDonalds and first firebombing of McDonalds (1982). The likes of the Kronnenhalle maintains traditions of fine dining while deregulation in 1996 has permitted a post-modern explosion of tastes.

We’ve come a long way since the Celts: in today’s Zurich, the world is your oyster.

The Assassin's Cafe

by Paul Doolan
This article first appeared in Cream: urban lifestyle magazine, September/October 2004

Alone among European cities Zurich can boast a restaurant named after a political assassin. It is, one must admit, an unusual phenomenon – imagine Kabul with a Cafe bin Laden. Café Orsini, on the corner of the Waaggasse and the lovely Munsterhof, is named after a political radical who, even in failure, managed to change the course of European history and caused Italy to be born.
In 1848 the entire continent of Europe was convulsed in a series of violent revolutions. Like most revolutions, they failed, and in the conservative fallout that followed young radicals from all over Europe, including members of the republican Young Italy movement, fled to that bastion of liberalism, Switzerland. Some of these left wing asylum seekers, like the German “Poet of Freedom” Georg Herwegh, hung out in a café that belonged to the luxurious Hotel Baur en Ville next door, where they enjoyed singing Herweg’s popular revolutionary hit of the time “We have loved long enough. At last we want to hate…”
A decade later an Italian nationalist called Orsini, lobbed a few bombs at French Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. He had been a member of Young Italy and a devotee of its founder Mazzini, a man described by the leader of Austria as “the most dangerous man in Europe”. Like all followers of Mazzini and Young Italy, Orsini had sworn to defy every form of monarchy. To kill a monarch would always have been a good day’s work, but Orsini was particularly unhappy that Napoleon (who, by the way, was brought up in a country house, Schloss Arenenberg on the Bodensee, not far from Zurich) had not liberated the Italians from the Austrians who dominated the peninsula. Orsini’s bombs missed their target but did kill a number of bystanders and wounded scores, including himself. His trial and consequent execution was the news of the time. Here in Zurich the anti-monarchist patrons of our café declared their support for revolution by raising their glasses to Orsini. Georg Herwegh than hung a portrait of Orsini prominently in the café. This would have been like hanging the hammer and sickle on the wall during the hottest days of the Cold War. Gradually the café came to be referred to as Café Orsini. The portrait has been removed but the name remains.
With Orsini dead Napoleon III, who I am convinced was a bit of a softy with an incredible desire to be liked, decided to come to the rescue of the Italians after all. He made a pact with the Italian King of Piedmont and together they cold bloodedly tricked Austria into war in 1859. To make a long story short, (and believe me, that is difficult for an Irishman) the war led to Italian unification in 1860. That war gave us a new word for ‘red’ – ‘magenta’ after the colour of Italian, Austrian and French blood spilt in the Battle of Magenta. The war also led to the setting up of the Red Cross by Swiss man Henri Dunant, who is buried in Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zurich. Appalled at the terrible shedding of blood that he had let loose, Napoleon III, giving ear to his soft heart again, brought hostilities to a premature cessation. Peace negotiations were held in, of all places, Zurich. The French and Austrian delegates were housed in the Hotel Baur au Lac, where the negotiations took place. The representatives of the Kingdom of Piedmont however, thoroughly despised by the Austrians, took separate lodgings, at the Baur en Ville. We can only wonder how they felt when they discovered that next door was a café with a portrait of the would be killer of kings!
Today Café Restaurant Orsini is an upmarket eating establishment. You won’t find many left wing radicals hanging out there any more, at least not any poor ones. And the cuisine? Why, Italian of course.