Company Men

In Calcutta a statue was erected to Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India. Its inscription bears citing at length as it is testament to the moral zeitgeist with which the British believed their empire to be infused:

[To] William Cavendish Bentinck, who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence; who, placed at the head of a great Empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen; who infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of Government is the happiness of the governed; who abolished cruel rites; who effaced humiliating distinctions; who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion; whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nation committed to his charge, [This Monument] Was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish with equal veneration and gratitude the memory of his wise, reforming, and paternal administration.

‘Veneration and gratitude’, the rulers of empire believed, was owed to a new and truly British form of patriotism; the championing of liberty at home and creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas. Viscount Bolingbroke spoke for this new breed of patriot:

The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves.

The rulers of this new Empire would not succumb to the hubris of Rome, where addiction to territorial gain had resulted in despotism at the center of over-extended frontiers. Their liberty would be founded on religious freedom, or as they would define it freedom from the ‘slavery’ of Roman Catholicism; no taxation without the consent of parliament; habeas corpus and regular elections with ever increasing suffrage. Above all liberty to the British meant the guarantee of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and for the nation builders of the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, their most recent and therefore most hallowed 1689 Bill of Rights. These liberties were to be exported over the waters to create an ‘empire of liberty’. The builders of this mercantile blue-water empire were to immunize their endeavors by preferring business opportunities over territorial conquest; commercial and military ventures should be mutually exclusive.

By the end of the eighteenth century this idyllic vision of an empire of farmers & traders, inhabiting lightly garrisoned outposts, sending the fruits of their labor back to ‘Old Blighty’ had transformed into a military empire with nearly a million slaves in the Caribbean; the 50 million inhabitants of the sub-continent had transitioned from suppliers and consumers into subjects of the Raj:

Stupendous fortunes had been made, not by making men free but by making them servile; not by probity but by corruption; not by a benign and responsible diffusion of that wealth to the natives but by the most shameless coercion and extortion.

‘So just how had Britain ended up with the wrong empire?’

From its beginning the British Empire founded its success on addiction. A smoke, a cup of tea, a sweet treat, and later, a pipe of opium. To foster this addiction it was necessary to turn what at first had been exotic delicacies into daily needs. In search of these products, and the wealth which flowed from them, the most successful company in the British Empire was established. Granted its charter by Queen Elizabeth I, the Honorable East India Company would amass sales which amounted to almost one fifth of Britain’s annual imports. Profitability was increased, and secured, as the Company carved out an ‘empire within an empire’, annexing territory to ensure the smooth running of business. Sir John Kaye noted that when local rulers were ‘deprived of their rights and revenues, they were held to be not territorial, but titular sovereigns’. What this ‘sovereignty was to be, without territorial rights or territorial revenues, it is not easy to see.’

Diminution of authority was to be the fate of the King of Oudh in 1856, when the Company set its sights on his lands to become ‘a component part of the empire’. The King would not yield, forcing the company into a more aggressive stance; annexing Oudh and declaring it part of British India. Acts such as this provided the first vital ingredient for the dish of vengeance that Indians would serve to the British in 1857. A native ruling class dispossessed of their power & prestige.

Edmund Burke, who had largely written the regulatory act which was designed to contain and reverse the personal empires within empire, created under the spurious pretext of securing liberty and fair trade in the far flung corners of the globe, raged that the English had not compensated for the power they held by supplying good works:

Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ourang-utang or the tiger.

To correct these errors it was not necessary to examine the propositions of liberty. Instead the right men and the right measures needed to be found. Such men and measures would be found in the person of Thomas Clarkson, one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners of his day, who traversed the land in an attempt to extirpate ‘this evil’. But this blight on the vine of liberty would not be easily dispelled and its abolition proved to be ‘more than ordinarily great’ for the ‘evil in question began in avarice’:

‘For these reasons the Slave-trade may be considered, like the fabulous hydra, to have had a hundreds heads, every one of which it was necessary to cut off before it could be subdued.’

But subdued it was; slavery being abolished in British colonies in 1833. Yet such reforms also brought with them proselytizing zeal. Britons hoped oriental eyes would open to the indisputable wisdom of Europe (which is to say Britain), laying aside their disgusting practices; perhaps even abandoning their gods and accept the promise of Christ. As William Wilberforce wrote: ‘Our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious and cruel’.

If native inhabitants of distant lands would not willingly lay aside their rites & customs, officials showed a capacity to resort to more direct methods. In 1829 Bentinck outlawed the custom of satí; after consultation with Hindu sacred writings he found it to have no sound theological basis. Although the practice was not wide spread and even abhorred by some Indians, it still represented the first direct attack on traditional belief. Such direct attacks engendered fears in the native population. Ram Mohun Roy, although an advocate of the abolition of satí, believed that the removal of the superstitions and corruptions which had been engrafted on the Hindu religion should be accomplished quietly and unobservedly. Ram Mohan Roy feared that the British reforms would not stop at curtailing the more egregious beliefs and customs of Hinduism:

While the English were contending for power they deemed it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion, but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion.

Fear that British administration stood for the introduction of Christianity created an environment that instigators of the 1857 mutiny would exploit to devastating results. The coming mutiny now had a disaffected ruling class and a population fearful that their religion, and their souls, were in peril.

Nemesis walked alongside the British in India, seeming at times like an old friend. In the bazaars and cantonments future foes greeted each other as though they were family. They lived, as Cicero wrote, in the most illusionary tense of all, the present; like small children not knowing from whence they came nor wither they go. As with old friends, relations between the British and Indians, which had once been worked on with vigor and care, fell by the wayside. People and institutions took each other for granted. Respect, even deference, was replaced with an attitude which shouted ‘go to hell – don’t bother me!’. The men-on-the-spot did little to allay concerns or revert attitudes to the more conciliatory tones which had marked the Company’s first endeavors in India; succumbing to the pressures of an Evangelical lobby that gained increasing momentum.

To remove the financial obstacles to conversion, the Company amended the law which had previously forfeited the inheritance of any Hindu who renounced their faith. Hindus declared that such acts afforded:

Strong cause and suspicion that such an innovation is only a prelude to others, that the security in person, property and religion, hitherto ensured to the native subjects, is in danger of being taken from them.

By the late 1850’s Anglo-Indian relations resembled a piñata. The Company had transitioned from trading partner to Imperial ruler. Maharajas, Badshahs, Nawabs & Wālis had been dispossessed of their authority and taxes, forcing from work hundreds of thousands of their dependants. Missionaries were traveling the highways and byways in search of new converts, striking at the heart & soul of India; yet British possessions in India seemed secure. Despite what had happened the native levies remained predominately loyal, ensuring the security of British rule; so long as they followed their British counterparts and held the thin red line. They would following their British counterparts, right up to the matter of equipment.

‘The English who conquered Persia and defeated the Czar of Russia have been overthrown in India by a simple cartridge,’ whooped the octogenarian King of Dehli at the height of the 1857 Mutiny; more specifically it was the grease rather than the cartridge, though the later would also become a source of controversy. The storm began to brew in January 1857 when detachments from the Bengal native infantry were sent to Dum-Dum, near Calcutta, for training on the handling & care of their new rifles.

The controversy centered around the belief that the grease used in the production of the cartridges was of a material that would be offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Discontent among sepoys was nothing new, but when combined with the distribution of chapattis the situation takes on the look of an omen.

A stranger would enter a village and seek out the chowkidar (watchman) and present him with four chapattis. The chowkidar would then be instructed to bake four more and then deliver them to a neighboring village. While the British attached no importance to the act, Indians interpreted these phenomena as a sign that the Company would end all distinctions of caste and religion with everyone sharing a common diet.

These events showed the extent to which the Raj had lost credibility with its subjects and defenders; sepoys and the native population were prepared to believe the worst about their officers and Company administration. Increasing numbers of European women traveling to India, the enlargement of Christian missions and an officer class which was loosing touch with its native troops, pushed tensions to breaking point. Sadly British officers made the fatal decision of retreating behind a barrier of prejudices which weakened their position. ‘How can you expect devotion on the field when you are a stranger to your men in cantonment?’

Divisions between native troops and British commanders became increasingly strained as the authorities began breaking up regiments which showed signs of sullenness and intractability. The hope was that their fate would harden the discipline of their comrades. The psychological effect proved to work in reverse, pushing sepoys, already hosts to terrifying phantoms, into making the first move; lest they be the target of British musketry and grape shot.

As pockets of resistance to British discipline spread, authorities increased the crack downs. News of this action traveled like wildfire, often ‘maliciously propagated by active emissaries of evil’ who attempted to suborn troops. Into this military friction the civilian population was soon drawn, though ‘the love of liberty had far less prompted this outbreak than a lust for plunder.’ Tax assessment was heavy, grain shortages were pushing up food prices and impoverished villagers were eager to take advantage of the situation in an attempt to relieve their poverty. The state of affairs now spiraled out of control as insurrection became a civil war.

Caught off balance, with its military resources stretched to breaking, the British rejoinder was slow. Operations were holding exercises designed to protect what they could while more men and equipment was marshaled. Public sentiment played a vital role in this regard, but it to would take time to mobilize. Indifference to the happenings in India vanished in the Summer of 1857 as editors printed the most harrowing details of the insurrection which gripped the subcontinent. By the Autumn rage abounded in the columns of the British press as news of the wholesale defection of sepoys and the massacres of women and children at Meerut, Delhi, Jhansi and Cawnpore poured into the living rooms of the British Empire. The mood was captured by Charles Dickens who wrote:

I wish I were commander-in-chief in India. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.

‘The lion hearts of our soldiers yearned for revenge upon these blood-thirsty villains’ and the British public demanded payment in blood from the native ‘villains’ and retribution on a Government, more specifically the Company, which it felt had caused the disaffection of the native peoples and mutiny of the sepoy troops. The Tory opposition, led by Disraeli, launched an attack on the government’s policy which it claimed had abandoned principles and beckoned in the disaster:

In olden days, and for a considerable time – indeed, until, I would say the last ten years – the principle of our government of India, if I may venture to describe it in a sentence, was to respect Nationality.

In the abandonment of this principle the Company had forfeited its right to rule India, or so Disraeli argued. Its place should be taken by the Queen whose government would publicly pledge to safeguard property and uphold native traditions. In short the ‘empire of liberty’ would return under the aegis’ of the British government and the religious zeal of the Company whose centralizing policies had stripped the Indians of their inheritance would be abolished. The new order would minister to its peoples with greater sensitivity, promising that all its subjects would be treated equally, their rights would be upheld and their religions respected.

From this proclamation sprang a two headed mythology of the mutiny. Indian nationalists grasped the straw of widespread rejection of the Raj, transforming it into an affirmation of a national will. The British saw the events as a moral struggle between good and evil sustained by the courage of the Christian faith. For them it was a dire warning that if British rule should end in India, millions of people would be abandoned ‘to the most cruel of fates – the anarchy, the rapine, and the bloodshed of their contending chiefs and tyrants’.

This later British memory also carried with it the specter of racism. Prevailing British opinion now saw a native population which had turned against its saviors. Through revolt they had not just rebuffed a corrupt government, they were rejecting everything that Victorian morality cherished. But the work of civilizing had to go on; the manner of which assumed two alternatives. The first was for the British to rule their Indian subjects as their natural superiors. The second was to prepare the population for self governance, once they had been tutored in how a country ought to be run. Any excesses which had been perpetrated in subduing the mutiny were necessary, or so the British believed, to prevent the nation of India from sliding into the mire of barbarism and chaos.

Such a patronizing general consensus ignored the key lesson of the mutiny; that a people who had ruled a continent for over three thousand years would not subject itself to permanent degradation.

The Minnow, The Whale And The Deep Blue Sea

It has been over a year since Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was taken from his home. In China the detainment of human rights activists, without legal representation or outside scrutiny, is not an uncommon occurrence. But it is generally only for a few days or weeks. It is unusual for someone to be gone for this long.

Recently Gao contacted reporters, intimating that he had been released some months ago and was living a quiet life in a Buddhist mountain retreat, Wutai mountain. But fears as to his true whereabouts and safety persist.

At the other end of the freedom of speech spectrum sits a row between China and Google. Google have alleged that China, through covert operations, have tried to hack the accounts of human rights activists.

These events put me in mind of the story of the minnow, the whale and the deep blue sea.

A philosopher and his student were walking by the waters. Looking out over the shimmering waves, the student’s eye met with a most wondrous and terrifying sight; a whale, larger than Leviathan. The massive creature was chasing minnows, surging out of the ocean as it went before crashing down into the sea, dispersing the waters into waves that echoed from their epicenter. The student stared in wonder, but soon noticed the philosopher gazing past the mighty beast. The student asked the old man:

‘Are you not moved by the majesty of the creature. Its awe-inspiring power, swallowing schools of fish in a single gulp of its almighty mouth.’

Reflecting for a moment the old philosopher replied:
‘I am moved by the majesty of nature.’

‘That creature is nature’, replied the student.

‘No’, retorted the old man, ‘that creature is but a small part of nature and far from almighty. See how it is dwarfed by the immensity of the deep blue sea.’

Meditating on the philosophers words the student soon continued.
‘Yes, the deep blue sea is greater than the whale, but the whale has control of its power. It consumes the minnow when it needs nourishment, but can remain dormant if it chooses. The deep blue sea, while vast, has no control. It just happens. Surely that is a bad thing, power without control.’

‘Ahh’ replied the philosopher, ‘but what control does a leviathan have? It may destroy a minnow without even realizing it. As to the deep blue sea, it is controlled.’

‘By what.’

‘It is controlled by an even greater force which impels its motion. Commands the tides to change, holds our very earth in orbit.’

‘But gravity is an even more uncertain and uncontrollable forced’ exclaimed the student.

‘Uncontrollable it is true’ replied the philosopher, ‘but uncertain? Surely it is very certain. The captain of a ship can count on the ebb and flow of the tide. What would the effect be if tidal movements were stopped, simply because a leviathan decided it didn’t want the waters to recede from one area?’

‘The effect’, replied the student, ‘would be that the waters would not rise in another place.’

‘Just so’, noted the philosopher. ‘That would mean ships in other places would become stranded, unable to move. Their goods would never reach their destinations and people would starve. Better for the tides to ebb and flow. This natural cycle may court with disaster, but it also ensures balance. And balance is what survival is all about.’

Leviathans over the ages have tried to contain and control the freedoms many of us enjoy. At times without heed of the consequences, at others by claiming they are doing what is best. But what is best?

Like the tides of the ocean freedom, of information must be allowed to ebb and flow. There are innumerable pitfalls to this. Many will use the right to free speech as a crutch to spread intolerance and hatred. But, such freedom also allows people to seek the truth and see intolerance and hatred in its true light, denying such bigoted views the shadows required to conceal their obvious faults. Through this process people can achieve the wisdom to govern their lives more effectively.

Shutting off information flow and preventing a free and frank exchange of views hurts many and helps few. George Orwell wrote, in his classic 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.

It has always been, and will continue to be, a black day for humanity when those who can prevent such maledictions sit idly by and allow the present to be controlled in an egregious manner. The past to be rewritten and control of the future to be relinquished.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

First, let me thank you for the wonderful comments I have received, asking how I have been and why I have not written something for what seems like a long while…

It has been an unpardonably long silence since I last wrote an article for this blog, but it has been writing, I am very happy to say, which has kept me from this labor of love.

University is back in full swing and I have worked on nothing else, in the lamentably few moments of time away from the coal face I can claim each week. This semester is a look into the middle ages. My first short essay was written on Papal involvement in the Crusades.

So, while I appreciate I may sound like a crashing bore and the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, alienating the few readers I have, here is that essay. And I do promise to write something else soon.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

Since its instigation by Pope Urban II in 1095, crusading had become the sword with which the Christian church would smite its adversaries and maintain the sacred boundaries of Christendom; enlarging them when the ‘salvation’ of infidels was necessary. Being penitential in nature, the crusades differed from other acts of war. Knights could now achieve both secular and spiritual booty in the crucible of battle. A contemporary observer, Gilbert of Nogent wrote:

In our time God instituted holy warfare, so that the arms-bearers and the wandering populace… should find a new way of attaining salvation; so that they might not be obliged to abandon the world completely, as used to the be case, by adopting the monastic way of life… but might obtains God’s grace to some extent while enjoying their accustomed freedom and dress, and in a way consistent with their own station.

That the crowds attendant in 1095 shouted ‘deus le volt!’ (God wills it!), at Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade, presages this outlook. Tens of thousands thronged to the appeal, allowing a great army to march on the Holy Land; to reclaim ‘the venerable places which the Savior had deigned to sanctify and make glorious with His bodily presence.’

Into this context crashed the Fourth Crusade. In an age of violence this shocked an unshockable world. One eye-witness wrote of these crusaders:

Madmen raging against the sacred… these forerunners of the Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens;… Christ was now disrobed and mocked… although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.

The Fourth Crusade is an exemplification of violence in the name of God, swinging, as a pendulum do, from piety to the most egregious acts of barbarism and cruelty.

The judgment of history on this most vicious crusade has indeed been harsh. Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, mourned that crusading had ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. Steven Runciman went further in decrying that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’. Runciman went on to write that ‘the harm done by the crusades to Islam was small in comparison with that done by them to Eastern Christendom’.

The Fourth Crusade made flesh all that was, and is, wrong with the crusading spirit. Far from uniting Christendom, it rent the church into schisms, destroyed the last vestiges of the Eastern Roman Empire and reinforced an adversarial status quo between the Christian West and Islam which continues unto the present day. All this is scarcely conceivable, but for the role of the Papacy.

The First Crusade had been largely unchallenged and met with great success; mostly because the various Muslim potentates were too distracted by internecine strife to make a concerted effort at combating this new-found wave of religious colonization. Subsequent crusades would not receive the same reception. Fighting back through the means of jihad, Muslim leaders frustrated Christian goals. Christendom responded by forming more crusader armies, many of which petered out as their leaders quarreled or died of natural causes. Into this atmosphere was elected Pope Innocent III, a man who would become the greatest Pope of the medieval period.

In the midst of [all his] affairs, he [Innocent III] quiet fervently longed for the relief and recovery of the Holy Land and anxiously mulled over how he could achieve this more effectively.

Since Pope Urban II invocation in 1095, crusading had been both a spiritual and secular struggle. Under the pontificate of Innocent III this took on a more muscular and intensely personal meaning for both the Pope and the leaders of Christendom. The Vicar of Christ saw a definitive link between a successful crusade to the Holy Land and the moral reformation of what he believed to be a degenerate society. Success in the Levant represented the imprimatur of God on the spiritual restoration of His people. Innocent’s interest in a Holy War is embodied in his call for the Fourth Crusade, a call that reverberated with ardent puritanical zeal.

Following the pitiable collapse of the territory of Jerusalem, following the lamentable massacre of the Christian people… it cried out and wailed to such a degree that due to incessant crying out, its throat was made horse, and from incessant weeping, its eyes almost failed… still the Apostolic See cries out, and like a trumpet it raises its voice, eager to arouse the Christian peoples to fight Christ’s battle and to avenge the injury done to the Crucified One…

Firebrand rhetoric of this nature hit its mark, in an age when honor and oath were life and death. Having suitably motivated the spiritual, Innocent turned his astonishing administrative abilities to the secular. ‘All towns, as well as counts and barons, should provide crusaders for two years at their own expense’. The omission of Kings from this list cuts to the heart of Papal involvement in the Fourth Crusade. Innocent III, ‘acutely conscious of his responsibility as the head of Christendom, intended to reassume papal leadership of the holy war.’ But pragmatic reasons played their measure in this decision. The two leading regal lights of Europe, Richard I of England and Phillip II of France, were locked in mortal combat. Their pride and enmity had caused the Third Crusade to fail and more recent events would deprive the Pope of their swords. Richard succumbed to a crossbow bolt and Phillip’s licentious nature meant he would not, and could not, take the cross again and lead a crusade.

Deeply aware that many in Western Europe had criticized the church for not providing sufficient financial support in previous crusades, Innocent issued an edict that the clergy should outfit and finance the expedition as well as preach its importance. This was accomplished through an unprecedented papal tax; the Pope and cardinals would pay one tenth of their incomes while other clergy would pay one fortieth. In this way the Pope hoped to forge the course of events through both his words and his purse.

It should not be thought that spiritual conscious was the soul, let alone sole, motivator for the pontiff. Ecclesiastical support was a necessary response, primed to motivate a recalcitrant laity. It was also the only means by which a moratorium on knightly debts and the protection of estates at home for landed crusaders aboard could be achieved.

Regardless of these protections and the money raised by the Church, crusading remained a dangerous and costly business; even before the sword had left its sheath.

I am quite anxious about my lands and my loans because, if I return (God willing), I will return burdened with many debts, and it is in my interest that they will be paid off from my lands.

It has been estimated that it cost a knight four times his annual income to fund a crusade, forcing men to mortgage or sell their lands and property rights. In such cases they usually turned to the church, the only institution with the resources to buy deeds and lend money. Yet such backing was still not enough and in many cases knights were forced to turn to wealthy nobles for patronage or live off the spoils of war to survive in the East. Without these supports destitution loomed and many magnates were broken on the wheel of crusade.

With the possible destruction of a family dynasty in the offing, it is not surprising that many were slow to set out for the Holy Land. Yet set out they did. A noble’s position in society and chivalric code urged him to the crusade. If this were not enough, it was certain that no measure of success in the lists could win the same level of admiration as that of taking the cross. There was also the sheer joy of battle and the chance of winning lands and enhanced political power. So a rich and complex mix of motives drove men to the hurl their resources and physical power into a violent struggle in a distant land.

Once unleashed, such a multifaceted combination of power, personalities and beliefs proved an unwieldy leviathan. The Fourth Crusade veered from its original aim, the reconquest Jerusalem, and ended in the sack of Constantinople; earning for itself the ignominious title of the crusade against fellow-Christians. Having lost control of the situation, Innocent III was forced to admit:

Oh, the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge! How incomprehensible are His judgments and beyond understanding His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?

An admission, if ever there was, that even the Pope does not have a direct line to God.

Truth and Beauty

Never before in the history of the world has so much information been so easily accessible. Name virtually any topic and a quick Googie or Wickle search will yield pages and pages of information, or bytes and bytes for those too young to remember what a page is. A recent article claimed that more information was added to the corpus of human ‘knowledge’ in the last year than was amassed in the last five thousand years. While I can’t validate this claim, it is probably not that far from the truth.

But this gets us to the nub of our problem, what is truth? John Keats wrote, in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

As far as truisms go this is as good as any, clad as our modern world is in the raiment of glamour. But I am getting ahead of myself. To slow things down a bit it is prudent to give our thoughts pause for a moment and contemplate some of the jargon I have just bandied about. By jargon I mean words which have no meaning, or to be fair, less meaning than they should. The words of which I write are knowledge and truth. The word truth I would like you to make particular effort to remember for I will return to it shortly. Truth, truth, remember that.

As mentioned we now have faster access to more information in the comfort of our living room than an Emperor such as Napoleon would have had in the entirety of his mighty Empire. But we should take care not to confuse quantity with quality. In fact in today’s continuous feed society more is definitely less, when it comes to the ability of a person to reach their own conclusions on the basis of what they read, see and hear. To further understand this idea let us look at what we mean by information and knowledge.

Assimilation of knowledge is different to the acquisition of information. There is a process to assimilating knowledge that is being lost with the speed and ease of finding information. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, or so Robert Louis Stevenson thought, but the net is set to ruin this proverb as it provides such an instantaneous answer that we run the risk of not understanding the true value of the answer. In much the same way that understanding the value of money is important, so too is understanding the value of knowledge.

This becomes all the more poignant, here I mean poignant in the sharply perceptive sense of the word, as on no subject does it seem possible to have only one view. So we have to choose a conclusion based on the information available. Are humans here as a result of evolution or because a divine creator made us? Was the Copenhagen summit in 2009 the first time in history that, in the words of President Obama, ‘all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change’ or just another round in the diplomatic junket circuit which was all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

Because there is so much material, much of it loaded with bias and ill informed speculation, on any one topic it would be easy for an individual to draw a poor conclusion and then act upon ‘false knowledge’ (in the last decade the second Iraq war was the most startling example of this). Again I return to this idea of knowledge, as opposed to information, for it is the information that generally remains constant but the conclusions drawn which radically differ.

Such leaps of imagination move from troubled waters into overwhelmingly Tsunami like conditions once people go beyond drawing poor conclusions and take the dangerous step of starting with a conclusion and then seeking facts which support it.

This leads us to that word, I bade you upon pain of slapping not to forget, truth. Near countless jottings, articles, monographs and books have been written on the nature of truth and it is neither within the scope of this short blog to cover the ground again nor try in a few short sentences to set a new definition. My intent is to reawaken the idea that truth is the prize and the prize is truth. What matters it how many facts we can remember, how much information we bookmark or streams of content we digg if conclusions drawn are not our own and fall at the hurdle of rigorous analysis? In short we fail when our ideas are long on information, short on knowledge and non-existent on the scale of Truth.

That most esteemed Professor of law, Ronald Dworkin, made such a point in a recent interview with the BBC. He said that it was better for a student who wrote a sound entrance examination, to an Oxford or Harvard, to be admitted over a student who scored top marks if he/she was ‘interesting’. Those who understand the reason for the answer not just the facts of the answer. He extended this line of thought further by saying that such entrance tests should seek to weed out those people who are only interested in personal gain and favor those, perhaps with lower marks, who seek to benefit society and humanity at large.

In days gone by, the slower pace of information transmission, and life in general, gave more leniency to inaccurate assessment. People had time to reflect and statements made and even decisions taken could often be revoked before too much damage was done. 24 hour news requires 24 hour responses. Up-to-the-minute reporting forces the pace of up-to-the-minute statements and up-to-the-minute decisions. Yet while our decisions are happening faster the quality of those decisions is not necessarily improving and the consequences are more far reaching given the difficulty in retraction.

The only path out of this quagmire of reason is to seek the truth. To not be content with ‘knowing the information’, but to interrogate the information. Ask if it stands the test of scrutiny. Question the reality that is presented and ask ‘is it the truth’? And always, always think critically.

Old Soldiers Never Die

Peter de Noronha wrote ‘Old Soldiers never die, they only fade away, which has now been commuted to, they never die but only get slightly out of focus’. Can as much be said of Michael Schumacher’s return to F1?

At 41 (as of January 3, 2010) he is not the youthful figure he once was in the world of professional sport. But in a game that requires a high level of mental acumen, unparalleled technology and a professional team he is also not past his expiry date. Experience is all that matters in F1 now’ wrote Michael’s long time team mate Rubens Barrichello on Twitter and no one alive has more experience in F1 than Schumi. Paired with Ross Brawn (mastermind of all 7 of Schumacher’s championships) it is a world beating combination.

But that is all just technicals. What is more ‘on paper’ technicals. How many teams have been the best on paper, only to fall short of the prize come match day. Such a reality is all the more prevalent among old warriors trying to relive their glory battle days. Once the greats of their sport, they cling onto the spot light until the light fades. Would it not be better to end on top as a world-beater rather than as world beaten, with every hack scoring victories over a once great champion?

The answer to this fundamental thought has to be no. It is not better to retire for the sake of retirement. If tired of the game, the lifestyle or wishing to pursue other ventures, then retirement is the logical and best choice. But if the hunger, the fitness and talent are there, they should be on show so that the entire world may marvel. It serves as a constant reminder that past brilliance can never be tarnished by any one defeat. It is wrong to say that we can only fail to try, but it is right to acknowledge that once great the act or person or team remains great for eternity. Every breath genius takes and every step it makes is a marvel. Schumacher may not capture the world title in 2010, but it will be awe inspiring to watch all the same.

De Noronha recognized this and continued the line of thought with which I began this article; ‘however, the focus must be pretty sharp, for we find our retired Soldiers are in great demand and they secure ready employment in large organizations in the public and private sectors.’ That money and fame continues to chase talent after its retirement is the most tangible mark of its quality. The past has a limited capacity to attract attention, but hope for the future is unlimited in its ability to pull people to events. It is not only because of whom Michael was, that people will turn on and tune in during the 2010 season, it is because of who he was that people will know who he will be; committed and ultimately victorious.

Cicero wrote that people who have no knowledge of history are like children, trapped in the most transitory tense possible, the present. Not knowing from whence they came or wither they go. But those who remember the achievements of the past will be able to plot the future. As such they know where the greats are going and be in a position to watch when they perform their next breath taking feats of skill, ingenuity and wondrous creativity.

Climate Change, Political Stagnation

The satirical ‘Yes Prime Minister’ quipped about international organizations:

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.
Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.

This scene would be funny if it were not for its present day manifestation in the Copenhagen Summit 2009. Or as the pundits dubbed it: Hopenhagen. Sadly it was long on diplomacy and very short on hope. Though the last minute decision to extend the conference added some melodrama and prolonged hopes that meaningful decisions would be made.

Robert Bailey, of Oxfam International, said: ‘It is too late to save the summit, but it’s not too late to save the planet and its people.’

In a sop to public concerns an accord was signed which pledges ‘to limit temperature rises to less than 2C and promises to deliver $30bn (USD) of aid for developing nations over the next three years.’ Stirring rhetoric, but how will the temperature commitments be met if the accord is not binding? What will be the incentive for developing nations to change their growth plans and for developed nations to re-gear their industries? The answer may be in the promises of aid. Cynical and unpopular it may be to admit, but the world does revolve around money and Matthew was profound in his assertion ‘ye cannot serve God and mammon’. Or in this case commitments to reduce human impact on climate change and the need for industry to constantly move forward at ever increasing profits and reduced costs.

Part of the problem stems from an unwillingness to accept the facts of global warming. Unpreparedness to believe in a new truth is nothing new. Galileo struggled to convince contemporaries that the planetary system was heliocentric. Climate change science has undergone a similarly rough ride. While it would be premature to say the science is out of the woods, in that climate change deniers still represent a large proportion of the world and some even run their countries, it is true that the battle now revolves less around ‘is climate change happening’ and more around ‘what steps could and should be taken to peg the earth’s overall temperature rise to 2°C’. Such an increase will see water shortages, malnutrition and a rise in infectious diseases, but it will not see the cataclysmic consequences of the 3°C and above danger zones.

It is however not all doom and gloom. We have dealt with major planetary problems before. Ozone depletion began in the 1930s with the invention of Freon (poor Thomas Midgley, the inventor of Freon, he was also the scientist to discover that putting lead in petrol would cut engine knocking in cars and enhance performance). When the link between CFCs and ozone depletion was first proposed in the 1970s Du Pont and other chemical manufacturers tried to discredit the claims. Eventually the skepticism was overcome and governments began to take steps to reverse the situation. Take heart in the knowledge that studies of the ozone layer are showing that the hole over the Antarctic is closing. The point of this digression is that the problem started with denial and ended with acceptance and change.

Copenhagen was an important step forward in that the world is showing an increasingly united front in accepting that changes need to be made, but it also demonstrated that it is still a long road to a meaningful settlement. The hearts and minds of an increasing majority of the public have been won. Governments are now talking, but the third cog in the wheel is yet to turn, market instruments. This is in part due to quasi-Orwellian solutions that have been proposed to solve the climate change problem. Many market ideologues feel that having fought socialism we should not allow more central controls and regulation of our lives to be allowed in through the green door. Yet market regulation has always proved a vital and strong motivator for market change. The use of lead in petrol was stopped; emission standards were tightened; smoking was banned in pubs and clubs; health inspectors employed to ensure that the food we eat does not poison us. International accord will not be achieved unless tighter caps are not only set but impose.

In his closing address President Obama said: ‘energy holds out not just the perils of a warming climate, but also the promise of a more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow. If America leads in developing clean energy, we will lead in growing our economy, in putting our people back to work, and in leaving a stronger and more secure country to our children’.

If leaders, both political and industrial, can step forward and make the running we will be able to change our future. If not the future looks bleak. Some issues can be selfishly pushed aside in the knowledge that it is not in our backyard that the problem resides. But the climate is the property of all and to all must fall the responsibility of its safekeeping.

Life of a Whirlwind

This article must begin with a confession. A confession of a sin. For it is a great linguistic sin to take the easy path in writing. And the easiest of these paths in the wood, the road most travelled if you will, is that of the rant. Rants pervade almost everything in our daily life, people complaining about service in a cafe, the price of petrol, public transport, or our glorious leaders. Fill your pen with bile, summon up the blood, let hubris reign and the article will write itself. Alas this is what I have done, but I feel I can’t restrain myself any longer. So I hope you will forgive me this little vice.

Dinner Friday? No, what about the beach Saturday? Still busy? Next week not good for you either? The week after you say. Super, what day? You are busy on all of them? Hmm, ok I get the hint. What it isn’t a hint? You want to spend time with me you are just too busy! Well I understand, life is busy. This oft quoted phrase has gone from the everyday, through the forests of cliche and emerged in the sun lit uplands of meaningless twaddle. This is not to say that I am holier than thou. I am just as guilty of being a grad A twazzer and trumpeting out this line to all and sundry. But this is just the point. It is now so universally accepted that ‘life is busy’, we all bleat it out lest we have it bleated to us. I cast it to you ere you to it cast I.

Then there are those who elevate ‘being busy’ to the worst kind of art form. Not only are they too busy to see their friends and family. But they don’t have the time to call, text or even Twitter an update. A thirty second exercise which instantly informs the entire planet, well the entire part that is not too busy to join, of your happenings. Who are these people? The President of the United Sates is a busy man. But if he did not keep in touch with people, or touch base to use that ghastly management metaphor, then he would not have garnered enough support to run for office. So if we have truly become that self centered that we do nothing unless it is self serving, then we should still be keeping in touch with the people who should matter to us because they may be ‘useful’ in the future.

If this is the case, then maybe it is best we are all ‘busy’. If it is such a chore to say hi, exchange a few pleasantries and then get on with the daily grind maybe we should confine ourselves to a void. Flounce down in front of the TV and remain distant from those who care about us.

But if not, if we really do care but are that poor with our time management or feel that we don’t have enough to say to justify a phone call, then join one of the social networking sites. Create a FaceBook or Twitter account. Or if you have one (as everyone seems to do these days) use it. They even suggest people from your friends list you have not poked, messaged or sent some new and banal Farmville pet. Trust me, you are not that busy you can’t type out a sentence. People do care, but they get frustrated to the point of not caring when there is nothing but a gaping void of silence from you.

There I go, burning bridges, frothing at the mouth and calling my friends and family lazy. But then if you are reading this I can’t be calling you lazy as you have taken time out of your busy life to read that I care about you. What is even more wonderful is that you clearly care about me else you would not have persevered though my rant; which if you have done you are a friend in deed and the world is all the richer for it.

Muse & Reason from the keyboard of Robert Winter