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2016 Retrospective


This is not the December 2016 Surfactant Review. That is in a separate post, at this link. This post here consists of some of my thoughts about 2016 and the near future, interspersed with topical music video mostly from my youth. By reading this post, you will likely not learn much, if anything, about surfactants. So, if it is surfactants news and analysis you are after, go to this link for our December 2016 Surfactants Monthly. End of disclaimer.

2016 was characterized as one of “division” and much popular opinion deemed it therefore a bad year and one to be dismissed with “good riddance”. In fact, just today (December 28th), a 2016 good riddance party was held in New York. Of course it seems that division is the worst characterization of all that can be made of any situation and divisiveness is right up there with the sloth, gluttony et al in the popular firmament of modern sins. In any event, 2016 is being branded the year of division for reasons which I understand but into which I think we should dig a little deeper. Looking back in even recent history, one sees much greater division and social strife with horrible consequences, some of examples of which saw anniversaries during 2016. Here are some to ponder.:

The Somme: This First World War battle saw its 100th anniversary on the 1st of July, 2016. It is held as the first example of large scale industrial mass warfare with an estimated over 1 Million casualties in 5 months. Much music and poetry have been written about WW1 and the Somme in particular. Readers of the blog know we have a soft spot for Motorhead. Here’s an uncharacteristically soft number from them about the battle of the Somme - 1916.


Some more traditional Motorhead here, with “Over the top” inspired by the trench warfare of WW1.

Equally beloved of the blog is Iron Maiden who have written their share of historical works. One directly addressing WW1 is Passchendaele – a song about a battle in Flanders fought between July and November of 2017. A song about the horror and, from the soldier’s viewpoint, futility of war.

Another classic from the Irons, not WW1 related but a superb telling of one of the most tragic and heroic moments of recent warfare. The Trooper tells the tale of the charge of the Light Brigade. Try to get past the clothing of the band members and take in the interspersed lines from the 1854 poem by Alfred, Lord Tenyson about the ill fated British cavalry charge against Russian cannons in the Crimea. It includes one of the best known four lines in English verse “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”

Metal fatigue? Here’s a change of pace from the Dubliners, with the Somme / Freedom come all ye.

And of course, Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago this year. No more need be said.

In the political realm, there has been much gnashing of teeth about the erosion of respect and the decline of civil discourse in modern times. Of course one can point to many examples which we will not do here. But it was only a couple of hundred years ago when political disputes were solved by duels, the most notable recent example of which was the now beloved US treasury secretary Hamilton’s duel with VP Burr in 1804. Here are the 10 duel commandments:

Political divisions in 2016 were first lamented in June when the Brits confounded their elites and voted to leave the EU. This Brexit was the subject of some discussion at our European Surfactant conference in Berlin this September. I talked about the role of emotion and culture in decision making, something I will develop further for next year’s set of conferences. Our Brexit discussion, I bookended with a couple of videos, first one to sum up the prevailing debate and indecision - of course, this classic from the Clash.

Then, the morning after the vote, the feeling of over half of the country.

Since then, much discussion with furrowed brow has taken place about the North-South divide in the UK which supported this unexpected outcome. London and surrounds voted heavily in favour of remaining in the EU while the Northern hinterlands wanted out. Why was this? I will say, from experience, that the North and South do seem like different countries. I remember very recently visiting a UK company in Cambridge (the South) with an American colleague and the MD of the company explaining that said company had 7 plants around the world “two in England, two in India, two in China and one in Yorkshire”. Not a hint of humour evident in this remark! As we left the company, my colleague turned to me and said, "where's Yorkshire? I thought it was in England". Fair question. I think in our MD's mind, a minor slip of the tongue revealed a long held view of the North being somewhere "up there" where people wore cloth caps, raced whippets and ate black pudding and tripe. And sung odd sounding songs like this one (Yes, that is Brian Johnson of AC/DC on vocals).

So, I agree, that in England, there is a North-South divide. Is it serious? Is it a problem, or at least significant in some way? If you believe that Brexit was important and was, to a large extent, affected by this North-South divide, then yes, it is a significant matter. Whether it is a problem or not, depends on your perspective. What caused this divide? Geography, tribal culture, chance, religion? Interestingly the Christmas edition, this year, of the Economist magazine puts forward an explanation for the divide and it goes back to the year, seared in every English schoolboy’s memory, 1066.

950 years ago, William “the Conqueror” Duke of Normandy, (in modern day France), invaded England to lay claim to the throne then occupied by King Harold. Harold, had succeeded King Edward I “the confessor”, but, as brother in law to Edward, his claim to the throne was considered weak. William believed he had been promised the throne by Edward and so, to war. But this was no ordinary tussle over the English throne. Following William's victory, accomplished in part by Harold’s death by an arrow in the eye, the conquering Normans wrought what the Economist believes to the single greatest political change England has ever seen. The existing Anglo Saxon aristocracy was eliminated and replaced by a Norman (i.e. French) ruling class. The lands of over 4,000 English lords were taken and given to less than 200 Norman and French barons. The English were removed from government and high ecclesiastical office. Within 50 years, every English cathedral and most big abbeys had been razed to the ground and replaced with a continental (i.e. Norman) style church.

Not all was gloom and doom however, according the to the Economist. The introduction, by the Normans, of economic and financial liberalization created wealth and growth. There developed a large degree of economic integration between England the rest of Europe as the Normans promoted cross border trade. Infrastructure spending on a large scale (not least of which to replace all those cathedrals) boosted incomes. Fairs and markets proliferated to soak up all that new disposable cash. And so the cycle continued, so even though the Anglo Saxon elites suffered greatly, the populace as a whole did quite well from the invasion and upending of the political order. These economic gains, however, were not evenly distributed across the whole country. The North got the short end of the stick. Northerners, prior to the conquest, barely considered themselves fully English (having more in common with the Scots and Scandinavians) let alone French, so bloody rebellions were common against Norman rule. William responded in kind with a series of raids up into Northumbria and surrounding counties which came to be known (again to every English schoolboy) as the “harrying of the North”. By 1086, Southern estates were, on average four times as wealthy as Northern ones and in Yorkshire (the site of our MD’s foreign operations), total wealth had fallen by 68% since the Norman invasion. The population of York (where your correspondent went to college) halved during the same 20 year period.

Now, according to the Economist, William’s depredations could explain in part, the Northern poverty that gives modern Britain, Europe’s highest regional inequality. Could the effects of the invasion almost a thousand years ago, really still be felt today? According to some fascinating research at the London School of Economics yes it could and it is. In fact, this work claims that social status in England is more strongly inherited even than height and that social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in pre-industrial times. Students with Norman surnames (as documented in the contemporaneous Domesday book), are still today, significantly over-represented at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (the English ivy league and still the factory that churns out political leaders). Even a thousand years of history, industrial revolution and government social intervention, was not enough to eliminate the “Norman advantage” in English society. The Economist then goes on to conclude that there should be no surprise that the regions which suffered worst in the Norman conquest were more likely to have voted to throw off the modern yoke of European imperialism, that is government from Brussels, in the Brexit referendum on June 23rd of this year.

Early EU Enforcement

Early EU Enforcement

At this point, my patient American readers (those that have stuck with me thus far) are asking, so what? What does this parochial Brit business have to do with anything of truly global import in these United States of America? Because, basically all you’re saying is that that there are some problems (divisions!?) in England and it’s all the fault of the French – big surprise! Well, not exactly, as I think it can be argued that the same North – South divide is also manifest in the USA and shows itself with startling regularity in the modern era, including in 2016.

To support this idea, I go to an excellent book published in 1989 by David Hackett-Fischer, called “Albions Seed”. I first read this book in 2001 during that year’s US presidential election. The book analyses how four waves of immigration to the US from Britain have shaped American culture. These immigrant waves are Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers (from the North of England and South of Scotland, or the so-called Scots-Irish). We’ll focus on the borderers and while Fischer’s book clocks in at over 900 pages, we’ll try to get at his arguments in a few paragraphs.

Fischer starts his section on the borderers called “Borderlands to the Back Country” with some excerpts from a 1717 account of a Philadelphia Quaker, Jonathan Dickinson writing about a wave of new immigrants from the region of the North of England, Southern Scotland and the North of Ireland. He characterizes them as “a swarm of people, strangers to our laws and.. even to our language.” The men were tall and lean with weather beaten faces. The young women startled Quaker Philadelphia by the “sensuous appearance of their full bodices, tight waists, bare legs and skirts as scandalously short as an English undershirt” (Now – let me just observe, that anyone who has been in Newcastle city centre on a Friday night, at any time of year, will know exactly what Dickinson is talking about!).

Oot on the Toon. Startling the Quakers

Oot on the Toon. Startling the Quakers

This mass migration to the US, mainly in the 1700’s drew largely on the area of England and Southern Scotland harried by our friend William the conqueror and afflicted by relative poverty vs the rest of Britain. In Hackett’s telling , the borderland derived its cultural character from one historical fact. That is, that for seven centuries the kings of England and Scotland could not agree who owned it. From 1040 – 1745 every English monarch bar three suffered a Scottish invasion or became an invader in his turn. This environment gave rise also to culture of instability, lawlessness and inter-family violence around theft of land and cattle in the area, quite apart from the over-arching quarrels of kings. The resulting social system that arose out of this unstable anarchic and violent cauldron was very different from that in the more stable and prosperous South of England. Maintaining a means of self-defense and swift counter attack at a local, family and individual level was of much greater importance here than elsewhere in Britain. A fierce streak of individuality and innate distrust of authority helped a man survive and prosper, to the extent possible, in such an area and thus a certain type of individual libertarianism marked the outlook of the immigrants that arrived in America from the border region.

Shortly after landing, mainly in Philadelphia, these borderer immigrants were encouraged (asked?) to keep moving by the resident Quakers and eventually settled in a new border country between the Quakers and American Indians. From there they covered much of Appalachia, the old Southwest, Arkansas, Missourri, Oklahoma and Texas. The area came to be known as the backcountry.

A few more snippets from Fischer’s book:

Of the four cultural groups that Fischer tracked from England he notes that the effect on the US presidency was greatest by the borderers. He links 18 US presidents to this immigrant group. These include, in part, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Much ink has been spilled, since the 2016 election, trying to link Donald Trump to this group (although, notably not by Fischer, as far as I can see). And although he has a Scottish mother and a Scottish golf course, I really can’t conclude much about this. Writers at the Atlantic and the Washington Post have drawn on Fischer’s work to position Trump as a successor to the 7th US president Andrew Jackson, undoubtedly a borderer whose parents came from Northern Ireland and who is distinguished among other things, as the founder of the Democrat party, the face on the $20 bill and the first president to invite the public to his inauguration, which turned reportedly into a bit of a drunken melee on the white house lawn. According to an article by Richard Latner in 2002, when selecting his Cabinet, instead of choosing party favorites, Jackson instead selected "plain, businessmen" whom he intended to control.

In Fischer’s discussion of law and order in the borderer settled backcountry, the emphasis is very much on order rather than law and on the system of retributive justice brought over by the settlers. In a discussion of attitudes toward violence, Fischer notes that proverbs of the backcountry justified the use of violence only when it promised to succeed, for example “He that fights and runs away lives to fight another day”. Borderers did not glorify fighting for its own sake, but fighting for the sake solely of winning. This ethic of violence then had little to with the chivalric ideals of the Virginia elites or indeed the idea of war as a gentleman’s game, fought according to elaborate rules, concepts which would be very familiar to the Southern English and French nobles back in Europe.

The backcountry was, and still is, one of the most unequal regions of the USA in terms of wealth distribution. However, according to Fischer, this inequality of material condition was joined to an intense concern for equality of esteem. Visitor of high rank often complained that they were not treated with the same respect as in other parts of America. Disrepect or ignore a backcountry man because he is perceived to the of a lower class and you incur his wrath. Rank, of course, existed but the backcountry elites were distinguished by wealth rather than learning, breeding, intellect or refined tastes. You lose your wealth and you instantly lose your social status. The concepts of “tattered respectability” or “threadbare gentility”, so familiar to the English and other European gentry and even to their successors in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, was unknown to the borderers and their descendants.

Reflecting on this account of the border immigrants and their settlement in the US, is it fair to say that some connections to current events may be discerned?

Coming back to our theme, division. I think we have seen that divisions exist and that divisions, even those originating a thousand years ago, can arguably influence events of today. But are divisions inherently good or bad or some divisions better than others? Is divisiveness on its face problematic or does it serve to separate good ideas from bad ones. A partisan Republican politician today might look back at the sequence of historical events that gave rise the Jackson’s formation of the Democrat party and say that such divisions led to a bad outcome. Democrats might disagree. King George III may well have lamented the divisive ideas and actions of the American revolutionaries that led them to declare that ”all men are created equal” and then to declare their ultimate division and separation from the empire. Go back to around the beginning of history. I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptian Pharoahs likely regarded Moses as a bit of a divisive character. History has judged other dividers a bit differently. In his book, Tombstone, Yang Jisheng chronicles how Mao Zedong’s division of the Chinese people into revolutionaries and reactionaries led to the infliction of a starvation death on 36 million of his countrymen between 1958 and 1962.

Much as I hate to see questions answered this way, I think the answer to whether division is good or bad has to be “it depends”. One thing I would urge certainty on is that divisions exist and they should not be ignored or swept under the rug. Nor should legitimate views or concerns of those that we view as divided from us be delegitimized or ignored. The goal should surely be to make sure that divisions do not degenerate into something that is truly horrible.

I’ll try to end on an optimistic note. If you’ve read my other blog posts and stayed with me this far, I know you are asking “Yes Neil but what about Rush?, Surely there is some nugget of wisdom in one of their songs that we can apply to this matter?” Well first, it is a well known fact that Rush do not sing love songs and, like most well known facts, that is not strictly true. One such Rush love song is “Entre Nous” (that’s French for “Between Us”). It’s about the divisions (or differences) between two people and how that can be a barrier to love and friendship “Even joined in bonds of love, we’re linked to one another by such slender threads”. The song goes on to advise that “Just between us, I think it’s time for us to recognize, the differences we sometimes fear to show. Just between us, I think it’s time for us to realize, the spaces in between, leave room for you and I to grow. “ But of course, like most Rush songs there are other layers to peel back and think about. “Acting well rehearsed routines or playing from the heart its hard for one to know”. I’ll leave it to you to watch this video which has the lyrics on top. In my view this is as much about societal, political, even business relationships (and divisions) as it is about love between two individuals. Before you start the video, I think I must again issue a band clothing warning at around 1:40. Hey it was 1980! What were you wearing back then?

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