Monday, March 1, 2010

Thinking Politician on the Right: David Cameron

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party in GB spoke at a recent TED talk in London: http://www.ted.com/talks/david_cameron.html. How refreshing! He didn't talk about cutting taxes or balancing the budget or socialized medicine. In other words, unlike most Republicans in the U.S., he didn't just repeat platitudes! (I understand that some Republicans undertook some serious thinking at the recent health care meeting with President Obama, but I assume that came about so that the President wouldn't show them up). Most of what comes out of the mouths of most Republicans amounts to tired campaign slogans. (Yes, Democrats do it, but right now, Democrats have to actually make laws and govern, even though they are only doing a mediocre job of it.) Cameron spoke about how to provide a more effective government and how to empower people. He cited (with photos!) the work of Cass Sunstein (whom crazies on the lunatic fringe demonize in his position as Obama's head of regulatory affairs), behavioral economist Richard Thaler, Sunstein's co-author of Nudge, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Economics prize-winner who isn't an economist (Nasim Taleb even likes him!), and Robert Cialdini (Influence). Wow, someone on the Right (relatively speaking) who thinks! Of course on the American right we have some thinkers, but they have no influence now and virtually all of the thinking from Republicans seems really tired and behind the times. Anyway, something refreshing from across the pond.

Afterthoughts:

  1. Does the fact that the Brits have parliamentary government and have to think about ruling more seriously make them better at transitions and providing better-considered alternatives?
  2. Does the fact that leaders of the parties in GB have to stand up regularly in parliament and answer questions—tough questions—make them better thinkers and speakers? Could you imagine W at question hour? Even Obama, who thinks and speaks very carefully and rather slowly, would have a hard time in such an atmosphere. I used to on occasion watch Tony Blair at question hour (I don't recall what channel), and I found it quite entertaining and thoughtful. (Although I must say that I watched Gordon Brown's TED talk, and I don't know that I made it to the end.)

Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages

Thomas Cahill continues his "Hinges of History" volumes with Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (2008, 368p.). I listened to it a second time as a part of my medieval reading project, and yes, I enjoyed it a second time. Cahill is born storyteller, whose informal style, pithy asides, and trenchant observations make for listening (or reading) that provides both entertainment and insight. Cahill prefaces his book with a glimpse of the Alexandria of Late Antiquity. From there, Cahill bases his tour based primarily on a discussion of notable and noteworthy personages of the period, including saints like Hildegard of Bingen and St. Francis, thinkers like Abelard (including an account of this tragic love affair with Heloise), St. Thomas Aquinas (no dumb-ox he), and Roger the proto-scientist Bacon, and artists Giotto and Dante (my man!). Cahill also discusses the many lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine (think Kathryn Hepburn in Lion in Winter), whose marriages, affairs, and actions provide quite a story in themselves. Cahill provides a sympathetic perspective on these figures so far away in time, and he appreciates how they laid the groundwork for what came later. Of the attitudes one may take about the Middle Ages, from derision to romantic celebration, Cahill takes the role of one who appreciates its positive accomplishments but who also fully acknowledges all of the blemishes.

If you've no real acquaintance with the Middle Ages, I recommend this book as an excellent introduction. A reader will find it full of the lore that makes this period both intriguing and slightly terrifying. BTW, if you haven't read the first book in his "Hinges of History" series, How the Irish Saved Civilization, I highly recommend it as well. It provides the story of the bridge between Roman civilization and the Middle Ages often known as the Dark Ages, but now referred to among historians as Late Antiquity. Anyway, it's the story of the Irish and how their monasteries preserved learning at a time when learning in the West was deeply crippled.