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)."