Saturday, May 27, 2006

Has the Newest State Failed?

After its bloody struggle for independence from , became the world’s 192nd sovereign state in 2002: . Today it may have become the world’s newest . A failed state is a country that cannot guarantee even minimal political benefits — especially basic — to its inhabitants. Recent examples include Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Congo,
Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Sudan. Usually there is insufficient money to pay for essential human services, but the defining trait of a state’s failure is the emergence of insurgencies against it, usually rebel organizations reflecting ethnic tensions.

is not an easy accomplishment, regardless of how it happens to be attempted. It is far easier to carry out a successful nonviolent resistance that overthrows a dictator than to replace him with a stable, effective, representative rule of law. The lingering problems in the and , to mention only two cases, remind us of that. I believe it might actually have been possible to get rid of Saddam Hussein with a — but that would not have resolved any of the conflicts that are so visible in today, as it tries to establish a democratic regime.

We have the makings of a policy called ", which will oblige the international community to intervene when necessary to protect citizens from their own state, as in cases of genocide, for instance. But there is no comparable policy being formulated that will oblige the international community to stabilize a country politically after the blood ceases to be shed. The citizenry are supposed to be left respectfully to their own devices when the foreign troops have left. Anything else would be considered egregious interference — a violation of their sovereign rights.

But of course there can be no more difficult challenge than the establishment of an effective, autonomous government. The United Nations kept in the new state, Timor-Leste, until a year or so ago, attempting to ease the transition to independent governance.

And now the whole thing seems to have fallen apart. Marauding gangs of rebels (see photo) are roaming the streets of , burning houses with people inside. Government officials state that there is an attempted coup going on, but they don’t know by whom. In March a portion of the Timorese army went on strike, complaining about bad working conditions and ethnic discrimination against members from the western part of the country. They were summarily fired but took to the hills to form a rebel band. Now the government of Timor-Leste has had to beg neighboring states to send troops to pacify their country. Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia have been doing so. Possibly the arrival of these interventionary groups will be able to subdue the roaming militias that have been forming over the past week, as the inhabitants of Dili sought to defend themselves and also to exact revenge upon the violent thugs that have brought chaos to their town.

So apparently Timor-Leste is the newest failed state, having lost the capacity to provide security and order for their inhabitants. There are no rules defining what should happen next. Indeed, most of the most urgent international crises today are problems of this very kind: What should be done for, or with, the citizens of a failed state – and by whom? Canada has just pledged to keep troops in Afghanistan for another two years, as the Karzai government seeks to become effective. The United States will surely try to leave Iraq as soon as possible, if the new autonomous government of that miserable country can manage its own affairs. But there are other cases — Sudan and Congo, for example — where the international community has not attempted as much as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and no one can say what should be done for them.

For the moment, however, we can thank Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia for their welcome in Dili. May they help Timor-Leste become a success story instead of a failed state.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Recapturing God from the Right

has created a new social movement, the (NSP), that aims to reclaim from the right wing. His book, , tries to account for the capture of God by mean-spirited, militaristic . To my mind, his account is not altogether convincing, but I like his argument, despite its wobbliness.

His explanation turns on the notion that there is a “” in contemporary society that amounts, more or less, to an , lack of the sense that one’s life is a contribution to a larger purpose than oneself. This lack is palpable, real, and needs to be recognized in the political discourse as much as in other areas of life, for otherwise one must doubt that politics is addressing values in any serious way.

But the left has abandoned any discourse about this spiritual crisis. Instead, Democrats (as well as any political groups further to the left of ) hold an entirely point of view. Thus anyone experiencing the spiritual crisis as a prominent problem will have no support for this perspective within the Democratic groups. It is the Right who have taken possession of the discourse of spirituality, despite the obvious contradiction, even hypocrisy, that this orientation entails.

Compounding the problem of this loss of a spiritual politics, there is a split between two other perspectives on life – the loving, generous, compassionate, sharing perspective – the “left hand of God” – and the perspective that sees a mean, competitive world where you have to look out for yourself – an outlook that Lerner calls “the right hand of God.” Our current problem results from the fact that the political Left, which actually promotes compassion and generosity, has abandoned any claim to God at all, and hence loses the support of many people who feel the spiritual crisis, whereas ironically they have only the Right to turn to for any recognition of their spiritual needs – the Right that is socially mean-spirited. The Left has alienated, offended, and rejected many spiritual people whose social values might have been congenial to their own, driving them into the arms of Rightists. Only the emergence of a new spiritual Left will rectify this mistake, Lerner claims — and he has set out to create that alliance.

Lerner has long been engaged with left-liberal Jewish spirituality in an organization that publishes a popular magazine, . I heard him give a talk at Cody’s in Berkeley this winter and was impressed. He and numerous other left-leaning spiritual types (including the Buddhist peace studies professor ) have been organizing opposition to the Christian fundamentalists who now run the US government. The first big NSP gathering took place in Berkeley in July 2005, and now their second national meeting has been completed — this time a four-day conference in Washington, D.C. for more than 1200 people.

In the lengthy e-mail he sent out describing this event, Lerner frankly discloses his disappointment with its tone. Apparently it started well enough, with Lerner leading prayers

“for the healing of the brokenness and fear-driven consciousness of the people in the White House including President Bush. I emphasized that while we were not interested in decreasing the intensity of our critique of the hateful and murderous policies of these people, we nevertheless continue to see them as God’s children, created in the image of God and embodiments of the sacred, deserving to be seen in their complex humanity just as we ourselves need to be seen that way and not as demons….
“The tone of much of this prayer-gathering was quiet, respectful, and God-oriented. But the tone changed decisively when we brought up Cindy Sheehan to speak. Suddenly the scene was dominated by the media as television cameras and paparazzi jockeyed for position to get the best angles on her and the thousand of us who had made it to stand opposite the White House. From a tone of contemplation and reflection the energy shifted more to cynicism and anger, and I personally was disappointed.”

Lerner was also disappointed in the distorted press coverage, especially by the religion editor , who may not have been present for the key parts of the conference. At any rate, she called the meeting unfocused and devoid of specific programmatic ideas. Lerner said that most of the meeting had dealt with very specific proposals — especially the “Spiritual Covenant with America.” I checked his book, The Left Hand of God, for the details about this eight-point proposal, which is described in Chapter Nine. They are as follows:
1. Covenant with American Families
2. Covenant of Personal Responsibility
3. Covenant of Social Responsibility
4. Covenant for a Values-Based Education
5. Covenant for Health Care
6. Covenant of Environmental Stewardship
7. Covenant for Building a Safer World
8. Covenant to Separate Church and State and Science

The policies are, in themselves, pretty much what liberal Americans have long believed. The distinctive thing about this new “spiritual covenant” is that it reflects a genuine spirituality, a generosity of soul that goes beyond the selfishness that now is used to justify right wing politics. The item about building a “safer world” especially appealed to me. Lerner wrote (p. 236):

“The United States will join with other advanced industrial societies in creating a Global Marshall Plan to dedicate part of our GDP each year to eliminating homelessness, hunger, poverty, inadequate education, and inadequate health care. Within twenty years we will help raise the standard of living in the developing world so dramatically that terrorists will find it almost impossible to recruit people who are angry enough to want to give their lives to fight the values and power of the United States and its allies.”

Brilliant! Why doesn’t everyone see this point? Why should it even need to be stated? Why did liberals become afraid to be tainted by religiosity?

In any case, I am grateful for Lerner and his colleagues. It is high time that God becomes associated again with an attitude of goodness, compassion, care, and generosity. All that I’m still puzzled about is the question that Lerner tried to answer, but without complete success: “How did the Religious Right manage to steal God from us?” I think they actually did not steal God. We gave her away voluntarily.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Being Ready for Nuclear War

Let me scare you. I’m no actuary (my statistical savvy is pitiable) but I know enough to stand your hair on end – if your hair is still sensitive enough to react. (Most people live in denial, so their nervous systems no longer respond appropriately to certain dangers.) is one of the greatest threats to civilization, since most of its impending dangers are now almost certain to occur, but as an actuary I’d still call a more grave threat. Its odds may be lower, but nevertheless horrendously risky, and the outcome, if it happens, will be far more devastating than the consequences of global warming. Indeed, probably would not exist after such a war, and possibly no human beings either, because of the “” that would follow, extinguishing life in the darkness, much as the dinosaur era ended in the darkness following a meteor’s impact.

Do I have your attention? Thank you.

I will exclude most of the causes of nuclear war that are discussed today in public policy debates, including all nuclear wars that might be started, however unwisely, by the deliberate intentions of any party. And I won’t try to gauge the prospect of nuclear winter, which has slipped off the radar screen completely during the past decade, though it is just a realistic a scenario as ever before. (Admit it: You’d forgotten about nuclear winter, hadn’t you?)

Instead, I’ll limit this essay entirely to war by mishap. Civilization destroyed by bungling, much as World War I was caused by . And I won’t estimate the likelihood of war caused by mistakes by parties other than the United States and its allies, though we must expect the Russians to be as fallible as Americans.

The United States and Russia have committed themselves under the to each reduce their deployed to about 2,000 by 2012, when the treaty will expire. However, they are free to keep as many in storage as they choose, and they can be maintained in readiness for rapid deployment. Thus the United States alone with store many thousands of warheads indefinitely. But it is their 2,000 deployed warheads that are most worrisome, since they will still be on alert status, able to be launched within minutes. Indeed, they can be launched upon receipt of a warning that warheads have been launched by an adversary – whether or not that warning is accurate. As Alan Phillips and Steven Starr continually insist, this launch-on-warning status is tempting fate. That is the most urgent item requiring change, for therein lies the greatest risk.

In an earlier paper, Phillips once reviewed twenty instances when mishaps on the US side might well have resulted in nuclear war. Do read that document, which will give you nightmares, but here I will only recap three of those events to give an idea how varied these are and how lucky we are to have survived them.

Eleven of the twenty mishaps took place during the of 1962, usually as a result of changes that had been made to increase military readiness. They all look about equally terrifying to me, so I’ll pick only one of them at random and quote Phillips about it:

“Oct. 25, 1962. At around midnight on 25 October, a guard at Duluth Sector Direction Center saw a figure climbing the security fence. He shot at it and activated the ‘sabotage alarm.’ This automatically set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area. At Folk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was wrongly wired, and the Klaxon sounded which ordered nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to take off. The pilots knew there would be no practicre alert drills while DEFCON 3 was in force, and they believed World War III had started.
“Immediate communication with Duluth showed there was an error. By this time aircraft were starting down the runway. A car raced from the command center and successfully signaled the aircraft to stop.
“The original intruder was a bear.”

The other incidents on Phillips’s list of twenty are just as serious but without the funny punch-line. Heres’s another one:

“1979 Nov.9: Computer Exercise Tape. At 8.50 a.m. on 9 November, 1979, duty officers at 4 command centres (NORAD HQ, SAC Command Post, the Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center) all saw on their displays a pattern showing a large number of Soviet missiles in a
full-scale attack on U.S.A. During the next 6 minutes emergency
preparations for retaliation were made. A number of Air Force planes
were launched, including the president's National Emergency Airborne
Command Post, though without the president! The president had not been
informed, perhaps because he could not be found.

“No attempt was made to use the hot line either to ascertain the Soviet
intentions or to tell the Russians the reason for the U.S. actions.
This seems to me to have been culpable negligence. The whole purpose of
the "Hot Line" was to prevent exactly the type of disaster that was
threatening at that moment.

“With commendable speed, NORAD was able to contact PAVE PAWS early
warning radar and learn that no missiles had been reported. Also, the
sensors on satellites were functioning that day and had detected no
missiles. In only 6 minutes the threat assessment conference was

“The reason for the false alarm was an exercise tape running on the
computer system. U.S. Senator Charles Percy happened to be in NORAD HQ
at the time and is reported to have said there was absolute panic. A
question was asked in Congress. The General Accounting Office conducted
an investigation, and an off-site testing facility was constructed so
that test tapes did not in future have to be run on a system that could
possibly be in military operation.”

Finally, lest you suppose that ending the Cold War put a stop to these terrifying incidents, I’ll pick one that was fairly recent when Phillips wrote his piece in 1997.

“Jan.95: Norwegian Meteorological Missile.
On 25 January, 1995, the Russian early warning radars detected an
unexpected missile launch near Spitzbergen (see photo). The estimated flight time
to Moscow was 5 minutes. The Russian President, the Defence Minister
and the Chief of Staff were informed. The early warning and the control
and command systems switched to combat mode. Within 5 minutes, the
radars determined that the missile's impact point would be outside the
Russian borders.

“The missile was carrying instruments for scientific measurements. On 16
January Norway had notified 35 countries including Russia that the
launch was planned. Information had apparently reached the Russian
Defense Ministry, but failed to reach the on-duty personnel of the early
warning system. [Details in paper by von Hippel, Scientific
American Nov.1997]”

As a poor statistician I would not estimate the risk involved in these events, but Phillips himself makes a rough calculation. He writes:

“There is no way of telling what the actual level of risk was in
these mishaps but if the chance of disaster in every one of the 20
incidents had been only 1 in 100, it is a mathematical fact that the
chance of surviving all 20 would have been 82%, i.e. about the same as
the chance of surviving a single pull of the trigger at Russian roulette
played with a 6-shooter. With a similar series of mishaps on the Soviet
side: another pull of the trigger. If the risk in some of the events
had been as high as 1 in 10, then the chance of surviving just seven
such events would have been less than 50:50.”

Now what shall we do about this? It’s a fair question to put to you, since these weapons exist on our planet only because we give some officials the power to make that decision for us. How about reclaiming some of your power? All good wishes to you.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

How to Handle Nuclear Weapons

First, let’s acknowledge that there’s hardly any likelihood that will be entirely abolished and dismantled within the foreseeable future. So then what?

I had a brief conversation during the annual general meeting today, that summarized perfectly two different perspectives. I mentioned that we at are going to run an article by and that assigns top priority to changing the “” policy to a different approach, which they call “” – Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation.

But I was told that this policy has not been adopted by the . Instead, the CNANW supports a campaign to promote the creation of a in Canada.

I wouldn’t want to argue the point because I can see both sides. However, it is instructive to mention the arguments for both positions.

The most serious threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons is that they may be used someday because a is taken seriously that warns of the apparent launch of nuclear-armed missiles from another country. When an alarm is sounded, the existing nuclear weapons on both sides are supposed to be set off on a before the first enemy missiles land. This is because, logically, no one can wait around to see whether the threat is genuine, lest one’s own retaliatory capacity be destroyed while is being attempted. Both (maybe all) sides that possess nuclear-armed missiles have a standing policy to launch upon receipt of a warning. In other words, within five or ten minutes after the enemy launches a strike, the retaliation must be launched.

Unfortunately, there are false alarms all the time. Most of them can be checked rather quickly, but occasionally further checking seems to confirm the warning. On a different occasion I’ll shares some hair-raising stories about false alarms that have almost triggered Armageddon. The point about the Phillips and Starr paper is that it would greatly reduce the probability of starting a nuclear war on the basis of such a mistake. Instead, the policy on one or both sides (or potentially all the nuclear-capable countries) would abandon Launch on Warning. Instead, the automatic would be slowed enough to allow one confirmed nuclear to occur before a retaliation would begin. That is probably a minor comfort – but actually, since the main danger is that of , it’s a pretty healthy thing to do.

On the other hand, it certainly would not eliminate all kinds of nuclear problems. For example, it is possible that an adversary might assemble and detonate a nuclear weapon in Canada without the use of a missile at all. A would suffice. So the real solution is to eliminate nuclear weapons everywhere. This surely ought to be the goal, but there is virtually no prospect that the United States, or indeed any other nuclear power, will carry out real disarmament in the foreseeable future. For example, the US spokespersons criticize every day without acknowledging that –it is the US itself that is most egregiously violating the terms of a treaty that it signed and to which it wants to bind other nations. We are supposed to take for granted the ongoing retention of nuclear weapons by the currently armed countries while displaying shock about the acquisition of such arms by aspiring countries such as Iran and . The best approach for Canadians to take would indeed be the creation of a zone that nuclear weapons are never permitted to enter. This would irritate the United States beyond measure, and it is not even certain that they would obey the government of Canada in this regard, should it adopt such a policy.

So the dilemma is this: Is it better to settle for a minor improvement in the current state of affairs, or it is wiser to hold out for a much stronger change? Shall we change Launch on Warning to a policy of RLOAD? Or shall we take our chances with the possibility of an accidental nuclear war while working consistently to abolish or exclude nuclear weapons altogether from Canadian soil, water, and air space?

You choose. I’m not sure what I prefer.

Whether to Wage Conflict or Avoid it

The ninth annual peacebuilding conference was held yesterday and today at the Ministry of in Ottawa. Now I’m on the train, going home to Toronto and mulling over the two days. I don’t take notes so this is a good time for a review, but my recollection of such events is always narcissistic -- colored by the concerns that I imposed on them. I think I listen as if watching through a narrow slit, observing only a portion (and not a representative portion) of what goes on.

About 150 people gather in the ministry’s Cadieux auditorium, sitting on comfy burgundy chairs, and wearing little earphones to hear the , though all the talks were in English except the portion that always Canadians deliver in French at the outset, just to be polite. Translations are not offered for practical reasons but rather as an admirable gesture of . There are plenty of present but their English is always excellent. I recognized fewer of the participants than I used to. The old folks aren't coming as faithfully, but there are younger ones.

If it is reasonable to characterize the overall tone of the meeting with one adjective, I will call it “modest.” All the speakers seemed conscious that the past few years have been marked by more failure than success as far as or operations are concerned. The recognition was often voiced that the speakers had made mistakes, and even that it is impossible to avoid future ones. For example, there is a right time and a wrong time to hold after a war, they said, but too often the elections have been premature or excessively costly, possibly even sending the message that “democracy is not for you people, since in the future you cannot afford the $8 per vote that this election cost.”

The most impressive speaker was (see photo), a distinguished Algerian man who has served the in a variety of difficult roles, including as the ’s special envoy far and wide. He headed a commission that sought ways of improving operations and produced the so-called in 2000, recommending significant changes. Mainly, though, his career is notable for his service in . He refers to the Afghans as “we,” because in fact he was given citizenship in that country as a mark of respect for his work there. He had finished one stint in Afghanistan before the American invasion began, but he went back for an even more challenging posting after finishing his report on peacekeeping.

Dr. Brahimi answered a question about by acknowledging that he holds a minority opinion about it. He does not think it really differs from the existing situation, for supposedly the must okay any intervention. In effect, then, the interventions will occur if and only if the dominant powers approve. But there is no objective criterion for determining when a is justifiable and when it is not. Brahimi said that he’d not object so much if the doctrine stated that people have a “right” to “be protected”, but instead it depicts military intervention as a “duty’ that the rest of the world is bound to impose, whether it is wanted by the victims or not. I see his point.

I asked questions a few times. In the second plenary there had been a lot of talk about Afghanistan. I noted that public opinion is turning against the continuing maintenance of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Even the peace community is divided on the question. I would have liked for to be on the panel. He's a McMaster University physician who has been working in his home country for the past few years. If Canadians are going to support the troops in Afghanistan, it will probably only be on the basis that Weera proposes – that their mandate be limited to protective, rather than war-fighting, and that Canada more actively attempt peacebuilding and with the rebel factions.

My suggestion was not well received. of UNICEF offered the opinion that the regular military activities remain necessary. I ran into in the women’s washroom afterward. She said I should have pointed out that Siddiq has actually been working inside the Afghan government, not as an NGO the whole time (though he is an NGO right now) and so he has a good basis for his opinion. She added that the Canadian officials are trying to suppress a debate on this subject, whereas they should recognize that it is a looming dispute that should be faced, head-on. I also spoke with about it. He liked what I suggested, as I had expected, for he had written a paper proposing much the same thing in the current . If he, instead of I, had made that intervention it might have received some approval. Or perhaps not.

There was a session about mediation where I directed a question to , the former moderator and senator, who has served on high-level panel contacts to Sudan and to . Today’s panel dealt with the notion that Canada should develop a special expertise in mediation – possibly taking lessons from the Norwegians. Since this a new proposal is only now being floated, nobody quite knew what it would amount to, but they liked the idea of having Canada develop such capacities. In her speech, Lois referred to a situation that had happened in North Korea when the visiting Australians had excoriated the Koreans for several misdeeds – statements that Lois considered misguided. She herself tried to be conciliatory, never even mentioning contentious issues at all during that first visit.

I do not wholly endorse her commitment to the conciliatory stance, though I tried to be conciliatory when challenging her. Sometimes, I said, it is wrong to stand in the “middle.” Take , for example. Even Norway goes further than just mediatimg; it actively funds and assists dissident groups inside dictatorships to carry on . Last year told me that the Canadian organization for which he served as first president, , had been set up explicitly to support nonviolent resistance movements in dictatorships. (Evidently support for this has diminished, though I don't know much about the inside details.) I said that there are times when it’s not appropriate to minimize or avoid conflict, but rather to wage it – nonviolently.

Lois said she hadn’t thought about that before. Actually, I was trying to obey the chair's order to be brief at the mike, so I didn’t have time to make my point completely clear. She and I talked about it further during the coffee break. I can only observe that the general perspective at these meetings is resolutely in favor of conflict reduction, of “playing nice.” Gene Sharp says he is not a peacenik because he doesn’t think all conflicts should be avoided. Nor do I. Some fights should be joined. The conferees at the Ministry today probably would not have supported , who would had seemed too confrontational for their taste.

Yet, ironically, there are times when most of them would accept the resort to violence – at least when it can be justified in the name of the new, popular principle: Responsibility to Protect. Go figure.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Heroes, Dictators, and the Normality of Evil

Today I interviewed my friend for Peace Magazine. Talking with Adam is always a treat, but I needed to think ahead last night about what to ask. Preparing for it, I pulled off the shelf and took another look, probably for the first time since he first published it about fifteen years ago. I had forgotten how much I liked it.

The book deals with the adjustment of Russians to life. In reviewing it, I realized how much it informed, even presaged, the most recent two books of his – the ones for which he has become famous.

These most recent two blur together in my mind (though the events that he describes in them took place about a hundred years apart) for they both deal with the liberation of African slaves. The penultimate book, (Adam seems to like to name his books after ghosts) dealt with the hideous reign of the Belgian King Leopold II over the . Beginning in the 1890s, Leopold gained control of the territory, then enslaved and brutalized the people, forcing them to extract wild rubber to satisfy the new demand after the invention of the . Approximately ten million Africans died as a result of his greed. Adam tells us how these were publicized and finally overcome through the long-term efforts of a few courageous people, such as E.D. Morel, who discovered the extent of Leopold’s abuse and devoted his life to overcoming it.

The most recent book, , jumps back a century and describes the social movement in Britain that led to the , especially in the of the Caribbean. Here too, Adam (see photo) recounted the courage of a few remarkable individuals who devoted their whole lives to this cause. The most memorable character in the book is one , who traveled some 35,000 miles on horseback, campaigning against slavery.

Yet my favorite book had preceded these two and set the agenda that Hochschild is still addressing. In The Unquiet Ghost he interviews numerous Russians about their knowledge and attitudes, past and present, about . He was fascinated with the remarkable denial that had prevailed throughout the repressive era, even among many prisoners themselves. He wanted to understand how evil becomes a normal, accepted phenomenon that can persist for years or centuries before any serious opposition occurs. Of course, the institutions of slavery that he would study later could exist only because of this astonishing, inexplicable denial. Slavery, like the abuse and murder of millions of Russians, became an everyday condition that surprised no one. How could such a thing happen? How could sane people take it for granted?

My re-reading of the book about Stalinism brought into clearer focus the stories that Adam had told, almost without commentary, in the two books about overcoming slavery. They too had really been about the willed blindness of most ordinary people about the evil that surrounded them. Yet a few extraordinary individuals had surmounted this personal failing, recognizing the evil and calling it by its true name. How could they see what others failed to see? Adam does not give a fully satisfying answer to that question, which still puzzles him, just as it puzzles me.

The usual explanation is based on the argument that power – actually, the potential for violent punishment – always wins out over other factors. People acquiesced because they had only one alternative: death. Yet not everyone does acquiesce. A second explanation is the Marxist account: people pursue their own financial interests and then kid themselves about what they are doing. While Adam does not rule that account out altogether, he also sees that it did not explain the rise of abolitionism in Britain. Idealism cannot be reduced to crass material considerations.

I think there are two psychological processes at work in this kind of denial. One is the phenomenon of .” When an evil occurs on a wide scale, people simply get used to it and regard it as natural, immutable. This is the legendary “boiling frog” phenomenon. According to this theory (which may have some empirical basis – I don’t know) if a frog is throw into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually heat it, the frog will stay there are boil to death. That would certainly seem to explain the failure of the world to rise up and demand the dismantling of nuclear weapons. They have become normal and, so far, no massive tragedy has occurred – except to the Japanese.

But there is another, far more peculiar way of keeping populations from putting an end to evil: the adoration of a dictator. It appears to be perfectly normal for an oppressed society to worship the leader who is responsible for their suffering. This ”” is not universal, but it is remarkably common. The Germans adored Hitler, the Chinese adored , the Russians adored Stalin, the Cubans adored , the North Koreans adore Kim Jong Il. This adoration is not incompatible with the dictator’s brutality; indeed, some brutality may even be a precondition for it, though I am not sure whether that is true.

Adam mentioned today his astonishment at hearing ex-prisoners say that they cannot understand why they felt love for Stalin. I ran into such people in Moscow in the mid-1990s. But some measure of this can be seen in democratic societies as well. Until recently, as Adam said, most Americans have accepted the war in Iraq and the use of torture against foreigners. Opposition to U.S. foreign policy would be taken as disloyalty. Yet I doubt that any Americans adored George W. Bush the way Germans adored or Russians adored Stalin. The acceptance of government policy was as much a matter of loyalty to “our boys” as to any quasi-Great Helmsman. So the adoration remains unexplained.

Still, I think Adam grasped a part of the truth, if not the whole thing, when he said that people need to believe that what happens is meaningful. Religion generally provides a rationale that enables people to accept the terrible fate that life hands them. Probably someone who is no-religious will grasp at a different explanation. When was suffering, his friends came to see him and, trying to reassure him, told him that he must have committed a terrible sin to have deserved the punishment God was imposing on him. But Job knew that this was a false consolation and he demanded a better account from God, who did not provide any explanation for the evil he had allowed.

There is a danger that religion, in providing meaning for the faithful, will offer explanations that justify the evil. A proper theodicy, if any can be developed, must provide a kind of meaning that does not make people passive. It must encourage Job to tell God the truth, and it must encourage Thomas Clarkson and ED Morel to challenge the evil of slavery. It must encourage you and me to tell the truth, without self-deception and denial, about global warming and nuclear weapons. Meaning must sustain adherence to that famous and useful prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Future of Suburbia

That smart published another good column today about suburbia: "The city never envisioned.” Jacobs (see photo) died last week, renowned for having promoted the revival of the with its lively street life. It was she who notably challenged the older values that vilified inner cities and glorified the spacious communities on their perimeter. Indeed, Jacobs had won us over, making us appreciate real again enough to spruce up its decaying slums.

But Saunders sees her triumph as fleeting. Great changes are going on. Last year, for the first time in history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. And yet, they were not living in the environment that Jane Jacobs favored. The growth is mainly in suburbs.

“Half of Barcelona lives in the outskirts, as does almost half of Warsaw, three-quarters of Paris, most of Istanbul and the lion’s shares of Sao Paolo and Mexico City.”

These places are not necessarily the mythic affluent , as we tend to suppose. After World War II the perimeter of cities filled up with prosperous city-dwellers who fled outward to get with lawns. These are no longer the main inhabitants of the far outskirts, for are increasingly settling there, but not necessarily integrating there. Thus the riots and car-burnings that have stunned France during recent months have occurred in the remote fringes of , beyond the end of the transit system. There is where most urban people actually live, rather than in the pleasantly renewed, expensive inner cities that have become gentrified.

Saunders concludes by calling for some new visionary who will find ways of enhancing life in the growing outskirts, for he claims that “what we commonly call cities are no longer the places where people actually live, and they never will be again.”

Well, maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Saunders seems to be overlooking one impending change: . If this crisis occurs (and it would be foolish to deny the possibility) there will be an enormous shift in the situation. A recent film, The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream, suggests that the wasteful suburban use of energy for transportation and heating will suddenly become unsustainable. Within ten years, it seems likely that the world oil production will begin to decline, while the demand for it continues to increase. The people living in the outskirts will be unable to maintain their current standard of living. The film anticipates the suburbs will become the of the future. More than one family may live in each house, for example. In such circumstances, with any luck a new urbanization of certain corners will emerge in suburbia – dense new centres with small apartments where people will have to “buy local.”

Whether or not this will inevitably happen, it is a scenario that neither Saunders nor Jane Jacobs has apparently contemplated.

Friday, May 05, 2006

TV Can be Good for Kids

Everybody knows is harmful for children, right? Well, I don’t. In my opinion, it all depends on what they watch. Television, like storytelling, can be good or bad for children, depending on the nature of the story and the way they receive the messages. To be sure, in real life, television has many well-known negative effects, but here I want to pay more attention to its positive side.

In an April issue of , economist reports in his article, ”Long Live the Boob Tube,” on research that he and his colleague conducted concerning the on children. He points out that the research showing predominantly negative effects is mostly flawed methodologically. Yes, it is easy to compare the intellectual performance of kids who watch a lot of television with those of kids who watch it rarely. And indeed, the watchers do tend to be intellectually behind the non-watchers. However, their lives also differ in many other ways that also influence their cognitive development. It is primarily children from disadvantaged families who watch the most television, so it’s hard to tell what is causing their lagging intellectual performance: the television or the other social disadvantages.

Gentzkow and Shapiro realized that the only way to separate these effects was to compare groups of children whose access to TV was determined by factors other than social advantages. Fortunately, when TV was first introduced in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s, not all areas got at the same time. Within a decade, about 80 percent of all households acquired a set, but some regions much earlier than others. For example, TV became available in , New York in 1945, but in only in 1953. In 1964, a huge national survey of school children took place, providing data for the so-called on schools. Recently Gentzkow and Shapiro were able to re-analyze those tests to answer questions about the effects of the “boob tube” on kids. They reasoned that if it harms children’s intellect, then the children in Albany should have been intellectually retarded in 1964 in comparison to the children in Denver.

But they weren’t. In fact, in reading, and general knowledge of, say, geography, science, and current events, the kids who had grown up with television scored higher by the equivalent to 25 points on the verbal SAT. If anything, TV had made those kids smarter.

This new information is compatible with the argument advanced last year by in his book, . Johnson notes (as indeed I had also observed in my own book, , which was not yet published at the time) that intelligence has been increasing all around the world as television becomes widespread. The average is increasing by about three points per decade (though the test designers keep raising the bar, so as to keep it set at 100). However, nobody had offered proof that this was the result of exposure to TV until Gentzkow and Shapiro carried out their own research.

These finding are not inconsistent with the possibility that there are other negative effects of television on children. For example, the kids may be getting smarter but also unhealthier because they less and eat highly advertised junk food. Or they may be getting smarter but morally weaker because they watch or other anti-social behavior on the screen and imitate it in real life. I don’t have conclusive empirical evidence about these effects, but I want to point out that they are logically possible. In fact, it’s a safe guess that there are both negative and positive effects and that research is needed to refine the production of television so as to increase its benefits and decrease its harms.

By far the leader in the improvement of television quality for children is , an organization that, for 36 years, has devoted itself to using for reaching and teaching young children, their families, and their caregivers what they need to know in the modern world. Sesame Workshop is an educational organization that claims to be the largest informal educator in the world. Their programs appear in over a hundred countries. Besides syndicating their American television programs, they co-produce 22 local shows throughout the world, including in Mexico, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Bangladesh, Russia, South Africa, Egypt, India, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.

Sesame Street does not merely teach kids the alphabet and numeracy but sometimes addresses social issues as well. For example, the producers realized that children in South Africa needed to learn about , though the topic was so that most families never mentioned it. They chose a little orphan girl who had asymptomatic AIDS and made her into their “poster child.” There were scenes, for example, in which Kami talked about being lonely because other children wouldn’t play with her, fearing that they might catch her disease through casual contact. This story made quite an impact. Then Sesame Street created a show called “Talk to Me,” which taught parents how to discuss sensitive issues with their children instead of avoiding touchy subjects all the time.

After the tragedy of 911, many children felt anxious and sensed the prevailing attitude in America – especially the increasing intolerance. Sesame Street invented a story in which has a pen pal, a seagull named Gulliver who comes for a visit. Unfortunately Gulliver is bigoted. He refuses to play with Big Bird’s best friend, Mr. Aloysius Snuffleupagus simply because he is not a bird. Big Bird, for his part, defends his friend and announces he won’t play with Gulliver unless he adopts a more inclusive attitude. It works. Follow-up research showed that children had grasped the message about tolerance.

, the founder of , has been involved in the production of a movie about Sesame Street that is to be released shortly. It’s a feature-length documentary that addresses the issues involved in producing shows for small children that foster social change. Who would have guessed that fictional characters played by could change the world? But we could have guessed this much: that it all depends on what they have to tell the children.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Hollywood and High School Kids

I’m reading ’s 2005 book, , which is not, as I expected, about the impact of Hollywood movies on teen-agers. Instead, it’s about the stories that invent about high school students. Still, it’s a provocative analysis of 144 American films and, for comparison, 41 foreign films.

Bulman believes that are ways of reconciling cultural contradictions, and that movies are the myths of contemporary society. He quickly discovered that the plots differ markedly according to the kind of schools that they depict. His analysis compared three types of stories: those about urban, working-class schools, those about middle-class suburban schools, and those about elite private schools. He assumed that the stories contained aimed specifically at the three categories of American kids in these particular settings. Each film supposedly teaches teens of a certain social class who they are, what special challenges probably confront them, and how they can best handle their problems. In formulating this advice, it also reflects existing assumptions that pervade the .

First, there are movies (e.g. ) about poor and in city , who are depicted as low-achievers beset with many social problems. Their teachers and administrators have previously failed to reach them, and the kids are lost in despair when a mysterious new teacher arrives, someone of middle-class origin, little teaching experience, and an unconventional approach. This heroic newcomer becomes the savior of these students where other teachers have failed. He tells the kids that they do have options and that it is up to them to choose whether to make something of themselves. Under his guidance, the pupils become hard-working , rational, and eagerly beginning their long climb of the social ladder into the middle class. Bulman calls their new ethic “.” It is, he says, a political message. “There is,” he writes, “no suggestion that a longer-term solution to the problems in urban public high schools must address employment in the inner city, equitable school funding, sensitivity to racial and class differences, or the restructuring of urban schools.”

Second, there are quite different movies about middle-class kids. In these stories (e.g. ) the issue is not to encourage the students’ academic success, as was the case in the first group of films. Instead of homework, these bland, white youngsters are already feeling empty because of the pressure of peers and adults to conform. Their challenge is not to become good students but rather to find and express their true inner selves. As rebels without a cause, they feel suffocated by their dependent status and long to get out of school and become adults. They too are influenced by a hero – in this case not an adult teacher but usually one of the students, someone like (see photo) who is able to avoid the individual competitiveness and conformity of narrow-minded, achievement-oriented middle-class life by discovering and expressing his own identity. Bulman calls this ethic “.” He says that these films reflect the American middle-class fear that their creativity may be squelched by the demands of their managerial or bureaucratic careers.

Third, there are films (such as ) about students. Generally, Hollywood takes a negative view of wealth, as these movies indicate. Here, privileged upper-class kids are also pressured to conform to the cultural expectations of their elite families. And here again we have a hero entering the scene– this time a working- or middle-class outsider, almost always a student who has to prove that he belongs by demonstrating his academic qualifications. In doing so he challenges the other students to find their own true identity by disregarding their inherited privilege or family status. Instead of being the victim, this but gifted student is the one who has lessons to teach the rich kids and their teachers. He teaches them to follow their heart and recognize that happiness and individual integrity are more important than material success. Bulman writes,

“There is a tension in the elite private schools between the material value of an elite education and the resentment of such an education by those individuals normally denied access to it. These films resolve such tension by both emphasizing the utilitarian value of an elite private education (it can be an avenue of upward social mobility for meritorious members of the working and middle classes if they have access to it) and by stressing the importance of expressive individualism…The hero of these films is always a nonelite student who succeeds as both a meritorious academic scholar and an expressive individual. In Hollywood, achievement trumps ascription every time.”

Finally, Bulman compares these Hollywood films to a smaller sample of films about high school life from 15 other countries. He wanted to determine whether the American stories resembled those from other countries. He concluded that they did not; Hollywood movies about teenagers reflect an unmistakably distinctive American culture, tending to “resolve the dramatic tension in neat fashion, look optimistically toward the future, depict an unambiguous triumph of the individual, and suggest that social problems can be solved and society can be reformed…”

Whereas the American movies generally have , the foreign films are dark. The characters are morally complicated and have ambiguous endings, full of discord. The hero often does not resolve the problems but runs away from society. Rarely does an individual successfully overcome the antagonistic social forces. The future for the protagonist is murky, if not . None of these qualities are found in the American film about high school students. Hollywood culture is far from universal; it reflects specifically American issues and concerns.

But Bulman acknowledges the limitations of his (to my mind remarkable) book: that it does not attempt to determine what message the viewer takes from these films. It is clear to him what messages Hollywood is sending. It is not clear, however, what messages the audience actually receives. There can be a wide discrepancy between the message sent and the message received. What Hollywood intends to teach may not be what American youths are learning. I would love to know more about the impact of these films on the young people who are, presumably, the intended audience. I hope someone will show a sample of each type of film to a focus group of American youths, and tape record their comments for comparison to Bulman’s own analysis.

I know of no other study besides my own analysis of the television series in that explores the intentions of the production team and compares them with the actual perceptions of the viewers. Insofar as there is a gap, one could say that the producers, writers, and actors made a mistake; they did not affect the audience as they meant to do. I had the privilege of watching the production of the show throughout two seasons, and then was able to show all the tapes to a group of six friends in my own living room, recording their discussion of each episode.

Often I found that the viewers did not interpret the stories as they were expected to do. Indeed, I suspect that if I had shown the show to four or five other groups of six, there would have been remarkable variations among their responses. The only thing that would have narrowed the variation would have been for the writers to “spell out” their intended meanings fairly explicitly. However, writers in general do not admire this kind of neatness and , which they regard as “spoon feeding” the audience instead of making them think. Sophisticated writers (I’m not sure why) admire ambiguity and open endings rather than discursive clarity. What they usually do not realize, however, is that the viewers actually do not absorb the subtle message that has been sent. This may be a price that they are willing to pay, but they should at least know what effects they are having.

So what are American kids learning from these movies?