To end the nightmare, one must first wake up

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

Well, that was one of the more depressing Saturday evenings I’ve had in a while. As I’m not a US citizen, I’m not going to get deeply embroiled in the political debate rippling out from the Giffords shooting, except to say that if there’s one thing I think both sides should take away from this deeply saddening development, it’s that you’ve had a little warning about just how close you are to ripping your country apart down the middle – not along a neat geographical line, but along countless fracture points and tears in every city, town, street and community, in every state.

Republicans and Democrats alike claim to be “doing what’s best for America”; I think perhaps it’s high time everyone sat the hell down and decided to define what – or more importantly who – America is. Because it’s you – and your appointed masters seem to have conveniently forgotten that component of the whole representational-democracy gig. It’s looking a lot like Loughner isn’t a self-appointed agent for either side, but to see how easily and quickly both sides instantly claimed the shooting as an operation of their opponents was terrifying. No, violent political rhetoric and polarised partisanship isn’t the whole story… but it’s a damn big component of it. And unless you all push for them to stop it, it’s just going to carry on.

I tweeted as the news was breaking:

This is why bipolar party politics is one of our civilisational millstones; if people will fight over sports, they’ll kill over a country.

John Scalzi echoed that sentiment with greater depth on Sunday:

And now is a fine time to ask whether the Gingrich strain of rhetoric is past its sell-by date. I think it is. I think it encourages bad politics; it’s a primary tool in making the manner in which people think of politics in the United States the same as they think about football games. […] what’s good for the 10-Qs of publicly-traded entertainment companies who happen to own cable news networks and newspapers or the ratings of radio stars and reality shows isn’t necessarily what’s good for the actual political health of the nation.

I wish people were smart enough to recognize this. If one result of this shooting is that we start to think about it more, it’ll be a thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. Even if the shooting eventually turns out to be unrelated to the current state of political rhetoric in the country.

Implicit in that wish (or so it seems to me) is the desire to not see the exact opposite – namely political haymaking off the back of a tragedy, as neatly satirised by this post-9/11 essay reblogged at BoingBoing:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

The saddest thing about that essay is how many times since 9/11 we’ve heard exactly that argument, delivered from both sides of the imaginary fence in almost every country in the world. And it’s that imaginary fence that’s the problem, the whole Red vs. Blue thing. If we continue to believe that we can reduce the complex challenges of global civilisation to a zero-sum game between two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive choices of ideology, we shouldn’t be surprised when people start taking extreme steps for the side they identify with.

If you really need a fence, how about one that separates those who value ideology over human dignity from those who’re willing to accept that a rising tide should float all boats? By way of illustration, another post from BoingBoing shows a moment of non-partisan unity against extremist terror.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

I was particularly lifted by this paragraph:

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Now, by way of an experiment, let’s just change a few words:

“This is not about us and them. We are one. This was an attack on Humanity as a whole, and I am standing with my fellow Humans because the only way things will change on this planet is if we come together.”

Some of you are probably shaking your heads at my naive idealism right now; to you I ask – with a genuine curiosity to know your answer – what it is that makes you feel you have more of a right to a life of peace and sufficiency than anyone else who walks the face of the earth? If you can recognise your own desire for those things, how can you fail to recognise those same desires as they manifest in the vast majority of people everywhere, no matter what colour their skin is, no matter what god (or lack thereof) they choose to believe in? Perhaps you think that people who believe different things to yourself have been brainwashed or stirred up by clerics or politicians; if so, then look to the motes in your own eye, and wonder where they might have come from.

The Greek root of the word “politics” comes from the word for “citizen” or “civilian”; I think it’s time we reasserted that meaning. We are all citizens of one planet, with nowhere to run to. Either we all share it, or we fight to the death for the right to rule the ruins.

I believe that’s what political pundits like to refer to as “a no-brainer”.


Emerging markets less risky than developed economies?

Paul Raven @ 22-11-2010

Via Global Dashboard, speculation that a pretty fundamental shift in global economics may be under way*:

… could the emerging world now be a destination for those looking for security? That is what the credit markets say. Either they are wrong and emerging market credit is in an incipient bubble, or we need to turn received wisdom on its head.

[…]

What is fascinating is the market’s comparative judgment of the risk in emerging markets. Insuring against a default in China is exactly as expensive as in the UK – 0.6 per cent. The list of countries deemed safer than Italy (1.82 per cent) includes Mexico, Brazil and Chile, Russia, and even Indonesia (1.39 per cent).

This relative judgment on the emerging world has completely reversed in the two years since the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy seemed likely to tip over into an emerging market debt crisis. Then, insuring against an Indonesian default cost 12.47 per cent.

Back then, emerging markets were victims of a “risk off” trade. Investors got out as quickly as they could. This time, in spite of no shortage of true panic about sovereign debt in the eurozone, investors are not responding by selling emerging market debt.

The obvious explanation is “it’s a bubble!”, but the article goes on to suggest that it’s the very lack of financial sophistication in developing economies that may make them safer – a lower likelihood of speculative trader voodoo taking down entire countries, for example.

… this is not just about avoiding the west; emerging markets have advantages. They do not have expensive welfare states, so it is easier to keep their fiscal houses in order. They have less heavily developed financial sectors and banks that for the most part did not go overboard in the way that they did in western Europe and the US. Ireland’s banking sector grew far too big for its government to be able to rescue it without pain. If you want to avoid such risks, put your money in places such as Indonesia and Brazil.

I’m no economist, of course, so I’m not going to call it either way, but I think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that the “developed” economies are actually overdeveloped, a dead-end branch of excessive complexity on the tree of economic evolution.

[ * That link will probably smoosh you straight into the FT’s paywall, but if you Google one of the paragraphs above and click the correct link from the search results, you’ll be able to read the article in full. ]


Mental illness: America’s biggest export?

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2010

A fascinating (if slightly grim and worrying) article at the New York Times by Ethan Watters suggests that Western psychiatry may be successfully homogenising the mental illnesses of the entire planet, thanks to aggressive programs designed to export “psychiatric literacy”. The intent was good, but the results may not be – as it seems that the expression and symptoms of mental illnesses around the world have changed to suit the blueprints brought by the white man..

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

[…]

Of course, we can become psychologically unhinged for many reasons that are common to all, like personal traumas, social upheavals or biochemical imbalances in our brains. Modern science has begun to reveal these causes. Whatever the trigger, however, the ill individual and those around him invariably rely on cultural beliefs and stories to understand what is happening. Those stories, whether they tell of spirit possession, semen loss or serotonin depletion, predict and shape the course of the illness in dramatic and often counterintuitive ways. In the end, what cross-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists have to tell us is that all mental illnesses, including depression, P.T.S.D. and even schizophrenia, can be every bit as influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations today as hysterical-leg paralysis or the vapors or zar or any other mental illness ever experienced in the history of human madness. This does not mean that these illnesses and the pain associated with them are not real, or that sufferers deliberately shape their symptoms to fit a certain cultural niche. It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.

Well worth a read.


One world… one language?

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2009

The Rosetta StoneWhile we’re discussing matters of global cultural diversity, here’s an interesting essay on language extinction by a linguistics professor called John McWhorter [via MetaFilter; Rosetta Stone image fromWikimedia Commons].

Now, it’s pretty widely known that lesser-spoken languages are disappearing from the planet at a swift pace, thanks in no small part to the aftershocks of colonialism (whether imperial or commercial) and the increasing ubiquity of electronic media. And I expect many people, just like myself, would tend to assume that keeping those languages alive and spoken would be for the greater cultural good… but McWhorter begs to differ, and makes a convincing case for allowing English to complete its seemingly inevitable rise to the status of global lingua franca.

It’s a long piece, and I recommend you read it all… but here are a few highlights for the less patient:

[…] the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.

[…]

Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism, first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this particular horse is out of the barn.

Even if the world’s currencies are someday tied to the renmimbi, English’s head start as the lingua franca of popular culture, scholarship, and international discourse would ensure its linguistic dominance. To change this situation would require a great many centuries, certainly too long a span to figure meaningfully in our assessment of the place of English in world communications in our present moment.

[…]

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.

Lots of food for thought there. I find myself wanting some sort of compromise between McWhorter’s suggestion and the stance of the preservationists, in that I think it would be good to support the speaking and learning of minor langauages by their originating ethnic group where practical, but that attempting to reinstate marginal languages as the official tongue of business and government in places where they have long been out of primacy is wasteful, despite being motivated by good intentions.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the situation in Wales, for example, where all official communications and public discourse must be presented in both English and Welsh, but where the percentage of Welsh speakers continues its decline year by year. Isn’t that a bit like keeping a patient on life-support long after quality of life has declined to negligable levels? Would the money not be better spent on documenting and preserving the language as a historical entity than forcing its use by people who neither want or need it?

Putting the boot on the other foot, though, we’ll likely have a technological fix for the difficulty of speaking across the language gap very soona voice-to-voice translation program for a certain two name-brand telephone handsets was made available to the US government earlier in the year, so it surely won’t be long before you can load up a commercially available version before heading off to distant lands. And if the difficulty of person-to-person communication is overcome, what reason do we have for not preserving the spoken languages that remain?

The logic of a single global language is probably what ensured its ubiquity in science fiction… but logic and emotion are uneasy bedfellows, especially in matters of global culture. What do you think – should be we be striving to keep languages alive, or letting them die with dignity?


Here comes everyone – why the internet won’t belong to the West forever

Paul Raven @ 25-09-2009

Wired UK has a passing mention of a keynote speech by BBC internet pundit Bill Thompson, who points out that the days of the internet’s predominantly white Western constituency are numbered:

Thompson has just returned from a BBC trip to Kenya, where he explored the internet take-up in Africa, specifically the effects of one of the six cables being laid to boost bandwidth to the continent. “The internet has been dominated by the West,” he says, but now “our little pond is going to be replaced with an ocean as millions of new internet users come along.”

This is nothing but a good thing, says Thompson, as with the surge of users will come new ideas. The internet, he says, is soon to enter a period of “punctuated equilibrium”, in which we will all be trying out new technologies and those that fail will sink.

The real successes, he said, could come off the back of the failures: “People will need to feed on the carcasses of other people’s failed ideas,” he says, immersing themselves in a process of innovation “play and flow”. To quote countless life coaches: “In this day and age there’s no such thing as failure – only feedback.”

I love the smell of change in the morning. Smells like… victory.

[ In case you’re wondering as to my choice of title, by the way, it’s not a homage to Clay Shirkey’s book (which I have yet to acquire and read). It’s actually a reference to the music of my youth… UK readers of a certain age may remember an early-90s indie band called The Wonderstuff. And as I’ve already posted two videos today, why not make it a hat-trick? I don’t think there was ever an official video for the original, but here’s Wonderstuff frontman Miles Hunt performing “Here Comes Everyone” (with one cuss-word, for them what’s worried about such things) at the Womad Festival a while back:

Off-topic? Yup, sure is – but hey, I’m the editor. Gotta take my perks where I find ’em. Enjoy. 🙂 ]


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