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A moving episode in Kraków

Last week I spent a few days in Kraków, attending a major conference on innovation and intellectual property, arranged by the Patent Office of the Republic of Poland. It was an excellent conference and my hosts were most gracious. But that is not what this post is about.

On Friday afternoon, I had some free time which I used to walk around Kazimierz, the neighbourhood which before the war housed many of Kraków’s 80,000 Jews. Most of them perished in the Holocaust, and Kazimierz was neglected by the Communist authorities after 1945. During the post-Communist years, interest in the Jewish heritage has increased markedly (and there has been a bit of a revival of the Jewish community), driven partly by idealism and partly by hard-nosed business considerations; sites such as Schindler’s factory are major tourist attractions, and there are several restaurants in Kazimierz serving Jewish food, putting on Kletzmer music performances and so on.

But I was just randomly walking the streets, looking for signs of the life that was once lived here. Suddenly I was intrigued by this sign on a modest building:

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The paper simply reads “Mordechai Gebirtig poetry workshop”. Intrigued, I looked down through the window. One could see a studio of some sort and some sheets of paper, apparently for the taking:

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Sticking my lens through the bars, I could see that indeed, the inside was a shrine to a local poet:

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The papers in the windowsill provided the explanation of who Gebirtig was and the motives of the people who are fighting hard to maintain his memory. The explanation was provided in Polish and in English, and you can read either using the links below. If you can read Polish, I recommend reading the beautiful poem “I had a home” in the original, Polish version, but the background is more fully explained in the English version (which also contains a translation of the poem).

Polish

English

Coming across this little memorial was the most moving experience of my trip to Kraków.

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Why the fascists could win in November

For the past two years, like most reasonable people, I have despaired about the direction taken by the world’s most powerful country (to which I happen to be closely connected). The hope was that the opposition would mobilise to win a majority in Congress in this November’s midterm elections, with a view towards a turnaround in the presidential election in 2020. But what I see so far this year largely extinguishes this hope.

My main gauge of political sentiment in the US is social media, and in particular the posts by my many progressive friends and by progressive movements in general. The vast majority of those posts are about how bad the current fascist regime is: corrupt, evil, etc. I share those feelings 100%. The problem is that to win elections, you have to put forward a positive agenda for the voters. And so far I have not seen one from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, except for various fantasies from Bernie’s friends. Criticizing T***p for using words such as “nigger” or “pussy” only reinforces his appeal to the people who voted for him in 2016–because they use those words in their daily discourse and therefore interpret the orange head’s use of the same words as proof that he is a regular guy just like them. Likewise, droning on about impeachment which is just not going to happen given the configuration of the House, is not going to win any votes. The average person does not relate to alleged interference in elections through fake news on Facebook and he (because most of the time it is a he) does not care whether Putin helped T***p win in November 2016.

Elections are won with positive messages: “ask not what you can do for your country”, “morning in America” or “yes, we can”. So far I have not heard anything like that from the current crop of potential candidates. I fear for another six years of this madness. If I were religious, I would hope for a fatal heart attack or a thunder strike on the golf course…but since I am not, I just despair.

 

 

My encounter with Danish medicine

On 27 August, my best friend Lars and I set out to cycle a 300 km brevet, a route in central and northern Jutland starting and ending in Aarhus. A brevet is a type of bicycle event where you do not race against others but simply have to complete a given route within the time limit, checking in at various control points along the route (which can take the form of buying something in a shop or withdrawing money from an ATM, so as to have a receipt to prove that you were there at the specific time). The time limit for a 300 km brevet is 20 hours, but from previous experience, Lars and I expected to make it in about 15 hours, so that, having started at 8 a.m., we would be home around 11 p.m. to enjoy a well-deserved cold beer. The weather was cool but dry as we set out on our ride. I was a bit unsure whether I would make it; I have done a 300 km brevet before, but this time I had been battling with a nagging knee inflammation for a couple of weeks, and I was wondering whether my knee would hold up during so many hours of riding. But once I got going, my confidence increased. There was pain but it was manageable.

The landscapes of central Jutland were pretty:

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We completed the first 100 km with a hot dog at Himmelbjerget, the second-tallest point in Jutland (not saying much). This was also a control point, so I made sure to keep the receipt from the kiosk. And then we turned north. After 132 km, we stopped for coffee at a supermarket in a village called Ans. While there, I noticed that my lower lip had swollen for some reason–I had not felt any insect bites but something must have caused it. It did not look pretty (and actually, it looked a lot worse outside the supermarket, this photo was taken after I had already received drugs to make the swelling go down).

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Lars did not like the look of my lip, so he called the doctor on duty (vagtlægen, reachable on the same number anywhere in Denmark) to ask about possible over-the-counter remedies we could buy in the supermarket. However, once he explained my symptoms, the doctor told him that given that I was apparently suffering an allergic reaction to something, and given that the swelling was near my mouth, he was concerned that it may spread to my throat, and not being able to breathe is not healthy–so he was going to send an ambulance for me right away. They sure take allergic reactions seriously in Denmark!

This was a real bummer; the leg I had been worried about was OK but my brevet was being cut short by some unknown Danish insect. But there was nothing I could do. So while Lars was phoning his brother to arrange the logistics of returning our bicycles to our home base in Aarhus (about 50 km to the south), we waited for the ambulance. Here I am removing the handlebar bag from my bicycle to take it with me to the hospital:

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The ambulance arrived after about 10-15 minutes, with a doctor in a separate car to have a look at me:

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In the ambulance, they inserted the IV, gave me some drugs per the doctor’s instructions, did an electrocardiogram, and took me to the nearest hospital, in the town of Viborg, about 20 km away. During the ambulance ride, I was chatting with the nurse who was taking down some basic information, including my CPR number (a Danish identity number that is the key to accessing all public services). I said that I lived in Spain and although I am a Danish citizen, I am not in the Danish public health insurance system, but that was irrelevant–they told me that they were worried about the medical aspects of our transaction, not the administrative ones.

In the hospital, additional tests were done, I was given some more medications and kept for observation for about 2-3 hours. I was not happy about not being able to complete the ride, but I was grateful for the medical attention I was receiving.

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It all ended well. The allergic reaction was controlled, and after checking a few more things and giving me some more drugs (including some to take over the next 3 days), they discharged me. By 9 p.m., Lars and I were back in Aarhus (as were our bicycles), eating pizza and drinking beer.

I have only good things to say about Danish medicine–this was my first interaction with it since my father died in 2004–both the ambulance crew and the people at the hospital were superb on this Sunday evening, and the issue of payment or insurance was not even mentioned by them. I did mention, as I had in the ambulance, that I did not live in Denmark and had an EU employee medical cover rather than the normal Danish sygesikring, but they were completely uninterested in the financial aspects–all they cared about was the patient. To this day, two months later, I have not received any kind of invoice, and I doubt that I ever will.

On the other hand, within a couple of days, all the details of my ambulance ride and hospital visit were accessible to me on the Danish health service portal, so that if I need to share any of the tests or information about the treatment I received with my doctor here in Spain, I can just print it out.

This is what medicine looks like when it is regarded as a basic human right and not something that exists primarily to make a profit for someone. My heartfelt thanks to the people at Regionshospitalet Viborg and the ambulance service of Region Midtjylland for the superb care they gave me on that Sunday in August. Tusind tak!

 

 

When bad people do good things

Recently, I posted some photos from Copenhagen’s Churchill Park on my weekly photo blog. For me, Churchill is the greatest figure of the 20th century, the man who stood up to Hitler at the darkest hour in 1940, when Britain was all alone, with the Continent occupied, America neutral, and Hitler conquering all before him. But then I got an e-mail from a friend in India. For him, Churchill was not a great man. He viewed him as a butcher in the same league as Hitler and Stalin, because of his role in colonial India and in particular the Bengal famine. This is a side of Churchill of which I knew little or nothing until my friend from Chennai made me aware of it. What it does show me is that history is complex. Churchill still is a great man in my eyes but I recognise that not everyone will share my perspective.

In a similar vein, the world of art, entertainment and sports is full of good people and bad people, just like the rest of society. This raises the question (for me, anyway): how to deal with a great performer/creater who is also a bigot, a racist, an extreme right-winger, or similar scum.

Of course, if the artist in question is no good, there is no problem. For example, Mel Gibson is an utterly disgusting character, but since his films are by and large forgettable garbage, it is no sacrifice for me to ignore him.

No, the problematic cases are those people whose work I admire but who have despicable traits or views that are anathema to me. Take the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, for example. His novel Sult (“Hunger”) is one of the great pieces of world literature, and his Nobel Prize in 1920 was thoroughly deserved. But alas, Hamsun was also a Nazi. Not just a Nazi sympathiser but someone who met with senior figures, up to and including Hitler, and who was unrepentent even after the war (he died in 1952). His mastery of the language is such that even his last work, Paa Gjengrodde Stier (“On Overgrown Paths”) from 1949 makes for great literature despite its defense of his repugnant views during the war.

Or take Ernest Hemingway, probably my favourite writer of all. In this excellent article in the Jewish Forward, Mary Dearborn discusses the very dilemma that is the subject of this post. Hemingway was clearly an anti-Semite, as were many Americans in the 1920s or 1930s. As Dearborn notes, however, later Hemingway showed his strong anti-Fascist stance, beginning with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which for many serves as a mitigating circumstance and is certainly in contrast to Hamsun. I conclude as Dearborn does: we should continue reading Hemingway, but we should also not close our eyes to the nasty aspects.

Things become even more complex when I consider Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer. Obviously, given that Wagner died in 1883, I cannot blame him for the rise of Nazism 50 years later. But the connection is still there because of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings and the nature of his music. And so, despite the undeniable merits of his operas and other compositions, I shun Wagner. It is wholly irrational, I know.

So what is the point of this post? Not much except to say that the world is complex and things are rarely black & white. Most of the time, they are a shade of grey.

 

My team

While the focus of my blogging is mostly on beer, photography and current affairs, this post is about my day job which is what pays the bills. I am the Chief Economist of the EU Intellectual Property Office. Thus, I manage a small team of economists who carry out studies on topics such as the importance of IP rights to the economy, the damage caused by counterfeiting and so on. The quality of their output is very high, and I am fortunate to be the manager of such a skilled group of people. One of the best rules of management is this: “hire people who are smarter than you and get out of their way”. I don’t know if the people who work for me are smarter than me in the everyday sense of the word, but certainly their expertise in the technical disciplines that we rely on to do our work far surpasses mine. And that is how it should be. I am good at the communications and political aspects of our work, they are good at the economics. Together, we are having a real impact of how IP is viewed by the policy makers in Europe and beyond.

Memorable quotes from US presidents during my lifetime

“Ask not what the country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country” – John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, 20th January 1961.

“In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty. In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry. In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die unattended. In a great land of learning and scholars, young people must be taught to read and write.” – Lyndon Johnson, inaugural address, 20th January 1965.

“Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan, West Berlin, 12th June 1987.

“Yes We Can” – Barack Obama, various occasions.

“Grab ’em by the pussy, you can do anything” – donald trump, 2005.

 

Sadly, I was right

Back in June, I predicted that Trump might end up winning because, among other factors, of the damage done to Clinton’s campaign by Bernie Sanders. I was right, even though I will admit that Sanders’s quixotic quest for the nomination was not the only factor. Hillary was clearly a flawed candidate, and the Democratic party should have done a better job of choosing its nominee. And most importantly, once again we see, as with Brexit, a collective failure of the commentariat and the pollsters to predict the outcome. As I write this, I listen to a Danish politician admitting that “we (meaning the established political class) communicate on a completely different frequency” that simply does not reach the people who voted for Trump. A lot of people–the Democratic and Republican establishments, the leading commentators, the pollsters and analysts–all of them have a very rotten egg on their faces.

But this slight sense of Schadenfreude cannot hide the deep depression I feel as I write this. The election of Trump is an even greater disaster than Brexit. It will affect the most powerful country in the world deeply and steer it in the wrong direction, even if Trump only delivers on a fraction of his election promises. He may only be President for four years, but even then the damage will be lasting. The damage to international relations; the misery at home; the reactionary Supreme Court justices he will appoint–those will endure.

The irony is of course that the people who elected Trump will be among those who will suffer the most from policies like the upcoming abolition of the Affordable Care Act. That they voted for him is an expression of the same nihilism that led to Brexit: a feeling among wide segments of the population that the established political system has let them down, that they have been left behind by globalisation, and that they have nothing to lose by “shaking things up.” This is related to my previous post. Unless the issues identified there are addressed, there will be many more Trump-like results in 2017. I wonder how President Le Pen will get along with President Trump…