Native Nations Rise (5 Seconds of Eternity)

She was watching from a window.

We exist. We resist. We rise.
We exist. We resist. We rise.

I waved.

She waved back, then gave the universal symbol of prayer and respect.

I returned the gesture: “I greet you. I honor you. We are connected.”

She pressed her hand to her heart.

I flashed a thumbs up.

talking turkey, making tools

Thanksgiving in Brussels
27 November 2008

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Thanksgiving in the Verenigde Staten is a holiday and a protest. The mood at the dinner hosted by the American Club was celebratory, although rumblings went round during an aggressive invocation I admit I could have done without. I was also a bit disappointed that no mention was made of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – they suffer (in part) for their friendship with us, no? Granted, I was affected because of personal connections and an upcoming trip. Otherwise, with the exception of the one-dimensional pumpkin pie (!), the company was outstanding and the meal delicious (especially the mushroom and green bean side dish and the perfectly-roasted turkey).

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Conversations were typical I guess? Politics. Who’s traveling home for the holidays, who has family traveling here. Why. Why not. Food. Wine. Needing to buy a t-shirt. I got really jazzed when John started to talk about his work as an engineer, especially when he said:

“We make tools to make tools to make things.”

THAT, my friends, is a metaphor for the language-based concept of indexicality!

John makes mongo agricultural equipment. The design gets done somewhere in the US, the product testing gets done somewhere else (I forget), and then John gets to do the actual production. Just like machine shops where I have occasionally interpreted, a significant engineering challenge is to design and build the machine that makes the tool which can generate the exact part which is needed for the machine to be able to do what it is designed to do. That isn’t all we talked about, we also broached working in seven dimensions (and here I thought I was doing good by adding a fourth!), and John and Kathy went totally off on the Bernouli Principle, which, btw, doesn’t apply in supersonic space.
A few days prior to Thanksgiving, I had begun collecting links and thinking about what I might write. The draft I started was titled, mistakes are for learning. The list I compiled of situations we still need to heal included a story on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s opposition to American Indian Rights, the illegal occupation of Hawai’i by the U.S. since 1898, books accomplishing more than bombs in Pakistan, the need to work for peace in the Middle East, and the problem so many people still have with lesbian and gay rights.
The whole eclectic collection went out of my head instantly when a pal posted a twitter feed on Facebook as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai commenced in the wee hours of the morning. While relieved that my friends and their friends and families are all ok, I continue to consider that the more people I know the smaller the world becomes. I ache for the people who’ve lost loved ones, and for the families of the terrorists – not all of whom can be happy at what their children have done. Amitav Ghosh has written a thoughtful, clearheaded critique of the rush to compare these attacks to 9/11, reminding us that “9/11” refers

also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

Consequences. This brings me back around to that concept, indexicality. And the metaphor of a machine shop.

An index is the part of a word or phrase that points to something. Indexing is a referential act, a component of how we make meaning together, the core of what is understood when we achieve understanding. The notion of an index implies time, is perhaps even predicated upon time – at least if we understand time in a granular fashion, as a kind of motion that builds incrementally upon itself, accruing into sediments of meaningfulness. (See, if you can, this BBC documentary, Do You Know What Time It Is? by Professor Brian Cox)

So here’s the deal, as I see it. Our language really matters. What we say has substance. Our words effect the world. We elected Obama: he and his team are leading with language. Yes, they are putting together a centrist adminstration, but think “center” as in core. I’ve rarely been prouder to be American than in being part of Obama’s election, but we’ve got to get past the self-absorbed ways in which we sometimes celebrate being American as if the identity came to us pure. It did not. What is special and unique about America is that despite the terrible tragedies of our history, we absorb the lessons and move on. Now, ‘moving on’ means dealing well with the two extremes of radical diversity and horrific disenfranchisement. The former we must preserve and the latter requires redress.
The core must be solid; the boundaries must be clear. We – every single one of us who believes that there is a chance to finally turn the tide, as Ghosh says, in a long, long battle – we must use the words that signal a future that embraces everyone, instead of words “inviting” those who disagree to step outside the room. It is up to us to listen to the words and phrases of Obama and his team and make them, similar to the language of mathematics, “mean what they say, and say what they mean” (p. 14).

a chance for change

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23:30 pm, November 4: My colleagues (ahem) made up in a single evening, all the time that I’ve been late to events so far this year. It was nice that most of them eventually did arrive! 😉 Volunteering at the American Club‘s election eve event was the way to go; at least we were guaranteed entrance! In 2004, somewhere between 900-1200 people attended. This year, more than 2000 tickets were sold before the doors were essentially closed – well before polling ended on the East Coast and prior to a single projection! I enjoyed selling tickets at the main entrance, but checking those precious wristbands at the side door was not as much fun. One drunk guy didn’t miss a moment all night to glare at me for turning away friends he tried to usher in without having paid.
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After a month and a half in Belgium, attending a half-dozen more-or-less official events, the expat crowd begins to seem familiar. Faces seem recognizable, even if the names blur. I keep seeing look-alikes of several friends who I know are State-side; biology turns up similarities even across oceans! At this moment, the roar in the ballroom is near deafening. Some blokes on stage are shouting in debate at each other, critiquing the truthfulness factor in claims made by candidate’s advertising. CNN is on projection screens stationed at intervals throughout the first floor of the Renaissance Hotel, without audio so far. A rock band, The Wanderers, has been playing covers at intervals throughout the evening. 93% of the people who have so far filled out the lottery form have selected Barack Obama as the deliverer of this quote:

“The United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone.
We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies.”

Only seven percent imagined that John McCain could have said this, including me and Alyssa. (We were correct.)
01:30 am, November 5: The women’s bathroom is extremely entertaining. Earlier, there was a woman on her cell phone frantically scheming to get a friend without a ticket inside. Just now, an international trio including “a Swedish girl and a Canadian girl” (so they self-identified, if I recall accurately) were discussing whether a guy who looks pretty must be bi. “He has a pretty nose!” I really could not weigh in, although I did venture that “gay” is a cultural construction that may not apply uniformly in all parts of the world. This shifted us to a discussion of learning English via Michael Jackson and Madonna in Bulgaria.
In general, the crowd has thinned to half or even a third. A noticeable reduction occurred as soon as the band stopped. The buzz, however, is still achingly loud. It is hard to know if we’re getting down to only the diehards. Cheers go up each time numbers are posted showing an Obama lead (even if its only on 1% of polls reporting). The Republican table was unstaffed, although a few staunch supporters were undeniably present.
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02:40 am: CNN just called Pennsylvania for Obama. The crowd here burst into its loudest and most sustained applause yet. (I confess; I teared up.) Alyssa and I are hanging out at our back corner table with its questionable views – she’s studying Flemish in-between updates and I’ve been reading The Bulletin. Folks keep dropping by to buy food tickets and ask questions, but we only look official (we know nothing!) Chris, however, scored a set of campaign set buttons, and proceeded to explain a project, “mindset” and its “zero interest group” platform.
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03:27 am: I finished reading the current edition of Flanders Today. The chatter is still loud. People have taken to the floors, sitting in small groups, although most of the remaining crowd (several hundred) remains standing. Wolf Blitzer just teased us with “a big projection coming up.”
03:35 am: Ohio! An eruption of cheers, upraised arms, flying objects, hoots and hollers. “No Republican has won the Presidency without Ohio.
03:50 am: New Mexico! Way to go, mom! 🙂
Dead heat in the popular vote at the moment; would like to see a wider margin. Meanwhile, they dimmed the lights here at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels a few minutes after the projection of Ohio. They don’t expect us to leave, do they?!
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04:43 am: Folks have been slowly drifting out; the crowd is noticeable thinner as the night turns toward morning. There’s still over 200 people hanging in, waiting for the speeches. Did I mention popping out my contact lens in favor of old-fashioned spectacles?
05:06 am: They did kick us out of the main ballroom; fortunately we were all re-situated in the lobby when CNN announced

The din echoed off the ceiling for no short time; some groups further back in the hotel bar carried on for several minutes in hearty rendition of an Oktoberfest tune. Now, again, the constant chatter continues, and we wait . . .
05:29 am: McCain did alright with his concession speech. Three quarters of the stalwarts listened . . .
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. . . and continued to listen carefully, while a handful kept trying to shush persistent chatterers in the background.
Finally – Obama’s turn.
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09:00 am: I am a wee bit tired. 🙂 We lingered for some time after President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech, basking in the relative quiet (finally! after the noise of the night and the entire election). Then, Alyssa and I walked in the pre-dawn mist toward the U.S. Embassy’s breakfast affair. At one point, ducking into a virtually empty metro station to confirm our destination and relative whereabouts, we were embraced by Queen. As we walked the quietly-stirring city streets, office lights glowing as if suspended in the ether without structures, the topic of fear arose. Michelle Obama explained some time ago the role of fear in the family decision that Barack would run for President. I agree with her wholeheartedly.
I should have snapped a photo of the BMW showroom gleaming brightly with red and white balloons before we entered; the cops wouldn’t let me later! (I thought he was pulling my leg, he was so friendly about it. “You’re kidding?” I exclaimed. “Please comprehend,” he asked. Sigh.)
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U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox (to Belgium), U.S. Ambassador Kristen Silverberg (to the EU), and Rep. Kurt Volker (NATO) gave upbeat speeches.

“As an American, I have never been so proud of my country.”

Ambassador Fox extolled the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing the “peaceful transition of power,” and guaranteeing the continuation of strong trading relations. (BMW, Ambassador Fox informed us, manufactures cars in Alabama.) These themes were echoed by Ambassador Silverberg and Rep. Volker.

Prior to the three speeches, I was interviewed.

Twice.

Who knows what fool I made of me!

13:59 pm: On three hours sleep (!), I recall the loudest cheer during President-Elect Obama’s acceptance speech. He said,

“…the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals…”

and the people roared. At least half a dozen times our soon-to-be forty-fourth President of the United States of America was drowned out by spontaneous cheers in the cozy hotel lobby. It wasn’t until a second listen at the US Embassy reception that I heard the list of ideals:

democracy,
liberty,
opportunity,
and unyielding hope.”

expressing the inexpressible

Trevize is grumpy as hell that he’s chosen Gaia – a superorganism – instead of either the technologically-superior First Foundation or the “mentalic” (psychosocial scientifically advanced) Second Foundation as the future of humankind.

The moment of coincidence took my breath away. I opened Isaac Asimov’s fifth book in The Foundation Series, thinking I would start to read it for a few minutes to shift my mind toward sleep, having just finished watching Maya’s extraordinary documentary on Toekomsten 02068. A futurologist, Maya interviewed people who attended the 01958 World’s Fair in Brussels, inquiring as to their experiences then, their reflections on how society has changed – or not – since then, and their projections another fifty years into the future. Jose interpreted the Flemish for me, gesturing occasionally to supplement the English.

The film confirms and goes beyond the fiftieth anniversary retrospective exhibition at The Atomium, Between Utopia and Reality. I spent an afternoon there last week: incredible. Honestly, walking out of the tram station and catching my first full view of this massive structure was awe-inspiring; it felt alien. As I approached, that impression only intensified. This architectural wonder representing an iron crystal looms into the atmosphere. I wondered if my fear of heights would hamper exploration.

I detailed my enthusiasm about the exhibit to a gang of potential troublemakers, carrying on about how well the exhibit presented the spirit of achievement and optimism of attendees while posing the critical questions indicated by evident contradictions in design and implementation. Specifically, how the constructed sensibility of a joined and shared humanness across fifty-two countries and widely-disparate cultures highlighted the public demise of colonialism and the threatening battle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The witnesses/participants in Maya’s film confirm the dominance of the Fair’s spectacle over its overt theme,”A World View, A New Humanism,” critiquing the Fair’s overt display of technological prowess and power. Mirroring the implicit message of the Fair itself, the insidious face of nationalism remains largely unnamed by the film’s participants although it is clearly recognized. One man laughs as he recalls the positioning of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s pavilions with the Church in-between. The visual production of the film is superb: the subjects speak conversationally in 02008 against backdrops of scenes from the Fair in 01958. The imagery is fantastic: a science fiction tableau that, while sometimes quaint, in other respects still appears futuristic today.

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Listening to the film’s participants muse about what has changed or not over the last half-century is sobering. Almost universally, the bouyant hope that they experienced at the World’s Fair has faded to a grim concern. The most poignant evidence for me involved language. Many of the participants described worsening conditions of today’s society, or at least that there have been no substantive changes, certainly no improvement, since 01958. While recognizing achievements and differences between these two times, the underlying international dynamics remain essentially the same. A man who worked as a translator at the 01958 Fair spoke of how the speed of communication would increase because of all the innovations (e.g., the telephone); while telecommunications may indeed be the single driving factor in the vast transformations of globalization, the apparent need for speed unifies the present with the past.

The impetus for acceleration is accompanied with a selfishness that was variously described by participants in terms of money (for us)/peanuts (for them), abundance/lack, even suggesting hoarding/poverty. A young person of today wondered why we – who have so much – cannot share more with those who have so little? I felt the most telling clue to these dynamics was an instance when a participant shifted from Dutch to English. He was describing the insistent accumulation of “us” (he may have meant Belgians specifically but my sense was the broader white west) in contrast with inequities in Africa (in particular, although again he may have meant the broader underdeveloped world). In the midst of his impassioned speech he described what he perceives as the dominant, individual attitude, abruptly codeswitching to English:

“I don’t care!”

Admittedly, it is a challenge to care about people and places removed from one’s intimate, social, and professional circles. Sometimes it is difficult to care even within these microcosms. I am not sure when, during viewing, that I began thinking of Gaia. Probably at the point of temporal shift in focus, as participants shifted their gaze from reflecting on the past to imagining the future. I recalled the lecture at the University of Massachusetts last year by Dr. Lynn Margulis concerning her theory of endosymbiosis, a variation of the Gaia hypothesis. There is a commonsense-ness to this concept that adheres to the basic scientific principle of simplicity; I am astonished at the resistance in the scientific community to grant much credibility to the hypothesis. Indeed, at the lecture I attended there was not a single question from the audience – a phenomena which occurred only this one time during an entire year’s series of lectures. Of course, the common sense can be wrong, but often intellectual absolutisms are also proven false, or at least contingent. For instance, this incredible notion of “being an individual” as if no interdependence facilitates existence.

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Jose summarized the overall gist of people’s articulations in the film. The older people, she explained, can attribute some meaning, some vision to the future, while the young people in the film are at a loss. Perhaps, she mused, when you are young you have not yet accumulated enough experience to be able to project ahead. Reflecting on her own life, she said the hype and hope of the 01958 World’s Fair lasted until 1965, and then something changed. “You could feel it in the air,” she said. “Maybe things were not going to be ok.

Returning to Asimov, Trevize has decided he must re-discover Earth. Twenty thousand years into the future, Asimov imagines a universe in which the planetary origin of humanity has become lost in antiquity. “How is it possible,” Trevize wonders, “that we have all forgotten?

Memory depends on what we say and don’t say, which stories we tell, and how we tell them. Perhaps the future does, too.

Near the end of the 02068 documentary, reflecting on its message and projecting its potential meaningfulness, is a quote by Fred Polak about an emerging sustainable vision for the future. He qualifies: “our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined” (translated into English, 1961, The image of the future). I found info on Polak from Merrill Findlay, On the fluttering of butterfly wings, a member of an organization called Imagine the Future Inc.

Findlay describes Polak as

“a Dutch sociologist who, in the late ’40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then ‘act as magnets on our behaviour in the present’ to precipitate social change.”

I’ll adapt Findlay’s question (posed in 1994) to the narratives in Maya’s film, encompassing the challenges left by the shifts in attitude from a pervasive belief, a mere five decades ago, that ‘things will get better’ to today’s stark pessimism that ‘we may not even make it.’

What sort of future are these words and images drawing us toward?

The thing is, we can use language to remember what we need – not just what we want. We can use words and stories to motivate and propel trajectories that lead us to the sustainable future so many of us believe is possible.
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“Dare to Know” (Kant)

This post distills a series of thoughts from reading three different texts: The Heroic Model of Science (Chapter 1, Telling the Truth about History by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, 1991); The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen (2000), and an Interview with Ilan Stavans by Richard Birnbaum (@ 2003).
Three threads are primary: language, interaction, and science. “Language” is engaged theoretically and in practice, particularly the practices of interpretation. Although the references in the three selected texts refer mainly to written translations, I extrapolate ‘down’ to in-the-moment generation of understanding in everyday talking with each other, based on cooperation or agreement between people about meaning. I also extrapolate ‘up’ – or at least ‘over’ – to the interlinguistic skills that are most obviously evident in simultaneous interpretation. As to interaction, there are numerous levels from the microsocial to the macrosocial and the temporal to the ephemeral. The history of science is significant because of its influence on how people in western countries learn.
Why these three texts, beyond the coincidence of reading them more-or-less at the same time? Appleby, Hunt & Jacob (hereafter AH&J) investigate “what sorts of political circumstances foster critical inquiry” (p. 9). They write specifically in regard to the discipline of history by “examin[ing] critically the relevance of scientific models to the craft of history” (p. 9). I borrow their analysis as a way to explore the relevance of scientific models to other disciplines, particularly communication and the intersection of communication with political economy (especially governance), management (the organization of business), and culture (identity, ritual, and social relations).
AH&J challenge relativists and skeptics, sometimes lumping them together as postmodernists, arguing that in some ways they can “leav[e] the impression that the linguistic conventions of science have less to do with nature and more to do with the sociology of the scientists…in this way they have confused the social nature of all knowledge construction with the self-interest of the constructors, forgetting that all social beings participate in the search for knowledge and sometimes do so successfully” (emphasis added, p. 8-9). AH&J offer definitions for “skepticism” and “relativism,” showing how these attitudes form the substance of conflict with another historical attitude, that of religious absolutism. Tensions among these attitudes form the roots of the culture wars we see in the U.S. today.

“We view skepticism,” write AH&J, ” as an approach to learning as well as a philosophical stance…skepticism can encourage people to learn more and remain open to the possibility of their own errors” (p. 6-7).

Relativism, a modern corollary to skepticism, is the belief that truth is relative to the position of the person making the statement” (p. 7). There is an important nuance to this definition: truth is not directly relative to the person, rather, it is relative to “the position of the person.” (Note: “modern” means the idea of relativism wasn’t around when the initial fight took place between the skeptics and the religious. “Relativism” is an outgrowth of that fight.)

Religious absolutism is “the conviction that transcendent and absolute truth can be known” (p. 15).

All of these stances can be overdone, hence AH&J propose a standard for knowledge, i.e., for what we believe to be true:

“Success comes when the
found knowledge can be understood, verified, or
appreciated by people who
in no sense share the same self-interest” (p. 9).

The last phrase, it seems to me, is most crucial. If we are interested in democracy and social justice – meaning a fairness for groups of people of varying types – then we must find ways of producing and valuing broad social, political, and economic structures that are acceptable to everyone, even those whose self-interests differ from our own.
Jonathan Rosen, in a section about the ways Judaism and Christianity have borrowed from and influenced each other through the ages, writes about “open fearlessness, that willingness to assimilate outside cultures into your own without worrying that they will corrupt your beliefs” (p. 83-84). One of the anchors he poses for the Jewish religion is the collective realization, a very, very long time ago “that only words were durable” (p. 79). The Talmud, he argues, “is a sort of cathedral built across the ages and spanning all the earth – or perhaps I should say it’s a Temple, or at least a translation of one, built out of words and laws and stories” (p. 81).
I want to make three points simultaneously: language as a power with literal force; the “extraordinary religiosity” (according to AH&J, p. 50) of early (and at least some contemporary) scientists; and the inescapable fact that scientists today are the inheritors, intellectual descendants, and cultural products of the heroic science born of the Enlightenment. Certainly I am. I want to both rescue and continue the project of “truth with a purpose: the reform of existing institutions” (AH&J, p. 41), while seeking to escape or alter additional repeat performances of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century culture wars.
Power of Interpretation:
Language is key. Rosen’s parallel between the Internet and the Talmud speaks to a proliferation of heterogeneous meanings that suggests an antidote to “the nature of books never to be quite right and of words always to elude our grasp” (p. 54). The refusal of words to mean one thing only, and to mean only that one thing always and forever, is precisely the juncture where understandings are forged or splattered. Words are durable while truth about what the words mean remains elusive. Rosen’s desire “to embrace contradictory traditions” (p. i) seems similar to AH&J’s focus on “the interplay between certainty and doubt” (p. 10). This enables Rosen to keep faith with “the business of life [which] is to learn, not to know” (p. 33). For AH&J that interplay “keeps faith with the expansive quality of democracy” (p. 10). Learning, democracy, science, and faith are inextricably intertwined: language is their confluent expression.
This is why Ilan Stavans can assert with conviction: “I find translators, in many ways, to be the real protagonists of culture . . . Translators are the underpaid heroes of culture.” Translators – and interpreters – are always in between. Rosen explains how the Talmud “devised a culture intended to be a kind of middle term between extremes – between destruction and new creation, between the dead and the living, between God and man, between home and exile, between doubt and faith, between outward behavior and inner inclination” (p. 131).
Interpretation is a form of communication that has to work within and between “the chaotic contemporary forms of communication that,” Rosen explains, “are so often accused of diverting us from what is true. The chaos and the incongruities, it turns out, are part of the truth” (p. 119). On that basis he compares the “interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet” (p. 10) with “a page of the Talmud” (p. 19): “all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed” (p. 10). “Those portions and their accompanying readings,” he continues, “swim in a sea of commentary . . . so large that it seems at times to expand [like the Internet] to include everything” (p. 30).
Language in History:
Before elaborating on Stavan’s thesis, let me summarize the discussion of language and its role in history provided by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, because they present the discipline of linguistics in the creation of heroic science as an equal partner to the discipline of science. “The Enlightenment,” said to begin in 1690, “set the terms of the modern cultural project: the individual’s attempt to understand nature and humankind through scientific as well as linguistic means” (p. 39). Concurrent with the emergence of sciences and history as disciplines, “the European philosophes also developed new approaches toward old languages and texts. Reading old documents, indeed reading any document, is never as simple as it looks. Even picking up the local newspaper you ask, well, why did they run that story? Or, I wonder what party that journalist has joined?” (p. 37)
The discipline of linguistics began with criticism of written texts, called hermeneutics. It didn’t take long before “the language in a text, the words on the page, became too important to be left to clerical interpreters” (AB&J, p. 38). The Christian Bible was, at the time, the standard of absolute knowledge; it came under particular scrutiny. Ironically, clergy had originally invented hermeneutics, using the Bible as the reference point for all kinds of statements of absolute truth concerning the world and time. Now, AB&J continue, “The words had to be enlisted in the enterprise of creating wholly secular and scientific learning, but with consequences for … the present generation” (p. 38).
Stavans says, “Using language as a category is a way to say who we are in front of a mirror.” He goes on to illustrate how words change meanings over time, illustrating how the evolution of meaningfulness is what goes on socially, among and between people. When you, or I, use language – when we talk or write – we are “saying who we are” to ourselves.
When I wrote earlier that I am cut in the vein of heroic science, it is because I recognize how I think and talk in those terms. AH&J present a range of descriptions:

“Diderot described the follower of the Enlightenment as an eclectic, a skeptic and investigator who ‘trampling underfoot prejudice, tradition, venerability, universal assent, authority – in a word, everything that overawes the crowd – dares to think for himself, to ascend to the clearest general principles, to examine them, to discuss them, to admit nothing save on the testimony of his own reason and experience'” (citing Diderot’s article on eclecticsm in the Encyclopedie (1751), p. 39).

I am not an ideal type, but there is certainly a resemblance. How about this: “a new kind of person…hard to govern, suspicious of authority, more interested in personal authenticity and material progress than in the preservation of traditions, a reader of new literature, novels, newspapers, clandestine manuscripts, even pornography, all especially produced for an urban market” (p. 40). This description hardly marks me special, rather it describes today’s average western person. To wit, “a new cultural type who could be a pundit, prophet, fighter against tyranny and oppression, original thinker, elegant writer, sometimes pornographer, reader of science, host of salons, or occasional freemason” (p. 35).
The average western person today, as well as trained scientists and elites, however, is also subject to the culture wars that are the legacy of the original, historical figures of the Enlightenment who “battled with clergy and churches and at moments risked martyrdom” (p. 18). “In the culture wars of the present generation, language, with the many uses and abuses that can be attributed to it, has figured prominently in the arsenal of weapons” (p. 38). Today, continuing the trend of the Enlightenment when secular hermeneutics turned the scientific method on the Bible, all words are related to other words.

nationalism in the civilised present

The gathering was splendid.
The U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Brussels is large, impressive, and immaculately tended. We arrived a few minutes early but were immediately ushered in to mingle in the hallways and anterooms, sipping wine, juice or water and munching delicious appetizers from trays replenished regularly by the constantly circulating staff. Conversation with the delightful company was light and entertaining; it was me being there that edged on the surreal. 🙂
I did not get to shake hands with Ambassador Fox, although we had a prolonged moment of eye contact just as he was being summoned to introduce a short film on Belgian-U.S. relations. An Invisible Bridge is a well-crafted summary of a unique international relationship between two peoples – or, rather between the idea of two nationalities with a special bond. Susceptible as I am to musically-produced emotional tweakery, I teared up at the presentation of NATO’s heroic mission “to secure the future of Europe”, noticing that a Belgian acquaintance next to me was also surreptitiously wiping tears away. When I asked her, post-film, she confessed. Her emotion stemmed from grief at unity lost – the togetherness of a single nation being ripped at its seams along a language divide.
Ambassador Fox is quite proud of the film and the interest it has generated across Belgium. I understand why: the ethos of the film appeals to a human need to belong, to know one is connected with others, a part of something larger than ourselves. The desire for a group identification is, at core, tribal; its modern form is the nation.
I am not advocating an end to the nation (not necessarily, for sure not yet). We need better institutional structures and mechanisms for balancing out economic disparities, and the state is still the best tool for experimenting with various possibilities. My problem with the film is along the lines articulated by a friend who rejected its glorification of war. For me, I can’t say that I saw “glorification” per se. War is a tragedy, and its effects are still viscerally and personally real for many people in Europe: both those who lived through WWII (while so many died) and the children of people who lived/died during or because of the war. The tragedy of war is also etched in the beings of the millions of immigrants to Europe from regions of the world still swamped under the reign of violence.
What I witnessed in the film was an acknowledgment of war’s horrors, and gratitude to those who made attempts to alleviate suffering. The problematic implication for me was the implicit assumption that war is a human inevitability. The film makes no statement about ending war; indeed, by shoring up the borders of nationality the film cultivates the exclusive attitude of distinction that makes war possible.
Still, I appreciate what I learned:

  • Peter Minuit “bought Manhattan from the Indians” circa 1626. (The history obliterated by the neutral statement of fact nonetheless remains.)
  • Father Pierre-Jean De Smet helped negotiate “peace” (my quotation marks) with Sitting Bull
  • the Red Star Line carried millions of Eastern Europeans to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century
  • the WWI Belgian Relief program organized by President Herbert Hoover, Ernest Solvay, and other prominent Belgians.
  • rebuilding of the Library at the University of Leuven after its destruction during WWI
  • the organized escape routes, known as the Comet Line, created during WWII for Allied soldiers
  • the Battle of the Bulge occurred here, in the Ardennes mountain range

Here’s a testimonial of a US veteran of the Bulge returning in 1994:

The most memorable part of our tour to Belgium was the warmth and gratitude expressed to us by the people of Houffalize and Bastogne. As Ken Aran expressed it, “our localized reception was more like a family. It was an experience I shall always cherish.” One of many examples of Belgian warmth for us veterans was the parade at Bastogne in which the not-so-young veterans marched the length of Bastogne’s main street to the McAuliffe Square. As we march along down the Rue Savlon, many school children hurried out to grasp a veteran’s hand and marched along before approving and politely applauding crowds that lined the sidewalks. There were not always enough veterans’ hands to go around, but some children then clasped hands with kids who were already joined with veterans.

There is a huge emphasis on the sentiment of Belgians’ appreciation for the US military’s role in freeing Belgium from the occupation of the Nazi’s. Obviously this is a triumph and a matter of pride for soldiers and civilians who fought and won that war. There is no doubt that the gratitude of the persons and families affected is genuine; nor is there doubt that that war had to be fought. Because humanity (as a sociobiological species) is still riding a plateau of violence (war is collective, cooperative behavior), no doubt there will continue to be some wars that remain necessary. But not as many as we have, and certainly not the wars predicated on a competitive economic fight over the planet’s resources.
We can do better than that. So I am disappointed on an ideological level with An Invisible Bridge. The economic ties between Belgium and the US are substantive: 900 US companies in Belgium, 500 Belgian companies in the US.
Let not the ties between the peoples of these nations be based on pillars of war or greed, and neither motivated by fear.

“believe the data”

The U.S. Congress is working “to finalize the language of an agreement,” reports the NYTimes this morning, concerning “the bailout” of what has been called “the financial crisis” and/or “the economic crisis” in the United States.
Overthinkingit.com imagines “put[ting] Bruce Wayne in charge of the SEC.” Surrealism of The Dark Knight aside (compliance or complicity?), critique and background information (listen to Jim Crotty’s interview) has been issuing from my University for weeks. I admitted to a friend,

“I don’t know enough about macro-economics to argue [against the opinion that the bailout is the only option], and certainly have no idea regarding the other consequences (intended and not) that will rain down upon us little people if they do not bail out the banks, but letting people keep their homes seems good to me. Let the major players take the hit and figure out new, better rules.”

Perhaps a naive stance, but I want to bridge the harder science of physics with this soft science of economics. I missed most of last Friday’s live broadcast from CERN about the next operational steps for the Large Hadron Collider. When I did tune in, one of the scientists was responding to a concern that iron might bend against the steel floor (or some such) because certain experimental results differed from simulated results in an earlier test.
The point the responding scientist emphasized, was that the data is the information, not the simulation: “We won’t fit the data to the simulation,” he said (quoted from memory), “We will believe the data, as we always should.” Someone else argued: “We must do a risk versus benefit analysis for every intervention we imagine we want to make…. according to the Alara Principle – you must do it now” (in this case, install a pre-shower). The question CERN scientists are debating is:

What are the best priorities to get the best physics out of CMS?

The CERN debate regards when to determine priorities – now, or after some weeks of data has been secured? In another email, I wrote:

I believe [the critique emerging from my University and others] engage[s] the matter of the government tending to bail out the large investors and major institutions (even if the premises for their business are shaky – such as financing purchases that people cannot afford) instead of, or without also bailing out the individuals who suffer the most direct and dire consequences.

I do not want a debate between conservatives (keep traditional, established systems in place) and progressives (change everything), rather, I’d like to figure out ways to change our basis of comparison to long-term sustainability with evidence of gradual improvement for everyone: this is my understanding of U.S. banking policy after the Great Depression, and especially after WWII. Indeed – up through the 1960s, ALL social classes improved their status. Of course markets are more complicated now, but that is just an excuse for a lack of creativity and policy innovation.

Of course, it always matters which data one chooses to pay attention to, and there is always information left out. So illustrates another article in today’s NYTimes, describing the participation of Goldman Sachs in negotiations to save American International Group. Gretchen Morgenson explains that the housing collapse is often cited – i.e., framed – as the “cause” of the problem, but argues that A.I.G. is a better exemplar, much closer to – and indicative of – the root of the problem:

the virus exploded from a freewheeling little 377-person unit in London, and flourished in a climate of opulent pay, lax oversight and blind faith in financial risk models.

I am astonished at how easy it has been for the housing market as symptom to become the scapegoat for the problem.
“We have to commit [the bailout agreement] to paper so we can formally agree,” Nancy Pelosi is quoted in the NYTimes headline story quoted above. The language is the crux of the matter.
The BBC’s Newsnight reported (introduced with a dramatic actionflick score) on Friday’s imminent challenge to the U.S. Congress about dealing with the U.S. economy. This clip was shared with my academic department (Communication) with this intro:

“If you are interested in English humor, BBC-interview techniques and reporting, and want to learn a thing or two about the current ‘Wall Street’ crisis, which you may have missed in the [U.S.] mainstream media, watch [it].”

I learned a thing or three about the dynamic forces at play: financial interests, political imperatives, the role of the presidential campaign debate as a factor in Congress’ negotiations. Responses from Communication Department faculty included “Stephen Colbert’s razor sharp take on the financial crisis,” and a multilayered observation comparing British and U.S. modes of humor and reporting.
In addition to Colbert’s labeling of the (apparent) need for the U.S. to decide “in a panic” the largest financial overhaul in our lifetimes, is that while the BBC may have more of a history of engaging “troubling questions,” such difficult questions “are [being] posed of those proposing the bailout, questions that used to be hard to pose here [in the U.S.]. Now, though,” explains another faculty member, “they’re surfacing, e.g. on Rachel Maddow (weeknights, MSNBC, also mainstream).”
Maddow’s metaphor of kids in a candy store is excellent. Robert Reich also weighs in on the sugar high. Addiction. That is what this behavior reminds me of – junkies who will do anything in order to score the next hit. Addicts need treatment, and toxic substances (such as those emitting radiation) need careful, deliberate, and open handling. We need to weigh the financial and economic priorities at stake – those in potential as well as those at risk.

“the fragile, groping thread of communication”

Foundation and Empire
Isaac Asimov
p. 76, 2004 Bantam Edition
originally published: 1952

Any language used to describe the situation is tricky; ignorance is helpful. (No one expects an American to know anything substantive: “How do you know?!” one man asked, amazed I even had a clue.)
emergence in the garden.jpg
I first learned about the Belgian language crisis from Jeff. Hints had been percolating but I had not followed up: this is not what I’m here to study. Nonetheless, the conjunction is amazing. One could write off the coincidence with a cynical attitude, but that’s not my style (how unzeitful, eh?!) Seriously, I am here to study the use of simultaneous interpretation as a democratic means of multicultural governance (to what extent does interpretation guarantee participation and voice?) at the EU’s seat – the European Parliament – which just happens to be (largely) based in a country (Belgium) engaging in linguistic conflict.
Getting my French lessons underway (back so long ago in August, ahem), Jeff dug up a news article about the address given by Belgium’s King to all citizens on the recent national holiday. The article summarized the crisis (a year without a national government while the northern Flemish speakers of Dutch withheld agreement with the southern Walloonian speakers of French) as a matter of entrenched politicians playing nationalistic sentiment against the majority public will. A few days later, as I was on the phone with someone from the Belgian Consulate in the U.S. concerning my passport, she expressed horror that the foolish King had addressed the country only in French! Jeff, and others who I have spoken with since, were skeptical that the King would neglect speaking also in Flemish (a regional variation of Dutch). Maggie confirmed that the King is well beloved (even though it seems we ascertained that the King’s power is more symbolic than literal).
Bill had pieced together a similar account: that economics is driving the current impulse for separation. A gentlemen who helped me board the Antwerp Express from the Brussels airport (who was surprised I knew enough to even ask about the situation) explained that separation is inevitable, because “the Nouth is tired of paying for the Sorth.” Dorothee said as much, without the economic angle. She’s from France, and her take is that the Flemish are “most powerful” in the debate so far, at least as represented by French news (television and papers). She was unclear if French Belgians actually would want to join France if the Flemish north succeeds in breaking away, although France certainly wants to gain the territory!
Meanwhile, José says the political battle is “ridiculous!” And others have also said the greatest schism is between the Flemish politicians fighting for separation and the broad Flemish majority who perceive no practical issue and would prefer to put governmental energy to other projects, rather than “[trying to] convince us that we are enemies.”
Maggie’s overview was particularly helpful, as she provided a longer-term economic history. Here is her summary:

Until the 1950s, all the economic wealth was in Wallonia, in coal and steel; the Flemish were poor then. When coal and steel dried up, Flanders took off.

Although Flanders is the name that seems inevitable if the Dutch-speaking north secedes, the actual historical lines shifted so much that there may be room for quibbling. Antwerp was (according to one source) originally part of Brabante, not Flanders. (You see the political landmines?! One’s choice of vocabulary assumes or projects an alignment – whether one wishes so or not!)
A fascinating language-based phenomena that Maggie shared led her also to make a prediction that in the future (“ten years”) the wealth will re-shift back to the Walloon region:

In the 1980s, all Dutch-speaking college graduates were trilingual (Dutch, French, and English). [During the same period], French-speaking college graduates only knew French and some English. Now [two decades later], French speakers are required to take two years of Dutch in college and English too.

Maggie thinks the status quo will reign until then. The gentleman I spoke with on the bus, however, was convinced separation will occur because “people feel it in their pockets.” This linkage of money with language seems rife (first of all) with capitalistic entrepreneurialism, which radically privileges the short-term. (Can there be a capitalism that truly engages the long-term? Or is this when socialism comes into play?) Secondarily, the linkage of language with nationality is reminiscent of Benedict Anderson’s argument concerning the appropriation of language for nationalism (see last paragraph). An idealistic American might wish that Europe – let alone one of its pinnacles! – would be beyond such politics, but good old-fashioned rhetoric may be as effective here as we have witnessed it to be in the U.S.
emergence of man.jpg
The statue series is by Erica Chaffart; I stumbled upon it today walking through Antwerp’s Botanical Garden.

beyond disturbing

There is always so much going on.
Too much?
I’ve been trying to sort out some distinctions between “being spiritual” and “being religious” (after being tag-teamed by an Eastern European cynic and an Undertaker from India for the past six years, it seems I’ve finally cracked). 😉 I know I become overwhelmed, often, trying to make sense of the whole – yet . . . the alternative doesn’t appeal. If we give up trying to grasp the whole, then what? Well, people carve out a niche for themselves, making intellectual, emotional, aesthetic choices and compromises and doing the best they can. Meanwhile, social forces twist and buckle the fabric of communities and our cross-cultural relations with each other.
When, I wonder, do we decide it is time to work together? And on what basis? At a community meeting yesterday, someone raised a concern with the erosion of constitutional rights, and someone else objected to the extremity of the claim. But world-class journalists are not supposed to get arrested in America. This occurred at the Republican National Convention, where riot police are keeping protesters as far as possible from the convention center. Since when did protests become such a problem in the land of free speech, the home of originary revolution?
Speaking of which, can you imagine the conversation in Governor Palin’s family? “Uh, mom, it’s great you just got selected to be the next Vice-President of the United States, but, uh, I’ve got to tell you something.” When does the generosity and understanding that we give our own children extend to other kids’ parents?
I was recently at a yoga center where hundreds of earnest persons went about their spiritual work. “Practice,” I thought to myself, “for being soon in another country.” All the anonymous people were nice enough: polite and indifferent. Don’t get me wrong, I was the same way: there to do what I came to do for me, open to engagement if it happened but not seeking interpersonal connection. It was a mild form of alienation. I “belonged” there as much as anyone else who had paid the fee. I look like 95% of the people who were there, and I behave similarly in culturally substantial ways. But I was bothered – it’s a commercial place from which collaborative social action might grow but (it seems) only on the basis of similarity.
In the U.S. (the one that I grew up in, have been shaped by, and currently worry about), the emphasis on individuality leads to the massive reproduction of independent spiritualists who – typically, usually – fail to commit to work together for any coherent social action. Even if people are atheists, that identity is defined in opposition to the notion of some kind of spiritual center. With secular yoga, the body has replaced god as the object of worship. In politics, the body is also central: “what” one looks like, and “how” one sounds become the basis for argumentation and persuasion.
Still . . . it is a measure of how far America has come that both candidates for President of the United States are members of multiracial families. (This point was also raised by a participant during that community meeting.) In my opinion, the most important thing Senator Obama said during the Democratic National Convention (quoted from memory) was to assert

“this is not about me; this is about you.”

We can continue to live as Americans without a common “religion,” or as Americans whose religion has become a narrowly-defined nationality, or we can find ways to build common cause with the very material of difference itself.

“This” – all of it – is about us. All of us.

compliance or complicity?

Heavy talk with friends, lately – about the ethos of the age being caught up in urgency and crisis, possibly such that we fail to recognize the sweep of history and our complicity with trends we would ethically not choose if we were aware of the relation between our immediate, daily lives and how the simple things we do, moment-by-moment, actually compose larger historical trends.
The NYTimes published a piece on the infamous Milgram Experiments (social psychology) earlier this month, posing the question: would you pull that switch? The article details some new findings that help to understand both the context (why were – and are :-/ – so many people willing to cause pain to others?) and the range of individual reasons for responding to the context as they actually did.
Contextually, subjects were disoriented by the unfamiliarity of the situation, and they were rushed – put under time pressure. The combination of uncertainty and urgency resulted in disorientation – with its obvious (if undetermined) influence on decision-making. This may be a stretch, but it brings to mind some audience reactions to “The Dark Knight” last night, in which people laughed at moments that seemed produced to disturb, while missing designed moments of humor. It struck me as a delayed reaction caused (possibly) by the frenetic pace of volatile action. Similar dynamics occur in interpersonal interactions too, for instance, when people laugh upon hearing awful news – a miscued reaction because of the awkwardness of the situation.
So, there is the matter of complicity – a rather unconscious going-along-with the zeitgeist (or, for some, a conscious embrace of the spirit of the times – for all kinds of reasons), and then there is the matter of compliance. Expressions of pain, per se, were not usually conclusive in convincing switch-pullers to stop. This is what is used to illustrate that the obedience factor is such a deep component of human behavior, and – more subtly – “demonstrate[s] individual differences in perceptions of accountability.” (In my imagination, it is not hard to extend this to all the ways in which we – the relatively privileged – turn away from the cries of the relatively un/underprivileged. Pain – especially that of others – is insufficient as a motivator.)
However, “the demand by the subject to stop [is now identified] as the turning point.” People who disregarded this were going to continue, no matter what – their conception of authority/authorization/responsibility/accountability simply ended at the “fact” of the social scientific structure. Those who did stop – whether sooner or later – exercised some personal judgment, “decid[ing] that the learner’s right to stop trumped the experimenter’s right to continue.”
The phrasing of this interests me, particularly in my professional role as teacher, and even more specifically as a teacher interested in cultivating critical thinking skills, using non-standard pedagogies and experimenting with the boundaries of student expectations concerning what a college class is supposed to be. There is power in this position, and I use it – intentionally, deliberately, yet – I hope – with compassion for how challenging it is to have the common or usual disrupted in service of a goal that can only be presented in amorphous and ambiguous terms.
Related information at “Psychologists find a way to replicate Milgram’s classic obedience experiment.”