Monday, February 28, 2011

More thoughts on current events......

The developments that we've been witnessing over the last several weeks in the Middle-East have been truly remarkable. We do not know where they will eventually go or what in the long-run will be gained from them. However, despite all the attendant ambiguities, we can be encouraged that people are uniting (more or less collectively) to at the very least ask questions about where their countries are headed and what the local and global balances and imbalances of wealth, resources, trade and power mean for them. And these recent events in the Middle-East follow a long train of related events that are having, and will continue to have, a huge impact around the globe and in our local contexts (like the mass-migrations and movements of people related to globalization, wage and resource arbitrage, war etc.).

In putting this series of posts on the blog I've often been reminded of that great scene in "As Good As It Gets," where Melvin Udall, in a moment of crisis, yells at his would be counselor "I mean, I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water!"
In a way, I've wondered if all I'm doing is "describing the water," so to speak, and not really offering anything but a clearer picture of the mess in which we're "drowning." Perhaps that is true. However, when looking at the incredible complexity and confusion of the world that we've created, it seems like we could probably never spend enough time trying to learn from one another, trying to understand each other's differences and seeking to find the keys to unlocking the doors that are undoubtedly separating us (being as clear as possible about what exactly the mess is!). I was reminded of that again this morning while reading an article about the ongoing struggles in Libya, and then perusing the comments section. I was quite amazed to read this comment:

"None of our business, who gives a @!$%#. We just need a President that will hand out oil & gas drilling permits like candy. turn Alaska into our own giant gas station and the gulf also. F-the wales and the wild life. Our own way of life is being threatened in a huge way and nothing is being done. I guess this is obamas plan for America.
We need our natural resources now."

I really thought that this comment distilled, in a couple of sentences, the kind of mentality (a functional nihilism, I would say) that is driving many people to seek real movement and change in the world. I don't share it to single this person out or even to criticize. I share it because I thought it was a really great summary statement of the type of thinking that has led the world to this current threshold moment that Immanuel Wallerstein described in my previous post. I thought it would be nice to contrast this statement with some additional thoughts from Bauman's "Globalization: The Human Consequences.".....And I've thrown in another favorite Leunig of mine to summarize in ways more eloquent and inspiring than words.......

The lie of the free-trade promise is well covered up; the connection between the growing misery and desperation of the 'grounded' many and the new freedoms of the mobile few is difficult to spot in the reports coming from the lands cast on the receiving side of 'glocalization'. It seems, on the contrary, that the two phenomena belong to different worlds, each having its own, sharply distinct causes. One would never guess from the reports that the fast enrichment and fast impoverishment stem from the same root, that the 'grounding' of the miserable is as legitimate an outcome of the 'glocalizing' pressures as are the new sky's-the-limit freedoms of the successful (as one would never guess from sociological analyses of the holocaust and other genocides that they are equally 'at home' in modern society as are economic, technological, scientific and standard-of-living progress).

As Rysard Kapuscinski, one of the most formidable chronographers of contemporary living, has recently explained, that effective cover-up is achieved by three inter-connected expedients consistently applied by the media which preside over the occasional, carnival-like outbursts of public interest in the plight of the 'poor of the world.'

First, the news of a famine-arguably the last remaining reason for breaking the day-by-day indifference-as a rule comes coupled with the emphatic reminder that the same distant lands where people 'as seen on TV' die of famine and disease, are the birthplace of 'Asian Tigers,' the exemplary beneficiaries of the new imaginative and brave way of getting things done. It does not matter that all of the 'tigers' together embrace no more than 1 percent of the population of Asia alone. They are assumed to demonstrate what was to be proved-that the sorry plight of the hungry and indolent is their sui generis choice: alternatives are available, and within reach-but not taken for the lack of industry or resolve. The underlying message is that the poor themselves bear responsibility for their fate; that they could, as the 'tigers' did, choose easy prey has nothing to do with the tigers' appetites.

Second, the news is so scripted and edited as to reduce the problem of poverty and deprivation to the question of hunger alone. This stratagem achieves two effects in one go: the real scale of poverty is played down (800 million people are permanently undernourished, but something like 4 billion-two-thirds of the world population-live in poverty), and the task ahead is limited to finding food for the hungry. But, as Kapuscinski points out, such presentation of the problem of poverty (as exemplified by one of The Economist's recent issues analyzing world poverty under the heading, 'How to feed the world') 'terribly degrades, virtually denies full humanity to people whom we want, allegedly, to help'. What the equation 'poverty=hunger' conceals are many other and complex aspects of poverty-'horrible living and housing conditions, illness, illiteracy, aggression, falling apart families, weakening of social bonds, lack of future and non-productiveness'-afflictions which cannot be cured with high-protein biscuits and powdered milk.

Let us add that all associations of the horrid pictures of famine, as presented by the media, with the destruction of work and work-places (that is, with the global causes of local poverty) are carefully avoided. People are shown together with their hunger-but however the viewers strain their eyes, they will not see a single work-tool, plot of arable land or head of cattle in the picture-and one hear no reference to them. As if there was no connection between the emptiness of the routine 'get up and do something' exhortations addressed to the poor in a world which needs no more labour, certainly not in the lands where people on the screen starve, and the plight of people offered as a carnival-like, 'charity fair' outlet for pent-up moral impulse. The riches are global, the misery is local-but there is no causal link between the two; not in the spectacle of the fed and the feeding, anyway.

"Victor Hugo let Enjolras, one of his characters, wistfully exclaim a moment before his death on one of the many nineteenth-century barricades: 'The twentieth century will be happy.' As it happened-Rene Passet comments-'the same technologies of the immaterial which sustained that promise entail simultaneously its denial', particularly when 'coupled with frantic policy of planetary liberalization of capital exchanges and movements'. Technologies which effectively do away with time and space need little time to denude and impoverish space. They render capital truly global; they make all those who can neither follow nor arrest capital's new nomadic habits helplessly watch their livelihood fading and vanishing and wonder from where the blight may have come. The global travels of financial resources are perhaps as immaterial as the electronic network they travel-but the local traces of their journeys are painfully tangible and real: 'qualitative depopulation', destruction of local economies once capable of sustaining their inhabitants, the exclusion of the millions incapable of being absorbed by the new global economy.

......... "There is another important role played by the association of the 'far-away locals' with murder, epidemic and looting. Given their monstrosity, one cannot but thank God for making them what they are-the far-away locals, and pray that they stay that way.

The wish of the hungry to go where food is plentiful is what one would naturally expect from rational human beings; letting them act on their wishes is also what conscience would suggest is the right, moral thing to do. It is because of its undeniable rationality and ethical correctness that the rational and ethically conscious world feels so crestfallen in the face of the prospect of the mass migration of the poor and the hungry; it is so difficult, without feeling guilty, to deny the poor and hungry their right to go where food is more plentiful; and it is virtually impossible to advance convincing rational arguments proving that their migration would be, for them, an unreasonable decision to take. The challenge is truly awesome: one needs to deny the others the self-same right to freedom of movement which one eulogizes as the topmost achievement of the globalizing world and the warrant of its growing prosperity.......

The pictures of inhumanity which rules the lands where prospective migrants reside therefore comes in handy. They strengthen the resolve which lacks the rational and ethical arguments to support it. They help to keep the locals local, while allowing the globals to travel with a clear conscience (p.72-76)."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman on envisioning the "city"

Here are some thoughts from, "Globalization: The Human Consequences," by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that I've been contemplating a lot as I've watched Steve and Luella Pavey fight so hard for the plight of the "Dreamers" in America; and as I've considered, prayed and participated with the efforts of so many other friends working to envision and build the spaces in which we live. Though it probably wasn't his intent, Bauman brings a profound and searching analysis to the myriad issues surrounding the two simple commandments that Jesus left us:

“The lesson which planners could learn from the long chronicle of lofty dreams and abominable disasters which combine to form the history of modern architecture, is that the prime secret of a ‘good city’ is the chance it offers people to take responsibility for their acts ‘in a historical unpredictable society,’ rather than ‘in a dream world of harmony and predetermined order.’ Whoever feels like dabbling in inventing city space while guided solely by the precepts of aesthetic harmony and reason, would be well advised to pause first and ponder that ‘men can never become good simply by following the good orders or good plan of someone else.’

We may add that human responsibility, that ultimate and indispensable condition of morality of human intercourse, would find perfectly designed space to be an infertile if not downright poisonous soil. Most certainly, it would not grow, let alone thrive, in a hygienically pure space, free of surprises, ambivalence and conflict. Only such people could face up to the fact of their responsibility who would have mastered the difficult art of acting under conditions of ambivalence and uncertainty, born of difference and variety. Morally mature persons are such human beings as grow ‘to need the unknown, to feel incomplete without a certain anarchy in their lives’-who learn ‘to love the ‘otherness’ among them.’

The experience of American towns analysed by Sennet points to one well-nigh universal regularity: the suspicion against others, the intolerance of difference, the resentment of strangers, and the demands to separate and banish them, as well as the hysterical, paranoiac concern with ‘law and order,’ all tend to climb to their highest pitch in the most uniform, the most racially, ethnically and class-wise segregated, homogenous local communities.

No wonder: in such localities the support for the ‘we-feeling’ tends to be sought in the illusion of equality, secured by the monotonous similarity of everyone within sight. The guarantee of security tends to be adumbrated in the absence of differently thinking, differently acting and differently looking neighbours. Uniformity breeds conformity, and conformity’s other face is intolerance. In a homogenous locality it is exceedingly difficult to acquire the qualities and character and the skills needed to cope with human difference and situations of uncertainty; and in the absence of such skills and qualities it is all too easy to fear the other, simply for reason of being an-other-bizarre and different perhaps, but first and foremost unfamiliar, not-readily-comprehensible, not-fully fathomed, unpredictable.

The city, built originally for the sake of security-to protect residents inside the city walls against malevolent invaders always coming from outside-in our times ‘has become associated more with danger than with safety’-so says Nan Elin. In our postmodern times ‘the fear factor has certainly grown, as indicated by the growth in locked car and house doors and security systems, the popularity of ‘gated’ and ‘secure’ communities for all age and income groups, and the increasing surveillance of public spaces, not to mention the unending reports of danger emitted by the mass media.’

...... “Not togetherness, but avoidance and separation have become major survival strategies in the contemporary megalopolis. No more the question of loving or hating your neighbor. Keeping the neighbor at arm’s length would take care of the dilemma and make the choice unnecessary; it staves off the occasions when the choice between love and hate needs to be made.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

World Social Forum 2011-Dakar, Senegal

Unfortunately we were not able to attend the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal this year. Therefore, it was nice to receive this update on the forum from Immanuel Wallerstein, wherein he offers a few observations on the forum and the impending challenges facing all the various parties who feel like some kind of fundamental "civilizational change" is necessary. I think that the paragraph in bold near the end is an important summary from one of the great analysts of world affairs. It is the exact same summary that we heard Wallerstein offering at a talk we attended during the 2010 US Social Forum.

Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 299, Feb. 15, 2011
"The World Social Forum, Egypt, and Transformation"

The World Social Forum (WSF) is alive and well. It just met in Dakar, Senegal from Feb. 6-11. By unforeseen coincidence, this was the week of the Egyptian people's successful dethroning of Hosni Mubarak, which finally succeeded just as the WSF was in its closing session. The WSF spent the week cheering the Egyptians on - and discussing the meaning of the Tunisian/Egyptian revolutions for their program of transformation, for achieving another world that is possible - possible, not certain.

Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people attended the Forum, which is in itself a remarkable number. To hold such an event, the WSF requires strong local social movements (which exist in Senegal) and a government that at least tolerates the holding of the Forum. The Senegalese government of Abdoulaye Wade was ready to "tolerate" the holding of the WSF, although already a few months ago it reneged on its promised financial assistance by three-quarters.

But then came the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and the government got cold feet. What if the presence of the WSF inspired a similar uprising in Senegal? The government couldn't cancel the affair, not with Lula of Brazil, Morales of Bolivia, and numerous African presidents coming. So it did the next best thing. It tried to sabotage the Forum. It did this by firing the Rector of the principal university where the Forum was being held, four days before the opening, and installing a new Rector, who promptly reversed the decision of the previous Rector to suspend classes during the WSF so that meeting rooms be available.

The result was organizational chaos for at least the first two days. In the end, the new Rector permitted the use of 40 of the more than 170 rooms needed. The organizers imaginatively set up tents across the campus, and the meeting proceeded despite the sabotage.

Was the Senegalese government right to be so frightened of the WSF? The WSF itself debated how relevant it was to popular uprisings in the Arab world and elsewhere, undertaken by people who had probably never heard of the WSF? The answer given by those in attendance reflected the long-standing division in its ranks. There were those who felt that ten years of WSF meetings had contributed significantly to the undermining of the legitimacy of neoliberal globalization, and that the message had seeped down everywhere. And there were those who felt that the uprisings showed that transformational politics lay elsewhere than in the WSF.

I myself found two striking things about the Dakar meeting. The first was that hardly anyone even mentioned the World Economic Forum at Davos. When the WSF was founded in 2001, it was founded as the anti-Davos. By 2011, Davos seemed so unimportant politically to those present that it was simply ignored.

The second was the degree to which everyone present noted the interconnection of all issues under discussion. In 2001, the WSF was primarily concerned with the negative economic consequences of neoliberalism. But at each meeting thereafter the WSF added other concerns - gender, environment (and particularly climate change), racism, health, the rights of indigenous peoples, labor struggles, human rights, access to water, food and energy availability. And suddenly at Dakar, no matter what was the theme of the session, its connections with the other concerns came to the fore. This it seems to me has been the great achievement of the WSF - to embrace more and more concerns and get everyone to see their intimate interconnections.

There was nonetheless one underlying complaint among those in attendance. People said correctly we all know what we're against, but we should be laying out more clearly what it is we are for. This is what we can contribute to the Egyptian revolution and to the others that are going to come everywhere.

The problem is that there remains one unresolved difference among those who want another world. There are those who believe that what the world needs is more development, more modernization, and thereby the possibility of more equal distribution of resources. And there are those who believe that development and modernization are the civilizational curse of capitalism and that we need to rethink the basic cultural premises of a future world, which they call civilizational change.

Those who call for civilizational change do it under various umbrellas. There are the indigenous movements of the Americas (and elsewhere) who say they want a world based on what the Latin Americans call "buen vivir" - essentially a world based on good values, one that requires the slowing down of unlimited economic growth which, they say, the planet is too small to sustain.

If the indigenous movements center their demands around autonomy in order to control land rights in their communities, there are urban movements in other parts of the world who emphasize the ways in which unlimited growth is leading to climate disaster and new pandemics. And there are feminist movements who are underlining the link between the demands for unlimited growth and the maintenance of patriarchy.

This debate about a "civilizational crisis" has great implications for the kind of political action one endorses and the kind of role left parties seeking state power would play in the world transformation under discussion. It will not be easily resolved. But it is the crucial debate of the coming decade. If the left cannot resolve its differences on this key issue, then the collapse of the capitalist world-economy could well lead to a triumph of the world right and the construction of a new world-system worse even than the existing one.

For the moment, all eyes are on the Arab world and the degree to which the heroic efforts of the Egyptian people will transform politics throughout the Arab world. But the tinder for such uprisings exists everywhere, even in the wealthier regions of the world. As of the moment, we are justified in being semi-optimistic.

Friday, February 04, 2011

We always have humor

I've always been mindful of that C.S. Lewis line that if evil were not so destructive it would essentially be humorous because it is so utterly absurd in its mindlessness. Well, today I was reminded of those words when I saw this video detailing the obscene crime that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has reportedly perpetrated upon the people of Egypt. I think this might be one of the greatest examples of kleptocracy. that we've ever seen (linked a Mother Jones article about another possible case!). Anyhow, the sheer brazenness and scope of what Mubarak has purportedly done is almost so absurd that it is comical; but I want to be clear that I don't mean it is a joke for the Egyptian people who've suffered from his abuse. But what can we do when "public officials (all over the world)" so shamelessly use their position to essentially loot and steal from the people? Well, I took comfort today in the attached Leunig cartoon that is really funny. If only we could devise such a device maybe we could make back the stolen wealth and solve our energy problems at the same time!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

An Arab's reflection on Egypt and Tunisia at present

Here is a hopeful article that was revealing and thought-provoking to me. As always, the “comments” section throws light (for me) upon the infinite distances that always exist between us in our attempts to try to identify with the best and most sublime in one another-to understand one another's deepest hopes and aspirations; as well as the fleeting beauty of those moments of rare connection when criticism and the need to self-protect and control, according to our own paradigms, are overcome by the identity of mutuality and understanding that can truly transform us-where the “birth” of something new can happen. The former (the “infinite distances”) reminds me of the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him, upon coming across a man afflicted with a disability (that would have been especially damning in his own day)-“Why was this man born blind? Was it the result of his own sins or those of his parents (John 9)?” I wonder what story might best capture the latter reality?