ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Democracy”

The death of democracy as we know it?

Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed. 

In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.

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Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!

If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.

Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.

The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.

Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…

It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?

Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.

After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.

In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.

Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?

The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.

So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?

A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.

In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…

Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…

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Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.

Torn asunder – of Finland and its history

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Finland, land of lakes

So I was taking the opportunity of a lull in the meeting to bore my colleagues with yet another historical tidbit. Okay, maybe not bore, as I do try to present my favourite moments in history in an entertaining manner, involving a lot of posturing, multiple voices and general enthusiasm, but in a group of people not all that interested in history this mainly leads to amused smiles rather than a riveted audience. But what can I say? I take it as my personal mission to do some educating…

One of my colleagues is from Finland. Now Finland doesn’t feature much on my historical radar – there is also an element of embarrassment for me as a Swede to delve too deeply into a history that will, per definition, include a series of atrocities perpetrated by the crusading Swedes on the Finnish people. Sweden conquered Finland in the 12th – 13th century, this under the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathen savages who lived in the Finnish forests. (Not so sure they were all that heathen – or savages.)

All this Swedish aggression still rankles in Finnish minds. I recall an incident several years ago when I was working for a Finnish multinational. We were visiting a production facility in a town called Kauttua (land in Turku, get a car, drive two hours straight into the never-ending woods, and there is Kauttua) when one of my Finnish colleagues pointed at the lake spread before us and said, “That’s where we murdered those three bishops. Drowned them. Serve them right, Swedish bastards that they were.” Err… at the time, I was sitting stark naked in a sauna, surrounded by Finnish people gripping bundles of birch twigs (used to whip the dirt off your body while in the sauna). Somewhat intimidating…

Anyway, my present day Finnish colleague suggested I write about Eugen Shauman or Alexandra Gripenberg.
“Ah,” I replied trying to sound as if I knew exactly who he was talking about. To be able to look knowledgeable while clueless is a valuable skill in the world of business, and one I have become quite good at.My colleague was not taken in. He grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling.
“You’ve never heard of them, have you?”
No, I admitted.
“So read up,” he suggested. Which, dear people, I have now done.

Finland’s history is intimately entwined with that of Sweden and Russia. As stated above, Sweden sent off crusaders in the 13th century, but the interaction between the countries stretch back much farther in time. While Sweden wanted to annex Finland as an eastern outpost, the Kingdom of Novgorod was just as keen to expand their territory west, using Finland as a western outpost. Obviously, the poor Finns were caught in between.

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Swedish aggression, 16th century style

Initially, the Swedes were successful. In the name of God, Finland was brought to the Swedish crown and was to remain Swedish for very many centuries. Swedish noblemen were granted Finnish land, Swedish clerics moved to spread the word of God (in Swedish, mainly) to Finland. Obstinate Finns were forcibly relocated elsewhere – like in the wilds of Sweden. The use of Finnish was not encouraged, and overtime, the Finnish society coagulated into an upper class who spoke Swedish and no Finnish, and a lower class who spoke only Finnish and resented their Swedish overlords. Duh…

As an aside, even today, there is a large minority of Finnish people whose mother tongue is Swedish. Some of the best Swedish language literature has been written by Finnish people – and especially the poets combine the lyrical aspects of the Swedish language with the stark and uncompromising character of the Finnish people, resulting in immortal poetry. Neither here nor there, but as I write this, my tongue curls itself round lines like “Röd-Eemeli föddes i torpets bastu:smuts och gråt” (“Red Emil was born in the croft’s sauna; dirt and tears” from Röd Eemeli by Diktonious) or “Du sökte en kvinna och fann en själ – du är besviken” (“You searched for a woman and found a soul – you are disappointed” from Dagen Svalnar by Edith Södergran)

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Tsar Peter, looking to the west

Back to our abbreviated history lesson: as many of you may know, the Swedish empire reached its largest extension in the 17th century and began to crumble rapidly after that. To the east, the Kingdom of Novgorod had been gobbled up by Russia, and this larger, stronger Russia had aspirations – to the west. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, defeated the hitherto so powerful Swedish Army at Poltava (for a related post, go here) and during the first few decades of the 18th century Finland was one massive, bloody battlefield, leaving it split in two (the Russians annexed the south-eastern part) and severely depopulated, seeing as more than half of the population had died due to war and pillage.

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Suffering peasants – look at the little girl!

The 18th century in Finland was pretty bleak. The Russians invaded and plundered, the Swedish/Finnish armies fought back, and the ones who paid the price were the people. Our Finnish friends were not happy. Centuries of oppression coupled with decades of warfare awakened a desire among the Finns to control their own destiny, become independent. Groups of intellectuals began talking about the Finnish identity, the importance of preserving the Finnish language and heritage.

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Among Finnish birches

In 1809, Sweden lost the rest of Finland to Russia, and the country of a thousand lakes and birches became an Imperial fief – a Grand Duchy, no less.  Not, in the opinion of many Finnish people, an entirely bad thing. St Petersburg was a much bigger draw than the provincial backwater of Stockholm, and the Russians allowed the Finns to keep a number of their laws, such as those guaranteeing the peasants remained freeholders rather than serfs as was common in the rest of Russia. Plus Alexander I was quite okay with leaving local legislation in general up to the Finnish parliament. And yet… That desire to become truly independent grew successively stronger.

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Tsar Alexander I

It all started with the language. In the 19th century, groups of Swedish-speaking Finns began to actively promote the Finnish language, this as a means of creating a common bond between them (mostly upper class)  and the Finnish speaking peasantry. At the time, Finnish as a language had no official status. It was Swedish or Russian, full stop. Very quickly, the Fennoman movement (i.e. promoting everything Finnish) took hold. In 1834, the Kalevala was published, a collection of Finnish myths harkening back to a very distant past. In the late 19th century, after insistent lobbying, Finnish was at last granted the status of official language.

That itch for independence was becoming a rash. The Finnish people, now cleverly united behind a common language, (although truth be told very many of the Swedish-speakers would never lower themselves to speak Finnish) began to dream of a free Finland. Dangerous dreams if you’re part of the Russian empire, and those too vocal often ended up imprisoned.

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Eugen Schauman

At this point in time, I think I must introduce Eugen Schauman, still today considered one of Finland’s foremost heroes. This was a man destined to live a very short life, ablaze with Finnish patriotism. Yet another of those Swedish-speaking Finns, he took it upon himself to rid Finland of its Russian General-Governor, Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed in 1898. Bobrikov was not a major Finland fan. In fact, he considered Finland to be a borderline enemy state, and all this Fennomanism, all this liberal spouting about Finnish roots and culture, had him seeing red. No, Bobrikov decided, it was about time the rebellious Finns were brought to heel, which is why he urged the Tsar to sign the February Manifesto in 1899.

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Nikolai Bobrikov

Just like that, several of the rights and liberties hitherto enjoyed by the Finnish people became null and void.  The period in time labelled by the Finns as the first “Years of Oppression” had begun. Russian became the official language, Russian was to be taught in schools, Russian laws were to take precedence over Finnish laws, and the Finnish army was to be abolished, all those serving in it to be sucked up into the Imperial Russian Army. Conscripted Finnish men were sent off to distant parts of the Russian empire to serve, so as to knock the Finnishness out of them.

Not, in brief, a good time to be Finnish – or a Fennoman. Half a million Finnish people signed a petition to the Tsar, begging him to revoke the manifesto. The Tsar didn’t even deign to receive the delegation. (This, BTW, is of course the same Tsar who was to die in Yekaterinburg) . And as to Bobrikov, he became the most hated man in Finland. So hated, that several undercover groups planned to murder him. The task to do so, however, went to the young volunteer Eugen Schauman.

Eugen had so far in his life shown little inclination for fast-paced action, no matter that his mother had filled his head with nationalistic dreams of a free Finland. Born in 1875 in Charkov, Ukraine, Schauman belonged to a family with strong military traditions, but as he had impaired hearing the army was not an option. Instead, he was urged to study, and despite his partial deafness managed to graduate (this in a day and age where a lot of the exams were verbal) with good grades. After some years at university, he became a clerk in the Finnish Administration, and spent his free time developing his athletic skills.

Eugen was a good  shot – he considered it necessary to be able to handle a gun to be able to defend his beloved Finland. He was also somewhat unfortunate in love, and there are those that believe his latest rejection drove him to his final desperate action. Whatever the case, Schauman utilised his position in the Senate to plan his attack. And on the 16th of June 1904, at precisely eleven o’clock (Bobrikov was a punctual man and was arriving for a meeting) Eugen shot Bobrikov three times before turning his gun on himself. Schauman died immediately. Bobrikov lingered on for a further 36 hours.

Despite all this hullabaloo, despite assassinated General-Governors, the Russian Empire did not interfere with the Finnish Parliament. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 (which, among other things, curtailed the Tsar’s powers and strengthened that of the Russian Parliament, the Duma), Finland’s parliament was more or less left to rule Finland as it pleased. But I imagine the Russian elite stood by as an amused spectator as the Finnish people took the drastic step of implementing universal suffrage in the 1906 election. Imagine that – not only were men, no matter their station, given the right to vote, but the misguided Finns were also allowing that weaker sex, the women, a say in how they should be governed.

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Alexandra Gripenberg

And this dear people, brings me to Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg. May I present an avid Fennoman, a well-educated female member of the Swedish-speaking wealthy classes who early on embraced the vision of a free Finland, a country in which men and women had equal rights.(And I must say I have to tip my hat in the direction of my Finnish colleague, who expressed such pride in a woman who fought so hard for the female vote. Gender equality is, clearly, almost a genetic quality in Finland)

Alexandra, born in 1857,  was one of twelve siblings, and when her father died she was not yet a teen. The father’s death reduced the family’s circumstances somewhat, and Alexandra was educated by her older sisters rather than at school. There were no opportunities for a higher level education, in part due to her gender, but also due to the overall cash flow situation. Alexandra, however, was an intelligent young lady, and she compensated for her lack of formal education by reading voraciously.

In 1884 she founded the first women’s right association in Finland, and in 1887 she set off to see the world, travelling through Britain and the US, where to her delight she met not only Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Mark Twain, whom she found deliciously attractive. Most of all, she met women with similar views to her own, and she became an active member of the International Council for Women, travelling extensively while using her pen and wits to promote causes dear to her heart.

Alexandra was not a major fan of the universal suffrage implemented in 1906. She was of the opinion that democracy required the voters to have a certain level of basic education and understanding of the system, and she didn’t believe her countrymen were ready – no matter their gender. Still, she was convinced to stand for election and became one of ten women to take a seat in Parliament, where she mainly focused on women’s right issues, such as banning prostitution.

In her later years, Alexandra became somewhat marginalised within the Finnish women’s right movement, Basically, Alexandra held very conservative views, and vehemently opposed any initiatives that she felt were in contradiction with her Christian values. She was appalled by the young, radical women who claimed the right to choose their sexual partners as they pleased,  she considered it natural that women managed the household – men were not supposed to do such female tasks as laundry. For her, gender equality was about the right to education and the right to work – and she was quite adamant that women were not to receive any preferential treatment whatsoever in the workplace.

In 1911, Alexandra died, six years before that other dream of hers, that of seeing an independent Finland, was realised. Personally, I think she would have been devastated by the events that followed upon independence – seeing your country torn in two tends to have that effect on patriots.

In 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared its independence. This act plunged the country into a brief, but very bitter, civil war, a fight to death between the Reds and the Whites.The Reds wanted to follow in the footsteps of glorious (hmm) Comrade Lenin. The Whites blanched (;)) at the thought of a socialist state.  For close to two years, the country was at war with itself, and in those tumultuous times, one Finnish man stood tall above all others (and he was, actually, very, very tall). This is a man I most definitely had heard of before – namely General Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White troops, later to become Finland’s president and even later to become Marshal of Finland and lead its defences against the Soviet Union in World War II, when the gentleman in question was pushing eighty. But this, dear people, is too extensive a topic to cover here. Mr Mannerheim will simply have to wait.

So ends this initial foray into Finnish history, and what better way to end it than by listening to Monty Python? (Although seriously: mountains in Finland? Ha!)

Snippets for our lazy brains

We live in the age of the immediate turn-around. I’m not entirely sure that is a good thing, but there you are, that’s the way things are. E-mails crave instantaneous replies. To have them jamming up the inbox, hovering like angry gnats in the “unread” category, is, for most of us, somewhat unbearable. So we read, reply, forget and get on with the next e-mail.

When I started working, e-mails weren’t even on the horizon. Ok, I’m not that old, but as a junior accountant in the 1980’s it was still very much paper. And telex. Anyone remembers telex? As the youngest on the team, I was often sent off to the Swedish phone company’s central office to send and collect telexes. Long reams of paper that required translation from a Telex person somewhere. Like an expanded version of the telegram. And let me tell you, it was leading-edge technology back then, in the eighties…

A telex took like 24 hours back and forth. Someone sent it, someone had to collect it, someone had to read it, someone had to consider a concise but informative reply, someone had to trot back to the telex office and send it off to the other end, where someone had to collect it.

24 hours today is like considering paddling across the Atlantic – utterly ridiculous.

A year or so into my work life, and the telex was dead. Gone, buried, laughed at. The new hot thing was the fax, and the first one I ever saw was the size of a freezer. I recall standing beside the receptionist, utterly awestruck by the fact that the drawings presently appearing on the paper before us had been sent from Sydney, Australia less than five minutes ago. Boy, oh boy: the Brave New World was upon us, and soon we would all have our own little home fax so as to be able to scrawl things on paper and fax them across the globe. Well, that never happened, because hot on the heels of the fax came…taa-daa…the e-mail.

Despite faxes and telexes, business in the eighties was still mostly conducted through regular letters. You know, sheets of cream coloured paper beginning “Dear Sirs” and ending “Yours Sincerely” after which would follow a more or less illegible signature. Consider the letter-writing process:
Person A decides to send a letter to person B in which it is suggested their two companies discuss a common venture. Said and done, Person A calls in his secretary (and sadly, at the time Person A would in 99% of the cases be a man while the secretary would be a woman), dictates while she stenographs – a dying art in this day and age – and some hours later Ms Secretary presents Person A with a letter to sign.
The letter is sent off. Two, three, seven days later (depending on where it is going) the letter reaches Person B. Well, Person B’s secretary, if we’re going to be correct, who opens it and places it in Person B’s in-tray. Person B reads it sometime just before lunch.
“Hmm,” says Person B, rather intrigued by the proposal. Person B mulls it over for some days, and then he calls in his secretary. Some hours later, a responding letter is on its way to Person A.

It may be important to point out that Person A won’t have put his entire life on hold while waiting for the response. That would have been stupid. And when the letter finally arrives, close to three weeks after it was sent off, Person A doesn’t necessarily throw himself at it. You see, both Person A and Person B know that time is money, but they also know that using some of that time to THINK before surging ahead generally pays off. Now that may be a novel thought for some of today’s young action-oriented lions…

Even more miraculously, life actually worked back then. I know, quite inconceivable, that there was a life in an age in which the internet was ridiculed as a “fad” (a gaff the then Swedish Minister of Communication will never live down…).

So what’s my point, you may be wondering – unless it is to wax nostalgically about a past in which fountain pens and embossed paper still played a crucial role? Well, dear readers, I don’t miss the paper, or the pen. I’m a major fan of internet, and consider e-mail most efficient. BUT where did the thinking time go? When did we stop reflecting, looking at the bigger picture?

It is my belief that the speed in communications has resulted in knee-jerk decisions – often with a very short time perspective. In the world of business, this is further fuelled by the focus on quarterly results rather than on longevity of vision and strategy, but even in our private spheres, we tend to react rather than reflect. Plus, of course, we’ve all been tarred by the “immediate gratification” brush.

Patience is as virtue we no longer have – or appreciate. We become bored and restless, we want our news served in appropriate bite-size chunks. Yes, we want to be informed – but not too much. In essence, this means we end up knowing WHAT has happened, not WHY. And even worse, many of us don’t care about the why.

We’ve become headliners, and if the headline snags our attention we might read the introductory paragraph. Might. As a consequence, media is pandering to what we want, namely “snippets” of reality. Stories become truncated, and with the exception of a handful of high-brow, intellectual newspapers and magazines, media churns out endless pages with inconsequential information about inconsequential people and events. But hey, how can we protest? This is what we want, right?

Without reflection, we allow “someone else” to tell us what to think. Unless we exercise our brain cells, we abdicate the right to correct and complete information – “someone else” will decide what we need to know, will interpret the facts. From there, the step is very short to manipulation, to repressive government.

As a citizen in a democracy, it is my obligation to keep myself informed. It is my obligation to assess alternatives, to penetrate the important issues and demand answers – before making up my mind. It is, in brief, my responsibility to think. Doesn’t sound too onerous, does it?

Back in the heyday of fountain pens and paper, people did think. They had time to. In our world of info-inundation, we have a frightening tendency to go with the flow and take all at face value because our poor brains just can’t handle the constant bombardment. But as Descartes one said, “Cogito, ergo sum”. Unless we think, we don’t exist. Not really.

Gloria al bravo pueblo

Bolívar_2 Ha! I can see you reading the title, a small crease between your brows. Spanish? Now what is she on about? Those among you who hail from Venezuela, will of course recognise the line as being from the National Anthem, glorifying the people and its leader who broke the yoke of colonialism, back in the early 19th century.

The leader at the time was Simón Bolívar, wealthy scion of one of the pure-blood criollo families in Venezuela. A criollo is a person who has undiluted Spanish – or at least European – blood in his/her veins. And for all that he led a revolution, Bolívar was no democrat in the modern sense – he wasn’t out to empower everyone to vote, after all women and other such weak-minded creatures were best kept at a fair distance from any influence on government. Don’t get me wrong; Bolívar liked – loved – women, but preferably in a horizontal position and definitely nowhere close to the offices of power. In particular, Bolívar loved Manuela Saenz – quite ironic as this particular lady was a most active participant in the revolution against Spain. Not that it helped; in Venezuela, women won the right to vote as late as 1946…

As we speak, the people of Venezuela have yet again risen against oppression. Ironically, the vociferous students, the opposition lead by Henrique Capriles, are protesting against “La Revolución Bolivariana”, which is how Hugo Chavez chose to label his democratic dictatorship, built on a flagrant populism liberally dosed with home-made socialism and quite the pinch of personal idolatry. Hugo Chavez had no problem with women voting – as long as they voted for him. He encouraged the disenfranchised to speak up for themselves (must be applauded), he spoke of education for everyone (yet again; applause) and along the way he strong-armed the Venezuelan constitution into extending the number of terms he could serve as president (bad, bad behaviour), he used his presidential powers to gag the opposition (tsk, tsk) and he eliminated all potential threats to his own power, thereby creating a following of sycophants with few original ideas of their own, and even fewer convictions.

So of course, when Chavez died, Venezuela was left in the hands of a less than competent government – that still went on talking about “La Revolución Bolivariana“. Let me tell you, dear old Simón must be spinning like a top in his grave at hearing his name so misused… There; done with the very abbreviated version of the background to the present situation in Venezuela. Let us instead return to that glorious leader, El Libertador, Simón Bolivar.

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Caracas in the early 19th century

Simón Bolívar was a patrician, a well-educated rich young man who fell under the influence of the liberal ideas that flourished in the late 18th – early 19th century. Inspired by what had been done in the U.S., more and more of the South American criollos began thinking about breaking away from Spain, at the time a rather sick empire.

The Bolívar family was filthy rich. Seriously, seriously rich, with sugar plantations and gold mines, and more plantations, even more mines. The family empire depended on slave labour – as did most colonial enterprises at the time. The family could also count itself among Venezuela’s ancient families, having been in situ since the 16th century.

Little Simón, burdened with the full name of Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, was born in 1783, in Caracas. Quite a mouthful, those names; when I was/am very angry with my children, I call them by all their names. If Simón’s poor mother had tried the same, she’d have sprained her tongue – sadly, this was not going to be an issue for long, as she died when Simón was nine, thereby leaving the little boy an orphan. Simón’s father had died six years earlier.

Growing up, Simón only had one constant in his life, the slave Hipolita. After the death of his mother, a series of tutors were engaged to ensure he was properly schooled. One of these tutors, Simón Rodríquez, was to have a profound impact on his pupil, inculcating a fervent desire for freedom, for independence from under the Spanish yoke, in his young adept. So vociferous a proponent of revolution was Rodríguez that he was forced to flee Venezuela in 1797, and our adolescent hero was therefore enrolled in a military academy – probably in the vain hope of steering the misguided young man away from ideas of subversion and revolution. Didn’t work. But the years at the military academy gave Bolívar a strong grounding in military strategy, which was to come in useful in his later life.

Bolívar,_1800It wasn’t only the rich English aristocrats who did the Grand Tour back then. As a matter of course, Simón was dispatched to Europe somewhere in his late teens, and spent a number of heady years travelling the European continent. This was at the peak of  Napoleon’s career, and a wide-eyed Bolívar watched Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in Notredame. Did he dream of similar glories for himself? Probably.

In 1810, Venezuela took advantage of the political upheaval in Spain (Napoleon again. That man knew how to stir things up) and declared itself an independent country. Bolívar was sent off to England to request aid against an aggravated Spain – and to entice Francisco de Miranda to return to Venezuela as its first President. Not a very successful republic, this first attempt, and by 1813 Miranda was out of the picture, rather callously betrayed by Bolívar. Oops: I see some of my readers frown, not liking my depiction of their hero. Tough. Bolívar was a man who set himself goals and set out to achieve them. Such men always leave casualties along the way.

With Miranda in the hands of the Spanish, the Venezuelan republic teetered on the brink of extinction. Well, if we’re going to be correct, the republic was as dead as a door-nail, with Spain in control of all major cities and ports. And yet the fight went on. On the Spanish side, leaders such as Boves terrorised the opposition by murders, rape and pillage. So effective was this terror that in 1813 Bolívar  felt obliged to issued his decree of “War to Death”. Not at all a nice document, as it allowed for anyone of Spanish birth to be summarily killed unless he could prove he was collaborating with the rebels. Nice; now BOTH sides were using indiscriminate violence to intimidate the civilian population. But then, as Abimael Guzmán, leader of Sendero Luminoso, once said “A revoultion requires rivers of blood”. Or not, depending on your inclination… (Sendero Luminos was a marxist guerilla group that wreaked havoc in Perú during the 1980’s)

Bolivar Congreso_de_Cúcuta

Bolívar in the foreground

It would take until 1821 for Bolívar to rid his native land of its colonial oppressors. He won, he lost, he fled, he returned, he won again, and again. At the Battle of Boyacá, present day Colombia was liberated. At the battles of Carabobo and Pichincha, Ecuador and Venezuela were similarily liberated, and a new republic, Gran Colombia was formed, comprising all these states (Which is why, even today, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have the same tricolor flags).

Bolívar was hailed, glory was heaped upon him, and he was accorded the title El Libertador (the liberator). He also became president of Gran Colombia, was active in supporting the freedom fighters further south on the continent, drafted the constitution of the country named after him, and in general was quite the busy bee. But, as we all know, popular opinion is a fickle thing, and the once so adored liberator was suddenly a much less admired president, accused of being far too power-hungry.

Manuela_Sáens_Thorne

Manuela- intrepid mistress

Gran Colombia was an unstable construction. So unstable, in fact, that Bolívar saw no option but to make himself dictator. Not a popular move, and had it not been for fair Manuela Saenz, who saved her lover in the nick of time, Bolívar would probably have been assassinated. As it was, he became disenchanted with all these ungrateful louts who demanded influence and power now, but who had not as much as lifted a finger to help during the revolutionary wars. In 1830 he resigned and prepared to leave for Europe. He was sick of strife, of “ploughing the seas” as he bitterly described his revolutionary efforts. Maybe he was hoping for some years of intellectual pursuits in civilised company, far from the heaving cauldron of passion and conflict that was his native land. If so,  he was to be disappointed. In December of 1830, Bolívar died of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, a rather nondescript village in northern Colombia.

Years later, his bodily remains were moved to Caracas. Centuries later, the remains of Manuela Saenz were interred beside his, a belated recognition to all those women who risked their lives together with their men in the revolutionary wars.

To end where I began, I believe Bolívar would, had he been alive today, been very upset at having his name linked with Hugo Chavez’ “revolution”. Neither President Maduro nor Hugo Chavez would have met with his approval, being far too uneducated, too unsophisticated for a man of Bolívar’s intellect (Yes, he was a snob – or a product of his age). And as to present day Venezuela, well, I think Bolívar might have sighed, wondering why on earth he bothered.

Gloria al bravo pueblo que el yugo lanzó, la ley respetando, la virtud y el honor.
May Venezuela, this country of so much beauty, so many natural riches, one day realise all its potential. May the people of Venezuela one day have the leaders they deserve and need, leaders who step away from opportunistic populism and settle down to create a country that lives up to that first line in the National Anthem, a country that respects law, virtue and honor. One can always hope.

John Ball – a man of rhyme and plenty of reason

We all have our particular favourites among historical people. Quite often, the people we idolise will be vilified by others – history, just like pretty much everything in life, is a matter of perception and opinion. After all, none of us knew the people who took central stage during the preceding centuries. (Well; I would assume not. Maybe there are some reincarnated souls out there who have been on chit-chatting terms with Julius Caesar or Hannibal, who’ve shared a bath with Fredrik Barbarossa or got drunk with Henry II. Lucky them…)
Still; there are favourites and non-favourites. My top-of-the pops list when it comes to historical people is headed by Saladin, Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and Henry II of England. On my shit list, Stalin and Hitler come right at the top, followed by an assortment of dictators, fanatics and plain dislikeable people, plus a number of incompetents.

Richard_II_King_of_EnglandOne historical person I have very lukewarm feelings about is Richard II of England. Okay, so he didn’t have an easy act to follow, what with Edward III in his prime being quite the impressive dude, and besides, Richard had a cousin – soon to be the usurper Henry IV– who was a far better leader of men than he was. Sandwiched in between these two, Richard II comes across as something of a megalomaniac, a man convinced since childhood that he was set apart from other men, a rule unto himself. Richard’s misfortune was to believe in absolute monarchy before it became popular, so to say. That, and a propensity to prefer sycophants to honest advisors, to distribute lands and riches to his favourites – well, it’s left him with a less than glorious reputation. Somehow being remembered as the king that introduced the handkerchief in England, is an indication of how little a mark Richard II actually left behind.

Richard II was by all accounts tall, handsome and very intelligent. That he didn’t lack for personal courage was demonstrated in his finest hour, when as a boy not yet fifteen he managed to pacify the angry peasantry that had taken up arms against their betters in the so called Peasant’s Revolt. And this brings me to one of the more likeable people in history, although it must be said that we know very little about this character, except that he had a gift of the tongue and liked rhyming verse. I am referring to John Ball, the preacher credited with being the main motivational speaker at the Peasant’s Revolt.

John Ball was a priest. He was also accused of being a Lollard, a man who followed John Wycliffe’s teachings, according to which the Catholic Church had lost contact with the true message in the Bible. Lollards advocated the translation of the Bible into English, they preached social equality and were distrustful of the trappings of power with which the Church’s prelates tended to surround themselves. In many ways, the Lollards were precursors to the Reformation, and initially they were tolerated, Wycliffe himself being protected by the powerful John of Gaunt.

John Ball was too unimportant to ever hobnob with dukes such as John of Gaunt. He was a hedge priest, a man who travelled about the countryside and preached, and his sermons tended to be invigorating little rants in which he attacked the social injustices of the times. The powers that were disliked John Ball. They thought him a bloody nuisance, and so he was imprisoned, he was punished, he was even excommunicated, but the man must have led a charmed life, always popping up like the proverbial bad penny to continue harassing the Church and the rich.

300px-Reeve_and_SerfsSocial discontent was rife in England in the latter half of the 14th century. Years of war with the French, in combination with the Black Death, had decimated the population, and while this should have increased the bargaining power of the working class, the ruling classes responded by implementing laws that made it unlawful for the workers to demand wages that were higher than before, or to leave their hometowns in search of better conditions elsewhere. A fixed wage when the costs of life increased tenfold, led to even more discontent, more social unrest. Angry peasants had had enough, and the flames of discontent were further fanned by preachers such as John Ball – which was probably why our Mr Ball spent a lot of time locked up, his nimble tongue having aggravated yet another local lord or bishop.

In 1381, all this discontent erupted into The Peasants’ Revolt. The final straw that broke this particular camel’s back was the increased poll tax (it was tripled – talk about tax hike). People refused to pay, and when the tax collectors insisted, things turned nasty. All over southern England, peasants and labourers rose in rebellion, demanding a reduction in the tax rate, the abolition of serfdom, and the removal of certain people from among the king’s counsellors.

The government was taken by surprise – putting it mildly. Until now, the villeins had known their place – right at the bottom of the dung-heap – and to have these lowborn men threaten the hands that fed them, well, it was totally inconceivable,wasn’t it? (Apparently not. But there’s a first for everything.) To make matters worse, most of the armed forces were up in the north, and the rebels therefore met little or no opposition as they made their way through Kent – in the process freeing John Ball who was yet again kicking his heels in prison – and set out for London, led by the charismatic Wat Tyler. In the capital, panic reigned. The young king was moved to the Tower for safety. The London citizens viewed the approaching rabble with fear, but there was also quite some support for the cause among the labourers and artisans within the city walls.

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At Blackheath, John Ball preached to the assembled rebels – a rather beautiful and visionary sermon along the lines of all men being equal, an early precursor, if you will, to that immortal speech Martin Luther King was to make almost six centuries later. John painted a picture of a fairer society, a place where a just King would rule over an empowered people. The assembled rebels roared their approval, and I guess Wat Tyler cheered and clapped John on the back, thanking him for his morale boosting efforts.

On June 13, the rebels rode into London. Aided and abetted by disgruntled apprentices, artisans and labourers, the rebels went wild and crazy. The homes of the rich were sacked – John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace was more or less destroyed – prisoners were released from gaol, anyone associated with royal government was summarily killed. In the Tower, the king and his retinue must have been quaking in their boots.

300px-Richard_II_meets_rebelsThis is when Richard II rose to the occasion. With only a minimum of companions, he rode out and treated with the rebels on June 14. The rebels loved their king, blaming his advisors for everything that was wrong with the country. At the time, this was probably a fair supposition; a boy of fourteen did not have much say in government, no matter how much of a king he was. In his later life, Richard was to show a marked disregard for the suffering of the common people, far more interested in wringing yet another penny out of them than in bettering their situation.

It must have taken quite some courage for the young king to parley with the rebels. That they intimidated him is made obvious by the fact that he acceded to all their demands – including the abolition of serfdom. He firmly refused to turn over his officials into the rebels’ hands, saying he himself would dispense whatever justice was necessary, but he seems to have allowed the rebels access to the Tower, there to seek out the enemies of the state – as per their definition. Whooping with glee, the rebels went on a rampage, killed the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer and came close to killing John of Gaunt’s fifteen-year-old son, the future Henry IV. But they didn’t touch the king, treating their young prince with reverence.

DeathWatTylerFullNext day, Richard and a substantial following rode out for yet another parley. In the initial discussions, tempers ran wild and one of Richard’s men, the Mayor of London, killed Wat Tyler. There was a howl of rage from the rebels. For an instant, everything hung in the balance, which is when Richard II rose in his stirrups and demanded that the rebels follow him, was he not their king and leader, were they not the true commons of England and therefore sworn to obey him, their king? Besides, had he not acquiesced to their demands already yesterday?

The rebels shuffled where they stood, no doubt entranced by this handsome young man, their king. After some muttering they fell in step behind him, and a triumphant Richard led them away from Smithfield and the city. In essence, the revolt was already over. Wat Tyler’s head was placed on a spike, and without its principal leader, the rebellion guttered and died, no matter vociferous people such as John Ball.

Did the king honour the promises he’d made on June 14? Of course not. Two weeks later, Richard II commanded all serfs to return to their masters. The rebels were hunted like animals through the countryside, and more prominent members of the revolt, such as John Ball, had the doubtful honour of being tried for treason before being hanged, drawn and quartered. A terrible death, more or less impossible to meet with courage and dignity. Somewhere late in November, Richard II ordered that the killings cease. By then, close to 1 500 rebels had died, in one way or the other. The Peasants’ Revolt had been squashed underfoot.

468px-William.Morris.John.BallAnd yet… something was begun by John Ball and Wat Tyler. It takes a lot of guts – but also quite some thinking out of the box – to challenge the established orders of things. Change begins with one person questioning how things are done and why. John Ball was one such person and what was an utopian view of the world back then – seriously, a villain to be considered equal to a lord? – is now the fundament of all democratic societies.

John Ball lost his life in the aftermath of the revolt. But his cause didn’t die with him, and while the king he confronted left little more than a fluttering handkerchief behind, John Ball left us two catchy lines of rhyme and a vision of a better world. Not bad for an impoverished priest, huh?
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” Good question, John Ball, a very good question – one we should now and then ponder even today!

That fragile thing called democracy

Over the recent weeks, I have watched the present development in Turkey with a substantial element of sadness. Up and to a month or so ago, I would have argued that Mr Erdogan had succeeded in bringing financial stability to a country seething with potential, and I guess the majority of Turks would have agreed with me. Mr Erdogan is a democratically elected leader – on his third round – for a young vibrant nation – a nation that for years lived under a quasi democracy with the military hovering in the wings. Mr Erdogan represents a party many modern Turks view with some distrust – after almost a century as a secular state it is difficult to accept a party with strong religious roots. He is also the beneficiary of a splintered opposition, thereby allowing him – and his party – to rule as if they had far more than the approximately 50% of the votes they have.

The important thing about democracy is that having the majority does NOT mean smashing the minority. A true democratic leader attempts to include as large a share of the electorate as possible when drawing up strategies and plans – if nothing else to retain a general overall popularity. A true democratic leader encourages the media to criticise, a true democratic leader does not move to legislate against the social media (as Erdogan proposes to do). In fact, a true democratic leader LISTENS to public opinion and takes this into consideration – after all, who better than the people to decide how the people want to be governed? Okay, so very often one can argue that the people don’t know their own good – that’s what communist dictators do, that’s what right-wing dictators do, that’s what democratically elected leaders do (in private, preferably). Ultimately, democracy rests on the assumption that the people do, in fact, know what’s best for them – however imperfect the end result might be.

In Turkey, it seems as if Mr Erdogan has won the first round, this by brutal reprisals of young demonstrators. they’ve been tear gased, they’ve been water bombed, they’ve been arrested and thrown into jail  and quite a few have disappeared. World media presents things as they are and Erdogan fumes that these foreigners don’t know what they’re talking about – to be expected from a man who attempted to put the lid on a recent bombing in southern Turkey. I hope that the second round will be far more devastating to Mr Erdogan – if nothing else to keep democracy alive in Turkey.

What the demonstrators in Istanbul and other Turkish cities are highlighting is the fact that democracy needs to be defended and sustained. A quibble over a few trees has blossomed into a loud protest at how their country is being run, and there is a passion to their voices, an anger in their movements that indicate that this fight is far from over. Good. Some things are worth defending, right? In this particular case, it is easy to see that it needs defending, but there is a far more insidious threat to democracies today, and that is that of indifference.

The Western world takes it for granted that we live in free countries. We’ve grown up hearing all that stuff about “all power from the people” and most of us take that as a truism. We also forget that democracy is a relatively new form of government – well, with the exception of Greece and its ancient traditions – and that democracy depends on its citizens caring enough to vote. It is the duty of every person living in a democracy to rise out of the sofa and make their way to the closest ballot come election day. But how many do? In the US, approximately 60% of all voters do their thing. That’s a lot of people remaining on the sofa, isn’t it? Less than 70% of UK voters exercise their right to vote, in France it’s below 60% and in Poland it’s under 50%. Even worse, very many people express that they don’t care one way or the other, so why bother making the effort to vote?

Unless we exercise our rights and nurture this rather tender reed that is democracy, it will wilt and die. Once we, the people, stop caring, why should anyone else care? If we, the people, have no opinions and prefer being led like blind sheep from one point to the other, so be it. But we’re not blind sheep, are we? No, we’re the people – and let us make sure we don’t forget that! In Turkey, Mr Erdogan has had his first confrontation with the people – his people. It behoves him – and all democratically elected leaders – to listen when the people roars. It behoves us, the people, to roar when needed.

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