A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor in 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Every month, a talk with Steve on various topics will be posted. Steve comes from Adelaide, Australia. He’s been in Japan for more than 10 years.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

A topic of discussion for October 13, 2021: Could you recommend some English classic books for non-English speaking students, say five of them? 

 

Steve selected the following five books, which are well known to many Japanese students so hopefully they can enjoy reading them once again.

 

First came, “Aesop’s Fables” said to have been written by Ancient Greece’s Aesop. Steve said that the fables are particularly suited for beginners. There are many fables, so one can select those that are familiar to oneself.

 

The second selection was “Treasure Island” by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote it for children. It was first published in 1883. According to Steve, it’s also good for adults.

 

Next came, “The Hobbit” by the English author J.R.R. Tolkien, written for his children. It was first published in 1937; a good adventure story. Perhaps Japanese students are more familiar with the film version. 

 

The fourth was, “Around the World in Eighty Days” by the French author Jules Verne. It was first published in 1872. Steve mentioned that this book is best suited for intermediate and above readers. 

 

The fifth was, “Time Machine” by the English writer H.G. Wells. It was first published in 1895. This book is one of the first science fictions.

 

Well, what would be your choice? For me, I would like to try “Time Machine”.

 

 

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A topic of discussion for September 8, 2021: How would you explain the legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, if any? 

As is known the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games were held in such an unprecedented way: there was a one year postponement and no spectators at almost all venues due to Covid-19. So, it has raised obvious questions, such as “What are the Olympic games for? For whom, athletes or the host city? Should we continue the games? 

 

Through watching many, many games on the TV, I have come to an opinion that the games are for athletes, nothing more, nothing less. So, Tokyo provided venues, spaces, facilities, and staff for the athletes to compete at their best. When talking about Tokyo 2020, Steve seemed to have been not interested in watching the games since he is not a big fan of any sporting events. For Steve, those above-mentioned questions remain unanswered. Also, he found it hard to mention any legacy of the games as such.

 

To me, I find the legacy of the games has two perspectives. One is something obvious; new sporting venues constructed specifically for the games, such as the national stadium, a venue for swimming events among others. Another does not in any way relate to tangibility but something remains within yourself: simply put it is the “excitement” of the games, watching and cheering athletes competing.

 

Although I have enjoyed the games, I have to say this to the IOC, International Organizing Committee for the future games. I hope the IOC will respect the hosting country in that to minimize the cost of carrying out the Olympic games existing sporting venues are utilized as much as is feasible. This goes even to changing the rules and regulations of the IOC, if possible, to accept local venues. Another is to take into consideration for the timing of the games. Why not the best season of the hosting country? In 1964, the first Olympic games held in Japan was carried out in October when the weather was more acceptable to everybody, as opposed to this time in Tokyo; from the end of July to the beginning of August when it was both extremely hot and humid, definitely not the best timing for the athletes.    

 

Finally, let me show you the budget for the Olympic games according to the V5 budget, which was stipulated in December, 2020. The total operating cost was set at US$ 6.7 billion. This excludes the cost of building new venues, the cost of Covid-19 countermeasures, and others that were to be borne by the Metropolitan Tokyo Government and the Japanese Government. How was this supposed to be financed? The IOC contribution was to be about 12%; sponsorships 57%, ticket sells 12% among others. Of course, there were no ticket sales at all in the end.  

 

 

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A topic of discussion for August 18, 2021: We would like to talk about the reigns of two great English queens, namely Elizabeth I (reign 1558-1603) and Victoria (reign 1837-1901). What were their outstanding feats? Were there any similarities between them?  

If permissible, one could talk about the two queens in that Elizabeth I started to create the British empire while Victoria benefitted the most from the vast, extended empire at its zenith. Let’s take a closer look at their reigns.

Elizabeth I represented the golden age of England. It was the remarkable period of political stability, economic prosperity, emergence of notable playwrights like Shakespeare, successful explorations to different parts of the world, defeating the Spanish Armada and hence the founding of the English navy, growing national pride and more.

 

Perhaps because of her upbringing, being a daughter of Henry VIII but having her mother executed, she became shrewd and perseverant. It was fortunate for her that “top-notch” nobles were around in supporting and advising her. Having said that the queen was not overly influenced by them; she managed to make her own decisions. The queen was also credited with accomplishing a religious settlement, in which she backed the Church of England but also permitted Catholics to continue their faith. A flexible settlement at the time.    

It was three centuries later when Queen Victoria entered history under a completely different environment. Parliament had become much stronger.

The prime minister as head of his cabinet decided and carried out all home and foreign matters. In this sense, Queen Victoria was more of a figure head; consenting to the advice and suggestions of her prime ministers.

When Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was alive, she tended to follow his advice and suggestions especially in terms of reform. One such example was her sympathy and support (making a donation of a huge sum) for the Irish people who suffered the devastating potato famine of 1841; and the Reform act of 1867 which gave voting rights to the urbane male working class. Queen Victoria was best suited as a “beloved mother” of the British empire.

 

This is an “if” question. If Queen Elizabeth I were to replace Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria to replace Queen Elizabeth I reciprocally, how would they have fared? Perhaps, Queen Elizabeth I would have acted appropriately as a constitutional monarch giving timely and thought-out advice and guidance to her government in the 19th Century. For Queen Victoria, it would have been very, very difficult to run the country in the 16th Century.      

 

 

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A topic of discussion for July 7, 2021: Could you talk about French philosophers that have left a profound legacy in our everyday lives?

 

 

Steve started the talk by saying that “It’s not my forte.” Having said that Steve mentioned several French philosophers of fame. First came Simon de Beauvoir (1908-1986), one of the trailblazers for feminism as well as a writer, political activist and more. Beauvoir dismissed marriage as a social norm.

 

In fact, she and Jean-Paul Sartre had been lifetime partners but they never got married. Also, she argued against motherhood. Beauvoir advocated for free and independent women. One of her remarks appropriately showed her thoughts, “one is not born but becomes a woman.” Her feminist work inspired other feminists especially in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Simon de Beauvoir on the left and

 Jean-Paul Sartre

 

 

 

Next came Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) himself. Sartre was a famed French philosopher of existentialism as well as a playwright, novelist and political activist. Existentialism is well defined as “each individual ….is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely….” Through his novels and playwrights, he advocated the essence of existentialism to the public and to the world: “people are condemned to be free,” “existence precedes essence.”  

 

Now going back to the 17th Century and to Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

Descartes was a philosopher, mathematician and scientist. In the field of mathematics, he is well-known as the developer of Cartesian geometry.

Descartes is one of the founders of modern philosophy. With Spinoza, Leibniz,

he led the “Age of Reason.” His famous remark was “Cogito ergo sum,”

meaning “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes published “Discourse on the method” in 1637, in which he set out “Four rules of thought” as follows.

 

The first, never to accept anything for true……… to exclude all ground of doubt”.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties …..into as many parts as possible…..for its adequate solution.”

The third, to conduct my thoughts…. by commencing with the simplest and easiest …… to more complex…..”

The fourth, make enumerations so complete…..that nothing was omitted.”

 

 

Lastly, among other philosophical figures came Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). 

Not only a philosopher, Rousseau was also a writer and composer. He “influenced the progress of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought”. Some of his remarks: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they are”. “…. sovereignty should be in the hands of the people……”

 

 

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A topic of discussion for June 9, 2021: Nordic countries are well known for their welfare, medical, educational services and so forth; but people have to pay higher taxes in return, for example consumer tax being 24 to 25%. What is your take on this system, higher welfare but higher burden?  

For Steve, this is acceptable. His remark was that “I have no problem of paying 24 or 25 % consumer tax as long as there is no concern for retirement, medical expenses, education fees and so on”. I think this goes with the majority of people living in Nordic countries; they can see and appreciate welfare services in return for paying higher taxes. There was once a skeptical view of welfare states that people would become too complacent with life leading to economic stagnation on a national level. What about Nordic countries? 

 

According to one report about world competitiveness for 2007-2008, Nordic countries ranked high: Denmark the third, Sweden the fourth, Finland the sixth. As is well known, there are many global Nordic companies such as Sweden’s Ikea for furniture, Erikson for cell-phone networks, H&M for hip clothes, SAAB and Volvo for cars, Denmark’s Vesta for wind turbines, Carlsberg for beer, Finland’s Nokia for cell-phones and so forth. What has brought about this success story? I would like to say that it has been due to the Nordic governments’ exercising appropriate policies on education, economic development, labor management coupled with providing a welfare “safety net.”

 

Now turning to Japan, what is the possibility of adopting a higher welfare but a higher burden system? I personally think this is an unlikely scenario. The welfare system here is not financed entirely by tax but, basically, welfare insurance premiums born by both employees and employers in return for welfare services provided by the government. So, simply put, a “medium welfare and medium burden” falling somewhere between Nordic countries and so-called free America. As is well known, Japan is the front runner of ageing societies, resulting in a huge financial deficit. I hope it will not lead to “higher taxes but lower welfare.” 

 

 

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A topic of discussion for May 12, 2021: After observing somewhat crude and blunt consequences rendered by capitalism as of late, aren’t there any lessons to be learnt from socialism or communism, which are meant to be the antithesis of capitalism?  

We are of the opinion that capitalism has been working well in most of the developed nations as strikingly exemplified by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which ushered in the fall of the Soviet Union, a champion of socialist states, a few years on. In this sense, people can say that “capitalism has prevailed over communism”. It is remarkable that GDP as well as per capita income in many countries have kept going up for decades. Of course, there are downsides to today’s capitalism. We talked about them.

 

Firstly, it has become evident that the economic and social divide among people has widened alarmingly, also among nations; simply put the richer get ever richer, the poorer ever poorer. Secondly, we have seen that big private companies and corporations have become bigger and bigger, exercising more clout economically as well as politically. Their global operations are often criticized for environmental abuses like over-deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia and more. Seeking cheap labor sometimes ends up in utilizing child labor with poor working conditions. 

 

Surely, these are abuses but probably not as severe and critical as those observed during the late 19th to the early 20th Centuries: dire working conditions coupled with an unhealthy living environment for the masses, who were “exploited” under a Marxian term. Charles Dickens famously depicted such lives in his several books.

 

Thanks to those who have endeavored decade after decade to tackle and mitigate these problems, things have improved drastically, such as the realization of universal suffrage, labor unions, health insurance systems, compulsory education and much more. Here, one must not overlook the historical role or input of communism and socialism as an ideal concept, affecting many “progressive” politicians, bureaucrats, pundits and so forth. In this sense, isn’t it quite appropriate to look back at Marx’s communism now?

 

 

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A topic of discussion for April 14, 2021: It seems to me that tragedies are more popular than comedies. I wonder why? Could you comment on this?  

 

 

 

 

 

It is said that the origin of tragedies goes back to ancient Greece. There were three outstanding Greek writers of tragedies in the 5th Century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As compared with comedies, Steve explained that tragedies have three perceived points of superiority.

 

The first, the superiority of structure.

Usually, tragedies come with a complex and dramatic structure, as opposed to comedies that take a simple story line.

 

The second is the superiority of responses.

Tragedies solicit complex responses from us based upon sympathy. Comedies on the contrary are superficial and generally do not leave a deep message.

 

The third is the superiority of significance.

Tragedies often follow negative topics, such as death, sadness and so on, reaching, touching one’s morality. Comedies are funny more or less at the expense of others, but do not reach our morality in a serious way. Simply put, they do not resound within us.

 

In ancient Greece, comedies came about one century after tragedies. Perhaps the ancient Greeks found relief from something light, not so serious for a change? What do you think?  

 

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A topic of discussion on March 10, 2021: This is a blunt “if” question in recent history. If the Treaty of Versailles had not stipulated as harsh treaty terms and conditions as it did on post WW1 Germany, the Second World War would not have occurred?  

 

 

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 between Allied Powers and Germany to formally end World War I. The treaty laid down stipulations to essentially deprive the strength of defeated Germany by ceding its contested territories to surrounding countries, limiting military power, paying a large sum of reparations among others. These terms and conditions reflected the victors’ argument that Germany was solely responsible for causing World War I.

 

Based on the general resentment of the German people against the treaty, which Adolf Hitler vehemently criticized, Hitler surprisingly adhered to his own book “Mein Kampf” and began to take back territories which were ceded by the treaty, one by one. Coupled with his declaration of rearmament and effectually repudiating the reparations, Hitler subsequently took Germany into WWII.

 

As Steve mentioned, The Treaty of Versailles gave Hitler a “Casus Belli”, which according to Wikipedia means “an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war”. So, yes, it was a contributing factor to WWII. But we know that there were other factors. Let’s look at some of them briefly.

 

One perspective is confrontation between the rising authoritarian powers of Germany, Italy (invading Ethiopia) and Japan (expanding its influence in China) on one side and the “incumbent” western powers of the UK, France and the US on the other. Another perspective was the Great Depression that began in 1920. As a result, the UK and France took the policy of “Block economy” by utilizing for themselves their vast expanse of colonies and natural resources, whereas Germany, Italy and Japan were in desperate need for them but were out of their reach. The so-called appeasement policy of the UK and France to intentionally overlook Germany’s territorial claims in Europe in return for Germany standing against the expansion of communism was another contributing factor.    

     

So, our talk had focused on the negative aspects of the treaty but there was

a hopeful concept of sustaining peace as set forth by Woodrow Wilson to create the League of Nations. It was well intended in that a collective security and disarmament process would be employed to prevent war; and any international disputes would be settled by means of negotiation and arbitration. It was created in 1920. But it was an irony of history that the US did not participate in this institution because of internal political affairs. The Soviet Union was expelled from the League when it invaded Finland. Germany, Italy and Japan withdrew from it for various reasons respectively. To prevent WWII from happening, the League of Nations was totally powerless.   

 

 

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A topic of discussion for February 10, 2021: This time we would like to talk about philosophy. If you are interested in contemporary philosophers, please introduce us to some of them.  

Steve’s first comment was that because he didn’t study contemporary philosophers, he is not so much interested in them. Having said that he has delved into the subject and managed to pick some prominent figures as detailed below that we could talk about. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His first pick was Sam Harris (1967~), an American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist.

 

(Photo by Christopher Michel)

Harris covers topics from a wide field, such as rationality, religion, ethics, free will, neuroscience, meditation, politics, terrorism, AI among others. Steve gave a good example of what is meant by “free will”: imagine you were asked to choose 3 cities. Is what you choose really a result of your free will, or to a certain extent influenced by your preferences? “Do we really have free will or not?” The basic stance of Harris seems to be centered around his “love” of science. So, he is very critical of anything that cannot be explained scientifically. This is especially true when it comes to religion. “Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a betrayal of science and yet it is the lifeblood of religion.” 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Hichens (1949-2011), an English intellectual, polemist, social-political critic

  (Photo by ensceptico)

He challenged anything, anyone as a true polemist. He asserted that “all religion was false, harmful and authoritarian: he favored free expression, scientific discovery, and advocated for separation of church and state”. Let me quote this: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Dawkins (1941~), a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author

(Photo by David Shankbone)

 

 

Based on his scholastic achievements in his scientific field, he has appeared on TV, radio and the Internet talking about many topics. He is very critical of religion and the existence of deity. 

 

                                             

 

 

                                             

                                              Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958~), an American astrophysist, planetary scientist, author and science communicator

(Photo by the Norwegian University of Science)

Tyson has talked about the “spirituality of science” a lot. Here is one, “We think about the universe as an intellectual playground, which it surely is, but the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual, I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe.”   

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                            Brian Cox (1968~), an English particle physicist and former musician

 

       (Photo by Duncan Hull)

Besides his core academic activities, Cox is very active to publicize science through various means. “He said that he has no personal faith”, but went on

“he cannot be sure there is no god and that science cannot answer every question.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Fry (1957~), an English actor, comedian and  writer

 

 

Fry’s view on religion. “He is opposed to organized religion being an atheist and humanist, while declaring some sympathy for the ancient Greek belief in Capricious gods.”

 

As seen here, Steve picked these scholars and an intellectual, who are all non-professional philosophers. From their core competence, they are talking about a lot of other subjects, but it’s interesting to know that they all have negative stances on religion as not scientific. For your information, this is the definition of contemporary philosophy according to Wikipedia: “…. a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism and poststructurism.”    

 

 

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A topic of discussion for January 13, 2021: Because of Covid-19 how has life in Australia changed as far as what you hear from your family members and friends there? 

 

Australia has been praised for taking strong measures like neighboring New Zealand, including lock-downs, to combat Covid-19 where and when necessary. On the other hand, Japan declared a national emergency across the whole country from April to May last year, but it was not as strict as other lock-downs at all: yes, schools were closed but restaurants and shops remained open for shorter business hours, working places were not closed but office worker were asked to work from home, public transportation remained open and so on. 

 

Steve mentioned recent measures taken in Brisbane. Lock downs were lifted but “restrictions” remain. According to the website of the Queensland government, these restrictions mandate limiting max. capacity for visitors at any place and a must for wearing masks in public places, shops and so on. Also, Steve mentioned that “quarantining” hotels in Melbourne were not properly administered, so soldiers were placed instead to maintain strict procedures there.

 

 

Faced with a grave surge of Covid-19 cases Japan has recently but belatedly declared a state of emergency to major cities for the second time. But it has been criticized for its lax nature of targeting mainly restaurants and bars, which are “requested” to close by 8 pm. Then we discussed vaccines. Steve thought that Japan is acting too slowly to implement vaccines. We both agreed to receive shots when they become available. 

 

 

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A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor

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