the family is all we need
December 30, 2009, 12:15 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Here’s an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.  She says the prehistoric hominid related inwardly to themselves and their kin while the later, evolved human related outwardly to others.  And that, under the direction of the evangelical in America, we have taken on the aspect of the prehuman once again.  Shame.  I guess life isn’t for the living after all.  I might just throw out this bone for some extra chewing:  the Bible rarely if ever talks about family; it is outspoken on the other, often called your neighbor.

Here is the excerpt:

The family is all we need, America’s ostensibly Christian evangelicists tell us — a fit container for all our social loyalties and yearnings.  But if anything represents a kind of evolutionary regression, it is this.  Insofar as we compress our sociality into the limits of the family, we do not so much resemble our Paleolithic human ancestors as we do those far earlier prehuman primates who had not yet discovered the danced ritual as a ‘biotechnology’ for the formation of larger groups.  Humans had the wit and generosity to reach out to unrelated others; hominids huddled with their kin.

Dancing in the Street: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, New York


a nepalese, an irishman and a columbian
December 27, 2009, 10:49 pm
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Here is another excerpt from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other.  In it he sketches nationalism as a coarse reductive tool we routinely use to categorize and separate people.  Why do we do it?  I don’t know.  I suppose to make ourselves feel better by pointing out how others are different and – by their difference – inferior.

I used to work in an American office in which also worked a Nepalese, a Columbian, an Irishman, a Japanese among the standard Americans.  I know, it sounds like the start of a bad joke.  And ironically, in a way it was a bad joke:  these men from numerous parts of the world would regularly get together in the back of the office to tell racist jokes and banter.  I know I would have joined them if I weren’t cursed by a ‘serious’ gene, and the inability to react wittily in conversations like these.  How could this ritual help them, all first generation immigrant family members to America?  It seemed then and even now like a strange form of cultural suicide.  But they relished it and goaded each other deeper and deeper in.

At the end of this excerpt, Kapuscinski warns that nationalism will lead to hatred of the other.  He is unequivocal:  the hatred that results is inevitable and dangerous.  Here is the excerpt:

The nationalist treats his nation, and in the case of Africa, his state, as the highest value, and all others as something inferior (and often deserving contempt).  Nationalism, like racism, is a tool for identifying and classifying that is used by my Other at any opportunity.  It is a crude, primitive tool that oversimplifies and trivializes one’s image of the Other, because for the nationalist the person of the Other has just one single feature – national affiliation.  It does not matter if someone is young or old, clever or stupid, good or bad – the only thing that counts is whether he or she is Armenian or Turkish, British of Irish, Moroccan or Algerian.  When I live in that world of inflamed nationalisms, I have no name, no profession and no age – I am  purely and simply a Pole.  In Mexico my neighbors call me ‘El Polaco’, and the air hostess in Yakutsk summons me to board the plane by shouting ‘Polsha!’  Among small, scattered nations, such as the Armenians, there is a phenomenal capacity to see the map of the world as a network of points inhabited by concentrations of one’s own compatriots, be it one single family or one single person.  The dangerous feature of nationalism is that an inseparable part of it is hatred for the Other.  The degree of the hatred varies, but its presence is inevitable.

-excerpted from The Other, Kyszard Kapuscinski, Verso, London

clown bike
December 27, 2009, 2:01 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: ,

the soil you were born on
December 26, 2009, 3:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Patriotism is a source of endless mystery for the global nomad.  And not just the global nomad – someone who grew up between worlds by virtue of his diplomat or international business or missionary parents – but really also anyone who is committed to the precepts of modernism, an interest in the other, difference, the world outside.

Following is an excerpt from Michael Erard’s article Notes on Being Born on Soil at Design Observer.  He describes in 10 points how, with your longing for Texas as strong as it is after you move away, you can make sure your baby’s delivery in Maine is – metaphorically he says – born on Texas soil by slipping a ziplock of dirt under the bed.

Places have a great draw in our emotional lives.  We all exist somewhere between the poles of drifting in the world untethered, and being closely connected to it.  Every time I return to my birth country I feel like – but rarely follow through on – stooping and kissing the ground outside the airport terminal.  I grew up as a foreigner in my birth country India and so my emotions toward it are more complex than were I an Indian national.  In a sense I am allowed to love it, even excessively, and you could never call me a nationalist.  Furthermore, I can call you a nationalist if you are native born and overly emotional about your birthplace and not, like me, a foreigner born on foreign soil, whose emotions derive from extra-nationalist sources.

So what about the baggie with the soil under the bed your wife is screaming in, giving birth to your baby?  At first I thought it is a fetishization of me, where I’m from, my forefathers.  And then I remembered my impulse to kiss the ground outside the airport.  So, I’m ambivalent but still tilt toward judgement of excessive patriotism.  Especially in the context of a culture / country that remains largely silent in the face of the dominant – and highly toxic – tendency toward nationalism and patriotism.

Here is the excerpt:

1. I was born on soil; so were you. Which is to say, we were born in a place and no other, to which our forebears feel attached, and if we do too we may proclaim, “I was born on the soil of this place,” in order to stake a claim of identity. From time to time you hear stories about patriots in exile who make the leap of enabling their children to enjoy the symbolic equivalence of having been born in the motherland through an implementation of the metaphor in its most literal way: putting dirt under a woman who is giving birth.

2. You may not think this practice actually exists. It’s true, you don’t hear about children born on, say, Delaware soil. In 1993, the Weekly World News reported on a woman from Texas, a “Lone Star lady,” who wanted her baby born on Texas soil in New York City. “The soil was sterilized, sealed in a sterile pouch, and placed beneath the woman,” read the article. “Baby born on Texas soil — in New York!” the headline exclaimed. When I moved to Texas in the early 1990s, I heard similar tales. Apocrypha, I thought. Then I left the state, and it was my turn.


9. Later I read in a thread that the office of the governor of Texas will send a package of hospital-approved dirt along with a certificate (which suggests that being born on soil is not, in fact, enough). But the woman who answered the governor’s information line told me she’d heard of no such thing.

-excerpted from Notes on Being Born on Soil, Michael Erard, Design Observer

children are left to pedagogy
December 15, 2009, 3:59 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Here is an excerpt from Bernard Schlink’s The Reader.  When a teenager, the protagonist has an affair with a woman in her thirties.  During much of the time they spend together, he reads from his father’s library aloud to her.   The affair ends when she mysteriously leaves their town.

Years later he encounters her again:  he is a lawyer and she a former Nazi prison guard standing trial for her role in a wartime tragedy.  During the trial he comes to realize that she is uneducated and cannot read.  He goes to his father, a professor of philosophy, to ask whether it is moral to tell the judge that she is illiterate and cannot defend herself.

The father answers no, that it is better to leave people with their own choices and thus their dignity, even though you may think you know what will ultimately be best for them.  By breaking this trust, we trespass and manipulate and control.  Here is the excerpt:

When he answered, he went all the way back to first principles.  He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.  ‘Don’t you remember how furious you would get as little boy when Mama knew best what was good for you?  Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem.  It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children.  It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands.  Philosophy has forgotten about children.’  He smiled at me.  ‘Forgotten them forever, not just sometimes, the way I forget about you.’

‘But …’

‘But with adults I unfortunately see no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.’

‘Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?’

He shook his head.  ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom.  Even as a little boy, you knew the difference.  It was no comfort to you that you mother was always right.’

-excerpted from The Reader, Bernard Schlink

friendly islands
December 5, 2009, 12:57 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: ,

Often the names we know places by is nothing like the names the locals use.  In Italian, it’s not Florence, but Firenze, not Naples but Napoli, not Padua but Padova, not Venice but Venezia, not Milan but Milano, not Genoa but Genova.  To the Danes it’s not Copenhagen but Kobenhavn (pronounced Koopen-howen).  To the Yugoslavians it’s not Belgrade but Beograd.  To the Russians it’s not Moscow but Moskva.  And to the Dutch it’s not The Hague but Den Haag.  The names of countries are even more at variance with their English versions.  Try covering up the left-hand column below and seeing how many you can guess.

Greece – Ellinki Dimokratia

Finland – Suomen Tasavalta

Hungary – Magyar Nepkoztarasag

Albania – Shqiperi

Japan – Nihon

Greenland – Kalatdlit Nunat

Jordan – Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah

South Korea – Han Kook

North Korea – Chosun Minchu-chui Immin Kongwhaguk

Morocco – al-Mamlaka al-Maghrebia

China – Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo

Sweden – Konungariket Sverige

Tonga – Friendly Islands

~from The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson, Penguin 2009