Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

Big Little Lies

I recently attended a debate in central London hosted by Intelligence Squared entitled ‘Identity Politics is Tearing Society Apart‘. The panel boasted an editorial director of BBC news Kamal Ahmed, and novelist Lionel Shriver among others.

Identity is defined in Oxford Bibliographies,

as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition.

Vasiliki Neofotistos (2013). “Identity Politics”Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 October 2018. Retrieved 9th June 2019.

Arguments in favour of the motion focused on the fact that identity politics has in fact fueled a backlash of populism, bringing alt-right figures to the fore, destroying society’s broad sense of the common good, and increasing antagonism and fragmentation in our society.

Upon entry and upon exit the audience were polled for their agreement or disagreement with the debate title, and the majority 55% left the debate in agreement that indeed, identity politics was tearing society apart.

I, however, did not agree.

Recently I completed the 7 episode first season of ‘Big Little Lies‘ a HBO original series, produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The American drama television series, based on the novel  by Australian author Liane Moriarty, premiered on February 19, 2017, and follows the lives and relationships of four women in Monterey, California, The women are united around their children who share a grade one class at the local school.

Their community is socially and economically homogeneous. The women are white Americans, upper middle class, heterosexual, well educated, and nice people. While there is an African American character, she is a vegan, yoga instructor who is socially and economically their equal. One character is single and working class but she is soon brought into the fold by the other women through shared experience. Under the surface of this idyllic beach-side life, where women share expansive homes with their handsome, domesticated husbands lies violence, lies, betrayal and hatred. Each character has layers, motives, jealousies and wounds which drive them through the story arc, Shakespearean at times in range and depth. It’s clear that this society is being torn apart yet – identity politics does not play one note the pain and violence which exists.

Surely there is something deeper than identity that tears our society apart?

Judeo-Christian theology, upon which our western society is based, teaches radical love and service to the ‘other’ most emphatically, the ‘other’ who is powerless, stateless, and voiceless. As such, duty bearers and power-holders have a mandate to identify with and support the recognition of the group who would otherwise be excluded from rights and privileges. Judeo-Christian theology is the very basis of ‘identity politics’.

So why do good, moral, people, feel identity politics has gotten out of hand, tearing at the fabric of society? Why does identity politics get the fall for the violence and dissolution of society?

A quick perusal of any history text shows that every generation of society has been riven by racial, geographical, class and religious wars – each tearing society apart in different ways. The 18th and 19th centuries were defined by class political wars, and the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by religious political wars. Earlier centuries were marked by ethnic wars and indeed the annals of history stretch back into time immemorial to tell of countless epochs of bloodshed.

It begs the question whether it in fact something deeper, something more human which is the enemy to human peace?

If it were identity which bred violence, one solution for humanity may lie in what the Buddhists teach as the denial of identity, the absolution of any ego-attachment to self or otherness and the blissful nirvana of non-being. It can be captures in the lyrics of the late-great John Lennon – ‘imagine’ a world where no countries, religion, or possessions exist, where humans live in peace and ‘as one.’

The challenge with such a philosophy is that it negates love which from the ground of self engages the ‘other’ and gives of self to the other.

In ‘Big Little Lies’ no one escapes the narrative to be ‘good’ or ‘ethical’. Everyone has their story, their motives, their depths. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote:

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 

It is not the negation of self that brings about peace, nor is it the eradication of ‘identity politics’ which will be the solution to our social ills or the healing of our social fabric. It is only when we address the violence that exists in the human heart that we can begin to find true and lasting peace.

Why Nations Fail

As a follow on to the Bear Skin blog post several weeks ago titled ‘What would Machiavelli Do?‘ comes this short comment on the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

While Niccolo Machiavelli gave a very well thought out treatise on what Princes, or individuals of power, should do to maintain a stable state, Acemoglu and Robinson give a very well thought out treatise on how complex political and economic systems contribute to the prosperity [or failure] of a state.

In brief, their book puts emphasis on the need for centralised power in much the same way Machiavelli does. Their argument is that prosperity is generated by investment and innovation. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.

However, for investment and innovation to flourish, entrepreneurs and inventors must have good reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful. If the institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest – a structure they term “extractive institutions” – these interests ultimately undermine the very innovation and investment necessary for prosperity.

Numerous case studies are listed of both ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ systems of government creating both ‘virtuous circle’ and ‘viscous circle’ of national prosperity or decline. Botswana is lauded as a contemporary example of a nation which has prospered under good leadership. At the critical juncture of independence from colonial rule, wise Botswanan leaders such as its first president, Seretse Khama, [see A United Kingdom] and his Botswana Democratic Party chose democracy over dictatorship and the public interest over private greed. Botswana holds regular elections, has not since had a civil war and enforces property rights. When diamonds were discovered, a far-sighted law ensured that the newfound riches were shared for the national good, not elite gain.

What is of most startling interest when contrasting the two works of political theory and philosophy, is that Machiavelli eschewed ‘morality’ and what ‘should’ be done, in favour of what is most politically expedient while Acemoglu and Robinson seem to be pointing us back to ancient wisdom. Acemoglu and Robinson argue for leadership that cedes short term power and gain for long term national good and which promotes public interest over private greed. Yet they argue for this from economic rather than morally grounded reasons.

This begs the question, do ancient moral codes derive their wisdom from systems thinking? And are they less divinely illuminated and more beholden to insight taken from the consequences of decisions across generations rather than within the lifespan of any individual?

Once could counter Machiavelli on his point:

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

… with the counter wisdom that, one [a ruler] who neglects what ought to be done, sooner effects the ruin of future generations. This alone should give any leader pause to consider their decisions lest their short term success indeed bring about ruin for those who follow.

What Would Machiavelli Do?

Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th century Italian diplomat and political theorist, author of The Prince (Il Principe).  His short treatise was published in 1532 and has forever secured his fame [or infamy] as the book is singularly responsible for bringing the word “Machiavellian” into usage as a pejorative word in relation social and political dynamics.

The Prince is sometimes claimed to be one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially political philosophy, in which the pragmatic truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal.

Niccolo Machiavelli

The general theme of the short text is to accept that the aims of princes – such as glory and survival – can justify the use of any rational means to achieve those ends, without recourse to questions of morality.

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

The Prince starts by defining the “state” to mean,

all forms of organization of supreme political power, whether republican or princely.

He then clearly distinguishes new princedoms from hereditary established princedoms, by saying that hereditary ones are much easier to rule. For such a prince,

unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him.

This is opposed to his advice to new princes, for whom as the

… new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom.

Conquests by “criminal virtue” are ones in which the new prince secures his power. Machiavelli advises that a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all at once, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign. In this way, his subjects will slowly forget his cruel deeds and his reputation can recover.


Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medicito whom the final version of The Prince was dedicated.

Since there are many possible qualities that a prince can be said to possess, he must not be overly concerned about having all the good ones. A prince may be perceived to be merciful, faithful, humane, frank, and religious, but most important is only to seem to have these qualities. A prince cannot truly have these qualities because at times it is necessary to act against them.

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes,

…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end is security for the prince. The fear instilled should never be excessive, for that could be dangerous to the prince.

Machiavelli notes that a prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word. A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard.

As Machiavelli notes,

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

In summary, to answer the titular question, ‘What would Machiavelli do?’ one may well surmise he would above all, do what needs to be done…

…for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.