Friday, July 31, 2009

C'mon! Put down your dukes!

Fern in Tufa.
A friend asked recently if I thought Jews were on average more intelligent than other people. I said, “No, I don't think so. But I think they've developed cultural habits that help them adapt more easily to those areas of endeavour by which we commonly measure success. (I didn't specify theatre, film, writing, the communications industry, business, etc. because this friend would know what I was talking about.)

I felt a bit proud because I thought I'd invented a new sociological term: Cultural Habit. Turns out others have used it. A blog I Googled using that term spoke about Japanese noodle-slurping and Chinese sidewalk-spitting as cultural habits. I would think the whole matter might be somewhat deeper, as for instance the observation that Asian students will persist in a struggle with a thorny problem for about three times as long as the typical Western student. They are “rice cultures,” you see, used to working hard and long to produce a modest crop, these Asians. (I can't locate the book that makes this case right now; if you know what it is, please clue us all in in the Shout Box at the top left-hand corner of this blog. I think the title had “Outliers” in it.) Persistence and patience may be cultural habits passed down genetically, educationally, through unconscious modeling, religious training or a combination of all four.

My culture endowed me with some habits for which I'm grateful. I take no pleasure in weapons, uniforms, martial arts, or anything that smacks of physical combat. I consider that propensity to be a cultural habit, engrained through a combination of religious indoctrination, modeling, education and observation.

The flip-side of this habit is not so pretty; in my culture, confrontation is so stressful that virtually no one knows how to deal with it when it arises. The standard response to an insult, for instance, is withdrawal. What usually follows the conclusion of a disagreement is that the loser rages and sulks, privately, and avoids those on the other side. It's passive aggression. Congenitally shy of engaging in confrontation, we turn our backs on one another. I have known people in whom this cultural habit is so engrained that they have carried an unresolved grudge for decades without ever pursuing a reconciliation. The pettiness of some of these grudges confounds understanding.

According to psychologist Katherine Horney, passive aggression is “a strategy to alleviate anxiety (” But so is punching someone in the mouth when insulted. The problem with a passive-aggressive cultural habit is that it saps enormous energy from family and/or community relationships to the point where even one or a few people possessing this personality disorder can render a family or community dysfunctional.

Overt aggression is certainly a serious problem in any culture. It's not clear that a pacifist cultural habit that substitutes passive aggression for overt aggression is a step upward.

I may have a passive-aggressive personality disorder. I confess that I often fight with the temptation to avoid, withdraw, brood, stew when things don't go well, to undermine the winners in more subtle ways than “healthy” personalities do.

But I can't help it; it's a cultural habit. Isn't it? I sure hope so!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Humans are: a) Gods, b) highly evolved vegetation, c) swine, d) none of the above

The view from Helen's apartment - January 26, 2009

I was traveling to and from the landfill yesterday, discarding scraps of lumber and accumulated sawdust and garbage, and listening with one ear to Sheila Rogers’ interview with some person whose name I didn’t get because the conversation took longer than the garbage run. His points—as far as I could gather—included that:
1) we humans pretend to be in conscientious control of our environment, responsible caretakers of the earth, when actually, we are raping and pillaging the earth like rampaging morons, and that as a result,
2) life on earth will eventually (maybe shortly) discard us and life will go on without us so that,
3) the earth and its other inhabitants will be happy to see us go.

In 1920, poet Sara Teasdale wrote:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war,

not one will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Ray Bradbury based a short story called “There will Come Soft Rains”on Teasdale’s poem, a story in which “mankind perishe[s] utterly” in a nuclear war. A recent TV documentary explored the restricted area around Chernobyl, and quite astoundingly discovered that animal and vegetable life was thriving there; the abandoned animals had gone feral and were doing well despite the high levels of radiation in the food chain.

The Biblical record tells us that the Children of Israel repeatedly strayed from the presence of the Creator and went their own way. A condensation of this oft-repeated story might be that such straying always leads to destruction and sorrow. We do well to pay heed to the prophetic voices warning us that we must humble ourselves before the creator and pay attention to the prophets of our time: Sara Teasdale, Ray Bradbury, David Suzuki, Al Gore, and the many in my church—the Mennonite Church—who have warned us that earth-care is people-care and that we can’t please our creator by pillaging his creation.

Most of us—I expect—live daily with what’s called “cognitive dissonance,” the stress that results from believing one thing and doing another. I was determined to disassemble the four palettes lying on my yard from construction and recycle the wood (good thing) but they were so stubbornly nailed together (bad thing) that I gave that up (bad thing) and hurled them all into the pit at the landfill (bad thing) where they will be burned (really bad thing), releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and fly ash into the atmosphere (unforgivably bad thing). I am feeling really dissonant—cognitively—as a result.

Another word for this feeling is, of course, “guilty.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Nanny State, dental crowns and Readers' Digest

The church across the street

So yesterday I became a king, whereas previously I wasn't even a prince. After 4 appointments with my dentist totaling about 4 hours, two to perform a removal of everything above the root of a single bicuspid, two to cement a post to anchor an artificial “tooth," my dentist “crowned” me yesterday. She's done a good job; my prosthetic looks and feels like the real thing, and I've never before owned a twelve-hundred dollar tooth.

Besides enjoying these delightful times spent in the chair with my feet higher than my head, gazing up at that light with all its facets—like a fly's eye—and the heating grills in the ceiling, I had ample time to catch up on a few editions of Readers' Digest. I usually just read the jokes, but today I was there early so I decided to read an article by someone who had visited Mexico recently and felt compelled to compare it to Canada in one key area, namely the “nanny state” syndrome that he contends we live in here. In Mexico, according to the author, people are still allowed to bike without helmets, ride in the back of pickup trucks, work high above the street without safety gear, whereas we in Canada are so regulated and controlled by so many codes that our sense of individual adventurism has practically been drummed out of us.

Case in point: we were offered the decision on whether the basement stairs in our new home would be walled in or left open. We decided to leave the staircase open with just a handrail coming down so that the den area would seem larger. The building inspector has declared that this is unacceptable and that it needs to have—at least—spindles separated by no more than 4 inches in order to prevent falls, spaced closely enough to prevent children getting their heads caught in it. I remembered friends' children having been at our home and how they climbed up on everything from the table to the couch and jumped off and I wondered why the inspector didn't insist that none of the furniture be more than 18 inches high and have handrails around the edges!

And, of course, there are seat belt laws, a gun registry, public kitchen rules and inspections (a kitchen worker must wash hands after touching own face, etc.), speed limits, zoning bylaws, and in some cities, designated places where busking is allowed. I might add, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Is there a happy place, a moderate place, between anarchy and the nanny state? Are we at that place here in Canada, or is Mexico, or the USA or Germany? I wonder about this as I puzzle over the addition of spindles to my already-constructed staircase while tonguing my unfamiliar new dental crown. Maybe I'll drag the whole shameer closer to Mexico.
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Sunday, July 05, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 3

Storm over Rosthern - June 29, 2009
Hadawi, Sami. Bitter Harvest: a modern history of Palestine. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1989. ISBN 0-940793-29-6, 346 pages.

Chomsky, Noam. Middle East Illusions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, inc., 2003. ISBN 0-7425-2699-2, 280 pages.

Carter, Jimmy. Peace, not Apartheid. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-8502-6, 250 pages.

Here’s what should happen in the Middle East: Israel should withdraw from all occupied territory into the boundaries as they existed in 1967. Jerusalem should be declared an open city administered by its own, democratically-elected council. Palestine and Israel should be acknowledged to be sovereign, democratic states by the world community. The Palestine/Israel territory should undergo a genuine disarmament process.

Here’s what will probably happen: Israel will continue to eat up Palestinian territory by small stages, will continue to impoverish and harass Palestinians in the hope that they will take up permanent residence in Jordan and other neighbouring states. The US will continue to give lip service to the 2-state option while continuing to arm Israel and block all criticism of Israel’s actions in the UN Security Council. Desperate Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will repeatedly resort to improvised attacks on Israel and Israel will retaliate with extremely disproportionate force. Many will die; 20 or more Palestinians for each Israeli.

Here’s what could happen: US and Israeli intransigence and shortsightedness in Palestine will increasingly frustrate the rest of the world. The Arab states surrounding Israel will coalesce against the US/Israeli unwillingness to deal justly with Palestinians. Terrorist organizations will grow and expand their activities to include states seen to support the US policies in the Middle East. Israel will find itself more and more isolated as pressure from the outside world begins to recognize that Palestine represents a flash point that could trigger worldwide conflict. A concerted attack by the united Arab states to eliminate Israel will fail because of US intervention, but will leave all of Palestine in ruins with masses of Israeli and Arab refugees. The exchange of nuclear attacks between Iran and Israel is a possibility.

Palestinian Sami Hadawi, historian Noam Chomsky and former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter differ on some of the details, but agree on almost all the essentials. Israel and the USA are playing with fire in the Middle East and may be preparing the region for an unimaginable tragedy. Although justified on the premise that security is at stake, Israel has first signed on to, then broken a series of proposals for ending the conflict in Palestine. The US has run a rear guard action to protect Israel’s backside as it proceeds to steal land, disenfranchise the former owners and generally solidify it’s hold on the entire area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

All three books have shortcomings. Hadawi’s analysis is dated, of course; much significant history has occurred since his book was republished 20 years ago. The history of the region, however, going back to the early 20th Century is enlightening. It’s difficult to grasp all the implications of Palestinian history, especially if one wishes to go back to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, or even to the boy David’s killing of the Palestinian, Goliath. But modern voters in the USA and its allies should at least have a concept of the progression from the early days of the discussions on a Jewish state (ca. 1919) through the Holocaust to the present. Hadawi’s book leads the reader through all this—at least up to the 1980s. Hadawi worked as a land valuer through the British Mandate period and is well placed to comment authoritatively on land issues as seen through Palestinian eyes.

Noam Chomsky’s book (Middle East Illusions) is a compilation of material produced by him over many years. Eminently readable, it offers the reader a history of Palestine after the 1967 war. Chomsky proposes a socialist Palestinian state, with independent, primarily-Palestinian and primarily-Israeli provinces operating with considerable autonomy under a central government, not unlike Manitoba and Saskatchewan under Canadian federalism.

Jimmy Carter’s book is, of course, mostly about what Jimmy Carter is doing and has done about the Palestinian conundrum before, during and after his presidency. You have to give Jimmy credit; bringing about the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel was a groundbreaking achievement, and his interest in pursuing continued progress on a peace settlement goes on unabated. Like the others, he sees clearly the failure of Israel and the US to seize opportunities for a settlement.

A solution in Palestine is hindered by several key factors. Mixed motives in the region is probably the big one; the USA’s hunger for a secure energy supply means it has a vital interest in controlling Middle Eastern affairs; an Israel in the centre of it all, possessing military superiority and the threat of nuclear weapons serves this motive. Secondly, the world has somehow been kept ignorant of the enormous wrong that has been and is being done in Palestine. It’s time more people became aware of this, and reading Hadawi, Chomsky and Carter makes a good start.