Friday, September 29, 2006

Newly Discovered Absences

Keywords: William Faulkner; writers; conversation; broadcasting words; Earl Babbie; complimentary subscriptions; address lists; media.
The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews. — William Faulkner (see photo)
It’s not that way for other professions. Faulkner’s comment applies specifically to writers, I think. Writers choose a form of communication that does not require feedback – often because they don’t really want feedback. I guess I’m really a writer; I need to do this. A blog is a splendid outlet, but any other mass medium is also satisfactory. I want to put something out into the universe, but I don’t particularly want to know what comes of it afterward, so long as I have any basis for supposing that a few people read it voluntarily.

In face-to-face communication you have to take turns, and your every utterance has to be styled to fit what the other person is sending back. That’s wonderful for some conversations. The excitement comes from the dance of ideas and gestures.

But with mass media, you “broadcast” ideas – spread them around in public places where people will happen upon them accidentally. Their reading, unlike their listening in person, is not a personal interaction and does not mean that they like or agree with you. Reading is often critical, occasionally feelingful, but rarely ecstatic, as are the intimate personal contacts that sometimes occur between individuals.

That’s okay. I like to broadcast my thoughts to people who are not obliged to reply. Such one-way conversations please me, for I control the content and length of the message.

But often I do write with certain people in mind, and I feel a little pleasure imagining their responses upon reading it. Of course, I know that they may never even notice it. As my friend Earl Babbie notes in the signature at the bottom of his e-mails: “Kth Law of CyberSpace: We are all, as individuals, in over our heads.” So we forgive each other for our countless lapses.

But tonight I’ve been managing my lists, with a little pain. For one thing, I’ve checked over my address book for the first time in ages, and had to delete four names of old friends. There’s only a single keystroke involved. I simply hit the “delete” key to erase a person from my current relationships. Nothing requires me to eliminate them, but I will never need them again. I do still have a joint bank account with my mother, who died two years ago, but I deleted four friends tonight, since it was so easy to do. But it was not painless.

Then I went through Peace Magazine’s list of free-of-charge subscriptions for the first time in years. There are three categories of such recipients: exchanged subscriptions, media, and “comps.” We exchange subscriptions with certain other publications — not because we want to read them, but only because the relationship was started long ago and nobody has questioned whether to keep it going. Now we should check it out, for some of those magazines have been defunct for years. But there's nothing upsetting about losing this deadwood.

Second, the “media” list consists of journalists or publications to whom we send magazines without reciprocity. The basic hope is that someone will notice us and explore some of the ideas we’re promoting. It's time for us to review this list as well, for it is obsolete. That's no problem either.

But finally, there are the complimentary subscriptions that I put onto our list myself. Most of these are old friends of mine, or relatives, or former mentors: people whose respect I crave. But to my dismay, there’s a whole batch of those whose names have been deleted from the comp list without my knowledge. For years, I had supposed I was communicating with them. I had imagined them reading my pieces and smiling slightly before tossing the magazine aside. That’s all I wanted – not overt approbation, but the mere possibility of being heard. Now I know that they've not been there for ages. This discovery hurt even more than the business of deleting deceased loved ones from my address file. I had already handled these deaths, one by one, as I learned of them. But discovering this whole new whack of names all of a sudden — loved ones who had never even received my messages – that was hard! I might as well have shredded my manuscripts without publishing them.

So, dear blog readers. I don’t know who will see this and I won’t try to find out. If you tell me you have read it, great. I do have a meter that counts readers without naming them, but I'm not unhappy that the count is low. Because there’s no list of recipients, if you stop reading my entries, I will never know. Someone else – some stranger in Singapore or Capetown — will keep the count respectable, so you won't hurt me.

But if you’re on my special comp list, that means you’re important to me and I want you to receive my every screed. I want you to have a chance to know what I think, should you happen to care. And secretly, I hope you do care.

As Faulkner noted, I’m too busy writing to pay much attention to critics — or even to desultory readers. But I like to suppose that those of you whom I love most are not desultory. Probably Faulkner too cherished the same hope.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Drug Warfare for Dummies

Keywords: drugs; economics; cocaine, opium, cannabis, poppies, afghanistan, war on drugs; legalization; Afghanistan; John Polanyi; addiction; pain; morphine; crime

Addictive drugs are, among other things, a business, so those who are waging the “” should listen to the . But they won’t. Instead, their futile and expensive campaign will continue for several years, mainly because the impetus behind it is ideological, not realistic. Not many political leaders can admit that the fight against is more harmful than the narcotics themselves. Indeed, the United Nations is holding a conference on drugs, aiming at the world-wide reduction in coca, opium, and cannabis. Additional funding of between $4.3 billion and $5.8 billion will probably be authorized during the meeting.

Unfortunately, as an economist could explain, this expenditure is bound to be counterproductive. There’s a vicious cycle: The money that the government spends on combating drugs actually provides price supports for narcotics. Yes, it is possible to reduce the availability of drugs by driving some dealers out of business, but since that does not reduce the demand, the prices will rise in response, which makes the business more profitable.

Higher in turn increases violent crime. As the business becomes more lucrative, it naturally attracts competitors, so that rival gangs literally fight in the streets and alleys for control of this trade. Already about 60 percent of the inmates of federal prisons are incarcerated because of drug sales or possession. Keeping these people locked up is an extraordinarily expensive proposition, draining money away from responses that might actually help society.

Even if the laws are not immediately changed to , much could be gained simply by reducing the zeal of enforcing the laws. Enforcement inevitably backfires. This should not surprise anyone familiar with the US history of — legislation that was meant to protect public well being but which actually increased .

The War on Drugs is largely waged abroad — especially in , where Canadian soldiers now are fighting and dying. An economics lesson would be instructive in that matter too, for the increased efforts to destroy the have failed abysmally. Illegal drugs account for more than one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, and their poppy crop has increased by about 60 percent during the past year, with some of the profits going to support the Taliban.

Not surprisingly, the Afghan poppy farmers (see photo) are not happy about having herbicides applies to their fields, not about being punished for growing their crops. Their increasing hostility to foreigners exacerbates the political challenge of stabilizing the country.

But the Nobel laureate chemist has written a fine suggestion in the Globe and Mail: “There’s a Way to End Afghanistan’s and the World’s Pain.” It was news to me, but apparently there’s a great shortage of morphine and codeine for medical purposes around the world, at precisely the same time that the Afghan farmers are being punished for producing the opium that is the source of these medicines. Almost all of these medicinal opiates for pain control are consumed in the rich countries, “leaving 80 percent of the world’s population virtually without.”

Polanyi suggests that the Afghan poppies be used to make up the shortfall. He quotes a price estimate for buying “the entire Afghan poppy crop at the current market price, set today by Afghan drug lords, as about $600-million — less than the $780 million the United States budgeted last year for eradication.”

Brilliant idea! These practical changes, affecting both the production and consumption ends of the drug business, can’t cure existing addictions. But they can reduce the suffering caused by the counterproductive efforts to suppress the drug business.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Easterly vs. Sachs on Aid

Keywords: Nicholas Kristof; William Easterly; Jeffrey Sachs; Amartya Sen; Monterrey Consensus; Millennium Development Goals; poverty; health care; trade; globalization

’s article, “Aid: Can It Work?” in the New York Review of Books shook me up. It’s a rather positive review of ’s book, : Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Probably I should not have been surprised, since Easterly’s main argument has been around for decades. Yet I have shrugged off that perspective on purely idealistic grounds: it is just too mean-spirited.

To be sure, all the reviewers of Easterly’s new book seem to depict it as rhetorically excessive and remarkably full of spleen. But they manage to put aside their distaste for his nasty tone long enough to acknowledge that he has a point or two. And that acknowledgment is what makes me anxious. Is it really true that has worked so poorly? Can a conscientious person actually question whether it is, on balance, a bad idea?

Maybe not — but Easterly comes close enough to earn some admiration from Nicholas Kristof and even from whose generosity of spirit is beyond question. I haven’t read Easterly’s book yet and probably won’t, but I am vicariously shaken by it.

First, Kristof’s review. He points out the well-known fact that Easterly bases his career primarily on criticizing (see photo). Now Sachs has had a career that previously merited considerable criticism; he originated “” as a way of bringing the recently Communist countries into a modern world economy — a program that, to be kind, had its flaws. Still, in recent years Sachs has become the most influential economist promoting a campaign of international aid to end poverty around the world. The governments that agreed to this program (at the “”) have fallen far short of fulfilling it, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. The specific objectives set out as part of the “” would, if attained, be one of humankind’s greatest triumphs. For inventing and pushing it, I have to keep rooting for Sachs.

Yet Easterly objects to Sachs’s approach so intemperately that the two men are said not to be on speaking terms. The main issue seems to be the difficulty of measuring progress toward these various goals. Sachs wants to attack poverty on a whole range of fronts simultaneously, though many of these specific goals, such as the reduction of maternal mortality or the eradication of malaria, cannot be quantified empirically. Easterly claims that the UN is setting itself up for a big failure because it will not be able to demonstrate success or – more importantly – determine which kinds of intervention are successful and which ones need to be changed.

That sounds to me like a reasonable objection, though I can’t get enthusiastic about Easterly’s proposed solution: to tackle one measurable problem at a time, then move on to the next. Sachs is right; because health and money and infrastructure are all causally related, you can’t solve one of them at a time. The people would be dying of something else while you were solving one of their problems. But it’s true that you can’t easily measure one variable while changing a whole bunch of other related variables. But Sachs says that we already know what works enough to get on with the job anyway. That argument sounds reasonable too, though surely there must be some effort to monitor results as we go along.

Unfortunately, Easterly seems to have a devastating come-back to this proposal. He says that has not helped , on the whole, and that it’s a mistake to count on future success with it. Here he marshals some evidence – that the Asian countries that have successfully battled poverty have received very little aid. Kristof notes,

“The median ratio of aid to GDP of the ten countries with the highest per capita between 1980 and 2002 was just 0.23 percent. In contrast, as Easterly shows, the ten countries with the lowest per capital growth rates in that period, all negative rates, had a median aid-to-GDP ratio of 10.98 percent. That says nothing about causation, but it’s still not very encouraging.”

True, but what shall we make of that little caveat, “That says nothing about causation”? If these figures really do say nothing about causation, I need not get upset and start changing my whole worldview. So I turned to Amartya Sen on that point. He reviewed Easterly’s book for Foreign Affairs, “The Man Without a Plan,” pointing out a problem with this research:

“To arrive at his negative view of economic aid, Easterly draws on large-scale cross-sectional statistical analysis, as well as on case studies of particular plans and programs. Such intercountry comparisons have become fashionable as a way of isolating solid connections between causes and effects, but they are seriously compromised by the difficulty of comparing diverse experiences: countries can differ significantly in variables other than those that are brought under cross-sectional scrutiny. Many such studies are also impaired by difficulties in identifying what is causing what. For example, a country's economic distress may induce donors to give it more aid -- which may, in terms of associative statistics, suggest a connection between aid and bad economic performance.”

Ah, so there’s no definitive case against economic aid in these statistics after all! And Sen points out that Easterly’s subtitle claim is excessive — that the West’s efforts to aid have done great harm. They haven’t always worked out well, but rarely have they done actual harm, according to Sen, who knows a thing or two about the subject.

On the other hand, Kristof points to research by Raghuran Rajan and Arvind Subramanian of the International Monetary Fund that lends credence to Easterly’s argument:

“After closely examining the evidence they concluded that ‘aid inflows have systematic adverse effects on a country’s competitiveness.’ They conclude that one reason aid can be counterproductive is that it tends to boost the recipient country’s . That in turn makes its exports less competitive, undermining local manufacturing. Indeed, Subramanian compares aid inflows to the ‘natural resources curse’ by which a country is flooded with revenues from oil or diamonds — and ends up suffering as a result.”

If that’s true, it would seem to mean that there are inherent disadvantages to aid. At a minimum, one corollary follows: that when aid is given, it should be carefully directed toward interventions that are most likely to work. And, as Kristof notes, those tend to be health measures.

“By and large, you get better results per dollar by investing in health care than anywhere else — where else can you spend a few dollars and save a life?”

That is absolutely right. But Kristof, despite strongly defending the value of aid generally, also acknowledges another of Easterly’s key points:

“More broadly, one of the lessons not only of his book but of modern history is that the best way for a country to escape poverty is not so much through aid as through increasing its and investment. Aid isn’t the preferred path to development.”

This observation largely accounts for the success of the “Asian tigers” such as Singapore, China, and Malaysia. It seems to me that Western liberals – the people who most fervently encourage their governments to increase overseas development aid – are the very people who are least likely to consider trade a crucial aspect of development. If we are to learn anything essential from Easterly, it is this. We need to think about it while we address one of the top issues of our day: .

Men in Trees vs. Northern Exposure

Keywords: Men in Trees; Northern Exposure; plagiarism; Alaska; Elmo; Cicely; shame; drunk; writing; script; relationships; spoon-feeding; documentary; Steven Johnson

Not everyone can write a good (I can’t – though, wisely, I’ve never tried.) But something important may be learned by considering what makes a good one. The most promising way to do that is by comparing two shows that are alike in many ways, but which differ markedly in overall quality.

There’s a this fall called , which is obviously written as a close imitation of . Indeed, I don’t know how they can get away with it. When Northern Exposure itself was produced, a writer sued for plagiarism, claiming that the script was based on ideas he had submitted as a pilot years before, but which had been rejected at the time. He won a settlement of something like $7 million, as I recall. (I'm far from sure it was justified.) But here’s a show that is absolutely unmistakably an imitation of Northern Exposure, yet I’ve heard nothing suggesting that the producers might be sued for that. In fact, if it were a good imitation I’d be overjoyed, since I love the original more than words can express.

Men in Trees is another show about a New Yorker living as a fish-out-of-water in a little Alaskan town. However, this New Yorker is a pretty blonde named Marin played by (see photo) instead of a young doctor named Joel, played by . Marin is a famous “relationship coach” and popular writer who was on the verge of marriage until she discovered that her fiancé was cheating on her. Now she realizes that she’s never been without a boyfriend since she was fourteen, so she’s going to stay in Alaska and learn to be independent in a town where men outnumber women ten to one.

The town called Elmo, Alaska is shot in BC, but it looks like Cicely, Alaska, which was shot in Roslyn, Washington. The resemblance extends down to the totem poles in a vacant lot in downtown Elmo. Unlike Cicely, however, it has a port. It also has a bar, run by a lovable man and his off-and-on girlfriend, plus a radio station, run by a charming disk jockey, plus an overbearing unmarried female cop, plus lots of wildlife (a raccoon starred in the first episode and a skunk in the third one). Marin immediately buys herself a blue pickup truck just like Joel’s, but classier. There’s an old native guy who dispenses wisdom to Marin in a sauna — or rather a native sweat lodge. Like Joel, Marin gets drunk in the first episode — an angle that did not endear Joel to us, and significantly mars Marin’s appeal, since she carries her bender way too far (giving a lecture while blind drunk) without displaying any embarrassment about it afterward. (Shamelessness is not charming.)

There are a few notable changes from Northern Exposure. The town’s rich guy is the tavern owner and, instead of living in a superb log cabin, his house is elegantly modern. The female with the most common sense and charm is not Ruth Anne, the old lady who ran Cicely’s general store, but a lovely native woman who’s a prostitute. (That’s a big switch. Nothing in Northern Exposure flouted conventional morality much, except that the tavern owner was three times the age of his live-in girlfriend.) The town’s disk jockey is too young for Marin but ripe for picking by a naïve acolyte of Marin’s who admiringly followed her to Alaska to learn from her about relationships. The closest imitation of Chris-in-the-Morning is an anti-social wildlife ranger named Jack who has a charming elusiveness, and who will not be easy for Marin (or any other woman) to catch. Another switch: The town’s bush pilot is not an ex-socialite from Grosse Pointe but a middle-aged, happily married black man.

This ought to be terrific, but it’s not. The only thing that’s missing is good writing. The question is: what’s missing here? I’m sure the scripts have been written for the whole series now and most of them have been shot already, so it’s too late to be helpful, though I wish I could. I’d love to see this show work.

I think there are three mistakes going on. Taken together -- and they naturally do tend to go together -- they are fatal. First, there’s the single-minded focus on the theme of male-female relationships. Second, there’s what I’ll call “plot-heavy” writing rather than the documentary style. Third, there’s the simplistic spoon-feeding of the audience.

The fixation on relationships is not, by itself, fatal – though it would be to me. I never liked Sex in the City, and I wouldn’t have liked it even if it were set in small-town Alaska. Northern Exposure had the advantage that the protagonist could be engaged with medical problems part of the time. By having the protagonist of Men in Trees be a specialist who gives advice on love, while having relationship troubles of her own, the writers constrict the scope of the plots too much.

Second, there’s the plot-heaviness of the writing. I once read a literary critic who pointed out that in fiction, unlike real life, everything you see is necessary and fits together. If, for example, in the opening scene we are shown an antique gun on the wall, you can bet that sometime later, that gun will be used. If the characters are talking about having a flat tire, there will be another scene in which the flat tire becomes relevant. There are no extraneous parts in a well-crafted work of fiction.

Ah, but there were lots of such extraneous parts in Northern Exposure -- which is one thing that made it great. At one point Ed Chigliak, the young Indian who aspired to become a filmmaker, engaged in a mental dialogue with Woody Allen’s grandmother, who was visiting Cicely and watching an Ingmar Bergman film with him. In his fantasy, she advised him to make movies that looked like .

Like those about animals in the wild? He asked.

Yes, she replied, because that’s what we are – monkey with car keys.

The quality that made Northern Exposure so special was exactly that it appeared to be a documentary, a picture of a real place with people talking the way people really do talk. They were smart people, though, so their conversations were interesting. In every meaningful conversation that revealed an important development in the plot, there might also be a sideline conversation that had no relevance. Ruth-Anne might be talking to a customer about an electronic gadget that kills mosquitoes, making them sound like corn popping. Chris and Joel might be sitting in the bar discussing Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures. Maurice might be recounting one of his air battles from the Korean War -- or telling Joel that, when Einstein got his great insight about relativity, he felt nauseated and had to get off the streetcar he was riding.

These stories had nothing to do with the plot. They were interesting because they seemed so natural. Of course, not all “natural” conversations in real life are interesting. These conversations inform us and also tell us about the personality of the speaker. They add dimensions to individuals who would otherwise be “cardboard characters.” Contrary to the generalization that I had originally believed, I now see that the greatest contemporary TV shows partly resemble documentaries. We viewers are momentarily relieved from the intensity of the plot. We breathe easily as we watch stress-free conversations of the kind we might overhear in our own lives on a really good day.

Finally, the third failing of the Men in Trees writers is their simplism. They us too much. Actually, there’s a place for spelling out messages in stories, but it’s a tricky thing to get right. You want to make the viewers work to follow the story, which should contain complex characters with contradictory motives that they do not necessarily expose to others – or even to themselves. You want plots that move along quickly, sometimes surprising us with unexpected developments. You want characters to be morally mixed. You want to teach the viewer that life is more complicated than we normally suppose.

Steven Johnson has written a fascinating book called Everything Bad is Good for You in which he argues that television dramas have become more complex and challenging since the 1970s, and that the experience of following them is making us smarter. It is true that anything that exercises the brain also changes its structure, so he may be right. He shows that many TV series today contain three to ten different plots per episode. Also, there are terms used in a complex show that the viewer is not expected to know – but there will be one or two words in the middle of the others that we do need to notice, for the plot depends on their meaning. If you go to the bathroom during one of these fast-paced shows, you’ll lose track of the plot and cannot possibly understand the denouement.

This can be excellent. On the other hand, you may baffle the viewers. Worse yet, you may make the characters so opaque about their feelings and intentions that they cannot convey any interesting wisdom that they gain from their experiences. The place for spoon-feeding is a small one, but it is necessary to give us insight into the characters’ minds and moral dilemmas. Northern Exposure contained some philosophical discussions and certain moments showing personal growth. It was not ideal, but it offered an excellent balance of subtlety, clarity and wisdom.

Men in Trees is slower in its plot development and more explicit in its revelation of characters’ intent. We have no reason to suppose that anyone has hidden or ambivalent motives. They state openly what they are about, and their motives are not especially inspiring. (In last night’s episode, there’s an auction in which the women pay big bucks for a date with the man of their choice, with the resulting interpersonal tensions that any idiot could have foreseen.) These people are dumb, and their inner reflections show it. I would slightly moderate my criticism of this point with respect to the final scene, when Marin walks outside, looks at the stars, and reflects aloud on the positive aspects of being single. It was a little longer and more explicit than required, but it was an appropriate occasion for spoon-feeding us a little insight.

I wish the show well. Really, I do.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reasoning With the Pope

Keywords: Pope Benedict; George Friedman; Muslims; Vatican; immigration; rationality; Greek philosophy; Islam; transcendence; Chinese horse story; Richard Handler; European culture; Al Gore; Monica Lewinsky; Iraq; causality.

I keep getting into debates about theology lately that all boil down to the same issue: whether God ever makes mistakes. Maybe I’d better work on this question here, for it came up again Tuesday night.

It happened at the Peace Magazine editorial meeting after I mentioned an article by analyzing ’s recent speech. In it the pope (see photo) had quoted a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, who had asserted that had introduced only “evil and inhuman teachings,” such as commanding his followers to spread the faith by the sword.

As half the world knows now, this speech provoked a public outcry from , as indeed, Friedman maintains, the pope had expected and probably even intended. (Some other commentators think not. They say that, unlike his predecessor, this new pope lacks a staff who read and bluntly criticize his speeches in advance. Hence he may have been surprised by the reception of his academic lecture.)

Friedman attempts to explain Benedict’s ulterior motives, offering two possible political accounts. The first one involves the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel’s fight against Hezbollah. In all of these, the US has been on the losing side lately. Though the Church opposed Bush’s attack on Iraq from the onset, Friedman thinks the Vatican would not want the US actually to lose that war now; too many Catholics in the Middle East would be adversely affected. Hence, according to this explanation, Benedict’s harsh quotations about Islam were meant to buttress Bush’s argument that the West is involved in a “clash of civilizations” that may last for generations.

Friedman’s other explanation for the pope’s apparent blooper had to do with the ongoing wave of Muslim immigration to Europe. Pope John Paul II had been exceedingly tolerant toward Islam, extending courtesies with exceptional generosity. Many Europeans, on the other hand, were becoming frustrated by the militancy of the Muslim immigrants. As Friedman writes,

“The Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from the church body — particularly working and middle class Catholics — and its fears….Thus, with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe’s Muslim community — without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe’s Muslims about the limits of tolerance.”

Well, from that perspective, maybe Friedman is right: the pope did not actually blunder, but made an astute speech, while leaving room to disavow it, should he need to, on the grounds that he was quoting someone whose views he did not personally share.

But the speech was really a theological commentary – a fact that Friedman does not mention. I had read the whole speech because , a member of the editorial board of Peace Magazine, had e-mailed it to me, commenting that she liked it a lot. There are two different ways in which Muslims might plausibly answer the pope’s critique. I'll explore both.

Of the two replies, probably the most persuasive to the average reader is the one from Oxford Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan in today’s Globe and Mail. He rightly notes that most readers who took offense at the pope’s speech seem not to understand his main argument. He was attempting to show Europeans that they possess a common cultural identity that unites two great, compatible traditions: Christian theology and rational . This European identity sets them apart from Muslims, who accept neither the Christian faith nor Greek and whose culture therefore is fundamentally un-European. It is this claim that, to Ramadan’s mind, Muslims must refute, especially since already, and perhaps other societies later, demand to be admitted formally to the European Union. Ramadan admits that the street demonstrations seem to prove the pope’s very point. As he writes, what we are witnessing is

“mass protest characterized by an uncontrollable outpouring of emotion that, in the process, ends up providing living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate, and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception.”

It is up to Islamic intellectuals to prove the contrary, he says, reminding us that Benedict’s interpretation of history if remarkably biased, omitting as it does the great contributions of rationalist Islamic thinkers such as “Al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th), Averroes (12th), al-Ghazali (12th), Ash-Shatibi (12th), and Ibn Khaldun (14th).”

I have to admit that I have read none of these Islamic scholars except (barely) Still, I accept Ramadan’s argument and heartily join his aspiration for an inclusive resolution of this estrangement on the following basis: “Muslims must show that they share the core values on which Europe and the West are founded.”

Still, it seems to me that Ramadan has himself omitted a significant element from the pope’s argument – one that should be confronted. I don’t know enough to take a position concerning Islamic theology, but Joan Montgomerie has some training in this area and was right, I think, to single out the pope’s significant point.

In his speech, Benedict claims that there’s a reason why Muslims, far more than Christians, can employ violent methods of converting others to their faith. It has to do with a dispute concerning the nature of God. Benedict depicts the Christian notion in this way:

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature….
“But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up in any of our categories, even that of rationality… [Islamic scholar Ibn Hazn] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

Ramadan did not mention this argument – that Christians believe God is rational (which is why they think human beings should try to be rational), but that Muslims do not expect God to be rational. His or her mind is utterly beyond anything we can imagine and we should not even try to fathom the logic behind his or her decisions.

Well, all right. I can respect that . As Joan pointed out, Muslims are not the only ones who regard God as totally transcendent; Orthodox Christians take the same position. And I feel a certain attraction to that viewpoint myself, mainly because it is the only theology that would offer any answer to the .

Only a week ago I was conversing with about this very problem. Zeitlin is a long-time colleague of mine in the University of Toronto department. He has written a book about , and I too wrote a bit about Job in my own recent book, but we disagreed in the end. According to Zeitlin, the book of Job is utterly unlike any other book of the Bible. Its account of God is scandalous. The Lord makes a bet with Satan that Job has so much faith that nothing can shake him. Satan is allowed to do terrible things to torment Job, who eventually does challenge God to give a rational account of his cruel mistreatment. The Lord cannot do so. To Irving, this is an appalling story that could only shake the faith of any fair-minded reader. Why should we accept a malevolent, capricious, irrational deity of that sort? We should not!

My reply to Irving was simply to acknowledge the appropriateness of the explanation offered by the voice from the whirlwind. Basically, God said (as I paraphrase it in my own mind): You were not around when I created the universe, You have an extremely partial understanding of reality. If I did explain it, you would be unable to comprehend anyhow. So you have no better option than to accept — on the basis of faith alone — that I am good.

Job does. Irving does not, but Job does. And I do too. I believe that there’s an intelligence in the universe. If I could understand it, I think I’d be satisfied. But I can’t understand it and neither can you.

However, that particular acknowledgment — my acceptance of the vast superiority of God over human rationality — does not clarify anything about the Muslim’s position on the use of violence rather than rationality to convert others to Islam. Violence should be rejected just because it is irrational. One does not need to believe that God is rational in order to believe that human disputes should be managed nonviolently.

Besides, I don’t necessarily believe God is “irrational” — but only that I am incapable of seeing her reasons for what is going on. This is because every chain of causality stretches infinitely far into the past and future. Who am I to judge the present situation, anyhow?

Consider, for example, the famous Chinese story about the horse. A farmer has only one horse and it gets loose one day and runs away. (You’re unlucky, commiserate the neighbors. The farmer says, “Maybe.”) But soon the horse returns, leading a string of wild ponies. *You’re lucky, say the neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.) In trying to tame the wild ponies, the farmer’s son is tossed off and breaks his leg. (You’ve unlucky, say the neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.) Then the local warlord decides to go to war and conscripts all the able-bodied young men to fight for him. Because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son is exempted. (*You’re lucky,” say the neighbors. “Maybe,” replies the farmer.)

Suppose there’s a God who’s making all these things happen, Is he rational or irrational? Is he working for us or against us? You and I can see it either way. So could the farmer. So could Job. I choose to see this as a benign process, but there can never be any proof. So don’t base your commitment to rationality on this flimsy type of evidence.

Along the same logical lines, my friend Richard Handler wrote a witty essay recently arguing that Monica Lewinsky was responsible for the war in Iraq. He wrote that

“people today talk of ‘Bush’s War,’ meaning Iraq. But let’s rewind the tape of history and se whose war it really is.

“If had not run for president against George W. Bush in 2000 (as many of his admirers pleaded) it is very likely that , the Democrat, would have been elected.

“Gore might well have invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But, as a more cautious man, more steeped in Washington’s ways, it’s highly unlikely Gore would have made that Bush leap of faith and invaded Iraq as well.

“So it’s ‘Nader’s War.’ Not Bush’s. But let’s unroll that tape even further.

If Gore had not been so puritanical and not disowned after the affair, thereby keeping his former boss from much of the campaign trail, it’s likely Clinton would have brought in a bigger African-American vote to offset Nader.

“So we could call this ‘Gore’s War.’ Or is it Clinton’s, or maybe Lewinsky’s. That’s my favorite.”

It’s my favorite too. But it leaves me wondering: How would Benedict or the 14th century Byzantine fellow explain either the Chinese farmer’s story or Lewinsky’s Iraq War as plots constructed by a rational creator of the universe? (Beats me.)

I have faith too, but that’s not the same thing as a belief in any particular theology. And, although I believe in rationality (more or less), it has little or nothing to do with faith.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shame and Violence

Keywords: Kimveer Gill; Dawson College; shame; humiliation; embarrassment; pride; guilt; disgrace; honor; Freudian slip; shamelessness; catharsis.

finally got the recognition he craved — sort of. And for two days the newspapers have been full of articles attempting to explain his murderous rampage at Dawson College in Montreal. Now it’s my turn. Other people say they cannot imagine what prompted him to do such terrible things. I can. Easily. It was . I have felt it many times and I know how it is suppressed: with .

Oddly, I have read not a single article in which the word “shame” or “humiliation” or “embarrassment” is invoked to explain Gill’s motivation. This denial is part of the problem. We live with shame all the time, barely avoiding it or hiding it in our dealings with others, yet we hardly ever acknowledge that we’re experiencing it ourselves, nor do we notice it in others.

Anthropologists (I don’t know which one first) have distinguished between cultures of shame and of guilt. Such traditional societies as ancient and are now called cultures of shame. To them, meant everything. They could not imagine holding a satisfactory opinion of themselves that ran contrary to the opinions of others. Self-esteem was inevitably based on the esteem of others. Whether one felt pride or disgrace, it was always a reflection of the judgments of others.

Shame is clearly a bodily emotion, usually described from observers in terms of a shrinking posture, aversion of the eyes, stinging blush on the cheeks, stammering flustered rush of loud speech. I don’t know what combination of biochemicals are flooding the body during an extreme moment of embarrassment, but no doubt some pharmacologist will identify them within a few years. Whatever they may be, they create an exceedingly unpleasant experience for the humiliated subject.

By some accounts, we modern people have replaced shame with as the key emotion involved in social control. We feel guilty (or at least we should) when we know that we have done something morally wrong. That is different from shame. We may feel remorse for having harmed another person even if no one else has heard about our wrongdoing. But we feel shame only when viewing ourselves through the eyes of others, even when our behavior has not been immoral at all. For example, a man who discovers in public that his fly is unzipped will feel shame. A person who makes an obvious “Freudian slip” in a social situation will be humiliated by the gaffe, though there is nothing immoral about it.

Someone may be deliberately shamed by another person without having earned it morally, as in the case of a female rape victim, whose entire family (in some societies) is dishonored along with her by this attack. If there is any guilt in such an interaction, it can only be on the part of the rapist, not the person(s) he has humiliated.

One cannot avoid feeling shame when others regard one unfavorably, even if one is behaving with scrupulous morality. For example, during World War II conscientious objectors were jailed and treated as common criminals. They felt shame, even though they were not at all guilty of anything. I would like therefore to keep the concepts of shame and guilt separate rather than conflate them, though in many cases the two emotions occur together.

Yet some of the most interesting writers on the do conflate guilt and shame. I am especially thinking of a wonderful chapter on shame by (see photo) in his book, Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War. Scheff draws on previous work by a psychoanalyst, , Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. The noteworthy point that Lewis makes is that it has become universal in modern society to deny or hide shame, and to pretend it is not happening when we see it in others. Scheff writes:

“Lewis’s work suggests that shame is a haunting presence in psychotherapy that is usually hidden, disguised, or ignored by both patient and therapist. …[M]ost therapists are unaware of pride and shame in therapy, even though they may turn out to be crucial elements in treatment: Like the patient and most other adults, the therapist is accustomed to ignoring the manifestations of these emotions.”

Scheff is right in calling shame and pride the “master emotions.” They are often present, and when they are not actually being felt, we are aware that we are risking them in every encounter with others. Erving Goffman called this precarious social management the “presentation of self in everyday life,” where even a slight awkwardness of gesture may create an unfavorable impression of oneself in the eyes of others. Goffman also pointed out that courtesy often amounts to what he called “” when we pretend not to have noticed another person’s gaffe. We are particularly scrupulous about avoiding mention of actual shame whenever it is occurring.

As for the journalists explaining Kimveer Gill’s shootings, they readily describe him as an unpopular fellow, disliked by his peers in school and excluded from sociable relations. This is, indeed, perfectly typical for mass murderers: they are isolated, though they may have tried unsuccessfully in numerous ways to overcome their own pariah status. If “isolation” is an acceptable explanation for their deeds, “shame” is not.

Yet as Scheff points out, the experience of shame and its opposite, pride, are ubiquitous feelings in everyday life (even in so-called “guilt societies”) and they represent a person’s sense of comfort or discomfort with his degree of closeness to others. One's experience of too much closeness is felt as “exposure” — as when one is seen naked in a situation where privacy should have been protected. But too much social distance can also be humiliating, as when one is rejected or ignored in a group,

Kimveer Gill was excluded. Had he graduated from high school, he might have been enrolled as a Dawson College student himself on that fateful day. What he was feeling was shame about his exclusion. And he masked his shame, as most of us do from time to time, by feeling anger.

The most interesting observation of Scheff’s has to do with the cycles of anger and shame that recur endlessly, so long as the shame is not acknowledged. I agree with him completely that it is common to disguise shame by a phase of rage or hatred. Indeed, Scheff’s book is about warfare, which he attributes to national humiliation that a political leader can mobilize by attacking an enemy country. Hitler supposedly spoke to something profoundly important in the , the wounded sense of pride that came from the ignominy imposed on them by the Versailles Treaty. Such shame converts easily into aggression.

Social isolation, in itself, is no problem. Hermits may even seek solitude in the woods. It is the stigmatized isolation that comes from the exclusion from desired society that brings shame, and this shame is followed at least by resentment, if not indeed murderous hatred.

Ways of managing shame differ. Some people defy those who exclude them. For example, I knew a man about ten years ago who was smart enough to be part of the Peace Magazine editorial group, but personally filthy. He reeked, probably because he was living in a sewer someplace or on the sidewalk. He insisted on joining groups, even while he spoke openly about how every group tried to get rid of him. He joined a delegation of Canadians on a peace conference to Europe. His shame-management technique amounted to a declaration of shamelessness; he knew that he was expected to be embarrassed enough to go take a bath and buy some decent clothes, but he refused to do so.

is a pose, a pretense that one does not know or care what others think. ’s ” a couple of years ago was apparently a staged event when her breast became “accidentally” exposed on television during the most widely viewed sports event of the year.

I watched a new television show the other night that had some attractive qualities. It was meant to copy Northern Exposure in a thousand different ways. However, the protagonist was a beautiful New York woman who learned that her fiancé was unfaithful. She was in a little town in Alaska, where she got thoroughly drunk and gave a public lecture while intoxicated. This initial episode was watched closely by Northern Exposure fans, who discussed it by email the next day. What we agreed was that every normal person would feel mortified if we had behaved as this woman did. She did not. The alcoholic bender was one thing — we might have forgiven her for that — but the lack of embarrassment about it was quite another thing, and we could not respect her, having seen her shamelessness.

Yet we all portray ourselves sometimes as unfazed by shame. We certainly do not always acknowledge our own embarrassment, whether or not we go through the next, more dangerous phase of it: the shame-to-anger cycle.

I think Kimveer Gill went through that cycle and got trapped in it. Scheff claims that unacknowledged shame does have that effect, and that it feeds on itself and becomes unending. I can believe that. I imagine Gill must have been trying for a year at least to cope with the shame and hatred cycle, yet he was unable to break out of it. One tactic then is to “embrace” the hatred, as Gill did. Instead of trying to end his hatred, he came to suppress his desire to belong, his desire for solidarity and affirmation within society. Adopting the costume and culture are ways in which one can deny any desire to be accepted in society.

Surely that mechanism of self-protection is increasing in contemporary Western society; witness the prevalence of piercings and tattoos, for example. These young people do not mutilate their bodies because they find it beautiful. They do it because it is ugly, and thus it reflects their contempt for the social ideals that they can never attain, and from which they are shamefully excluded. Likewise, Gill’s Gothic lifestyle, his expressions of hatred, were designed to enable him to deny caring about the opinions of others – especially the conventional young people who were admitted to a CEGEP from which he was excluded. This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve felt shame sometimes too, and I too have tried to hide it.

In fact, the only implausible aspect of Scheff’s theory is his proposed solution. He maintains that the only way to handle shame is to acknowledge it, feel it, for one’s failings, and then discharge the emotion until it is gone. That’s a notion of therapy that I no longer share. For one thing, apologies are inappropriate for many shameful events. One would not apologize for a Freudian slip, for example. Apologies are ways of acknowledging culpability, but shame is not always related to guilt.

For another thing, I don’t believed in . Feeling a negative emotion doesn’t make it go away. It can stay there for the rest of your life, popping into awareness every now and then to ruin a perfectly good day. Acknowledging it doesn’t help. In fact, it probably bothers other people more than it allows them to get over their bad opinion of you. I don’t think anyone likes to see another person in a state of humiliation. Even more, though, we surely dislike seeing the rage that may be used to cover shame up. If “civil inattention” can be maintained, that’s the optimum response to an awkward moment, but sometimes it is impossible to pretend that everyone is behaving normally and acceptably. Confrontations sometimes do occur for which no etiquette coach can provide happy solutions. I'm not sure any of us could have helped Kimveer Gill solve his shame-management problem.

A Muslim Reformation?

Keywords: George Packer; The New Yorker; Sudan; Islamd; Mahmoud Muhammad Taha; Koran; secularism; Muslim Brotherhood; Wahhabism; Mecca; Medina; Sharia; Hasan al-Turabi; Jaafar al-Nimeiri; Abdullah Ahmed an-Naim; jihad.

George Packer’s article in The New Yorker of September 11 offers, not more hope, but a new basis for hope about Islam. It’s called “The Moderate Martyr: Letter from Sudan,” and it describes the tensions within Islam, particularly in Sudan over the past half century or so. The protagonist is a fellow named (see photo), a Sudanese engineer who became an Islamic theologian, grappling in his day with issues that should — and to some extent do — trouble Muslims everywhere today. His answers, though presumably appropriate for today’s followers of the , were different from the solution that Western intellectuals might propose: . And he paid for them with his life. In January 1985 he was hanged for apostasy, and his followers, never vastly numerous, have now dwindled to only a few hundred. Yet Packer gives us a basis for hoping that Muslims everywhere will be driven, by the continuing failure of their own theology to meet the challenges of the modern world, to adopt answers similar to Taha’s — an outcome that he believes might be optimum.

The real teachings of Taha are odd, and I’m not sure I’m following Packer’s account. It seems that there are two quite different orientations present in the Koran. During Muhammad’s first revelation he was in ; when he fled to his outlook seems to have changed dramatically —and, from our point of view, much for the worse.

“For any Muslim who believes in universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy, the Koran presents an apparently insoluble problem. Some of its verses carry commands that violate a modern person’s sense of morality. The Koran accepts slavery. The Koran appoints men to be ‘the protectors and maintainers of women,’ to whom women owe obedience; if disobeyed, men have the duty first to warn them, then to deny them sex, and finally to ‘beat them (lightly).’ The Koran orders believers to wait until the holy months are finished, and then to’fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).’ ”

The question is, how can the generous teachings from Mecca be reconciled with the harsh teachings from Medina, which were full of rules and orders for jihad, and which were gradually formalized as law? Packer writes:

“The Meccan verses are addressed, through Muhammad, to humanity in general, and are suffused with a spirit of freedom and equality; according to Taha, they present Islam in its perfect form, as the Profphet lived it, through exhortation rather than threat.”

One of the scholars who still admires Taha is , who explains Taha’s revisionist resolution of the puzzle. He says that the harsh Medinan verses were only a “historical adaptation to the reality of life in a seventh-century Islamic city state in which ‘there was no law except the sword.’” Over time, as situations improved, Islam will become free to accept the more tolerant Meccan teachings. Indeed, perhaps that time has come.

Naturally, this interpretation of the Koran is shocking within traditional Islam everywhere around the world. There is a basic internal coherence in Islam, wherever it spread, and it still is the core perspective in every society where it prevails. There is little prospect that in these societies will amount to the acceptance of secularism.

Taha’s gentle version of Islam, which would fit comfortably into a world where human rights and freedom prevail, is a rare type of revision. It did not make much impact while it was at its apex. The alternative kind of reform is the tough variety that seeks to make the harsh rules even harsher. We see its most extreme form today in fundamentalist movements, notably Wahhabism, but there have been a few earlier rigorous reformist versions as well. The was one of them.

After his execution, Taha’s death was widely attributed to the influence of an Islamic hard-liner named . It is unclear whether he was actually responsible for this execution or whether it should be blamed on the dictator of Sudan at that time, . In any case, Turabi has since reversed his fundamentalist orientation and now declares that women and men are equal, that women can lead Islamic prayers, that covering the hair is not obligatory, that apostasy should not be a crime, that Muslim women can marry Christians or Jews. These ideas are consistent with the opinions Taha had expressed, and for which he was killed.

Why should I take heart from reading this extraordinary narrative? Because of Packer’s conclusion: that Islamic teachings contain, not only internal contradictions that cry out for resolution, but also restrictions that will keep any society from developing adequately so long as hard-line Sharia is supreme. Over time, every society that attempts to live by these rules will find that they are a “dead end street.”

Whether or not it is true that the specific teachings of Taha are adopted when this reality is acknowledged, there will be some kind of reform. Islam is going to change. It is not going to fade away, but it will change. Packer quotes Taha’s disciple Naim as saying about : “In Sudan this simplistic answer failed. In Iran it failed. In northern Nigeria it failed. In Pakistan it failed.”

He will promote Taha’s liberalizing message by saying, “Listen, you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go down this dead-end street.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Television Series and a Culture of Peace

Keywords:Emma Goldman; peace studies; knowledge; motivation; emotions; relationships; Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gandhi, Pulp Fiction; Dopamine Receptor DRD4; culture of peace; The West Wing; Green Cross; subsidization.

“The modern drama, operating through the double channel of dramatist and interpreter, affecting as it does both mind and heart, is the strongest force in developing social discontent, swelling the powerful tide of unrest that sweeps onward and over the dam of ignorance, prejudice, and superstition.”

In 1999 the United Nations officially dedicated the present decade to the creation of a “.” This made me realize that, as a professor of peace studies, I had addressed only substantive policy issues, almost wholly ignoring the culture on which peace depends. Looking back, I now consider that my years of teaching peace studies and editing Peace Magazine have had little impact. I was mistaken in assuming that if I educated others about the big problems, they would naturally become activists, committed to the pursuit of peace, sustainability, and social justice. They didn’t. Most of them became better informed, but this did not turn them into peaceniks.

So I have failed — as indeed, apparently we have all failed. We are no closer to peace than when we started. What we do isn’t working — and now I believe that it’s because we aren’t communicating well with large populations. If we want our message to be heard, we have to send it in a form that people actually find pleasure in receiving.

What does attract popular audiences? . Vast audiences around the world are reading novels, watching television and films, attending rock concerts, playing video games, and so on. The entertainment industry is booming. is by far the most influential of these recreational pastimes, reaching about 4.5 of the world’s 6.5 billion human beings. Most people acquire their core values and ideals from it — not from the news or talk shows, but from the dramas. A television series can have more influence than a film or play because millions of viewers can follow the characters over a period of years, discuss them with other viewers, and form to them. Indeed, TV series may influence public opinion today more than all the educational and religious institutions put together. Yet peace workers, on the whole, have not even considered using it as an agent of social change. There are good reasons for their disdain, since the overall quality of television programming is so poor that even with hundreds of channels available, one may find nothing worth watching.

This is not a problem just for peace educators, but for all humankind. We urgently need new, world-wide social movements that tackle militarism, poverty, environment, AIDS, social inequality, energy depletion, global warming, refugees, human rights, and democracy. Yet organizers are ignoring the most potent way of inspiring and motivating others.

and are completely different, though we need them both. Knowledge — conjuring with facts and arguments — is strictly cognitive. Our education alone — our knowledge — cannot motivate anyone to repair the world. What does so? Caring. Feelings. Anything that makes us feel strongly over an extended period has a real chance of influencing our actions. Motivation is emotional energy. It involves values — dynamic dispositions that propel us into action.

That fact explains the power of personal relationships. People ordinarily get recruited into a new activity — say, golf, stamp collecting, or politics — through the personal influence of friends. Lovers are even more influential, for falling in love opens up one’s personality to newness as nothing else can. Any intense emotional attachment to another person tends to stimulate powerful new motives. However, hearing a stranger lecturing, preaching, or reading a public service announcement doesn’t have that effect.

But peace activists have missed the boat by overlooking the following important truth: People can form emotional attachments to fictional characters that are just as intense as to the real persons in their lives. This is normal, not pathological, and it is the basis for immensely important influences on society. Take, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a major factor behind the ending of slavery in the United States. Or take the film Gandhi, which became a significant influence in the nonviolent protests of 1989, when Communism was overthrown around the world almost without bloodshed.

Unfortunately, we pay lots of attention to the effects of bad drama or fiction, but little to its beneficial potential effects. There are understandable reasons for this studied obliviousness. For one thing, even if we could influence television programming for the better, plenty of people would complain that we were censoring their favorite shows. There’s a politically acceptable argument in favor of reducing children’s exposure to anti-social programming, but to limit the viewing choices of adults is generally unacceptable. We will be unable to change the overall quality of television by more than, say, twenty or thirty percent at the maximum. Still, accomplishing even that much change may have a dramatic influence on global culture.

Let’s acknowledge that tastes will always differ and that it’s a mistake to impose our opinions on others. Instead of trying to suppress anti-social shows that you and I may loathe, a better approach would be to suggest ways of sending prosocial messages through every existing genre. For example, there are many normal people who enjoy “action,” horror, suspense, violence, and police shows. It’s useless to tell them that their favorite movie — say, Pulp Fiction — had harmful influences on society.

Actual biological factors probably explain some of the variance among the preferences of individuals. Certain people, for example, inherit a particular version of a gene, “Dopamine Receptor D4” (DRD4), that predisposes them to crave novelty, thrills, and even risk. They love the of skydiving, gambling, firefighting, or bombing adventures. To some extent, their need for adrenaline can be fulfilled vicariously by watching cliffhanger or space war films. It is even possible that these thrill-seekers, who might otherwise engage in dangerous driving or extreme sports, can satisfy such urges by watching action shows that arouse their autonomic nervous systems. If so, society would benefit overall from making these hair-raising stories available to those viewers.

Still, it is perfectly possible to create stories about characters who take risks in the course of rescuing or helping others rather than by engaging in violent struggles. Viewers with DRD4 genes would still experience vicarious thrills from following heroic protagonists who are , for example, or physicians in Doctors Without Borders. The way to teach peace, then, is not to drain the excitement from popular shows and render them bland, but rather to use each genre to send prosocial messages.

Indeed, it makes sense, when planning ways to move culture in the direction of peace, to think strategically. The least promising way to stop war is to wade into the middle of a battle and urge the participants to stop fighting. I can think of only one case where such an interruption succeeded: during the Christmas Truce of World War I. In general, once a war starts, even sensible people lose perspective and hate the enemy. An easier way of making peace is by altering, during peacetime, some of the cultural preconditions for war.

is one such cultural habit. You can’t get a fight started unless both sides blame each other for an existing problem. If we could eliminate the practice of apportioning blame in everyday life, this would eliminate war fighting. But of course, we cannot completely eliminate blaming, for it is an aspect of holding individuals accountable for their actions. If, say, proper actions are not taken to protect New Orleans from devastating hurricanes, that failure must be pinned on those authorities who were responsible for the resulting disaster. Social organization and justice require the assigning of credit or blame that is deserved.

However, we overdo this kind of preoccupation. We live in a in which much of our entertainment involves identifying a culpable person, who must be punished or killed. The murder mystery is the classic plot of this type, but action and horror stories depend on it as well.

Not all societies emphasize blame as such a central aspect of their culture. It may even be possible for us to eliminate blaming from police shows. Consider instead this alternative theme: restorative justice. Everyone who has ever had dealings with a criminal in real life knows that apprehending him is not the most interesting challenge. There’s also the matter of figuring out what circumstances prompted him to violate the law in the first place. And after he is caught, there’s the challenge of figuring out how to maximize the prospect of restoring him to an honorable status in society. Yet in the average cop show, all that counts is catching the culprit and putting him away.

A far more interesting plot would be an exploration of methods whereby wrongdoers are confronted by the people they have harmed, in a circle of their own community members who demand that they address significant issues and assume their social responsibilities. Instead of consigning opponents permanently to an outcast status and leaving conflicts unresolved, this approach fosters reconciliation and precludes war as a method of handling disputes. Even demonstrating such practices in a quarter of the stories shown on television and in films would shift the centre of gravity of our culture significantly in the direction of peace.

But as a more ambitious way of building a culture of peace, we could create several whole series involving characters who are engaged in peace work or with other critical global problems. The West Wing, a series that lasted seven seasons, invariably included some controversial social or political problem in every episode. The discussions were extremely intelligent, showing all the contrasting points of view, and mainly making illustrating the merit of policies that peace educators ourselves would favor. We could have a series about scientists in Antarctica studying the melting of the ice. And another series about a camp for Burmese refugees. Another about a MASH-like group of health care workers looking after AIDS victims. And – my highest hope — a show about a team in a Middle Eastern country (say, Iraq or Lebanon) after a war, grappling with the environmental effects of battle as well as the political and social problems.

There are extreme difficulties, of course, in demanding such programming. Television is a huge industry — one that is anything but democratic. To be sure, the producers watch the ratings and eliminate shows that fall short. However, ratings are far from representative, but are chosen to reflect the tastes of a particular, affluence, high-spending sector of the population — young white urban males. The shows that are produced are supposed to appeal to these viewers, since it is the advertisers whom the networks must please, not you and I.

But we could demand a change in the way programming is funded. We need to stop thinking of cultural products and consumer items that we choose for our own pleasure. Instead, the culture is an environment that we must all share and which affects our lives. We need to take care of it. And the way to do that is by changing the methods by which culture is subsidized.

Almost all cultural products are subsidized in some way or other – though you and I have nothing to say about how the decisions are made to subsidize them. What we need to do is insist on having more democratic control over these subsidies. As has proposed, we could allow each taxpayer to allocate, say, $200 or $300 per year to one or more special funds that subsidize the production of cultural products that we believe in. If you see great value in action films, you could subsidize them. Much wiser, however, would be the subsidization of shows that teach us, in entertaining ways, how to make the world more peaceful and sustainable.

This is not censorship, nor would it deprive anyone of violent or anti-social stories if that is what he or she enjoy. But it would create space for a whole new array of innovative programming by independent producers. It would genuinely support a culture of peace.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Maybe the Muslims Will Help

Keywords: Siddiq Weera; Alexa McDonough; O'Connor; Jack Layton; NDP; Steven Staples; Najibullah Lafraie; Karzai; Afghanistan; Muslim; peacekeeper; war-fighting; troops out now.

For the past couple of days I’ve been exchanging e-mails about with people whose ideas are similar but not identical. is going to publish Joanna Santa Barbara’s piece about the “” for that country — neither the “” option nor the “give ‘em hell” war-fighting option. Her notion, which was enunciated by her friend , is that the Canadian mission should revert to its original one — — while the main effort should be to carry on a among all the parties (including warlords and ) who had been excluded from power by the US victory and the creation of the present constitutional government headed by Karzai. The only lasting solution has to be a negotiated one.

While recognizing that truth, the position of most peaceniks in Canada is not favorable to the “third option” because it would leave Canadian soldiers there, in some role or other. Opinion now is swinging against any involvement of our military at all, especially since there are Canadian soldiers being killed several times a week in the region where they are based. The minister of defence, O’Connor, has stated yesterday that Canadians have too difficult a responsibility now in Afghanistan and need additional assistance from other countries. If he is saying that, you can be sure that other politicians are privately saying something even more dramatic. Most Canadians probably already regret having committed the troops to this prolonged war-fighting role. and the other leaders are calling now for the withdrawal of troops, coupled with a conflict-resolution project that would reach out to all parties who have grievances.

I understand that Alexa McDonough went to Afghanistan herself and came back believing that it was not right to withdraw Canadian troops and leave people to their own fate there after having supported them in their monopoly of power and their exclusion of the Taliban and other opponents from power This would lead to a terrible intensification of the conflict and the loss of many lives. Yet, after she returned to Canada and talked to military leaders, they persuaded her that it would be impossible to change the rules of engagement for the while they are there in the field. They would have to be brought home and sent back with new instructions. So she has backpedaled from the position she took at the in Vancouver, for now she takes the same position as Layton, at least in public.

Apparently Steve Staples (see photo) has adopted the NDP “troops out now” position. He sent out a message yesterday from the “” e-mail address, announcing his intention to launch a peace movement campaign to return the Canadian troops home. I sent him an email proposing instead the shift to peacekeeping that he and Alexa apparently believe cannot be done, and he wrote me again to say so.

But today there was another paper being circulated that I think is helpful. It is by , a lecturer in political studies at the , New Zealand, who had been from 1992 to 1996. (I’m a little confused about his identity, for there had been another Afghan honcho earlier also named Najibullah, but I think he’s a different guy. He was the one who negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops during Gorbachev’s period, I believe.)

Anyhow, Professor Lafraie, as I will call him here, now claims that the American and NATO forces are “no longer part of a solution in Afghanistan, but part of the problem.” Despite having liberated the people from the Taliban, by now they are regarded as infidels who have “overstayed their welcome.” Lest their presence continue to offer the Taliban a recruiting tool, they must be withdrawn as soon as possible. Lafraie writes,

“This suggestion may seem irresponsible. Without the military support of the international community, the Karzai government would not be expected to survive more than a few months. But that would not be the case if the withdrawal of the American and NATO troops took place as part of a well-planned, comprehensive solution of the Afghanistan problem.”

Essentially Lafraie accepts the NDP/Steve Staples argument, but with a different wrinkle: that a new Muslim peacekeeping force should be formed under the direct command and control of the UN to replace ISAF and allied forces.

Lafraie also suggests other less original proposals, such as a stronger training of Afghan army and police; a new intra-Afghan dialogue; a fresh focus on human development; and the curtailing of interference by neighbors – notably Pakistan.

This proposal strikes me as remarkably promising. There are Muslims in the new troops that will monitor the ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel. Muslims from such stable countries as Malaysia and Tunisia might be quite acceptable in Afghanistan. There are other Muslim countries as well that are very different from the Wahabist gang whose radical Islamic attitudes have caused so much grief; Indonesia comes to mind as an example, but they have their own problems at home that may make them less acceptable in the Muslim world. Still, this proposal has many advantages and I am inclined to support it right away.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Reckoning With Iran

Keywords: George Friedman; Iran; Iraq; George W. Bush; Hezbollah; Shia; Sunnis; oil; invasion; oil bourse; Euros; US dollar; military superiority.

Boy oboy, that George W. Bush really walked into Iran’s trap! And, as bad as his predicament looks now, it’s probably going to get worse. Ours too, as a result.

George Friedman, that astute fellow at Stratfor, came out today with a pretty complex analysis of the Iranian’s place in the Middle Eastern morass. He starts with the miscalculations of the current about . Friedman says the Bushies expected to be embraced by the when they invaded, but when the event happened, the Shiites wanted too much. They weren’t satisfied with a high position in the new regime, but wanted to translate the US victory over into a real Shiite government. The US could hardly countenance such a lop-sided outcome, wanting instead to position itself comfortably midway between the Shia and . As recently as six months ago, there was some prospect that Bush’s political hopes for Iraq might come true. The Sunnis seemed to be acquiescing to a government that would be dominated by the Shia.

But this solution came apart when the Shia of the area began fighting amongst themselves as well as with the Sunnis. Some prominent Iraqi fear the influence of Iran and dislike the idea of a civil war, which might end by breaking Iraq up into three states. Yet the fighting at present is less a civil war, Friedman says, than a free-for-all brawl involving many diverse parties. And to understand the whole Middle Eastern dynamic, you have to look behind the scenes at the aspirations of Iran’s current regime, which is pulling the winning strings.

Tehran did not want to settle for a neutral Iraq along the lines of the newly elected, relatively government, for they had a game plan that might win more – much more. They began by encouraging Iraqi Shiite parties to fight against the Sunnis. At the same time, they prepared for a conflict. (Friedman doesn’t exactly say which side started the recent conflict, but he does say that Hezbollah was ready for it while Israel was not.) When Hezbollah in effect won that war, suddenly

“the Iranians held the whip hand in Iraq, had dealt Israel a psychological blow, had repositioned themselves in the Muslim world and had generally redefined the dynamics of the region. Moreover, they had moved to the threshold of redefining the geopolitics in the Persian Gulf.”

Iran now has the most powerful in the Gulf region (apart from the US), and this is not a result of their presumed development of nuclear capability. Iran’s ground forces are more “numerous and more capable than all the forces of the Arabian Peninsula combined, asserts Friedman. And the success of Hezbollah may embolden the Shia throughout the region. Their intensified assertiveness might result in the break-up of Iraq into three parts, which would give the Shia control over the Basra oil fields and open the door for Iran to and — at least if the US forces were to leave. Indeed, they might seize the oil throughout the whole region. Friedman calls this the reason why Bush cannot withdraw his troops, however much the US voters may demand it. Ultimately, of course, the Americans’ “” mentality may force that outcome, much to the benefit of Iran.

Hence the Iranians have every motive for keeping the chaos in Iraq going. Friedman maintains that the options now open to Bush are reduced to these four:

“1. Reach a political accommodation that cedes the status of regional hegemon to Iran, and withdraw from Iraq.

“2. Withdraw forces from Iraq and maintain a presence in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – something the Saudis would hate but would have little choice about – while remembering that an American military presence is highly offensive to many Muslims and was a significant factor in the rise of al Qaeda.

“3. Halt counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and redeploy its forces in the south (west of Kuwait), to block any Iranian moves in the region.

“4. Assume that Iran relies solely on its psychological pre-eminence to force a regional realignment and, thus, use Sunni proxies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in attempts to outmaneuver Tehran.”

Obviously, none of these options are attractive, which explains Bush’s intransigence, so dangerous to the Republican candidates. There are no good choices. Iran is ahead.

However one may feel about this state of affairs, the real prospects are even more threatening to the US than Friedman noted. His analysis left out of account the whole business about Iran’s nuclear capability (which is analyzed to death everywhere else these days) and an even more serious prospect: Iran’s forthcoming opening of an oil bourse that would trade in Euros, not dollars.

The US economy has been propped up for years by two main factors: the reluctance of to cash the chips it has amassed in the US economy. The US is deeply in debt, especially to China. In part this unsustainable situation has been sustained because the world’s economy depends on the stability of the only real world-wide currency, the US dollar. If its value crashes, it will bring down not only the US but potentially the whole global economy as well.

But Iran, still a top producer of oil, is planning to open an oil exchange on the island of Kish, where the trading will be carried on in , not dollars. This was supposed to open earlier this year but was postponed until September. If it does open, it may not amount to much – but then again, it may. Ultimately, the shift from dollars to euros will weaken the value of the , with consequences that may not please many Canadians – or others in the Western world. Coupled with the aforementioned geopolitical strength of Iran, it may be an especially threatening development to the Bush administration. It may be recalled that the US attack against Iraq was launched shortly after — and possibly to forestall — Saddam Hussein announced plans to trade Iraq’s oil in Euros. If this happens, even Bush’s most ardent enemies should hope that it happens in a gradual way, like releasing air from a balloon slowly instead of popping it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

How Should Old Folks Behave?

Keywords: old age; birthday, retirement, Bill Clinton, AIDS, Andre Agassi, family ties; Ralph Klein, Eisenhower, Pierre Trudeau.

I turned 75 the other day, which just seems normal to me. But apparently is not normal to everyone. There’s a stupid, obnoxious article in today’s Globe and Mail by one Patrick Luciani, who begins by criticizing Bill Clinton’s style of retirement. Not that is old — or maybe 60 actually does seem old to Luciani, for Clinton turned 60 a couple of weeks ago. He is going around celebrating his birthday by raising money for his which helps victims. Luciani thinks this is unseemly. should keep quiet and do nothing notable. He specifically admired for retiring into discreet silence by doing nothing much besides play in his post-presidential years. Pierre Trudeau was also singled out for keeping his mouth shut after his prime ministerial stint.

So today I’m seeing other people finish their careers and wondering whether there’s a good way and a bad way to surrender to the claims of time. The Globe also shows Andre Agassi, the tennis star, weeping as he finished his last game yesterday. Holy smokes, he is only 36. I had actually wondered about his age yesterday when I saw a picture in which he looked really old. He has a bad back; maybe that’s the problem. Besides, he has a shaved head, which never helps. But this week both Agassi and Premier of Alberta have both taken their final bows while weeping. I never wept when I retired. I just thought: Well, now, what shall I do next? But the weeping must have been an emotional response to the adoration surrounding these guys. I felt recognized, but nobody gushed over me and I’d have felt embarrassed if they had.

Not that I am bragging about my style of retirement, but I am not ashamed of it either. So far, I’m enjoying life more now than during my years of professing. Maybe it’s because I’m freer to avoid the tasks that aren’t fun. Also, I’m surprised to find that I like being alone most of the time. If I have any strong opinion about how to grow old properly, it is a slight disdain for the way many people seem to cling to their children and grandchildren. I think that amounts to a narrowing of one’s interests to the merely personal sphere, which is a real pity.

I admire the continuation of engagement with big public issues as long as possible. And the average active political leader is actually about Bill Clinton's age. I was reading a blog called "Political Dogs" by a guy named Dave, who calculated the ages of a selected list of leading American . The average age of the Democrats was 64.6, while the average age of the Republicans was 58.7. In case you want the details, here are the specifics:
(Democrats: Barack Obama (45), Ned Lamont (52), Robert Menendez (52), John Edwards (53), Russ Feingold (53), Howard Dean (57), Al Gore (58), Hillary Clinton (58), Dennis Kucinich (59), John Corzine (59), Dick Durbin (61), John Kerry (62), Joe Biden (63), Joe Lieberman (64), Barbara Boxer (65), Harry Reid (66), Nancy Pelosi (66), Barbara Mikulski (70), Carl Levin (72), Diane Feinstein (73), John Murtha (74), Ted Kennedy (74), Charles Rangel (76), John Conyers (77), Frank Lautenberg (82), Robert Byrd (88)

(Republicans: Thomas Kean, Jr. (37), Ken Mehlman (39), Rick Santorum (48), Condoleeza Rice (51), Jeb Bush (53), Lincoln Chaffee (53), Bill Frist (54), George Allen (54), Karl Rove (55), Haley Barbour (58), Lamar Smith (58), Tom Coburn (58), Chuck Hagel (59), Mitt Romney (59), Tom DeLay (59), George Bush (60), Rudy Giuliani (62), Newt Gingrich (63), Dennis Hastert (64), Trent Lott (64), Dick Cheney (65), Dick Armey (66), Elizabeth Dole (70), John McCain (70), Orrin Hatch (72), Arlen Specter (76)
Those two guys Frank Lautenberg and Robert Byrd must really shock Luciani.

There’s another article in the Globe today by a woman whose father had turned 80 and had failed the driving test imposed on old people. She wanted to scream at the examiner lady, but her father had shaken the woman’s hand pleasantly and accepted with dignity her verdict that he should “retire from driving.” She was proud of him – rightly, I think. When it’s time to stop playing tennis or driving, whether at 36 or 80, it’s great to be able to do finish off with grace. If Agassi’s tears were of gratitude, that’s graceful. If they were tears of regret, that’s not quite graceful.

The other evening at dinner with my friends Jack and Jo, I mentioned being mystified by my failure to mourn very often. Partly, this is because most of the deaths around me have been of old people who were ready to go. But I think it’s mostly because death is unavoidable, so it doesn’t reflect on our relationship. By dying, they didn’t abandon me deliberately. But then, on the same evening, I got pretty angry at Jo and Jack themselves for choosing to move away to New Zealand. The ending of our active friendship in such a manner is deliberate, hence something I resist. I might not mourn them if they were to die, but I’ll be mad at them for cutting out on me. That's intentional.

But sometimes I impute wrongly, which is sheer projection on my part. This is already September, and the flowers on my balcony are just reaching their crescendo. I think of it as their way of defying the onset of autumn. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I admire their spirit. Make a good end if you can, darlings!