The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.

___

PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

Du or Sie? A tale of awkwardness

Sprechen Sie Du?

What happens when a sort-of German dude, softened by years of Californian informality, returns to Germany and encounters the natives?

Why, it’s friggin’ awkward, of course. Just one aspect: When meeting different kinds of people, should I use Sie or Du, the formal or the informal version of “you”?

The resulting contortions, as I tell them in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life, are meant to be amusing. So go be amused, please, and have compassion with me.

(BTW, the English “you” is actually the formal second person, which completely replaced the informal “thou” centuries ago.)

Thoughts on debating

World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC) Berlin 2013

The World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) is going on right now in Berlin, with more than a thousand very talented students from all over the world testing their arguments and wit — and having a rather good time after hours as well. (You can watch the live stream of their debates here.)

They asked me to give the opening speech on Friday, with some thoughts on debating. Nothing too heavy.

A grainy video is attached below. (I start after the, yes, Alpine horns, at about minute 9.) But here is a shortened and approximate transcript of what I said:

___

Patrick just told me that The Economist is considered “the debater’s bible”. Wow. I had no idea. When you catch me in the halls later, maybe you can explain to me why that is.

Right now, I want to make only 4 simple points:

  • Debating is fun
  • It helps to be British
  • Thou shalt remember Athens
  • Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth

1) Debating is great fun.

I spend my whole life debating. At The Economist, every conversation we have is really a debate. In my family every conversation I have is really a debate. Especially with my children.

Let me tell you about a particular kind of debate we have at The Economist that you can’t know about because it’s not public:

The Monday morning meeting.

This takes place every Monday morning, when the various section editors read out the list of planned stories. We sit very casually, often on the floor, around the desk of our editor in chief. After the lists are read, we discuss what the Leaders should be. “Leaders” is our name for opinion editorials. So we talk about what they should say. Basically, we debate.

When I joined The Economist in 1997, this was the event of the week, the institution, that most inspired me. Because it was such a joy to listen, and to participate:

  • The humor,
  • the reductio ad absurdum,
  • the overstatement
  • the understatement.

 I’ve learned so much just from sitting in those Monday morning meetings. And I hope that you guys here also get to sit in rooms like that, perhaps even here in Berlin in the coming days.

And that leads me to my second point:

2) It helps to be British. 

I mean that a bit tongue in cheek. But in my experience, it’s sort of true. The level of debate in those Monday morning meetings is probably the highest anywhere, and part of the reason must be that most of the people in the room are British.

Several politicians here in Germany have told me that they like to watch House of Commons debates on YouTube, because the debating there is at a much higher level than the debates in the Bundestag. And I’ve heard similar statements in Washington DC and Sacramento CA and other places.

Part of it is, I think, that the Brits have that tradition more than any other culture in world history.

For the British upper classes, part of growing up has always been to speak in front of people, and to use humor and charm, so that when those people later grew up they seemed to do public speaking naturally. 

In other modern countries, I think you’d have to go back to the debates between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to get anything of that quality. Then again, those two Americans were really ALSO Brits. 😉

Now, I’m NOT British. And most of you are NOT British. But that’s OK. Because we can learn from them. Fortunately, their language is now our common world language.

3) Athens

Before Britain, there was of course ancient Athens. And I think a quick look back at Athens is a great way to make my other two points about debating.

First, the Athenians demonstrated the inherent link between debating and democracy, or debating and freedom. 

What is a democracy?

It is basically a society that makes its decisions after lots and lots of debate, one in which power and influence therefore come mostly from skill at debating. As opposed to brute force, for example.

In Athens during the time of Pericles they applied that idea very literally: the free men of the city met physically on one large rock to debate every topic.

They had no “government” and no “opposition” (as you do in your debate format here) because they had a pure democracy, ie a rule of the people. The people WERE the government. And they had no parties either. So leadership came down purely to skill at public speaking. Whatever was decided on that rock after all the speakers had spoken was the law.

The greatest example of a leader was Pericles. And I strongly, strongly urge all of you to read his Funeral Oration, which is one of the greatest speeches ever written.

Athens during the following century, the fourth century, when Phillip and his son Alexander rose to power and threatened Athens, was another great example. 

At that time, some of the most consequential decisions in world history were taken as a direct result of the outcome of debates between, basically, two men: 

Demosthenes and Aeschines

Those debates culminated in the so called Philippics by Demosthenes against Philip. That was the same Demosthenes, and the same Philippics, that later inspired Cicero in Rome, and really every great speaker and debater since.

So that’s another suggestion I have for you here: read the short biography of Demosthenes by the Greek writer Plutarch. it’s fascinating, because the man had a speech flaw, so he made himself a great debater by overcoming his greatest weakness. He:

  • built himself a cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech.
  • He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out.
  • He recited speeches while running up hills.
  • went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves.
  • put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf.

 But Demosthenes more cautionary lessons for you debaters as well:

  • he was a coward in battle and fled the field
  • he basically led the Athenians into a wrong course against Philipp and Alexander, and
  • he ended by committing suicide after his life work had failed.

And that leads to my fourth and last point today: 

4) Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth.

We know this too from Athens, but of course also from all the rest of history and from our own times.

The best argument doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the best delivery wins.

By the way, it was Demosthenes who, when asked what the three main element of rhetoric were, answered: “delivery, delivery, delivery.”

We call that demagoguery instead of democracy.

That was the problem that inspired maybe the greatest works of literature ever, namely Plato’s dialogues. In those, Socrates argues against the Sophists.

The sophists were people whom rich Athenian fathers hired to teach their sons debating. 

You guys here would LOVE to have a sophists working with you.

Because the sophists could teach you to take

  • one side of an argument and win,
  • and then to take the other side of the argument and win.

And that’s what bothered Socrates. Because he believed, or hoped, that there really was some objectively better or more reasonable position. And to Socrates, THAT was supposed to be the purpose of debating. To find the best answer.

So Socrates hated the Sophists, and ridiculed them with his style of questioning. He thought the Sophists interfered with truth finding because they were only interested in delivery, delivery, delivery.

Socrates thought there was a good and a bad way of debating: 

  • the bad way was a debate where the debaters want to win. He called that eristic argument, after the Greek goddess of Strife, Eris, who started the Trojan War by leaving that Golden Apple for the goddesses to fight over.
  • The good way was what he called dialectic: a debate where the debaters all want to learn, rather than win. So in theory, all debaters end up with a position that none of them took at the outset. Someone starts with a thesis, the others bring up antitheses and so on and so on, until they arrive at a synthesis.

Well, Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian Jury of about 500 men after a truly terrible, but famous, … debate.

So there you are. Let’s recap: Debating is…

  • above all, fun.
  • And it is useful.
  • And it will help you in your career and your life.

But keep in mind that little voice from Socrates and Demosthenes: debating is not enough.

  • you still have to be brave,
  • you still have to love truth, and
  • you still need to know when to stop trying to win and starting trying to figure something out.

But not during this tournament. So now try to go and win.

Thank you.

The EU & the Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire map

In our double issue for the Christmas holidays, I’ve once again let my hair down and indulged myself with a cheeky but (hopefully) not silly historical comparison. This time:

The Holy Roman Empire: European disunion done right

Looking over my past Christmas Specials, it strikes me that I seem to default to one of two categories:

  1. Sociological profiles of subcultures: Filipina maids in Hong Kong, Mexican farmworkers in America, Californian Hippies
  2. those aforementioned cheeky historical comparisons: Socrates in America, now the Holy Roman Empire, .. (and of course Hannibal and Me!)

Anyway, study this beautiful map we made. As you know, I’m a map geek.

And then get a glass of some Malbec-Cabernet mixture and ponder whether you think I was right to draw some analogies to the Holy Roman Empire. Would love to know what you think.

PS: Sorry for having been a lazy blogger these past months. For those of you who want to follow my ongoing weekly story output, I’ve started tweeting my articles. The Twitter feed also appears here, in the right side bar.

Which is, of course, quite a capitulation, worthy of your ridicule, for one who long took pride in being a brave Twitter hold-out. 😉

Angela and Me

A good bit of my job these days (as Berlin Bureau Chief of The Economist) is to follow people like Angela Merkel around. Sometimes I find myself right behind her (1), other times looking down on her in the Bundestag (2), yet other times with the hack pack in a press conference (3), or in a small circle (4), or just before or after some exhausting negotiation (5), or plugging some old buddy’s new book (6).

As you can see, she always wears the same uniform, which comes in beige, white, tan, pink, grey, beige again….

What is she like? More fascinating than you would think. Publicly, she has become a rhetorical robot, reusing the same over-rehearsed phrases (platitudes?) on any given topic, saying exactly the same thing whether she is “on” or “off” the record, staying relentlessly “on message”.

But when the group gets smaller, she shows tiny hints of her old witty side, which I’m told she has in spades. From what I hear, in private she can be hilarious. But politics and the euro crisis have beaten that spontaneity out of her.

Anyway, I’m just observing. Every gesture, every phrase, every involuntary smirk. Even if the only difference is that there is a “the” where last time there was an “a”. If Machiavelli were alive today, he would be sitting right next to me, doing the same thing, doing his homework.

Voila: the cover of the paperback

Well, you recall that, earlier this summer, my publisher was fiddling with designs for the paperback version of Hannibal and Me, and you guys had some input.

I now see that the paperback is up on Amazon and on Penguin’s website (Penguin owns Riverhead), though it won’t be released until February 5, 2013 (13 months after the hardcover was released).

If you compare the actual to the earlier designs, you see that

  • the helmet has changed (become more fearsome) and
  • the “Us” in the subtitle has moved up one line, because it had caused such offense in its previous position.

Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

Click for credits

Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.

The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.

So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.

They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)

But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.

The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.

Armstrong and Kübler-Ross

I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.

So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.

Here are excerpts:

… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]

… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]

My thoughts TODAY

Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?

Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).

So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.

The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.

So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.

And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.

The review in Strategy + Business

A huge Thank You to David Hurst, who reviewed Hannibal and Me in strategy + business, a management magazine published Booz & Company. It’s in the fall edition of the print magazine, but the web link is already up. An excerpt:

… The effect of this meticulously crafted structure on the reader is sometimes revelatory. You are riding along, enjoying the stories, when suddenly, in the shock of recognition that the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis, you realize that the story is about you and your organization, and a meaningful pattern emerges in what seemed like a series of inexplicable actions and random events. …

Getting ready for the paperback

Even as reviews are still dribbling out — such as this one from South Africa — my publisher is preparing to launch Hannibal and Me in paperback.

I got an email with the two cover-jacket designs above that they’re choosing between. All that takes me back a year or so, when I first saw the hardcover jacket.

Your aesthetic opinions are welcome, as ever.

Ich bin ein Berliner

I)

In the late 80s, when we still thought the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were as good as eternal, my friend Matt Lieber and I, fairly fresh out of high school, traveled around Germany and got a visa for a few unforgettable hours in Communist East Berlin. We entered through Checkpoint Charlie (pictured above in 1961, during one of the many standoffs). Then we walked up the famous Friedrichstrasse toward the equally famous Unter den Linden.

I’ll never forget those first few blocks behind the Iron Curtain.

Crosstreets:

  • Krausenstrasse
  • Leipzigerstrasse
  • Kronenstrasse
  • Mohrenstrasse
  • Taubenstrasse

II)

Just a few years later, in 1993, I was back on that same stretch of that same street: Friedrichstrasse, between Taubenstrasse and Mohrenstrasse.

Except this time I was an unpaid intern for CNN, that (then-) unbeatable American, Western, Capitalist media success story. By sheer luck, n-tv, a German start-up that wanted to be, and indeed became, the German CNN, had just opened in the same building and CNN owned a part of it. In the utter chaos of n-tv‘s first weeks, I did all sorts of jobs for both companies that I was entirely unqualified for and benefitted hugely from.

III)

Now, many years later again, I will be back once more at that same stretch of that same street. This time (as of mid-June, 2012) I am Berlin Bureau Chief of The Economist. Our office is right at a corner that Matt and I walked past all those years ago.

It’ll be my fifth beat in the 15 years I’ve worked for The Economist so far. (You may recall my meditation on being that kind of “generalist” when I last switched beats, three years ago.)

IV)

When I visited the office the other day, before the actual move from Los Angeles, I loitered a bit on those blocks, looking for something familiar from the past.

Wasn’t this where that East German cop stopped Matt and me for jaywalking?

And wasn’t that where, in 1993, that god-awful East-Germanesque sausage snack bar was?

I simply couldn’t tell. Yoga, Starbucks, Gucci, banks, BMWs. Physically, the street had become aggressively 2012, and nothing else.

I remembered how somebody once told me about visiting, in 1978, a tiny fishing village north of Hong Kong. It was called Shenzhen. Three decades later he went back to try to find the spot where he stood. Well, you know.

But even that did not capture the feelings I had while standing again at that particular corner of the world. In my imagination, I rewound and fast-forwarded through life on that spot. From its Slavic time through its Prussian time, to its Wilhelmine and Twenties time, its Nazi time, its Cold-War time, its Wende time. Then I opened my eyes again.

V)

Why do people become journalists? For different reasons. But many, I am guessing, want to feel that they lived history.

This year and in the coming years, Europe seems likely to be making history again, and Berlin seems likely to play a big role in that history. If I do my job right, and even if I just do it mediocrely, I’ll see a good bit of it up close.