Journal Entry #4

NORFOLK, Conn.—A reader who goes by the nametag Soma SF added an interesting comment to the thread following a Salon column on the Greek crisis that is datelined July 14th and now posted here. She wrote six hours ago. I committed immediately, as I told Soma SF in a reply, to taking up her point in Cú Chulainn. It’s much worth some consideration.

There is one point in the German demands [on Greece] that hasn’t been discussed anywhere as far as I’ve seen,” Soma SF writes, “but I think is particularly overreaching and one that makes me seriously question the judgment if not good faith of the Germans. That is the demand that Greece enact a new code of civil procedure within two weeks.”

Soma SF goes on to say that, while properly functioning civil codes are “essential to a capitalist system,” there is a feature of them that cannot be missed. “For a legal system to function in the desired way,” she writes, “it must be perceived by the public it serves and the participants in it as legitimate.”

It can’t be said more plainly. What is at issue in this observation? What’s the underlying principle?

I learned it years ago while covering various countries in Asia at various times. It is this: Legal codes, regulatory regimes, the way people are taxed (and for what), trade tariffs, stock markets, judicial standards, licensing requirements—all of the things, institutions, and practices that together constitute the polity’s framework—must be understood not only instrumentally, meaning for what they are supposed to get done. They are also expressions of underlying values. In essence, they are artifacts of culture, reflections of the people they serve, govern, or what have you. You will not understand, say, the Bangkok stock market unless you grasp its surround—how it is embedded in Thai society and how Thais understand what it is supposed to do. And what they think it is there for may not be what anyone else thinks.

I made this point numerous times in the Herald Tribune and elsewhere. It was one of the bigger lessons Asia handed to me, a key to important doors now and again ever since. But who remembers what they read in newspapers? Most people read the papers for data as opposed to knowledge, understanding. So I welcome Soma SF’s comment as an occasion to make the observation again.

Back when I was covering Asian economies, the neoliberal orthodoxy marched under the banner of globalism, the thought system, or globalization, the process by which globalism spread. This term seems to’ve fallen somewhat out of favor. Not even Tom Friedman, who took it as his ideology, seems to go in for it much anymore. But the nomenclature doesn’t matter all that much. What we’re watching in Greece is a variant of what I watched all through the 1980s, 1990s, and into this century.

Time and again, I would find myself covering conflicts, confrontations, or diplomatic impasses arising out of the West’s failure to understand what the non-West seems to take for granted—that all things have a cultural dimension, a meaning beyond simply what they can be seen to be doing. The Westerner tends overlook the intrinsic aspect of laws and institutions.

Hence, Greek bakers are regulated because Greek bread means whatever it means to Greeks, and they like it this way. And now they are told they can no longer have it the way they like it. It is the same, I say in agreement with Soma SF, with the civil code.

I connect this error to a lot of deep threads running back in the evolution of Western thought. The rise of materialism in the second half of the 19th century is obvious bedrock. Atop this came the assertion of market value as primary value. With market value came the god of efficiency. All things efficient are good. All things inefficient—inefficient as measured by market value—are not. The rational choice set lent this kind of thinking intellectual respectability, or was supposed to. Out of this pops “globalism,” as an “ism,” and neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

What you see is the steady erosion of humane values, the humanist tradition altogether, in deference to “Mr. Market,” as a Wall Street know-it-all who knows not much named James Grant took to calling the idol at which so many of us now worship. It will be our bane, in the end, as it is now to be Greece’s.

Thanks and kind regards to Soma SF, should she be reading Cú Chulainn.

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A STORY I WANTED TO WEDGE into the Salon column noted above simply didn’t fit so I left it out. But it’s delightfully revealing. It shows us how blind we are to so much of what we do. Or how we think what we think because we are paid to think it.

Years ago I edited on the foreign desk of a prominent (then) business and economics newsweekly in New York. We had a correspondent in Paris who never failed to amuse and irritate. I’ll call her Gail. (Why not? It was her name.)

Gail was a warrior-evangelist in the globalist cause who’s shrill conviction was simply nonpareil. At least Tom Friedman keeps his voice down. Gail’s voice could split an armchair at 40 yards. And it always bore the same message: These French “don’t get it,” they can’t go on with these social-democratic practices, all the young French are running away to Silicon Valley, France has to deregulate, privatize anything that moves, open the shops on Sundays, let WalMart do what it wants, and stop subsidizing everything. Repent, O French! Otherwise, the end is nigh.

Shrill conviction in an American abroad always suggests to me the likelihood of intellectual uncertainty. When in doubt, go with the orthodox. If you turn out to be wrong, well, you won’t be alone and can get lost in the crowd.

Gail went on a holiday one summer. She chose some tiny village on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees—picturesquely primitive, untouched by the 20th century.

How was the hol?” I asked Gail over the telephone on her return.

Gail took flight in rhapsodic description. Such a precious little hamlet, with the sweetest little pension, run by this dear old couple, and all the people so nice. In the evenings they all sat together in the village square and drank the local wine. What she loved most of all, as I distinctly remember, was the bread—fresh, prepared in some centuries-old clay oven by a slightly younger baker.

Back to work. “Whatcha got this week, Gail.”

And, of course, at deadline came another harangue concerning all the things that had to change if France were to get with the program. This one had to do with deregulating the retail sector so the big box stores could build and operate where they weren’t, at this time, permitted to, and the inefficient mom-and-pops would pass rightfully into history.

I think you know why I tell this little tale.

We destroy what we love. Is this consistently so such that it’s more or less the rule?

Corollary: And we’re blind to what we do. Or we do it because the money’s good.

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