Doing Business in the Middle East (Intercultural Communication)

October 31, 2018

Although books have been written about doing business in the Arab world, and Arabs have increasingly become used to Western expectations in international commerce, some basic lessons often need to be learned over and over again – especially by those living in the West. Here I cover some aspects of intercultural business that often prove frustrating for Westerner and Middle Easterner alike.


Cross-cultural studies often begin with aspects of nonverbal communication that are problematic when members of Western (individualistic) cultures meet Middle Eastern (collectivistic) cultures. In a business context, a chief aspect of nonverbal communication is dress.

The way you dress makes a first and lasting impression; this is as true in domestic situations as it is within the international business arena. Your Arab counterpart may be wearing his traditional thobe (a garment resembling a long white shirt) and gutra (headdress) which to you might look identical to any similar garment you see men wearing on the street in the Middle East. But you can bet there will be a difference. Traditional dress differentiates itself by quality.

Arab business people will wear only the best; this includes accessories such as the silver watch or ring, down to the brand of cologne they wear. If your contact has a beard you can be sure it will be neatly trimmed, the moustache does not touch the upper lip (there’s a hadith advising this). Basically, in every way, your counterpart will appear dignified and respectable. Should you show up for a meeting in a shabby suit and tie, with an unruly moustache or beard, shoes not shined, or too well-worn, sporting an obviously cheap watch on your wrist, expect to meet a disappointed and sceptical counterpart.


Status expectations carry into how you deport yourself. When meeting an Arab colleague for the fist time, if you exercise your habitual egalitarianism, in his eyes your status will probably hit the floor. I recall one businessman from the States who insisted on carrying his own bags into and out of hotels when porters were standing by. This attitude contrasts with the Arabs’ keen awareness of where people are in the social hierarchy, and what behaviours and attitudes are appropriate. In Arabia, porters carry bags: important people do not.

Dignity and respect

The way you sit and move also says a lot about you. If you have met Arab businessmen at all, you might have been struck by the poise with which they carry themselves. They do not slouch. They also do not put their feet up on desks or chairs, and they never point the bottom of the shoe in anyone’s direction. To do so would be a grave insult. So, in a business situation, try to avoid walking and talking at the same time. Middle Easterners prefer eye-to-eye conversation; and as far as haste goes, they mind the proverb ”Haste is of the devil.” Social status and personal dignity are behind everything done in Arab culture, and if you want to garner respect, it should matter to you.

The theme of dignity and status are found again in modes of address. If you have a title, use it. If your Arabian counterpart is a PhD, he is ”Doctor”, followed by the family name when you introduce him. He is ”Ahmed” or ”Abdullah” only after you know each other well, and then only in private. Again, the easy-going Western attitude that disregards social position, family name, profession, will only ruffle feathers in societies that are very hierarchical, with vast power-distance between people.

I recall a Western contractor attempting to be familiar with the head of a respected company in Saudi Arabia. The Westerner had communicated a complaint and had attempted to ”lighten” it by pasting a picture of a frowning President Clinton to the bottom of the letter. The Westerner was trying to make a joke. Need I recall the Arab executive’s reaction?

The value of dignity, respect, or ”face” is as important in the Middle East as it is among the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. Face goes beyond the individual. It equals the reputation of the family. Like Far Easterners, Arabs will go to great length to guard the collective ”face” of the family. This concern informs all aspects of their dealings with you. It means that they want to know who they are dealing with; they want you to be as reputable as they are. It means they will take their time getting to know you and the company you represent.

For you, this means exhibiting patience as you are feted, at times to degrees that you might find worrying. The idea that ”time is money” exists in the Arab world, but time is also an investment in the business relationship, so you would be wise to realize this. Once your Arab counterpart is sure about you, once he feels at ease and trusts you, things will move faster.

Language: the value of eloquence

Related to the idea of status and reputation, is the use of language. In the Western, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, world eloquence has come to be synonymous with duplicity. Those who speak too well, who use ”flowery” expressions, those who do not ”get to the point” as soon as possible in oral or written communication, are thought to be ”putting on airs,” trying to display superiority or to fool others. The Western sense of egalitarianism and verbal economy bristles at this.


Yet, in the Arab world, eloquence connotes social status and believability. Those who speak well have education behind them; hence they are more credible than those who sound pedestrian. In contrast to the Western ear, vague, ”flowery” speech belongs to the Victorian era, not to modern business culture. Imagine a luncheon meeting at which an Arab speaker reads a poem he has especially written for the occasion of introducing you. Contrast this with what you would do to introduce him at a similar function. Now you have the difference between the Middle-East and the West.

Women in business

According to the Koran, women are permitted to engage in commerce: Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn (4:32). Although I have never met an Arab woman engaged in business, according to the Arab press, some women today are in e-commerce or own and operate beauty parlours or shops for women only — in malls exclusively for women.

In the event that you meet a woman face to face in any context in Arabia or outside it, extend your hand to be shaken only if she does so first, and do not prolong eye-contact — you will not only embarrass her but send the wrong message to Arab men who may be present. Moreover, avoid being alone with an Arab woman under any circumstance.

I heard about a young British manager, based in Saudi Arabia, who invited himself to the table of one of his female clerks during lunch hour, in their corporation’s cafeteria. As innocent as this might be in the West, the young woman was duly fired and the Brit was dismissed immediately and flown back to Britain.

My impression of working in the Middle East is that cross-pollination of the genders is something to be avoided at all costs and, for men, meeting Christian Arab women in business inside the Arab world is as problematic as meeting Muslim women. Of course, if you are a woman meeting other women, it’s a different matter.

Part II
Values and expectations are key concepts to be kept in mind when dealing with Arab business colleagues.


It is often repeated that Arabs have a different sense of time than we do. Our Western conception of it comes from the mechanical clock. We have chopped time into seconds and even milliseconds. This is well known to Arabs and, to a great extent, they have adopted some of our obsessions about the clock. However, this does not mean that you will not be kept waiting for an appointment, or that once you are in a meeting, the allotted half hour will be devoted exclusively to you.

In fact, the reverse is true. The length of time you are kept sitting in the secretary’s room depends on how important you are, how busy the man is, and a variety of factors that for remain mysterious. While you are waiting, though, expect to be scrutinized by the secretary, and by those who come and go through the waiting room.

In Arabia, as elsewhere, others will be asked their impressions of you. Should you display undue impatience, insistence, or impoliteness, you will not be getting a good review. It is best to make use of the wait to get to know the secretary (often male) to smooth future access to the inner sanctums of the company. It never hurts to establish personal contact with those who guard the higher-ups because in the Arab world everything depends on who you know.

Once you are in the executive office, the time allotted for you is not yours. You will probably be annoyed at this because there will likely be little of the privacy in meetings that you are used to. Expect a constant coming and going as you are interrupted by telephone calls, people bringing coffee or tea, handing the boss papers to sign, and so on.

The Arab businessman is a “multi-tasker,” doing many things at once while you remain single-minded and intent on completing your business according to a preset schedule. Your patience will be put to the test. It is no use saying “I’ll come back when you have more time.” The next visit will be a rerun of the first. So, be flexible or go insane.

Personal contacts

Get used to the fact that what you have to offer will not sell itself. Personal contacts are important and you need to understand the role that wasta (influence) plays in everything from getting a traffic ticket fixed to obtaining the appropriate license to carry on business in Arabia.

And, the reverse is true. You will find that people cultivate your “friendship” for the purpose of accessing whatever “pull” you may have in your own country to oil the wheels of bureaucracy. I remember Arabs who collected telephone numbers of almost everyone they met who might be of practical use in obtaining advice, jobs, contracts, visas, education for their kids. Arabic culture is a tightly knit web of relationships that takes time to establish and maintain, but once it is there, it can work for you.


Negotiations can be demanding. When walking into the room, in which you are to give a presentation, expect to shake hands with each and every participant. Also expect the more senior and more important people to arrive last, or even to arrive late. You will have prepared statistics, studies, charts and graphs to make your point, but quite possibly none of this will have much initial effect. So keep it short.

When it’s time for the Arab negotiators to announce what they want from you, an order for merchandise for example, expect inflated figures. In other words, they may well ask you to quote a price for a thousand units, of what you have come to sell, rather than the one-hundred they actually intend to buy.

Or if you are impressed by the size of an order, you may drop your price to “sweeten the deal” when you ought to begin with the maximum you think you can ask for. Thereafter allow the Arabs to “get you down” to what will make it a win-win deal.

Arabs learn early to wheel and deal for everything. You will find this when you go shopping anywhere in Arabia. Note that in most stores, almost nothing has a price tag. Everything has a “best price” lower than the one first cited.

There is a lot to learn when doing business outside your own culture, even though the business world is internationalizing at a rapid rate. At odds are timeless values and expectations that account for the world’s great diversity of cultures – blessings and trip ups, equally.


Three Short Stories

October 4, 2018


The holiday villa had a swimming pool that shimmered in the partial shade of a voluminous tropical bush. Further in the distance, at the bottom of a steep incline of lush foliage harboring god-knows-what creatures, there was a swamp.

On the ground floor, the house had a fully-equipped kitchen, partly open to the pool, and a living room with stereo system containing all the modern appliances one could wish for.

The guests had collaborated in renting the place for a weekend. Alfredo and Rita came with Heinz and Gertrude, along with a man for-all-purposes who cooked only under Rita’s close supervision.

Heinz was going gray, probably from worry as his job entailed making moral judgments which he did not feel particularly qualified to do because, as he often confessed to total strangers, his uncle had been a bomber pilot in the Vietnam war. Whenever he told this little dirty secret, which was not so secret after all, he would look intently at his interlocutor, as though asking: “Am I guilty too?”

Heinz loved facts and figures. He talked nonstop, analyzing everything; he quoted studies and statistics to an annoying degree. (You had to be quick if you wanted to get a word in edgewise.) He was self-critical to a painful degree, wondering aloud whether the organization he represented in Third-world countries was doing any real good.

“I often wonder,” he said, “whether we’re just supporting corrupt governments with our aid so they can continue to do nothing for their own people.”

His wife was resentful of what she said was Heinz’s authoritarianism. He had been in control of the family finances for the last few years. He had insisted she quit her job to do-good in the wider world. Now she had to beg him for pocket money.

“I have to ask him for every penny these days. I used to have my own income. Imagine having to ask your husband for money!” she would exclaim to anyone within earshot, contorting her face.

Alfredo and Rita had a different relationship: she was his “nurse” while he was the malade habitué. In a modulating voice, she would sing: “Can I get you anything Alfredo?”

“Yes,” would come the reply. “Make me an egg! Boiled! I want it at 4.5 minutes exactly. Not a moment longer!”

Rita tended to describe what she was doing: “Alfredo. I am now making your egg! Exactly 4.5 minutes. I am making tea too!”

The egg done, breakfast served by the semi-visible serving man, Rita came over to Alfred.

“Alfredo. Hold still! You have a pimple on your neck. Wait! Hold still! I will operate…”

Alfredo obeyed as Rita squeezed the offensive pimple. The job complete, she noticed the discoloration.

“OHHH. It’s all red. Oh! Alfredooooh…”

For the rest of the day she fussed over Afredo’s ex-pimple, wondering whether it had become infected, cancerous — deadly, perhaps.

Loving such attention, Alfredo developed a hacking cough, eliciting even more sympathy from his nurse.

“Are you alright Alfredo? Can I make you some tea? Can I get you something?”

A little later: “Help! Help! Help Rita! Rita Help. I burned my finger!” came a cry from the kitchen. “I burned my finger on the tea pot…”

“Oh Alfredo! You must let me do that. You must not go near the stove. Here, let me have a look at it.” She blew on the finger while Alfredo purred with satisfaction.

Alfredo told Heinz and Gertrude he had become a different man – reformed since his mother died when he was 30. He used to be concerned with superficialities like good looks in his girlfriends: “I never took out a woman who wasn’t a knockout. All my girls had to be beautiful…” he exclaimed, his eyes wide open.

He assumed a worried look – the look of the reformed sinner contemplating his fallen self. “But now I look for what is inside. I’ve changed since Mom’s death. I’ve realized what is important in life; it’s what’s inside.”

Heinz was remarkably quiet, staring at the sunset glimmering through the leaves of a tree behind the pool. “Mosquitoes…” he said.

“Yes. There’s dengue. People can die of dengue fever,” Alfredo stated.

Rita, Alfredo, Heinz and Gertrude looked into the distance beyond the pool. The night was falling fast, and there was dengue.

Finding her place

As a girl, Edna was a romantic; she read a lot in her uncle’s library. Her own folks were middle-class, her father a civil servant in the Custom’s department, her uncle a tax collector. They were somebodies.

When Edna met her future husband, she was a trainee in a department store. She had fallen for his good looks and was bowled over by his bubbling charm. He was a craftsman who wanted to go to the United States, the country where anything was possible. They married against her parent’s wishes, had a couple of kids, and found themselves in USA some years later.

It took a while before Edna noticed that she was not quite living the middle-class American life she had expected. She and her family were on a somewhat lower level. Her husband was not making the kind of money they needed for a second car, better furniture, stylish clothes for herself and the kids, that she had dreamed of back in the old country. In the land of equal opportunity, she had imagined having a bit more. a bit sooner. True, her husband worked six days a week, but there was so much more, to aim for and, besides, many of her friends (all immigrants) seemed to be doing better. So, Edna decided to go to work. But what could she do?

As she spoke English in a broken fashion, she could not qualify for a desk job, so she decided that, a couple of times per week, she would clean people’s homes. She would be a Cleaning Lady which, given a shortage thereof, was not badly paid. With the money she earned she was soon able to buy the kids new clothes, and enough for her personal wants.

Edna had worked for Mrs. Hamilton for five years and had become friendly with the old lady. They often had tea while Edna was supposed to be dusting and mopping. It seemed Mrs. Hamilton was lonely since her husband had died and perhaps saw a friend of sorts in the cleaning lady. This pleased Edna, but it also set up assumptions which eventually proved untenable.

Over the years, Edna had put to use her considerable knowledge of what was fine and good, lessons she had learned in other people’s homes. This included a love of antiques. She and her husband went to estate auctions where they were able, quite cheaply, to buy fine old furniture (some of which really were antiques), including Chinese vases, French lamps, and Greek figurines, all from fine homes of the sort that Edna had cleaned.

Edna enjoyed dusting off these treasures: her mahogany table, her Louis XIV chairs; the Victorian love seat. She lovingly dusted the Scottish landscape paintings that some gallery in the UK had to sacrifice, and she was especially careful of a watercolor that friends admired most.

She was beginning to realize her ambitions. So one day Edna looked around at her living room, her dining room, bedrooms, and she decided Yes, I have what I wanted. Her home was complete. It was time to invite her friend, Mrs. Hamilton.
We don’t know what Mrs. Hamilton thought when Edna asked her to tea, but perhaps she thought it a quaint idea for her cleaning lady to invite a millionairess. She was probably amused and perhaps told a couple of her lady friends about it. She would go “slumming” as they said in those circles. She would have tea at the home of her hired help.

The day came when Mrs. Hamilton’s chauffeured black Cadillac pulled up in front of Edna’s house on a quiet, tree-lined avenue. At first, Mrs. Hamilton thought she must be mistaken. She checked and rechecked the address Edna had given her. Perhaps Edna had directed her to another place she cleaned?

Thinking this must be the case, Mrs. Hamilton strolled up the well-tended lawn to a brown-brick Victorian cottage. She took the brass knocker in hand and gave a firm knock. Edna opened, all smiles, dressed in her finest.

Mrs. Hamilton awkwardly stepped over the threshold, saying: “But Edna. You don’t live here…”

“Yes, Mrs. Hamilton. Welcome to my house.”

They had tea and chatted, but it seemed something that had defined their relationship had evaporated. Edna became aware of this, but put the thought out of her mind.

After tea, Mrs. Hamilton got into her limo and drove away.

The next time Edna came to clean for her employer, Mrs. Hamilton did not refer to their afternoon together; in fact, Mrs. Hamilton seemed rather distant. She said very little. Then, as Mrs. Hamilton handed Edna the check for her weekly services, she said she was grateful for the years of service and the wonderful chats they had had together, but she would not need a cleaning woman anymore.
The door shut firmly behind her, Edna made her way to the bus stop, perplexed. Where her posture had been bold, she now looked stooped. She had found her place.

The Dave and Beulah Show

“We are swimming on the face of time and all else has drowned, is drowning, or will drown.” – Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer)

Their names were Dave and Beulah, a middle-aged couple that picked me up while I was hitch-hiking. I wondered why they were so eager to give me a ride, but I put all doubts aside once I heard they lived in the same hamlet where I was renting a place.

“No problem. We’re practically neighbors!” yelled Beulah from the passenger seat.

She was a bleach blonde, bulky lady, a bit too made up and certainly very vocal compared to Dave. He just drove: eyes straight ahead grimacing as though at a private joke.

“We’ll take you home. But why not come to our place for a drink first?” yelled Beulah.

Drinks? At three in the afternoon? Well, why not? This was a curious couple.
They lived a few minutes from my place. There were no more than fifty inhabitants in the junction, for that’s all the hamlet was: two rural roads bisecting farmland and forest.

Dave and Beulah’s house was one of those one-type-fits-all common in American suburbs. There was the obligatory driveway and garage with the basketball hoop, a house without charm or character.

It wasn’t a moment after entering their home that I realized something was amiss. On the dining room table there were more bottles of booze than I had seen in any bar. It looked like a party going on.

“What’ll you have? Scotch? Bourbon? Gin? All of them?…Ha. Ha. Ha…” chuckled Dave, already pouring himself a hefty Jack Daniels.

I hardly replied before a scotch on the rocks appeared in my hand. This was service. And, at three in the afternoon.

Beulah appeared. “We start early,” she laughed, arms extended sideways, sailing through the living room.

Dave was a government employee, Beulah a housewife, and their only son had just left home for the first time in his life to attend college out West, several thousand miles away.

“My baby’s gone,” lamented Beulah. “GONE. And now I’m stuck with HIM,” she shouted, scowling at Dave. “Gone! Flown the nest. And now, there’s only two of us…” She took another drink. Then, at the top of her voice, she broke into song: “PLEASE RELEASE ME LET ME GO, FOR I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE…”

Beulah went on like this for several minutes as Dave looked on, chagrined. He poured himself another one.

Dave chuckled, but said nothing as Beulah kept singing. Then she stopped to say: “I wannahnotherbaby… I wannababy…Ole Dave there made mine go away! He convinced him to go out West to college… Traitor!”

I stammered something about needing to get back to my humble abode, but this raised objections from Beulah: “Oh come now; you donthaftago… DAVE! Pour the man another drinkypoo… Let’s party!”

She lit a cigarette and put on a Latin dance tune, then began gyrating her plump hips.

“My baby’s gone…”she wailed. “Who’s gonna make me another babieeeeee…?”

Dave and I made eye-contact. He did not seemed more desperate than amused. Most likely he didn’t know what was happening in his marriage. I supposed this is where I was expected to offer some help? But, what could they expect of me? I was twenty-three years old, and they were my parents’ age.

I stammered something about having to get home to my wife. She was expecting me.
Beulah kept singing and dancing as Dave walked down the hallway. He seemed like a nice fellow. Then, as he opened the front door, he said: “I hope this isn’t what you have to look forward to…” There was a deep sadness in his eyes.

I went home. As I entered my own domain, I heard my young wife ask: “Where have you been?” I was at a loss to explain…

Oh Spring

June 24, 2018

Driving aimlessly the mauled roads,
Mountains of graying snow on sidewalks;
Old ladies walk ragged dogs:
The sun emerges shocking red,
Inflating yet another day.

The Void sucks beneath one’s feet
A teeming universe above.
Life always unravelling, damage done;
The waltz goes on —
Lovers sigh
At the undoing.

Spring feeds on the soul,
Promising satisfaction
While summer smiles in the forests
Readying the scythe;
Nature is merciless, although
Bees make honey,
Ignoring death.

Oh Spring, Oh Spring return;
Bring back the worm, the butterfly;
Return to us the green of the land
And blue of the sea.
Allow us our redemption.

The snow melts, almost imperceptibly.
There is something clandestine
About nature; the living dread
Built into us.

The dog makes yellow on the snow.
He has no respect, for he is part
Of the conspiracy.

My Berlin

June 21, 2018

I have been back to Berlin since the Wall came down and, in my opinion, reuniting the two Germanies was, perhaps, not exactly a mistake, but a lost opportunity. Back during the Cold War, there were two systems to choose from, people had alternatives. If you didn’t fit into the capitalist scene, you could always cross over into the socialist state (the DDR) where you were given a job and a place to live. Today, nothing is guaranteed in a system devoted to consumption on a grand scale, and society has no purpose like “building socialism.”

At the time I first visited West Berlin, in the 1970s, this view was shared by many young Germans in the West, and although most of us did not consider ourselves “communists,” we appreciated that the very presence of a socialist East forced the Western elite to provide services – simple things like day care for working mothers, welfare, and the like. And, socialism provided a societal vision more palatable than the endless production and consumption of things humans did not really need. Today, there is only one game in town, and it isn’t the best for humanity or the environment.

Back in the 70s, when I was on my way to West Berlin, security at the border was formidable. I was on a train from West Germany through East Germany in order to transit into West Berlin, a kind of island in a sea of Communism. The the train halted at a frontier check-point in the middle of the night. Outside, there were bright lights illuminating the platform and forest vicinity, as though it were daylight. From my window, slightly steamed up, I could make out shadowy figures with huge dogs patrolling the underside of our carriage, checking for spies, or whatever.

Berlin sectors

There were very few passengers on board. I was alone in my compartment when guards boarded the train, going from compartment to compartment, checking passports. When they knocked on my door and slid it open, I nonchalantly handed over my German passport. The guard studied my photograph, compared it with me, and said: “Kanada. Gut!” and handed it back. I was a German from Canada, a place he probably had fanciful impressions of; maybe he even wanted to go there himself. Or maybe it was just the novelty of meeting a German-Canadian that impressed him. I was glad I had passed inspection for I had read that the border guards had no reservations about removing people from trains.

The rest of the night was uneventful. The train crawled along and, at one point, came to a screeching halt. When I looked outside, in the dawning light, I saw a train parallel to ours, composed of flatcars loaded with tanks and military vehicles. Possibly it all belonged to the Russians. By the time the sun had risen, we had gone through a final checkpoint, leaving the DDR and entering West Berlin. Then we pulled into the great Zoo Station in central West Berlin.

Friends of mine came to meet me. They had stayed with my family in Canada and were returning the favor. Molly was a secretary, while her boyfriend, Juergen, was a mason working for the American occupation army. I recall Juergen’s prime interest in life were money and Molly, in that order. She spoiled him with her cooking and affections, to the point I wondered if she’d even heard of women’s liberation.

I don’t know what they thought of me, but we got along well enough. Yet I was often moody because I longed to meet new people instead of being at the mercy of my hosts, going where they wanted to go, seeing what they felt like showing me. In two weeks’ time, I was ready to leave, my head filled with impressions of the Zoo, the Wall, the Gate, and bullet-ridden Reichstag which, in those days, was still in ruins from the war. I had seen places of execution where the Nazis had lynched their foes with piano wire. I came to think of the city as smelling of blood, even though there was not a drop of it in sight.

Some time later, in the 1970s, I came to live in Berlin. Fatalistically, West Berlin was referred to as the “Dying City” because young families were leaving at a worrying rate, and many of the city’s empty apartment blocks were illegally occupied by squatters. Over the whole city there hung an atmosphere of military occupation and dissipation. Three-hundred and forty-thousand Soviet troops were occupying East Germany; many of them stationed close to the Wall in case of war. The barrier cutting the city in half was overseen by a sequence of 116 guard towers, manned night and day. Ugly in their concrete impersonality, the towers appeared especially threatening in the rain when the concrete ran dark and a coal-dust odor chocked the air. That defined the atmosphere of the city on both sides of the Wall.

Viewing platform West Berlin

Viewing Platform, West Berlin, with the Original Wall

The Wall came in two versions. The original structure was of concrete blocks topped with barbed wire. It could be scaled by those brave or foolish enough to risk being shot in the back or torn bloody by barbed wire. The new Wall was much higher (12 feet or 4 meters tall) – a series of great, white slabs of concrete lifted into place by cranes. At its top was a round concrete shoulder that prevented refugees from grabbing a hold to heave themselves up and over – provided, of course, they got to the Wall in the first place. There were fierce dogs to get past and a minefield, and a broad, sandy strip – a virtual shooting gallery with nowhere to hide from the assassins in the watch towers.

I recall an incident which left an impression on me. A young East German was spotted by people living in high-rise apartments in the western sector. They cheered him on as he ran across the minefield. Miraculously, he got past coiled barbed-wire to reach the base of the Wall. Witnesses in the West prayed he would make it against the odds. Then a few shots rang out and the show was over.

Far from being resigned to the man’s death, West Berliners were so enraged that many hurried to the Wall and started slamming hammers into it, creating a huge gap. Through it, you could see the “death strip” and East German guards standing around looking hapless. By that time, the body of the young fellow had been spirited away. The formidable hole remained like an accusation until a new concrete slab could be inserted.

I recall this incident because it signified the frustrations West Berliners felt living in a fishbowl, surrounded by a ruthless system that was willing to kill its young to keep up the illusion of a happy workers’ state. But the German frustration extended to the Allied powers as well. They were occupying all of the country. Americans, French, Russians, and British, each had their sectors of military dominance. These foreign troops and their families had their own housing, their own bus systems, shopping facilities, schools, hospitals, and military hotels. And they had their networks of spies, their listening posts tuned into each others’ communications. This was typical of the Cold War. It seemed the German people were merely pawns in a great power game.

One day, on television, there was a report of the annual American military show of force in West Berlin. Black and white news footage showed German citizens dutifully lining the parade route to watch their foreign protectors. But, not all spectators were supporters of the Americans for there was a group of maybe six or seven young people who had turned their backs on the parade in silent protest. You would think in a democratic system this slight would be overlooked in a spirit of tolerance, but that was not the case. Within moments, the German police arrived, viciously beating the protesters, police dogs biting into legs and arms, and everyone dragged out of sight of the cameras. That was Berlin then – on both sides of the Wall.

I once took a day trip by U-Bahn (subway) to East Berlin. I got into the train in the West and emerged in the East, slipping under the Wall in the process. Along the way there were “dead stations”– dimly lit deserted underground platforms where the dust was collecting and huge German shepherds were on patrol. The guards had machine guns casually slung over their shoulders as they eyed Western passengers in the slowly passing train. Their looks were studied malice: Welcome to the German Democratic Republic. Watch your step. The assumption behind the guards’ presence was that someone might jump off the train to sneak into the Utopian worker’s state.  Socialism was that alluring. The reality was that some East Germans might manage to get into the shuttered stations to hang onto the train till it completed its circuit back in the West. Coming from a free country, of course, I found all of this spy stuff right out of Jean Le Care. It was a bit of a thrill.

Wall with Watchtower

Part of the Wall today

Back in Canada, I had listened to short-wave, nocturnal radio transmissions from East Berlin, consisting of numbers read twice, followed by the word “Neugen” to signal the end of a sentence. These were messages read to German spies the world over, and they filled my imagination. Later, there I was, in the heart of the Cold War – the Wall, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the spooky underground, Check Point Charlie.

One Sunday, I walked along the Wall, ironically, on East German territory, for the regime had erected concrete slabs a few meters inside their official frontier. I came across a section that had just been lifted out by a crane. The slab was being replaced, probably because it had too many holes in it. I could clearly see into the death strip.

East German guards had erected a cage extending onto the concrete footpath I was on. Several guards with machine guns eyed me like curious creatures in a zoological cage, as workers were preparing to lower a new slab into the gap. I was tempted to raise my camera to take a picture: Say cheese! But I killed the impulse. Who knew how trigger happy those lads were, and I was on their official territory.

There was no graffiti on the Wall in the early 70s as graffiti had not yet spread plague-like over Europe. The Wall was brutally gray. It said “I am not a piece of Art.” It was, perhaps, the world’s most powerful political statement, unambiguous to all.

On the Western side of the Wall, people could climb onto wooden platform and wave to relatives a hundred meters inside the East. People did this in all kinds of weather, depressing as it was. It could be raining and some grandmother in the East would be out there with her umbrella waiting for her grandchildren in the West to get up on a platform to wave a handkerchief. They would not be able to hear each other, but sometimes just seeing each other provided a sense of assurance: Sie leben noch. (They’re still alive.)

I could not share the sense of tragedy and outrage that was common among West Berliners. They called it die Schandmauer, the Wall of Shame. I still don’t understand what the shame was. Was it that Germans did this to each other? Was it a statement of blame? The East German regime called it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” something Westerners heard with derision. In those days no one dreamed the Wall would ever disappear. Rather, the theory was that the two systems would gradually approximate each other; some kind of socialist-capitalist mix would be realized and das Volk would be reunited. Of course, that isn’t what happened.

Death Strip Berlin

The Death Strip Between the Two Berlins

When I lived in West Berlin, I took a room in Frau von S’s fourth-storey flat in a respectable part of town. Her husband had been a prominent Jungian psychiatrist, the inventor of work therapy. At least that is what she told me. Frau von S. scurried about nervously whenever I encountered her in the kitchen. She cleaned out cans and bottles before discarding them, and seemed to spend a lot of time on her “spiritual exercises” which turned out to be autogenic training, something I became an expert in.

One day I discovered a pamphlet on the subject in the apartment. There were instructions on how to get into a state of total relaxation, with the arms getting heavy and a warm sensation emanating from the chest. I tried this, and it worked. But, I had not read the instructions on how to emerge from the heavy state. Noticing it was time to leave for work, I got up, but found I was as limp as a washcloth. I could barely get my coat on, descend the steps, and take the bus to my job.

My boss at the school where I worked was a Brit who had married (and divorced) a German woman who remained a business partner. Mr. H. had a habit: he was a notorious womanizer. He would pick out a female student (often married), get her into bed, only to dump her just as quickly for the next one. I learned that such behavior was common in the school. In fact, it seemed that some women signed up for courses just to party with some of the young instructors, all Brits or Americans. One teacher, a Scott, told me he had slept with all of his female students. I was skeptical at first, but soon became convinced.

I was asked to give private language lessons out in the Grunewald, a wealthy part of West Berlin. The lady was the wife of a businessman who was frequently out of town. When I got to her villa, she showed me around as far as an upstairs bedroom, but I thought better of getting involved and bowed out, saying I thought classes at the school would suit her needs better. Nor was this the only attempt by women to seduce me. Another student of mine was the pretty 35-year old wife of a 60-year old German comedian. He owned a club in Berlin, famous for its cabaret entertainment. She invited me to her villa and could have got me into the sack were it not for the fact she had two young children. The thought of wrecking a family put me off. To complicate matters, I met the husband. He was a sympathetic guy who I didn’t feel deserved to be betrayed, so I stayed clear of his lady. But the impression of West Berlin that I gained was one big brothel, which left me feeling quite the prude.

The winter in Berlin was (and still is) depressing. The temperatures hovered around the freezing mark, so that when it snowed, it rained. Sidewalks were slushy, the air damp and unhealthy. TB weather, I called it for in those days tuberculosis was a real worry everywhere in Europe. It was cold most of the time, outdoors or in. I heated my room with coal briquettes, bought at a corner store and dragged up the stairs to my bedroom where I had a ceramic stove, a wonderful invention. My sheets were cold when I got into bed, but the room was warm against the damp world outside. I felt happy to be in my nest, happy to be in Berlin, despite the dark winter days and nights.

After decades of global wandering, and a career that hung on a few threads, I returned to a united Berlin. With me I had a friend who had been a spook, a “listener” for the US occupation Army, one of hundreds of Americans trained to analyze radio and telephone talk originating behind the Iron Curtain. Situated in a facility on top of a large hill of rubble (Teufelsberg) in West Berlin, Allied agents listened for clues to the economic situation in the East, clues to how people felt about the communist regime, and daily-life chit chat. What they got out of it, I don’t know. For him it was a job rather than a calling. The US Army had trained him in interpreting German, and he had a knack for languages, so much so that he spoke German like a native. The great thing about this guy, though, was that he had a good knowledge of German modern history, so it was an experience to have him lead me around Peenemuende where the V2 rockets were developed and deployed against Britain.

Peenemuende had been in East Germany, hence only accessible after the Wall fell. The German government was not interested in taking it over, so it became a private museum. There wasn’t much left to see. The rocket pads were overgrown with weeds and trees, so it was difficult to imagine sites that you could better see in YouTube film footage taken at the time of the centre’s heyday. Considering that so much modern technology was tested and developed at Peenemuende, I left the place rather disappointed.

I’ve been back to Berlin several times since its reunification. It is a thriving, happening place for artists and musicians, and all kinds of refugees hanging around Alexanderplatz. Most are unemployed, or unemployable, speaking no German, or too little to get work.

There is nothing left of the old Berlin I experienced as a young man. It feels too new, too artificial. Too anonymous — as though the Wall had never existed, the Cold War had never happened. Where places used to be empty, except for soldiers on leave or guards in watchtowers, now the city is swarming with tour buses, bodies from all over the world taking selfies, people gawking at places of atrocity without knowing or caring. The spy center atop Teufelsberg is in ruins, covered in graffiti, the ultimate insult. I feel like a dinosaur when I survey it and marvel at the vagaries of history.

spy center Teufelsberg W Berlin

Vandalized Spy Center, Teufelsberg, (West) Berlin Today

An Age of Angst

June 2, 2018

On January 13, 2018, a missile was streaming towards Hawaii, setting off alarm bells in watchtowers all over the Pacific. It could have been a nuclear tipped rocket launched by the infamous bad boy of Korea, Kim Il Un. But it wasn’t. There was no missile; there was no launch, and no attack. But a warning of danger set Hawaiians scurrying indoors and underground, anxiously awaiting the doomsday blast that would send everyone to their ancestors. Ten minutes later, a False Alarm was sounded. People felt duped, but glad it was all a joke of some kind. Few were laughing, though, except in North Korea where the dictatorship was delighted.

korean misille launches

Why were (or are) people so on edge? It isn’t just this bizarre incident. For the last few decades Westerners have been expecting disasters mostly because in our culture we subconsciously expect the Big One of Biblical dimensions. A nuclear holocaust, a plague, a giant tsunami, an earthquake, a giant meteor come screaming doom out of the universe. This anxiety is cultural more than factual for we have been living with disasters for generations and have never really been free of Angst. We have a long history of local wars, world wars, civil wars, and religious conflicts. Currently there are wars in the Yemen, Palestine, the Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Central Africa, Southern Philippines, not to mention a War on Drugs in Mexico, and a War on Terror, worldwide. Who would not be just a mite nervous?

But, there is not just one source of Angst, ever. People have a nagging sense that the Internet, despite all its wonders, is being hijacked by malevolent forces that are cataloguing people’s political preferences, in addition to “data mining” any and every tidbit of information which may be used against them in the future. We know not where the future leads, as change is coming at us like an avalanche, but we suspect that it moves in cycles, and another turn for the worse is in store. Fear of political repression has historic roots, not just in European fascism, but in McCarthyism and, more recent, in Political Correctness, an insidious, leftist form of Gleichschaltung, that destroys reputations, torpedoes careers, and creates pariahs. It isn’t reassuring to be told that you have the “freedom of speech” when you are shunned for speaking your mind. Social anxiety contributes a lot to today’s Angst-ridden time, especially among academics and all those who work with ideas.

We have been told that times will be tougher for those just training for a future than they were for their parents. The Baby Boomer generation had it good; they have hogged all that society could provide, and they will bequeath what is left over in the way of property to their offspring. But, many Boomers will die broke; they’ve had such a good time spending it all. There may be no jobs at all for many Millennials, or mere part-time work at low pay. They will just have to make do. If that doesn’t get you worried, there is always the fear that you are in the wrong field, that you don’t know what is best for you, that your marriage will fail – half of them do – and so on. The world is uncertain, but it always has been, so get used to it.

And God is dead. He died some time ago, killed off by generations that wanted to be free of “miracle, mystery, and authority” (Dostoevsky). But now there is no ultimate arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong. So anything goes. All standards are uncertain, everything is relative, society is being divided and subdivided, pulverized into groups that have little but confusion in common. Go to any large Western city and you will see the ghettoisation in progress: ethnic, economic, sexual, and social enclaves abound in the (much lauded) “diversity” which is supposed to be enchanting, but will prove politically divisive because, soon, no one will be in charge, and every group will be pursuing its own interests. They already are.

Still there are those who do know what they want and are on a roll to dominance. The Islamic world is flooding the West, coming with ideological self-assurance, determined to multiply and, eventually, supplant Westerners in their own countries. They do have a sense of purpose. For Islamists, life is not a mystery, and there is no confusion as to their duties which are laid out and memorized, reinforced five times a day, endlessly drilled into their heads. In contrast, Westerners are filled with doubt; they have birth-rates too low to replace citizens who die. An awareness of this is there but seldom addressed, for Western leaders know not what to do and, besides, there is an over-arching malaise and loss of direction in Western civilization that undermines any effort cultural salvation. It has been said that civilizations aren’t conquered; they commit suicide, and we seem suicidal, big-time. If a grand disaster doesn’t do us in, a slow die-off will.

Another silent worry plaguing us is our own human nature. Science tells us we are an evolved animal species, not the divinely-created, potentially angelic being favored by God in our mythology. Generally, we are kind and cooperative, but also capable of behaviour of unspeakable barbarity. We see evidence of this in the media on a daily basis. Civilization, we fear, is just a superficial condition, dependent on good economic times and responsible political management. Beneath the glossy surface lurk diabolical forces as terrible as any depicted by Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya. Man can be a monster, even to himself.



To manage our many anxieties about ourselves, we throw ourselves into work for work is therapeutic. It diverts attention from real and imaginary threats and keeps us from thinking about what is, and what could be – which is all confusing for we are not trained in philosophical speculation. Keeping busy is salvation. Thinking is to be avoided. But what happens when there is less work to be done, with robotics and computers doing the labor, and most of us become economically redundant? Then what? If this is a source of concern, no worries mate, for we will keep you numb with television, the internet, Netflix forever, and cheap drugs of all sorts, 24/7. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, we will learn to keep our mouths shut and brains tuned to pleasurable sensations, provided by chemistry and technology. Even now, feel-good drugs are being legalized and distribution networks are being established because, if there is one thing those in power understand, it is how to keep us off the streets. There will be welfare and drugs for all.

Ultimately, though, our greatest Angst comes with the knowledge of our own freedom. Freedom, as Erich Fromm has argued, is one of our prime anxieties for it demands a lot from us. Knowing that we have choices puts the burden of our lives squarely on our shoulders. Human free will demands we take responsibility for choices that can make or break us, hurt others, and ruin the world. We really do not want this burden any more than we want our parents to throw us into the world, making us responsible for our own lives and those of others. To mitigate this source of anxiety, we elect people to make decisions for us, and we pay taxes to allow them to carry out their decisions. All the while, we want to be bothered as little as possible with the decision-making process. Leave it to the experts, we say, and let us play games on the Internet. We are born free, but really don’t like the responsibilities that come with freedom.

Angst has always been with us, existentially, and we have had genuine cause to fear. Our cunning has created diversions from our anxieties, and the greater the degree of threat, the more diversions we have created, leaving us with the question: Should we, perhaps, not be more engaged with the matter of our own survival? Remember how fascism and Communism led us down the garden path with promises of better times? Many went along, unthinkingly. Today there are other seductive ideologies promising “heaven.” Religion, advanced capitalism, and technology are seducers we ought to pay more attention to for they all promise a more exciting, less burdensome, future — if we surrender our reason and freedom. And this, again, is an anxiety-producing matter of choice.

Homage to Ernest Becker

May 21, 2018

One of the most interesting academics has to be Ernest Becker, an American philosopher who ended up teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Becker saw humans as fearful little creatures that have a relatively short lifespan and are beset with an anxiety that dominates their lives – the fear of death.

According to Becker, the key attribute that separates us from animals is our self-awareness which gives rise to awe and dread. In the words of Sheldon Solomon, an interpreter of Becker, for humans “It’s both awesome and dreadful to be here and know it.” Our self-awareness gives rise to a fear which may overcome us at any time.

According to Becker, we realize how vulnerable we are and deal with this knowledge by creating “symbolic immortality” – through myths and religions. We invent gods and “life everlasting” to satisfy our craving for continuity “beyond death.” Such myths of transcendence soothe our anxieties, but they are fictions.

We have also invented other coping mechanisms that address our fears. These include, in Becker’s words, “immortality projects” which, like monuments and gravestones that bear our names after we are gone – as if it mattered. Some people become famous in order to “outlive” their expiry date. Others have children that bear their names, as if this could immortalize the parents.

Trump Tower chicago

 One Little Man’s Eternity Project

Heroism, too, leads to a symbolic immortality. Even today we know the heroic warriors of ancient Greece, the Caesars of Rome, and the emperors of China, or the names of heroes in our families. Thus we try to outlive our brief existence because we fear the truth of our own insignificance in the cosmos.

All attempts at immortality are delusions. There is no transcendence as there is no getting past death. Becker’s message is that we should face reality, accept the inevitable, and live a moral life despite the lack of heavenly rewards. But why not just continue with business as usual?

Part of what should be life is to see things as objectively as possible, to live “authentically,” in the words of Existentialist philosophy. Only with a relatively objective vision can we act according to what needs to be done instead of acting out of subconscious drives that lead us in harmful directions.

For instance, the executives of oil companies, and other giant corporations, are acting out of subconscious motives to increase their personal wealth and egos, to the detriment of the world’s environment. They know not what they do, or they don’t know why they do it – or they just don’t give a shit. And so they continue to waste the globe, driven by a need to “assure” their own immortality.

Knowledge of death is something we ignore in order to live without it hanging over our heads. Yet we are fascinated by it enough to fill our movies with murder and mayhem. We love seeing people and things getting blown up; we enjoy a little thrill at “being killed” (or killing others) without the pain and horror associated with it.

But we also do our utmost to extend life, as though we could “conquer” it. This is another comforting illusion. If we are ever to mature as humans, we need to understand the profound truth of life and death, live to fulfill our potential, and go gracefully when the time comes. As they say in Buddhism, it matters how we die.

Awareness is the key to understanding and leading a good life. By this, we mean being mindful of the consequences of our actions, being careful in the thoughts and attitudes we cultivate. We should “review” periodically what we think, what we value, and how we behave towards others and ourselves. What is most important to you?

Many have no idea because they have never posed the question to themselves. But life is finite and can end at any time, so why not live it awake rather than beclouded with mindless activity, unsatisfactory routines, jobs that bore us to death, literally?

The ‘White Privilege’ Myth (opinion)

October 6, 2017

We are going through a storm of ideological subterfuge thanks to disaffected intellectuals needing a new “cause” to justify their existence. These are the cultural misfits who want to replace capitalism with some form of collectivism, and they’ve been at it since the French Revolution, if not earlier. This is the same tribe who, through street-level anarchy, are trying to “bring down” the System. Not that capitalism doesn’t merit criticism, but change can happen through the promotion of effort and intelligence, without creating conditions for a race war.

The movement to disenfranchise “white men” is an attempt at demonizing so-called Caucasians with the accusation of “racism,” a move which itself is a racist attempt to score political points. Instead of progressing to a single-race view of humanity, which is the rational view, propagandists are reversing gains in equality by denouncing people of a certain skin colour. Their objective is to make white males objects of resentment and hate, to besmirch Caucasians in history, so that people as embittered as they are can get ahead. This is not progressive. If anything, it’s a step towards perpetual social conflict.

“White Privilege” is the idea that skin colour is the key to material success in Western society. If you are white, propagandists say, you are born to better treatment; you get ahead more readily, get into positions of power, are given a higher income, not because you have earned it, but simply because you are “white.” Supposedly, the deck is stacked against everyone else, especially those from so called “visible” minorities which can be anything from “black,” to “Asian,” or “Hispanic.” The roles of culture and social class, of course, are wholly ignored in this hypothesis because they toss a spanner into their pseudo-argument. That there are people who buy this idea wholeheartedly, though, testifies to the lack of thought behind such claims and to the power of resentment.

To test this hypothesis, and see how malevolent it really is, consider the thousands of young men – from white, working-class families — who were sent to die in foreign wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, South East Asia, and Europe in two world wars. Certainly, men of “colour,” blacks, natives, and Asians, did their share of bleeding and dying, in the same conflicts, but what all of these men had in common was not race but social level. They were mostly working-class. And, in the case of Germany, Russia, and Europe, for the most part, the sacrificed were just plain white. It’s hard to see any of the millions who died as “privileged.”


Today, with fewer wars, this is not as apparent, but certain is that the so-called “privileged” white people are rapidly becoming minorities as western countries are being transformed by migrants from all over the world. And the remaining European “whites” are as underprivileged as anyone else.

Consider the falling incomes of the lower-middle classes in Europe, America, Canada, and Australia. It’s hard to see people who are working part-time, who are struggling from paycheck to paycheck, as “privileged.” Many are ill-nourished and overweight because they can’t afford good food; others are discouraged, have given up trying to make their dreams come true. They are on welfare, disability allowance, and other forms of social assistance as much as any coloured people. Or they are hooked on drugs of one kind or another. What “privilege” do you see there? As for the colour factor, aren’t the Asians the successful ones in America, Canada, and Australia? Aren’t their children outperforming all others? Are they also “privileged,” or do they just try harder?

I recall working late at a university library, long after most students left for home. I was there, and so were hundreds of Asian students, doing homework, studying hard, working to succeed. They were there because their culture valued achievement; they had parents who pushed them, parents who demanded they advance the family, parents who invested in their children. Other students were partying, or stoned, or just drunk. Those “coloured” immigrants, who also worked hard, earned whatever some could call “privileges” for they put their noses to the grindstone and got on with the job. What they had in common was cultural, not racial. Former President Obama and his wife are among those who had the values and self-discipline to earn the fruits of their talents, as are minorities who “make it” within the existing system. You don’t have to be white to make it in Western society, but you do have to work for what you get.

Fact of the matter is that we have moved beyond race as a determinant to what position on the social ladder you occupy. Today, it is ability, plus opportunity, that counts. It is merit and, often, luck or timing. Fact too is that white people are not doing as well as some think. I know of a man who worked since the age of fourteen. He has never not worked, right up to his retirement, and he had all kinds of jobs to put himself through university, although his education never really paid off in monetary terms. As a sessional teacher, over thirty years, he had three sick days off, unpaid. He barely managed to save anything. People like him are actually becoming more common, even though they are white.

Today, even those who manage to secure permanent posts are making less than their predecessors did, are working longer hours, have less security, and are more disillusioned than their predecessors. It is doubtful they would describe themselves as “privileged,” even though they are white, and they see their children not being offered golden opportunities due to their skin colour. As a matter of fact, many see being white as a disadvantage for you get little sympathy for your lack of minority status. In fact, today, the reverse is true.

It is racist to insist that skin colour is the ticket to the good life. Rather, there are very influential, culturally-transmitted values behind “making it” in our society. Literacy is one of these. You don’t often see books in working and lower middle-class homes. Those families that do have them, and encourage their children to read, do have an advantage, but you don’t need to be white to be literate – or to take an interest in educating their children. They do need to be real parents to kids who will make them proud. If we look at the failures and complainers in our society, we will find an absence of encouraging parents, no matter what colour they are.

Encouragement is paramount. Families in which children are taught that it’s “useless” to even try to succeed, or those who claim the cards are stacked against them at birth, set kids up for failure. And, youngsters who do manage to educate themselves, and achieve even a modest lifestyle, are often undermined by envious, spiteful members of their own communities who see them as sell-outs, racial, religious, or ethnic traitors. You find this situation even among impoverished whites, which is one factor behind their lack of progress. Other factors behind failure are continuously playing computer games, drinking and drugging themselves into a permanent state of dejection. Your enemies are not white and at the top, they are within your own head.

There are social examples which give the lie to “white privilege.” When East and West Germany merged, hundreds of thousands of East German workers joined the unemployed, and unemployable, for they neither had the necessary moxie or skills to work in the competitive, technological West.


Some were able to retrain; others fell by the wayside, sank into alcoholism and despair. Now, with millions of migrants flooding into the country, providing competition for lowly-paid jobs, working-class Germans are threatened with permanent asocial status. Those who are elderly have been on the verge of poverty for years. With migrants needing more and more public funds to be integrated into society, resources are stretched. East Germans (“whites”), who need training at public expense are left to fend for themselves. Where is the “privilege” in that?


So-called “privileged” whites are feeling the heat, and not just in Germany. Don’t wonder too long why white Americans elected Donald Trump. “Making America great again,” to many, means reversing the decline of the middle and working classes. And we’re not talking race here; we’re talking saving a social sector that includes blacks and Hispanics, indigenous people, and others – all threatened with permanent poverty in a post-industrial meritocracy in which only the highly-trained and educated will have access to the good life, irrespective of race. It’s time we wake up to this historic process.

A racial analysis of the situation is misleading and harmful. Today, as always, it’s about the old class struggle for whatever fruits are gained from work. With the exception of those born into wealth, and the one-percent who own mostly everything, there is no “privileged” race.

The Literate Self

September 19, 2017

The Literate Self*

In the English language there are many expressions and words that indicate our high valuation of the individual. Any dictionary will give you pages of words that have “self” as a component. Philosophically, self is synonymous with the ego, but encompasses one’s nature, one’s uniqueness; in short, one’s individuality which is positively valued in Western culture. In fact, the idea of self and being have become interwoven in Western culture. What accounts for the relatively high value placed on the self in the West as compared to a lesser value in more collectivistic cultures?

Literacy has been a key instrument in the formation of a strong sense of selfhood. This is not to say the West has been more literate than other parts of the world, but to claim that, in the West, the ability to read and write has functioned differently as a result of at least nine hundred years of this skill being disseminated. In Europe and America, literacy became a common mode of knowing when most of humankind still relied on oral communication. As we shall see, where literacy is combined with greater access to information, it produces personalized ways of knowing, thinking, and acting. It produces an individual.**

A personalized intellectual life can only develop within a liberal policy towards the dissemination of information, and this has not happened on any large scale in most world cultures. In fact, even today governments are busy screwing down the hatches to ideas in order to keep a more or less controlled status quo going. So, it is safe to say that while everyone has a private self, not every culture values the development of personal opinions, ideas, and thoughts because these give the person a heightened sense of uniqueness. And the sense of being unique is at odds with collectivistic ways of life.

lay reader

Since the time of the European Renaissance, the liberation of intellectual life has triumphed over authoritarian control, with the exception of periods of backsliding into authoritarianism and mass conformity. What accounts for the difference between the West and the rest when it comes to the cultivation of the self? We can always go back to the ancient Greeks, but keeping with our theme of reading and the development of a sense of individuality, one of the more recent highlights of this relationship came with the Confessions by Augustine (354-430 C.E.).

Augustine was an early leading theologist, bishop of Northern Africa, and later promoted to sainthood in the Roman Catholic pantheon. His writings are unique for their times because they focus on the “I” of first-person narration. They are introspective and self-critical, written in the hope of discovering “truth” within, rather than following the received “truths” from authorities. Augustine believed that truth comes from God but can be discovered within the person during moments of “illumination.” He encouraged self-exploration within a framework of bettering the Christian. But Augustine also advocated silent reading at a time when monks would recite aloud to themselves or to each other, sharing whatever they learned from scripture. It is the importance of silent reading we need to consider.

By shifting to the inner voice through silent recitation, individuals entered a wholly different experience, a different mode of cognition. This, of course, would be true mostly of the intellectual elite, those who were taught to read and to write. It largely excluded the masses until more recent times. But, back in the eleventh century, silent reading allowed the person to mull over and to relate what he read to what he already knew. The person no longer depended on orthodox interpretations of texts; he was freed of his mental slavery to develop new ideas, even from texts that the intelligenzia was expected to know by heart. As Alberto Manguel notes: “the text became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge” (1996, p.51). Silent reading is believed to have allowed the person to develop a distinct sense of a unique self.

This intellectual shift had social consequences. From predominantly oral to increasingly literate culture, in Europe the world of social relationships, first centered on oral interaction, shifted to the interior — to private thought, speculation, and philosophy. This epistemological shift is believed to have had dramatic consequences for the nature of “scientific” communication and cognition. For instance, printed texts permitted analysis “for deeper levels of meaning” (exegesis). Dictionaries standardized the denotation of words, permitting greater objectivity and accuracy.

Literacy also brought with it “abstract categorization… logical reasoning… [and] articulated self-analysis…” (Ong, p.55). It gave rise to a sense of personal “ownership of words,” as opposed to collective possession, and it encouraged thinking that was more “religiously neutral” (p.132). To a great extent, the ability to read and write brought the individual a sense of having a unique inner life. This set the stage for numerous cultural changes in Europe.

With the spread of literacy, European societies developed subgroups, or religious sects, that had their own interpretations of the textual knowledge that was once restricted to the few. Consequently, society became more atomized as individuals associated with like-minded people who shared ideologies. This process of social diversification continued until it received a boost from the German monk, Martin Luther.


The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), was an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church. For various reasons, Luther came to question many of the practices and teachings of the Church. Like Augustine before him, he was stricken with a sense of doubt and inadequacy in his relationship to God. In this, Luther was influenced by the humanists and “free-thinkers” of his times, men who questioned received ideas with a rational perspective. Their avid search for meaning was part of what became known as the Renaissance, a great time for the emergence of people buried under years of mysticism and closed-mindedness. Literacy was essential to this “rebirth” of humankind.

In Luther’s theology, matters of belief became an individual problem. He stressed that it was not the “good deeds” and payoffs to the Church that would get the believer into heaven, but a deeply-felt sincerity and spiritual authenticity that could only come through awareness of one’s “self” (Erikson, p.219). With its emphasis on introspection, Protestantism marks a turning point in Western man’s intellectual maturation towards self-confidence, especially in matters of ideology. Self-knowledge, spiritual self-improvement, rational education, and a degree of self-restraint and hard work were now indicators of salvation (p.217). This mentality, fueled by increasing levels of literacy, represented a major step towards the modern age.

Luther’s teachings spread rapidly throughout Northern Europe once Gutenberg’s printing press was able to disseminate ideas at greater speed than ever before. Disenchanted Christians were ready for reform, and they took up the new teachings with a vengeance. Once Luther had translated the Bible into the language of the people (vernacular German), people could read the sacred Word for themselves, and the clergy was no longer needed to mediate the sacred Word. Greater personal independence and greater self-confidence contributed to a sense of personal autonomy and responsibility. Of course, there were a nexus of factors, all mutually reinforcing each other, in establishing not only individualism but its descendent, the modern capitalism (Erikson, p.231).

During, and after, the Renaissance, rational communication promoted linear thinking as in the essay form, the journal article, the scientific paper, and report. Linear communication jettisons the floridity of oral speech to concentrate attention on the essential theme or message. Of course, whether this format of communication is capable of real “objectivity” or not is debatable. However, literacy gave words greater accuracy even as they provided deeper layers of meaning (recorded in dictionaries).

Literacy found its most fertile soil in early America where popular education stressed the need for rational thought in human affairs. The first European settlers, the Puritans, emphasized reading and writing as means of self-improvement just as Augustine and Luther had. By keeping spiritual diaries or autobiographies, the Puritans practiced spiritual self-examination. They favored the “plain style” of writing, devoid of the rhetorical tricks and colorful language of oral communication, because they believed people could be led astray by “satanic” verbal deception (Ruland & Bradbury, p.11).

There are, of course, additional factors that led to the development of Western individualism. Some of these have yet to be discovered. However, it is safe to say that, in the Western experience, silent reading, increasing levels of literacy, greater personal autonomy, and the values of hard work and progress have been instrumental in producing the modern world, for better or for worse.

*First published in IATEFL ISSUES, April 2004.
** Elsewhere I argue that those days are over. Massification is killing individuality despite our fooling ourselves into thinking we are so unique.

Ezrahi, Yaron (1996). “Modes of Reasoning and the Politics of Authority in the Modern State.” In David R. Olson, Nancy Torrance (Eds.) Modes of Thought. Explorations in Culture and Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Erikson, Erik H. (1958/1993). Young Man Luther. A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Fernandez-Amesto, Felipe (1997). Truth. A History and Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bantam.
Manguel, Alberto (1996). A History of Reading. New York, NY: Viking Press.
Ong, W. J. (2000). Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.
Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury (1991).
From Puritanism to Postmodernism. A History of American Literature. New York: Penguin Books.
Triandis, Harry C. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Twilight of the Individual

September 10, 2017


Even in the freest society power is charged with the impulse to turn men into precise, predictable automata. — Eric Hoffer (“The Unnaturalness of Human Nature”)

Pundits like to equate the Internet with individual freedom of choice, freedom of association, freedom of self-expression, as if the supremacy of the individual were an established fact. Well, this is more wishful thinking than actuality for, given a historic perspective, decade after decade, we are less personally free to follow our own courses. On the contrary, we are increasingly sucked into a grand illusion of “freedom” while heading further away from being unique. The trend is towards groupings, and the only choice available for most is which groups to be part of.

douglas fairbanks and masses

What do we consider individualism to be anyway? If you look the term up, you will find it equated with self-reliance (a prime virtue of the early colonists), independence (very American), freedom, rights to private property, personal privacy, self-fulfilment, and a right to go where you want to go, etc. But what you find is that, over time, in America and elsewhere, these traits have all been compromised to such an extent that we need to ask What is really going on? How “free”are we?

Take self-reliance. To many in our consumer society, this means going to Home Hardware to pick up tools to work on their automobiles, houses, or cottages. It means, the person can help him or herself, skirt the aid of experts to accomplish tasks of all kinds. If you have personal problems, why rely on psychologists or spiritual helpers when you can resort to libraries full of self-help books to fix yourself? A couple of decades ago, all of this might have done some good, but today you can barely find the alternator on your car, let alone re-program its complex computer, or change the tires without violating your warranty. You are dependent on experts. And forget self-help books as you will end up collecting them before seeing any appreciable changes in your own behaviour.

Yes, you are still pursuing individual happiness, but do you even know where it lies? You used to in the days when you were told to get a job, get married, have kids, and be satisfied. Today, there are more life-style choices than before, but then more people are piling into the same ones and, next you know, you’re just a little cog in another wheel. The guy and girl living in the first “tiny house” are now a community of tiny homes. Caravans cross America in convoys. It’s harder to be original or do things alone.

The bigger picture reveals trends that are equally anti-individual. First, there are fewer unique, well-paid jobs for those who lack genius in a speciality, or for those prescient enough to lead the next wave into the future. Increasingly, the rich do get richer, while the middle-class sinks into the working-class — which is doomed to welfare hell. Forget about owning a house or other property because prices are going out of sight, and you are indebted for your education even while you work three, or four, part-time jobs. How will you realize your individual dream in such an economic atmosphere – provided you have a dream, that is?

Then there is the matter of “thinking for yourself,” developing your own views, working things out for yourself in matters of politics, ideology, etc. Well, when was the last time you met someone who did not think like you do? And, if differently, how much of his or her ideas were you able to stomach? Take a look at the left and right-wing demonstrators, the so-called Anarchists, or the “freedom-of-speach” advocates. If there are so many people with individual views, why do we always see only two sides to any issue? Right-Wrong; Democrats-Republican; Liberal-Conservative; or, nowadays, Establishment vs the Totally Disaffected? Life isn’t like that. There’s a lot of space between, undefined, but no less valid and deserving to be heard. What happened to the Middle?

Where are you supposed to get “independent” thoughts if the media is controlled by syndicates who back one or the other political ideology on ever issue? Truth be told, if you did have independent views, you would make yourself scarce for fear of being pepper-sprayed or beaten to a pulp. Ditto for expressing you ideas online. If you bump up against established wisdom, you will be shouted down, harassed to your very doorstep. So much for democracy; so much for individual thought and freedom of expression. Our systems of ideas – especially the political — are illusions and probably always have been. So let’s stop fooling ourselves. The nature of society demands we fit into one slot or other, and we tolerate the “other” slot merely until we can eradicate it. Simply put, humans don’t like difference.

This brings us to the fanciful idea of “critical thinking.” As an educator, I’ve been told to teach students to “think out-of-the-box,” come up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. But when someone manages this miracle of unique thought, they no longer fit the cookie-cutter patterns in our established education systems. Imagine being told to teach “critical thinking” under the regime of Political Correctness. How long do you think a “critical thinker” can last in the stifling political atmosphere dominating Western campuses today? You might as well be in Communist China, or Saudi Arabia. Critical thinking is a dangerous thing when society wants ideological uniformity, and that is the trend today. The only area in academia where you can come up with anything new is Science and Technology, but forget the Social Sciences and Humanities. They are in the grips of Bolsheviks.

The mass media, including Hollywood, have our minds in their grip. They produce films that tell it like it is, according to their world-view. Who won the last war? Who is guilty of war crimes? Ask Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. What happened in Vietnam? Who is hatching conspiracies? Do UFOs exist? Ask Netflix, the propagandists of the day. And forget about any contradiction from film critics. They attend the same cocktail parties as the producers and directors do and are just as uncritical. Hollywood is the biggest propaganda factory on the planet, and it is spreading its tentacles worldwide. Coming to a theatre near you: more bullshit designed to make you see the world Our Way.

There is such a dearth of variety in cinema and television, in America and in the West, generally, we might as well be living in China. If you want dissenting opinions, you can find them on the Web, but these tend to be so outrageous that you would need to suspend intelligence altogether to grasp any of it — or have such a low IQ that cartoons could tell you what to believe. Today, “entertainment” is the moniker for propaganda, and has been for decades. No one wants you thinking for yourself because the days of “rugged individualism” are over, and what remains is but a poor shadow of what once was. Besides, what does it mean to “think for yourself?” Do you even have a “self” that can think? Even if you did have a self, you would not get the chance to claim it for your soul does not belong to you. Others have their eyes on it.

Today, massification is the dominant policy, no matter where you live. In the West, collectivism has nasty connotations of communism and fascism, or religion, mass-brainwashing – all the things individualism used to be hostile to. But the mass-market is ever expanding into greater aggregates, world-wide. Marketing and production systems are being synchronized, standardized. There is little room for individuality here. Similarly, products are the same wherever you go. You can buy the same stuff in China, Malaysia, Germany, or the USA. And, life-styles are coming to approximate standard consumer models with the illusion of choice. To be sure, there is something comforting in this. The stranger is not so strange anymore. He or she buys the same stuff, wears the same clothes, takes the same tours, or pretends to be experiencing something unique in the same hostel on Mount Everest. Contrast this with possibilities of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago, and you will see what I mean. Individual experience, like individual thought, has become a myth.

Consider, too, that the concept of individualism has been an illusion all along. We actually don’t like to be alone. Very few can survive on their own wits without the occasional hand from a neighbour or stranger. Even the pioneers relied heavily on the wagon trains to get them out West and then needed the Army to protect them from hostile natives. Farmers are more into cooperative efforts than going it alone. Ditto the rancher with his vast herds of cattle. He might be the boss, but he is out of business without a collection of hired hands, and the lone cowboy, where would he find employment if not on a ranch? Individualism is more of a goal, or a self-flattering fantasy, than a reality.

While it is true that radical, independent thinkers have given us some of our greatest inventions and ideas, most of us would not be willing to pay the price they had to pay in rejection, isolation, or fear of elimination. Also consider how few great thinkers there have been among the billions born and expired over the ages. The individuals have been few and far between, and now that there are over seven billion humans on earth, how many great minds stand out?


The natural tendency among humans, especially when populations increase, is towards standardization, conformity, collective values and behaviours. In America, especially, when there is a new trend, people get on boards as though affirming individual thought, but almost immediately, their thing, whatever it is, is marketed, made available to everyone, and swallowed by the system. Think of the hippies. Think of the once-unique Burning Man Festival, or the waves of black-clad “Anarchists.” (Get your Anarchist outfit for only $59.99 now. Available online.*) If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious.

chinese consumerism

It seems to be in the nature of things that individuality is drowned out over time. For instance, recall that we used to have local and regional dialects. Everyone spoke English in England, but even within a city like London you could discern “accents” which made the speakers unique. You could tell people which neck of the woods they came from as soon as they uttered a thought. People also had unique costumes that identified them as members of a distinct culture or tribe. Now there are millions wearing the same outfit and even more speaking “standard” languages so that any sense of smaller groupings is disappearing fast. Some languages and cultures are dying out altogether as they can’t compete. From the regional to the universal; simple folk to anonymous masses, anyone or anything unique is disappearing rapidly. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen.

Politically and economically we have a similar process in history. Remember the little kingdoms that used to dot Europe and Asia? Well, they have become countries and regional associations like the European Union and ASEAN, with the same goals and values and, don’t be surprised, increasingly the same shopping malls, airports, train stations, and homes, containing the same “Made in China” television sets, VCRs, computers, and ceiling fans. Not to mention the car in the garage. If you look at Singapore you will see the prototype for Shanghai and (probably) Kuala Lumpur. Whatever there was of “local” has become global with everyone trying to live according to one (often outdated) model. I’ve been on university campuses in Canada that were based on models from California. Given the great differences in climate, not appropriate, you might say. Not even rational. Of course not, but there it is. Today, modern campuses in Canada and the US all look alike. Even graduation gowns are the same, as are courses, and exams, dormitories, parking lots. Imitation is the easy way out, and standardization makes the world more familiar, less scary. We actually don’t like the unique.

Is individualism even possible? Do you have a “self” to develop, or are you just an aggregate of possibilities gleaned from the social menu you were born to? The answer is some of both. But individuality is a possibility rather than a reality in social settings. It depends on the degree of freedom a society permits for a being to develop him or herself, according to his or her personal aspirations or needs. How tolerant of difference is your social nest? And, here, I don’t mean can you be a hippy or a sectarian of some kind. Being a member of any group demands standardization. So, the first thing to be wary of is joining groups. The group, the clan, the religion does not function on difference but on uniformity and, usually, there is some little dictator who tells others what to think and do. Groups exist to be led, like sheep. Even among the so-called “anarchists,” there are rules, rulers, and followers. Otherwise, why would they be all wearing the same outfits? Truth is, they want to be in a group; they want to surrender to a shepherd rather than figure out what to do with their lives.

If you want to develop your potential as an autonomous entity, don’t join groups; read a lot; investigate ideas, rather than submit to them, and keep yourself open to new possibilities. Center yourself on you, not selfishly, exclusively, but in a confident, self-disciplined way. You don’t need to submit to anyone if you can centre yourself in your self. And to do that, you need your will — the determination to overcome the slave within that longs to be outer-directed, the self that is afraid of being alone. The slave longs to be controlled, wants to worship an Other. To escape joining the masses, you need to work on your own will-power. And be vigilant, for the world does not look kindly on those who have command over themselves, those who cannot be subjugated to the will of another.


A Man Trapped in ‘Group One’ (book review)

September 7, 2017

A Note on Dr. Li Zhisui (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. Translated by Professor Tai Hung-chao. Foreword by Professor Andrew J. Nathan. Random House.

Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power. — Eric Hoffer

When Chairman Mao Tsetung died on September 9, 1976, not long after his historic meeting with President Richard Nixon, Mao’s body was entrusted to the hands of underlings who frantically tried to preserve what they could with the limited knowledge they were able to glean from the Vietnamese colleagues who had pickled their Ho Chi Minh some years earlier. There was great pressure to come up with a convincing corpse to display to the masses. Even a wax dummy was produced, “just in case.” The sweat literally pored off the brows of doctors attempting to replace an ear that had fallen off the corpse’s head, and the torso was so bloated it wouldn’t fit into the Chairman’s clothes. But, they did manage.


The Embalmed Chairman

Among the physicians charged with preserving Mao was Dr. Li Zhisui, the dictator’s personal physician for over twenty years. Dr. Li had been keeping a secret, detailed accounts of his life and times with the Chairman but, writing many years later, from recollections rather than the notes which he had destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Li presents a life of grand anxiety mixed with luxurious isolation within an elite of guards, nurses, functionaries, and sycophants – all expertly played off against each other by the willy Chairman Mao.

Among this entourage was Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, once a young beauty in the film business, increasingly turned into an embittered hypochondriac seething with resentment. Among those she detested most was China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, painted by Dr. Li as a scrounging “dog” obediently licking Mao’s feet. Not a flattering portrait of a man others consider a “perfect revolutionary.” The other hated figure was Dr. Li himself, probably resented for his proximity to the Chairman.

Dr Li and Mao

Mao seems to have had a lot of contempt for those who served him unfailingly. Zhou Enlai had been with the Chairman since the early days of the Communist struggle, defending Mao against critics within the Party, tagging along on the great man’s path to the top and, at times, doing the man’s dirty work. Yet when Zhou needed it most, Mao did not permit Zhou to undergo cancer surgery, which probably sealed his death warrant just months before the Chairman took his own last breath. As for Mao’s eternally devoted wife, she met her fate in front of a tribunal and was imprisoned for life, although released early, only to commit suicide. No one around Mao met a happy end.

Dr. Li’s memoirs give valuable insights into the workings of those in power. Often making decisions in ignorance, determined to fit square pegs into round holes, come what may. Mao took unilateral decisions during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution which, in retrospect, were great wastes of time and human life. Millions perished in famine and political persecution designed to keep the leader in power. There were those who saw disaster on the horizon but, given the atmosphere of terror the Chairman radiated, they kept quiet lest they be accused of “counter-revolutionary” attitudes. You seldom knew where you stood, or for how long. People fell in and out of favour; all was unpredictable under a leader who, in Dr. Li’s words, was “devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth.” In other words, Mao was a sadistic psychopath, not unlike Stalin, Hitler, and many others. What he knew best was how to juggle factions, keep everyone off balance, and mesmerize the masses looking for a god to worship.

We learn much about Mao. For instance, his manipulation of comrades loyal to the point of condemning themselves to labour camps during “struggle” sessions. He would discard followers as fast as he took them up. This included many who had accompanied Mao on the Long March, a historic trial of Party solidarity which separated the devoted from the uncommitted. As the author notes, time and again, Dr. Li feared for the safety of his family and himself, for his fate was their fate. But, he says, “Even as I became aware of [Mao’s] ruthlessness, I protected myself by watching in silence.” Could be the doctor was both fascinated and terrorized by the situation he found himself in. And the biggest challenge, always, was remaining “apolitical” while living within a highly charged fishbowl called “Group One,” the Chairman’s elite team.

We also learn something of Mao’s personal habits. For instance, Mao never used Western type seat-toilets. Instead, he would travel with his own bed pans, even on state visits, and he would bring his own bed on his personal train. He would swim daily in any of the villas regional commanders had built specifically for him, and he would never announce where he was going until the very last minute out of fear of assassination. He had a host of food testers through which he avoided poisoning and would travel on his train guarded by tens of thousands of militia stationed along the tracks. All air traffic would be grounded when the Chairman took to the air. Mao learned from Chinese history to be both cautious and ruthless.

On several campaigns, like “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao encouraged free debate on Party policies. But once critics had come forward, even with mild proposals, he turned on the “vipers,” as he called them, destroying their careers, their families, and condemning many to hard labour in “re-education camps.” Those who opposed his will were denounced as “rightists,” or “counter-revolutionaries,” rejected by the Party, and denied the means of making a living. Dr. Li found himself banished more than once, only to be recalled to the Chairman’s side because the leader had ailments which included chronic insomnia, bronchitis, and colds. Mao trusted his personal doctor — but then he didn’t. One could never be sure.

Mao gave Li, and other doctors, a hard time as he would seldom listen to advice or undergo treatment until it was almost too late. And, of course, each time Mao’s health was compromised, the politburo held Dr. Li personally responsible. When Mao eventually succumbed to his fate, Dr. Li needed to come up with an acceptable “cause of death,” while being suspected of knocking-off the Chairman. He just managed to save himself.

We also learn some unsavoury details of the Great Helmsman’s health. For instance, Mao was saturated with venereal diseases which he carelessly passed on to young sexual partners. Mao understood little of modern hygiene or medicine, seldom bathed, popped sleeping pills, and slept with young women in order to gain longevity from their body fluids. In essence, Mao was a peasant, intellectually and culturally. However, a true Machiavellian, he knew how to survive among the “vipers.”

Under extreme strain, Dr. Li tried to resign, but each time he was cajoled back under threat. He makes it clear he believed in the great project to build socialism, believed in the Chairman, although he had misgivings, mostly about Mao’s sexual ethics. It could well be that Mao would have shown more respect for Dr. Li and others, who come off in the memoir as sycophants, had they stood up to the Chairman once in a while, but then this is easier said than done given the circumstances. What emerges from the memoir is a picture of people dazzled by great power but at the cost of their souls. Dr. Li’s memoir ends on a note of personal – perhaps belated — regret at having deprived his wife of a normal existence and having come away with so little at the end of a journey.

The memoirs would be more informative had Dr. Li been a psychologist, or had he the imagination of one, for we don’t really gain an understanding of what motivated Mao. What was it that made him so cold-heated? Hatred of his father? An unhappy childhood? A sadistic nature? Madness? The devil? These are questions for those who write about builders of empires on the corpses of people. As it stands, though, Dr. Li’s memoir is one of the most interesting on the subject of personalities in Mao’s “Group One.”