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Accidents of History

Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

In 1948 John F Kennedy was 31 years old and had just been elected Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of Massachusetts. That year Michael Mouskos, a solemn but affable 35-year-old Cypriot deacon, was studying at Boston University’s School of Theology not far from Kennedy’s residence, on the same side of the river Charles.

Mouskos’ adopted clerical name was Makarios, which in Greek means ‘supremely blessed’. In Boston on a World Council of Churches scholarship he would abandon his studies after being elected Bishop – in absentia – to return to Cyprus where he was eventually enthroned Archbishop.

In just over a decade, in 1960, Kennedy and Makarios would rise to the highest offices in their respective countries. In the clean-shaven liberal Kennedy Americans had elected the first Catholic as their 35th president. In the bearded black-cloaked Makarios, post-colonial Cyprus had elected its orthodox spiritual leader as its first president.

When the two men met in Washington on the 5th of June 1962 Kennedy wryly remarked “We don’t have that option in this country, you have to choose one or the other”.

In 1962 Cyprus was still enjoying its post-colonial honeymoon with Makarios seeking to carve out a much larger role than his newly established state of half a million merited. In the midst of the Cold War he found refuge in the Non-Aligned Movement balancing precariously between the USSR and the US.

Henry Kissinger would later label him “the Fidel Castro of the Mediterranean” with US diplomats often referring to him as the ‘Red Monk’. Oddly, Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is not Great and one of Kissinger’s most fierce critics, described Makarios as “the only priest that I ever liked.”

State Department documents reveal that the US had persistently encouraged Makarios to allow the formation of a right-wing party in Cyprus that would bring some balance to the local communist party’s strong influence. The first US Ambassador to Nicosia Fraser Wilkins remarked that the sustained threat of Communists taking over the government after Makarios’ first term kept President Kennedy personally interested in developments on the island.

So Makarios’ 1962 US trip was a big deal. He arrived from West Germany where he met Chancellor Adenauer, the founder of the Christian Democratic Union CDU. Kennedy welcomed him in person at Washington National Airport1.

Their talks focused on copper mining, US oil interests in the region and Cyprus’ water shortage. The US president acknowledged Cyprus’ important strategic position and expressed his administration’s desire to set up a Voice of America transmitter on the island hoping that Makarios would view the suggestion sympathetically.

The Cypriot president claimed to be wary of the political implications. He told Kennedy that he was keener on the establishment of an American University. An educational institution would bring a useful Western influence into the nascent republic and draw students from the region. Kennedy’s staff said they would consider it and consult with the American University in Beirut.

The two men proceeded to exchange gifts; Makarios offered Kennedy an ancient Hellenistic urn and Kennedy reciprocated with a sterling silver cigarette case by Tiffany & Co along and a table lighter.

Kennedy’s gift choice had been discussed with the Cypriot embassy in Washington with the responsible State department official informing the White House that Makarios’ undersecretary “felt that the gift would indeed be suitable seeing no objection to publicly linking his prelate with the smoking habit”.

Liberated by distance and charmed by the hospitality Makarios told Kennedy that he saw America’s newfound confidence as deriving from its president’s inspiring moral strength. Ambassador Wilkins later reported that the visit went “extremely well” and relations with Cyprus couldn’t have been better.

When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 Makarios was said to have openly wept. Though he had come to know president Johnson, JFK’s passing would make him suspicious of the US. He too would survive several assassination attempts. In one, during the 1974 coup d’état, in which the CIA had an invisible hand, the Tiffany cigarette case Kennedy gave him went missing.

Four years ago, a local newspaper2 revealed that the inscribed Kennedy gift was in the possession of a 98-year old man, a labourer who had worked on the restoration of the attacked Archbishopric. He claimed the case, dented in one corner, had been given to him by Makarios himself. He had found it in the rubble and showed it to the Archbishop who said he had no use for it telling him to keep it.

Makarios died in August 1977 of a heart attack. Little attention was paid to the fact that he had been a chain-smoker.

By then Republican president Nixon and especially his Secretary of State Kissinger, who stayed on under president Gerald Ford, had managed to wipe out any good will America enjoyed in Cyprus. Not until 1981 would a full blown pro-Western party of the right enter the Cypriot parliament.

Today it is Cyprus’ ruling political force3 though considerably weakened by its controversial golden passport scheme of gifting citizenship to scores of shady investors. It has even come under criticism from its own conservative group at the European Parliament, the EPP, which is known, rather outdatedly, as the Christian Democrats.

This is an adapted version of an essay that first appeared in the book
Knowing One’s Place in 2017.

1 Footage of the Kennedy-Makarios meetings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsQ_hA9lPiY

2 Phileleftheros newspaper, 10 November 2018.

3 Democratic Rally, ΔΗΣΥ, est. 1976, secured 32% and 12 seats in 1981.

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The Erasmus Perfidy

Who would have thought that the perfidious Albion would one day turn on its own people? With all the deception, delusions and lies that the post-2016 Brexit era has normalized it should not really have come as a surprise.

The decision of the British government in the last days of the Brexit negotiations to pull out of Erasmus, the EU’s flagship student mobility scheme, is the epitome of the Johnson government’s irresponsibility and, more alarmingly, its bitterness.

For why if not to extinguish the idea of European youths cooperating and understanding each other, benefiting from other education perspectives and potential job opportunities, would you deprive them from the chance to train at European universities? Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it best by describing the end of participation as “cultural vandalism”.

What did Johnson fear? Indoctrination? That the more British students got to experience Europe’s spirit of integration, the more they would regret the decision of their elders? The government’s pitiful spin is that withdrawal was driven by concerns about cost [“extremely expensive” Johnson said] but the Tory record of irrationality and, more recently, capriciousness points to ideological resentment not prudent fiscal judgement.

This will soon be tested given the announcement of a £100m annual exchange scheme named after the English mathematician Alan Turing to enable up to 35,000 UK students to study abroad – and not just at EU universities.

Packaged as part of Boris Johnson’s vision for a Global Britain the only thing going for it is that it wasn’t announced on the side of a bus. It is odd how the more global the pretentious Tory narrative wants to sound the more things seem to be traded away and the country shrivels. Similarly, the more the prime minister talks of an open Britain the more closed and unfriendly it seems to become.

He appears completely unaware that much of the considerable “soft power” Britain had been able to project is beginning to thin. British students going to other EU universities would have also meant European students coming to the UK to appreciate so much of what Britain still has to offer in education. The Turing scheme doesn’t include that possibility for European students. 

The European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, acronymically known as ERASMUS, after the Dutch humanist Desiderious Erasmus, was first approved in 1987 by the EEC12 including the UK. By 1990 almost 45,000 students benefited. Today, no longer limited to students but open for training, adult education, faculty and researcher exchanges and more – it has enabled 9 million people to study, train and gain professional experience abroad. Records show that 200,000 British students used Erasmus since 1987.

The next phase, to run from 2021 to 2027 has a €30 billion proposed budget and will see up to 12 million people moving across the continent.

The American philosopher George Santayana claimed that “there’s wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice and it fosters humour,” while Immanuel Kant asserted that “the right to visit other countries should become a condition of perpetual peace”. Rousseau was more explicit: “I hold it to be an incontestable maxim that whoever has seen only one people does not known men; he knows only the people with whom he has lived”. That’s beginning to sound like a self-fulfilling Brexit prophecy.

British students eligible to participate this year would have been in their mid-teens in the June 2016 referendum. As adult voters they might one day come to punish the Conservatives not for the Erasmus own-goal but for everything else that will result from Brexit.

Had the EC opted to name the programme after a British scholar back in 87 perhaps it would not have been as easy for Johnson to pull the plug now. It would have been harder to run away from such a successful programme named after John Locke, Thomas Hobbes or David Hume.

It was Hume “the geographer of human reason’ who said that men often act knowingly against their interest. This was such an occasion. Still, who knows? If Nicola Sturgeon gets her way Hume may one day become part of the EU’s nomenclature. He was Scottish.

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This is not an obituary

The Paris correspondent of The Irish Times, Lara Marlowe, wrote that her former husband, the journalist Robert Fisk, used to tease people who believed in the afterlife that he would be the first journalist to file from there. “I half expect to read his report, any day now,” Marlowe concluded in her moving article.

Fisk died on 30 October in Dublin where he had been working on the sequel to his magnum opus The Great War for Civilization. The announcement came amid the cacophony of the final days of the US election campaign and didn’t really sink in for me until much later. When it did, I was dismayed that his death, premature as it was – he was 74 – had not been allowed to make the media impact it deserved.

Then I watched Canadian director Yung Chang’s superb documentary This is Not a Movie about Fisk’s work as a foreign correspondent. It is a powerful homage to the man and to the journalism he represented and a sad affirmation of the huge void Fisk’s death actually leaves.

Armenians, Palestinians, victims of any conflict Fisk chose to cover have lost one of the most important defenders of their voice. Journalism has lost one of the most authoritative correspondents of on-the scene, fact-based, thoughtful reporting.

Fearless, opinionated, with a deep academic knowledge of the history of the countries he covered (and a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin) he had no patience for the type of parachute journalism in which reporters drop into a capital or war zone for three days to dispatch mostly out-of-historical context reports.

Years ago, he had complained to me about journalists who took up residence in the safety of Cyprus to “cover the Arab world” and about those who held strong opinions on Lebanon but rarely visited the country. He was one of a handful of foreign correspondents who, at a huge and sustained risk, stayed in Beirut during the hostage crisis in the late 80s that saw several of his colleagues including Terry Anderson, Charles Glass and John McCarthy kidnapped by Hezbollah affiliated groups.

“Journalism is bloody hard work” he would tirelessly repeat. He began writing for The Times, first from Northern Ireland and then from Beirut where he settled for almost 40 years covering the entire Middle East. It is now forgotten that he spent long periods in Cyprus in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion uncovering the systematic looting of the fenced city of Varosha by Turkish troops.

He would leave The Times in 1987 following Rubert Murdoch’s take-over when he realized that the headlines his editors wrote did not reflect the sting of his content. He moved to The Independent under the editorship of Andreas Whittam Smith and delivered front page exclusives from every front line from Yugoslavia to Iraq for the young paper’s growing readership.

In his exceptional book Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War he described how with his Associated Press colleagues Alex Efthyvoulou and Bill Foley they followed the path of Israeli jets bombing Lebanon to see the targets being hit taking what he describes as ‘calculated’ risks: “If we were hit, it was bad luck, not miscalculation”.

He was among the first journalists to arrive at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 where the gruesomeness of what had happened hit him only when he started to climb over mud hills that began to feel ‘spongy’. That day would define his later journalism. Hundreds of men, women and children had been massacred by Lebanese Phalangists in the plain sight of the Israeli Defence Forces. “These corpses would want me to tell their story,” he tells Chang. “After that, I had the self confidence in writing about brutality and war crimes that I would never have had before… that’s the end of allowing fear to make decisions for you, that’s the end of being frightened by gunmen and editors”.

Fisk was drawn to conflict and tragedy by his father’s WW1 experience who, against the rules, had taken a camera to the trenches ‘to record history’. He recounts how near the end of the war Fisk Senior had refused to command the execution party of an Australian soldier who had been found guilty of killing a British man. Warned that he would be court-martialed his father still refused sacrificing his military career.

At that moment Fisk’s eyes well up and in an awkward childlike gesture he raises his hands and softly but rapidly claps to acknowledge that Fisk Senior had done the right thing. It is a rare glimpse into the soul of this tough, compassionate and principled man.

We learn that it was aged 12, after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 movie Foreign Correspondent, that Fisk decided to become a reporter. When Chang later captures him at work somewhere in Bosnia where he had gone to trace how weapons shipments produced there had ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda [via Saudi Arabia, he discovers], we hear Fisk’s voice-over say: “It would be nice to believe that Foreign Correspondent, the movie, was the real thing… but the truth is that this is not a movie”.

No movie could actually do justice to Fisk’s remarkable life and unrivaled work. Chang’s documentary does because, like Fisk himself, it also achieves, rather expertly, to tell the story of the victims.

[This is Not a Movie (2020) was written by Yung Chang and Nelofer Pazira and is available on Amazon Prime UK]

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Any university building should do

There was no university in Cyprus before 1992. The first edifice of higher education I walked into was on the first day of my freshman year at Penn State. The Kern Building is an unremarkable 70s red brick square structure on the edge of campus behind the austere Fred Lewis Pattee Library.

Architecturally it exudes more bureaucracy than academia but to get there you walked past grand old buildings which you imagined had vaults filled with knowledge but which Penn State’s admission office chose to ignore for Orientation Week. It did not matter. The nondescript Kern Building was where I spent all of that first week, listening to seniors and graduate students talk about everything that was on offer outside my degree. It was where I understood what the university experience could open up. In my subconscious it is forever associated with the best time of my life.

Most first year students of the 2020-21 academic year are unlikely to have been to their campuses. Among those who have, some are unlikely to have veered out of their halls of residence. With the second wave of the pandemic many have been forced to return home. Most have probably not met their professors.

One University of Cyprus professor told me that he is likely to meet his current 1st year students in person when they become 2nd year students. Another, at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, unhappy at the prospect of a Zoom session with his first-year students twitted that he donned his thermals and set up a tent on campus to hold one-on-one meetings with them.

Clearly professors and students seem sick of the restrictive online environment in which they have been forced to operate. For years now any reservation about the high-tech online shift that steamrolled through tertiary education was answered by the ominous “this is where things are going” and “students these days live their lives online, this is what they know, it’s what they want”. Well, suddenly this is being challenged by the revelation that students don’t actually want that for their university experience.

They crave meaningful learning that can only derive from person-to-person contact. A real space in which a charismatic teacher conveys knowledge and insight; Cheerful or perhaps grim, but real and there. Students need the spontaneity of a class, the laughter and the grumbling. They need people that grab their attention, they need interruption, certainly the room to exchange opinions. They need the motivation that will elicit the desire to impress a teacher in the next class. All those things that can lead to more questions, to memorable moments, to more learning.

The experience of the process of acquiring knowledge is an intrinsic part of the value of the knowledge acquired.     

In our metrics-fixated and rankings-obsessed culture you wonder how student satisfaction might be rated this year. Will it be judged on the quality of the online connection or the ‘screen engagement’ of the lecturer? Universities might not dare ask the question.

There is no doubt that universities have had to deal with an unprecedented crisis. They have raised their game – in terms of technology – to meet the challenge and they have managed to keep education going. What they have done is commendable. But talk of embracing online education as the new norm once the pandemic goes away poses huge risks. It would be a mistake to consider that going back to the pre-pandemic state of affairs would be a return to normality.

That normality was already steeped in difficulties and tensions. Universities had long lost their way. Most academics I speak to are disillusioned with academia. They have felt tired for years. Tired of the corporatism, the data driven outcomes, the culture of fundraising, the low pay, the tyranny of administration, the detachment of students who are there to get a degree and little else.

The online shift will reinforce this mindset against what professor Nancy Rothwell describes as the ‘transformational university experience’ where students learn much more than what a chosen subject provides.

The crisis is a punch-in-the-face opportunity to rethink the meaning of universities altogether. Lucy Kellaway the former financial journalist turned high school teacher wrote recently that she noticed an unusual hunger for knowledge when her pupils returned from the lockdown. “Is it”, she asked, “that having been deprived of education for so long, the students now value it more?”

When university councils and senates sit to consider their post-pandemic strategies, they would do well to think beyond innovative supposedly one-way solutions and to address the old but fundamental question about why students are at university.

Perhaps it’s not just about the hot-shot job pursuit our culture has oppressively imposed on them. Perhaps it is about discovering the pleasures of learning. That might even help academics rediscover the pleasures of teaching. These two groups will always be the crucial ingredients. And they need to come together anew and in person. Any old building should do.

Photo: Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State University (www.psu.edu).

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It couldn’t happen here.

Ece Temelkuran lost her country to Tayip Erdogan’s religious-nationalist populism and has since gallantly been fighting to get it back. One of Turkey’s most popular journalists she is now an international author and activist in exile. In How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship she has produced an important and eloquently written book.

Some parts will prove awkward for readers whose countries had been on the receiving end of Turkey’s bullying and expansionism long before Erdogan’s theft made it worse for the Turks themselves. But trusting in Temelkuran’s obvious sense of history and in her intellectual integrity, she is likely to be aware of some of her readers’ potential discomfort.

The good thing is that her campaign to help build a new Turkey would not only reverse the deterioration since Erdogan’s election in 2003 but could also address the ills that preceded, perhaps even triggered, his arrival.

For a long time the West’s reading of Turkey had suffered from the absence of Turkish voices able to articulate the complexity of Erdogan’s playbook. It was not easy to understand how an imperfect democracy with no theocratic symptoms where the army had a disproportional role was dragged down the path of religious dictatorship. The West’s view was partly blinkered by the size of Turkey’s market and its geopolitical value. Some European capitals played along with Erdogan not out of any misreading or ignorance but out of willful capitalist self-interest.

The legendary journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, who used to work at Milliyet where Temelkuran was also an influential columnist, used to be the go-to source for deciphering Turkey’s politics. Useful though his analysis was, Birand often spoke as a representative of Turkey. Temelkuran brings something different. She writes as a representative of a universal, stateless liberal democratic movement, who just happens to be Turkish. Her Turkish experience is authentic, her concern is genuine, her arguments are rational and convincing.  

It is a painful sign of the times that her analysis of the dismantling of Turkey’s institutions should serve as a manual on what should not happen elsewhere, and of all places in the United States and the United Kingdom.

During the early years of Erdogan’s AK Party Temelkuran toured the country and listened to the growing voice of a new formation labelled “the real people”. She became increasingly alarmed by how the marginalized, the desperate, those who claimed had been “disrespected” by the establishment, had begun to organise.

Under Erdogan the movement would soon pounce on the status quo, demand respect for their re-discovered religion. His cronies would go on to rig elections and spread fear among a retreating secular Turkish society.

Reasonable people in Istanbul would tell her “It couldn’t happen here” but it was already too late. The tactic was simple, says Temelkuran, “… spread confusion or start a fight between the established centre-right and centre-left politicians, poke away at the country’s fragile compromises and wallow in the disarray by stating that neither side was in touch with the demands of the real people…”

Erdogan distorted the narrative, reorganized financial and economic relations, steamrolled constitutional changes. He infiltrated institutions, including the judiciary and the army, imprisoned journalists, quashed any dissent and inevitably secured the devotion or submission of the masses. One morning the Turks woke up and exclaimed ‘This is not my country”.

Forced to flee Temelkuran explains how she later heard reasonable people in Washington repeat “It couldn’t happen here” just weeks before Trump’s election in 2016. She heard the same thing in London after the Brexit referendum.

The United States is not Turkey, and Trump is not Erdogan. But the hashtag #ThisIsNotMyCountry has been trending ominously in US social media feeds for some time. Trump may not be locking up journalists but he has eroded the US public’s faith in journalism. He may not be corrupting trials but he is insidiously shifting the balance in the US Supreme Court.

Information came to light this week in the New York Times on how Erdogan has actually compromised Trump by getting him to halt a criminal investigation into a state-owned Turkish bank suspected of violating US sanctions. Erdogan and his family have a stake in that bank. It is obvious that all this is not just about one country. The populist political mafia is colluding and spreading its dogma everywhere.

As the eastern Mediterranean’s tectonic plates shift and California’s winds blow reminding Erdogan and Trump who is really in charge, it is important that the US and Turkey are snatched back from these demagogue thieves and that the competent democratically-minded are returned to manage the impending crises. Their dynamic must be interrupted.

A Joe Biden victory on Tuesday could be a first step and one that would agitate Erdogan. A Biden defeat would mean that serial robberies will continue on an international scale.

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Renewing a Stoic philosopher’s Cypriot passport

Before Cyprus’ Eurozone entry in 2008, the obverse of its 20-cents coin bore an austere profile of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy. Born in the 4th century BCE of Phoenician descent he was known as Zeno of Citium the Hellenic kingdom on the island’s southern coast where today lies the city of Larnaca.

Citium, though a largely Hellenized city, retained a sufficient Phoenician component in its culture to earn Zeno the nickname ‘the Phoenician’. His connection to Cyprus is widely documented, even if just footnoted, and it is acknowledged even if it is not that well known outside academia and students of Stoicism.

For those familiar with London, Zeno Bookshop on Denmark Street used to be a landmark showcase of this Cypriot connection. A short walk across from Foyles on Charing Cross Road it was the best-known bookseller and publisher of Greek and Cypriot books in Britain a key attraction for classicists and students of Greek.

Yet, even though the association can still inflate Cyprus’ historical pride, Zeno’s presence in Cypriot letters and culture remains subdued, uncharacteristically under-exploited, almost decorative. Probably because in reality it is feeble. But the reasons may run deeper.

The association suffers in part from the fact that Zeno was only born in Cyprus; he never actually taught there. He was, so to speak, ‘ours’ but not ‘one of us.’ The school he established in Athens under a roofed colonnade (Stoa) taught that logos, universal reason, was the greatest good and that placing it at the centre of life provided for a worthwhile existence.

Praised by Athenians for his temperance and consistency in living what he taught, refusing to compromise his principles for what society valued, Zeno also laboured over how the principles of self-control, devotion to duty and public spirit could shape an ideal society.

The Cypriot historian Costas Kyrris even linked Zeno’s ideas to the vision of a united Europe. In 2013, Cyprus was already a decade into its EU membership, but was reeling after the global financial collapse. Desperate to raise funds its government formulated a citizenship scheme aimed at high net worth foreign individuals and investors. Anyone seeking a Cypriot (and EU) passport could simply invest 2 million euros in the Cyprus economy and meet certain other criteria including a Clean Criminal Record.

The “golden visas scheme” though perfectly lawful and indeed implemented in other European countries, evolved into a considerable reputational problem as internationally wanted criminals, sanctioned business people, and politically exposed persons ended up with Cypriot passports.

Approximately 7 billion euros flowed into Cyprus channeled mainly into real estate. Cyprus’ landscape is now a distasteful patchwork of grandiose property developments and ill-fitting skyscrapers. Many are known to have trampled on planning and environmental regulations. And it is here that the fault line of disconnect between Zeno’s philosophy of restraint and modern Cyprus’ economic philosophy widened ominously.

A hostage to its geography Cyprus had often been hit by the ruthless whims of history’s powerful players. Crippled by Turkey’s occupation of part of its territory since 1974 it suffered – one could say stoically – by keeping its head down and slowly rebuilding itself.

In the 90s its economy grew and its inherent European democratic credentials were strengthened by EU accession. But by the turn of the millennium its agricultural and industrial sectors withered as its financial services and tourism sectors boomed. The financial meltdown exposed the weakness of its economic model. Instead of a total rethink the political establishment capitulated to short-termism and the impulse of the quick buck.

A tradition of political partisanship and nepotism was made worse by corruption and conflicts of interest. With the sale of passports the country’s economy fell prey to local opportunists and shady foreign saviours exposing the country to allegations of money-laundering.

The old ethic of hard work and silent suffering disintegrated in the face of hard cash and silent partners. Where Zeno’s Stoicism valued moderation, courage, justice and wisdom, modern Cypriot economic and political life drifted towards excess, deceit, amorality and ignorance. Where Zeno argued for the ideal community to be ruled by the competent and sage (οι σπουδαίοι), Cyprus’ political class – to be fair, like in many once great nations these days – colluded with the money suppliers and was inevitably infiltrated by self-seeking populist mediocrities, of the type whose resignations the country is now witnessing.

The dynamics of modern statehood and the vicissitudes of the global economy cannot of course be addressed by the obscure musings of a philosopher who lived 2300 years ago. In any case Zeno was overtaken by his Roman disciples Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius who have since dominated Stoic discourse. While western European thought absorbed their teachings Cyprus fell behind; the Romans did not fit that comfortably with Zeno’s original Cypriot-Greek profile. Confounded also by the dominance of Greek Christian orthodox dogma Stoicism’s more secular rationalism found little space within Cyprus’ nationalist religious narrative. Zeno was confined to coins, crests and nomenclatures.

The Cypriot government has now suspended the citizenship scheme and is tracing dozens of problematic cases of investors that acquired citizenship. But the revocation of a citizenship turns out to be as tricky as renewing a dead philosopher’s passport.

The deeper irony lies in that the country would now benefit from a return to Zeno’s logos and a strong injection of Stoic inspired reform. A return to the founder’s fundamentals would not only begin to relieve Cyprus’ post-scandal angst, it would actually help it chart more ethical and sustainable economic policies. Perhaps even begin to fix its tarnished image.

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Voting against your own interests

How is it possible after centuries of forward leaps in rational thinking, decades of scientific discovery and the steady spread of democracy and education that, suddenly, it feels as though we’re on the edge of the abyss?

How is it possible after absorbing the lessons of two world wars, strengthening international cooperation and entrenching fundamental rights and freedoms, that, in less than a decade, we have fallen for populism and autocratic rulers?

And, yes, how is it possible that Donald Trump, four years into his catastrophic term as president of what George Packer describes as a failed state, declare that he will “make America great again, again” and still command a 42 per cent approval rating?

Perfectly plausible, asserts Justin Erik Halldor Smith, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris in his remarkable book Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (Princeton University Press).

So plausible, in fact, that the despair over how things have deteriorated is compounded by the realisation that it was naïve – if not entirely irrational – to have assumed that reason could ever prevail.

“It is a great paradox that even though the totality of all human learning is more accessible than ever before in history, indeed billions of us can now easily access it with a device we carry in our pockets, nonetheless false beliefs are as epidemic as ever.” Smith’s venture is ambitious, and the range of historical and philosophical references enormous, from Aristotle all the way to Zizek via Leibniz and Spinoza, all of whom he uses to illuminate the battle zones of reason and superstition, knowledge and ignorance, science and religion, moderation and excess.

Though absent from Smith’s exploration, it was Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, who considered that all rational human beings would want to agree on how they would want to live and be governed. Western societies thought, fought and suffered and in the end, come modernity, managed to articulate the road map for that vision. Initially, to use Ronald Reagan’s words, that shining city on the hill was America though in truth the European Union remains the closest but as yet unfulfilled manifestation of that drive.

Both projects stalled as a result of economic chaos triggered by capitalism’s thoughtless financial instruments and by mass migration triggered by ruthless foreign policy decisions. The politics broke down as the ignorant became susceptible to those intent on distorting the public debate. Hence Brexit, Boris, Trumpism, climate change denial and the failure to cope with the pandemic.

Disgraceful politics aside, Smith’s narrative is also driven by the tensions of our personal dilemmas. Our response to temptations, our phobias, sometimes his phobias, dietary choices, his own battle to quit smoking, all shape a compelling matrix. The writing hovers between the scholarly and the journalistic delivered in a sequence of tight essays rather than, thankfully, a dense philosophical treatise. Though it is quite demanding, it is always elegant and while sometimes pessimistic it is consistently witty.

It is when Smith addresses the algorithmic conditioning of our lives that his intellectual force and the book’s value are revealed.

“Irrationality,” he says, “is not, generally, simple ignorance. If you do not have the relevant information, then you cannot rightly be faulted for not making the correct inferences. Irrationality must rather be, then, some sort of failure to process in the best way information one does already have.” Smith says it gets complicated when you try to discern “whether a given failure results from innocently not knowing, or rather from a culpable failure to bring into play what one does know”.

If the 42 per cent of Americans still supporting Trump do not know that they may be voting against their own interests, can they be held to be irrational? Can the millions of Americans who saw Kremlin-funded Facebook posts in 2016 be blamed if they were swayed by the misinformation these carried?

Naturally, Smith is uneasy with the Big Tech masters running the online circus: “The internet was unleashed by self-appointed experts, who knew how to engineer, but had very little ability to reason about the social consequences of what they were doing.”

Just like another significant book of our time, Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, Smith condemns the weaponisation of the internet by social media platforms and their absolute focus on the business model that collects, predicts and exploits our posts and likes. And, of course, Big Tech’s disregard for what this does to public debate, elections, democracy. Micro-targeted by social media algorithms voters are led down paths of bias and find themselves trapped in bubbles of ignorance, conspiracy theories, even radical extremism. The brightness of reason darkened by distortions that blend fact with fiction paralysing the prospect of agreeing on what is the truth.

As we await the November elections to see whether America will go completely mad, Smith suggests that not only is it impossible to impose rationality but that its mere pursuit sometimes leads to an explosion of irrationality. He does not offer any strategy – philosophers rarely do – on how to defeat the forces of unreason but he exposes the enemy’s formations with astonishing clarity. That is also rare for philosophers.

This article was first published in the Sunday Mail on 6 September 2020.

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Media pluralism under threat

A review of the findings of the Florence based Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom

Never before have the media, that is the civically useful type that produce independent quality journalism, come under such relentless pressure and criticism. The gatekeepers, those tasked to speak truth to power, are increasingly being questioned by authorities and snubbed by the public whom they are meant to serve.

In the US, lauded until recently as the hub of absolute press freedom, an infantile but sinister president launches personal attacks on journalists and degrades the profession. In Hungary, an EU member state, the government intimidates and stifles media freedom while in Turkey, a once aspiring candidate state, the government just locks journalists up at will.

Populist leaders, their poisonous discourse and the unchecked new technologies that allow the spread of disinformation are shaking the people’s trust in the media and by consequence redefining the media landscape altogether. Yet, as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban ride the trend, it is useful to remember that the media have always been subject to political pressure and interference while their commercial viability has always been at the mercy of their owners’ whims or capitalism’s frequent breakdowns. Which is why the national contexts in which they operate have, rightfully, always come under scrutiny by independent monitors.

Their aim is to assess the quality of the media, the environment in which they operate and ultimately to help establish the quality that can command the public’s trust.  Scrutiny of this constructive kind was released last week by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom of the European University Institute in Florence. The Media Pluralism Monitor 2020, co-funded by the European Union, examined the health of media ecosystems in EU member states, including a now departed member state, the UK, as well as in Albania and Turkey.

Four key risk areas were assessed: Basic Protection, i.e. rights and access to information, the working conditions of journalists and the effectiveness of media authorities; Market Plurality which assesses the legal and economic environment, transparency of ownership, media concentration, viability, and owner influence on editorial content; Political Independence, i.e. the autonomy of the newsroom, political control and influence, election coverage, advertising, regulations and funding, and, last, Social Inclusiveness which examines the degree of media access for minorities, women and people with disabilities as well as the overall level of media literacy and protection against hate speech.

The MPM2020 found that Basic Protection remains strong overall with the majority of the countries considered low risk and only one, Turkey, seen as high risk. However, when it came to Market Plurality, risks of commercial and owner influence over editorial content have risen with only five countries deemed low risk (Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands) with 11 at medium risk (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Spain and the UK) and the remaining 14 at high risk.

Serious concerns also emerged on Political Independence with Malta, Hungary and Poland along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Turkey found to be high risk. Only Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden were low risk; the majority, including Cyprus, fell within the medium risk range.

As disinformation eats away at objective reporting, media literacy, the capacity to understand what is fake or biased, has become a key factor. Only six countries were found to have comprehensive media literacy policies. Five, Albania, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Cyprus have no media literacy policy at all.

Cyprus’ risk level

In terms of Basic Protection, constitutional and legal provisions continue to offer citizens safeguards and effective protection of their rights connected to freedom of expression but there are areas of concern such as digital underdevelopment while the right to access to information still requires legal recognition.

The situation is poorer on Market Plurality. The law does ensure transparency in media ownership and avoidance of cross media concentrations but only in broadcasting. An outdated and deficient press law and the absence of a digital media legal framework as well as the increased corporate influence and pressures on journalists’ employment conditions are problems, heightened by lack of reliable data.

Editorial independence in Cyprus is in principle warranted by both regulatory and self-regulatory provisions. However, the rules make very limited provisions on the effective protection of journalists and the avoidance of political interference into their work. The key issue remains the pursuit of the political agendas of media owners, sometimes without any visible interference and often led by corporate rather than actual political aims. This enforces a degree of self-censorship and compliance among editorial staff.

Crucially, a subculture of informal relations exists between the political class and media owners and journalists which more than any other factor affects focus, topic selection and nuancing. There are also recurring problems with the governance and funding of Cyprus’ public service media, CyBC, and the influence the government and political parties retain over it.

Where Cyprus fares badly is Social Inclusiveness. Access to the media is mostly reserved for mainstream groups with minorities, women and other social actors sidelined despite evolving plurality and multiculturalism. Much needed media literacy actions are limited and lack policy direction despite valiant efforts by academics and other stakeholders.

And though media literacy may be seen as the least important in terms of immediate impact and a country’s overall image, it is potentially the most significant in terms of achieving better across-the-board results in the future. A well-informed media-literate populace is more likely to demand Market Plurality and not likely to tolerate Political Interference.

Trumpism and Orbanism are the result of complex factors. Media literacy would certainly not have prevented them. But it can be argued that for a confused public caught between populist politics, fragile economics and a hounded media it might make just enough of a difference to avert total disaster in the future. END

Nicholas Karides was one of the Cyprus experts for the Media Pluralism Monitor 2020 along with team leader Christoforos Christoforou.

Individual country reports can be accessed at https://cmpf.eui.eu/mpm2020-results/

This article first appeared in the Sunday Mail on 2 August 2020

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Shifty Paradigms

#BlackLivesMatter uncovers America’s false assumptions

When the American physicist and historian of science Thomas Kuhn identified the notion of the Paradigm Shift in the early 1960s, he described it as a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices within a scientific discipline.

Such a shift, Kuhn asserted, occurs when the dominant paradigm under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena, facilitating the adoption of a new theory or paradigm. Kuhn, who died in 1996, had confessed to a certain elasticity in his use of the term which has since infiltrated popular culture and spread to non-scientific contexts inevitably degenerating into a cliché.

Post-Covid19 every industry from hospitality to retail seems to be having their paradigm shifted. A fast and furious world that not long ago had worshipped ‘disruption’ as the only path to innovation is now forced to rethink everything.

Outside science laboratories and markets Kuhn’s term is being loosely used to signify changes in our collective perceptions, the type that is seeing a neurotic professional class reassess the slippery line of work-life balance. But nowhere is the change in perception more profound than in the explosion of racial tensions in the United States and the way the #BlackLivesMatter movement is now reshaping the country and social contexts everywhere else.

This late realisation of what it means not to breathe freely as an African American in the United States has shuttered assumptions in every western society. Whether the fall out will prove a permanent paradigm shift or a slide into more social upheaval now depends, in part, on whether the incumbent 45th president will retain power in November.

In understanding how we got here and where this might end up it is useful to recall that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African American president had itself been described as, yes, a paradigm shift. But given that 12 years later a movement like BLM has had to be mobilised and, more ominously, has faced hostility from the White House that Obama vacated, goes to show that perhaps that shift was not as paradigmatic.

As symbolisms go Obama’s victory was certainly a seminal moment in the country’s history. It was an extraordinary manifestation of change particularly when one contemplates that it was not until as late as 1965 that African Americans were fully granted the right to vote, when Obama himself was four years old. His election disrupted the old political culture and for a while, at least on the surface, racial tensions appeared to cool off. However, given where we are, very little changed in the underlying racism African Americans still face.

Obama, whose intelligence and decency this author admires, had presided over the same racial inequality and police brutality we see today. He dealt with the many vicious incidents during his term with dignity and compassion always saying the right things but in the end his administration failed to bring real change.

He would argue – and he would partially be right – that his efforts in the very difficult socio-economic circumstances he inherited from George W Bush were held back by a hostile Congress dominated by a dogmatic Republican Party going through its own paradigm-shifting and polarising nervous breakdown.

In recent weeks Obama has become very vocal, breaking the long-established norm that prevents former presidents from hostile engagement with incumbents. True to his reputation as a careful strategist his interventions have been both robust and thoughtful but have still triggered considerable reaction. His call to BLM protesters to “make this moment the real turning point for change” was seen as admission that his eight-year reign had fallen short while his call on them to redirect their energy at the ballot box was seen in some quarters as too cautious. You can’t satisfy everyone. Obama was and remains a positive force but, clearly, his impact wasn’t as defining as we might have thought.

To make things worse BLM is generating intense hostility among the Right prompting fears of a Fascist backlash in part fueled by Donald Trump’s repulsive personality. As things stand, it will fall on Obama’s vice president, the unlikely radical, Joe Biden, to calm things down enough to salvage some of America’s lost rationality and humanity.

To go back to Kuhn, the recent phenomena in the US do not constitute a paradigm shift; they have merely revealed that the paradigm had been false. It is hard for Americans and Americophiles to stomach, but for a real paradigm shift to occur they would first have to address the false assumptions that have corrupted their theories about themselves. Paramount among these is the romantic notion that America was ever great.

This article was published in the Mail on Sunday on 5 July 2020 and in the newsletter In Depth on 7 July 2020.

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Teflon presidents

It started with Ronald and should end with Donald

This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 31 May 2020

On Friday July 12, 1985 President Ronald Reagan was due to have a polyp removed at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. That afternoon First Lady Nancy Reagan called the president’s Chief of Staff Don Regan to inform him that the operation might be delayed for a day and a half.

Don Regan was an experienced political operative. He had served as the president’s Treasury Secretary during his first term and was one of the masterminds of Reaganomics. Now as Chief of Staff he was not only the president’s top adviser and confidant but one of the most powerful men in Washington.

For a moment that Friday he became concerned that the postponement could have been prompted by some last-minute medical complication but almost immediately he sensed that the surgery was more likely to have hit an astrological barrier.

In his book, On the Record, Regan revealed that the First Lady had sought to change the timing of the surgery after consulting with her astrologer who, Regan wrote, “had become a factor in my work and in the highest affairs of the nation…” repeatedly forcing him to reschedule press conferences and re-arrange official travel plans.

Regan never got to meet Nancy’s crystal gazer; the First Lady would just pass along the ‘prognostications’ to him and he would adjust the President’s schedule accordingly. The whole thing came to a boil in 1987, leading to Regan’s resignation but by the time the revelations hit the press Reagan was nearing the end of his presidency and any damage was inconsequential. Ronald Reagan is now revered. US presidential myth making tends to roll over the negative, exaggerate the mundane and normalise the abnormal.

It is quite tempting to contemplate the potential improvement to Trump’s chaotic presidency were Melania Trump also inclined to consult with an astrologer before letting her husband take major decisions – like withdrawing from the World Health Organisation or hitting China with tariffs. The prospect could even open the game up for foreign capitals to deploy their own horoscopic experts to foresee Trump’s convulsions.

It might seem unfair to compare the wobbly and naïve Reagan with the incoherent and criminal Trump but the point here is how presidential candidates who, on paper, are unfit for high office are able to travel an unrestricted path to the White House. How easy it is for celebrities and businessmen devoid of political, socio-economic nous or of policy-making fundamentals to generate a snowballing of followers, business donors, media backing, PAC endorsements and, in the end, inescapably, political party support.

So deep has the decay been that the nostalgia that the Trump circus now provokes makes Reagan seem a paradigm of stability and robust leadership. And yet, Reagan’s was the first presidency where it became blatantly apparent to the rest of the world that the institution was losing its gravitas. Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks brought disrepute to the White House in the 70s but hadn’t eroded that sense of awe that the institution itself drew. In fact, Tricky Dick’s Watergate machinations heightened global intrigue about Washington’s corridors of power.

When Reagan arrived in the 80s he spun an image as the great communicator, the friendly wise-cracker. The media relished it. His photogenic smirk, his cowboy one-liners and Nancy’s astral strategies would not, however, turn him into a great leader. He brought successes – for the conservative-minded – but they came from those with experience taking charge of policy. From his VP, the one-time CIA director George Bush Senior to George Shultz and from James Baker to Don Regan himself. They were the ones doing the job while Teflon Reagan gave rehearsed responses that avoided exposing his ignorance on the detail.

Admittedly, in his second term as the undisputed leader of the Free World Reagan outplayed Gorbachev in their summits, securing the all-important nuclear missiles elimination treaty. But Gorbachev was open-minded and, by then, desperate.

Despite having risen from the obscure and unrelated background of B-Movies and actors’ trade unions, Reagan arrived in Washington with greater governmental experience than Trump had in 2016, having served as Governor of California. Still, he was not a politician’s politician and it showed. Like Trump he played politics as if it was television. He only just got through the Iran-Contra affair that saw weapons sold to Iran as a way to channel funds to Nicaragua’s rebels. He was a more charming liar than Trump could ever be and in his later years one would almost feel sorry for him when he became slower, his punchlines losing their spark and conviction.

Reagan normalised the notion that a president didn’t have to be a smart, policy-driven visionary, he (it was only he then) only had to be able to rally the people, make them feel good and let the ship be steered by the elite crew and the brute force of the US engine room. Reagan opened the door for Trump and his type. But now the ship’s rudder is failing, the engine room is depleted, the bridge is full of sycophants and the captain keeps on lying.

Politics is brimming with floaters entirely unfit to ever hold high office. Trump has given them tremendous hope. By the end of Reagan’s presidency Don Regan became deeply critical of the man despite his continued admiration for him. He wrote that “Rulers are not judged like other men”, which is precisely why the line linking know-nothings to political office should be broken.

It is not impossible to devise a solid and fair formula that would entrench education, expertise, rationality and suitability as absolute pre-requisites for anyone seeking access to political power.
Not to mention a basic capacity to form complete sentences.

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Twitterary Criticism

This article first appeared in the Sunday Mail on 10 May 2020

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

“You spend too much time on Twitter” my partner will tell me from time to time. I don’t really, but as I don’t have Facebook or any other social media account, she knows that when I am staring at my smartphone it is mainly because I am on Twitter. 

For the record my smartphone informed me on Monday, as it diligently does every week, that my average screen time was down 9 percent and had overwhelmingly been spent on what it describes as “Reading and Reference”. On Twitter, obviously.

The legendary television critic Clive James wrote in 1977 that wiser heads had told him to avoid lavishing his attention on lowly ephemera like television but he couldn’t see why: “It wasn’t that I didn’t rate my attention that high – just that I didn’t rate the ephemera that low”.

Twitter is as ephemera as it gets and it is definitely not television yet it is where the majority of the best newspapers, publishers, journalists, writers and thinkers choose to bring their work. Often, they do it with running commentary of their thought processes. When was one ever granted that kind of access? Inevitably everything they put out there ends up taking a life of its own but don’t all narratives suffer that fate once they leave the author?

Sure, fleeting tweets and their ‘threads’ seem chaotic and menacing for the uninitiated. But just as you don’t watch vacuous television programs you have the option not to follow vacuous Twitter accounts. Clive James objected to Raymond Williams’ view that television’s flow became homogenized into “a stream of uniform unmeaning”. As tempting as it is to apply that view to Twitter’s linear life, those who use it know it is more varied and certainly more complicated than that.

For those who elect to confine themselves in (let’s call them) rational information bubbles it can also prove nourishing: To follow a Hannah Arendt Center seminar or a London Review of Books analysis or to explore the recommendations from The Orwell Foundation is a big deal. Indeed, to follow the thoughts of academics or journalists like Fintan O’Toole or James O’Brien are not opportunities to be frowned upon. You wouldn’t dream of such access in 2007 let alone 1977.

Such destinations are hubs of knowledge which, I have come to realise, cannot be that different from the new norm of online education that universities are offering students. Post Covid-19, remote teaching processes deliver a type of learning experience that is not unlike participation in seminars run by an institution you select to follow on Twitter (or elsewhere of course). It’s just that there’s no degree at the end.

According to Omnicore, Twitter boasted 330 million monthly active users last year, 40 percent of which use the service on a daily basis. This pales in comparison with Facebook’s 1.5 billion daily users but it is important to highlight that 63 percent of Twitter users are between 35 and 65 years old and that 71 percent say they use it to get their news.

Journalists now make up nearly a quarter of all verified accounts on Twitter. As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, writers and journalists who might find themselves out of contract will turn to it more intently to remain visible and relevant.

However, it is fair to say that Twitter has aggravated the distortion of the public debate. It remains populated by Vladimir Putin’s trolls and Donald Trump’s alt-right crowd, though Twitter is fast removing millions of fake and extremist accounts. Disinformation delivered the havoc of the 2016 US election result but aside from a more effective rules-based system and tighter verification by Twitter itself, it is greater media literacy that is needed. Readers, not just Twitter users, must be helped to learn to discern the real from the fake, quality from garbage.

Speaking of which, most of us may be sick of POTUS’ tweeting, but rather perversely, we would never have thought that we could gain such direct access to the inner thinking – however shallow – of the president of the United States. Of course, the juvenile that Trump is means that his remarks misfire grammatically and he resorts to non-alphabetical symbols to convey his petty thoughts. His prose is by no means a service to Twitter literature but some of the reaction he provokes comes close. Criticism from learned followers is often devastating and well-crafted and captures the zeitgeist in a way that is unique to the medium.

Much like the constraints of a cartoonist’s frame, Twitter’s 280-character limit offers endless potential for the dedicated user. It is a difficult form and there are tricks to the succinctness required. Some writers negotiate the medium’s limitations masterfully to deliver meaningful comment.

This is not to imply that Twitter has any grand literary purpose but, like it or not, it has asserted itself as part of our political and media culture and demands a critical eye. It might be useful to remind ourselves of the skepticism that confronted early television and consider how readily today we consume so-called reality TV and binge on Netflix dramatizations.

Productions that blend historical fact with fanciful creativity and are supported by ‘reconstructed’ dialogues don’t just walk the thin line between the factual and the fictional. They create distorted narratives that end up entering public consciousness becoming as dangerous as Twitter’s worst failings. As in everything, it comes down to whose content one chooses to follow and trust.

@NicholasKarides

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Επιδήμιος Πόλεμος? Unthinkable.

4 April 2020 – In the pandemic age the divide between optimists and pessimists appears to have been filled with data-ists, a new breed of followers of data and of the scientists and visualists that produce them. A self isolating data-hungry population now fixated on metrics of deaths, glued on curves that resist being flattened.

In the meantime older divides persist. Gaby Hinsliff pointed to one in The Guardian last week when she referred to how Prince Charles and Boris Johnson got swift Covid-19 tests while front line NHS staff were being denied access to them. It may seem churlish, wrote Hinsliff, to dwell on what divides us rather than what we are discovering we have in common. Yet, she went on, we seem to be moving into a dangerous new stage of this epidemic, one where heart-warming stories of hope and altruism may give way to something darker.

As deaths increase and the ineptitude of those in power is revealed, as authoritarianism creeps in and supermarket shelves empty Hinsliff’s churlishness may not seem that misplaced.

It may be useful to recall the hidden variations of some of the Greek words that have come to dominate our vocabulary these weeks; words like πανδημία (pandemic) and επιδημία (epidemic). The latter is the noun use of επιδήμιος (epidêmios) which means “among the demos, among the people”. Ominously the Greeks also used it for επιδήμιος πόλεμος which means civil war.

Civil strife could be stretching it too far. As far perhaps as the possibility that in the year 2020 the prime minister of a member state of the European Union could suspend parliament and rule by decree. Unthinkable.

For Gaby Hinsliff’s article of 26 March 2020 click here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/26/coronavirus-prince-charles-covid-19-test-old-divisions

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Economists in the Room

This article first appeared in the Sunday Mail on 8 March 2020

George Papaconstantinou is a self-effacing and clearly a deeply knowledgeable economist-turned-politician-turned-academic. It is almost impossible to think that a decade ago he had been described as ‘the most hated man in Greece’, a remark, he later told Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times that felt like ‘a punch in the stomach’.

The former finance minister of Greece between 2009 and 2011 under George Papandreou’s Socialist Pasok was in Cyprus last week for a Life Changing Ideas Series presentation organised by Global Training and the University of Nicosia. He addressed a fairly receptive audience that included two Cypriot former finance ministers – Haris Georgiades and Michael Sarris – who had, in their time, also been dealt some metaphorical blows to the abdomen.

Papaconstantinou acknowledged their presence a few times, not, as it transpired, in terms of the camaraderie that stems from the public blame finance ministers inevitably receive, but more in terms of how the three of them shared the unique experience of enduring the wrath of a more elite gang, the Eurogroup.

In the course of his presentation Papaconstantinou used his two best selling books Game Over (2016) and Whatever it Takes (2019) to frame his narrative and to shine light on the dark days of the Eurozone crisis and sketch out the conditions of its purported recovery.

The titles are essentially pulled, the first, from Jean Claude Juncker’s remark in 2009 “The game is over… we need serious statistics (from Greece)” and the second from Mario Draghi’s now legendary statement: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough”.

In 2010 Papaconstantinou signed the first of Greece’s three bail-out agreements with the EU and the International Monetary Fund. At €110 billion it was the biggest ever rescue package granted to a collapsing economy.

He described Greece as the canary in the coalmine, a test state used to alert when the oxygen in the Eurozone’s mineshafts would begin to run out. He argued, quite convincingly, and without brushing over Greece’s long standing structural shortcomings, that after the collapse of the US subprime market his country was only a small part of a systemically precarious Eurozone.

There’s something distinctly unpolitician-like in Papaconstantinou. Perhaps out of modesty or an awareness of the cacophony of blame that floats around, he did not linger on the fact that when he did sign the bail-out, even if sabotaged by the previous conservative government’s unreliable data, things had begun to improve for Greece. So much so that the Financial Times ranked him as one of Europe’s top finance ministers for showing ‘panache’ in handling the crisis. One analyst had stated that he had undertaken “more budget and structural reform that any EU country ever”. Little of that received Greek media coverage at the time.

The one event that best fitted the Life Changing Experience billing of the lecture series is one that Papaconstantinou understandably preferred not to mention. It was how he was scapegoated and tried by a tribunal in Athens for allegedly removing the names of members of his family from the infamous [Christine] Lagarde List of wealthy Greeks with bank accounts in Switzerland. Papaconstantinou was acquitted of the charge but the ordeal, which he very candidly describes in his first book, scarred him.

It doesn’t show. Nor does it seem to have diminished his drive to remain engaged. These days he leads the Transformation of Global Governance project, a research and policy analysis initiative at the European University Institute in Florence that aims to assess the capacity for global cooperation.

Papaconstantinou believes in the essence of the EU. In the current geopolitical instability he describes Europe as ‘the only adult in the room’.

It is a curious choice of a phrase, one that immediately reminds of his more recent former colleague, Yanis Varoufakis, who used it as the title of his own provocative exposé of the European establishment. The phrase, as Varoufakis revealed, actually belonged to Christine Lagarde (her, again) who in the midst of Greece’s dramatic moments spoke of the need for adults in the Eurogroup. In Lagarde’s mind Papaconstantinou would be such an adult.

Unsurprisingly the audacious Varoufakis is absent from Papaconstantinou’s latest book apart from a reference to Adults in the Room in the bibliography. The fact is they both suffered in that ‘room’ mostly in the hands of Wolfgang Schauble, their German colleague. Papaconstantinou chose to go for the least-worst option and sign the bail-out while Varoufakis, having seen what five years of that option had brought, opted not to.

In both instances the system won. Papaconstantinou can’t take much courage from the continuing stagnation while Varoufakis’ only gain from his risk-taking was the birth of a resistance movement.

The bottom line is that the younger generation in Greece and in Europe – in whose name the battle is being waged – does not deserve populist politicians feeding on the inequality that market excesses and austerity have brought.

Both former ministers, the pragmatist and the radical, know that for European social democracy to stand any chance against the emerging right-wing nationalism their narratives would need to converge. We seem to have reached a whatever-it-takes point.

END

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The unpredictable power of randomness

This article first appeared in the Sunday Mail on 2 February 2020

Renowned philosopher Nassim Taleb brings his matrix of uncertainty
to Cyprus

Scholar of Risk and Probability, philosopher, mathematician, former stock trader and best selling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb probably has the best job title in the world: Flâneur. That is, at least, how he describes himself on his Twitter profile. Loosely defined as a lounger, an idler a flâneur has more recently come to represent someone who is “an observer of society”.

When not meditating in cafes across the world, Taleb is also Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU whereas before that, in keeping with inventive titles, he had been Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

So when last week he descended on Cyprus, the land of soaring risk, not to mention of the improbable, it was a big deal. He was here at the commendable initiative of the ambitiously named Institute for the Future at the University of Nicosia for the launch of the Makridakis Open Forecasting Center.

Taleb is a preacher of Randomness. His best selling books The Black Swan (2007) and Fooled by Randomness (2001) explored the hidden role of chance in life and in markets. They remain seminal texts on how every one of us but especially business people should factor unpredictability into our strategies.

He professes that we do not know very much, especially about the future, and worse still that we actually think that we can know and forecast the future based on grand theories and models.

With the confidence of someone who reportedly made his fortune betting against the US real estate boom in 2007 he nonchalantly dismisses academics, journalists, bureaucrats and experts, especially those engaged in economic forecasting.

Aphoristically and often not too clearly – with number bursts too fast for non-worshippers of mathematics – he is nonetheless entertaining in his brutality. He deconstructs perceptions of success and explores case studies where luck outsmarts skill and vision. He claims a Central Banker may lower interest rates, a recovery may ensue, but we do not know whether he caused it or if he slowed it down. We can’t even know, Taleb says, that he didn’t destabilize the economy by increasing the risk of future inflation.

Turning on CEOs, whose skills Taleb dissociates from the results of the companies they are tasked to run, he says they take a small number of large decisions but external factors play a far more considerable role in the outcome. CEOs are not entrepreneurs, he adds, but ‘empty suits’ that are just good at playing the part.

He calls on audiences not to fall for bullshit and to discount advice from people who don’t have ‘skin in the game’ i.e. something to lose. He detests those economists who love to theorise and engage in false solidarity with the oppressed while consolidating their privileges. More so those civil servants, who, he claims, as non-risk takers end up getting rich from public service. In his book Skin in the Game (2018) he is particularly scathing of the former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geinther for being overly rewarded after he left office after having bailed out the banking industry with taxpayer money.  

At some point in Nicosia, the attending Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Minister of Transport stood up and left mid lecture within seconds of each other. Their departure betrayed a customary combination of Cypriot ignorance and arrogance rather than any meaningful protestation to what they may have heard. When another attendee later twitted that the two officials had left abruptly, a true-to-form Taleb remarked “Bureaucrats, I was told, find my lectures very painful’.

Yet Taleb was himself adviser to the IMF and to former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In the early part of the previous decade as a frequent Downing Street visitor Cameron had considered him his intellectual guru. But things turned sour with the British press when remarks Taleb made about the 2008 financial crash – an unpredictable black swan high-impact event – were distorted to imply that he considered such events useful. He countered that what he had said was that attempting to control the cycle was futile but it was necessary for citizens to become robust to them, to be immune to their impact. Taleb criticised the British media and stopped granting interviews altogether. He declined to be interviewed in Cyprus too.

The Lebanese-American philosopher courts controversy and clearly enjoys his iconoclastic persona. He is certainly not modest. At the beginning of his presentation in Nicosia he put up his name in English on the screen and underneath the translation for Taleb: “Philologos” which in Greek means “lover of the word, seeker of knowledge”.

Taleb may not be the Socrates type of “I know that I know nothing” philosopher, but he is convincing when exposing the fragility of human knowledge and identifying the asymmetries of markets. For those not into economics or probabilities the audacious flâneur hassomething less uncertain and more reassuring to say: “What fools call ‘wasting time’ is most often the best investment”.

@NicholasKarides

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The Cult of Business Awards

This article was first published in the Sunday Mail on 19 January 2020

Last month the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm bestowed its international award, the Nobel Prize, on economists, physicists and chemists in recognition of academic, cultural and scientific advances. Next month at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will dish out golden statuettes to actors, editors and directors for outstanding artistic achievement in a long list of categories. The Oscars are in their 92nd year, the Nobel in its 118th.

Sport too has its range of award ceremonies. FIFA, the world football governing body, celebrates excellence through its annual Best Players awards, though here sportsmen and sportswomen are judged primarily on the metrics of their performances rather than on any subjective assessment.

It was inevitable that the world of entrepreneurship would at some point catch up. Business very quickly saw the utility of embracing the idea of having its own award system and ceremonies for its champions. In the competitive world of corporate sales nothing sells services or products better than the deification of its leading salesmen.

Globally there’s an array of business award platforms where market force celebrity status can be attained. Most, like Forbes and Fortune, merely measure corporate sizes and value, others, like the International Business Awards, known as the Stevies, recognize entrepreneurial achievement in a range of industries.

Awards help businesses generate value. Not so much in terms of what they produce or actually do but more, to paraphrase the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in terms of “the perceptions of, and beliefs about, their future performance where all that is solid melts into PR”.

Indeed awards tell a public relations story. They create myths about people and their companies that are embraceable and saleable. On the side they also do wonders in motivating disgruntled employees particularly at times of difficult labour relations and economic austerity.

In Cyprus too various business awards have sprung up in recent years. Business being business and Cyprus being Cyprus, the concept has been stretched to manifestations of pantomimic pomp and self-patting that would bring shame to the Dolby Theatre crowd on Hollywood Boulevard.

Sure the bosses of economic growth and profitability deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. In any case profit is not exclusive to business. Oscar awards help sell tickets and Netflix subscriptions; a Nobel Prize boosts book sales and Ballon d’Ors definitely help sell football kits.

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging those who deliver innovation especially when it is in the public interest. Nor is it inappropriate to celebrate those business leaders who excel in corporate social responsibility though not the kind that serves to deflect from the harm their businesses do.

Yet, intuitively, something does feel wrong about awards for leadership or outstanding achievement in banking or the oil industry where leaders may have navigated banks or corporations out of trouble at the expense of the taxpayer or the environment. Or about awards for a currency exchange set-up honoured for developing obscure financial machinations. Or perhaps for a land developer who has snaked round planning and environmental regulations to construct monstrosities that disfigure natural landscapes.

I recently received an email alerting me to a company’s candidacy in some business award category and – politely of course – soliciting my vote. It turns out that the award will be weighted 50% on public votes and 50% by committee decision. I was immediately put off by their presumption to embroil me in their PR stunt and in a voting process that could easily be corrupted.

It may be that the company is worthy and innovative and its management leadership has a social conscience but if it has to stoop that low as to cajole for my vote to secure the acclaim then clearly it is a company focused on its image rather than its integrity. It means it is willing to risk me thinking of them that way for the mere prospect, if they win, that their future emails will gloat about the award I had chosen not to help them secure.

Encouragingly there was an occasion in the years after the Cypriot economic crisis when an established local businessman declined to be considered for a business award arguing that he could not step up to a podium to receive it while he was laying-off staff and cutting salaries.

In the cycle of economic booms and busts the proliferation of business awards and the worshiping of entrepreneurs reflect the undisputed dominance of capitalist doctrine. That’s where we are. The dark side is that the cult seems to be morphing into a widely celebrated religion.

@NicholasKarides