Radoslav Dragov's picture

PsychoSocial Leadership

Let’s talk about leadership in the 21st century. And psychopaths.

Today the word “leadership” has the supernatural ability to turn any sentence into a platitude and it’s mere conjuring considerably increases the collective boredom in the universe. In contrast the word “psychopath” summons the image of an unnerving, unblinking individual with a peculiar degustative experience. Surely such an individual cannot be a leader of a successful enterprise – he would very soon run out of employees who are sufficiently not dead.

The sad, empirically tested truth is that psychopaths occupy important leadership positions with alarming frequency. A recent study concludes that the concentration of psychopaths among CEOs is four times higher than their concentration in the general population. What’s more troubling is that we admire and venerate leaders that fit the psychopath profile quite neatly (e.g. Napoleon, Steve Jobs).

This brings the inevitable question: do psychopaths have the qualities that we desire of leaders in the 21st century?

Bad to be Good?

Before dissecting the question an important clarification has to be made. Like poisonous ice cream psychopaths come in different flavours. The famous specimens (the Ted Bundys of the world) usually have an unquenchable taste for violence and trouble controlling their impulses. The second type is the “suited psychopath” or “psychopath lite” who is also confident, cold, charismatic, risk seeking, ruthless, and remorseless but not physically violent. Here we will discuss the second, “tamed” version of psychopath.

I will play devil’s advocate and try to present a solid case for the necessary evil of suited psychopaths. Psychopaths remain unusually calm in dangerous situations where others would boldly flee. In many lines of leadership tough decisions have to be made quickly. Politicians have to decide how to allocate limited resources to alleviate an unending stream of problems. Appropriating funds for agriculture subsidies will take money away from other sectors that are just as needy. The CEO of a company may need to lay off thousands of employees to turn around the fortunes of her company. Making the “feel good” decision today does not always equate to doing the smart thing. The ability to remove irrational emotions can prove to be very beneficial.

Take Napoleon Bonaparte for example. Napoleon did not loose any sleep over executing thousands of war prisoners or invading Russia. After abandoning his army in the Russian winter wastelands he humbly announced in a Parisian newspaper that everything is all right because “the emperor is safe”. Yet he was one of greatest administrative geniuses of all time: the French civil code created under his guidance gave freedom of religion and equal rights to all French citizens. Ranks in his army were allocated according to merit not birth right. The cold and calculating nature of Napoleon allowed him to easily break from tradition and craft very utilitarian laws.

Perhaps to achieve great things we need a terrible person to uncompromisingly orchestrate our work. Many of the greatest or financially successful directors of all time were either lizard people or horrible overseers: Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, Michael Bay, David Fincher, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone – to name a few. Hitchcock clarified: “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle”. Perhaps even art can be achieved only through adversity. The great Leonardo Da Vinci did not actually complete many planned (and commissioned) works of art. I bet if he had shareholders or a psychopathic boss he would have blessed the world with many more masterpieces.

As a society we seem to be fascinated with leaders who exhibit psychopathic tendencies. Steve Jobs remains the shorthand for effective leadership and yet few would deny that Jobs had a very distant relation with humanity. He regularly denigrated colleagues (sometimes to tears), fired employees on a whim, harassed people interviewing for work, stopped all of Apple’s philanthropic initiatives and short-changed the other Apple co-founder. This behaviour is not exactly unique in Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg ousted the other Facebook co-founder (and friend) Eduardo Severin; Snapchat CEO did the same for another co-founder; the Twitter co-founders repeatedly backstabbed each other. Many aspiring entrepreneurs believe that to be successful you have to be a remorseless egomaniac.

Psychopaths Unmasked

It is tempting to conclude that the leadership style of psychopaths may produce beneficial effects - especially in a highly competitive capitalist system where the bottom line and not benevolence guarantees survival. Complexity in the world is growing and we need leaders who can cut through the tangle of emotions and dilemmas and deliver tangible results.

We could agree but we’re not going to. Let’s demolish some myths. Psychopaths end in leadership positions not because they have superior intrinsic qualities but because they take more risk. For the understandable evolutionary reasons of not being eaten by tigers - normal humans have a tendency to avoid potential pain or loss at great costs. In contrast psychopaths are more motivated by the promise of reward than the threat of pain. They take far more risks and sometimes those risks pay off. Logic dictates than the more risk one takes the higher the reward (for the lucky ones). Many psychopaths end up in the junkyard of failed people but we don’t hear about them.

We hear about the ones in charge of start-ups with vowel-deficient names. We also suffer from the halo effect – which in this case means that we attribute the success of a psychopathic leader to his psychopathic behaviour. We believe that Steve Jobs was a successful leader only because he was a rude and remorseless individual. Psychopath leaders succeed despite not because of their bad and reckless behaviour.

In the future the discipline of leadership has to put down the machete, remove the hockey mask and reveal the face of a caring person. 

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Curious Case of the Missing Pandemic

What is the greatest disaster you know next to nothing about?

This is not a whodunit story so let me reveal the culprit. The disaster in question struck at the end of WWI and carried the exquisitely innocuous name of the Spanish Flu. Picture the mass-produced carnage of the First World War when the Big Powers used machine guns, mustard gas, submarines, ships, planes and tanks for five years in order to exterminate each other. Now triple the number of casualties and you will get a more precise picture of the catastrophe that was the Spanish Flu.

Current low estimations point to 50 million victims in around two years. Keep in mind that the world population at the time was four times less than it is today. To put the Spanish Flu in a modern perspective: imagine roaming through the entire United Kingdom, France and Germany and not finding a single living soul in any city, town or village. It turns out that the Spanish Inquisition is much more famous (and unexpected) than the Spanish Flu even though it resulted in a death toll of 5,000 people in 350 years.

So if the number of destroyed lives was so insurmountable why has history been so forgetful?

Marketing a Deadly Disease

In answering this question I am going to take a more unorthodox approach. I will examine pandemics (like the Spanish Flu) as a meme that has its own lifespan. Memes can be described as idea viruses. Memes compete for attention and brain bandwidth in order to survive. Rating a meme according to its popularity and “stickiness” is a tricky subject. Fortunately the good people who wrote “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” have discovered the formula for SUCCES of an idea. SUCCES stands for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories. Long lasting memes score well on all six criteria. Let’s see how well the “pandemic meme” fares in this test.

Simple. The core message of a memorable idea can be expressed with a few simple words. Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign was boiled down to the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”. Pandemics can be described just as easily: “this unstoppable disease will kill you”. You might try to add a few ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ but the core message remains intact: panic immediately! In a fit of creative overreach one CNN correspondent dubbed Ebola “the ISIS of biological agents”.  

Unexpected. A catchy idea has to have an element of unexpectedness. The swift propagation of a new deadly strain creates a jolt of shock in normal human beings and a jolt of excitement in journalists. After a certain tipping point aspiring pandemics tend to grow exponentially and suddenly all media outlets report on it. The Spanish Flu made a spectacular entrance: in 24 weeks it killed more people than AIDS in 24 years.

Concrete. Most people today believe in the dangers of global warming but it seems they cannot get too worked up about it. Why? Global warming is a slow process that is out of the normal everyday experience and thus people cannot relate to it. The human mind is bad at digesting abstract ideas so they get flushed quickly. Pandemics are not hard to comprehend. We all had painful health problems and know how easy it is for the flu to spread. Thus people often think that the latest pandemic is propagated by air (which is very rarely the case).

Credible. A convincing idea has to ideally come from a trustworthy source rather than the musty crawlspaces of the Internet. In the case of recent pandemics we have credible reports from epidemiologists and other qualified specialists. People often suspect that the authorities are holding back negative information. So if a public official announces bad news we assume the situation is much worse.

Emotional. This is where pandemics score the highest. We have a built in mechanism to notice negative information more quickly. The individuals who contemplate (potential) danger rather than panic and flee have long exited the gene pool. So it stands to reason that the alarming spread of a killer-virus might turn a few heads. No amount of facts or calm discussions with health experts can ease the anxiety of the general public. What makes matters worse is that the virus is imperceptible and anyone can potentially carry it.

Stories. We are more likely to remember the statement “the king died, and then queen died of grief” than the simpler “the king died and then the queen died”. The first statement is more memorable because it opens many intriguing possibilities. Pandemics by their very nature do not present many compelling narratives. Humans are very groupish but viruses do not discriminate between nationalities, religions, social classes, or political affiliations. Viruses do not make for compelling villains because they do not plot evil schemes or have malice aforethought. In that sense pandemics are insultingly impersonal. In contrast, wars are memorable because they have clearly defined teams of actors whose actions have passion and motivation behind them. The Spanish Flu may have slain three times more people than World War I but it didn’t provide even a fraction of the stories. High body count does not guarantee historic remembrance.

Post-mortem

The last two points (Emotion and Stories) best explain the characteristics of pandemics as a meme. The threat of an unstoppable disease immediately ensnares our attention and creates many (often) irrational fears and anxieties. However, after the disease has dissipated there are few catchy narratives for the popular imagination to latch on to. Journalists are attracted to the sensationalism while historians are repelled by the lack of compelling narratives. In the end we have a situation where every disease has its 15 minutes of fame. 

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Model ASEM: Model Summit, Raw Emotions

Model ASEM is basically a LARP (live action role-playing game) for people who are more interested in international affairs than orcs. In the vein of other educational simulations (like Model UN) Model ASEM tries to recreate the proceedings of a large multilateral summit. The summit in question is the biannual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). The Model ASEM simulation was held on 8-12 October - one week before the actual summit. I participated in Model ASEM and left with interesting observations that I want to share with you.

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was formally established in 1996 and provides a platform for 53 countries from Europe and Asia to strengthen their relations. Both ASEM and the simulation were held in Milan, Italy. Very fitting since the modern practice of diplomacy was forged in the Italian city-states of Milan, Florence and Venice during the Renaissance. The official goal of the Model ASEM is to promote awareness and understanding of the ASEM process among young people. To achieve this goal young delegates from member countries are convened to represent the heads of their respective countries. The overarching topic of this year’s Model ASEM was “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security”.

The main output of Model ASEM was the “Chair’s Statement” and the “ASEM Youth Declaration”. Both documents were to be presented to the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy. The Chair’s Statement was constructed by the Chair of Model ASEM from the written contributions of delegates prior to our assembly in Milan. Later in a plenary session we discussed and applied changes to the text. It is important to note that in this plenary session delegates represented the stance of their corresponding government, not personal views.

For the creation of the Youth Declaration we had to voice our personal demands, stitch the whole thing together and then edit it in a plenary session. In other words the Youth Declaration had to be designed by committee. In the long span of human history there have been a precious few instances where the incorporation of many (often contradicting) opinions produced something remarkable. The rendering of the Bible in English (King James version) and the US Declaration of Independence spring to mind.

Sadly, our Youth Declaration did not join this short list. The plenary session got catty immediately. Some complained that we weren’t moving fast enough, others wanted to let more people voice their opinion. Paragraphs were shortened, rephrased, expanded and then deleted. Time, patience and gentility were running out. At long last we reached a consensus: the Youth Declaration is in an atrocious and unfinished state! This disjointed document truly embodied the maxim “a camel is a horse designed by committee”.

Nonetheless, I was truly humbled by the display of passion and enthusiasm. Model ASEM is a simulation but the delegates always acted with utmost commitment. Their crushing disappointment of the proceedings only highlighted their genuine concern. If only the real leaders took these multilateral meetings as seriously as the delegates. The other good news was that the Youth Declaration (which conveyed the personal opinions of young delegates) devoted more attention to climate change, human rights and migration. It’s normal for young people to be more idealistic but I believe that this new generation will retain part of these more noble intentions and deal more actively with silent risks. They’ll do it out of benign self-interest not because of misguided idealism.

Luckily, the final Youth Declaration was entirely remade in an abbreviated form by just a few people who were more experienced in policy-making. Perhaps it wasn’t the most democratic move but it provided good results. The Congress of Vienna (1814) following Napoleon’s defeat was a thoroughly undemocratic process without a plenary session but it produced nearly a century of relative peace. In our case a declaration had to be presented to the President of the European Council and it had to be worth his time. Realpolitik had to be practiced. Some delegates who learned of this procedure were left a bit disappointed but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Idealism needs to be tempered with a bit of scepticism. Especially in diplomacy, which is probably the most cynical of all occupations. After all, the great Italian Niccolò Machiavelli was a diplomat.

As a thoroughly cynical person I left Italy feeling optimistic. I want to thank the hard-working organisers for making this event possible and the determined delegates for making it eventful.

Radoslav Dragov's picture

World Cup Blues

“The people are hungry for more than just food. They crave distractions. And if we don’t provide them, they’ll create their own. And their distractions are likely to end with us being torn to pieces”.

Olenna Tyrrell (sadly, she is fictional)

It seems rather poetic that nationalism and football took shape around the same time (the middle of the 18th century). It is debatable which of the two inspires more frenzy, fervour and fraught. The two forces will meet in Brazil this Thursday and will have an almost magical effect. In one fell swoop they will expunge the collective bile from the protests, corruption practices and unfinished projects that have accompanied the 2014 World Cup preparations. Why? What do these controversies tell us about the current state of Brazil?

Opium of the People

International sporting events have been compared to a benign form of war: they carry all the excitement and patriotic exhilaration of war but with slightly less infrastructure damage. Like a declaration of war the news of a successful bid to host the World Cup (or Olympics) follows several predictable stages. First, there is an initial drunken exhilaration of the announcement. Then people suddenly realize what they have got themselves into. Nothing seems to go according to plan. Altercations ensue. The people in low positions blame their superiors/politicians for the whole mess. More and more question the reasons and benefits of the whole enterprise. There may be some insubordination among the troops. In the end, there would be an acceptance of the fact that is best to support your team and country. Nationalistic emotions would prevail and justify the whole endeavour.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa followed a similar template: initial joyous celebrations, then panic about deadlines and uncompleted projects, reports of corruption, mass protests that subsided once the actual games began. Hosting the World Cup for Brazil is a rather expensive signal that the country is worthy of its status as an emerging power. Its citizens are willing to forgive a lot of blunders for the prestige of hosting a tournament of such importance. That is why I am not particularly worried that there’ll be much disruption during the actual games. Plus, football is opium for the people of Brazil.

What do the pre-World Cup controversies reveal?

The main purpose of sporting events like the World Cup is to present the host country in a very positive light to the outside world. A recent Pew poll revealed that 75% of Brazilians believe their country should be more respected abroad. So the host cities try to put a temporary disguise and sweep the ugly realities under the rug. But there’s a problem perfectly put by a certain TV character: “Do you know the big problem with a disguise? However hard you try, it's always a self-portrait”. The preparation for a huge sporting event like the World Cup is far more revealing of the country’s character than the games themselves.

So let’s look at the important events that have accompanied the World Cup preparations. Most noteworthy is the exorbitant price of the World Cup ($11, 7 billion as of September 2013) that went three times over the projected cost. The cornucopia of corrupt practices between politicians and contractors is largely to blame. There is also the problem of not-quite-finished stadiums and abandoned projects. By the end of 2013 six of the Brazil’s twelve stadiums did not meet the deadlines set by FIFA.

There are also concerns about the poor or unfinished transport infrastructure and its questionable ability to handle the influx of tourists. Add to that the high-crime rate and the prospect of disrupting protests. In the end, these controversies reveal an overly ambitious country plagued by corruption, high crime rates and uneven infrastructure.

The Problem with BRICS

In the last half dozen years we have seen four of the BRICS countries host the biggest international sporting events: 2008 Olympics in China, World Cup in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014), and Winter Olympics in Russia (2014).

These sporting events and the controversies that preceded them show the uneasy position of the BRICS. On the one hand they have an abundance of resources (both natural and human) and even more potential but lack the infrastructure and properly functioning institutions of developed economies. Like Russia and South Africa Brazil will probably deliver a dazzling opening and closing ceremonies but there would most likely be many reports of poor infrastructure, lack of transport and communication, and unsatisfying living conditions. We’ll call this problem of duality “the pauper-prince syndrome”.

Brazil is the epitome of these contrasts – it is one of the top countries by income inequality (far more than Russia, China or India). Only South Africa can give it a run for its money. In fact, Brazil has the very rare distinction of encompassing the entire spectrum of global income: the world’s richest, poorest and whatever that is in between. So while Pele and Ronaldo were promoting the tournament teachers, bus drivers and oil workers went on a strike. While the official World Cup song with Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull was blaring the Landless Workers Movement marched and tried to occupy the land around a stadium. These stark contrasts will weigh down on the future development of Brazil.

Will Brazilians ultimately benefit from the World Cup?

I believe so but in the form of a rude wake-up call. The remarkable development of Brazil since 1990 with strong economic growth, pronounced increase in education attainment, and steep reduction in poverty, made Brazilians and their leaders overconfident. Deciding to host not only the World Cup but also the Olympics (with only two years in-between) would challenge even the most developed of nations. The double-challenge revealed the numerous problems of Brazil that were neglected due to upward trending statistics and the accompanying feeling of progress. The controversies vividly demonstrated to Brazilians that their country still has a long and bumpy road ahead if they want to realize their lofty ambitions.

 

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Virtue of Selfishness

Photo by Fido/ CC BY
Donald Sterling is not a moral man. And that’s probably a good thing.

I like to believe that some day a photo of Sterling would prominently sit next to the definition of “irony”. The owner of a team operating in arguably the most African-American dominated sport, whose mistress herself is of mixed African-American and Mexican heritage, turns out to be a hopeless racist. In a secret recording he chastises his mistress and urges her not to associate with black people in public places. Such characters should exist only as cartoons between the pages of some tasteless tabloid.

But as I stated earlier it could have been even worse: Sterling could have been a man of moral and principle. His two saving graces were his exorbitant selfishness and avarice. For if Donald Sterling was and was not all those things he wouldn’t have done much good in his life. He wouldn’t have made generous grants to many organizations aimed at supporting minority communities. He wouldn’t have bought a whole basketball team or paid his players salaries that befit the current excess and spectacle of the sport.

Is there too much morality?

In the overcrowded field of horrible things humans practice racism takes a top position. Understandably, few people would equate racism, indeed any kind of wrongdoing with morality. But morality as practiced by people is more a set of principles that channel (often misguided) righteousness. Moral principles differ from person to person and culture to culture. Some person’s moral punishment is another person’s act of homicidal bigotry.

I am not a moral philosopher (because I want to work for a living) but I tend to agree with psychologist Steven Pinker who thinks there is too much morality in the world. Pinker reasons that if we add up all the murders perpetrated because of religious, ideological, ethnical and sexual non-conformity they would rival homicides from amoral predation. Think of the blameless victims from crusades, revolutions, ideological genocides, or honor killings.

A moral impulse animated the actions of Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Even the most unrepentant and irredeemable character of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, was driven by a moral cause. According to his twisted logic sacrifices have to be made and the Aryan race purified in order to bring thousand years of utopia. It was not a matter of practical necessity but of undisputed duty and destiny. What’s fascinating is that while they were pushing the human potential for inflicting misery and suffering, the Nazis enacted the world’s strictest laws against the mistreatment of animals. One imagines they didn’t want animal abuse to give them a bad reputation.

Does Donald Sterling have a racist moral instinct?

Donald Sterling’s brand of more latent racism fits pretty nicely with the established definition of (misguided) morality. In the secretly taped conversion Sterling (who is Jewish) defends his position: “there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?” Prompted by his mistress to say if black Jews were inferior to white ones Sterling replies “a hundred percent” and adds: “it isn’t a question – we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society”.

Like a categorical (moral) imperative Sterling’s racist impulses go unquestioned because that’s the way of the world. Psychologists have identified that there is certain ineffability in morality – often people cannot give a rational explanation for their objection to statements or actions that jab with their moral feelings. To them it just feels wrong. For Mr. Sterling the obvious thing seems to be that the amount of melanin in the skin is intimately connected with human aptitude and potential. It is good to know that racism itself does not discriminate and manifests in people of all creeds and ethnicities.

Self-interest vs. Morality

Nevertheless, Sterling’s ample selfish instincts prevailed and overrode his damaging racist beliefs. He did not follow through his sincere “moral” instincts and that caused some disconnect between his private life and public actions. Mind you, Sterling was not just an old man who occasionally throws in the odd distasteful and racially tinged joke at the dinner table. This was a person who forbade his mistress to post any photos of her with African-Americans. Sterling’s unease in dealing with African-Americans must have been great but luckily the financial rewards compensated for these feelings.

It goes without saying that the money he gave to all those charities in support of minorities was a cynical attempt to repair his own creaky public image. But as the Roman Emperor Vespasian said to his son after the imposition of the “Urine Tax”: “pecunia non olet” (money has no smell). The funds came from a man rotten to the core but they can be put to good use for purposes opposite of Sterling’s beliefs. This is in contrast to Brendan Eich - another person who was recently tar-and-feathered for harboring unsavory views. In 2008 Eich gave around $1000 to an organization that sought to ensure same-sex marriage remained unconstitutional in California. In my opinion actions (especially donations) can have more far reaching consequences than words from private conversations. By all accounts Sterling is a sleazy and far more unpleasant individual than Eich, but when it comes to donations Sterling’s self-interest prevailed over his personal beliefs. And that was for the better.

The Sterling Redemption

But Donald Sterling is still far beyond redemption. His actions demonstrate a personality that is a mix between Homo economicus and a simple run of the mill racist. Sterling (who is a big name in the property renting business) was repeatedly sued by minority groups for denying them housing. Since the demand for housing was large he could indulge his racist whims (allow only certain people) and risk no dent in his pocket. Again we see the pattern of cold rationality and passionate hatred. Sterling’s true nature shines only when there is a low opportunity cost.

The important fact here is what didn’t happen after the lawsuits: he was neither hounded by the media nor penalized for his actions. Why? The racist property management system probably shook the lives of far more people than his words. Actions may speak louder than words but people close their ears to the former.

In the end, there is no virtue in selfishness but at least in certain cases it can produce marginally more positive results than unquestioned morality. I may be old-fashioned but I recommend adopting reason as an antidote to egocentrism or damaging moral intuitions. After all, it’s in our self-interest!

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Most Cynical Country: Part 2

Read Part 1

Go West (Life is peaceful there) 

Go West (In the open air)

Go West (Baby, you and me)

Go West (This is our destiny)

 

 

Despite their divergent histories Eastern European countries were finally united under the Eastern Block that truly separated them from “Europe”. Socialism has the distinction of being both the most cynicism inducing political system and the most tranquil one. At its core socialism is a utopian ideology that can never hope to fulfil its lofty goals (“wonderful theory, wrong species”). In fact the tenets of socialism and their utter disregard of human nature were so profoundly absurd that many people actually believed in them. In the early days of the Eastern Bloc communism still held massive appeal to intellectuals and young people across Europe.

Both Hungary (1956 Revolution) and Czechoslovakia (1968 Prague Spring) tried to reform socialism and distance themselves from the Warsaw Pact. But Moscow used tanks, troops and other rhetorical devices to persuade them otherwise. The moral and economic failures of the socialist system became apparent even to the most blind believers. And we all know from George Carlin that a cynic is just a disappointed idealist. The deep chasm between hot-air rhetoric of government officials and reality could only be filled by cynicism and quiet surrender.

Seeing old photographs many Westerners still think that life inside the Eastern Bloc was just black and white. And they are absolutely right. For some socialism was nothing but stagnation, brutality and censorship in one lethal package; but for others especially in the countryside it was quiet bliss devoid of cynicism. Everybody got a job (or else), could afford basic necessities and a decent annual vacation. This quaint lifestyle is probably best described in the maxim: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Travel was heavily restricted even within the same country and so people could not peek through the Dickensian shop of wonders that was the West.

The best thing of all was that news dissemination was completely controlled by the state. Instead of the current front-page carnage and alarming statistics the news was bland and boring. Very bad things still happened at an industrial scale (and at industrial facilities) but they just were not reported. Even the show trials that preceded executions were painfully rehearsed which took the fun and immediacy of the whole enterprise. The chronic shortages of lavatory paper ensured that the scarce printed news was not even read.

Ignorance is bliss, my friends. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was announced to the general USSR population two days after it occurred in a tweet-long message on the radio. What you don't know won't kill you! Or it might but at least you won’t have to deal with the anxiety that often accompanies nuclear fallout.

 

Why Try Harder?

One of the most glorious attributes of capitalism is the concept of “F**k You Money” or the ability to acquire enough cash for total independence. Socialism had an equally ingenious mirror-image system that guaranteed dependence: the membership economy. People even in high-up positions were not paid huge salaries and so could not save much. Instead they were given lots of perks: better vacationing spots, ability to purchase foreign goods, etc. However, these perks were tied to their present position and if they were in some way to demonstrate bourgeois, cosmopolitan or imperialist tendencies then everything would be stripped away. They could be fired and then thrown in jail for not working or “parasitism”. Their children and close relatives could also be ostracised or demoted.

That’s how socialist states can have its pirozhki and eat it: ensure obedience and some incentive but narrow the income gap. The immediate positive benefits of such flattened distribution of income was that visible differences between households were not as pronounced. Yes, some were more equal than others but at least none of the nomenklatura comrades was buying British football clubs. The lack of cash and ban on private enterprise ensured that people had to exchange favours and services in grey market transactions. This set the stage for the shameful corruption practices that proudly continue to this day.

 

EUstress

Even if we have to remove the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia (because they’re splattered with blood) we must admit that for many people the socialist period was a good and peaceful time. But the Party had to come to an end. By the fall of the Berlin Wall many Eastern Bloc economies were spectral apparitions of their former ghostly selves. That didn’t matter because the sweet anticipation of revolutionary change tramped every negative feeling. Just before his fall in 1989 the Romanian leader (and professional madman) Nicolae Ceauşescu received a letter from his colleagues stating that ‘Romania is and remains a European country… (despite your reckless actions) you cannot move Romania to Africa’. The Eastern Bloc countries could finally take their rightful place in “Europe” as symbolised by western democracies.

The problem was that differences between Southeast and Western Europe were wide even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What came after made the most leathery cynic look like a hopeless idealist. The ex-nomenklatura seized public assets at criminally low prices, inflation, unemployment and crime were rampant, corruption went into the stratosphere, quality of life and life expectancy plummeted, brain drain was uncontrollable. And these are the most positive developments I can list. An additional side-effect of the subsequent chaos was that it made people even more distrustful and well… cynical towards each other and especially the government. “Not to get swindled” became the leitmotif of their existence.

The opened borders allowed Eastern Europeans to see how far behind “Europe” their countries were. Kind of like how the introduction of US TV content to some Fijian islands led to increased rates of eating disorder because girls started wanting Coke rather than Fanta-shaped bodies. Eastern Europeans preferred the hard liquor bottle as their countries still represent the region with highest alcohol consumption in the world. In the end, everyone was disappointed and unhappy – the forward-thinking optimists and those who wanted socialism to return.

 

Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars

We can see how that through various historical contingencies Eastern Europe and particularly the Southeast could not achieve comparable levels of development. At the same time Eastern European states have long thought themselves as belonging to the same (rich) club. Low travel restrictions make the contrast in quality of life all the more evident. In the 20th century both socialism and capitalism overpromised and under-delivered. In the transition period the quality of life dropped suddenly and people were comparing their current plight not only to the affluent West but also to their stable past. The fall of the Berlin Wall also opened a great gulf between generations: the young that aspired to be “Europeans” and older generations that longed for the good old days. It’s enough to give one a bad temper.

Eastern Europe was on the wrong side of the Wall; Bulgaria was on the wrong side of history. In the first Balkan War (1912) we banded with other Balkan states to fight the Ottoman Empire and eventually won some territory. Promptly we lost everything in the second Balkan War (1913) when we fought both our previous allies and the Ottoman Empire. A bit later Bulgaria joined Germany in the First World War and they lost. Much later we joined the Germans again for the Second World War and (fortunately) the Axis lost.

After WWII Bulgaria was made a satellite state of the USSR and in 45 years the Soviet Union crumbled. Then in 2007 Bulgaria (along with Romania) joined the European Union and the Financial Crisis struck. Worse of all, our northern neighbours the Romanians, which were lagging throughout the whole socialist period, are now ever so slightly ahead in terms HDI and GDP per capita.

That makes Bulgaria the poorest member of the admittedly affluent European Union. We are also last in the EU on a slew of other indicators that are too numerous and too depressing to list. Only by a sliver in many cases but the ranking is what matter not absolute numbers. The gap between last and second last place is measured in light years in the minds of people. As one of my Indian friends put it in his best tongue-in-cheek: the low quality of life in India is completely irrelevant as long as Pakistan is behind us in the ranking.

 

As Good as It Gets

I looked at history because no economic metric could explain the depressing facts about Bulgaria’s depressing attitude. Inequality, perceived corruption, and public debt are not out of line given Bulgaria’s economic standing. What I am trying to hint at is that no one (including this humble author) can give an objective reason for such persistent pessimism. For me it’s a cavalcade of various factors including glorious past, five centuries of Ottoman rule, socialism, particularly rough transition to capitalism period, the close proximity to the unreachable ideal of Western countries, being often last in the EU and outperformed by neighbouring countries.

In the end, I do not think cynicism is necessarily a bad thing: in the 20th century more wars have been started by idealists than cynics. I also do not believe in bad advertisement. So I dearly advise you to visit this most wonderful country. Bulgaria offers a millennium old monastery, majestic glacial lakes, well-preserved remains of ancient civilizations, a Rose Valley rather than Silicon Valley, a city that has been continuously inhabited for 6,000 years, and much more.

Unfortunately, foreigners tend to come for the cheap sea resorts, the cheap booze and the cheap hookers. In other words, it is a country for those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Most Cynical Country: Part 1

We've come a long, long way together,

Through the hard times and the good,

I have to celebrate you baby,

I have to praise you like I should

 

A very witty man once remarked: “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Here we will talk about the third category of people: those who occupy their minds with the sewers. I shall waste no time in revealing the most cynical country in the world. It is a republic located in Southeast Europe called Bulgaria. Incidentally Bulgaria is also the country where I was born and raised.

I can assure you that this statement is based on facts and not a case of national solipsism. I am sure that your country has its fair share of rampant corruption, bloated bureaucracy, and moronic politicians that have rendered the general population more cynical than a thrice-divorced political commentator in Russia. But trust me, you haven’t seen anything yet!

This article will attempt to explain Bulgaria’s chronic unhappiness with the appropriate amount of flippancy and facetiousness that the subject requires. Ultimately, this article tells a bigger story about Eastern Europe, happiness and neighbourhoods.

 

Fun Facts

A 2010 research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers looked into the relation between national income and happiness. Their study revealed that Bulgaria is the saddest country in the world relative to GDP per capita. This study was the subject of “The Economist” article memorably titled “The rich, the poor and Bulgaria”.

Every year Gallup surveys people in 143 countries to create the global “suffering list”. Respondents rate their current and future lives on a scale from 0 to 10. Those who give a score of 4 or lower are labelled as “suffering”. Bulgaria has been the reigning champion for three consecutive years with the world’s largest percentage of “suffering” people.

The 2013 World Happiness Report ranked Bulgaria #144 out of 156 countries, just below Afghanistan and Cambodia. Bulgaria is not exactly the pearl of Eastern Europe but it’s a European Union member that ranks #57 on the Human Development Index (HDI) and #69 on the GDP per capita (PPP) ranking done by the IMF. And we have some of the best Quidditch players!

 

Life’s a Dog

By all accounts we Bulgarians should not be so extremely unhappy with our lives. There must be a certain quality in the national character that causes such soul-crushing despair. I chose to label it cynicism not (only) because the status quo is always criticised and reviled. If that were the case I would have proclaimed my dear fatherland as the most bitchy country in the world. This of course would have been at least etymologically correct – the word cynic comes from the Greek word for dog. I chose “cynical” because the most famous Cynic (Diogenes) used to walk with a lamp during the day and claimed to be looking for an honest man. And I believe “the (futile) search for an honest person” is the main pre-occupation of most Bulgarians.

Words betray the gloomy character of Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a resident in the bad neighbourhood of Europe (i.e. Eastern Europe), which is populated mainly by Slavs who give the word “slave” in the English language and many other European languages (“Slaaf” in Dutch, “Sklave” in German, “Slav” in Swedish, etc.). Bulgaria is situated in the Balkan Peninsula, which spawned the word “balkanization” or the “division of a region into smaller mutually hostile states or groups”. Bulgaria itself gives the word “bugger” that used to mean sodomite but now it generally denotes “an annoyingly awkward thing”. Bugger originates from a Medieval Bulgarian sect that believed the world was in fact created by the Devil. It seems even then Bulgarians were not a jolly bunch.  

 

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

To cure a current mental ailment a psychologist often examines the patient’s childhood. I won’t delve too much in the distant past because Bulgaria’s early history is too byzantine. Besides, like law and sausage making the intricate details of a country’s birth are better left unexamined. Suffice to say Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe; it was a cultural hub for Slavs in the Middle Ages, the Cyrillic alphabet (азбука) used today by around 250 million people was developed in the First Bulgarian Empire (that’s right! – an empire); during a severe and protracted lapse in modesty a great Bulgarian ruler created the now familiar title of “tsar” (from Caesar) for himself. For Bulgaria the first millennium was the good millennium.

One might suppose that a relatively glorious past might provide psychological buoyancy in bad times. I will argue that often the contrast between the fortunate past and present discontent can weigh down like a millstone. During the Middle Ages while Europe was languishing in cultural, economic and social decay the collective Islamic civilization was preserving classical Greek texts, writing outstanding poetry (e.g. Al-Mutanabbi) and advancing astronomy, mathematics, navigation, architecture and medicine. The reversal of fortunes and the current plight of many Muslim countries has been the cause of tension and a fair amount of soul-searching.

In a 2008 nation-wide vote Russians chose Stalin as their third greatest figure from the past. The gulags, the violent repression, and the man-made starvation that killed millions of people are trifle details when it comes to heft and fearful respect on the international stage.

After the WWII the heavily indebted United Kingdom slowly disbanded its empire (at its zenith it was the largest empire the world had ever seen) and tried for a long time to reconcile with its new demoted position and wilting economic power. The bigger they are the harder they fall.

 

 

Hell is Other Countries

Nations not only compare their present situation to the past but also to other countries. Like most things in life happiness is relative. If I can give one advice to all aspiring parvenus it will be this: do not move to a very rich neighbourhood. The social treadmill effect will slowly drain your health and sense of humour. The fact that you have several high-end German and Italian cars in your garage would be rendered nil if your neighbours own yachts and fly on private jets.

Perceived low status triggers a fight-or-flight response in the human body that ultimately results in an unhealthier, shorter life. Don’t believe me? Insurance companies still do not provide protection against the success of friends and peers. Because they’ll go bankrupt in a month.

There is a reason why I dubbed Eastern Europe the bad neighbourhood of Europe. The close proximity and association with one of the most highly developed regions in the world (Western Europe) is the cause of much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The scientific term for this kind of anxiety is EUstress. (It’s ironic because eustress is a real medical term that denotes helpful stress.) So a large amount of Bulgaria’s unhappiness can be explained by EUstress and my country’s geographical position in Eastern Europe, more specifically – in Southeast Europe.

It is no accident that Western Europe is colloquially referred in some Congolese languages as “the heaven”. Eastern Europeans feel benign envy and compare their countries to Western European ones. Kind of like how the lower class today in developed countries live better than aristocrats century and a half ago but are collectively very unhappy. Comparison to other people and places is just a biological inevitability.

 

Divide and Conquer

The division of Europe into East and West started well before the Great Schism of the 11th century but (in principle) there was nothing to stop Eastern European nations from reaching the heights of their neighbours. Like any impartial observer of history I will blame current problems exclusively on outside circumstances: the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the drawing of the Iron Curtain.

The first event turned Southeast Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Albania, etc.) into a backward region, and negatively impacted many Eastern European states. Around the 14th century the Ottomans initiated their groundbreaking strategic plan titled ‘pillage and murder’ and as a result captured all of Southeast Europe, even reaching the gates of Vienna twice. It was coffee and croissants for the Viennese and centuries of oppression for the people of Southeast Europe. No hard feeling of course, if we look far enough into history every territory has been invaded.

The Ottomans were pretty skilled at conquering but not so much at the whole enlightenment business. They said ‘no’ to mechanical clocks, new financial instruments, standardised weights, empirical science and most importantly – the printing press and translation of books. Otherwise they could have read Edward Gibbon and realised that overconfident empires eventually fall. The Ottoman Empire was no exception.

By the mid-19th century the Ottoman Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe”. Around that time a pan-Slavic movement emerged and a number of Southeast countries including Bulgaria (with the help of Russia) fought and won their independence. But the damage had been done. The states that emerged were far behind West and Central Europe. Cheating or stealing from the government (represented by the Ottoman Empire) were seen as patriotic acts of defiance. Many centuries of harsh Ottoman rule deeply instilled pessimism and general mistrust in the national character of many societies. Southeast countries had no reason to subscribe to the unquestioned “belief in progress” that gripped many European states after the Enlightenment. It is difficult to root out national characteristics that have been accumulating for centuries.

 

In the Hood

Despite widening differences the newly emerged states still thought themselves as European. The definition of Europe has always depended on one’s current location. When Mozart travelled west from Vienna to Prague he described the event as crossing the oriental border. The delineation of Europe depends more on certain cultural and political characteristics than topographical reality.

In their historiographies Poles, Lithuanians, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Romanians have at some point or another presented themselves as the main protector of the edges of Europe. Being a border state (real or self-proclaimed) ensures a certain degree of pride and a feeling of inclusion in a collective identity. Stressing a country’s “Europeanness” is a process that can be visibly seen today in Ukraine. 

Deciding to be a valiant guardian of the collective European Civilization with all its sophistication and enlightened ideals might seems like a noble undertaking especially if no one asked you for it. In this sense Eastern European countries would like to be counted as middle-income residents in a rich neighbourhood. That’s not a recipe for happiness. Keeping up with the Germanys and Frances of the neighbourhood is impossible and creates a very dreadful inferiority complex. It creates the feeling (especially for Southeast nationals) of being second-class European citizens. No one wants to be labelled as the group responsible for the mortal sin of driving down property prices. 

 

Read Part 2

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Bad Guys - A Year in Review

History is made of stories not facts. And every good story needs a memorable villain. Now that we are on the verge of sending another year into the mists of time let’s look back at the bad guys who made 2013 more eventful. This article will be a retrospection and meditation on the real life characters that we love to hate.

Retrospections suffer from “the coastline paradox”: what magnification do we use in order to have an accurate picture of 2013. Since my abilities are limited and the task is limitless I am going to take a helicopter view of the 2013 roster. I also decided to stick to my default WEIRD perspective or “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic”. Choosing a perspective is crucial since how you view a historical figure is largely dependent on timing and allegiance: Nelson Mandela was seen by many as a terrorist; figures like Ned Kelly are still controversial; while some believe that Guy Fawkes was on to something.

 

Bad for Good

 

After this prolonged throat clearing it is time for the conclusion: this was a very mixed year for villains, with many bad good guys and not enough good bad guys. The shades of grey multiplied and reached a certain number.

 

Nowhere is this more visible than in the numerous anti-government protests: in Brazil, Egypt, Bulgaria, Turkey and Ukraine. A common thread is the lack of unwaveringly evil villains in the struggle. Chronic disillusion might be a better diagnosis for many of these protests. In Brazil and Bulgaria the civil unrest reflected the overwhelming problems with corruption and appalling living conditions. There was no grand, final-level bad guy but no good guys either: politicians in power and opposition were equally mistrusted. It’s difficult to punch corruption in the face; it’s a phenomenon that has entangled itself into the fabrics of society.

 

The protests in Egypt did have a single target: president Mohamed Morsi. However, this was no tyrant abusing his power for decades. Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt, quite a milestone for a country with a history spanning back to 3200 BC. Morsi was not even close to a universally despised figure. There were counter protests that matched the intensity if not the numbers of the anti-government forces. Morsi may have been a dictator in the making but his ejection from power was also less than democratic.

 

In Turkey the protests had a similar theme: a growing concern that the current head of state (prime minister Erdogan) is authoritarian and his actions propagate religious values over secularism and freedom of expression. Erdogan remains overwhelmingly popular: during his three terms in office Turkey saw an extraordinary increase in prosperity and geopolitical clout. Erdogan is a controversial figure but a full-fledged bad guy he is not.

 

In November Ukraine’s president refused to sign a free trade and association deal with the EU that prompted massive protests. The agreement was implicitly and explicitly moving Ukraine towards the EU. In the meantime Russia was sharpening its knives by preparing some economically damaging sanctions for Ukraine. Far from a blameless figure president Yanukovych had the unfortunate position to be stuck between a bear and a hard place. No one in his position could make a choice without severe repercussions.

 

Bad to the Bone

 

There was at least one irredeemable villain in 2013: Bashar al-Assad. In 2011 he was overshadowed by more seasoned dictators such Gaddafi and Mubarak. These were figures so grotesque in their appearance and crimes that Assad could not stand out in this competitive field. Fortunately the competition was terminated in late 2011 and Assad had a chance to shine. But even inexperienced dictators know that chemical weapons are the best alibi for invasion you can give to your enemies.

 

The last one to use them extensively was Saddam Hussein and his story certainly didn’t have a happy ending. Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons and finally received the coveted “evil” stamp from a world leader (sadly only from the UK Prime Minister). As a result the US was seriously contemplating another armed adventure in the Middle East.

 

Luckily there was a brave hero who came to save the day. He was also the guardian who sheltered a dissident fleeing from a jackboot government gone out of control. His name is Vladimir Putin and ladies – he is now single. Yes, the reliable long-time baddie inadvertently did something that even Westerners construed as good. Putin’s proposal for peaceful dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons probably saved further complications.

 

One Russian advocacy group even wanted Putin nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. They either have a great sense of humour or none at all. Putin presumably rejected the offer due to lack of room in his closet. Russia’s new old president of course had his own geopolitical and economic reasons but that applies to every world leader.

 

The Problem of Evil

 

This presents a problem for people in “the West”. People in general dislike thinking in nuances; we like to see the world as simple black and white. Putin inadvertently doing good things is bad for us. We need bad guys against whom we can measure our “superior” values and power. We need to feel that we have the sole parking permit on the moral high ground. A common adversary unites us and drives us to act. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt concludes that we humans have a dual nature: “we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves”. A common adversary switches off the selfish instinct in ourselves and we are ready to make sacrifices in order for our group to prevail.

 

For example, the Economist ran a poll and found out that in the second half of the 20 century the prosperous and stable 90s was the least favourite decade for Americans. Discounting all level headed arguments I believe a big reason for it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was no longer an Evil Empire to be struggling against, no Ivan Drago for Rocky to defeat.

 

The secret is not just in having a common adversary but a truly irredeemable opponent. World War II is seen by many (especially Americans) as the “good war” where the forces of democracy prevailed over fascism. Next to Hitler anyone appears like a paragon of virtue. Contrast WWII with the less “straightforward” interventions in Vietnam and Iraq.

 

Infernal Affairs

 

Bad guys can boost the well being of a nation. Unfortunately (as we have seen) this year has supplied a long stream of conflicted characters. Let’s continue with Edward Snowden – the courageous traitor and patriot who in the name of truth disclosed US secrets to its enemies. To many people Snowden might seem like a martyr but the jury is still out on his sainthood. In more conservative circles he is seen as a straight up traitor. Others reason that revealing government surveillance programmes has damaged the US image while not achieving any practical change. Snowden left a nation divided.

 

Then came the revelation that Angela Merkel’s phone was bugged for a number of years courtesy of the NSA. Data from foreign citizens had been gathered from US tech companies such as Facebook and Google. Who is the bad guy in this story? The tech companies claimed innocence, Obama pleaded ignorance and the Director of US National Intelligence stated he was just doing his job. The American public is again torn: on the one hand its great that the US has the best spying capabilities in the world, on the other – it’s not that fun when your government spies on its citizens. The scope of spying activities between presumably trusting allied countries was embarrassing.

 

I Told You So

 

There were of course some smug individuals who claimed that the pervasive spying activities are an open secret and only a starry-eyed idealist would have believed otherwise. I beg to differ. For instance, everybody knows that professional cyclists are doping because cycling records closely track advancements in medicine. And yet it makes a world of difference when a huge scandal (e.g. Lance Armstrong) reveals that everything was actually true – likewise with the spying activities.

 

The no-good surveillance obsessed state that puppeteers its companies and chases its freedom fighters was supposed to be China. For the past several years we were dutifully informed of Chinese cyber attacks by both respected magazines and government officials. The Chinese were supposed to be the new bad guys, the new superpower with questionable internal and external policies. Now it seems they were just not experienced enough to cover their own tracks. They may still be the bad guys but we sure ain’t the good guys. Maybe that is why in the West liberals hate the oversimplifying term “evil” but love the expression “lesser evil”.

 

Remember who the real enemy is

 

The need for bad guys is always prescient especially in politics. To paraphrase Voltaire: “if bad guys didn’t exist we would have to invent them”. Having an easy target to rally against is an instant booster of popularity (that’s populism 101). Revelations that the US is an equal opportunity eavesdropper gave Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff a wonderful opportunity. In front of an UN General Assembly she described the recent spying revelations as an "affront to the principles that must guide the relations among friendly nations".

 

Harsh words by diplomatic standards but her tone of voice would lead someone to believe that the translator was holding back on the juicy stuff. Lest we forget that Brazil was very protest-stricken during the summer and president Rousseff had to turn the tide of unpopularity. Good old anti-American sentiment is always a reliable rallying point. Sadly, later it was discovered that Brazil had done a bit of spying on foreign embassies. This of course does not devaluate the concerns raised by Mrs Rousseff to the general public… only it does.

 

 

The Empire Strikes Back

 

One other female leader managed to successfully boost her flagging popularity by rallying the nation against a common enemy: Margaret Thatcher (who passed away in April). Many Brits still consider Thatcher a “bad guy” – and would not even bother correcting the gender.  Whatever your opinion on the Iron Lady one thing is certain: she radically reshaped the UK. However, in 1982 (one year before a general election) her future as PM was far from certain. Her monetarist policies caused massive unemployment and sharp drop in approval ratings. 

 

As luck would have it Argentina decided to reclaim a series of nearby small islands that were under British rule. Despite being no more than a couple of barren rocks on the South Atlantic Thatcher lunged with particular ferocity at the task of taking them back. With a common enemy in their crosshair a historically divided nation was united. It was a matter of national pride, not grand geopolitical goals. After two and half months the Argentinian forces surrendered which paved the way for Thatcher’s landslide victory one year later.

 

Imaginary Enemy

 

Armed conflicts over inconsequential territories are hard to come by so enemies are sought after in other places. Immigrants have been a reliable target for a long time. The current UK Prime Minister is telling scary tales of the massive influx of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria that would inundate Britain when working restrictions are lifted in 2014. Like Russians in 80’s action movies immigrants are good all-purpose bad guys – responsible for unemployment, low-standards of living and general decadence. There are genuine concerns related to immigration but most people just want to wall them off. Politicians are happy to oblige.

 

Not many Eastern Europeans are rushing to immigrate to Russia but president Putin has no trouble manufacturing new enemies. Apparently scared of the prospect of redemption after the Syrian disarmament negotiations Putin signed an anti-gay propaganda law and a bill imposing lengthy jail terms to anyone who offends religious believers. The laws are so vaguely defined that upon puzzling over them your confusion will be dumbfounded.  Fortunately for Mr Putin homophobic sentiments in Russia are on the upswing with more Russians denying the same rights for gays and lesbians. So in a way he made a democratic decision.

 

Love to hate

 

I will end with a brief anecdote. In one international youth forum this summer I met a young Egyptian who shared his views on the situation in his country. According to him the culpability did not fall squarely or even predominantly on Morsi; everyone in the country shares the blame. My friend has witnessed too much corruption and indecency from regular civilians to blame the government or its president for all the problems. That is why, he set out to make Egypt a better place through simple acts of decency: picking up fallen trash, volunteering and getting his peers to do the same.

 

Unfortunately, he is a very rare type of selfless individual. Most of us need a powerful foe to shake us from our inertia. So this holiday season I urge you to raise a glass for all the bad guys in your life whether they be dictators, bosses, or just noisy neighbours. Don’t do it because of some spiritual urge to love your fellow man but of pure unadulterated self-interest. After all these people have worked hard to make the world a more dynamic place. 

Radoslav Dragov's picture

The Thick Red Line: Origins of the Chemical Weapons Taboo

Perhaps in the light of recent events happening in Washington a bit “gallows humour” was in order. In a comic strip from “The Oatmeal” a middle-aged man is calmly watching news reports on the Syrian Conflict. As the months pass and Syrians get killed in more gruesomely creative ways the man remains just as passive. Finally (on the final panel) his inertia is broken and he is seen outraged because the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.

Spotty Record

But why? Why are chemical weapons “the red line” that no regime should ever cross? They arguably do not cause more damage than conventional weapons. Chemical weapons do not cause more pain in victims and do not destroy infrastructure. It can even be argued that they are “gentler” way to terminate life than bullets, shrapnel and explosions. The stigmatization isn’t even a product of the 21st century – restraint from the use of chemical weapons has a good pedigree.

Chemical weapons were formally prohibited by the signatory countries of the 1899 Hague convention (1). After some extensive use in the First World War chemical weapons received a widespread stigma. In the 1930s there was a prevailing fear that chemical bombs will be dropped from the sky and fast-track the end of civilization (2). Despite large stockpiles and ample opportunities to turn the tide of crucial battles only the Japanese made a limited use of chemical weapons on a battlefield during World War II (1). It quickly became the type of weapon too unthinkable even for Hitler. After WW II there was sustained use of chemical armaments only in 1967 (Egypt’s involvement in the North Yemen Civil War) and in the 1980’s by Iraq against Iran.

Creeping Death

The taboo of chemical weapons seems something that an alien landing on Earth might not understand. If human behaviour allows and sometimes admires destruction through conventional armaments what is the difference in adding one more (chemical) tool to the arsenal. I will try to explore several hypotheses.

The key words when it comes to chemical weapons are “disease” and “poison”. People have an innate revulsion to the concept of poison. I was surprised to learn that at first the Atomic Bomb did not receive its special status: “weapon of last resort”. For several years in public speeches and in private conversations it was just seen as an upgraded version of conventional bombs (2). Only when the lingering blight of atomic fallout became apparent nuclear weapons received widespread admonition. The sight of radioactivity (or poison), which slowly drains the life of its victims, cannot be stomached even by the most obsessed warmonger. 

Friendly Fire

The use of chemical weapons and the effect they bring on human life creates allusions with the plague: an unseen enemy that can strike at any moment. Nowhere is safe. A bullet might miss you and you can miraculously avoid flying shrapnel behind a stone but poisonous fumes permeate everything. It’s not an enemy or pain you can actively resist. In the best of circumstances one can only endure it. Like a disease the inhaled poisonous substance is active within the body. Chemical weapons leave no battle scars one could be proud of. They may not kill you but they will make you weaker.

Noxious chemicals present a challenge even for those who deploy them – especially if the wind suddenly shifts directions. A grenade or a landmine also does not discriminate between sides but at least its impact is over in seconds. With chemical weapons there’s the lingering threat of unleashing something one cannot control. Invisible evil that indiscriminately desolates every human life in its path is a concept that has been deeply imprinted in European culture (where modern chemical weapons were first developed). The “Black Death” pandemic (1348-1350) swept through Europe and exterminated from 30 to 60% of its population (3). Ultimately the revulsion of disease is perhaps as old as humanity because it provides a clear survival advantage. In a primitive environment it is not beneficial for a person to hang around sickly people.

Weapon of the Weak

After the “Black Death” died down the survivors wanted someone to be blamed. Minorities were accused of poisoning wells and thus starting the plague (3). This brings us to the topic of poison. Chemical weapons are essentially an effective and efficient way of distributing poison. In culture and literature the poisoner is a reviled character. He or she is a weak figure without a shred of honour that tries to defeat adversaries unfairly (2). More generally poison is never a symbol of power. They are over a hundred flags of countries and provinces that have weapons in their design: axe, cannon, AK-47, machete, etc. Not even the most depraved and fascistic regime will put the symbol of biological or chemical weapons on its flag.  

Using chemical weapons in warfare may cross some unwritten laws of honour between adversaries. If I have to make a really far-fetched connection I would say that it has something to do with the 19th century intellectual phenomenon called Romantic Militarism (4). There was a widespread feeling among many intellectuals that war was necessary, that it brings essential qualities like courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice to the forefront. War and its purging effect remove the weak elements in society - it is ultimately a way for self-improvement.  At the same time (mid-19 century) the first modern chemical weapons were being manufactured and deployed. The use of poison (the weapon of the weak) seemed too dishonourable by the lofty standards set by intellectuals. Perhaps this view slowly seeped into popular understanding.

Another Way to Die

I’ve saved the best (or most probable) for last. I think that the chemical weapons taboo is case of self-reinforcing hype. Ever since the deployment of gunpowder weaponries conventional armaments have gone through an incremental evolution: explosions get bigger, bullets fly faster. Then (mid-19 century) comes along something different – modern chemical weapons, death in a canister. They don’t make an explosion or much of a sound but they get the job done. The potential there was great and the big powers of the day started developing them. The First World War was an opportunity to try them out on a massive scale.

Perhaps the novelty and surreptitious nature of chemical weapons have terrified even the most battle-hardened soldiers. They are used to explosions and gunfire not a toxic cloud that kills everything in its path. No doubt the innate revulsion to the concept of poison and disease played an important part. The horror stories of poisoning following the Great War oozed into the collective psyche and created the image of an unthinkable weapon. Before WW II all the key players had developed and stocked more chemical weapons: not so much to use it, but because they were afraid the enemy might not share their reservations (1). All sides feared that the other has developed a far deadlier toxic agent so they did not dare use it even in desperate times. As a result chemical weapons were branded too horrendous even for Hitler (although poisonous gas was used in gas chambers).

I mentioned previously that nuclear bombs were not first seen as a weapon of last resort. This happened later when the poisonous consequences of the nuclear detonation became widespread. By virtue of association the taboo for chemical and nuclear weapons reinforced each other. Nuclear armaments dwarf chemical weapons in terms of destructive potential and yet they fall under the same label: weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the end the spectre of nuclear fallout strengthened the already turgid chemical weapons taboo.

Primal Fear

The long march of progress has been a quest to find increasingly efficient ways to exterminate our fellow human beings. Chemical and biological weapons have been a long-time companion: from poison-tipped arrows through catapulting diseased corpses to the odourless nerve agent sarin. The whole point of new inventions was to make war insufferable and unfair for the enemy.

And yet chemical weapons remain a very thick line in the sand. Cold rationality cannot explain this fortunate double standard. It seems that the taboo has at its core some innate human behaviour. Allusions with disease and poison and the perceived lack of honour in deploying chemical armaments are possible explanations. Instinct was only the germ that grew into the taboo. Historical contingencies like the First World War and the creation of nuclear weapons reinforced it.

Irrespective of its justification “the red line” makes the world a better place or at the very least spares more pain being inflicted. After all the man in the comic strip demonstrated some emotion even if it was only at the end.

References:

(1)  “The history of chemical weapons: The shadow of Ypres”, The Economist (2013), url: http://goo.gl/swSiu7

(2)  Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin. com.

(3)  “Millennium issue: The Black Death: Plague and economics”, The Economist (1999), url: http://goo.gl/JZ4yyB

(4)  Rosenblum, N. L. (1982). Romantic Militarism. Journal of the History of Ideas, 43(2), 249-268.

Radoslav Dragov's picture

Natural Born Success

Nobody gives it to you. You have to take it” – counsels Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed”. These lines (delivered with a thick Boston accent) probably best explain my distaste for the concept of monarchy. What has the Queen of the United Kingdom done for her exalted status? She didn’t have to lie, steal and cheat like normal politicians. She didn’t have to mercilessly climb the corporate ladder made out of personal betrayals and broken promises. She just happens to be born in the right family. Queen Elizabeth II only had the strength of foresight not to have any brothers. Thomas Paine once said that a hereditary monarch is an absurd proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.

But these gripes with the concept of monarchy stem from principle not from hard facts. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham thought that the game of push-pin can be more valuable than music and poetry if it furnishes greater pleasure. Perhaps the Royal family brings some great benefit to the British national psyche that cannot be rationalised by an ill-tempered foreigner.

Keeping up with the Windsors

The West in general and the United States in particular were built on the idea of prosperity through hard work regardless of circumstances at birth. This idea is the core of the “American Dream” which like a Siren has attracted weary travellers to the shores of the US. I wholeheartedly subscribed to this ideal. But eventually I realised that the House of Windsor are not the only ones who benefit from their family name.

Admittedly there are plenty of rags to riches stories. John D. Rockefeller who is widely regarded as the richest man in history started his career working as a bookkeeper earning 50 cents a day (presumably after taxes). These anecdotes stick in the mind but they are the exception. The junkyard of hard-working people who failed is far bigger but we look away.

The most recent study of social mobility in the US found that the American Dream falls short of its promise. Nearly half of adults in the bottom and top 20% of income distribution were born to parents who were also in the bottom and top 20% respectively (1). In the 19th century the United States were far more socially mobile than Europe. Now the US is on par with the UK and Italy (Europe’s least socially mobile developed nations) and far behind Scandinavian countries (2). Bottom line is that if you want to live the American Dream then go to Denmark.

                        

Global Perspective

From a global perspective the picture is even worse. Two factors determined at birth (citizenship and income of parents) explain more than 80% of person’s standing on the global income distribution (3). Then other factors beyond a person’s control such as gender, race and luck also play a significant role. Personal effort can do very little to alter a person’s standing on the global income ranking. Citizens of Nogales, Arizona (US) and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) are separated only by a large fence but incomes of the latter group are three times smaller (4). 

On top of that there has been a widening divergence between rich and poor countries. In 1820 the prosperous Great Britain was thrice richer than the poor and populous country of China measured in GDP per capita (at Purchasing Power Parity). Despite breakneck economic growth the average Chinese citizen is now 4 times poorer than the average Brit (5). In the 1960s Morocco was 4 times poorer than Spain (per capita in PPP terms) now it’s 6 times. In the past (19th – early 20th century) income was largely predetermined by class of parents (5). Nowadays income is most strongly influenced by location. You decide which situation is worse.

Learning to Succeed

The impediments to social mobility vary greatly from country to country and are beyond the scope of this article. Here I want to examine the relationship between social advancement and education in the developed world.

Not surprisingly studies show that education is the main driver of social mobility. I believe that education is also part of the problem. Rich parents have been so successful in passing prosperity to their children because they invest heavily in education. In the United Kingdom 70% of High Court Judges went to a fee-paying private school compared to 7% of the population (6). One study found out that test scores between US children of the top and bottom 10% have risen by 30-40% in the last 25 years (2). Since education is attained by greater number of people the relative importance of a few prestigious educational institutions has grown tremendously.

Here I must quote master satirist Stephen Colbert (8):

“Everyone is looking for that edge to help them spend a quarter of a million dollars on a worthless philosophy degree. And folks, it’s getting harder and harder. You are up against an army of overachieving geniuses with an 8.0 GPA, played a violin since the second trimester, and whose extra-curricular activities include flying the chopper that got Bin Laden”.

Imagine the race to Harvard as the Tour de France: you practically cannot win it without “outside assistance”. Only reasonably well-off parents can foot the bill for private schools, private lessons, expensive test books and lessons in Mandarin. But it’s not just universities that are important for one’s destiny in life. All rungs of the education ladder have risen in importance. Getting your kid into the right kindergarten can mean the difference between an Ivy League education and an overpriced diploma from a low-ranking university.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds increasingly face bleak prospects unless they exert great effort. It has been reported that in the US (7):

-   Poor kids who succeed academically are less likely to graduate from college than richer kids who do worse in school.

-   Even if they graduate from college, the children of the poor are still worse-off than low-achieving children of the rich.

Coming from an underprivileged background has subtle psychological effect that damages children’s prospects. For example, Indian children from “low” caste perform worse in solving mazes if their caste has to be made explicit (9). Likewise African Americans have lower test scores if they have to indicate their race on the cover sheet (10). It seems that negative stereotypes have direct influence on a child’s ability to perform. These and many other factors such as bad nutrition conspire against children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Future of an Illusion

I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me” are the first words uttered by Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed”. These words are nothing less than wishful thinking. We are all products of our environment – more so than the class we were born into. Isn’t it hypocritical that developed countries such as the US perpetuate the “truthiness” of success through hard work regardless of background? Is it practical for countries with low social mobility to adopt the same stance? The answer here is a decided maybe.

I can sympathize with the argument that some illusions or half-truths must be maintained because they bring net benefit to society. Take for example, the allure of entrepreneurship which is an indispensible part of American culture. Only a small percentage of start-ups make it past two years. However, entrepreneurs are often blind to the odds which are stacked against them. Most of them go out of business and become “entrepreneurial martyrs”. Their effort has enriched the economy with new ideas.

More entrepreneurs in the economy equal higher chance of ground breaking innovation. That is why our daily lives are filled with products and services from US companies. It may be wise to tempt people with the promise of unfettered success through effort. Most of them will hit a glass ceiling but some minority (no pun intended) will break through. Why discourage people with the bitter pill of knowledge.

Ministry of Truth

The removal of illusions can bring cathartic effects to society. To mildly paraphrase Karl Marx: “Criticism of low social mobility has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that the underprivileged shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that they shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower”. Unfounded belief in the existence of high social advancement will not spur demand for change.

High social mobility is an idea that every party from the political spectrum can get behind. Yet the main focus falls on policies that affect inequality. The problems of low social mobility should have a prominent place in political discourse and people must be aware of them. Every country has its own idiosyncrasies but the one area of public policy which can bring positive change is education.

Mistakes were made

An intriguing double standard is applied by the British monarchy: as revealed by the terms “The Royal Mint” and “The National Debt”. But we commoners similarly tend to credit our achievements on effort and talent but blame bad luck and circumstances for our failures. If nothing else I hope this article brings some humility to readers in their reflections on past accomplishments. After all, you were born to achieve them.

 

References:

(1)  Bengali, L., & Daly, M. (2013). US economic mobility: the dream and the data. FRBSF Economic Letter, (Mar 4).

(2)  “Repairing the rungs on the ladder”, “The Economist” (2013), url: http://goo.gl/9IV1x

(3)  Shachar, A. (2009). The birthright lottery: citizenship and global inequality. Harvard University Press.

(4)  Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Random House Digital, Inc..

(5)  Milanovic, B. (2011). The haves and the have nots. A Brief Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality.

(6)  Rogers, S., (2012) “Social mobility: the charts that shame Britain”, The Guardian, url: http://goo.gl/l4hb8J

(7)  Jonathan Chait, “No Such Thing as Equal Opportunity,” New York, November 7, 2011, pp. 14–16.

(8)  I's on Edjukashun - Study Drugs, “The Colbert Report” June 2012; url: http://goo.gl/BK29dd

(9)  Hoff, K. R., & Pandey, P. (2004). Belief systems and durable inequalities: an experimental investigation of Indian caste (Vol. 3351). World Bank-free PDF.

(10)  Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. The Black-White test score gap, 401-427.

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