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Issue XLIXb: Diversity is in the mind, not in the skin

18 Mar

In order to help us remake our mental map of the world, we need to understand different ways of thinking and of seeing the world, with different geographies and realities.  True diversity is in the mind, not in the skin.  But before we can reconceptualize East and West, we need recognize who the pretenders are.

What it does not look like

Jorge Luis Borges famously questioned literary nationalism in his speech “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”  Argentinean writers were fascinated with uncovering the true, indigenous tradition of Argentina by relying on the local gaucho (cowboy) oral tradition.  They would write stories in what they thought was the strongest rural gaucho dialect possible.  Whoever used the most country (i.e. hick) language was the best storyteller and the most “Argentinean.”

Borges did not criticize relying on the local gaucho tradition.  He may even prefer it to the unreasonable love of literature from their former colonizer, Spain.  But does fetishization of the local idiosyncrasies really make one Argentinean?  Is piling on local flavor really making you a local?  Or does it make you a tourist?

Borges pointed out that in the Koran there is no mention of camels.

“I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.  It was by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, and no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is to have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.  I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”

Similarly, the Buenos Aires intelligentsia misrepresented the gaucho tradition by overemphasizing differences and overdoing their manners of speech.  They were caricaturing and fetishizing the gaucho like a foreigner would.  A real gaucho would not talk like that, and a real Argentine would not get away with such a parody of their tradition.

Is this some old, irrelevant speech from a country most of us have ever visited?  Not really.  Think about other situations.  Do hip hop artists overemphasize the violence of the ghetto, the hardness of their life, the desperation of the ‘hood, and the ghetto-ness of their slang?  Would someone from the inner city really talk like that or are these artists outsiders (or selling to outsiders)?  Who is more authentic?  The people really in the ‘hood just live the life, not rap about it.

The same can apply to Indian writing in English.  Do Indian writers always emphasize mangos and spicy chutney in their stories? Is the pushiness and coziness of family life being told or implicitly accepted?  Are these Anglicized urban Indians selling to outsiders or are they telling it like it is to those who instinctually live it without question?  In the real India, rural India, the stories are always known in advance but are told over and over again with different spins or emphases.

George W. Bush was born in Connecticut and after a few years in Midland public schools went to boarding school in Massachusetts and then to Yale and Harvard.  When he ran for Congress in the 1970s, he lost to a good ol’ boy from Texas Tech who emphasized Bush’s blue blood Yankee roots.  A distant relative of the Queen of England does not poll too well in West Texas.  After Bush’s loss, he decided to never be out-Texaned by anyone again.  He emphasized his (slight) Midland roots, and he even bought a ranch with no cattle the year before he decided to run for president.  Bush’s walking and talking parody of Texas was marketing for the non-Texans while he did what he could for the New England country club class he was born to serve.

How do you know when something is real then?  There are many George W. Bush’s playing on their movie set ranches, pretending to be something they are not to outsiders and gullible locals.

The truly authentic will exude their diversity in how they act and think.  You don’t see Obama sporting beach clothing and talking about how much he likes to surf.  He exudes the Hawaiian cool attitude and relaxed nature in his every move.

But what are diverse ways of thinking?  The next report will discuss some different ways of thinking in the world.

Issue XLIXa: Reconceptualizing East and West [a series]

13 Mar

When Sultan Mehmet captured Constantinople and ended a Western empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days, he walked into the desolate palace and found ruins.  The Byzantine Empire outlasted the Roman Empire for centuries, and it had now met its end by the Turkish Muslim king who began the Ottoman Empire.

As the sultan stepped into the Palace of the Emperors, he whispered these immortal lines in Persian:

The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.

Given the recent events in the Middle East, perhaps the West should feel as irrelevant and defeated as the old Byzantines.  History’s movers and shakers now populate the East and not the West.  For the first time in maybe centuries, events and ideas in the East inspire history in the West.

Madison, Wisconsin is a strange place to imagine would be where the globalization of ideas began to reverse its direction.  Cairo’s protests inspired massive resistance in Wisconsin.  Al Jazeera (which spread the seeds of revolution) received surprising praise for its substantial and serious news coverage (especially compared to American news) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The export of ideas and ideologies (or at least the credit for them) has flowed from West to East for decades if not centuries.  The current of ideas, backed up like the Aswan Dam, just burst through from East to West and (like the Nile) from the global South to North.  The West is stuck and in decline.  If it is to remain relevant, it needs to copy the best of the other side’s ideas.

The old ways of teaching history and conceiving of the world do not give us the appropriate language to speak intelligently about this new world.  Mehmet even changed the name of Constantinople to Istanbul so we may need a new map to this world as in his world.

How can we find this language?  Where do we begin?  How do we re-conceptualize East and West?  The following Bhatany Report series will seek to answer these questions and re-orient our Eurocentric understanding of the world.  First, we will challenge certain orthodoxies on the origins of ideas.  Then we will challenge the idea that increasing diversity in employment, politics, and power will increase a diversity of the mind.  And finally the Bhatany Report will explain how and why we can fix our own mental maps.

Gaza, in numbers

1 Jun

Today, the director of United Nations relief in Gaza (UNRWA) spoke at the London School of Economics.  This agency conducts humanitarian relief (food and health) and provides schooling for Palestinians.  Rather than repeat his words, I will express the situation in Gaza in statistics.  These numbers reveal the consequences of Israel’s blockade and embargo of the Gaza Strip.

  • 1,500,000 – number of people in the Gaza Strip
  • 750,000 – number of children in the Gaza Strip (50%)
  • 90% – percentage of water that is undrinkable due to the destruction of sanitation plants (WHO)
  • 70,000,000 cubic feet – amount of raw, unprocessed sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean because of the destroyed and/or unmaintainable sewer system
  • 80% – percentage of people that depend on UNRWA bread lines for 5 food items a day
  • 40% – amount of daily caloric intake provided by that food distribution
  • 150,000 going on 300,000 – number of people that are totally destitute and are too poor to even buy toilet paper
  • Hundreds – number of tunnels to smuggle goods from Egypt
  • 1 – number of SUV’s that can be fit into a tunnel
  • 120,000 – number of people that used to cross into Israel to work with security clearance before the blockade
  • 0 – number of people who can cross into Israel to work now
  • 4,700,000 – number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA
  • 700 – number of schools operated by UNRWA
  • 2 – number of sessions each school uses to teach more students (morning and afternoon)
  • Thousands – number of students still turned away because of the lack of schools
  • 0 – number of schools built in Gaza in the last three years because of the ban on concrete imports
  • $2.55 billion – amount of military aid given to Israel in FY 2009 by the United States

Issue XXXIII – Dispatch from Britain: Drugs are Bad (some of the time)

2 Nov

Nutts about Drugs – Last month I learned in class that drugs in Great Britain are classified by A, B, or C depending on their perceived dangerousness to society.  Class A drugs are given the longest sentences (7 years) while B and C drugs are given less sentences (5 and 2 years respectively).  Recently, Parliament asked for a review of the harmfulness of drugs to society to see whether or not twenty drugs were placed in the appropriate class based on their danger to society.  Sounds fair, right?  Then the report came out

It turns out the ABC classification had little to do with danger and more the with perception of which drugs were dangerous.  People are going to jail for using drugs that are not really that harmful.  For example, the scientific study found that some A class drugs like heroin and cocaine were indeed in the right category (class A) but some drugs that were barely harmful like ecstasy and LSD were Class A.    Meanwhile, alcohol is the fifth most harmful drug in society but is completely legal and so is tobacco (ninth most harmful).  Clearly, the classifications need to be adjusted.

Instead, Home Minister Alan Johnson has decided to upgrade marijuana’s status to Class B after it had been moved down to Class C a few years ago.  Rather than listening to the scientists, he played war on science a la George W. Bush.  Professor David Nutt advised the government that this was going against the report and said so in a lecture in July.  So Home Minister Johnson decided to fire him for “campaigning” against the Government.

The press has been raking the minister over the coals, day in and day out, over this.  Other members of the scientific panel on drugs have resigned, and scientists are outraged and mass resignations may follow from scientific committees.  The Minister of Science is also shocked that Johnson fired him without consulting him either.  As it now stands, there is a chill in the scientific community to advising politicians on good policy.  Who thought that an allegedly “progressive” government would play the Catholic Church to Professor Nutt’s Galileo in the 21st century?  Just another lesson in the moral and political failings of the Blair-Brown New Labour Government.


The Times – “How can scientists advise this or any government?”

BBC Graph of the harmfulness of twenty drugs