Lateral Thinking

All the veteran CIA analysts, Mubarak supporters, and Mossad spies are quietly saying I told you so.

Egypt has been engulfed in war. Deaths in the many hundreds, the army  pitted against the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the BBC, Jeremy Bowen, a Mid-East specialist who’s covered every war there for decades, refuses to call it a civil war. Once again, I’m lost for definitions. Once again maybe we need to rethink them.

My father was thirteen when the Spanish Civil War started—that’s a formative age, and he was always a student of history. Perhaps my interest stems from that, although for years I saw history as the waif of biology. I found it arrogant to compare the history of men to the history of life, which (unless you are a creatonist) is what defines biology.

In a similar fashion, economics is really an application of animal behavior. Predator-prey interactions, altruism, selfishness, supply and demand, fear and greed—all these have been studied and dissected in mammals and a host of other critters.

The Guerra de España, as it was known, destroyed the country in three years, and built a platform for fascism that endured a further forty. The Portuguese dictator Salazar returned refugees from the rojos (the reds) to the Franquists. Franco’s men set up machine gun posts at the center of the bullring in Badajoz, lined their prisoners inside the perimeter, and did the full three-sixty.

Bullrings have a feature called a burladero, best translated as a ‘hoaxer’, behind which some of the footmen hide when the bull charges, crazed by pain, blood, and heat. I doubt the burladero helped any rojos escape the hail of bullets.

This was a war with no innocents. I visited Toledo as a child, in the days when Spain was far poorer than Portugal, and learnt of another terrible story: the son of the fort commander was captured by the reds, and a message sent.

“Surrender the fortress, or your son will be executed.”

The Nationalist garrison commander did not surrender.

As a classical war, the Guerra de España was fought as a series of battles, sieges, conquests, and capitulations: Guadalajara, Teruel, Belchite are a few. The war gave rise to beautiful literature, including books by Orwell, who fought in the International Brigades on the socialist side, and Hemingway, who’s love affair with Spain goes way beyond ‘for whom the bell tolls.’

Perhaps it was Spain that gave Hemingway Cuba.

My favorite writing on that war is from Martha Gelhorn—one of Hemingway’s ex-wives. From the NPR story on their relationship comes this wonderful quote:

In 1983, a British TV interviewer posed this loaded question to Gellhorn, then 75 and still gorgeous: “I.F. Stone once described governments as comprised entirely of liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.”

The response was a typical no-holds-barred Gellhorn opinion: “Quite right. And Tolstoy once said governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us. Between Izzy Stone and Tolstoy, you’ve got it about right.”

I suppose sometimes this blog seems to drift from history, but really it doesn’t at all—it just engages in lateral thinking. The term has now been replaced by thinking ‘out of the box’, ‘blue skies’, and other buzzword bingo blather,

Buzzword bingo is played covertly at many a boring business meeting. I was first introduced to it in the European Commission.

Buzzword bingo is played covertly at many a boring business meeting. I was first introduced to it at the European Commission.

The philosopher Edward the Bono coined ‘lateral thinking.’ An example would be to abolish metered parking but make folks leave their lights on.

In water quality, if a factory is sited by a river (as so many are), the water intake can be no further than fifty yards downstream of the discharge, to ensure pollution does not become an externality. At the limit, the same could be done for sewage and drinking water.

The war in Egypt doesn’t have battles, and so far the casualty list is rather one-sided. Undoubtedly, arms and would-be jihadis are queueing to join the fray. So at some point, soldiers will die, when the system moves beyond passive resistance.

Geopolitics is the most dangerous of games, and we’re just no good at playing it.

It’s summertime, and I’ve been hoping to brighten up these posts with a little sunshine. Perhaps tell you more about my forays into the Chinese language, how I managed to get my very own telephone pole, or my writing plans. Any project needs a big idea, and I think I have a good one for my next book. I just need time, and a little peace of mind—I’d like to have a sequence all worked out, with dates, characters, plots and sub-plots. After that, writing a novel would be like filling in the blanks.

But I struggle with that. And I might get bored.

I’ve found in life it doesn’t do to plan too closely. Better to find a good idea, follow your nose, and adapt.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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