The moral imagination on display in riots and demonstrations: from London to Daraa

One of the qualities that makes human behavior so complex, so difficult to analyze, is the richness of meanings embedded in it. The riots in London are a good example. Ysmine Ryan has written an article comparing the many nuances in the intentions of the Britain rioters with those of the rioters and demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt.

Fredrik Barth [in book carefully snubbed by southeast Asiaianists, Balinese Worlds] has pointed out that folks act with intentions that are informed by their own fund of cultural resources whereas the observers of their behavior must “read” their intentions on the basis of their own cultural resources, which means that the possibilities for misreading of each other can be large, and especially so when the actor’s intentions are nuanced with deeply felt personal sentiments. Actors in fact can seek to convey a whole range of meanings in what they do – rage, fear, frustration, a desire for attention, despair, revenge, greed. Sometimes folks do what they do because to them it feels like the most effective way to express their complex feelings – feelings too complex and deeply felt for words. We’ve all been there: In times of exhaustion and frustration we have all been tempted to lash out.

But from the vantage-point of the observer unpacking the meanings embedded in the behavior of others turns out to be a huge challenge. Critical for the observer is the need to appreciate the meanings embedded in the context. The attempt to understand social explosions like those in London or Tunis or Cairo or Yemen or Daraa demands care and empathy – for all the actors on all sides – if one is ever to appreciate what animates the behavior of collectivities in such social movements. We must be ready to appreciate the contradictory and even self-destructive intentions – some of them base, some of them noble — that animate the behavior of folks in times of stress. If ever there was a complex object of study it is the human imagination.

This article [from Al Jazeera] is rich with the complexities of meaning that inform human behavior. Note, for instance, the statue erected to commemorate one thing, destroyed to commemorate something quite different, and then used by a contemporary artist to convey yet another message, which was, again, destroyed, apparently for reasons considered significant to the state. Meanings upon meanings upon meanings — an illustration of the the multiple and confused meanings that must be read empatheticly if they are to be understood. Anthropology seeks empathy even when we cannot agree.

From the Arab Spring to Liverpool? : The UK riots have unique roots, but British youths’ alienation is similar to the disenfranchisement behind Arab revolts.
Yasmine Ryan: 11 Aug 2011 14:47

In the heart of Toxteth, Liverpool, a mysterious statue appeared in the early hours of July 30.

It was a monument to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who, after being humiliated by police, had set himself alight in an act of protest that was to inflame the simmering rage of hundreds of thousands of people.

Last Thursday, in the London borough of Tottenham, the British police shot and killed a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan. The following day, the monument in Toxteth – a district that had been the site of racially-fuelled social unrest in the 1980s – disappeared, the monument’s artist told Al Jazeera.

The Liverpool city council was unable to comment on whether it was responsible for having the monument removed, as they were swamped trying to deal with the riots, which spread to Liverpool over the weekend.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and the uprising that followed, happened in a very different context to the British riots.

When Tunisia’s peaceful protesters in the underprivileged centre of the country were slain by the police’s use of lethal force, the country’s middle class poured into the streets to show their outrage, and solidarity.

In Britain, by contrast, people across socio-economic groups are calling on the police to protect them from the seemingly uncontrollable mobs of youths, who, according to the dominate media narrative, seem intent on wreaking havoc for the simple reason that they can.

Yet the artist who created the monument to the young Tunisian street vendor, who wishes to remain anonymous in the commodity-free spirit of his work, told Al Jazeera that his work celebrated universal aspirations of emancipation and social justice.

His unsanctioned “people’s monument” referenced other recent uprisings in the Arab world, including Egypt and Libya.

Commonalities with Arab Spring?

Closer to home, it also referred to the Toxteth riots of 1981. The statue was mounted on a plinth where a statue of William Huskisson had stood until it was mistaken for a tribute to a slave-trader and torn down in the protests against racism and police brutality of 1981 (the unfortunate Huskisson had, in fact, been the world’s first railway victim in 1830).

The myth that has arisen around Bouazizi is relevant to the UK, the artist explained, where the conservative government’s cutbacks have taken their toll on people’s daily life.

“[Bouazizi] represented everyday struggle, his gesture was not politically motivated but about the right to exist, to provide for one’s family,” he said. “I like that fruit and vegetables were the cornerstone of the revolution – not political ideology or other beliefs.”

In any event, such overt political messages or symbols have been largely absent during the riots in the UK, which have been left many commentators stunned by the apparent lack of any political agenda.

Will Davies, a spokesperson for Avaaz, an international organisation that works for social justice and has rallied in support of the Arab Spring, told Al Jazeera that those rioting in the UK were, in stark contrast, not politically minded and were causing “anarchy for anarchy’s sake”.

“Juxtapose that with the situation in Syria, where they’ve finally got the courage to stand up to a brutal regime and they’ve done that entirely peacefully.”

“They should take a long hard look at what is going on in places like Yemen and Syria,” Davies said, noting the state violence and forced disappearances endured by protesters elsewhere in the world simply for exercising the right to peaceful protest or for speaking to the media.

There have, nonetheless, been some attempts to link the UK riots with the string of uprisings in North Africa and Middle East.

For some, emphasising such a link is a way of eliminating any need to discuss the local and national roots to the violence.

The neighbourhood of Toxteth in Liverpool saw some of worst riots over police brutality in 1980s [REUTERS]
Stuart Bell, a British Labour Party MP, told Europe 1, a television station, that “these riots have nothing to do with unemployment, or with government cutbacks. It has its origins in Tunisia”.

Others, meanwhile, have taken a more nuanced approached.

Expressing his frustration with the way the media were covering the unrest, Darcus Howe, a 68-year-old West Indian writer, broadcaster and resident of South London, told the BBC that turmoil was very much a consequence of the British police’s shooting of Mark Duggan, and of routine police bullying.

Parallel to this very local root cause, the writer argued that the social dissent should also be viewed as part of a global movement.

“I don’t call it rioting – I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment,” he told the BBC host.

‘Only then do the media listen to you’

While most other commentators agree it would be a stretch to argue that the Arab Spring in helped to ferment social unrest in the UK, North African activists who had participated in protests against their own governments told Al Jazeera that they felt solidarity with the British youths who have taken to the streets.

. . . [much is excised here]

[For more, click on the title above for a link to the source]
. . .

As a consequence of issues highlighted by those riots, there was social change which benefited the Liverpool community as a whole, he said.

“The dynamic of this riot is very difficult. This riot is not being led by black people, it is being led by youth,” he said. “There’s no colour bar, no gender bar.”

While the rioters have no clear agenda and their behaviour should not be excused, the poet said, the existence of so many restless young people was directly linked to David Cameron’s conservative government cutbacks to community and social services.

“It should be said that the last civil unrest we’ve had in this country was under [former prime minister] Margaret Thatcher, during a similar time of austerity,” he said.

There had been “disproportionate investment” in the upper and middle classes, notably in the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the bank bailouts, while millions of children have received little from their government.

“These are children who now appear to have no purpose. Society does not seem to see them as a significant enough group to invest in.”

The story of Bouazizi captured so much attention because of the sheer desperation embodied by the act of self-immolation. Britain’s youth may be speaking a different language and their violence turned outwards, rather than inwards, but they have no less legitimacy than their counterparts in the Arab world.

Follow Yasmine Ryan on twitter: @YasmineRyan

Source: Al Jazeera

Peck’s comparative insights on why economic depressions become so severe

Don Peck’s new book, Pinched, How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It makes several sobering points about how public sentiment during an economic downturn can make a bad situation worse. Several assertions of that book are worth giving serious thought to.

> Severe recessions often turn out to be more severe and longer-lasting than is expected.

> In periods of economic stress, governments tend to retreat, reducing their commitments, and thus make the economic downturn worse. This seems to be a pattern in other societies than our own.

> Governments commonly underestimate the true cost of economic retreat and conservative spending. At the same time they overestimate the risks of taking aggressive steps to resolve an economic crisis. This has taken place over and over again in American history. Administrations commonly have done too little whereas more expansive commitments actually have helped the economy recover more quickly.

> True recovery requires adjusting to the wider patterns of change in the world at large.

> The primary agenda should be to help the middle class recover.

> A economic depression worsens class distinctions, so that the interests and perspectives of socioeconomic classes become all the more distinct. He refers to it as a “cultural separation” that tends to sort the populations into winners and losers. As a result, the ways of life of the nonprofessional middle class become more like those of the poor while the well-to-do develop ways of life that are quite different financially and emotionally.

If Peck is right, then our country is on track to follow the pattern, which means we are in for a long difficult decline in our economy. What prospect is there that this country will recover?

Greg Mortensen, Ayn Rand, and the power of the moral imagination

The news that Greg Mortensen’s best seller, “Three Cups of Tea”, is partially fabricated has deeply disappointed many of us. We had been enchanted by his tales and held him up as an example of what could be done to overcome the hardships that people in other societies experience, even possibly to assuage the hostility that some people elsewhere have because of our country’s policies. We have even hoped that the Taliban could be turned around by our investments in schools for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Mortensen’s stories have turned out to be, at best, embellished versions of events that actually did happen, or at worst, deliberate fabrications. [The best statement of the problems is by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.]

Once more we have learned that the stories we like to believe are not exactly true. Again it turns out that the stories we embrace have been shaped by the interests and agendas of fallible human beings like ourselves. Much of what we “know” about our world comes to us already misshapen by the interests of those who pass it on to us.

As human beings we engage with the world through narratives. The interpretations we have of events are enabled by presumptions about how the world works. Our decisions and our plans for the future are framed by narratives of possible futures. It is human to live with narratives about what is “true” and “real,” but the narratives that inform our experience often reflect the interests and agendas of others and thus are not precisely true.

Even so, we make commitments on the basis of such presuppositions. Some of us gave money to Greg Mortensen; some people have emulated him by trying to build schools in underdeveloped communities. To the degree that his claims have been untrue the investments in time and money that people have made on the basis of his narratives have been wasted. For some, the losses could be devastating.

And what of commitments made for narratives that are pure fiction? Some of our most prominent politicians claim to have formulated their policies on the basis of the fictional stories of Ayn Rand. [see a link here] Without embarrassment they tell us so. Ayn Rand did not claim to be describing real events. Everyone recognizes her writings to be fabrications. How wise is it to promote public policies on the basis of a fictional world? Ayn Rand created imaginative worlds that suited her narratives. How could anyone accept those stories to represent accurately the world as it actually exists? How could reasonable men take her views to be so “true” that they could base on them serious proposals for solving real problems in the contemporary world? The folly seems so blatant that one wonders how any reasonable person could be taken in by it.

As Marshall Sahlins has put it, the world may not conform to how we think about it. The world, whatever it is, however it functions, has its own properties – properties so complex, so elaborate and involved, that our best ideal paradigms fail to encompass it adequately. Over and over, have not human beings often found themselves trapped in circumstances of their own making that in fact they intended to avoid and indeed abhorred? How can it be rational to propose policies whose only basis is a novelist’s imagination?

The task before us, if we are to live wisely in the world, is to discover, as best we can, what our world is like. Our potential for misjudging them, of misreading events as they take place, is cavernous. If we are to be serious in our understandings of the world we must begin with humility, recognizing that its properties are essentially beyond us; much about our world, our universe, even ourselves remains to be discovered. So our policies must be grounded as much as possible on an honest attempt to understand the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. And our individual plans and certainly our collective policies need to be based as firmly as possible on empirically grounded knowledge.

That is the task of social science: It aims to discover the world as it is, to know individuals and collectivities as they are. If our leaders seek to take our country into the future with notions based on mere fiction, can anyone doubt that disaster awaits us?

Greg Mortensen’s and Ayn Rand’s worlds are fabrications. Maybe we would like to believe them but we dare not build our lives on them because they are fantasy. Whatever the real world is like – and it is safe to say that it is always changing, always moving, and thus likely to challenge our best efforts at grasping it on the wing – the closer our imaginative narratives about it need to be if we are to engage with it effectively and avoid a colossal world-wide train wreck.

Competing images of home among emigrant Afghans

For some reason I have been approached over the years by several people from Afghanistan with proposals for what to do about its unending war. They seem to believe I have contacts with all the right people in the CIA or even the White House — or maybe am even secretly connected with the CIA. In any case, they end their proposals saying that all they need is money. “Send me to Afghanistan and I will organize a solution for the country.” A few days ago a long-time friend bent my ear for an hour [this wasn’t the first time] on what he would do to change the equation there: He would go into Pashtun country [he is Pashtun] and tell the people that they shouldn’t support the Taliban, that the Taliban are actually being used by Pakistan. And they will abandon the Taliban – he is confident they will as soon as he convinces them. This he truly believes and has worked hard at developing an organization that will bring together all kinds of Afghans to work out a reconciliation. All that is necessary is for his plan to be financed. He needs money

I have heard this kind of vision from several others — the difference in this case being that this person is a friend whose sincerity I trust; some of the others I have not known well and do not trust.

But what is similar in all these cases is that they have been out of the country for years. My good Pashtun friend has been out at least 20 years — and yet he tells me confidently that he knows what is going on in Afghanistan, and that he will resolve the crisis if he could only have the funding to carry out his plan. He assures me that he knows his country, he knows his people, and he knows they will believe him if he could just get back and explain to them what is actually going on.

The mismatch between his vision and the reality of the country seems to me so obvious that I grieve for him, for no hope exists for his plan ever to be put into motion.

All these friends whom I have talked with lately have an image of the country that is time-warped. They seem unable to grasp how the country — how their own people — have changed. Like elsewhere in the world, Afghanistan has been changing rapidly. It is not the country it was only five years ago. To mention only one of many factors that have changed the scene, there are now more than 10 million cell phones in the country [an underestimate I am told] and each one is a vehicle of social outreach that expands contacts and access to information and opportunity virtually instantaneously, a circumstance that exceeds anything many of us could imagine even a decade ago.

The one theme shared by all my Afghan expatriate friends who have such grand ideas for how to solve the country’s problems is their sense that other ethnic groups than their own have been taking advantage while theirs has been suffering. One of my contacts has complained that he calls back to his relatives and friends who are still in country and he asks them why they don’t do more to advance their ethnic people without getting even the slightest interest in the issue. They are all too busy making a living, one complained.

Yes, because the issues before them have changed. The old animosities, while still extant, are currently being upstaged by other issues. Opportunities and problems of a different sort are far more urgent.

I suppose that such a disconnect as I see among my friends in the Afghanistan diaspora has taken place among emigrant populations for generations all over the world. Each population leaves with an image of the home that remains unchanged while many new issues engage their relatives back home, creating circumstances that the emigrants would not appreciate without become ensconced back in the home country for a while. The only difference is that the pace of change produces more acute differences of perspective according to when they emigrated. Each emigrant wave carries with it a distinctive image of the country left behind while the social world back home continues to shift at an ever escalating pace.

Sorting out the past and envisioning the present

I am reading a book on the mistakes made in Afghanistan in the last two decades — a fecund source of outrage for those of us who want to find folks to blame for the mess our world is in. That was a time when obtuse, obdurate ignorance seems to have overcome those who were in command of the greatest economy and military force in history: they believed they could shape the world the way they wanted. In 2004 Ron Suskind of the New York Times interviewed a “high-level” official in the White House, who said to him, “guys like me were ‘in the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism,” Suskind wrote. “He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” {Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004, quoted in Fitzgerald and Gould, Afghanistan’s Untold Story, 2009. San Francisco: Citylights.}

In a way, he was right: They did create a reality but it was not a reality that they intended.

It’s easy now, in retrospect, to regard this remark as arrogant, foolhardy. What is worth noting here is what the remark tells us about the human condition. This official was living, and clearly epitomizing, the postmodern trend of his times. He epitomized it in the sense that he understood, as the postmodernists emphasized, that human beings live in meaningful “worlds” that are possible because of the rich imaginative capability of the human mind. This suggested that better worlds could be imagined and so created; and astride such a powerful engine of change as the American empire they were going to create a new world, one in which — I think as they truly imagined — that would be more free, more open, more just. In those times I met students who had come to believe that the worlds we live in are just “made up.” This official thought that it would possible to “make up” a better world for all.

What he seems to have forgotten, and certainly the postmodernist gave no help on this score, was that he and all of us have to live in a world that may not be as we imagine it. The world as it is, has properties of its own; it operates according to its own laws, whatever we think about it. It is wise to assume that we only know it imperfectly. Always, whatever we think about it, it exists outside our imaginations. As humans our way of apprehending it is through the intersubjective forms of language and gesture, but it has conditions, relations, qualities that we must seek to understand better if we are to live in it, for our knowledge is imperfect. Such were the “enlightenment principles” that Suskind took for granted.

The fact is, of course, is that the imaginative worlds we “make up” have to be deployed in a world whose properties may not conform to what we think about it. Marshall Sahlins has said in many places that in real life human beings are always putting their suppositions about the world “at risk”, for the imaginative frames they use so as to encompass their reality may fail to do so; their suppositions may insufficiently grasp the world as it is, with consequences that will necessarily be unforeseen. Sahlins’ point is that human beings are thus forced constantly to revise and reconfigure their images of the world around them, if they are to live in the real world, which is a way of saying that social thought and social life is always changing as human beings revise their imaginative images of the world so as to encompass it better in the next encounter.

But there can be even more serious implications to one’s mis-reading of one’s setting, especially if one is astride a great empire. The tragedy in this instance is that rather than leaving behind a set of worldly marvels for us to “sort out,” his administration left behind a world whose wreckage defies “sorting out”.

It is easy to be self-righteous when we look back at the folly of administrations in earlier times – indeed, some of us have fed our egos on the blunders of the GW Bush administration for several years now. The problem is, like the official we also have to confront a world in our own time whose properties we only imperfectly understand. What bewilders us now will continue to bewilder. Will the next generation do better? I doubt it.

What the rising demand for popular suffrage is doing to the world

The new imaginative hope for authentic popular suffrage has enthralled the Middle East where true freedom has scarcely ever been known. Here are some ways that it is being expressed [besides the new announcement in Kazakhstan noted here earlier:

Bahrain doles out money to families:
Latest appeasement comes as activists call for protests to demand political, social and economic reforms.

Algeria protesters break cordon: Pro-democracy demonstrators, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, ignore official ban and march in the capital Algiers.
Algeria to lift emergency powers: President says country’s 19-year state of emergency will be lifted in near future in apparent bid to stave off unrest.

Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi: In an interview from her native Syria, Atassi shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.

A lesson of Salman Taseer’s Murder: Authentic belief is too dangerous to be borne

Taseer’s murder was merely one episode in a familiar pattern of minority abuse in Pakistan. There have been many attacks on Shias and Ahmedis and Sufi shrines in Pakistan, but in this case the attack was implicitly against Christians. Taseer’s mistake was to stand up for a helpless Christian woman. Aasia Bibi has been accused, not convicted, of insulting Muhammad, a crime considered worthy of death according to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. As a Christian she belongs to a community that in Pakistan is small and very poor.

But Taseer’s murder will affect the country at large as well as the Christian community, which of course has reason to be terrified. The murder will cost the ordinary citizens of the country plenty, for now no one will dare to say what they truly believe. Fear reigns.

For many Pakistanis the killing was in fact no crime. The religious establishment seems to consider Taseer’s activities and declarations in support of Aasia Bibi worthy of death even without a trial. They have transformed Taseer’s murderer into a hero. According to Reuters [1/5/2011]

Five hundred moderate Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer, who opposed the country’s blasphemy law, could suffer the same fate.

A threat against public grieving, a warning against authentic outrage, by “moderate” religious scholars.

The breadth of support for killing Taseer extended even to his other guards, who were aware of Qadri’s plans to kill him and had agreed in advance not to stop him as he pumped more than two dozen bullets into Taseer’s body.

The viewpoint that Christians are a threat to society — which was implicitly challenged by Taseer’s defense of Aasia Bibi — is familiar in neighboring countries. In the last few weeks a number of Afghan Christians have been put in prison on spurious grounds. One person in Mazar-i Sharif has been warned to recant his faith or otherwise be condemned to death. Others in Kabul await a similar verdict. Likewise in Iran Christians have in the last few weeks been rooted out of their homes at night and carried off to prison without explicit charges. Some have been beaten [according to sources close to their families — but as is well known, the Iranian government has treated their own dissenting mullahs no better.]

What could could be the danger that such folks constitute to their societies? What risk to society was entailed in Taseer’s defense of Aasia Bibi? Apparently the presumptions of a democratic society have yet to become ensconced in the public imagination; such ideas are unfamiliar and apparently threatening. The idea that minorities need to be protected, that authentic beliefs can be allowed, that different points of view have a right to be heard, or at least tolerated, appears to be alien in these societies. No, not alien: dangerous, dangerous enough to deserve capital punishment.

In the western world where these issues were hashed out in previous generations we take the right to belief and opinion for granted. The reality is that in the hashing out process — even in the western world — folks suffered for the right to believe and practice what they believed. Innocent people were brutalized, wars were fought, careers ruined, families destroyed. It is easy for us to suppose that our perspectives are natural. They are not: they were created in social contexts that were initially threatened by such notions. The right to authentic belief had to be thought up, formulated, proposed, defended in societies that could not countenance a world without enforced conformity. And so people suffered on all sides of the issue. [See Dec 12 note, “Another Accusation of Blasphemy”

The freedom to assert what you honestly think, what you sincerely believe, was never exactly free. It was costly and therefore should be considered precious — how precious has been demonstrated before our eyes in Pakistan. We are all diminished when a human being cannot be allowed to raise authentic questions, hold personal views about moral and spiritual issues, or practice their own forms of worship, or insist on the right of minorities to be treated honorably.

So what price will Pakistan pay for the murder of Salmon Taseer? Plenty. The loss of authentic debate in public affairs with cost in due process, in effective administration, and in investment. Now it is clear to everyone in Pakistan, displayed before the eyes of the world: minority views, minority opinions, are a threat to the social order, so threatening as to be worthy of death, even open murder on the street. In such a place who will dare to be authentic? Only those like Salmon Taseer who are ready to give up their lives.
1/20/2011 [A correction on the above]
My friend and former colleague, Dr Kathie Laird, who has been following Pakistan affairs for some years, wrote a note to correct my statement about Aasia Bibi. Thanks, Kathie.

I think she has, in fact, been convicted.

>Per Jinnah Institute (etc.): Aasia Bibi, a Christian labourer and mother of five, sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in the Nankana Sahib district of Punjab was to be hanged on November 8 2010.

>Per PPP-affiliated site: President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday stayed the execution of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy. The woman, Aasia Bibi, was given the death sentence by an additional sessions judge in Nankana Sahib district a week ago on charges of committing blasphemy.


The American (Banana?) Republic versus the Rising Chinese empire

Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times today [12/31/10] refers to the United States as a Banana Republic. I have been wondering about how long this country can continue living as it does without there being a reckoning, a rude, even shattering, confrontation with reality. It would be easy to elaborate on the dangerous trajectory of affairs, something many have enumerated. In today’s rant Krugman specifically points to the “spectacular hypocrisy” of the Republican Party. But what strikes me is how unaware — unconcerned? — the American public seems to be. The leadership of this country, Democratic and Republican, seems unable to confront the great challenges of the times: the deficit, for instance: The Republicans trumpeted the necessity to resolve the deficit crisis before the election and then, once elected, immediately began to claim they would reduce taxes, a strategy well known to increase the deficit. Experts on virtually all sides claim that unless serious steps are taken the future for the United States is uncertain – a growing number say it could be catastrophic. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse provides plenty of examples of societies, even great empires, that simply ran themselves into oblivion: Witness the great statues of Easter Island, lifeless images of now-forgotten leaders who through these statues paraded their eminence as they competitively consumed the resources on which their societies survived.

In the mean time, as the United States eschews all measures necessary to ensuring its solvency, a new empire is rising in the east, China, which has an abundance of cash and no such deficit. The Chinese are reaching out to Africa and South America as well as the neighboring lands of Asia with an eye to their interests over the long term – and as we understand well, the “long term” for the Chinese can be centuries. They are granting loans for the reconstruction and development in such African countries as Angola, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Zambia; and they are investing in such South American countries as Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba (see Foreign Affairs, Jan 5, 2010, Debora Braudigam; Timeline, March 15, 2010, Reuters). They are buying up rights to develop minerals in Afghanistan and other countries of Central Asia, they are building pipelines to ship gas as well as oil directly to industrial centers, and most interestingly, they are building up a navy and constructing ports (Gwadar, Pakistan) that will be supply stations for their navy — and Gwadar in particular will be the terminus oil and gas pipelines that will bring energy to an ocean going port.

All this is taking place as many Americans seem fixed on a past that cannot return. The heroic legends of World War II still entrance; narratives of a great power that saved the world persist. Narratives of great generosity are taken at face value [the reality is that the US gives much less per capita than most industrial nations.]

The presumption is that American ingenuity will rise to the challenges of the future. No matter how bleak the prospects, how hopeless the outlook, the Americans will again come through; they will find a way, to the point of planting new colonies on the moon or Mars. This is the mind-set of the graduates of my high sckool — as least as can be determined from the occasional newsletter they put out. Their comments about our times reveals how little they have internalized of the changes that have taken place in our world since our graduation day umpteen years ago. The world they live in and the world I seek to understand bear no resemblance to each other.

The problem for all of us is identifying the world as it is. There is a “reality” we all presume, but actually discovering it as it is turns out to be an interpretive exercise. We only see the world from perspectives that are familiar to us. So we tend to face the future with eyes informed by a past that is more real in our minds than actually exists. For me, it takes time and reflection to figure out what I think about what is going on in the world, but by the time I have figured out what I think about it I’m out of date.

My Nightmare: Anthropology as Moral indignation

As we were getting ready for bed my wife mentioned the article in the New York Times. “What is this with the Anthropology Association ditching the word ‘science’?,” she said. I hadn’t seen the Times that day, and immediately hunted up the article. Sure enough, the article by Nicholas Wade said the executive board of the AAA had stripped the word “science” from its long-term plan. The “science faction” in the Association was alarmed, blaming it on “the advocates for native peoples or human rights,” the moralists who want to change the world through anthropology. I knew it! The moralizers have taken over, the guys who want to abandon anthropology, the article said, because it was linked to colonialism.

The news was so upsetting that I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares all night. I dreamed anthropology had been taken over by the “Moral Indignation” faction, driving the “science faction” to the margins, reducing it to only two panels at the AAA meetings. The whole scene left me confused and conflicted about what I had been doing. I had always thought I did “science” because I sought to ground my descriptions of the world by logically demonstrating my claims empirically. Trained in the dark age of the 1960s, I thought anthropology was “the science of history.” The moralists were now dissing my scientific pretensions — and now they were in control of the AAA. At the same time, admittedly, I have been filling my blog with my own moral outrage, so in a way I am one of them. I can be as self-righteous as the best of them. And in my dreams I told them so: “Look at all the things I wrote about the neocons after 2000,” I told them. “I’m as good at moral outrage as the best of you; I’m on a par with Edward Said.” Anyway, I admitted it: I love to be self-righteous. And I have the evidence to prove it.

But there was a difference: I regarded my moral indignation as a diversion. What I have taken seriously has been my “science,” my grounded descriptions of a world that is tangled, conflicted, and changeable. But I never thought my self-righteous critiques were my most important contributions to my profession. Now the moralists are saying that I have it all wrong: my attempts to logically demonstrate descriptions of the world as I have found it cannot compare with the importance of my professional outrage.

I began to wonder what these moralizers might do to my discipline. My colleague John R Bowen has lately been producing brilliant reports on what he calls “an anthropology of public reasoning.” What will they do to that? Should his title instead have been, “A moral critique of public reasoning”? But it turns out that John is out of date too, because he grounded his reports on personal interviews with real people, even identifying them by their real names. Anyway, if he was going to write about the French, why couldn’t it be about the contemptible pretensions of “being French”? Or “French hubris.?”

I was uncomfortable with the moralizers for another reason: I am not used to being so au currant. When was my work ever so main-stream? It feels strange to be ahead of the curve for once. In my sleep I of course made the obvious decision: I now would emphasize my self-righteous critiques of the world; but once in a while I might write some “science” for diversion.

It was a hard night. When I finally woke up I googled the actual report of the AAA and found out what had really happened. The President of the Association, Virginia Dominguez, explained that the board had “replaced the term “science” in the preface of the planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains” in order to accommodate those who don’t think they are doing science. Somehow, with the sun up, the world seemed better, more sane. The Morally Indignant faction hasn’t actually taken over the AAA yet. Things aren’t as bad as I feared. It was only a nightmare.

Another accusation of Blasphemy

An Ismaili doctor has now been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan — another case in which those zealous for their faith can display their indignation at the way the rest of the world behaves. The sad part of such claims is that they appear to have become mere devices for intimidation of those who are marginal to those who consider themselves main-stream true believers. Christians, Ismailis, Shias are easy targets in Pakistan. Besides the Christian woman Asia Bibi we now have Naushad Valiyani to worry about.
The contradiction is that the more that pretenses of “faith” are enforced by public demand and by the courts the less “faith” can be authentic. The great creative innovation in the Western world — originally established by Roger Williams in the new British colony of Rhode Island — was the insistence that true faith could be authentic only where one can safely refuse to believe. Such a situation is only possible where the State guarantees the right to practice [or not] one’s personal faith.
In the zeal to have a “Muslim” society some religious enthusiasts in Pakistan have turned religion into a litmus test of patriotism. In such a system authenticity — genuine questioning, genuine doubt, a serious personal search for certainty on moral and metaphysical issues — becomes dangerous, even an act of treason.
What can it mean to quench such personal searching in a whole society? What Pakistan has become may be an indication of what happens: The zealous parade their religiosity; the rest remain silent.

From the Express Tribune, Dec 12, 2010.

Doctor arrested on blasphemy charges

Activists chant slogans against Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who had been sentenced to death, during a protest in Karachi on December 3, 2010. PHOTO: IRFAN ALI
KARACHI: A doctor has been arrested on charges of blasphemy in Hyderabad, police said on Sunday.
Naushad Valiyani was detained on Friday following a complaint by a medical representative who visited the doctor in the city of Hyderabad.
“The arrest was made after the complainant told the police that Valiyani threw his business card, which had his full name, Muhammad Faizan, in a dustbin during a visit to his clinic,” regional police chief Mushtaq Shah told AFP.
“Faizan accused Valiyani of committing blasphemy and asked police to register a case against the doctor.”
Shah said the issue had been resolved after Valiyani, a member of the Ismaili community apologised but local religious leaders intervened and pressed for action.
“Valiyani had assured Faizan that he did not mean to insult the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) by throwing the visiting card in the dustbin,” Shah said, adding that the police had registered a case under the Blasphemy Act.

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