Trump & co: From populism to Caesarism

Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Viktor Orban already are. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and a long list of others really would like to be. What? Little Caesars. Because Caesarism sooner or later grows naturally out of populism. And that is a threat to our Western understanding of republican liberty.

That, at least, was my hypothesis when I was invited to a delightful format of intellectual discussion in Berlin called Politischer Eintopf. It means “political stew”, and you literally get a bowl of stew while you listen to a guest speaker. Then you discuss.

This discussion was lively and good. Because it struck a chord. In Europe, we are about a month away from a populist effort to get Britain out of the European Union. In America, a long, slow-surging wave of populism has washed up the figure of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Spain, Greece, and … even Germany there are now populist movements afoot.

But why would I even pose a question about Caesarism in this context? Here is why.

Phenomenon I: Populism

Populism (like so much else) originated in the late Roman Republic. The word populism comes from populus, “people”. During the last century of the Roman Republic, two political styles (not parties!) emerged in Rome. They were called Optimates and Populares

The Populares included some famous people:

The Optimates also included some famous people:

  • Cato the younger
  • Cicero
  • Brutus

It’s important to understand that their differences were not about content, or “policies”. Instead, they were about a style of power–about how to attain power and whence it springs.

The Populares went directly to the populus, the people, in Rome’s various assemblies, through what we would today call referendums. They wanted to circumvent the elites in the patrician families of Rome as represented in the Senate. It was (then as now) ironic but not contradictory that the Populares were usually themselves members of the elite they were trying to outmaneuver.

The Optimates in turn wanted to keep power concentrated in the elite, especially in the Senate. For that was part of their idea of liberty. History had taught them that populism sooner or later yields a tyrant and thus a threat to the republic.

What features did populism already have then, that it still has now?

  • anti-elitist rhetoric. Today that can be (especially in America) anti-intellectual or (as also in Germany) anti-PC, meaning against political correctness. That could also mean anti-“mainstream media”.
  • polarization and personalization: populists want to get people riled up and angry. And they want to reduce problems from issues to people. A personality cult usually ensues. If only there were a “strong leader”….
  • Degradation first of language, then of institutions. Violence metaphors enter language. Soon taboos are broken. Violence becomes physical. People (starting with the Gracchi brothers) are killed.

 

Phenomenon II: Caesarism

Caesarism eventually arises naturally out of populism. It requires 1) a few cycles of populist softening of republican values through (the aforesaid) coarsening, polarization and personalization and 2) a charismatic leader. That leader promises at last to bring “solutions” to “problems” that the republic with its tedious processes had no answers for. The populus loves it.

Sometimes Caesars go too far too fast. The first Caesar encountered a Cato, a Cicero and a Brutus, and got himself stabbed. Who would be Trump’s Cato today? Perhaps Paul Ryan?

Other times Caesars are more skillful. The second Caesar was. We know him as Octavian in his youth and Augustus in his prime, but his official name was that of his adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar. He never officially abolished the republic he ended, just as Hitler never formally scrapped the Weimar constitution. Instead, Augustus became not king but princeps, “first head”, first among equals. The Senate and all other republican institutions were conspicuously maintained. Only they were now hollow in all but appearance.

America’s founding fathers, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had this example in their minds as they worried about their young nation’s constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They feared that a future president could become another king in all but name. An anecdote about Ben Franklin sums up the worry. As he left the negotiations in Philadelphia, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The meaning is all in the second clause.

The founding fathers’s main answer was based on an idea by the Frenchman Montesquieu. It was the separation of powers. He had in mind what we today call the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. But in time the West has recognized other powers, above all that of a the media. Today’s Little Caesars (such as Putin or Erdogan or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński) usually try first to take out the free press.

The problem with checks and balances is of course that they slow things down. Everything becomes a process: tedious, complicated, frustrating. Problems seem not to get swift solutions. The populus gets cranky. If only somebody understood us little people, talked as we talk, solved our problems!

Another French philosopher, Joseph Marie de Maistre, once said : “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Many of us the West will in the coming years find out just what we deserve.

My Germany mix (I: remembrance)

So I finally got around to Hitler.

I took the expiry of the copyright of Mein Kampf as my excuse to reflect on how the Germans have over the past 70 years dealt with the shadow and legacy of the Führer.

But that piece in our 2015 Christmas Issue is only the latest of several articles that I’ve written on the wider theme of German remembrance.

Recall that in 2012 I moved from California to Germany to cover the country for The Economist. In that time (through 2015) I must have written a couple of hundred articles of all lengths, in print and online. So I want to select just a few here on my blog, in a series of posts grouped by themes. And the first theme must be remembrance.

I’ve always been fascinated by German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. That one long word means coping-with-the-past, and it’s telling that only the Germans would need such a term. Germany is cursed with the worst past to cope with. But coped it has. In the process, Germany has transformed a curse into a sort of blessing. All other countries, and even individuals, can learn from it in this respect.

The question, for a country and a person, is: how does one confront the worst in one’s past to atone for it and eventually to transcend it by becoming good in the present?

The answer is: with relentless honesty and everlasting sensitivity so that the act of remembering always connects one with, rather than divides one from, those one has harmed and allows new connections in the present. (That aspect of re-connecting is salient in the Stolpersteine piece below.)

Articles I have written that touch in different ways on this theme of remembrance and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, in reverse chronological order:

Hitler: What the Führer means for Germans today

Obituary: Richard von Weizsäcker

The Graffiti that made Germany better

This is a piece I wrote for The Atlantic on how Germany uses its public architecture “to blend the tragedy of the past with redemption in the present and renewal in the future.”

Stumbling over the past with Stolpersteine

Other themes to come in this series:

  • Merkel
  • German power
  • Germany and Europe
  • The awful German language

Descent on deadline day

Wednesdays are our deadline days at The Economist. This means that correspondents have filed their copy to editors, who are subbing the pieces and going back and forth with correspondents and fact-checkers.

Every now and then it gets hairy, but most of the time it just means lots of overeducated people sitting around doing the same thing and needing relief.

And then these grown men and women–senior editors, book authors, award winners among them–will descend into activities such as the email trail below, which is unfolding right now, in real time, and which I reproduce here without further comment:

Email 1: … A quick request from the kitchen…if you have a fork from upstairs (the stainless steel ones with beading) please could you return it….

Reply 1: Forking hell.

Reply 2: As Yogi Berra once said: when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Reply 3: It’s a tiney problem in the big scheme of things.

Reply 4: May the forks be with you, always.

Reply 5: Just a reminder: Guy Forks night tomorrow.

Reply 6: Well, the fork is strong with this one.

Reply 7: Saw one of these acting suspiciously outside the building [attaches picture of fork lift]

Reply 8: There both is and is not a fork in my office, depending on which path we are on in the garden of forking paths

Reply 9: Oh, fork crying out loud, everyone…

Reply 10: No more! You’re driving me forking crazy!

Reply 11: fork give us

Reply 12: Stick a fork in it. It’s done.

Reply 13: These jokes just don’t cut it. 

Marx was wrong: Humiliation is the base

Tom Friedman was in Berlin this week, hosted by the American Academy, to make himself smart on Germany and to begin plugging the book he’s working on, “Thank you for being late”.

Sipping drinks on a Charlottenburg rooftop before a dinner given for him, Tom and I were talking about one of the many ideas he is pursuing in that book, which is that humiliation is the driver of events in the Middle East today. Young male Arabs in that region arguably feel more humiliated than any other group in the world today. That puts them at extra risk of drifting into the various forms of nihilism. Young Arabs in the banlieues of Paris and other European cities also feel humiliated and are also at risk.

Then Tom and I pondered whether humiliation drives human action (and thus history) more generally. The Germans after World War I felt humiliated by the “peace” the Allies imposed on them, and that humiliation, probably more than hyperinflation or depression, drove them into the arms of Hitler. Today, the Russians feel humiliated by the “peace” the West and NATO imposed on Europe 25 years ago, which appears to make them surrender willingly to the propaganda of Putin. And so on.

Just then I had an embryo of an idea and dropped it into the conversation: Marx was wrong, I said. It’s not the mode of production that is the base, with everything else being the superstructure. Instead our sense of dignity or humiliation is the base. The base is thus not materialistic but psychological.

Tom was intrigued by that half-formed thought so we met again on Saturday at the American Academy’s beautiful lake-side villa for a long talk, marred only by that day’s pollen count, which left me a red-eyed and sniffling hunk of misery. Tom wanted me to flesh out the idea. I’m hardly an expert on Marx. But we ruminated on it for a while and came up with a hypothesis along the following lines, which I would now like to test on you.

Marx was a Hegelian, ie a follower of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom I’ve called “the archetype of the Teutonic windbag” on this blog before. Hegel thought, in his convoluted way, that history was a process that led, via many surprising turns, to a higher end state. So Marx wanted to one-up Hegel by explaining what the mechanism or driver of that historical process was, and what the end state looked like.

Marx called the driver the “base” and postulated that it was the mode of production — ie, how and by whom things are made in a given society. That thinginess is the Marxist “materialism”. (If I am wrong, you experts, please correct me in the comments.)

Everything else — ideas, thought, art, music, religion, politics, relationships — is but the “superstructure” built on top of that base. User “Alyxr” on Wikipedia depicts it thus:

Base-superstructure_Dialectic

In his own time, Marx thought, Europe had gone from feudalism to capitalism. A new class, the bourgeoisie, had taken over from the feudal lords as the owners of the means of production. This capitalist bourgeoisie now determined the superstructure. But as more and more of the workers on the capitalists’ payroll felt exploited (“humiliated”?), they would eventually rise up, ushering in socialism, and eventually communism. That would be the Hegelian end state.

So Marx thought that production was the deep-down driver of human action, in the way that Nietzsche thought it was power and Freud thought it was sex. But as Tom and I scanned today’s landscape, we started thinking that maybe humiliation was the more powerful driver. We see it in China, for instance, where a synthetically hyped “memory” of the humiliations by the West and Japan play a big part in driving progress.

I see it in America: Many blacks feel humiliated by cops in certain places. Prisoners feel humiliated by the reigning punishment mentality in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and in history.

I also see it in eastern (ie, “East”) Germany, where many Ossis march in the so-called Pegida demonstrations in Dresden against foreigners. Like members of the Tea Party in America, Pegida followers tend to be middle class and middle-aged and thus objectively not at the exploited end of any mode of production. But they have a subjective sense that they were marginalized in a reunited and politically correct Germany and feel humiliated.

I think postwar Germany, given what it had just committed, recognized this primacy of humiliation in 1949 by enshrining its positive opposite, dignity, in the first article of Germany’s new constitution:

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.

(The dignity of every human being is inviolable.)

Despite this post’s title (which is meant to provoke), the idea is not to suggest that humiliation/dignity should become a new base, with everything else becoming its superstructure. I don’t see, for example, how humiliation (as opposed to technology) could determine the mode of production. And there are plenty of people who don’t feel humiliated but make history nonetheless. So there probably is no single base, and trying to pick one was the real error of Marx and people like him.

But the need for dignity, and the power of humiliation, nonetheless seem basic. Whenever dignity is violated (much more than when property rights are violated, for example) human beings will react. The more humiliated they feel, the stronger their reaction will be. That’s not how all of history is made. But it’s how much of history is made. And because people will always humiliate and feel humiliated, history has no end state.

That 1913 feeling

I spent the last four days at the Munich Security Conference, which is the global gathering for all those interested in international relations and matters of war and peace. It takes place in a historic Bavarian hotel whose hallways and coffee lounges are much too narrow for the throngs of diplomats, parlamentarians and statesmen, along with their security goons, and of course the hordes of think-tankers and journalists like me. Everyone jostles and bumps into everyone else. All of which is usually a good thing in world politics.

This year was different, as the old-timers told me. Nobody could remember any instance over the years when a speaker was jeered with derisive laughter. But that’s how the audience reacted to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as he spouted Putin’s propaganda from the stage. Lindsey Graham, an American senator who talked a gun-slinging Fox-Newsy tough talk, called the statements by another Russian on his panel “garbage” and “lies”.

He, like John McCain, another American senator, also harangued Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, as if she were an unruly child. McCain told German television that she clearly does not care that Ukrainians are dying–for if she did, she would offer to sell them weapons. (As though there were no other reasons to oppose sending arms.) Germans don’t like that American tone, just as Americans would not like it in reverse. As if Russia vs the West were not enough, we’re also getting more West vs West.

Merkel, for her part, has not properly slept for a week and won’t for another. With her French colleague, Francois Hollande, she flew to Kiev on Thursday, then to Moscow on Friday. The talks with Putin were evidently as frustrating as ever. On Saturday she came to the Munich conference to address us. Then it was on to Washington, where she is today with Obama. Then on to Canada tomorrow, and then to Minsk on Wednesday. She is killing herself trying to get one especially stubborn and unreasonable man with a dangerous inferiority complex and several other slightly less stubborn men to step back from the brink.

In the hallways and over the lunches I talked it over with the veterans and experts. We went deep into history and jargon (“hybrid warfare”, “escalation dominance”, …). But wonkishness is a thin veneer over gut feelings. And almost everyone there had a bad gut feeling about the whole thing.

The diplomatic currency of talking–of listening to opponents and believing at least part of what they say–is used up. The ghosts of the past are coming unburied. Europe is in incredible danger.

Advice to introverted public speakers (and their hosts)

I’m an introvert and I also enjoy public speaking from time to time.

That is not a contradiction. If you think it is, then you probably haven’t understood the definition of introversion. (In which case, read this excellent and short explanation by Jonathan Rauch, who used to be a colleague at The Economist.)

The problem for me when I speak publicly is usually not the speech itself, no matter how big the audience. Rather it is the people who invited me to speak and feel they must take care of me before and after. Invariably, these organizers/hosts/masters of ceremonies are extroverts. They mean well but do not understand the introvert brain (whereas introverts usually do understand the extrovert brain).

So, as we get close to my speaking time and approach the podium, they make sure to keep up the chit-chat, introduce me to five more people, ask me to meet their old friend Jim and trade cards and so forth. Because it’s all so fun.

Well, no, for an introvert that is the bit that is draining. And the last thing you want to do before public speaking is to drain yourself. You’re about to need your energy to go deep inside yourself and project it outward (which is a strength of many introverts). And after the speech, you’ll need a bit of time to collect your thoughts and energies again for the next part. Once you’ve recovered, that next part can be social.

That’s why I found it so refreshing to give a talk the other day in Amsterdam to the European Speechwriter Network. It was a roomful of, well, speechwriters. And voice coaches, and storytelling strategists, and all those contiguous professions.

Quite a few of them were themselves introverts. And all of them understood. I was standing at lunch with one of them, when she noticed all by herself that my speaking time was coming up.

“Honestly,” she said, “if I were you I would now walk away from me and go outside, to the toilet or wherever, and get focussed.” Those may not have been her exact words. But the sentiment was modest, pertinent and beautiful. So I went to the men’s room, did a few power poses in a stall, and read through my index cards (but then put them away).

And the speech went fine. It was called “Should you hate Angela Merkel’s speechwriter?” The topic was her speaking style, including her body language, which is very surprising to non-Germans. Here is the podcast. (There is no video, which is unfortunate because much of the talk was me imitating the body languages of various German politicians.)

After the talk, I went out again for a while to reconnect with myself. And then I came back into the room to connect with the others. It was educational and fun. Because, even for introverts, it can be fun, if the conversation is good and the others let everybody be.

1989 in the grand sweep of German history

Here in Berlin everybody is revving up for the third big anniversary of the year. The first two marked tragedies: the 100th of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of World War II. This third one marks a happy event: the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 and the crumbling of the entire Iron Curtain.

I will soon write something about this in The Economist, of course. But here on my personal blog I want to attempt something more daring: to place the fall of the Wall in the very grand sweep of German history:

Stand back and squint at “Western” history as a whole since the early modern era and the Enlightenment. Bring your attention in particular to two ideas:

  1. national unity
  2. liberty

What do you see? You see that most Western nations first achieved unity in the form of highly centralized kingdoms, as in England and France, or republics, as in the Netherlands and America after their splits from Spain and England.

Popular energies in these nations, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, thus refocussed on the other goal, liberty. This led to successive liberal revolutions with different flavors of conservatism/radicalism: 1688, 1776, 1789.

And Germany? As far as unity goes, it was the odd man out. Until Napoleon, there was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But, as the famous phrase had it, it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. In reality, some 300 quasi-sovereign principalities co-existed next to one another, often tensely (see: Austria and Prussia). After Napoleon, other federations or customs unions took the Empire’s place but did not resolve “the German question” of how or even whether the country would unify.

As Germans emerged from the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Wars, therefore, they had to pursue two goals simultaneously, unity and liberty. That was asking a lot. But they tried, and their twin ideals found a symbol in the colors black-red-gold, which about 30,000 men and women optimistically carried up to the castle of the small Rhenish town of Hambach in 1832. (Apparently, Germans today have the colors upside down, as this picture suggests.)Hambacher Fest

In 1848, at last, the inevitable revolution(s) broke out. If they had succeeded, Germany would have become a liberal republic or a constitutional monarchy¹ with its capital in Frankfurt. But the revolutions failed in the gunfire of Austrian, Prussian and other princes.

And so began what historians used to call Germany’s Sonderweg, or special path, separate from the West. In the decades after 1848, many Germans concluded that pursuing liberty and unity simultaneously was too much, that unity had to come first. The Italians seemed to confirm this view with their (also belated) unification.

The rest is well known: unification with only a sheen of liberty under the aegis and sword of Prussia (after wars against Austria, Denmark and France); a chauvinistic nationalism to cover for the liberal deficit; war and humiliation; another failed attempt at liberty and unity called Weimar; another war, holocaust and destruction; then division.

Dividing Germany into West and East appeared to scrap half of the grand project forever. Germans would never be united, it seemed. But at least those in the West finally got liberty, even if they had it imposed upon them by the Western victors.

And now the full import of 1989 should be coming into focus. The East Germans who decided to stop being afraid and took to the streets in Leipzig and elsewhere, starting in October of that year, at first shouted “We are the people.” This was directed at their communist oppressors and represented their primal scream for liberty. But that same autumn their cry turned into “We are one people.” This was their bold leap for unity as well.

1989 thus follows 1688, 1776, and 1789. But it also one-upped all of them. It was not only the first successful liberal German revolution but also the first of the grand liberal revolutions in Western Europe that was entirely peaceful.

The Sonderweg was over at at last. Germany was finally united and free–and part of the West.

But, 25 years on, is that how Germans see it? This is another question. I hope to come back to it in due course.


¹A year after the revolutions broke out, in March 1849, the floundering Frankfurt parliament indeed offered the imperial crown to the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. He refused this offer “from the gutter”.

Let them talk before they’re gone

In the winter of 2013, I attended the funeral of an aunt at an Alpine lake where she had spent much of her life and her final years. As the coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, I stood next to my godfather and whispered an idea to him.

Born in 1924, my godfather had been sent as a German pioneer to Italy to blow up roads and bridges as the Germans retreated and the Allies advanced, spending most of his time behind enemy tank lines, usually alone. He was captured by the British, spent several years in prisoner camps in Egypt and Libya, then returned emaciated to the bombed rubble of occupied Germany in 1948. He met another of my aunts (the sister of the one we buried in 2013), fell in love and wooed her. He married her in 1953, and thus entered my family, which at that time centered around Uncle Lulu (Ludwig Erhard).

My godfather and my aunt tried to have children. They bore six sons in the next decade or so, but each was born somewhat prematurely. Today, these cousins of mine would live. In postwar Germany, they died. After years of this, my aunt committed suicide in 1968. My godfather found her floating in their swimming pool. She had sedated herself and jumped in.

My godfather fell apart, but eventually picked himself up again, perhaps with the psychological skills he had learned as a pioneer. He learned to fly small planes, because somebody had told him it’s a way to keep the mind still (or otherwise crash). In time he remarried, had two more children, eventually met a different woman, and so forth.

So we watched the coffin go down and I said something like: “Your generation should talk to my generation before your stories are lost. Into a microphone. No judgment, no parameters, just your memories, good and bad, before they’re gone.”

After the funeral I soon forgot about the little conversation. But my godfather remembered. Half a year later, he called and said: “Come down” (to Munich) and bring the microphone.

I was less enthusiastic at first. I had said that at the funeral as one says these things, not expecting to be called on them, and now it was extremely inconvenient in my middle-aged life. But at some point, I remembered why I had whispered my “offer” in the first place. So I spent a long afternoon and evening in his small study amid papers and family photos. And he talked.

Such conversations can fail. I don’t think children or grandchildren can interview their parents or grandparents, for example. The bond is too intimate, and the observer becomes part of the observation. The older person might feel at important moments that he or she is being judged, and there must be absolutely none of that for any of it to be interesting. Having a stranger do the interview is also unlikely to work. There must be some intimacy to get the right stuff out of the person, to let them speak in their own idiom and have things be understood.

I now have many hours of rough, rambling conversation on my computer, unstructured as all human communication is. I have discovered Garage Band and am cutting these hours to condense and arrange the segments, bringing them into an order so that the stories become intelligible. To do so is not to waste time but to enter another one. It puts a lot of things in perspective. I recommend it.

Where every wall tells a story

Since moving to Berlin two years ago, I’ve spent uncountable hours on architectural walks–whenever possible with people who can tell me the stories behind a building, structure or gap.

That’s because the architecture and its stories are so moving, so fascinating and absorbing. This accumulation of impressions had to find an outlet, and now it has.

The Atlantic has just published my big online essay on what I see as a distinct new Berlin style in public architecture and political culture. Its

dominant narrative is tragic, but with redemption in the present. The reunification of the city (and country and continent) in 1990, and the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the following decade, provided the opportunity and the physical space to express this narrative architecturally. Many public buildings built or rebuilt during this time visually acknowledge the disasters of the past but surround them with the achievements of the present. The combination constitutes an exhortation for the future. The Reichstag is perhaps the best example of how this distinct style came into being.

Indeed, the Reichstag, and in particular the decision when rebuilding it to keep the graffiti of the Russian soldiers who had taken the building in 1945, was the germ of my thesis. That’s why the piece begins and ends with it.

You could regard this piece as part of a series. You might call it a commemoration or remembrance theme, or something along those lines.

It began with my longform article on Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), the private art project in which people in Germany and other European countries “sponsor” a victim of the Nazis who had once lived at a particular address in order to have a brass plate installed in its public sidewalk.

In pointing you to that piece here on this blog, I already posted a photo of the Reichstag graffiti as yet another example of this remembrance aesthetic. At the time I had not even decided to follow up with a separate piece. But here it is.

My series continued with this blog post on The Economist’s Charlemagne blog (soon to be discontinued, btw) about the astonishing story of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin. It happens to sit right between the Bundestag and the Chancellery, and for a reason.

And so it goes, every day I spend in Berlin: Every wall, rock, hole or hill¹ has stories to tell if you as much as scratch it or kick it. And the stories are often both harrowing and uplifting, and demanding to be told.

There may well be more to come in this series.


¹If you’re wondering how a flat place like Berlin could have hills, well, that is the story. They are not natural. They are the rubble of the destroyed 1945 city, swept up once in the West and once in the East, then built upon by the conquerors to house spying towers (Snowden should visit) and now a venue for all sorts of funky goings-on…. 

 

Begone bloggy eye candy

What really slowed down those monks in the middle ages as they were hand-copying (= manu+script) the old books were the darned pictures. There weren’t many, of course, but the few were elaborate. Without the images, the monks, tipsy or not, would have blogged a lot more. I mean, copied.

Gutenberg made everything easier but again the problem was the darned pictures. Mankind dealt with that capacity constraint by not including much in the way of visuals in the media for a few centuries. The “press” (as in moveable type) became almost entirely textual.

Text has always been good for word guys and word gals. I can’t imagine that either Tolstoy or Nietzsche or Joyce or Goethe felt that they were held back in their creativity because they didn’t have Instagram, or because their text margins didn’t contain widgets, or because there was no sharing button.

In the early days of blogging, circa 2000, online publishing was similarly textual. At some point that changed, and I can’t even remember quite when. Now you’ve got to dress up even the most banal thought with some snazzy eye candy. Since I started this blog in 2008, even the WordPress themes (ie, layout templates) have changed so that what is being optimized is the eye candy, not the text.

I suck at providing eye candy. My idea of photography is to whip out my old iPhone when I’m at a press conference to take a grainy shot of somebody interesting, more as a memento to myself than as material for anybody else.

That’s one reason (aside from inertia and lethargy) that I have all but stopped blogging this year. I’ve got plenty of thoughts. I could write them down quickly and without effort. But then I feel I have to fiddle around for another half an hour to get the eye candy, because without eye candy a blog looks stupid, doesn’t it?

Enough. Yesterday, I put on my Rambo headband and gave the finger to eye candy. Gone is my old Wordpress theme (Linen). I have been using it for a couple of years, but it offered too much for me¹, and I offered it nothing (visually speaking) back. We had to break up.

Instead, you are now gazing at a new theme, Syntax. I found it after about 30 seconds of due diligence, so it may not last either. But it seems to promise uncluttered, simple and unapologetically textual visuals.

Maybe that’ll get me blogging again more frequently. There are bloggers out there who are confident enough in their writing to eschew eye candy. Here is one in German, here is one in English. (The latter seems to treat his retro look as the eye candy.)

So henceforth, expect no eye candy here. Just words of wisdom or, failing that, words.


¹This reminds me of a classic quote I once used in a technology article for The Economist. Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese folk-craft philosopher of the 1930s, once wrote that

man is most free when his tools are proportionate to his needs.