Theo Cupier

About three decades back, there was an English TV show called Spitting Image, which unlike Fawlty Towers and many others, never really got syndicated in continental Europe or the U.S. The model, however, of puppets representing well known politicians, sports personalities, or Hollywood actors, has appeared in many places, including Portugal.

Part of the attraction in Portugal was that the puppets seemed to be better tolerated in poking fun at politicians than other forms of comedy. In England, as you might expect, the puppets were ruthless. Ronald Reagan was seen to remove his brain every evening before bed, false teeth style, and the antics of the British royal family were portayed in the soap opera Pallas, which mimicked the U.S. hit series Dallas.

When the poll tax was introduced in the U.K., the show did a sketch showing the royal family at breakfast, with the queen opening the mail. The fatal letter was addressed simply to ‘The Occupier’, but the queen mistakenly thought it was intended for someone called Theo Cupier, who she suspected might be one of Prince Philip’s Greek friends.

There are once again many occupiers on the streets of the western world. In Greece, I suspect a fair number of them are called Theo. History is full of cyclical events, occuring on varying timescales. Some of these are terrible, such as the many devastating wars, others are monumental power shifts, such as the rise and fall of empires, or paradigm shifts in lifestyles, energy usage, and pollution, such as the industrial revolution.

Empires arise through a thirst or a need for power. The Portuguese empire of the late XVth to late XVIth century arose due to a disruptive shift in trading patterns, through the destruction of commercial barriers, brought about by means of naval discovery and conquest. A kind of naval WTO agreement. Added to that, the first mover advantage. In The India Road, Vasco da Gama…

…knew that the most difficult had been achieved, and that his incredible journey, the rich cargo in his hold, and the knowledge in his head would bring halcyon days for Portugal and mark the swansong of Venice and Genoa. Of course, with this success would come envy; Northern Europe would not be long in giving chase. He saw the emerging empire prospering only by defending its possessions and protecting its naval sciences and knowledge.

But King Manoel was no visionary as his brother-in-law had been, and Vasco feared the nation was already falling into its eternally vicious circle of dubious decisions, small-minded implementations, and last minute solutions. And then of course there were the Spanish, who would violate the treaty of Tordesilhas as soon as the words of riches spread or, more probably, attempt to take the throne of Portugal and thus inherit an empire without hoisting a single sail.

Portugal was neither big enough, nor interested in, full administrative control over its overseas holdings, but it attempted, through a combination of religion and genetic enthusiasm, to anchor the local people to a small nation on the western edge of Europe.

It succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. No other country has left such a permanent mark on today’s world with respect to language, culture, and blood. When I was in Brazil last June, I lost count of the people who told me about the place in Portugal where their family came from, and the ambition to visit. For many, that ambition bordered on fixation. This happened as soon as they heard my European Portuguese, i.e. one milisecond after I opened my mouth. They were also, to a person, obsessed with bacalhau. I used to wonder whether I would ever find a 4th or 5th generation U.S. citizen hankering after spotted dick. Which on second thoughts, I decided to clarify, just in case you thought it was a freckly penis (for Portuguese speakers, uma sarda com sardas).

The cycle of colonization, independence, rise to power, and wane, is the essence of history. It mimics biological succession in human terms. Of all the nations in Western Europe, I can only think of a couple of exceptions to this rule. The last three thousand years witnessed the rise and fall of Greece and  Italy, then the Scandinavian countries, then a complete paradigm shift where wealth was no longer sought by European occupation, but elsewhere, further afield.

Portugal led the way. Then Spain, Holland, England. France, back to the original model of conquering its neighbours. By then clearly a shorter cycle model than the Roman Empire. But then there was Africa, Indochina, ooh la la! Even Belgium owned the Congo. Or  more correctly, King Leopold owned it, because the Belgian government didn’t approve of his plans. Germany, back to the Napoleonic model. Twice! Short cycle, big price.

Only two countries in Western Europe weren’t members of this club: Ireland and Switzerland.

The United States and China share the same model, with respect to large land masses, substantial economic interests abroad (including in each other, which is a nice twist), and colossal armed forces. During the discussions that led to the drafting of the American constitution, Benjamin Franklin commented on the merits of a compulsory peacetime draft. He proclaimed:

A standing army is like an erection. It provides tranquility in the home but encourages adventures abroad.

Over the last fifty or sixty years, significant protest cycles in Europe and America have included the May 1968 riots in France, the nuclear disarmament movement in Germany and the U.K. in the late 1970’s and beyond, and the current ‘Occupy Wall Street’ effort. So, about once every twenty years. They’re quite diffuse in nature, and they collect a range of disenfranchised souls under a protest umbrella. I chose these examples because in all cases they spread widely and had far-reaching consequences. I’m already including the latest one as a fait accompli.

History provides enough examples of how such movements can lead to extreme violence, and can result in war. Thankfully, in my first two examples, that was not the case.

Crowds are a bit like quantum mechanics. The system takes on a particular set of characteristics that is not easily understood by mere mortals. A recent book, written in 1841 by the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, describes some examples of such events. It is called ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, and has been popularized within Wall Street to help understand trends, that are often wrong, and thus profit through contrarian behavior.

When there is widespread discontent, anger tends to focus. In this case, it is clearly focusing on one spot: the banks. Someone was commenting the other day that you were far less likely to be robbed if you were protesting on Wall Street than if you were actually inside one of the buildings.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


One Response to “Theo Cupier”

  1. Philip Scott Says:

    You are right about the ‘bacalhau’ in Brazil. I ‘must’ have a local recipe version cooked in certain cities, where Portuguese presence is still very felt, like in Recife and Belém for example. In Rio it is easy, for there are many excellent Portuguese restaurants. By the port, you can find the ‘Leão Veloso’ seafood soup (basically a Portuguese version of the ‘bouilabaise’). Portuguses influence in Rio de Janeiro probably accounts for the city having the highest fish consumption per capita in the country (still only 15kg/person/year, as compared to Portugal and Japan, (60 and 80 kg…). On the sporting side, Vasco da Gama, (the club, not the man…) is one of our most cherished soccer teams in Rio, as a matter of fact champ this year of 2011! check it out!

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