The Peak Of Human Endeavour
I am used to delays in receiving post, in letters being sent from here, taking several weeks to arrive, and the answers, when written, taking two or three weeks to get back here. In most cases this means I can be happy with a turnaround averaging one and one half letters a month with anyone in the United States. Your reply to my astonishment, flew across the globe at a speed any postmaster general would be proud of, were they to have any interest in their customers rather than the bottom line of their financial accounts. A friend of mine in Indonesia today expressed her pleasure in receiving a letter from me over social media, one month and three days after it was sent out from Germany. So with a one week turnaround we seem to almost have reached the peak of human endeavour and achievement.
And right from the start I have to correct an impression I clearly imparted which was not intended: by remarking on your friends who had turned their backs on you or become a bore with constant repetition or failing attention, I had assumed you meant those who were not in close proximity, but those on the outside, in civilian life. I constantly hear of men and women who are incarcerated for any length of time discovering who their real friends are by their attitude after imprisonment – and that includes close family, sadly – and by the lack of contact which ensues or, just as bad, the manner in which contact, friendship and all we hope for gradually dissipates until they have surely disappeared from the face of the earth, as far as we are concerned. It’s not as if you can simply get up one morning and go knock on their door, ask how things are and renew the friendship. It is, of course, very much different in your present circumstances, and any friendship is restricted as a result, especially when we cannot open the doors physically separating us from our friends and acquaintances or, as is the rule in most States, when one friend is finally released, are forbidden from remaining in contact.
I cannot argue with you on physical capabilities of women when compared to men: in many ways their strength is considerably less than that of a well developed and active man and there are, quite rightly, restrictions on what a woman can do in that sense. I would not expect to employ a woman directly on the ground in a construction project if it was clear to me that she would be unable to perform the necessary work efficiently and without danger to herself or anyone else. At the same time I would not employ a man who met the same criteria. In such cases it makes little difference to me whether a person applying for the position is male or female – or anything in between – local or foreign, black or white: there are demands for employment which must be met, as these come first.
However, in practically all other respects a woman can – and often is – just as good as a man when it comes to completing any task she might be presented with. There are few areas left where women cannot compete, and it is only the prejudices of a few men which prevent them from achieving their own dreams and becoming full, integrated, worthwhile members of society in every way imaginable. Prime examples would include the all women robot building team from Afghanistan, who have finally been allowed to take part in the robotics exhibition, conference and challenge in the United States, or any number of women who code – often cut out by the men as being unable to write code, where it was a woman who enabled the first computer to be built, and women who coded NASA and its adventures – create comic books or run companies. My examples were taken, as far as I recall, from the social spectrum, where women were often left out of political or business discussions and expected to give up their own careers to support their husband, as well as giving up their income, their inheritance and, effectively, their entire intellectual life. The idea that a woman was the property of her husband and dependent entirely on his goodwill is something which has subsisted into this century, where it should have been eradicated many decades ago.
No woman has to do anything in order to feel as if she has accomplished anything, nor does any man. The truth is, many of these men and women wish to take chances, wish to advance themselves and take on challenges others baulk at or have failed to achieve. There are undoubtedly some who would welcome the chance to settle down to a life at home, moving from shops in the morning to evening meal for their man at night, that I do not doubt at all. However, with our advanced educational system and the realisation that women are not inferior beings, many have come to see that this life is not the be-all and end-all of their possible existence; that there is a good deal more they could be doing with their few years on this planet, and that they do not have to accept an outdated and moribund social norm. They no longer have to hide their writing skills behind a man’s name – or a name which is not gender specific – to achieve fame and fortune. They no longer have to marry in order to run a business, allowing their spouse’s name to appear on all documents. They no longer have to publish their works anonymously, as Jane Austin did, to achieve fame or an audience. The expectations have changed, and that is a good thing in my opinion, one which can only benefit society.
When you write that we have not done harm to women as grievously as those in power would have us believe, taking only our Western civilisation, you need to weigh the ‘grievous harm’ on several different levels. Harm is not just to women and their esteem, but also to society which, through the politics and beliefs of a patriarchal hierarchy, prevented many women from achieving a status which could well have benefited society as a whole: a woman doctor will still be shunned to this day when offering assistance to a patient, so imagine what it must have been like in the 1870s when women were forbidden from studying medicine, as Arthur Conan Doyle writes. This is thirty years after Florence Nightingale tended soldiers in the Crimean War. Where would we be in our understanding of the universe without the work of Maryam Mirzakhani? And can we claim that, had these women not been able to do what they did, that their lives would have been fulfilled, that they would feel as if they had achieved something? There is absolutely no reason why a woman shouldn’t follow business, intellectual pursuits and physical challenges if she so desires; many prove themselves to be far more capable then men.
My own interests tend more towards the intellectual side of things, as I read letters and private works of countless women who, had they been given an equal chance in society, in education, in business, would have shone a much brighter light than many men. Often forced outside of the conventional means of conversation, access to learning, and their abilities belittled – even crushed relentlessly – they confided their thoughts, and revelations, to journals, to letters and to some of the finest intellectual salons, especially in Paris where such salons attracted the intellectual elite as much as the masters of many professions and much culture. And we have also to bear in mind that none of this is based upon past experiences, the next thing you mention in your letter, but purely and simply upon prejudice; upon the belief that because a man is faster, bigger, stronger, he must be better at everything and, as a result, women should be confined to the kitchen, the bedroom, the nursery.
Experience has shown us that we cannot be one hundred percent sure of anything, whether it be a horse we want to back at the races or an advancement in some business career. Our lives are built upon uncertainties, upon dangers, upon reactions to what happens about us as they happen. From my own point of view, this is a good thing; life would be incredibly dull and almost not worth living, if everything was preordained from day one and we knew our destiny down to the finest detail. Experience shows us, though, that we cannot have a balance: we cannot say that an equal number of men and women should be employed in a certain company; that an equal number should be promoted to higher positions on a regular basis; that all men and women – or all women, or all men – are equal and should be treated alike. What we, as a society, should be capable of doing is looking at ability before we look at gender or origin. Equality is being able to put gender to one side and judge according to the facts, and not according to some learned or assumed prejudice. But society is not a ‘we’, it is not a complete entity. Society is a gathering of minds and abilities on all levels with many differing opinions, capabilities and goals. It is impossible to say what society is capable of doing, only what is desirable, simply because of the diversity of the people who make up our world.
I would love to be able to agree with your idea that those who sit in the middle, between two extremes of thought or of action, restore the balance when things go wrong, when extremes take control and everything blows up. This would almost be an ideal world, if it were possible. Sadly it appears that when someone with a balanced view on a matter which has caused two extremes to exist – such as liberal and conservative politics – they bear the brunt of attacks from both sides for their view, their opinion, and do not end up as being a balancing force. Many people are drawn to extremes in the belief that this is the only way to achieve their ends. They consider anything in the middle, no matter how sane and correct that central opinion might be, to be a compromise with the other side to the detriment of their own. If that were not the case, would there not be a third major political party in American politics? And in countries where there are more political parties, more political opinions, from left to right and all the way through the spectrum, why does the balancing central political viewpoint never seem to make it in to power?
On an intellectual level, such a central position is imaginable, assuming that those who are on the extremes are debating in a truly intellectual manner and are prepared to listen and consider the viewpoint of their opponents. In such a debate it is possible that those with an open mind, who are prepared to listen and evaluate could come up with a new opinion, a new stance based both on their own, old opinion and the new facts or opinions that they have been confronted with. This is not unheard of, you may well recall that Socrates debated Parmenides and both of them changed their minds, but it is becoming ever more rare. I came across a professor, a few years ago now, who refused to read a certain high quality weekly magazine because the editorial line was different to her own, making me wonder how she was able to teach her students in a fair and balanced manner. This sort of bias, the refusal to even hear an opposing opinion, is much more common today, and is being passed on down the generations.
As to nature bringing a conclusion to the extremes of our beliefs, I can only imagine that happening with something as important as climate change, where nature is intimately bound in the discussion as well as the outcome. We are already seeing the ranting and raving of nature as she fights back with massive changes – today The Stranger reported that Seattle has now been without measurable rainfall for thirty days – which are far worse than anything we have ever seen before. The destruction of Pompeii through a volcano eruption in 79 CE is a natural disaster which could not have been averted, whereas climate change is something we are intimately involved in and could well influence, if we have not done so already. This, of course, is one of those topics where there are extreme opinions, and where a balancing argument from Mother Nature would allow no difference between those on the right, the left, or hard and fast in the middle.
I think that anyone is capable of seeing truth and falsehood in the opinions of others, although many would merely catalogue the false, but have a problem seeing – or accepting is perhaps better – the falsehoods in their own arguments. How many people are prepared to acknowledge that they are wrong, that they have been wrong from the very beginning, and that they clearly do not either understand what is being discussed, or are purposefully distorting the argument, the debate for their own ends? A quick glance through any major national newspaper at the moment will provide many examples of argument, denial, justification and cover-up – whether dangerous, sinister or merely through ignorance is hardly our place to decide, although we can all guess at what is happening and understand why. The problem here is that the cataclysm which must eventually come does not just harm those directly involved but, in the case of climate change or American party politics, it can change the lives of hundreds of millions. This does, of course, also apply to many other countries and political parties, not just to the present or the last incumbents of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives and their respective political machines.
One of the wonderful things about letter writing discussions is that it is possible to consider what has been received over a long period of time. When we hear a speech or grab hold of a newspaper and read through the lede and headlines, the major stories, we are confronted with many sound bites and an input of information which is, sometimes, hard to digest. In conversation we need to gather our thoughts and answer almost immediately, otherwise the conversation comes to an end, or someone else takes the lead and we’ve lost our chance to speak. With letter writing we have a set of opinions, news, information or whatever it may be, right before us and time to consider its implications. This invariably takes us on a fine and enjoyable – hopefully – trip into the depths of our own thoughts, memories, education and brings out our opinion based on what we find there. It is possible to take almost any line of words and find a personal definition, a meaning behind those words which is personal to us. It is unlikely that anyone is capable of saying with any true measure of certainty exactly what the writer of those words thought at the time, his or her mood and emotions, the influences which, unseen by us, found their way into that simple line. Having accepted this as a fact, which I believe it to be, but we’re open to discussion, I would say that it is definitely an intention of anyone writing to another person, or writing for publication, that they think over the words used, that they find their own meaning if nothing else. Bearing this in mind, I can hardly say that I would be upset if you, or anyone else, took my words and worked out their own train of thought; that is, to be perfectly frank, one of the things I hope for.
We are all in some kind of prison, as you point out, with physical or mental walls and with the option to protect or allow an escape. I have no fear of what other people might call my prison because it is one that I have chosen, without physical restraints, and it is one which allows expansion as much as defence. There can be no clearly marked exits here, they are all in the mind but, unlike those which you have and which are clearly marked, I have the option to use them and you do not. For some that would be far more terrifying than anything else; the knowledge that there is a way out, but it is unobtainable, unreachable no matter how hard we strive. We all, however, have the advantage of being able to overcome a physical prison and expand our level of freedom through the intellectual world outside the reach of those who would keep us behind bars; and this applies as much to those who are physically incarcerated as to those who allow themselves to be imprisoned by their lifestyle, their beliefs, politics or any other means. Once we give in and forego the pleasures of thought, we have reached the final circle of hell and it could be that there is no going back. Or, perhaps, once we set ourselves so firmly in one opinion or another, without the willingness to discuss, to hear an opposing side, to consider alternatives, we are also imprisoned, but within ourselves and that, to me, is the worst imprisonment one can possibly imagine.
This, however, this inner imprisonment, is how I see some of the lives of women over the last few centuries: deep intelligence and ability diminished by society as a passing fantasy or simply something to be disregarded. No chance for real discussion in a circle of intelligent and well educated friends, no chance for advancement of the mind.
I have no problem with accepting and leaving the past behind, to a certain extent, but not so much that it is completely ignored. There are events in our past history which should always be in the back of our minds when making a decision, basing this decision on experience of our own past. More than this, though, history does teach us a great deal, especially when it comes to things which we should avoid if at all possible. I recently read a biographical work on the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig; the comparison to present times with the intelligentsia taking no active part in political life and actions in the Thirties in Germany simply because there had never been anything different that they knew of, and they could not envisage a change to the social order makes me shudder.
As to the personal side of things, I am thirty years older than you and have spent my adult life travelling, learning and trying to find suitable debate as much as intelligent conversation. Occasionally I come across something interesting, bide a while and enjoy it, and then move on when it becomes old and familiar. I was born in London and made my way to Germany over many other countries, including Belize and Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, France and Italy. I was partially educated in a private school in Yorkshire, England, and taught myself the rest on the road, as it were, through the good offices of others who took the time to write during their lives, and of them there have been many, or hold conversations with me along the way. I have been involved in politics – an elected County Councillor here for six years – and been a leading member or founder of several associations concerned with debate, charity work, preventative works. I spend my time reading and writing, travelling and learning as much as is possible, and seeking out the furthest edge of whatever it is that I am exploring with, hopefully, a few other people tagging along either in person or through correspondence. My main interests are literature, history and philosophy but I also collect antique photographs and spend a good deal of my time avoiding my garden and the rooms in my house which need renovation.
As to the crumpling up of letters: I do not know whether anyone does do that or not. My writing style, my subject matter are such that most people would either feel overwhelmed or daunted so that I receive no reply whatsoever. At the moment, taking just the first six months of this year, just under twenty percent of the letters I have written and sent have been answered, and they all contained something provocative to challenge the reader and elicit an answer. And, of course, they were all original, written exclusively for the recipient, rather than a mass of introductory letters taken from a template anyone could find on the internet.
I have no television, but listen to the radio when I am travelling, or read a book when someone else has the pleasure of steering. I do have all the other gadgets associated with modern technology, those things without which some people believe they cannot live, but use them predominantly for their original functions. So, for example, a smart phone tends to be used by me to make telephone calls, something many younger people seem to have forgotten how to do. I sit in street cafés and read my book or a newspaper, further proving that I am a freak, an outsider, a strange person steeped in the ways of the past. If a book is not printed on paper or a physical object in my hands which does not rely on batteries, I find it almost impossible to read.
As to where I live: this is a small town which is legally entitled to call itself a city and has less than five thousand inhabitants. There are farms in the middle of town, alongside the usual shops, and I can often hear the bleating of sheep on the river bank fields when I come out of my house in the morning. The town and immediate area have a long and sometimes impressive history stretching back to the beginning of the thirteenth century, but few people are interested in it, and few of the inhabitants are even aware that this place existed prior to their birth. I chose it having lived in major cities for many years – being brought up in London in the Sixties and Seventies tends to spoil those who enjoy a certain level of artistic culture – partially because it has all the facilities, in one form or another, a person could desire, and partially because everything else is within easy reach. I can jump in my car and drive to Bremen, Hamburg and Hanover quickly and easily, and the cultural life in these three cities is enough to make up for the peace and quiet of a provincial backwater. I’ve lived here for over twenty years, have my own house and business, have been a politician here and done many other things which have brought my name to people’s attention and, despite having taken on German nationality twelve years ago, I am still an outsider, still the Englishman. And that suits me just fine.