Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Importance of Soaking in Politics

Having previously covered singing heads of state, the time has come to have a look at the role of bathing and bath-houses in politics. At first glance, one would not expect these inconspicuous activities and rooms to be of any consequence but they might in fact be partially responsible for the end of the Cold War.

Water Wings

Nikita Khrushchev was fat and ungainly. He had had no more than four years of school education and was thought to have survived Stalin's purges mainly because no one found him a threat. Still, following Stalin's death in 1953 this inconspicuousness was what allowed him to maneuver to the top of Soviet Russia.

Before this, in 1949, the massively self-centered and -confident Chairman Mao had been slighted at Stalin's 70th birthday. He was treated as just another of the many guests, was granted very little time with the Soviet leader and later relocated to a remote villa outside Moscow for several weeks where there was nothing to do except playing table tennis at a broken table. (This was before table tennis was outlawed on the belief that it damaged players' eyesight.)

Naturally, Mao was seething with resentment and when Khrushchev came for a state visit in 1958 he was put up in a fairly worn down hotel with no air conditioning in the hot China summer. During the following talks, Mao chain-smoked in spite of Khrushchev's intense hatred for smoking and talked down to him, but suddenly he seemed to change his ways and invited him to his private residence at Zonghanhai.

Mao Swimming. He was said to have been aided in this venture by his profuse fat

When Khrushchev turned up the following day, he suspected trouble. Mao greeted him wearing slippers and a bathrobe and insisted he join him in the pool. Mao was an proficient swimmer, but the 200 pound Khrushchev had never learned to swim. Soon, Mao was doing laps and talking incessantly, interpreters running up and down along the pool while Khrushchev was standing awkwardly at the children's end of the pool. The humiliation was not complete yet, however. A pair of water wings were produced and with Khrushchev paddling like a dog or simply bobbing up and down, Mao ducking and diving the talks progressed amidst splutters and discomfort.

Khrushchev in happier times

Needless to say, the stunt did nothing to improve Sino-Soviet relations. By 1966, their border conflict almost escalated into open war and this allowed Kissinger to reestablish American-Chinese relations. This further pressured Soviet to withdraw their aid to the North-Vietnamese which led to disengagement, SALT and 1989. Therefore, interestingly, the Cold War was ended, at least in part, by water wings.

The Ugandian Swimming Champion

Uganda's dictator Idi Amin also considered himself quite the swimmer. He used to boast that he was the Ugandian swimming champion. However, as this video shows, there was not much competition as competitors swimming past him were bound never to swim again.

Finnish Sauna Diplomacy

After the war, Finnish President Jushi Kusti Paasikivi and his successor Uhro Kekkonen navigated the Cold War skillfully through the policy of "active neutrality". By doing this, they could have dealings with both the Soviet and the West and especially Kekkonen had a secret tool for this purpose; cultural diplomacy.

Kekkonen would invite foreign digitaries to join him in his sauna and there, he would start negotiating, hammering out a deal. The sauna would take its toll, softening the visitors up for compromise. Often, Kekkonen would not let them leave until an agreement had been reached and dignitaries who have met with this treatment include Soviet Premier Khrushchev and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. On one occasion, in 1960, after sweating in the sauna until five in the morning Khrushchev issued a statement supporting Finland's desire to integrate with the West.

Khrushchev never noticed the wicked gleam in Kekkonen's eye

Finnish sauna diplomacy is still being used. All Finnish diplomatic and consular missions have their own sauna for the purpose, and Finnish soldiers are known to build saunas wherever they go. There is, however, a danger to sauna diplomacy. Olli Rehn of the European Commission economic and monetary affairs was recently accused of sexism after an attempt at sauna diplomacy.

What do you think?

Do these tactics rock your belief in the solidity of your political system? Are they morally sound or do, perhaps, the ends justify the means? A well known business tactic is to give visiting businessmen awkward flights and have a liason professional keep them busy until his meeting. This makes them tired, unable to make good decisions and more likely to aggree to the business' demands. Is this justifiable, in your opinion?

Comments on the Tale of Sir Bob are welcome, as ever!

Sources: "Water Wings", "The Ugandian Swimming Champion" as shown, "Finnish Sauna Diplomacy", Pic1, Pic2, Pic3

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A Philosopher, an Economist, a Psychologist and a Physicist Walks into the Unknown - Four Takes on Souls and Soul Mates

With my background from the arts and particularly literature studies, I have been fascinated with the soul. Remember, this is what Faust sold to Mephistopheles or the devil in Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust. It is also what Dorian Gray pledges in order for Basil Hallward's picture of him to age and be marred instead of him in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Most religions recognise some sort of human spirit and many major philosophies as well. I follow neither, but I am curious about how the soul works if it exists. Is it, for instance, possible to sell one's soul, making a deal with the devil and what about soulmates? Do they exist or is it true what Emily Dickinson wrote, that "the soul selects her own society, then shuts the door"?

The reason I am writing about this now is that I recently came up with a plan. Atheists do not believe in a soul because it cannot be scientifically proven to exist. So, I figured taking inspiration from the Freakonomics podcast, what's to stop me from buying it off one of them and selling it on in a crossroads at midnight like blues guitarists like Robert Johnson claimed to have done? Imagine, I could get Faust's knowledge and pleasures of the world, Dorian Gray's eternal life and beauty and Johnson's guitar skills and not lose my own soul (if it exists)!

The plan proved trickier than I thought. I couldn't find any Atheists willing to sell their supposedly non-existent souls. I thought it would be like getting money for nothing for them, but no, they seemed reluctant to part with it.

Cue the philosopher and the economist:

The Philosopher and the Economist:
Michael Sandel and Stephen Dubner

Michael Sandel
Sandel: Well, it strikes me…The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s a very old idea. It’s not new. Think of the indulgences of the medieval period. And it was after all the sale of indulgences, which is pretty close. Is there a difference between selling your soul and buying salvation? If you can buy a person’s soul, it’s pretty closely akin to buying salvation, which was, you remember that was the practice that was carried out in the Catholic Church at the time that Martin Luther rose up against indulgences, against the buying and selling of salvation.

In the above mentioned podcast, economy journalist Stephen Dubner co-author of the Freakonomics blog and books, talked to Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University. The background was a case where someone had actually managed to buy another person's soul for $50.

Stephen Dubner
Dubner: [...] if I offered to buy your soul for fifty dollars what would you say? [...]Let’s say that I feel that you are not exercising it properly, that you are not taking seriously enough for my taste and my moral code the responsibility of this spiritual entity known as a soul, and I therefore am willing to pay dollars in order to better curate that soul because I do believe in the sanctity of the soul, and rather than see you not tend yours properly I’m willing to pay the price to take over that responsibility.

The two ponders this for a while. If it is possible to buy one soul, why not buy many? I could, for instance, buy a great amount of souls and sell them on to a religious church for a profit. As Sandel pointed out, medieval Christians bought abstract products like salvation. We buy the feeling of safety when we buy insurance and a feeling of self when we buy new clothes or other items. Dubner suggests that when a church converts followers of different faiths, they should pay a fee for each follower's soul.

Sandel: A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use, that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.

So, the morality of buying and selling on a soul would be problematic. What, then, if I knew someone really lonely and wanted to give him or her a soulmate? Imagine I had bought a guy's soul and I found someone who I thought would go really well together with him. Could I make him fall in love?

Cue the psychologist:

The Psychologist
Jeremy Nicholson

Jeremy Nicholson, M.S.W., Ph.D, is a doctor of social and personality psychology who focuses on persuasion and dating and calls himself "The Attraction Doctor". He writes for Psychology Today:

Jeremy Nicholson
Nicholson: [...]according to a January 2011 Marist poll, 73% of Americans believe that they are destined to find their one, true, soul mate. The percentage is a bit higher for men (74%) than women (71%). The notion is also higher among younger individuals, with 79% of those under 45 believing in soul mates (as opposed to 69% of those over 45).

Nicholson refers to the researcher Knee, who found that people who believe in romantic destiny or soul mates almost never finds what they are looking for. They think they do, though, and for a while all is well.

Nicholson: In all relationships, however, disagreement, conflict, and incompatibility will arise. Ultimately, no one is perfect - or a perfect fit for a partner. It takes work, growth, and change to keep a relationship going and satisfying over time. When that happens, soul mate believers often become upset, disillusioned, and uncommitted.

They then break off the relationship and goes on in search for the next, "real" soul mate. In other words, I wouldn't have much luck pairing them up, at least based on the idea of soul mates. This idea is beginning to look more and more like a fallacy. Maybe the Atheists are right and the soul doesn't exist, or perhaps souls just don't match.

Nicholson: People who believe in romantic growth primarily look for someone who will work and grow with them, resolving conflicts as they arise. [...]they are motivated to solve them and stay committed to their partner. As a result, their relationships tend to be longer and more satisfying over time. Rather than rejecting a partner for minor disagreements, they work together, evolve, and grow a satisfying relationship. In the end, it is a bit of a cruel joke. A belief in soul mates may prevent individuals from finding the very relationships they think they are destined to have.
In any case, what is the likelyhood of finding two souls to match? Are the soul mate fans really doomed?

Cue the physicist:

The Physicist
Randall Munroe

Looking for a soul mate
Munroe: For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

Randall Munroe is an introvert physics graduate from CNU who used to work for NASA. He figures that in addition to most of your soul mates being dead, many of them aren't born yet, not of your sexual preferance or in your target age group. Munroe calculates that that leaves you with around half a billion potential matches. Then, of course, you will have to meet.

Munroe: Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10% of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of ten thousand.

 So, you will need a lot of time to find the soul mate. In addition, they will need a lot of time to find you. Therefore, if you believe in soul mates, the chance of finding yours before you die is 1: (10.000*10.000) or ONE IN 100 MILLION! 

What to do with insubstantial property?

This means that if I bought a soul, assuming it exists and assunimg has a mate, I would have to try to pair it with a hundred million times more souls that I would ever meet in a lifetime. It seems that the idea of a soul mate is fundamentally flawed, unhealthy and should be buried. No use in buying a number of souls and setting up a dating agency. In the end, it turns out that Wilde and Goethe were right. It seems it's only the good and bad forces of religion and their representatives here on Earth who would find any value in a soul. If I ever get a few to spare, it seems I would be best off selling or donating them on to whichever I find most deserving.

Rembrandt's Faust having a bad idea

The danger is that if there should happen to be an afterlife and I would get there after I die, I would be saddled with whatever souls I couldn't sell off for all eternity. 

Alternatively, if reincarnation is the thing....

I might get merged!

Cue dramatic suspense music.

What do you think? 

Do you believe in souls and soul mates and do you think belief is a central element here? If souls do exist, should we have moral qualms in buying and selling them like Sandel suggests? Also, soul mates aside, both the psychologist and physician are fairly dismissive of short, frequent relationships. Are they right in being so? 

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, images as given