LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
PROVINCE - Home - About This Site - Agile
Companies - Annual Reports - Best
of Class - Best of the
GP14Jan04: Looking for History and Better Bread
The End of History. Back in 1992, Francis Fukuyama, now a George Mason professor, proclaimed The End of History in a book that took all the world by storm. It was an extension of an article he had written in 1989 as a State Department planner. The Cold War over, he felt history’s struggles to be at an end, with the U.S. on top and democratic capitalism in the saddle. In his Great Disruption (2000), we learn that what he really meant was that the Industrial Revolution had run its course and that the next historical zeitgeist was just around the corner. It is the Information Revolution, and as we work our way past 2000, it is gathering steam and promises to be the driving force of this millennium.
Broken Record. Nonetheless, Fukuyama was strangely prophetic. We have been on an anti-historical binge ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, ignoring the lessons of the past and acting as if there were no tomorrow. The most ironic consequence of this attitude, of course, is that even as we ignore the past, we keep repeating it. The phonograph record is stuck in the Cold War groove, as if the last decade had never occurred. How else can we explain the Bush Administration’s expensive policy of Wolfowitz ColdWarfare against the Middle East, and its use of conventional military setpiece battles against unseen, wildly dispersed enemies spread through many nations? It is more comfortable with 1993 than 2003, calling on the relics of earlier Republican administrations to act out old roles even though they are dealing with new antagonists and a new plot. They have gone back to the moments before Fukuyama ostensibly ended history. Surely they have not surmounted or understood his great disruption.
Abolition of Memory. Our recent correspondence is full of examples of what happens when we and history take a holiday from one another. The Wall Street poet Eugene Schlanger, who is by day counsel at a Wall Street firm, tells us of “8 Mute Minimal Designs,” the proposed new edifices at Ground Zero that totally blot out any memory of 9/11/01:
Where is the twisted human torso?
Should we not, here and now, make known the
Placid well-lit puddles of piddling light
Experience. Serene Ground Zero.
Will this be called the architecture of amnesia?
Knockoffs. Pat McInroy, a somewhat retired creative director out in San Francisco and author of an historical novel, The Reckoning (2000), hugely enjoyed his last trip to New York City, but found that much of its past and identity had been wiped clean by “sterile” changes:
“86th street … has no trace of the Yorkville shops and restaurants that I knew in the 60s, but is completely laced with chain stores from Lex to York. If you didn’t look above street level, you could be in Omaha or Tucson. The other horrible intrusion is Starbucks, which are on every—I mean every—block through the city.”
If every town is now like another—filled with cookie-cutter chain businesses that are all cheap replicas of one another, then why you should pick one town over another, one coffee shop over the next? Towns that have disposed of their histories, or businesses that are pale imitations of one another, lack the economic vitality and staying power that comes from originality. They are obsolescent the moment they are built. If everything is to be alike, undented by the pockmarks imposed by history, then we might as well spend all day and night in a huge, fluorescent lighted Walmart in Anywhere, Wyoming where the deer and antelope no longer bother to play. Could it be that life without a defining special history in which to take pride plays some part in the massive, epidemic rise of depression throughout our society? One-of-a-kind experiences create economic value: commodity atmospheres subtract from life and the pocketbook. A nation without history not only wanders into political thickets: It loses its economic edge.
Blowing in the Wind. If the mind of the U.S. is stuck at the end of the Cold War, poor Cuba is still immersed in it, shackled to the 1950s, courtesy of Castro. That’s what autocrats do: thrust us into the past and make sure we march in lockstep with outdated notions of almost everything. The more autocratic, the further behind the times the people are.
But we learn that their power is never absolute. In Castro’s Cuba, music still lives, and every traveler there hears and raves about the accumulation of wonderful sounds that is the island’s greatest treasure. Even in the developed countries of the world that hearken to decades past, street buskers, often near subways, improvise music with a similar effect. Curiously, even when all else in life is frozen in the past, the chords of popular music are very much present in the current moment. Rebecca Otto, a speechwriter who was just in Havana, heard just these cadences on her trip and much remarked on them in her account of her trip:
“We’ve been tuning our ears for weeks on Buena Vista Social Club CDs, but we know that tonight’s jazz, streaming from a small, smoky downstairs bar called La Zorra y El Cuervo (The Vixen and the Crow) will be closer to today’s rhythms. We’re surprised at how stark this music sounds. It is an unmistakable African drumbeat—pounded by five mostly young Afro-Cuban women whose shimmering, tight dresses emphasize not breasts but un-girdled stomach mounds, undulating to the beat. They pummel African Conga drums, clang simple cowbells, and tap simpler claves (a hollow wood tube held in one hand, rapped by a slender wooden stick).
The famed ‘cinnamon’ sisters will play Saturday night—both sets. We catch them then, and Canela is nothing short of electric—their funky jazz and Afro-Cuban vibes literally vibrate the purse resting in my lap. We’ve heard that Canela was three sisters, but eight women, in casual tops and jeans, pack the stage that night—joined by one man, Jesus Fuentes, on saxophone and drums. They start hot and end hotter. Electric guitars, an electronic keyboard and electrifying drums whip up exceeding turbulence, which hypnotic sax, flute and vocals somehow manage to smooth. In love we buy two CDs that night—not one.”
Even in a country where history is forbidden to happen, it happens anyway, in the chants and songs of people improvising on the streets and sometimes in the cafes.
Back to Square One. The immensely talented William Grossmanns are almost ex-pats now, though they thought they were on their way home to these United States. After an age and one half in Germany, they had come back to Washington, D.C. in September 2002, completely redoing their residence there. That was not to be.
Bill, a plasma physicist and now an executive for SAIC, a leading technology consultancy, was shunted off to Paris to spearhead more European development. He and his wife parked themselves in a pleasant apartment on the Left Bank and readied themselves to conquer Gaul. But it was not to be.
“After one last magical weekend over Easter, we were back in Heidelberg.” They found themselves back on Square One, far from America. After a frenzied year, they were simply back to where they were coming from.
Are our best and brightest running, furiously, in place? We suspect that when the history of this anti-historical transition period is written, we will discover that our most energetic, creative people were engaged in huge amounts of activity signifying nothing. The Grossmanns’ round trip is simply one of the more colorful illustrations of the circular struggles experienced by many knowledge workers. We talk every day to people who are working and running harder than ever and who are sure they are accomplishing less. That happens in a world where there is no consensus as to where we are headed and where we are coming from. Inside organizations we discover people who restlessly dart about, uncertain where to go, part of communities without history or direction. As a consequence, we are not getting on with the business of the future.
Bread. In this interlude between the Industrial Revolution and the Information Society, people seem to have lost their way, and they seem to grind out a series of yesterdays, retreating to a time when things were coherent for them.
But our sense of history will return, and with it our ability to make sense of our times. We would refer you to one small example of how a feel for history can revive the quality of life. Bread is bound up with the history of nations and the state of bread often tells you how well a nation is getting by. In these United States, you can tell how civilized a city, state, or region is by counting the number of quality bakeries to be found there. To the best of our knowledge, there is, for instance, only one premier baker within a hundred miles of one of our office locations.
Last week on the Global Province (Best of Class #315), we essayed about Stephen Kaplan, a Cornell history professor who has written extensively and lovingly about the history of French bread. In fact, he has since given us some current recommendations on Parisian bakeries and restaurants we plan to visit this week. After World War II, French bread did go into serious decline (as did the loaves of several nations), but good bread has staged a comeback as both bakers and consumers have absorbed the history of what makes for quality. Kaplan, be he an American from Brooklyn, is widely if sometimes grudgingly acknowledged by the French to have played a key role in recovering their history and their bread.
Tellingly, in the post-industrial economy on the cusp of the information age, good bread can stage a comeback and become economically viable, even if Walmart, Carrefours, and McDonald’s are grinding out no-taste and no-nutrition fare just down the street. That is, the best hope for up-and-coming businesses in a world of giants and global consolidation is dramatically better products and services that draw on all the lessons of history. What market dominant companies want us to forget is that something much better, smaller, and diffentiated actually can exist. Long-term the power of information-based small units does not bode well for large-scale organizations, cumbersome relics from the age of the Industrial Revolution.
Falling off the Map. If the principal countries on earth, with the possible exception of China, are suspended in neutral between the past and the future, where might you look for the future? As we said in our 30 October 2002 Letter, “Falling off the Map,” the real action lies in the countries at the margin that are in the swim of history. Because of their less-encumbered pasts, they are not weighed down by the detritus of the Cold War or an outdated over-investment in the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution. Mobile phones, the Internet, and the personal computer have made surprising per capita inroads within Finland, Iceland, and other Nordic countries; connectedness is probably overdone in Singapore, South Korea, and other Asian outposts. Even the United Arab Emirates are more digital than you can believe. Smaller countries, often more homogeneous and less invested in old habits, are doing a better job of getting into the 21st century than many of the old powers. That is why we read about the remarkable education and health standards in Finland, or that Singapore is the ultimate Smart(wired) nation for those who follow such things. Those seeking comparative advantage should put outposts in such small economies.
Copyright 2003 GlobalProvince.com