Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Few Orchids From The Curate's Wood

Fascinating (though some dissent in the comments, both from outsiders and insiders) Telegraph article on the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews of North London, who are to Judaism what the Jehovah's Witnesses are to Christianity. I think these are the same people (she calls them Hasidim, which is IIRC a subset of Haredi Orthodoxy) who the Indie's Christina Patterson hasn't a great deal of time for (a view returned by non-Orthodox writers with interest). What I'm certain of is that the Hasidim/Haredim will be the people driving the Orthodox population boom.

"It is a deeply conservative community that venerates religious learning above all else and in which Yiddish is the primary language. Following the Biblical commandment to 'be fruitful and multiply’, families of seven or eight children are common; relations between the sexes are stringently policed, and arranged marriages are the norm. It is a community where a lack of secular education means that economic hardship is rife, and dependence on benefits is high. A community where television, secular newspapers and visits to the cinema are forbidden, where the internet is frowned upon, and where outsiders are treated guardedly."

I guess one man's 'guardedly' is Ms Patterson's 'damn rude'. I can see the point of not wanting to engage with the secular world more than can be helped - a problem that all religious people face in our modern Babylon, be one Christian, Jew or Muslim. But good manners cost nowt. I wonder if the problem is that unlike Muslims and Christians, the Orthodox show little interest in converting the heathen ? I digress. Here's Rabbi Pinter of the (state-funded) Yesodey Hatorah school on sex education :

When the school became voluntary aided, Rabbi Pinter told me, there had been some parental concern about having to follow certain aspects of the national curriculum.

'For example, the law is that you have to provide sex education. But parents can choose to opt out. 100 per cent of our parents opt out. Sex education is something we deal with on our own terms through the Jewish curriculum, based on very strong family values.’

At my child's Catholic primary, the sex education policy used to be that there was no sex education. Alas, not so at secondary level. But surely, with no sex education, the school must be riddled with teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections picked up by the poor ignorant girls. After all, you can't stop them, can you ?

'A question I’m asked is, “How many teenage pregnancies do you have in the community?” To which I reply, “Are you talking about inside or outside marriage? Outside marriage, none.”’

Most odd. Haredim, like Pakistanis and Indians, seem to defy the conventional wisdom that only lashings of sex education can save us from the negative consequences of lashings of sex.

Another community who keep themselves to themselves - the Afrikaners of Orania (who like their Voortrekker forebears set off into the wilderness in search of a place of their own) mourn the death of their founder, Carel Boshoff III.

In the early 1990s, Boshoff, a genteel theologian who favored delicate spectacles and a George Washington-esque ruffled coiffure, abandoned the intellectual life in Pretoria and led a troupe of his fellow Afrikaners to a ghost town in a blasted desert that scarcely supports animals, forget about libraries or concert orchestras. Boshoff thought the soon-to-be black government would rule in a manner so hostile and alien to South Africa's European descendants that retreating en masse into the wilderness -- he predicted the exodus would swell to 2 million, half of South Africa's Afrikaner population -- was the only way to survive.
As it turned out, while there's been a steady bleeding of Afrikaners, murdered on their farms, since Mandela took over, it's not been as apocalyptic as feared :

But instead South Africa's irrepressibly genial black leaders kept following him out there. And so Orania became an accidental symbol not of racial reconciliation's unfeasibility, but of its robustness. Nelson Mandela traveled to Orania in 1995 to drink tea with the smiling widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the infamous "architect of apartheid." A decade later, President Jacob Zuma toured a dormitory for poor white laborers and commended Boshoff's ethnic awareness, comparing it to his own pride in being Zulu.
The problem for his community and vision is a simple one - whites in South Africa have always employed other, non-white people to work for them - to really and truly do the jobs they don't want to do :

Whites in South Africa remain a privileged class dependent on black labor, said Boshoff, and this position is untenable. To defend themselves against rising discontent among the other half (actually, the other four-fifths) they rely on "good fences and good dogs."

He wasn't totally wrong. The best part of Boshoff's vision of a self-sufficient white community was always the self-sufficiency part. In Orania, white Afrikaners have to do all the work, even the service jobs. Unfortunately for Boshoff, however, this requirement also cut directly against his ideal of preserving Afrikaner traditions. Construction, fruit-picking, janitorial work is not a traditional part of white South African culture. When they realized they would have to do the manual labor blacks do in the rest of the country, some Orania settlers left -- and this was undoubtedly a reason many more whites never came.

And via Capitalists at Work, a little insight from the London Review of Books into the working world of Russian business - in this case TV production :

To get to our office you had to walk down an unlit concrete corridor and turn sharp right up two flights of narrow stairs at the top of which you were confronted by another black, unmarked metal door. There you rang the bell and an unfriendly voice would come through the intercom: ‘Who are you?’ The question was ridiculous: the guard on the other side of the door could see you on his monitor – he saw you every day. But still he asked and still you answered, waving your passport at where you guessed the spy camera to be. Then came the beep-beep-beep of the door being opened and you were inside Potemkin Productions.

Suddenly you were back in a Western office with Ikea furniture and lots of twentysomethings in jeans and bright T-shirts running around with coffees, cameras and props. It could have been any television production office anywhere in the world. But there was a difference. Going past the reception desk, the conference room, coffee bar and casting department, you reached a closed white door. Many would turn back at this point, thinking they’d seen the whole office. But tap in a code and you entered a much larger set of rooms: here the producers and their assistants sat and argued, here the accountants glided around with spreadsheets and solemnity, and here were the loggers – rows of young girls staring at screens as their hyperactive fingers typed out interviews and dialogue from rushes. At the end of this office was another door. Tap in another code and you entered the editing suites: little cells where directors and video editors sweated and swore at one another. And beyond that was the final, most important and least conspicuous of all the inconspicuous doors, with a code that few people knew: it led to the office of Tim and Ivan, and the room where the real accounts were kept. This whole elaborate set-up was intended to foil the tax police. That’s who it was the guards’ job to keep out, or keep out long enough for the back office to be cleared and the hidden back entrance put to good use.

I asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneur paid their taxes in full: it wouldn’t occur to them. Taxes, he said, were just a way for bureaucrats to buy themselves holidays in Thailand. As for the tax police, they were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion. In any case, Ivan’s profits were already squeezed by the broadcasters. Around 15 per cent of any budget went to the guy at the channel who commissioned the programme: in Russian these kick-backs are known as otkat, ‘backwash’. A British producer who refused to pay the ‘backwash’ was out of the country within a year.


For my Russian colleagues the tax police raids were a reason to celebrate: the rest of the day was invariably a holiday (deadlines be damned) as Ivan haggled with them to keep down the size of the pay-off. ‘Only a dozen people work here,’ he would say with a wink as they looked around at the many dozens of desks, chairs and computers still warm from use. Then Ivan would bring out the fake accounts from the front office to support his case and they would sit down to negotiate, with tea and biscuits, as if this were the most normal of business deals. And in Russia it was. The word ‘bribe’ was never used. The officials would look at the fake books, which they knew perfectly well to be fake, and extract fines in line with legislation they knew Ivan did not need to comply with. So everything would be settled, and every role, pose, and line of dialogue would reproduce the ritual of legality. It was a ritual played out every day in every medium-sized business, every furniture company, restaurant, modelling agency and PR firm across the country.

So far, so crooked - we're in William Browder territory where everyone conspires to rip off the State. But the cultural rot is much deeper, embedded in the consciousness of ordinary people.

The fundamental premise for most Western reality shows is what people in the industry call ‘aspirational’: someone works hard and is rewarded with a wonderful new life. The shows celebrate the outstanding individual, the bright extrovert. For the Russian version of The Apprentice, Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – ‘connections’. Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile like the mobile phone billionaire Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Today’s Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique de couloir – the man like Putin. Promotion in such a system comes from knowing how to debase yourself, how to suck up and serve your master, how to be what the Russians call a holop, a ‘toady’. Bright and extrovert and aspirational? Not if you want success. The shows that did work were based on a quite different set of principles. By far the biggest success was Posledny Geroi (‘The Last Hero’), a version of Survivor, a show based on humiliation and hardship. This chimed in Russia – a country where being bullied by the authorities is the norm.