Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999
C O N F E T T I:|
The Big Question
The English language consists of many words and phrases, such as "splitting hairs". No two are created equal. Should commentary be precise or accurate? Apposite or the opposite? Clear?
There is a story going around that, in the early nineties, somebody got upset with somebody, and evicted them form a Prague apartment. Before the tenant/ wife or whoever left, they dialled the speaking clock in Australia, and left the phone off the hook. The time was precise, but inaccurate, for Prague, yet apposite, in a roundabout way: "At the third tone, it will be far too bloody late, precisely."
I could, of course, have gone into a long discourse on the above point, but I prefer analogies. Those who prefer long discourse, read on. I'll sneak in some analogies along the way for the stragglers.
A former antipodean colleague used a witty ditty to describe the attitude in Central Europe, whereby people seem to delight in fashioning decorative curls and twists to go with their argument, or let loose the bonmot as a stand-in for sober comment. They digress into baroque alibis and ingenious extenuating circumstances, until caught in the headlights of glaring problems. Then, they freeze, unable to make an instinctive decision in time, as appropriate. But they are by no means dumbstruck. When groups form to look at an issue from all possible sides, the result is lively but ineffectual debate, hyperactive inactivity, like a hovering swarm of bees. Paralysis by Analysis.
While the Yanks wanted to leap right into action over Kosovo, and in our neighbourhood swords were being polished, we were Double-Czeching. To formulate the right caveats, fact-finding missionaries were sent packing - looking for that matching sock, to go with the smelly sophistry of would-be statesmanship.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. But the Czech violinist with a fine ear has trouble tuning his strings to the rest of the tone-deaf NATO orchestra, and is still tuning up, after the concert. If you can't play first violin, and refuse to play second, go through the motions quietly, or leave the orchestra pit.
I am just using examples from close to home, but the tendency to substitute precision where accuracy will do, to get it wrong to several decimal places, is to be seen everywhere. On the CIA website, there are population statistics about Central Europe which are clearly several years out of date, but precise. No wonder the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by precise but inaccurate bombing, An inch is as good as a mile, as they say.
People are blinded by science, and anything expressed numerically must be science. Economics is about as much a science as weather forecasting: it is good at telling you, precisely, what already happened. Where economics makes predictions, the same precision is expected - make-believe to make up for inaccuracy. Try asking your weatherman to tell you what time to go to the shop without an umbrella. There are general trends - seasons - but if the rain is heavier, the flooding is more frequent, global warming may well be here, more likely than not. That is not exact science, but it is worth thinking about, before the numbers prove it conclusively.
The Czech government survey of their media performance, as recently revealed in the Czech Internet daily Britske listy did not attract many readers. Yet it shows that the government is concerned about PR performance figures more than the economic ones. Prime Minister Milos Zeman is a prognostician, and knows that economics is a bit of a science, a bit of an art, and a lot of luck. In politics, the art of persuasion is a more useful thing to master.
Looking at a situation from afar with an uncluttered mind can have its merits. At a distance, the fiddly bits disappear, and you are left with the contrast. Defocus, use a wide angle lens. At a rougher granularity of film, with high contrast, you can make everything black and white. "The Ghetto wall of Maticni Street" is imprecise, inaccurate, maybe. But an impression was made that's worth thinking about.
Mountains are most noticeable from a distance.
Climbing Everest was not about the exact height, but getting to the topmost top.
Everest is not what it was, satellite measurement has reduced its height. But consider the statement that you are on the highest point on the globe, X metres above sea level. Have you ever been down to the sea? There are tides, waves. What sea level would you like to be above? I know, it is not about the sea, but air pressure, or subtracting from satellite altitude, referenced to the earth's midpoint, maybe. But the point about the height of Everest is comparison, relative height. Is it still the highest peak? Fine. Standard methodology, cross-reference with other experiences, being able to draw apt conclusions - and making them. Sufficient data.
My favourite joke of the moment is the one where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on a camping holiday. Holmes wakes Watson and asks him "What can you see, Watson?"
"The stars, Holmes."
"And what do you deduce from this?"
"Well, judging by their position, our latitude and longitude, and the time of year, and thanks to the work done by Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho de Brahe... I am in a position to humbly conclude that it is half past three in the morning, Holmes. Of course, were I an Astrologer, I would know what it means that Jupiter is in Scorpio. And meteorologically speaking, tomorrow is going to be a fine day. Why, what does it tell you, Holmes."
"My dear Watson, some bastard has stolen our tent."
In the original Holmes books, Watson tells Holmes at one point that the Earth goes round the Sun. Holmes thanks him for the information, which he will now try hard to forget, as it has very little relevance to criminology. He uses a nice metaphor about a cluttered mind being like a cluttered attic. Desiring to have a mind uncluttered by general knowledge is a very English phenomenon, but I was astounded by the statistic that 40-something percent of the French do not know about our heliocentric orbit. What has it to do with the price of onions, after all?
I remember at school in England, being taught that the Rhine was the longest river in Europe. Even in those days, Vienna was on the Danube, but the rest of that river didn't flow through Europe, apparently. The way our young left-wing history teacher told us about the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia was so outrageously off the mark that I pointed out I had lived through it, had left because of it and didn't find his analysis very appropriate.
"You were a child. Your experiences are anecdotal. You are too emotionally involved to judge. I can see it better from afar than you from close up." he told the class. Perhaps, provided his telescopic objective wasn't foggy, smeared, or the film in his camera pre-exposed from somewhere else.
Stepping back does not in itself guarantee a better vantage point, and the commentators in Central Europe Review could be suspected of bias, insufficient experience on the ground, compared to your average local pub intellectual. The view form afar may be wholly wrong, but it is outspokenly there, to be challenged, and open to dialogue. It must not wear the camouflage of bogus precision, nor be fragile and fickle, unable to stand up for itself under crossfire. It must make broad and valid comparisons. Dig deep holes, in the right places, so they make useful foundations.
'Opinion polls indicate rising support for the Communists in the Czech Republic; around fifteen percent, give or take some decimal places.'
You can argue the merits of the survey, the size of the sample. Polls are notorious for their inaccuracy, when it comes to asking about your secrets, and maybe it is now safer to admit to being a Communist than before. It is certainly safer than admitting to some other preferences. In the Czech Republic, where the registered partnership legislation has suffered another setback, people speak of the homosexual population as "the 4%". In reality, if the rest of the world is anything to go by, the true figure is closer to 10%, roughly the percentage of Christian-Democrat supporters, who are most vocally against gay rights. If it is OK to form a party around religion or race, why not sexuality, or gender. Women have a population majority, I hear. But Margaret is not what we need. We've had her acolyte.
Unlike sexual orientation, which is to a large extent biologically determined, political preferences are, supposedly, a matter of individual judgement - or, the lack of it. Poor judgement can be looked into, challenged, changed, through debate and persuasion, not tolerated as a necessary evil. The Communists boast of the numbers of young people joining their ranks. Everyone is born naive.
An old, wise joke says that human beings can have three properties. being clever, being honest, and being a Communist. The trouble is, you can only have two of them at the same time.
I would like the next opinion poll to tell me not what percent of young Czechs see themselves as Communists, but why, and what it would take to make them think again.
And I would like CER to help achieve that.
There's my exhaustive analysis.
Now I think I'll go and have a lie-down.
Vaclav Pinkava, 5 July 1999
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