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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition - 25th September

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

25th September 2002

In this issue

Upton-on-line visits the Panthéon and the Institut de France and ruminates on what it takes to sustain republican myths, the entrails of Johannesburg are explored for signs of sustainability and hypsographic demography, a new topic to enliven (or kill off) floundering dinner parties, makes a cameo appearance.

The paraphernalia of republicanism

When Jean-Marie Le Pen was inconsiderate enough to beat Lionel Jospin into third place in the first round of this year’s presidential election, crowds of people rushed down to the Place de la Bastille in search of a barricade to mount or failing that, anyone unwise enough to be wearing a National Front sticker. When that night’s ‘winner’ ( Jacques Chirac on a measly 20% of the votes) then scored a landslide victory with 80% of the votes a few weeks later, everyone rushed down to the Place de la République, a few block further north, to hear M Chirac gravely announce that the Republic was safe. Such reflexes were widely agreed to be reassuring evidence that republican virtues were still alive and la patrie was safe. People then got back to worrying about crime, saving subsidies for French farmers and rounding on parents who criticised teachers (a very unrepublican activity, apparently).

With the tide of rhetoric receding and quotidian squabbles re-emerging, upton-on-line decided to investigate how the Republic is kept alive in between crises. He discovered that, by and large, it’s a case of…

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Doing it with bricks and mortar

Most New Zealanders are dimly aware that there is something called the Royal Society (as distinct from the Royal Ballet and the Royal Forest & Bird Protection society). In fact the Royal Society is a British institution. But there is a Royal New Zealand Society which is New Zealand’s learned society and whose Fellows (amongst whom upton-on-line is undeservedly honoured to be a member) form New Zealand’s Academy of sciences. But if you were to ask any New Zealander where these august fellow citizens were headquartered, you would receive a blank stare.

Their seat is, in fact, a forgettable two-story building lost in deepest Thornden. It could be the headquarters of a small freight forwarding company or perhaps an orthodontic laboratory. Such is the determination of its membership to focus on cerebral matters rather than architectural frippery, that no tourist has yet been sighted in Turnbull Street, Wellington, photographing its modest portals. (It may also have something to do with the RNZS’s means!) In France, these outward matters are taken a little more seriously.

The seat of the Institut de France is a splendid 17th century edifice just across the Seine from the Louvre. Despite being a relatively small building, it incorporates just about every baroque flourish in the book with pedimented entry, curving symmetrical wings, fabulously ornate urns around the roofline and, to cap it all, a delectable cupola with gilded finials. The whole thing has film set panache, and looks something like a cross between a small Roman church and Blenheim Palace.

In fact, the edifice was conceived as a permanent tribute to the life and grandeur of Cardinal Mazarin who left the necessary four million pounds plus endowments to have built a school. However, that usage didn’t survive the French revolution and from 1805 it became the home of four of the five Academies of France of which the most famous, the Academie Française, had been in existence since 1635 busily protecting (as it does to this day) the French language from corruption and colonisation. (Interestingly, the fifth academy – the Academies des Sciences Morales et Politiques – was temporarily suppressed at the time having fallen out with Napoleon).

Taking ideas very seriously

Although the five academies – embracing the language, belles-lettres (history and culture), sciences, fine arts and philosophy – were products of the Ancien Régime and were initially dissolved, revolutionaries being what they are couldn’t imagine France without an Assembly of savants. (After all, the revolution was after all a sign of enlightenment…) So from the very earliest days of post-revolutionary France – 1795 in fact – there has been an assembly of learning at the pinnacle of the French nation.

It must be rather fun for the initiates. Membership (for life, of course, because wisdom never deserts its host) confers an elevated place in the firmament of French protocol, complete with rather natty silk-embroidered uniform, cocked hat and sword. The oldest of the academies, the Academie Francaise, meets in closed sessions beneath the cupola that once crowned the chapel of Mazarin’s school. Where once God held sway, academicians now wrestle with the ninth edition of the official French dictionary. Upton-on-line has never glimpsed the premises of the Maori Language Commission but he can’t help feeling that if it wants serious gravitas, this sort of quasi-ecclesiastical setting has much going for it.

Importantly, the academies are formally constituted as advisory bodies to the government of France. Advice is sought from their various bodies on “the great issues of the day” and their responses are duly transmitted back to the State of which they are an integral part. It is a formidable body with powers that extend to the appointment of academic and research positions and quality assurance of higher learning. There are 340 French members and 218 foreign associates not to mention 455 corresponding members (all elected) who ensure that France’s intellectual machinery is au point. Whatever democratic demagoguery allowed nasty M Le Pen to trounce the austerely intellectual Jospin, we can be sure that the Institut had no part in it! Republican frailties must lie elsewhere.

In the next life?

Needless to say, a forthrightly anti-clerical and rationalist order can place no faith in the after-life as a source of moral or political salvation. In the 17th and 18th centuries, classical civilisation provided an alternative source of redemption. In the shelter of the inner sanctum there is a most beautiful bust in chaste classical style of Volney, the philosopher and orientalist (1757-1820), on which are inscribed these deliciously nostalgic words:

J’irai vivre dans la solitude parmi les ruines,
J’interogerai les monuments anciens
Sur la sagesse des temps passés

[I will go to live in solitude amidst the ruins, and seek in these ancient monuments the wisdom of ages past]

This is all very well. But Rome declined and fell and contemplating ruins may not be enough to keep everyone on the path of virtue. So just in case the books get burned, the French have decided that immortalising the carriers of the republican torch in a great national shrine is needed as a sort of insurance policy. Hence the hero cult that is lovingly cherished in the Panthéon. The formula is similar to the Institut de France but much more provocatively iconoclastic. Conceived on the orders of Louis XV as an act of homage to Sainte Geneviève (his Patron Saint), the magnificent building (reminiscent of St Peter’s Rome and St Paul’s London) was only completed just before Louis XVI met his fate on the guillotine in 1792. It was then promptly requisitioned as a secular temple for the remains of national heroes.

For almost a century it was the focus of a tussle between atheistic nation builders and conservative clerics – a tussle that mirrored France’s lurchings from republic to empire, to monarchy, to republic, to empire and back to republic. The lead-time of the some of the decorations was longer than the life of some of the regimes which meant that some decorations had become politically incorrect by the time of their completion.

There remain to this day elements of the sacred and the profane cheek by jowl. But all of it is intensely nationalistic. The only difference is that Divine interventions on behalf of France seemed more relaxed about using female channels (like St Geneviève and Jeanne d’Arc) than did republican Reason. (There is only a single female enshrined in this male mausoleum, Marie Curie, and even then she is paired with her husband Pierre Curie). When, finally, France comes to terms with herstory, there will have to be another round of re-decorating since the inscription in large capitals over the main west front is, unambiguously, Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante.

A motley bunch

The extent to which the prospect of being interred in a vast state tomb spurs acts of exceptional republican virtue is unclear to upton-on-line. Certainly, the claims of some of the Panthéon’s incumbents are a little uneven. Things got off to a sticky start in the heady revolutionary climate of the early 1790s. Of the first seven incumbents, only two – Voltaire, and Rousseau – are still in residence, so to speak. The very first incumbent, Mirabeau, was chucked out when his revolutionary credentials were found, posthumously, to be a little less unshakeable than previously believed. He was replaced by Marat who lasted only a year before being turfed out himself. The Convention decided after these embarrassments to impose a ten-year waiting time following the death of a hero just in case they should subsequently not seem quite so heroic in hindsight.

Things picked up again under Napoleon. Between 1806 and his exile in 1815, no fewer than 41 individuals who stirred the republican breast made it into Valhalla. Needless to say, military types are well represented. The restoration (and the return of the Panthéon to religious uses) saw a complete drought. Those already interred there were placed out of sight, out of mind and behind locked doors in the crypt. And despite more populist urges during the reigns of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III, only one body reached the Panthéon between 1815 and 1885 – that of Louis XV’s architect, Soufflot (in upton-on-line’s humble view, the most deserving body of all: it is such a magnificent edifice).

It wasn’t until the years of the Third Republic that the Panthéon was reinstated as a national temple. Victor Hugo broke the drought in 1885 and from then through until the Second World War a fairly steady stream of canonisations kept the vaults a-filling. For some reason, the political left in France seems particularly interested in apotheosis after death and the largely leftish flavour of the times saw a steady supply of political corpses including big names like Gambetta and Jaurès.

The post-war Fourth Republic produced another outbreak, though less-politicised. Another drought ensued in the early days of the Fifth Republic. Perhaps men of truly great stature like de Gaulle don’t feel the need for ceremonial incantations to endorse their presidencies. Only the resistance leader, Jean Moulin, made it through the portals. But the return of the left, in the person of Francois Mitterand, saw a resurgence of Panthéonisation (yes, there is a special verb for it). During his era, seven new names were inscribed and Chirac has continued the tradition with André Malraux in 1996.

The twentieth century saw a shift towards the deification of relatively recent and less-political figures. But the opportunity always exists to reach back into the annals of history to pluck some slumbering spirit from undeserved neglect as happened to the mathematician, philosopher and political operator, Condorcet, in 1989. If the Republic gets into trouble, its leadership can always cast around for a grand homme whose sympathy for currently fashionable sentiments can be posthumously co-opted in the hour of need. It would be interesting to see the ebb and flow of nominations analysed against the background of the times. Lean years seem to be followed by bumper crops (1889 and 1989 were exceptionally good harvests) which in turn tend to reflect regime changes.

Believing is hard work – could we cope?

It is easy for lazy sub-Britannic anglophones to make fun of such a self-consciously solemn shrine. Constitutional monarchies make one so lazy. Politicians can go to seed, the self-appointed élite can be pummelled in the Sunday papers for pretentiousness and the public at large can wallow in greater or lesser degrees of indifference. But the political nation can be taken for granted. It just goes on (which is the immensely organic metaphor of hereditary monarchy, an otherwise seemingly archaic institution).

Contrast that with the nervous energy that has to be invested in keeping a republic going. France is well into its fifth version and a public interest committee is busily promoting a sixth in the interests of better securing truly republican virtues. Doubts have constantly to be assuaged. The Nation is engaged in a perpetual process of conscious self-replication. Secular saints and living savants are needed to shore-up the mere mortals who have to pay the taxes, and clean up when the establishment screws up.

If republicanism in New Zealand is inevitable (as those with the inside running keep assuring upton-on-line), people will have to do an awful lot of training. The sort of self-conscious exercise in national myth making that will be needed (lacking a war of independence or civil war) is mind-boggling. Will we be able to take it seriously enough? Upton-on-line has been pondering whom we would put in our Panthéon. You wouldn’t have too much trouble with Rutherford and as long as you didn’t ask Sir Edmund Hillary in advance (he’d probably veto it) people wouldn’t demur. But then, Peers of the Realm or Knights of the Garter have been smitten by the recently identified Bacillus belichii of recolonisation. And new republics have to have apostles who are ultra-montane in their republican fervour. Would David Lange’s ANZUS-breaking heroism bring him within the pale? Hone Heke certainly showed independence of spirit. Upton-on-line invites nominations from readers.

We would also need to identify a suitable shrine. Christchurch’s Roman Catholic basilica would look the part but upton-on-line doubts that the parishioners would hand it over. If an edifice of appropriately stygian gloom is needed, the National Library in Molesworth Street has all the solid, thousand-year bunker qualities required. It would require the selling off of offensive British and European collections but there would at least be Treasury support for that.

The shrine seems do-able. But an Academie Aotearoène? New Zealand does have a feisty tradition of wearable art so uniforms wouldn’t be a stumbling block. But upton-on-line can’t see the Fellows of the Royal New Zealand Society leaving their modest accommodation. And after recent shenanigans, it is hard to imagine school kids dreaming of a future advising governments on the ‘great issues of the day’ – GM maize and painted apple moths – or fiercely defending the nation against the Australian substitution of seex for six. Other inducements will be needed…

Sustainable exhaustion

After the usual orgy of sceptical editorials, soothing interviews by well-modulated eminent persons and two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations, Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development did what everyone knew it would do – gave birth to a lengthy Implementation Plan and a Political Declaration by world leaders. Such is the way of these events that the utterances of the leaders were being fine-tuned before they were even aware of what was finally going to be implemented. (Normally, one agrees on the strategic direction and then prepares the implementation details: in global politics one sees what might wash on the ground then prepares an ex post facto rationalisation cast in strategic terms).

More than enough has been written on whether Johannesburg achieved more, less or the same as expected. And given the battering upton-on-line readers were subjected to by way of prequel, it hardly seems fair to subject you all to the sequel. After all, upton-on-line had no privileged ringside seat, such places being reserved for very important officials.

But in one paragraph, one might simply make this observation. The functional parties at the conference were the unofficial parties – business and NGOs. There was an incredible array of side events at which people were wanting to parade their wares. Many had given up waiting for governments to make good on a decade’s worth of words. They had, instead, decided to jump into bed together for all sorts of reasons, self-interested and enlightened. The dysfunctional parties were the governments. Yes, they produced their texts and plans. But none of it was binding – all best efforts stuff that will doubtless be overtaken by events.

One example will suffice – the commitments taken on fishing. The implementation plan gravely notes that, to achieve sustainable fisheries, eight steps are required including

“maintain[ing] or restor[ing] stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield with the aim of achieving these goals for depleted stocks on an urgent basis and where possible not later than 2015.”

There you have it – ‘with the aim’, ‘where possible’, and the whole thing non-binding in the first place. This was trumpeted as evidence of concrete targets and a new sense of purpose. A perusal of the 54 page, 153 paragraph document – none of it binding – reveals the systematic and evasive use of the conditional tense and a full battery of shoulds, where appropriates and where possibles. On fishing, the scandal of it is that a 1993 Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas remains still-born because it hasn’t even had enough countries ratify it to bring it into force. So why should we believe anyone will do anything about a non-binding hope that sufficient steps will be taken to restore depleted fish stocks by 2015? In upton-on-line’s view, the crazed negotiating frenzy that seems to grip such conferences when reality without remains unaffected, is reason enough to consider whether officials should exhaust themselves in this way again.

Living with the contradictions

Without question, the Johannesburg Summit was first and foremost about development. The sustainable bit was a supporting adjective. But if you wanted to get the flavour of some of the tensions that run through this debate, it would be hard to have chosen a better site than Johannesburg.

The conference was superbly run amidst the mirror glass and tree-lined splendour of Sandton, the glistening new commercial district that has mushroomed in a leafy Fendalton-ish suburb. From the top of the brand new banks the Johannesburg skyline could be surveyed – mining operations and tailing mountains, shanty towns, the stumps of Jo’berg’s largely deserted central business district (from which businesses have fled in the face of crime), freeways and industrial zones. And close by, the manicured freshness of Sandton itself with its shopping malls, restaurants and plazas. We were meeting in a cross between Singapore and Beverley Hills (the most expensive real estate in Africa) while the Third World started at the bottom of the gully.

The South African business community made a big effort to support the conference, their Government, and their country. And they were eager to show just what ‘sustainable development’ meant trying to run a business in contemporary South Africa. It’s no easy business coping with 30% rates of HIV infection, gaps in social services that are either inadequate or simply don’t exist, trying to keep foreign investors interested in the face of a government that is musing about black empowerment in the economy (for which read partial nationalisation) and Mr Mugabe cheerfully telling South Africans that the joys he’s meeting out in Zimbabwe are coming their way next.

Joining the thousands of developed world delegates who flooded Johannesburg airport to fly back to their nice safe, tidy, prosperous societies from whence they could continue their commentaries on the ills of global capitalism, upton-on-line couldn’t help sensing some moral ambiguities to say the least. Executives in places like South Africa area are easily labelled as the stewards of a system that takes what it can and leaves others to pick up the pieces. Yet these same people, who try to keep their businesses going in the face of such challenges, don’t fly away from the contradictions and the gap between rich and poor. They wake them every morning and in the process provide jobs and benefits that are still far beyond those commonly offered elsewhere in Africa. It would be hard to imagine business people in places like America, Europe or New Zealand earning their salaries the way some of these people seemed to.

Hypsographic demography – or a new way of ridding yourself of guests who overstay their welcome

Upton-on-line has recently run across hypsographic demography – the science of examining the distribution of human population by reference to the altitude at which people living. The results of investigations by Joel Cohen and Christopher Small can be found at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/95/24/14009 . They are most instructive. Fully a third of the world’s population lives below the 100-metre a.s.l mark where densities are also highest. Density falls away with elevation although there’s an upwards blip around the 2300 metre mark as a result of the Mexican plateau and the south-central Asian highlands.

Vital stuff? Well yes, actually, because altitude affects geophysical hazards. Coastal erosion, storm surges and changes in precipitation (not to mention sea-level rise in the long term) will directly affect those 2 billion odd people living close to the sea. With 11 of the world’s 15 cities accommodating more than 10 million people being on the coast, knowing where people live provides essential information on the risks we run from long run changes in climate.


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