Some lessons for life and political success: staying at it
It is surprising to some extent to see how the world these days devours ‘self-help’ and or ‘career advisory’ books, all promising to deliver the right tools and techniques to bring us riches and happiness or some sort of combination thereof. It was a relief for me this summer to return to my old passion of reading political biographies and to realize that all the clues to happier lives and better careers can easily be found by studying the lives of some of history’s great and see how they navigated some of the deeper challenges that defined their lives and come out as winners. So this summer I dove into David Landau’s epic work on the life of Ariel Sharon and it was followed by the deeply researched and voluminous biography that Ezra Vogel put together on Deng Xiaoping.
As a historical figure, Sharon tends to generate some negative reactions given the abrasive style he was known for, his presumed guilt in the Sabra and Shatila massacres and triggering the second intifada following his visit to the Temple Mount in 2001. Both of these claims by the way are clearly and helpfully dispelled by Landau’s book. Deng however usually can count on a far more sympathetic treatment as the man that transformed and modernized China. This of course is somewhat questionable as Deng most probably had been far more directly involved in unleashing lethal force, on his own subjects no less, during his career as one of Chairman Mao’s key enforcers and eventually as China’s paramount leader. During my years in Asia it was not unknown to hear business leaders praise the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen as one of the essential building blocks of a stable China that is open for business. Whatever the merit of that morally flawed argument, both Deng and Sharon built their careers in newly formed nations – Israel being established in 1948 and the People’s Republic of China only one year later, 1949 – that were under such formative pressures that the internal and external use of force were essential parts of the job.
Although China and Israel came into being under vastly different circumstances and cannot be compared in terms of size and histories, the parallels between the careers of both men are striking. Both biographies clearly present that their entire lives were essentially in the service of their nation and that both consequently took a deep personal toll in the process. These were compounded by significant personal dramas. Landau’s description of the death of Sharon’s young son Gur is moving and heartbreaking, much the same can be said for the way Deng’s son Pufang was denied medical treatment during the Cultural Revolution a result of which he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. It is a testament to the quality of the books that you can sense how the deep pain of these personal tragedies accompanied these two men for the rest of their political lives and how it motivated them.
Yet the essence of both careers was that it took a lifetime to get to the top positions, Deng being a solid seventy-four when he could truly claim to be China’s paramount leader, Sharon was seventy-three on the day he was inaugurated as Israel’s prime-minister. Both books give a very detailed accounting for the reasons it took so long and how both men persisted against the many different forces that were aligned against them. The pragmatic fixer Deng had the nearly insurmountable task to carve out a space for plain reason and common sense progress in the toxic environment created by Mao’s continuous political struggles where dogma trumped everything else. Deng was purged from the leadership twice: in 1966 and within about a year of returning from the first one, in 1976. Both of these had career ending potential, yet Deng not only overcame both events, he emerged stronger and far more decisive. Sharon in turn had to navigate a different but equally explosive political environment in Israel – Landau’s book is a key primer to get a feel for the machinations of Israeli political power-play – but also his own character which at times created some roadblocks on avenues that had opened up for him. The benefit of the long road that both had to travel was of course the accumulation of deep experience and a huge personal network of politicians, administrators and military commanders complemented by an incredibly clear and growing sense of direction for each nation. This of course was compounded by the fact that by the time they reached the highest office there was little time left for them given their advanced age. For Deng it meant rejecting orthodox communism and embracing capitalism while maintaining one-party rule, for Sharon it was ditching the nationalist settler movement that propelled him to power and embrace disengagement from the Palestinian enemy.
Once you come to the end of Sharon’s biography it is both harsh and painful to see how he in early 2006 succumbed to a hemorrhagic stroke that sent him into an eight-year coma from which he never woke up. The remaining question that even the masterful Landau can not answer is whether Sharon would, following the departure from Gaza in 2005, have continued his unilateral disengagement by withdrawing from the West Bank and setting the stage for more favorable conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace than is the case now. What we do know is that had Sharon lived as long as Deng, he would no doubt have left an even deeper imprint on the Middle East. Deng retired from the political scene in 1992 having reached the tender age of eighty-eight and as opposed to Sharon, did live to see most of what he set out to do: a stable and steadily growing China.
So what do these old men of state and their biographers have to tell us about our lives and careers? The same lessons that drove Deng and Sharon to ultimate success in their lives and careers. Hard work, focus, family and never ever giving up.
Note: Deng Xiapong and the transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel (2013) and Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon by David Landau (2014). As a complement I would recommend reading The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976 by Frank Dikötter (2016) which gives a bit more depth and analysis of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution an area on which Vogel’s book was a bit light.
So in many ways my life and career are a direct result of British engagement with Europe. In anticipation of the formal 1992 creation of the European Union, British banks started to evaluate their continental strategies and some, for the first time, embarked on recruiting graduates from across the channel. By sheer coincidence I ran into Barclays Bank at a job fair – not coincidentally in Brussels – and was asked to apply for their European Management Development Program. I did and so my first job application landed me right in the City of London, learning the ropes of banking at one of its more venerable institutions.
The interesting thing was that my new British colleagues ridiculed their nation’s and their employers’ European project and where somewhat miffed at all the opportunities and goodies that were thrown in the direction of the bank’s ten ‘Euro-recruits’. From day one I was lectured on the conspiracy coming from Brussels to subvert British freedoms, abolish pound sterling and eventually dismantle Westminster. This was long before immigration concerns and Nigel Farage. These were the last days of Margaret Thatcher whose career essentially ended over her views on Europe and the infamous campaign by The Sun newspaper to dispense some advice to the President of the European Commission on where to put his European Currency Unit as it was called in those days. Having grown up in a nation devastated by World War II where European co-operation was essential to economic recovery, there was never any debate, discussion, let alone an inkling that there might be something negative to say about European co-operation and integration. On the contrary, the late 80s were a time when the advent of the single market would bring more freedoms, riches and success for those that participated in it and my instant recruitment into London was the undeniable evidence of that. Critical thinking about the European Union was non-existent. Imagine my initial surprise at the British bitterness about it all.
That said, it did change my thinking and my crash course in Euroskepticism allowed me to see that giving up your currency would mean giving up your ability to be the master of your own destiny as Greece has now painfully learned. Globalization is great and opens the door to many opportunities, but to hand its management to unelected bodies far removed from the nation state will inevitably open the door to some unintended consequences. Even with Thatcher disappearing from the scene, the debate in Britain raged on.
And now, some twenty-five years later that British suspicion about the entire project has invaded many parts of continental Europe and has been adopted by emerging political movements on both the left and the right. Deep frustrations over unrestricted immigration and the economy at large are turbocharging populist sentiment and the EU is the first in the line of fire as an establishment project seen to have been instrumental in undermining the safety and security blankets that many across Europe had come to take for granted. Protest and anger are thus not only informed by evidence, but equally by ‘nostalgia’ something populist politicians love to plug into.
So the Brexit vote should not come as a surprise at all despite the near hysteria that enveloped the media and markets almost immediately after the results were confirmed. The consequent demise of both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn were also long in the making, the Brexit vote just accelerated it. And as such last week’s events should be welcomed as a timely wake-up call for Europe to come to terms with deep economic shifts, nearby war and chaos (Ukraine, Syria) and the festering wounds inflicted by harsh monetary policies, again Greece, but who is next? European commissioner Frans Timmermans today on his Facebook page admitted that the time has arrived to be ‘brutally honest’ and that the Brexit vote is a symptom of the feeling that ‘we have lost control of our destinies’. As much as the vote shook up Britain, it will give an equal boost for re-examination in Brussels.
So that is why we should welcome what happened in Britain last week. Although there will be quite some chaos in the weeks to come, think financial turbulence and purges in the British Labour and Conservative parties, there will and has to be a way out of this mess. It will consist of finding a ways to re-establish British relations with Europe, which will neither end nor remain the same, but more likely and hopefully will find some new middle ground. Britain cannot afford to let a referendum – a terrible tool to set a political course at the best of times – determine its future direction. Once the internal bloodletting is done, possibly followed by a general election, serious discussions can start without invoking the dreaded Article 50, which will set a timetable for a British exit. This process will help Europe find its balance and involve some serious re-examination on issues such as centralized governance, immigration, security and macro-economic policies.
Yes, I refuse to believe that Britain is out and that we are headed for some sort of dark age. But even if that were to happen there will be a route to some new equilibrium. Things will not be easy, but at the very least we are all awake now and ready to participate in framing a new future for Britain, Europe and the world at large. My induction in global thinking decades ago in London does not allow me to believe otherwise.
Postscript on July 7, 2016: it is of course quite extraordinary and maybe not coincidental that one of the very colleagues I referred to here and with whom I worked together in my first year at Barclays is none other than Andrea Leadsom (née Salmon), one of the two remaining contenders for the conservative leadership.
In only a few months time, I will be leaving on a mountain climbing expedition with Summits of Hope, the same group I scaled Kilimanjaro with two years ago. We will be attempting to summit Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas at 6,961 meters (22,837 ft) above sea level. I have started training and look forward to this great challenge, realizing it will be a lot harder than Kilimanjaro a few years ago.
I will cover the cost for the entire expedition myself, but we are raising money for children at BC Children’s Hospital. Summits of Hope is quite different from other charities as all funds raised directly support one full-time position at BC Children’s oncology ward, cancer research, education and laptops/toys for children in the hospital. I’ve pledged to raise at least $5,000 in donations for this climb, but my goal is to raise more. This is the same amount I targeted for the Kili trip, but ended up raising over $11k thanks to many generous contributions. It is often surprising what people will contribute, really.
Global News anchor Kate Gajdosik was part of this year's Kilimanjaro trip and here is a video of that prior to her leaving, and here is her detailed post on the climb and Summits of Hope's important role in it all.
So if you would consider making a donation, take a look at my Summits of Hope profile page with a link to donate. Please make sure you select ‘Pieter Dorsman' as the climber you are supporting on the donation form and designate the amount that’s right for you, no amount is too small or too large. Tax receipts of course will be issued directly. For a donation of $40 or more, I will fly your message on your own personalized flag and we will send pictures of your flag flying on Aconcagua when we return.
Selfie on Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro on October 17, 2013.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, I remembered I once wrote a piece on the one terror attack that I ever experienced, or at least came relatively close to. This is what I wrote in 2003 about the 1992 attack on the Baltic Exchange. I made a few edits, but is largely the same text. And the photo of the damaged Commercial Union building above wqs made on April 13, 1992.
It was in April 1992 when I was working in the City of London that I went on my first real business trip. For a young guy, a great milestone in an emerging career and the location was not bad either, Athens in Greece. It was a business development conference and that week, apart from the conference, was pretty much dominated by the very close election race back in the UK where the unexciting John Major eked out a narrow election victory over Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. On Saturday morning as the conference wrapped up we heard the news that a big bomb had gone off in London’s financial district, the area where most of us worked. There were no clear indications of the exact location, casualties or damage other than that it had been a huge explosion. Those were the days before the internet and mobile, so we digested the news slowly and did not race to our laptops to have a complete minute-to-minute rundown of events. I stayed the extra day and when I got home on Sunday night one of my managers was on the phone shortly after my arrival asking me whether I had heard about the attack and how the trip to Athens had been. I summarized what I had to say quite briefly and let him know that I would give a full report of my trip the next morning. “Well, Pieter”, he said, “you are going to have a few days off because the bomb exploded at the Baltic Exchange and our office building is in such a shape that it is very unsafe for staff to return to work”. This was quite a surprise, our office was at the northern end of St Mary Axe, in fact everyday I walked right past the Baltic Exchange at the southern end of St Mary Axe, the place were the bomb had gone off.
The next morning, the day off, I went to the area, camera in hand, and what I witnessed shocked and perplexed me completely. The area that had been damaged not only extended well beyond to what anyone would have believed knowing the location of the bomb; the damage done to that area, now cordoned off by police, was phenomenal. The impact of the explosion had covered the direct area with endless mountains of glass as nearly all of the windows of the adjoining Commercial Union skyscraper were knocked to smithereens. The force had also seriously damaged many other buildings, destroyed windows over a vast area, damaged cars and what amazed me and for some reason stuck in my mind: it left most traffic signs in a very wide area curved. The damage had thus also affected our building at the very end of St Mary Axe, although from the outside things did not look particularly bad. Apparently, there was significant damage and one of the greatest concerns was the structural damage not directly visible to the eye. Hence our few days off, in fact we spent the next two months in some reserve office space the bank had made available near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The background to the bombing was soon clarified. The IRA’s political affiliates, Sinn Fein, had lost a seat during the election (Sinn Fein did contest seats in Westminster but they never occupied them) and the heinous attack was a “punishment” for the conservative victory. Three people were killed and I remember very clearly that one of them was a teenage girl who had happened to be there, waiting in a car while her mother picked up her dad from work.
I never directly linked the attack to myself or the chance that I could have been killed by it although the bomb went off right on the route that I walked every day from the Underground station to the office and back. I just did not happen to be there that day, I was in Athens, and there was, and is, no other way to look at it. During my stay in London Downing Street 10 had been attacked by a rocket propelled grenade launcher and one day the entire Underground system was shut down leaving my then girlfriend, and now wife, Irene presuming I was dead, however I was just four hours late being stuck in a bus somewhere on Piccadilly. At the time, the terror never felt like it was directed at me, or us, or to anyone close to me and I never got the sense from my British colleagues that they ever felt like they were a target. It was a constant, it was there, and if it came close to home it was sure to move on to another location. I never sensed fear, pain or worry. The nature, origin, much less a solution was ever discussed. The IRA was qualified as a group of isolated fanatics who did not even have majority support in their own ranks, losing a seat during the election was yet more evidence of their failure, isolation and increasing irrelevance. For me, it left a very vivid image of the physical impact of a bomb attack and it makes it easier to picture what can happen to people if they are in the vicinity of such a dreadful blast.
Today, some twenty-three years on, with a settled conflict in Northern Ireland and a wave of new terror attacks enveloping Europe, it may be worthwhile to recall how the British in those days dealt with lethal terror. They adjusted a bit here and there, but carried on regardless. The other side of this of course is to remember those that perished, then and today, innocent bystanders in a pointless orgy of violence.
Quite a few people have been asking about the ‘why’ of the terror attacks in Paris. Many others are shocked and surprised at the outburst of such extreme violence. For many however these attacks are hardly a surprise as they represent the most recent instalment of a process that got started in the 1950s with roots going back many centuries. Let me try and weave the component parts together into a narrative that I hope explains the ‘why’.
Collapse of the Ottoman Empire – It starts with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War where on the remnants of that empire a number of artificial states were created in the Arab-Muslim world. All of these states came to be ruled by repressive autocrats or families who were more or less aligned with the western powers that defeated the Ottomans.
Autocratic Rule - These ruling elites largely survived through divide and conquer policies (think Sunni vs. Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Syria) or by closely aligning with the region’s dominant religion (think of the House of Saud as protector of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina). Needless to say, these despots have used the most brutal and inhuman techniques at their disposal to consolidate their hold on power. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya are some of the more recent examples here.
Resource-based Economies - The abundance of oil (Gulf States, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya) prevented any form of economic or social innovation, the western petro-dollars kept flowing, creating a wealthy uber-elite that had no incentive to change, innovate or otherwise promote change to seek the betterment of their underlings. On the contrary, diversifying the economy would open the door to a level of foreign influence that could destabilize a hold on power that was tenuous at best. Many scholars have argued that an Arab world that at one point was highly successful and progressive reverted to anti-modernist stagnation.
Channeling Resentment - Resentment and anger of the ordinary underlings could easily be channeled by directing tension and aggression to externalities. Israel was the regional bad guy to fight against, or the ‘other Muslim’ with the Iran-Iraq war that constituted the absolute violent low point in terms of intra-Muslim bloodshed last century. While this war of neighbours consolidated the ayatollah’s power in Iran and Saddam’s in Iraq, it created utter devastation for their citizens.
Conflict with Modern and Secular World - Traditional Muslim life was challenged by modernity over the second half of the 20th century and as calls for progress through democracy were violently suppressed, a return to fundamental Islam (or Islamism) became a far more potent vehicle to challenge the westernized corrupt elites that governed the Arab world. Many have pointed to the Egyptian author and scholar Sayyid Qutb who emerged in the 1950s as a proponent of a return to tradional Islamist societies as a response to corrupt, westernized autocratic rule. Qutb is seen as the foundational ideologue of al-Qaeda and now, ISIS.
Quest for Purity - As with most fundamentalist or totalitarian groups, the all-encompassing idea is to create a better world where the prevailing ideology provides a route to a pure and uniform society. In the case of Islam that meant a return to a form of government where the secular state and religious authority are merged into one and where Islamic doctrine governs day-to-day life. The best example of such an entity was the original caliphate of the 7th and 8th centuries. It also provided the antidote to the western model that separates church and state.
Religion - And as opposed to fascism and communism where Hitler and Stalin banned or otherwise submerged religion, the religious doctrine in the fundamentalist mindset is the same as the political worldview to govern. When Hitler died fascism collapsed the next day, not so with Islam or Christianity for that matter as religion is far more potent than any secular worldview. It is outside the scope of my notes here, but the concept of God and the afterlife sets religion apart from any political ideology.
Dissent and Religion Merge - So to go back to say the mid-1990s the dominant protest movement in the Middle East became radical Islam or Muslim fundamentalism, whatever term suits you best. The idea to resurrect the caliphate started to manifest itself violently and in pursuit of its goals severing the ties between the West and the Arab autocrats became one of its primary goals. It should be remembered that al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden was able to emerge and grow in a fertile environment where first the Russians intervened in Afghanistan (1980s) and where the United States led a UN-sanctioned war against Saddam Hussein after he conquered Kuwait in the early 1990s.
Attack the West, Provoke War, Weaken Local Rule - The 9/11 attacks completed the first phase of the process and the West’s response was exactly what al-Qaeda must have seen as its desired outcome: invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, suppressing personal freedom in the West by creating a security state. All of these could potentially divide the West, weaken the local Arab autocrats and in time strengthen the hand of Islamists.
The Quagmire – And that is pretty much what happened. The easy target was Saddam Hussein not only as a serial violator of UN resolutions, but Saddam himself had moved way too close to fundamentalism and organized terror in order to preserve his position which originally was far more pro-western and secular than the new make-up of the Arab world required him to be. So George Bush decided to remove him. Post-war Iraq was chaos and enabled local Iraqi fundamentalists under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to create a foothold where western powers may have thought that a ‘fly-trap’ would get all radicals into Iraq where they could be defeated in a decisive manner. This did not happen and the United States beat a retreat, leaving a country in deep chaos under corrupt and sectarian Shi’ite rulers whose presence further strengthened the efforts of Sunni fundamentalists. Following Zarqawi’s death they re-emerged under the banner of ISIS.
Arab Spring – All of this took place more or less around the same time of what came to be known as the Arab Spring of 2010-2012 where democratic uprisings (notably in Tunisia, Libya and Syria) saw a weakening of the old autocratic rule and a nascent democratic movement. But as we know now, opposition was not only channeled through believers in freedom and democracy, fundamentalists often gained the upper in hand in the revolts that emanated from that Arab spring. Noted examples are Libya, Syria and yes, Egypt, where a democratic experiment with a fundamentalist president (Mohamed Morsi) failed miserably.
And there’s ISIS – So building on the groundwork of Qutb, al-Qaeda’s successes, the US failure in Iraq and its subsequent withdrawal, weakened Arab autocrats, combined with the emergence of newly energized fundamentalist groups provided the fertile soil for the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or now better known as ISIS.
The Islamist Vanguard - As all revolutionary movements, be they fascist, communist, clerical or millennial in nature, a wealthier upper middle class vanguard establishes the way, think of the privileged upbringing Osama bin-Laden had or the background of Germany’s RAF terrorists. Or take Sayyid Qutb who studied in the United States, Colorado to be precise. They are the ones that conceptualize, create and finance the platform where the disgruntled troops can assemble and fight in pursuit of a better tomorrow, or in our case, a new caliphate governed by divine law.
Alienated Converts - In the case of fundamentalist Islam, those initiators can draw on a large pool of potential converts, often than more than willing to take up arms and fight. They are essentially the unemployed or underutilized poor young men across the Middle East whose ranks have grown in a demographic boom that was never accompanied by an economic one. Add to this the very many Muslims across Europe (primarily Maghreb and Turkish influx to North and Western Europe) who are not only unemployed and underutilized, but alienated in a culture that is in all aspects diametrically opposed to the ones in which they grew up.
Sexual Repression - And this brings us to the repressed sexuality in Muslim culture an element often overlooked but it stands to reason that it plays a crucial part in the emergence of fundamentalist violence. Traditional Muslim societies suppress both male and female sexuality and the resulting hormonal overdose for men can easily be channeled into violence. Let me give a simple example by pointing to that young and affluent Parisian couple where the girl is scantily dressed and both are enjoying a glass of wine in a trendy Paris bistro after a not so strenuous week at a local college or university. Their lives and values have been somewhat different, to say the least, from the single alienated Muslim youngster who empties his AK-47 on them. I hope this gets the point across.
Europe - That brings us to Europe, at one point in the history parts of which were occupied by the Ottomans. The idea of the fundamentalists restoring their caliphate is fueled by the notion that its borders should once more extend to what they once were. Here the fundamentalist Muslim doctrine merges with nostalgic notions of a time past and of what could be tomorrow. Potent recruitment material. Is a European reconquest a real goal for ISIS? Hard to say, but in the current environment where the US has retreated, the north Atlantic alliance is at its weakest ever and where the Muslim segment of Europe’s population keeps growing in relative terms it is an attractive notion for ISIS to promote as part of its overall strategy of enlarging its domestic Arab footprint by severing the ties between Arab’s remaining autocratic rulers and European elites.
Decadence and Freedom – And Europe (and America, Canada and Australia) represent the opposite of what fundamental Islam stands for: open and liberal gender relations, separation of church and state, increasing secularity (empty churches) and a general quest to enjoy life. We often see references from religious purists (not just Muslims, Christians too) to hedonism as one of the most abject expressions of life in Western societies. Any western city is now a perfect target and you do not have to necessarily bring in your recruits from overseas because they are already there. Paris has all of that and additionally a pretty terrible history with Muslims, few will recall the massacre of hundreds of Algerians in 1961 whose bodies were discarded in the Seine by the French police. More recently we can point to the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing massacre at that magazine’s editorial offices. So what could be a more perfect target?
It is outside the scope of this article to provide a solution to this deep and violent conflict. The core purpose is to explain in a short but hopefully enlightening way how we ended up in a world where a small group of terrorists can randomly butcher totally innocent people in a city far away from their ancestral homes. The most important thing to note is that there is no single and simple explanation like “if the United States had not invaded Iraq this would not have happened”. These are anti-intellectual short cuts that deserve no merit, as the reality is so much more complex. A number of things that I offer here may on their own not be solid evidence of contributing to terrorism, but together they constitute a narrative that may help us to understand the recent violence better.
Anyone trying to find a solution will be perplexed by this complexity, which inevitably leads us to conclude that it will take a very long time before we can really address and solve it.
An intellectually hollow campaign sets the stage for a transitional, but not an aspirational new leader
Only a few weeks ago I was sitting in the bus driving into Vancouver talking to two ladies who – by my estimate - were well into their sixties but still active in the workforce, commuting to work on a daily basis. As we crossed the Lions Gate Bridge passing two crowds waving Blue and Green signs, one of them focused on our political early morning chat. "You know what?" she said, “None of the parties are presenting a vision of the future … what do they really want for Canada?” It was exactly what I had been thinking throughout the campaign. No future aspirations, like addressing the question as to what will Canada look like 30 years from now. Or what given the enormous changes taking place internationally can we do and shape our place and role in the world? When I ran for school trustee about a year ago I discovered that talking about the future and about how to embrace change to create better opportunities does resonate with voters. It enables voters to see their role in creating change and to be part of that ‘better future’. It was what Ronald Reagan did so well, and why he was able to pull so many Democrats into his column: visionary politics transcend party politics.
Yet, most elections in Western democracies these days have resorted to a low level debate about taxes, deficits and growth. And beyond that the only alternative offered is one of mobilizing the ‘fear vote’ or engaging with the ‘change vote’. Neither has substance and so we are treated to the usual smorgasbord of tax credits and incentives and broad references to ‘change’ and ‘security’. The problem with this is that the lives of most voters are not materially affected by a budget tweak here or a tax credit there. TFSA limits are largely irrelevant and working families are no better off by Conservative cash hand outs, Liberal tax credits or an NDP-driven childcare program that will never see the light of day because provinces will never pony up their part of the bill. The fact that some parties were arguing the country was in recession while it most likely was not, only proves this point.
Odd as it may sound, the Conservatives were by and large the key offenders here. While Stephen Harper was right in defending his record and Canada’s economic progress he failed to offer anything beyond that. No vision, no real plans other than a ‘steady as we go’ approach that sought to only solidify his core support and bring in just enough middle income voters to secure a win. It was a strategy that would have failed under the best of circumstances and one that would not generate any strong interest during a campaign where the central theme was to unseat Harper himself. The Liberal Party under the telegenic Justin Trudeau did sense the need for change and borrowed heavily from the Obama playbook by proposing exactly that, all outlined in an endless array of proposals intended to bring that real change to Canada. And yes, there was some audacity involved in proposing to abandon first-past-the-post elections, legalize marihuana, ramp up infrastructure spending, address climate change and rewrite a few conservative bills like C-51.
There are two caveats to this of course, one being that Trudeau promised so much that it will be nearly impossible to deliver on all of it during his four-year mandate. Just imagine how his freshly minted caucus feels about abandoning first-past-the post. The other aspect is that Trudeau did not present a clearly defined vision; the change for change sake does not constitute a plan for the future as the Obama supporters have found out. It does deliver on a few specific items but fails to take on larger, generational issues like demographics and the challenges it poses for the family, healthcare and retirement or a redefined global map which in turn drives economic challenges and brings about new strategic relations. As one younger voter told me, “none of the candidates talked about technology” and that is a pretty serious indictment.
The more ideological driven parties fared no better, although to be fair to the Greens and the NDP they are operating under both an electoral system and regional differences that make it quite hard for them to be really competitive across Canada. The NDP rather than by embracing the increasing skepticism on the left (and the right) of the sustainability of capitalism and austerity as we now know it, doubled-down on a tack to the center approach which made its leader Thomas Mulcair somewhat indistinguishable from Harper and Trudeau. Europe has an array of social-democrats that have fallen into the same trap and taken a brutal clobbering at the ballot box which is exactly what happened to Mulcair.
The Green Party saw an opening in this electoral mess while capitalizing on the renewed interest in environmental issues and believed it had its best chance yet to capture more than one seat and start making a real difference. Not so. All three of the larger parties had started to embed green ideas into their platforms with the Liberals and NDP proposing a lot of what the Greens were offering in terms of support for families, small businesses and health. Trudeau’s initiative to invite Elizabeth May to join both him and some of his ministers to a climate summit in Paris will only strengthen his hand. No one can imagine them letting May take credit for any progress at the summit and if they do, it will be seen as a Liberal success, not a Green one.
But let’s return to the election. Most staggeringly was the inability of all parties to address foreign policy in a time where a more isolationist America, a more assertive China and Russia, not to mention a devastating religious and generational conflict in the Middle East is creating a sea of instability last seen in the 1930s. So by way of example, the Conservative Party’s instinct to defend our partnerships in bombing ISIS was right, it totally failed to really address the fundamental issue in Syria which is that the root of the crisis (and mass murder resulting in endless streams of refugees) is its current leader, Assad, and not just ISIS. The fact that a supposedly smart and well-organized campaign kept droning on and on about ISIS while one simple look at Twitter could have told them that drowning refugees could more readily be attributed to Assad was one more piece of evidence of how superficial this campaign was.
Not that the left had anything intelligent to say about this. Trudeau, May and Mulcair all trumped a resort to the past – how is that for visionary policies – where Canada would pull out of fighting missions and revert to peacekeeping, whatever that means in today’s world. Re-imagining a peaceful world with Maple Leaf carrying soldiers handing out blankets is reminiscent of the same nostalgia that sometimes envelops European elections where the stable and culturally uniform 1950s are presented as the ideal age of western civilization. The only problem is that the world has changed, a bit. Presenting a vision of the past in the end is not the most sound way to prepare for the future.
And the future looks decidedly different. And again preparing a vision or a reasonable argument for a challenge by that very future helps a politician. The Conservatives sensed that the 'niqab’ was one such issue that would deliver them votes, by harking back to the past where the 'niqab' was not something that was part of daily Canadian life. And it would probably play to the Conservative fortunes in a province - Quebec - where there had been a deep debate about religious and cultural symbols (and let’s just park the discussion as to whether the ‘niqab’ is a religious or cultural expression). But team Harper completely misread the nature and context of the ‘niqab debate’ and one has to wonder what sort of campaign smarts were involved in unleashing this without any solid thinking onto Canadians. Don’t get me wrong, it is an issue worth debating and finding a solution to as the former Liberal leader Ignatieff alluded to or by assessing how the French have dealt with it with a number of years ago. The problem was that the Conservatives dropped it in the middle of a national campaign where it was (a) not an issue and (b) if it were one it was a regional, ie. Quebecois issue. And then it totally bungled the topic itself while harping (excuse the pun) on about citizenship ceremonies while not addressing that the issue – as the socially liberal French and Dutch have found out – is one of dealing with fundamentalist forms of religion present in increasingly secular societies that take personal liberties pretty seriously. None of that, alas, and what followed was a shameful and intellectually unhinged debate where no one got it right.
Of course the Liberals, NDP and Greens jumped on Harper about being divisive, which may have helped them during the campaign but failed to address the opportunity it really created, namely talking about what a multi-cultural future for Canada could really look like. To be clear, this is not an easy undertaking and something which very few democracies have been able to articulate well, but it would be not too much to ask our politicians to not use the ‘niqab’ as a wedge issue but as a starting point to create a forward looking vision for Canada. By remaining stuck in past and ideological boxes all parties failed and it underlines the fear that an inward looking and rosy view of Canada in no way prepares the nation for the challenges that lay ahead in the 21st century.
Now that the smoke has cleared and we are getting ready for Trudeau’s inauguration it is a good time to assess what happened during Canada’s longest election ever. A successful incumbent failed to make a credible bid for re-election while having all the tools at his disposal to do so. That is something for the Conservatives to ponder in the coming years. The ideologically driven opposition of social-democrats and greens failed to present a credible future vision and got entangled in a lethal mismatch of a ‘Canada past’ and electoral maneuvering. The NDP has a real shot at rethinking what the ‘left’ really represents in the 21st century by trying to cleverly address the dark side of capitalism. The Green Party should do the same, but only real electoral reform can save them from eventual obliteration as the ‘green message’ has now been co-opted by all the other parties.
And that leaves us with the election’s winner who if you really think about it, did not win by articulating a vision for Canada, but who won by default. I did not vote for Trudeau, but I do admire some of his bolder proposals that will hopefully bring about things that can help unify Canadians in their purpose. The scope of his agenda is however most likely too ambitious to deliver in four years at which point in time we can only hope the parties can give Canadians a real peak into aspirations for the future. In that sense Trudeau is not an aspirational, but a transitional leader.
Photo: rather than the ubiquitous party leader photo I grabbed one I took of the ferry departing Bowen Island last year. With the Canadian flag it sort of says that we are leaving something behind and going into uncharted waters.
Canadians are gearing up for the October 19 federal election for which the campaign got underway in early August, making it the longest election campaign ever. The early start was one of the more recent strokes of Prime Minister’s Stephen Harper ability to influence the outcome of events, betting on a long drawn out campaign that should, at least in theory, benefit the party with the biggest war chest.
From the outset of this electoral battle it has been clear that a change in government would be its core theme, with the left wing NDP, the centrist Liberals and to a lesser extent the emerging Greens as the three key contenders to topple the incumbent Conservatives. There has been a lot of noise, quite a bit of it superficial, and no end to columns, social media posts and other commentary that decry the manipulations and penchant for secrecy by the man to be beaten, Harper. Yet, on closer inspection it would seem that Harper’s ability to govern Canada for almost ten years with varying degrees of success is rooted not so much in the nefarious qualities that his opponents ascribe to him, but in cleverly navigating the political tides of a rapidly changing nation. And while doing that, he is using an array of tools that have historically been available to most of his predecessors. In that Harper learned from the best.
And those best were on their way out after some thirteen years in office, which is a lifetime in politics. Such long tenors usually end with bickering over succession and scandals and many will recall the channeling of sponsorship moneys to Quebec and the relatively short-lived government of Paul Martin. The latter was no match for Harper’s ‘time for change’ message in 2006 as the Conservatives were at the time extremely tuned in to the changes enveloping Canada where globalization and the emergence of the Western provinces as powerhouses had started to redefine the northern nation. New immigrants from all over the world, but in particular from Asia, arrived and all were driven by the quest to start a new life, a new business and above all a stable future in a place where access to wealth and health was possible. The old Canada of the later 20th century with its relatively high taxes, big government, powerful unions and an ambivalent role in international affairs all represented a world that not only did not resonate with new Canadians, but it also was no longer in tune with a rapidly changing dynamic and global market place in which Canada had to compete. The columnist David Frum put a fine point on it by arguing that the East Coast elites had started to lose their grasp on a newer Canada and this consequent realignment gave Harper the window to become Canada’s leading politician.
And indeed Harper was astutely aware of the emerging ‘new Canada’ yet he could ill afford to adopt a hardcore right of centre agenda to govern and maintain support across the entire country. There is no party in Canada that actually can impose its ideological framework on the nation as its political, cultural and economic diversity requires a careful balancing act, in particular when as was the case with Harper, you only have a minority to govern with. So Harper has essentially governed from the center from the day he rolled into Sussex Drive, even when he finally got a majority position in parliament in 2011. In the process most of the items on the right-of-center’s wish list were steadily watered down or did not happen at all such as privatizing healthcare, wholesale selling of pubic assets, killing the CBC or marginalizing public sector unions. No, Harper has both as minority and majority government governed safely from the center while adding a gradual right-of-centre flavor to his policies. The often feared ‘secret agenda - whatever that was – never came to haunt Canadians.
In fact many real conservatives rolled their eyes at the GST cut (as the right will generally always favor a sales tax over an income tax), the car industry bail out and running budget deficits while not really cutting income taxes but producing endless tax credits for this group or that. All these have not made him that much different from any centrist or left-of-center outfit in the industrialized world. Of course this came at a cost, there are many libertarian minded conservatives who checked out of the conservative tent after the introduction of Bill C-51 and the near incomprehensible extradition of Vancouver’s marihuana king, Marc Emery, to the US. But in the last two instances Harper carefully played to the ‘law and order’ and ‘security’ voters. And Bill C-51, it should be remembered, was supported in parliament by the Trudeau Liberals. Harper has been both smart and careful in his approach while trying to ensure he had sufficient support across the nation and thereby steadily tilting the values in the political center rightward step by step. Whatever the opposition’s frustrations, they are more likely to be with Harper’s success that for a number of reasons eluded them.
So Harper’s ‘conservative-light’ framework was validated by the election results of 2008 and 2011. And where the rest of the industrialized world was ravaged by housing prices collapses, unemployment and bank crises, Canada actually did quite well in comparison and became the envy of many across the world. The late Jim Flaherty should at this place be remembered as an adroit captain of finance, not afraid to take on files that really alienated the conservative base such as when he initiated taxation of income trusts.
So despite the current calls for change, the evidence points to a relatively contented nation that appears to want change, but with more than half of the voters still undecided the question is, do they really want to bring in uncertainty and is there a real aversion to that new right-of-centre Canada?
Some evidence may be found in the way the leading opposition parties position themselves. One would think that the NDP would roll out a compelling left-of-center platform, capturing the aforementioned deep resentment that appears to exist in Canada. However its leader, Thomas Mulcair, has from the moment the campaign got going steadily moved his party to the right with promises of more police on the streets, balanced budgets and to go slow with any increases of corporate tax rates. If you add into this his past admiration for Margret Thatcher that was kindly dug up by some diligent journalist and his supportive position on Israel, you could as well be looking at the conservative front-runner. But Mulcair is neither a conservative nor a hardcore leftist, he is in the end a pragmatist who knows that Canadians are worried about the economy and absolutely do not want to rock the boat in uncertain times. He also knows that the road to power runs through the center and that center has indeed tilted rightward over the last ten years, thanks to Stephen Harper redefining it. Mulcair is simply reacting and navigating his way to election success, following a proven political recipe. In that he is also no doubt taking a page from the NDP in British Columbia where Adrian Dix’ defeat in the 2013 provincial elections a few years ago provided a textbook case of what not to do when you are riding high in the polls. Tack too far to the left and you lose, or in that specific case: threaten pipelines in attempt to establish your environmental bona fides and you will lose by alienating all those Canadians that make a living or whose pension depend on natural resources. You risk that the large group of undecided voters that float around in the center may vote for another party, or simply stay home on election day.
The power game in the center has strangely enough opened up an opportunity on the left and Justin Trudeau has now jumped into it with ideas around budget deficits to kick-start the economy. It may be one that will cost him dearly because he is abandoning that very place where the Liberal Party has historically been the dominant player: the center. At the same time he has opened himself up to be labeled a ‘flip-flopper’ when it comes to the economy and the deficit. That label is dangerous in any election – remember John Kerry for whom the term was coined - when competing against two formidable power players in the center like Harper and Mulcair, it could be lethal.
The three largest parties are tied in most polls with the bulk of the electorate undecided as of the day of this article. The debate is now almost entirely focused on the party’s leaders and their soundbites with very little analysis of what really is going on and where each party could possible take Canada after the October election. The safe bet is the center where Harper managed to win an election when the world was stumbling into a deep recession in 2008. He may repeat that feat and take some heart from the British elections where Cameron’s conservatives tied with a left tacking Labour until a day before the actual vote during which the British opted for safety and delivered the incumbent prime minster a majority. Using that analogy Trudeau will most likely be the one to remain locked out on October 19 where two smart centrists, one tested and one untested, will have to fight it out.
Just a short note that I have just posted a longer piece on funding for education. Posts like this appear on a separate page here as it is a distinct category of commentary, more or less related to my election and role as school trustee. On this page you will find commentary on pretty much any issue I fancy.
Last summer we visited Athens and in making the bookings for our stay made sure we would be close to the city center and through Airbnb found an apartment in swanky Kolonaki. Surrounded by government offices, diplomatic missions and the residences of those that occupied these buildings during the day, we enjoyed the location’s many advantages including the daily stroll to Syntagma Square in the heart of the city. On one of the late night walks back, my daughter pointed to the green areas surrounding the various Greek government buildings. It was hard to discern immediately in the dark, but if you looked well enough you would see armed soldiers in full battle dress guarding the area, hiding in the park bush. It was sort of a shock to see this level of military presence and it complemented the many heavily armed police officers we had seen not only in our neighborhood, but also in many other locations in the city. Not exactly the signs of a stable democracy with a confident government.
Of course we knew all too well that the European Union's austerity program had created political instability in Greece, but we were still somewhat surprised to see this level of security around town. And it was not just to ensure safety in Athens’ political and diplomatic quarters, on one Sunday we ran into a noisy demonstration of activist youths who ran down Ermou Street ensuring that all stores closed as rapidly as they demanded in order to ensure that none would be open for business on Sunday. Noisy, borderline violent and intended to be disruptive, it underlined the tension in Athens. It was not easy to explain this to our North American kids, but yes, in certain quarters of Europe the right to a day off for workers on Sunday is seen as fundamental, and to fight for it is taking a stand against capitalism, or as it is now often labeled, ‘neo-liberalism’.
The government buildings in our neighborhood were adorned with both the Greek and EU flags. Combined with the armed police and the especially heavy security presence around the German embassy our quiet neighborhood walk presented us with the microcosm of Greece’s political reality in the summer of 2014. No longer sovereign and with a supranational entity enforcing both economic terms and identity, neither of which could be delivered without a heavy dose of armed protection. It gave me, in the very summer that marked the 40th anniversary of the end of Greece’s military junta a somewhat uncomfortable feeling. Was this the reality of what Greece’s journey to democracy and wealth had run into?
Now, the general train of thought is that Greece’s government was compelled to sign up for an economic austerity pact with the EU and its main enforcer, Germany, in order to keep the country closely tied into the Eurozone and ensure a measure of economic stability. It would align the Greek economy with that of the rest of the EU, its internal free market and monetary system as mandated by Europe’s central bank the ECB, at a cost to the average Greek citizen of course. Left of center opposition to the austerity so imposed has always conflated the EU with ‘neo-liberalism’ or the tendency to suppress local and individual interests to a multinational corporate and low tax agenda. This is interesting as the EU has been given many labels, but it is hard for true free-market conservatives or classic liberals to view this pan-European arrangement as something that would ultimately liberate markets and societies. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s deep distrust of the organization which still carries a lot of weight today and likely will keep Britain forever out of the Eurozone project. As it can be debated whether opposition to EU and its austerity measures is defined by leftist or right-wing sentiments, it would be safer to characterize this resistance as populist with nationalist undertones. As such these feelings feed into political streams that oppose the political establishment and in Greece this was channeled by two new movements, Syriza on the left and Golden Dawn on the right. Last night Syriza booked a spectacular election win in Greece’s parliamentary elections and will now with a clear mandate challenge the austerity measures imposed by the EU.
Greece has a deep leftist tradition and it was only logical that a reinvigorated left would channel Greek discontent, promising that change is on the way. Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras now has a mandate deliver on a renegotiation and see if Greece can get out or relax the terms of its Eurozone straightjacket, the consequences of which no one yet can really oversee although there are many different scenarios that now carry the name ‘Grexit’. I would suggest to not bother with the 'market commentators' as no one really knows. What is clear is that Syriza’s win will have a profound effect on Greece and will no doubt inspire other EU-skeptical movements, both left and right, all across Europe.
What the election results above all underline is that the existing order in Europe is under pressure and that the rules of engagement are now being rewritten. Whatever Tsipras’ ability to effect such change, the blue colored and star-studded EU flag may not fly as confidently along Greece’s white and blue as it has in recent years.
A generation’s fears and aspirations captured in one ceremony
So there I was with my youngest daughter, surrounded by a crowd where women in the fifty plus category were clearly in the majority. And judging from their looks, not having the same access to the sort of healthcare that preserves youth and sexiness even when you are closing in on seventy, like the pop diva they were about to see. In all likelihood they were here some eleven years ago when Cher’s first farewell tour blitzed across North America, only to see itself repeated this year with the Malibu-based pop diva hitting the tender age of sixty-eight. I had missed that opportunity back then and had resolved to go and see her if she ever made it to town again. That said, I had never for myself been quite able to define what so deeply attracted me to her, apart from enjoying a few songs like “I Found Someone” and her pretty unique ability to defy – with whatever means available – old age.
The “Cherest Show” started – following a great opening act by Cyndi Lauper – with nothing short of a standing and boisterous ovation, making it impossible for Cher to address the audience for quite a few minutes. And it was clear to both the singer and her audience why the prolonged welcome took place. A deep joy of seeing Cher again in pretty much the same youthful look as before, knowing it might really be the last time she did a live tour, but also quite likely a deep recognition that pulling this off at age sixty-eight deserves some respect. Never did I see such a moving moment between a stage artist and a crowd.
The show itself has now morphed into more of a Cirque du Soleil type fantasy extravaganza where the music plays far less of a role. It is more a celebration of the multifaceted phenomenon that is Cher and nowhere did that become clearer halfway the show where a series of movie clips captured the Hollywood career of the artist with some of her more noted performances (with the classic Jack Nicholson scene from The Witches of Eastwick) and quotes from a number of interviews. And right there it was. In one excerpt Cher said that she never really knew what she was, a singer, a moviestar, an artist or whatever, but that she had always achieved and been successful at that what she had pursued, but never ever belonged to a particular group. That statement had a deep impact, at least on me it did. Because therein lies the key attraction to Cher as a persona and something that for many is so hard to achieve: to accomplish goals and be totally yourself without ever succumbing to group pressures or group identities. More than that, to carve out your own niche in life.
That of course Cher herself has done in spades and the standing ovation in no small part was evidence of that all so human aspiration. But the near religious atmosphere of paying respect to a higher being was also driven by all those fifty plus boomers who are all so desperately seeking to defy that one thing that even wealth and success can not postpone: old age and death, eventually. The diva however invited a healthy does of realism into that, “ I am sixty-eight” and if I am going under “you will not be far behind” pointing to an older guy in the audience adding, “Is that your wife? Must be your second or third!” and alluding to a not too distant funeral ceremony, “you’re coming with me!” Cher’s ability to make light of the inevitable resonated with all present, again emphasizing the bond the star and her audience enjoy.
Her performance is a celebration of defying age and trying to carve out a unique role for yourself, one way or the other. All of it is buoyed by extravagant and colorful costumes, light and showy glee riding high on the pulsating drums of “Believe” and “Strong Enough”. And bringing back the life and times of Sonny Bono was another emotional twist in capturing the fluidity of life in the show.
The most endearing moment however came at the very end and it captured the heart of coming of age and saying goodbye in its most poignant form. After gliding across the stadium and singing her final song, Cher walked to each and every corner of the stage and as a somewhat timid older mother waved in the most friendly and innocent ways to the excited crowds. It was as if she was saying, I am going now my kids, my friends, please take care of yourselves because it is unlikely I will be coming back anytime soon, if ever. It was the most genuine scene of the evening. While the glitz faded, the diminutive stature of Cher made her so complete and human that there was nothing left to be said and done by star and audience. The premise of the ceremony was fulfilled.
I glanced at my twelve-year old who absolutely captured the beat and show, but it will take another thirty years for her to grasp how her parent’s generation jumped on to that lifeline handed to them by one of the most transformative stars of the twentieth century.
We attended the June 27 show at the Rogers Arena, Vancouver, Canada. This article also appeared on Medium, here.
How the financial crisis continues to claim lives
Last weekend, Dutch banker Jan Peter Schmittmann murdered his mentally handicapped daughter, his wife and subsequently, himself. Family tragedies like this are unfortunately not all that unusual, the media takes note and the world tends to move on after a few days of debate and analysis. This case however has just too many aspects to it to just pen it down to the ubiquitous ‘deep depression’ and stress references and forget about it. The reasons to look further into this are manifold. Schmittmann not only pretty much had it all – even after his forced early retirement – he also is part of a steady trend of financial crisis related deaths, one of his close colleagues from the same bank took his own life only a few years ago. But also being Dutch and a former banker myself and knowing some of the people that knew and worked with Schmittmann ensured that I could not get this out of my head quickly and had to start probing into the drama a bit more.
First the facts. Schmittmann, aged fifty-seven, had enjoyed a rapid career at the largest Dutch bank, ABN-AMRO, but never landed one of the top jobs, a case of visible frustration for the ambitious man according to some press reports. When his career did eventually peak it coincided not with big success but with high drama. ABN-AMRO was acquired by a conglomerate not of senior management’s choice and not long after that the financial crisis resulted in the domestic arm of the bank being nationalized by Dutch government, a process that included a fairly public dismissal of Schmittmann. The latter event focused on the golden handshake, which ended up being much lower than what Schmittmann had initially bargained for. Still, the approximately $11 million was splattered across Dutch media as a sign of how financiers created a mess and then accessed public funds to gently exit with a nice cheque. Schmittmann must have looked at this very differently. With 14 years to go to retirement, the care of a handicapped child, the sum, or whatever what was left of it after taxes, was probably not the princely amount that some had interpreted it to be. Good enough to live on comfortably for sure, as a banker Schmittmann probably ran his numbers, but at fifty-one his career and his chance to hit the proverbial big time were pretty much gone.
Therein lie two other crucial aspects of a banking career. Not only is it a career that is financially rewarding, it more importantly provided very high social status and access to all levels of society, in particular the ones higher up the chain. Having gone through a similar bank training program, having seen the wave of turbocharged liquidity in an ever globalizing world I can confirm that it was not exactly rocket science to participate in the upswing and derive the necessary benefits from it. But, the money is only a small part of the story. The status conferred on international bankers, even after the financial crisis, is quite phenomenal. To this date I leverage my years in that world to the fullest and they provide a welcoming ticket to many deals, contracts and contacts. But rather than let others make the call, I picked the timing of my own exit years ago and was young enough to reinvent myself, maybe because subconsciously I sensed the high potential of the role to be an unfulfilling one in the long run. Schmittmann had progressed beyond the point of no return and presumably had less of a hand in his eventual career exit. Bankers are not all that well prepared for a post-career world, certainly not one that ended as dismally as it did Schmittmann’s. It must have been a devastating experience for him and quite possibly triggered some latent potential for depression in the man. It is not a stretch to argue that it terminated not only his career, but also the notion he had of himself at a point where it was too late in the game to reassess and more importantly, reconstruct himself.
We can only make assumptions on the marital stress he may have endured or the difficulties posed in his relationship with and care for his mentally handicapped younger daughter who was twenty-two at the time of her death. He may have been on medications; he may have used other means to regulate his mood swings, some financial or other mishap may have occurred, who knows. We can only speculate. But coming down from a high status and easy access to power role to a forced to ‘reinvent yourself in your fifties’ scenario most likely set the stage for what tragically unfolded in his house last weekend.
His downward journey in all likelihood compounded or unleashed potential stress factors in Schmittmann’s personal life that as time moved on proved to be too much for him. We can only be deeply saddened and fathom at what prompts a man to kill his wife and daughter and probably never gather his final thoughts and motivations at that point in time. His final text message to a friend asking to take care of his older daughter raises as many questions as it answers.
So far the family has been quiet and the press has probed with some tentative explanations, none of which are particularly insightful. Time will hopefully give us more clues to attempt to reconstruct this terrible tragedy and the motivations behind it. Above all, Schmittmann’s sole surviving daughter is entitled to that. But given the many sequential upheavals that our economy and financial system are going thorough, so are many others. Not everyone is wired to quickly adjust to life and the inevitable hard landing once the perk-ridden corporate show is over, something for which the Schmittmann family paid the ultimate price.
This blog post was published earlier on Medium, here.
Or how to compare the two different House of Cards trilogies
So on Friday night we got right into it and knocked off the first two episodes of House of Cards, Season 2. A good start with a driven and scheming Frank Underwood, but as was the case with season one, thoughts inevitably wander back to the original FU, British prime minister Francis Urquhart. And begging the question, who is the better one and if there isn’t one that is better, how do they differ and why?
Having just started the second season it is of course not possible to render a fully baked verdict, but there are some notable differences between the American and British Francis. The latter, a living monument to the phenomenal acting talents of the late Ian Richardson, was in political terms a staunch Thatcherite. In fact, the series creator Michael Dobbs has been rumoured to have coined the name ‘FU’ after meeting the late iron lady in person. Underwood, the Democrat is devoid of any deep ideological urges and is more of a Clintonesque power broker willing to cut any kind of political deal in order to advance his career. A battle with the teacher’s unions in the first season ends with a bill that ultimately satisfies most parties with Underwood taking credit, Urquhart in all likelihood would not have rested until he had personally reduced the union to a pile of human rubble. From that perspective both series reflect the political era in which they were created, Urquhart coming out of the polarized eighties, whereas Underwood stands atop the centrist model that has framed the Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton era.
One of the other key differences between the two political maestros is related to that. Urquhart’s is indeed not a nice guy by any means, in particular when he addresses the viewer directly to elaborate on his dire views of humanity and his political friends and foes. He in fact is a very lonely and bitter warrior whose disdain for the world around him makes him seriously unlikeable. Underwood however comes across as a kinder and gentler soul, precisely when he talks to the audience and you find yourself thinking, yes, that somehow makes total sense. A drinking spree with former college buddies in season one and trying to neutralize Raymond Tusk’s influence on the oval office give Underwood a human and sometimes almost admirable foundation, something utterly lacking in Urquhart’s cold world. The notion of a nicer Underwood is also supported by the sort of victims he makes. The ambitious Zoe Barnes will get on your nerves as a not particularly likeable journalist, and it is quite hard to warm up to late congressman Peter Russo. Yet to this day I have warm feelings for Zoe’s British equivalent, Mattie Storin and recall the brutal way Urquhart dispatches her when he throws her off a Westminster roof. The viewer is upset and misses her, but it is hard to feel the same about Barnes and Russo. Simply put, Urquhart is the crueler politician and Underwood’s creators must somehow have positioned it that way in the script.
Yet it does not make Urquhart unlikeable. Far from it. The acceptance of evil as a viable tool to heal the nation and further one’s career is given wings by the classic parody of Westminster politics that the British version of the show is. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the second season entitled ‘To Play the King’ where Urquhart takes on the constitutional monarch, a thinly veiled caricature of Prince Charles who has just ascended the throne and wastes no time to implement a more social and caring agenda, putting him on a direct collision course with our hardcore capitalist Urquhart. The battle of inherited privilege versus the fearless commoner, a role Urquhart masterfully assumes, somehow gives the prime minister the upper hand in the demise and forced abdication of the new king, resulting in this classic scene:
To Urquhart in the end it all is a game, playfully moving from target to target with a wink and a nod only to accumulate more power. Inflicting deep loss and ridicule on his victims is an integral part of this mission and he accomplishes it with verve and style. To the audience it is a hilarious way of commenting on the realities of political life as we understand them and therein probably lies some of the respect we ultimately extend to Urquhart. Despite all his brutal tactics he has a point. With Underwood that is far more difficult to establish, it is almost as if there are no deeper truths or wry commentary that the viewer can take a way from the southern politician. Underwood at times is bland and reluctant to mock and criticize the foundations on which present day Washington power broking is built. He is a willful part of it all and Americans take it the way it is. Carried by Kevin Spacey it makes for great drama, but it lacks the punch of the British House of Cards.
Above all it is the ability of the Brits to distance themselves from the subject to assess its inherent weaknesses and shortcomings while talking real political issues. “To temper economic rigor with a little more respect for human values” as the embattled monarch in the second season states – against Urquhart’s explicit wishes - is as real an issue today as it was in the eighties and nineties. It elevated the original House of Cards to a benchmark in political drama that will stand the test of time. The American version is as dark but in its delivery a lighter version of the original. That said, you have to work hard to keep the urge to binge watch under control, because House of Cards Season 2 is a riveting experience.
The Dutch Auschwitz Committee recently started a campaign to build a monument for all 102,000 Dutch Jews that perished during the Second World Ear, listing all of their names. The website in Dutch and English can be found here. More importantly you can help build it by adopting the name of one victim for 50 Euros all with the goal of reaching the 5 million Euros necessary to build the Monument with Names.
This initiative – driven in particular by the chair of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, Jacques Grishaver – is worthwhile on many levels and there are a number of things that struck me about it. Firstly, we are close to the seventy year mark of the end of the war and the generation that consciously lived through it, survived it, is disappearing. My own father, passed away last year and his formative years as a teenager were spent in war torn Europe where he had to hide during the last year of the war. With the passing of that generation, the first person accounts will die and it will be up to newer generations to ensure that the memory of what in my mind was the most gruesome crime against humanity ever perpetrated, stays alive.
From that perspective the internet is a saving grace. Not only is it a platform where many memories can be shared, it is remarkable how many stories and accounts have now found a home. Yad Vashem has a formidable website and Youtube channel with witness accounts and in The Netherlands a digital record of all murdered Jews can be found online here. I often visit it, to read some of the backstories or just to take in a few names and reflect on the individuals and families that perished, often together on the same day after a grueling journey in cattle wagons through the heart of Europe. The sad story of a woman from the town of Brielle, Jannetje Philipse-van Buren, who was deported to Sobibor at age 97 to die there on the same day of arrival is one that I came across while browsing the list of names. You read it, reflect on it and for some reason that person stays with you for a little while. You picture it and you try to understand how something like that could have happened and why in this case someone of that age from an innocent place like the town of Brielle could end up in a train to Sobibor. Some seventy years after the fact a total stranger in the digital age picks up the life of someone murdered in the holocaust and brings him or her back to life.
And therein I think lies the importance of building a Monument with Names in the city of Amsterdam. It does the one thing we can do and the one thing that those murdered can possibly ask of us. And that is to not ever forget and keep them, in whatever form, alive. A digital monument is one format, but I do think that The Netherlands and the city of Amsterdam in particular after all these years, owe it to the 102,000 Jews to give them a monument where each and every victim is named and properly remembered.
My contribution adopted Salomon Turfreijer who together with his wife Jansje and son Hijman was murdered in Sobibor on 16 April 1943, his daughter Rosina died in September 1944 in Auschwitz. I did not just contribute 50 Euros to a name, no, somehow Salomon Turfreijer came back to life together with his family. Their stories, with probably no witnesses still alive or photos, somehow became visible to the world. By building a monument for the 101,996 others we contribute to an experience of remembering that will ensure that all of these victims have a name and voice for many generations to come.
Their memories should never be lost, the struggle against the debased theories and hatred that ended their lives is a task that continues relentlessly and we all should contribute to that. Regardless of whether you are Jewish or Dutch you can- and should - adopt a name and contribute here.
Two years have passed since Christopher Hitchens died and I think we do miss him as the free thinking public intellectual that was able to both engage and offend people across the political spectrum.
Flipping through his autobiography, Hitch-22, I found these words from him, words where he captured his feelings about the fate that befell him way too early:
The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that he party is over but that it is assuredly going on - only henceforth in my absence (…) Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall.
Something to reflect on today.
Nick Gillespie has a great post rounding up some Hitch memories and thoughts.
Here at the main page I will post my regular updates and longer posts about things that keep me busy. In the meantime I am adding photos and what I consider to be historical worthwhile facts in the 'Photos' section which will see changes on an ongoing basis. I just added a piece on Rotterdam, with a photo I took back in early 2012 so it will not show up on top as entries in the photo section are ordered by date. I will just make a point of alerting the readers to new stuff and if it all gets too bulky maybe set up a separate page with posts that are focused around history.
Anyway, enjoy the site. If it does not work from a reader's perspective in terms of navigation or readability, let me know.
The Inevitable Evolution of Angel Investing
Digesting the news, I very often cannot but help think that angel investing is the next bubble that is unfolding in front of us. Having lived through the stock market and dot.com boom of the 90s, the real estate boom and the commodities boom that started to peter out over the last few years (remember gold at $2000?), the question has indeed been, what is next? Emerging as a fairly specialist area for accomplished entrepreneurs with the means to support new tech companies, angel investing has now gone mainstream. The evidence for this phenomenon is all around us, witness the many groups, forums and now an online Angellist as the go-to place to source new deals and find angel investors. Judging from the participation at various events, the angel investor of today no longer meets the specifications of the original thing. No, the ranks of Silicon Valley millionaires are now joined by lawyers, doctors, unemployed corporate executives, professors and housewives tapping into their home equity lines. At a recent forum one of the organizers claimed she had ‘borrowed money from her dad’ to invest in a not to be missed deal. All of this is further fueled by TV shows like The Dragon’s Den or celebrity angels like Justin Bieber and the NYT telling us that in Silicon Valley the dollars keep growing on trees for new deals, good and bad.
The deeper reasons behind this phenomenon are threefold I think. As mentioned earlier the fact that money is still cheap and other booms have run out of steam, it is only a natural reaction to seek out a new asset class that is somewhat isolated from the vagaries of public markets while promising potential upsides that are no longer to be had in more conventional markets. Or at least, that appears to be the common train of thought among angel investors who are more than willing to trade high risk for the prospect of healthy and possibly outsized returns.
Equally important is how both the financial crisis and the rapid globalization of our economies have brutalized the corporate rank and file. No more guaranteed careers with gold plated pension plans, no, journeys on the corporate ladder are now very short experiences and an early exit package enables many a former exec to buy into the early stage angel game and in the process develop a new career, I know all about it. Finally, the relative ease with which it in now possible to pump out mobile apps and online platforms makes the barrier to begin a start-up lower, not just for young tech savvy kids, also the more seasoned former bus dev guy from IBM can now without too much effort call himself a ‘founder’. It is revealing to note that even in my own “middle-class suburban million dollar home average age fifty” community many a resident now professes to always have been an ‘entrepreneur at heart’. Of course, the well-paid corporate career was just a minor interruption in that journey of self discovery. And yes, he’s raising a little bridge, interested?
The sheer glut of start-ups that has resulted from all of these concurrent developments have forever changed angel investing in a way that most of its participants have not yet fully grasped, at least that is the feeling I get when I hear where some cheques are being written into. The high-risk nature of the early stage game has always necessitated above average returns in order to compensate for the many failed investments that litter any angel portfolio. Do not press me for a rate, but chances are that out of a portfolio of 10 angel-financed deals only one will go to a successful exit, if that. In general you can write off the majority of your angel portfolio to zero and pray that one or two will give you the kick-ass return that not only compensate for the loss but give you some level of upside over the years the funds were trapped in angel land.
As it happens nowadays, I do fall asleep at angel gatherings or pitch evenings or beer demos or whatever they are called. It is not that they lack enthusiasm or energy, it is that there are not that many compelling propositions that actually solve a problem or really address a market need. The bulk of deals presented to angels are just not worthy of investment dollars, but that does not stop them from finding newly minted angels that are all too willing to do just that what they should absolutely not do. I will not throw around some lame jokes about ‘market engagement platforms that generate big data’ or ‘ethical reward coupon apps’, but you get the drift.
So what that means is that an ever lowering barrier to build companies and an ever increasing number of angels funding new deals that hopped over this low barrier must further reduce the odds of winning. In other words, more but less sophisticated money is chasing ever more deals that are increasingly average. Read that last sentence again and you know what I mean: there will be tears down the road.
Angels however have become smarter - the ones that lost earlier and have the stomach for another kick at the can - and have started to hunt in packs. One of the lessons learned was that most end up with a minority stake in deals that would have had a chance of survival had the angel investors combined had some sort of majority stake or level of control. My two angel funds have taken an approach that seeks to address this, but at the same time both funds have only managed to make one investment each this year, a time when there is both a glut of money and deals. Ergo, the money remains in the bank.
So, does this mean that angel investing as originally conceived – the 100x for a groundbreaking piece of technology – has run its course? It is hard to say with certainty but my findings do point to an increase in smaller deals that are less exciting, less global in scope and potentially able to go from start to exit with far less capital than was previously the case. Angel investors therefore are now having to adjust to become smarter and invest in smaller deals that have a good chance of success, but where the eventual return may come in the form of modest dividends or an exit at the $10 to 20 million level rather than the $100 million meal ticket. Is this an attractive scenario for investors? I do think so, but it requires an adjustment in expectations, smarter investment strategies and a more hands on approach as investor.
There is an angel bubble, definitely, but it won’t pop. It is just changing in size and form as we go along, all it requires is that we become smarter and pay more attention to how we deploy our efforts and funds.
As I was away during most of October in Africa and Europe, I had totally missed the sad news that one of my blog friends from years ago had a passed away. It was sad to learn that Norm Geras is no longer with us. He was one of the pioneering blogging giants who not only gained a lot of notoriety during the Iraq War - years that coincided with blogging going mainstream - but also because of his effort to profile as many of the bloggers of the first few hours as possible. He profiled me here in early 2006. Thanks Norm and we will never forget you.
A new website, some 6 years after my first one went on hiatus. It was hard to say goodbye to the day-to-day blogging and the audience it had gathered at the time, but other things beckoned.
The urge to write however never really disappeared and the time has come now to re-engage with an online publication tool and take on the many things that are on my mind which I feel require some sort of sharing. No core theme like last time when ‘politics and markets’ was the banner, no, it will be everything and more. No doubt some recurring themes will emerge. Also, a photoblog where I will post some of my favorite and more significant images.
That’s it. Hope you will enjoy the new ride with me.
This is my weblog and as opposed to the earlier one I ran years ago, this is not one about just politics and markets.