Good Reads: Volcanoes, guillotines, and the key to happiness

A look at modern France, and a profile of revolutionary villain Maximilien Robespierre; the American recovery and the very happy people of Iceland. Here are this week's good reads. 

Happy people

Close your eyes. Now, imagine your vision of the happiest place on earth. It’s an island, of course, but it’s a volcanic island, so there is a faint smell of sulfur in the air, and the chance of getting buried in hot ash. You’ll love the long summer nights, but you’ll need a bit of fish oil to see you through the long winters, because you’re close to the Arctic Circle.

Yes, Iceland is the third-happiest place on earth, after Denmark and Costa Rica, according to Robert Lavine, writing in The Atlantic magazine. What makes Icelanders so happy, writes Mr. Lavine, a clinical psychologist from Virginia, is not the lack of challenges – indeed, Icelanders have cold winters, a shaky economy, and the threat of volcanic annihilation – but rather the fact that they meet these challenges with stoicism and a communal spirit. Faced with difficulty, Icelanders know they need each other to survive, and they find that they actually enjoy each other’s company.

In the midst of an American election campaign, where vice-presidential candidates are debating the merits of the self-interest theories of novelist Ayn Rand, what can one make of the happiness of a place like Iceland? Surely the country’s European-style social-democratic policies, with nine-month paid paternity leave, life-time health care, long life expectancy, low crime rates, and expensive clean-energy policies would be a one-way ticket to demographic disaster, right?

Wrong. Iceland’s economy, which crashed in 2008, is now growing at a respectable 2.8 percent. Economists, you have some explaining to do.

Not-so happy people

Here in the United States, Americans might wish they lived in the shadow of volcanoes to get a sliver of Icelandic happiness. America's economic recovery – the subject of much debate in this presidential election year – appears to be slowing, meaning that America’s relatively high unemployment rate of 8.2 percent may be around for a while.

This is a great time for people with calculators and pie charts, but not so great for people who like things explained to them with words. The helpful economists at Deutsche Bank inform us that economic recoveries generally run out of steam after 39 months, so America’s 36-month expansion may be coming to an end.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a handy set of graphs that compare our current economic recovery with past recoveries, which again, is unlikely to make one break out the credit card in celebration.

But the news is not all glum, and Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time magazine, writes in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine that the Obama administration’s financial policies have performed better than they have been given credit for by conservative critics. There is no question that times are bad. But without fiscal stimulus, they could be a lot worse.

“…there is voluminous evidence that the stimulus did provide real stimulus, helping to stop a terrifying free-fall, avert a second Depression, and end a brutal recession. America's top economic forecasters -- Macroeconomic Advisers, Moody's, IHS Global Insight, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and the Congressional Budget Office -- agree that it increased GDP at least 2 percentage points, the difference between contraction and growth, and saved or created about 2.5 million jobs.”

It could be worse

In times like these, it’s usually a good idea to write a story on how things could be much, much worse. This usually means writing a story about Europe, and especially about France. Even the Europeans themselves do it. In this week’s Der Spiegel, Mathieu von Rohr writes that France is a nation that aspires to be a great northern-European economic power, like Germany, but stubbornly keeps its heels dug in to preserve its easygoing, state-controlled, Mediterranean-paced way of life.

As Mr. von Rohr writes,

If it could have its way, all of France would be one small Gaulish village like in the Asterix comic books, holding out against the rest of the world. But unlike the village in the famous French comic book series, France has no magic potion. At the same time, polls show that the French are the most pessimistic people in the world, which leads to the unusual situation that although they are convinced -- like village leader Vitalstatistix -- that the sky is falling down, they are unwilling to do anything about it.

Cue the man of action

As bad as times are now, they are nothing compared to the days of anger and hunger of late 18th-century France. It was then that France proved it was possible to produce a cold-hearted man of action, a mixture of Dirty Harry and Joseph Stalin. Go ahead, powdered-wig plutocrat, make my day. The man's name was Maximilien Robespierre, and in those times of massive debt, bread lines, and the guillotine, Robespierre used the rhetoric of revolution and the tools of repression to change his country, whether it wanted to or not.

To their mothers or therapists, all dictators are misunderstood idealists. Even Robespierre – a man whose very name is a synonym for madman or dictator – disapproved of the death penalty, and turned to it as a final resort in order to “protect” the greater good of society from those who wanted to stop progressive change. Before his comrades turned on him, Robespierre consigned some 17,000 Frenchmen to death as a member of the terrifying Committee of Public Safety.

Ultimately, it is today’s revolutionaries – from the tame but still ideological Tea Party adherents to the more rigid salafists of post-Mubarak Egypt – who must ask themselves if they have the patience for ideological compromise and slower democratic change. And as Patrice Higonnet writes in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, in a review of Peter McPhee’s biography, “Robespierre's Rules for Radicals,” there are clear lessons from Robespierre’s life for modern revolutionaries to learn.

”… perhaps the most salient lesson Robespierre can offer today's Tea Partiers and Occupiers, Salafists and secularists, is that, contrary to what they might sometimes wish, economic, political, and social problems cannot be solved by simply cutting off somebody's head,” Mr. Higonnet writes.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to