Monday, November 29, 2004

The land of the (not so) free

Well, I have finally got round to updating my blog after a month! One of the drawbacks of running your own business is that leisure time can sometimes be hard to come by. In recent months (my wife would say years!), I have become victim to the protestant work ethic.

The protestant work ethic, as practised in America seems to be going back to it's puritan roots. The term was originally coined by Max Weber in his 1905 publication,"The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He wrote... "The Puritan, wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.". At least the Puritans insisted everyone take Sundays off; increasingly, it's not uncommon for Americans to squeeze in a few extra hours of work on Sunday, and many neglect to use up their annual vacation allotments. In fact the Protestant work ethic as practiced in America seems to have some old fashioned catholic guilt mixed in. Americans look with a mixture of envy and suspicion at their president who takes a whole month off in the Summer. Those who do take vacations end up taking their work with them or worse, feel the need to page / email their office whilst they're away.

Despite all this, Americans must be doing something right. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out in the Telegraph, Americans are wealthier, more competitive and have less unemployment then their European counterparts. In contrast to Weber, Niall Ferguson states mockingly that Europe has adopted "The Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism", arguing that Europe's relative economic decline can be attributed to the decline in religion. He says:

"The most remarkable thing about the transatlantic divergence in working patterns is that it has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity. According to a 1999 Gallup survey of religious attitudes, 48 per cent of people living in western Europe almost never go to church; the figure for eastern Europe is just a little lower at 44 per cent.

In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than one in 10 of the population now attends church at least once a month. Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland do more than a third of the population worship on a monthly basis or more often.

By contrast, more than twice as many North Americans as Europeans attend religious services once a week or more. And scarcely any Americans could be characterised as atheists, compared with 15 per cent of Europeans".

Whist this may be true, the situation in America has clearly gone too far with survey after survey showing that the long hours Americans work are damaging family life, and in many cases leading to divorce. One english couple I know who live in Seattle describe America as the best contraceptive they've ever found. They work so hard and have so little family time, they have no desire to conceive any more children till they return to the UK.

Well, I have come up with a solution. America needs to find a happy medium by adopting the Jewish work ethic.

Judaism places an emphasis on hard work but also on personal development and more importantly, family life. Within traditional Judaism, the ideal is to earn enough to support your family, but otherwise you should be devoting your waking hours to either learning Torah (the bible and all the Jewish traditions stemming from it) and spending time with your family, in particular educating your children (and that's just during the week).

Then there is the Sabbath day. Never mind how busy you are, never mind that you're about to close a multi-million dollar deal, everything stops at sundown on Friday for 25 hours. You relax, you unwind, you spend time with your family. It can sometimes be frustrating, but it's a great safety valve. (My Father who was a journalist once wasted an entire weeks work because he was unable to fax his article as the Sabbath was coming in). And even after the Sabbath there are all the religious holidays that are spread throughout the year, 22 days of them. And on all but eight, no work is permitted! Hallelujah!

Adopt the Jewish work ethic and you will no longer feel any guilt when taking time off work, but be warned, you may inherit “Jewish Mother guilt” instead.

Great scenery, shame about the drivers

Next week will be my sixth visit to Israel in less than eighteen months. It's always a hectic trip as I try and see my relatives and visit friends who are dotted all over the country. If you don't have much time, there's notbetter way to get around then by car.

You must think I’m mad. After all, its well known that in the last 56 years of the State’s existence, there have been more casualties caused by motor accidents than by War. How could I have enjoyed driving on roads crowded with kamikaze taxi drivers, speeding buses and short tempered motorists who hoot if one hasn’t moved off, notwithstanding traffic lights that are still amber and not yet green?

I admit the last time I drove in Israel, it took me a week to adjust to local habits, but after that, I began to understand what everyone was doing. For example, when someone hoots in England, it’s to warn that there could be danger. When someone hoots in Israel, they want to communicate! I think that rather than have their licences revoked, Israeli motorists who break the law should have their horn disconnected. It would be the ultimate deterrent, like having ones tongue ripped out!

Apart from horns, there were other “customs” that took a little time to get used to. I was driving on a bright sunny day in March, yet to my amazement, everyone drove with their headlights on. I soon found out that by law, one must keep ones headlights on at all times between November 1st and March 31st . Visibility is often poor in the winter, but because Israeli motorists can’t distinguish between darkness and light, headlights must be on at all times. (Many Israelis keep their headlights on all year)!

The next thing to surprise me was being followed by a police car on the motorway, with its emergency lights flashing. “Oh hell, what have I done!”, I thought, but the car followed me for the next twenty miles without doing anything, and then turned off at the next exit. He didn’t seem in much of a hurry either. It turns out that the police have to keep their emergency lights on too, and all the year round. Maybe in Israel, everything is an emergency! “Zeh Dachuf”, Hebrew for: “it’s urgent”, is the phrase most commonly heard there.

Police cars with flashing lights are very useful for motorists who break the law. A friend of mine took a group of us out for a night on the town. There were more people in his car than seats. With points already on his licence, and worried about being stopped, my friend pulled over and hid each time he saw flashing lights. A case of : “it’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”, Israelis feel they should have an advance warning!

So what was so pleasurable about driving in Israel? Well, in the space of a few short hours, one can pass through such varied and beautiful landscapes. Snow capped mountains, coastal plains, hills covered in conifer forests and a descent through desert dunes, all in half a day. And if one drives in the winter, one can pass literally from one season to another. Though the centre of the country is crowded, there are vast areas in the north and in the south, where one can drive through winding country roads without experiencing any traffic.

Was driving there stressful? On the contrary, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the things I noticed, like motorists overtaking me on the approach to a bend, or in a “no overtaking” zone and without even signalling. On Israeli Motorways there are no “inside” and “overtaking” lanes. You use whichever lane suits you! Just leapfrog round anyone who is blocking your path! I was also amused by the gadgets and upholstery that Israelis put in and on their cars to make driving more pleasurable and to give their vehicles more “street cred”. The most popular gimmicks are Playboy Bunny and “turbo” seat covers, curtains for the passenger windows, flashing stop lights, and “John Player Special” stickers.

Laughter aside, there’s a more serious side to this article:

Around five hundred motorists are killed every year on Israeli roads. With every major accident, people cry out: “something has to be done”. For years, the authorities have been tearing their hair out, trying to work out some way of reducing the casualties:

All sorts of schemes have been devised, One, has been to put up signs at accident blackspots, telling people how many have been killed there over the past year. Crackdowns on speeding have also been tried, but the Authorities have been overlooking one critical factor, the Israeli attitude to life, which says: “I’m never wrong!”.

We are all infuriated by other people’s inconsiderate or dangerous driving , but it’s much harder to find fault with our own. Most motorists I have met in Israel, consider themselves to be better than average drivers, but they can’t all be right. As any advanced driving instructor will tell you: the first step towards becoming safer is to own up to mistakes. Something Israelis find difficult to do!

Israelis have argued that the Governments’ number one priority after security, should be road safety. But one can only legislate for road safety up to a point, and one can’t legislate against national arrogance. After all, its the “I’m always right” attitude that has caused such a gulf between the religious and secular, and the political left and right. Road safety is the one and only issue that unites all Israelis, and if they can’t solve a problem they actually agree upon, what hope do they have of solving all the others?

Nearly twenty years ago when the Aids epidemic hit the UK, the Government devised an advertising campaign with the slogan: “ Don’t die of ignorance”. It won’t be long till the Israeli Government launches yet another road safety campaign. Maybe they should use the slogan: “Don’t die of Arrogance” .