If there is anything worse about violence and ensuing beatings and killings then this only alternative can be that children are involved. Logically, one's mind goes to the numerous children that are maltreated by parents or strangers alike; the vulnerability of children makes it a duty for society to cater for and protect them. What happens though when children are no longer only victims but become perpetrators too?
Today in France two young teenagers, a boy and girl, killed their classmate in the school courtyard. A few days ago, a young boy of no more than 11 years was caught in Salonica, Greece throwing stones at policemen. Last year, in the town of Veroia, Greece a boy was allegedly tortured and killed by his classmates. Just a few years ago, in Columbine, Ohio, a young boy shot and killed his classmates.
Language deprived of sensationalism can make even the most shocking information appear normal. Yet no matter how objective and relaxed the language is, such news is disturbing, even to the most calm and composed individuals. Denial is a common response: one sees it in newspapers analyses, listens to it when people talk, expresses it on his own face. "It is not possible."
Sadly it is. Atrocities occur. Atrocities occur often. Atrocities occur often in many places. Can it go any worse?
Realizing the unrealizable is an obligation. Accepting what is unacceptable is a crime.
Society advances by the day. Is this a measure of our progress? Or is it perhaps a measure of our civility? What is it really that justifies our breeding of violence such that brings horrendous crimes like the ones we read in the papers to life? We talk about education and curricula reforms, we are concerned about what happens in school classrooms when we pay little if any attention to all the 'other' teachers of children: the movies, the games, the advertisements, the media, the archetypes. In her article in yesterday's Kathimerini, Tasoula Karaiskaki condemns society and the culture of abundance that breeds inequality and cultivates disdain to those least favored by society. Explanations there can be many. The question remains, and is poignant one: how do we go about? What sort of revolution it takes, if any, such that would liberate us all from the maze of the 'culture of violence'?
To me in this story there are two other things that are problematic too. Karaiskaki brings the first in her article: democracy, and the inherent inability of our political system to treat all those members of society, and particularly the younger ones, that are deviating. More often than note the society turns its face down to those mostly in need. While sure there are exceptions the fact that incidents occur repeatedly is a sign of our utter failure.
The second concern involves justice. How is it that we can administer justice when there are no fingerprints of the true perpetrators? (Let us not forget that children committing crimes are themselves victims). And, perhaps most importantly, what is that prevents us from doing so? It seems to me that our conception of crime being limited to traditional or almost stereotypical images of criminals as depicted in movies does little service to us in times when the definitions of villain and victim have expanded so drastically.
With the violence of children being such common phenomenon surely we must admit that another pillar of society has collapsed. In front of our eyes. The least we can do: try to pick up the pieces.
Maybe, maybe, one day we can have the full wall up.
References and Links:
Meaux : les deux collégiens mis en examen
Η ευημερία που πληγώνει
Friday, December 22, 2006
If there is anything worse about violence and ensuing beatings and killings then this only alternative can be that children are involved. Logically, one's mind goes to the numerous children that are maltreated by parents or strangers alike; the vulnerability of children makes it a duty for society to cater for and protect them. What happens though when children are no longer only victims but become perpetrators too?
Saturday, December 16, 2006
The debate on 'what is poverty?' is a hot but not a new one: economists, proponents of defining poverty with mathematical formulas and anthropologists with an insistence on cultural variance have been crafting successful and less-than-successful definitions of poverty for years now. Regardless of how poverty ends up being defined, instances of poverty or, of what resembles to poverty, abound in rich and poor counties, in big and small cities, in urban and rural settings.
Because poverty is such a big challenge for countries and the world, efforts from governments and international organizations concentrate on perfecting existing approaches to dealing with poverty; to that end in a statement released a few days ago, the World Bank announced that is expected that globalization reduces world poverty. Meanwhile and regardless of whether on adheres to this line of thought or not, it is important to get to know the 'enemy' well: how are we expected to win the battle ignoring the 'strengths' of our opponent, ignoring its many faces?
French daily "Le Monde" published a very interesting article titled "Nous, les travailleurs pauvres" ("We, the poor workers") on the subject matter of poverty and one of its nasty faces, urban poverty. Claire Guélaud narrates the personal stories of individuals that are poor (or near the dividing line- pending which definition of poverty you take). Yet it is not the story of homeless or unemployed people: it is the story of individuals that work but barely (if ever) make the ends. It is the story of people whose receipt of financial aid is contingent upon how much or how little work they found this month, as most of them are part time workers. It is the story of people that experience the frustration of unpredictability and the anxiety of seeing the electricity bill rise, even if such a rise amounts to a coin or two worth of euros.
Regardless of the category in which such individuals fit in, particularly since it may change by the day, the article raises important questions about economics, society, social responsibility and education. It even brings up the question of the ability to control one's life and future, most evident in the case of Mr. Lewille who dreads the day that Social Security will take his little child on account that he is not able to raise a family.
San Jacinto and parts of urban France like Roubaix (Nord) may differ substantially in just about everything; and yet if there is a commonality to be found then that would be that they both have people that suffer; people that work a lot and gain little.
Next to the damage it causes on people's lives, poverty's defining characteristic is its ability to conceal itself: behind statistics, behind nice clothes even behind a big smile. That all makes poverty no less an enemy to people: it only makes harder to fight.
World Bank Statement: Global Economic Prospects 2007: Managing the Next Wave of Globalization
article in Le Monde: Nous, les travailleurs pauvres
Thursday, December 14, 2006
There was a time that Kyoto was known as the former capital of the Japanese imperial state. And then 1997 came. Kyoto, the city of Emperors and Camelias, is now associated with reductions of greenhouse gas emissions- a consequence of the fact that the a Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed there. Rightly so I believe since this Protocol is a landmark in the battle to protect the environment and the future of the planet.
Around the same time, hype terms such as 'global warming' or 'renewable energy sources' started invading our vocabulary: the planet is at risk we were told. Slowly but surely environmental issues made it to the papers and television and smiling newscasters talk now about the dangers of global warming with the same ease they announce wars and catastrophes. Of course environmentalism is no new phenomenon: already in late 19th century one can trace its first steps in the United States; West Europeans have been thinking about the environment quite some time now.
And yet despite that all, environmental news regardless of how serious it looks, it holds a second-rate status. You will never find an environmental issue making the cover story of a newspaper: if you are optimistic you can hope that on the bottom left corner next to the marriage of Angelina or Jennifer there is going to be reference to the gloomy prediction about the ozone layer. With the exception of some west European countries, notably Germany, Austria and Sweden, the ministry of the Environment is 'your typical Ministry': chances are that in a Cabinet meeting you will see the Minister sitting at the end of the table, rarely appearing in the news or protesting about the modest budget.
Worse still than the second class tag we attach to the environment is our hypocritical behavior. Regardless of whether we know or not what 'global warming' is we shake our heads if caught amidst a discussion in a business meeting agreeing that the environment is a serious matter. We approve of recycling and yet we rarely take the newspapers to the designated bins. We complain about poor air quality and yet we refuse to leave our cars at home. Convenience: another big catch.
Instead of pointing fingers or creating dividing lines between state and human responsibilities (as if though the two parties had opposing interests) how about looking at the environment's fate? To my eyes, a dying patient to which we inject venom everyday, the planet no matter how strong it was just a few decades ago seems to lose the battle for life. Species disappear. World temperature rises. Just two days ago "doctors" announced that North Pole ice may melt until 2040.
If the environment was a human being it would be in the emergency room by now. Chances are that "the children of the patient" would be outside weeping and praying to God. What we do instead is to remove the feeding tube and the oxygen supply by the day. Death is slow and painful. This is sad yet certain. The only thing to be debated is the following: Since we will be dying too, are we victims or villains?
The latest on our planet:
Arctic ice may all melt in summer by 2040 - study
La banquise du pôle Nord pourrait avoir disparu l'été, d'ici à 2040
Θάλασσα ο Β. Πόλος
Monday, December 11, 2006
-Come on in, cross the gate!
-Where am I?
-Come on in, and I will take you a tour. In Hell.
-Where is Hell? Is it not far away from us, the sort of place you may go to after you die? Or is it some terrestrial version of it, say Iraq or Darfur?
-Ha. Well certainly no after life yet, let's constrain ourselves in Earth. And no, (thankfully) it is not Iraq. Why, you thought Hell is only there? Or where you hear about war and disaster and big money gets involved too?
-Well, no... But...
-Where are we?
-Will a name matter to you?
-Okay therefore. We are in Los Hervideros de San Jacinto.
-I told you it would be pointless. Come on here, come see this.
-Is this geothermal activity?
-Yes, indeed. It is where the earth boils and steam comes out of it...
-Is it because of the volcano I see further afield?
-Yes, the area is very volcanic. Hervideros in Spanish means hot bubbling springs..
-It is very beautiful! But I would imagine hard to live around.. The smell of sulfur, the hot steam coming out of the earth, the hearing of bubbles all day...
-This is one way to see hell... There is something else I want to show you.
-This is Hell too. Wanting to be able to live a decent life and not achieving it. Living in p-o-v-e-r-t-y, relying on whoever tourist will show up to see the Hervideros for maybe, say, US$0.50, relying on whatever you produce, not having enough money for any decent clothing... Poverty is everywhere.
-I know, I can see...
-You can see it because it is obvious of course but you can see it because you have the eyes to see it. If you lived far away you would not be able to. Who in the world you think cares about those destined to live in Los Hervideros de San Jacinto? If you lived here you would not be able to see poverty either...
-How so? It is all around me...
-Because it is all around you my friend. Because you have to try to find someone who has a clean shirt. Because you have to try to find a hut that is "liveable" by (average) health standards. Because poverty is all around you, your eyes get used to it, you get used to it, it does no longer bother you. In the same well you get used to sulfur smell. Horrible as it may appear to you, you get used to it when you breathe it all day and all night long. Plus, if you want to make money, you go to the hervideros when tourists come, you kneel, you show them the mud hole, you tell them the story... And, sulfur smells so damn well when it gives you half a dollar...
-I see.. People here are taken by this way of life... They have not seen anything different.. This is the way they have grown up, the lifestyle they pass to their children.. But, on the other hand if you think about it, this is their life, why change it? Does anyone have the right to?
-You are right here, perhaps. Perhaps not though. Because no matter how you want to preserve the local life, the culture and tradition of a group, can you say they are fine if they lack such basic things as education? Healthcare? What sort of a life is that where you may die at any given moment because of a mosquito, because malaria pills are too expensive for you?
-It is time to go. Is there anything to be said?
-So much and so little. It is time to go.
-For us that have the option to get out of hell. For the rest it is going to be a fine night next to the hervideros.
-Even Hell is not fair in Earth. Some have the option of getting in and out. So easily, and yet for others there is no way out whatsoever.
Los Hervideros de San Jacinto is small village located 25 km north of León, a famous colonial city in Nicaragua. Despite the fact it attracts some tourists, the village is typical of the region. Tourism is not yet developed in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the continent with 50% of the population living in poverty and over 30% of its people unable to read and write. The country has witnessed a 50-year right wing dictatorship, followed by a tough communist rule and a ravaging civil war that claimed at least 50,000 lives. It is only during the last 15 years that Nicaragua has been experiencing democracy.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Gold arches. I-tunes. Mickey Mouse. Yes, you have guessed correctly, McDonalds, I-pod and Disney are all typical examples of the pervasiveness -for better or worse- of globalization. And yet the globalization extends beyond common services and goods; guns can get global too. How? In just about the same way that the average toy of your son travels around the world before it settles in your home, a gun that was produced thousand miles away may kill a little girl in Uganda.
"Weapons and ammunition supplied to the governments of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda were subsequently distributed to armed groups and militia in the eastern DRC involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity. In addition to committing other crimes, these armed groups systematically and brutally raped and sexually abused tens of thousands of women. Arms dealers, brokers and transporters from many countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, the UK and the USA were involved in these arms transfers, highlighting once again the key importance of regulating the operations of arms brokers and dealers. By the end of 2005 only about 30 states had laws regulating such brokers."
(Source: Amnesty International 2006 Report on Arms Control)
Ever wondered how global conflicts are fought? How genocide is committed? How on earth do people that have no food to feed themselves find modern technology weapons and bullets? Well, we provide them with. Or sort of. The question of arms trade is a large one and truly global; Whether as producers of weapons (G8 countries, the Balkans) or recipients (Africa and pretty much wherever conflict takes place) or as in-between agents/smugglers, a good number of countries are involved in arms trade and a better number of people make a living by (enabling the) killing (of) others.
Years of campaigning and raising awareness bore fruits today when the United Nations passed a resolution that paves the way for a treaty on arms control; such a treaty would restrict the scope of this lucrative business and the chance that such weapons fell on the hands of guerrillas or terrorists. We would be talking of a milestone day today, had there not been one country, the United States, opposing such an effort: of the 192 countries members of the world, 153 voted in favor of the resolution, 24 countries abstained -mostly gun trading countries- and yes, the United States opposed it.
Fighting the war against terrorism while providing terrorists with weapons: Are we missing something here or is it just me?
On the UN resolution:
UN seeks new treaty restricting global arms
L'ONU ouvre la voie à un traité réglementant le commerce des armes
Sunday, December 03, 2006
December 3rd is the International Day of Disabled Persons. Aside from this one day devoted to our fellow citizens with some disability, the United Nations has passed two important documents: the World Programme Action Concerning Disabled Persons (1982) and the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1993).
But need we be reminded of the fact that all people are equal and deserve the same amount of dignity, respect and opportunities for prosperity?
It appears that we do. The World Health Organization's press release informs of a dismal reality: of the 500 million of people living with some disability, 80% live in developing countries and only 1-2% have access to rehabilitation services. Some 30% of the 104 countries that bothered to respond (there are close 200 countries in our world) said they have no provisions for the rehabilitation of the disabled. Only three countries involve disabled peoples' organization in the planning and evaluation of health services.
But statistics is only one side of the coin. There is another, a sadder one: Discrimination. Our inability as society to (fully) engage the disabled members is a testimony of our outter failure. But matters can go worse. We build barriers, both physical (lack of facilities and equipment) and social (unemployment- 70% in the US, a country that is well ahead in bridging the gap); we discriminate against verbally- or even without using words.
I don't think there is much more to be added here. Just let us all take a moment to briefly imagine how different our lives would be if, say, we could not walk? could not hear? could not see?
With this principle in mind, but with the goal of increasing awareness on the unique abilities of the disabled, the Foundation for the Hellenic World (Ίδρυμα Μείζονος Ελληνισμού) a not-for-profit cultural institution based in Athens, Greece organized a day of activities for the little ones, titled "Different skills, different possibilities..my friends" ("Με άλλες ικανότητες, με άλλες δυνατότητες.. οι φίλοι μου") which aimed at showing the unique ways children with disabilities perceive the world. What an excellent initiative!
Finally, I have been told that the newly released movie "Happy Feet" (the story of a penguin that is different in that it "taps" his feet unlike the rest of penguins and fights in order to become accepted in the society of 'mainstream' penguins) is also a strong criticism against discrimination.. may the powers of Warner Bros and the cute penguins help us become better persons..!
World Health Organization Press Release
Foundation for the Hellenic World
The movie: Happy Feet!
Saturday, December 02, 2006
that you are not among us. Difficult to believe, difficult to realize that we will never see you again. We convince ourselves that you are somewhere around, hiding or too busy -just like you were in real life, trying to make other people's lives better.
So you would ask me, 'what am I am missing'? Not much, nothing too good has happened around here or in the world really that I can think of. More casualties in Iraq and elsewhere, a war in Lebanon over the summer, more deaths of diseases, earthquakes and catastrophes. Presidents go up, others stepping down, but politics are still very messy. Hamas in Palestine, Prodi in Italy. García in Peru, Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa in Ecuador, Chavez next week again? South America is becoming more lefty by the day. The Iraq is mess- the civil war is a matter of time, so they say. Pinochet admitted political responsibility for what happened during the dictatorship: does this bring people back? I don't think so.
Good news? I have to google. ETA ceasefire in Spain. Rumsfeld stepped down. Definitely good news. In our neighborhood, the Balkans, Montenegro declared independence from Serbia. Your Bulgaria is closer to my Greece on corruption: you are 57 we are 54! Keep it up! Oo how did I forget? Yunus, the microfinance guru got the Economics Nobel Prize! You remember my hate/hate relationship with econ[omics].. but you would have greatly appreciated that, I am sure. I do too.
We have not had snow yet around here. Can you believe it? It's December and not a single snowflake. Yes, we have messed up the environment too. But let's say, for a change, I want to believe is our good fortune... don't ruin my dream please! Let us hope that 'spring' will be as good as 'fall' or at least not that bad as '03 or '04! Deval (D) got elected here as Governor.. A change after so many years! Our president is still doing the marathon, dewick has gotten extended by yet another one (it is something crazy like 8.30 on 9 on fridays now-wow!). Most of our people are no longer here of course... but for me is the good same december days now...
We miss you. Everyone that was fortunate to get to know you.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Thanksgiving is a celebration where families unite to commemorate the pilgrims, show their gratitude for whatever they have and enjoy delicious turkey
I am not particularly tall. While I do prefer to sit on the aisle when travelling on a plane, I still manage to be comfortable and smiling even in a middle seat. So long as the people next to me do not gossip in front of me. I hate gossip.
But gossip was not an issue in today's flight. Far from that.
Running as I was to catch my flight, I had not paid attention to my assigned seat which was a "B" seat, that is a middle seat. I enter the plane, I march down the aisle trying to squeeze between passengers that chat or try to store their belongings, finally i reach the row where my seat is located. I excuse myself, I sit down, I put my backpack underneath the front seat, I lift my head. Once settled, I try to explore the territory that will be hosting me for the next four hours. A man sitting on my right, a woman sitting on my left. Both in their forties. All nice and ordinary you would say. And so it seemed. Silence, silence, silence.
I was parusing a novel that was sitting patiently in my backpack waiting to be read for quite some time. The gentleman next to me was delving into some business reviews. The lady was reading about chinese cuisine. Suddenly it becomes clear that the woman is the mother of three teenagers that occupy the front row, as two of them interrupt momentarily their activities and turn back to ask something.. Another hour goes by. Nothing really special. Then the flight attendant comes and whishes to offer us drinks. To her general question "What would you like to drink?" the woman and the man answer simultaneously "coke". Nothing more, nothing less.
Another hour goes by. The woman takes a nap. The man takes a nap. The rest of the plane is taken by some movie showing on the aiplane screen. Man wakes up, peaks up another business review. Woman wakes up reads about another duck recipe. The captain of the plane announces our upcoming arrival to the destination. Woman closes the recipe book. Man shuts his eyes. We land. Illuminated signs are off, bealts unfastened, people up and stretching. The youngest of the three kids in front of me turns on the back: "Dad, did you enjoy the trip?"
Thanksgiving lasts only one day.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
You cannot expect anyone to look at Congo and see 'the future' unless that person has large reserves of hope. Period.
I choose to talk about Congo, or as it is formally known, the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C. - former Zaire), because tragedy has been alive and well in this central African State. I choose to talk about Congo because we hear a lot about Darfur and Iraq and not so much about a country that has lost 4 millions to a deadly civil war on the top of poverty and disease. The country where diamonds and misery abound alike is like a child seeking for assistance, how can we ignore it?
Congo's attempt to 'move forward' was demonstrated in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections, the first in four decades. The son of the former dictator and incumbent president by the name Joseph Kabila ran against former fight leader Jean-PIerre Bemba just a few days ago: in this gloom-looking race Kabila seems to have won. But one only asks how promising such a victory is, particulalry from the moment that the contestant, Bemba, questions the results and recourse to violence seems quite a possibility. Elections are not enough.
What, you thought that just because we had elections, everything is fine? Well, consider again. This is not the consolidated democracy you are used to: post-election is not a media-fiesta, and 'the day after' is not necessarily 'a new day' or 'a fresh start' for which ever party wins.
But remember, we hope. We hope that Congo will not fall back to warfare.
From the very beginning I said that you need hope to look at Congo. I do not think I was wrong. Not because the editorial of leading Spanish newpspaper EL PAIS bares the title Sombrío Congo ("Sombre Congo"). But, rather, because there has been too much evidence of pain, suffering, destruction and fatalism. The future does not seem to deviate very far. Hence, it is only through hope you can see 'a future' for this central African state. Ironically so, this hope comes from Congo itself. It comes from the heroic segments of the populations that survived the Greek, American and Russian bullets during war, that make a living out of the horrendous gold and diamond mines, that fight every possible disease that plagues humans with little or no drugs. Hope stems from these heroes that every morning wake up, and they smile too. These people make us somehow believe that this country will stand on its feet again.
If only war does not start on Monday...
References ans Links
Ballots burned after historic Congolese vote
Editorial en español:
Joseph Kabila remporte l'élection présidentielle
For more information on how Greek bullets killed Congolese look at the Amnesty International Report here:
Media Briefing: Bullets from Greece, China, Russia and United States found in rebel hands in Democratic Republic of Congo
(What, you thought globalization is only McDonalds?)
Sunday, November 12, 2006
the percentage of people that "hope for water" (to link with my previous post) is a sad figure, greater than I would have ever estimated or imagined: 17%
SEVENTEEN PERCENT - DIX-SEPT POUR CENT - SIEBZEHN PROZENT - DIECISIETE POR CIENTO - ΔΕΚΑΕΠΤΑ ΤΟΙΣ ΕΚΑΤΟ - YUZDE ONYEDI.
I usually write, at times a lot, I don't think there is much more to add here...
A link to the french daily Le Monde, perhaps:
17 % de l'humanité en manque d'eau potable
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Taking off from the last post, I will embark on what may -or may not- be a futile attempt to understand what is I believe a very important component of the human psyche: Hope. I claim no scientific expertise and in fact I do ask for scientific feedback; however I do believe that even a mere empirical survey of facets of hope is relevelatory in itself, and this is for no other reason than the relevance that 'hope' has to our lives.
Many of the voters that participated in the US elections yesterday cast 'a vote of hope' for change, regardless of their political identity. Many defiant souls in the realm of civil and political affairs decide to go against 'big' theories, dim statistical predictions or influential individuals projecting a doubt, else put, hoping that some alternative is possible. And yet while Americans and Westerners have the privilige of 'mentally creating alternatives' for realities they deem unfulfiling, for the poverty-stricken woman and her baby the hope of finding food is a necessity, not a choice.
Regardless of the source that kindles hope, the need to aspire to a positive change is quintessential for the human psyche, for such purposes as to console oneself, to legitimize or criticize, even to defend a purpose. What also matters though is to observe the 'fate' of hope, that is whether it materializes or not. Sentiments of joy and celebration were evident throughout the US to mark the electoral victory of Democrats in the House of Representatives. Going beyond this one example, a-hope-turning-true is a very powerful event indeed.
But how does one cope with the degeneration of hope? There is nothing sadder, really, than the powerlessness that ensues the dismantling of hope, the realization of inevitability. How painful must it to face such a calamity! Only one thing comes to mind as worse and this is the realization (of hopelessness) being a slow, self-induced process.
And yet it is all too common to see people betraying dreams and hopes with their own choices. Partly because the pursuit is too risky, partly because the commitment proves too shallow, partly for-whatever-other-reason it is true that many prove inadequate. And they may be anything from modestly ashamed to seriously depressed. But this is all part of human nature, right?
A true virtue of hope is that it is malleable: much like clay, you can play with it, you can shape it as you see fit, adjust it if you don't like it. And if you are not happy still, you can do it all over again! No strings attached. Except of course when you have no food and you may not have tomorrow either. Except when the weather devastated your house and your crop yield and will continue to do so for the rest of the season. Except when you are left with nothing and are alone too. Hope for some people just seems beyond control, not to say beyond reach. And despite that, I am told that few still hope, until...
I so admire the few people.
Note: The collective demonstration of hope, personified by Emiliano Zapata, is still alive and well among many Mexicans. I was in a taxi, in motion and this explains the quality of the photo; yet the message "Zapata vive" (Zapata is alive) still comes accross I believe. Photo taken in November 2005 in a square in Mexico City.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Separated and united by the Morón river, their membership to their country's national army, their uniform, their human nature: such is the destiny of Cheito and Pedro, two soldiers, the first from Venezuela the other from Colombia. For distinct reasons they find themselves fighting a nationalistic informal war in the frontier that separates their two countries, the Morón river - a place where threat is part of the natural setting and the dangerous species attacking your life can be anything from a river animal to a soldier of the 'other' country, to a paramilitary group member to a drug dealer, to a local yound girl threatening to stab you.
The poor neighborhoods of urban Venezuela, the equally poor villages of the Colombian Andes, the inhospitable jungle along the river - home but also place of death to drug dealers, paramilitaries and soldiers alike- provide the setting for this drama. But 'Punto y Raya' goes well beyond a mere mapping of this unstable, yet unknown to many, region of the world, to try and comprehend the complex human nature. Who is the true enemy, really?
No definite answer to be found in a movie where the expendability of human life takes all possible forms and where friendship becomes supreme virtue in the form of the bond that Cheito and Pedro will ultimately establish. Yet the blank look at the eyes of the protagonists before the End seems to suggest that their real enemy is not the one in uniform. The most powerful weapon is not a gun. And the most fatal biting is not as poisonous as the innate desire for conquest which transforms human beings to savage animals - instantly.
Relax. 'Punto y Raya' is not the unbearable, blood-soaked movie you may imagine it is. Director Schneider balances this dramatic account with a good dose of humor and comedy elements. If only there was a similar easy way out for life's most perennial dilemmas! Maybe then fewer societies would be torn apart. And perhaps less suffering would result from wars. But that would not be our world. It would be a magical one, right? Or maybe not?
Note: As I was watching the movie I was constantly reminded of a short story by Greek writer Antonis Samarakis titled "The river" ("To Ποτάμι") in "Hope Wanted" ("Ζητείται Ελπίς"), a story about soldiers, a river, and the quest for hope.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Depriving Chile of its democracy and the Chileans of their dignity, Pinochet stigmatized Chilean politics and degenerated human rights to the lowest level possible. Detention, torture, disappearances are not attributed to some evil fantastic character; they are all part of his infamous record. Now, 33 years after the 1973 coup Pinohet gets to hear judge Solis verdict: home detention for the "Villa Grimaldi" [detention camp] atrocities. The mask is off.
Short only a few days from his 91st birthday, Pinochet's persona is still haunting the Chileans. But it is also haunting humanity. His presence is here to remind us not only of the Chilean tragedy but also of the long way to go for safeguarding the most basic of human rights.
Democracy has been reintroduced in Chile, the chapter on human rights violations is history - a history for us all to revisit and remember. Forgetting is only catastrophic, and there is too much catastrophy already. Remembering is crucial, confronting the past heals open wounds they say. Yet it is about time to take human rights to another level, and instead of trying to "make up", to run ahead of violations. Preemptiveness in this sense is a good thing.
Sadly, for every two steps forward, there is one backwards. And this is not to surprise us really: behind all the fancy rhetoric of "preponderence of human rights" lies a tragic reality: foreign policy agenda, national sovereignty discourse. Cost. Cost. Cost. Only the value of human life degrades, or so it seems.
When Halloween or Carnival ends, we take off the masks. Why not in politics too? Until when will diplomacy be a mask on our face and politics an eternal bal masqué? It is about time that we spoke simply. Basic words for basic concepts and a basic life. For everyone.
Articles on Pinochet:
en español (desde Chile)
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Long time indeed had to pass until I had the opportunity to watch Makhmalbaf's excellent movie 'Kandahar'. A 2001 movie, 'Kandahar' tells the story of an Afghani-born Canada-resident journalist who decides to penetrate Taliban Afghanistan in order to hinder the suicide of her sister, a presumably victimized resident of Afghanistan. This simplified plot, deprived of sensationalism and intrigues, does succeed however at creating a powerful movie; Makhmalbaf choice to structure the movie around the travellings of the journalist allowed him to tie together a set of seemingly irrelevant stories, which nonetheless encapsulate daily life in Afghanistan prior to the US involvement in the region. His excellent choice of a limited cast supplemented with local population and his skillful use of the camera elevate the movie to another level.
Along with the journalist's linear travelling, what unifies the movie is the notion of pain and trauma. Suffering dominates the film, bridging any differences from any dividing lines that cut accross politics and society. Men and women are both victims of landmines; amputation does not look at one's gender or social status. Save the tiny elite, the film depicts a society caught between many plagues: landmines constituting a legacy of the war and widespread poverty signaling a nation in deep need of aid. This is not to say of course that women are not in the bottom of the echelon: the colorful burkas are what give color to anotherwise grey, desert, rough environment, with rare glimpses of the sky constituting the exception.
As the journalist travels, she records her observations and thoughts on a tape recorder, in a long monologue of hope to her sister: "I am glad that you don't know the truth, that in Afghanistan these 20 years one human being has died every five minutes from mines, from war, famine and drought. If you knew that you would have lost hopt every five minutes, you would have wanted to kill yourself." Coming to grips with reality was a challenge for the journalist; yet it is an even greater one for whichever member of the local, ignorant -to the state of the country- population, decides to embark on such a process of discovery.
But I wish to go no further on extolling a movie, for which I wish not to a write a critique. (If this were the purpose, I would have certainly pointed to some 'lesser virtues' of the movie). What is of interest to me is the relevance of the movie in today's world. For our fast-paced world, 5 years is quite some time. Plus, Afghanistan is no longer in the forefront of news; now Iraq dominates.The abundance of movies that have been produced between then and now in conjunction with the dramatic course of world affairs in the region, might have placed 'Kandahar' in an archive. I am hopping not in any 'upper shelf' yet. Because if this case, then we might as well have a 'ladder' aound: 'Kandahar' proves, today more than any time in the 'post-Taliban' era to be useful. Links to the bottom of the post point to the dramatic escalation of the situation in Afghanistan and the resurgence of Taliban, placing simultaneously a big question mark at the end of every essay that advocated the urgency of war or glorified US presence in the country, particulalry given the way affairs were conducted.
Duration, they say, is a testimony to the success of a film. May 'Kandahar' acquire the fame of 'Casablanca' in the annals of world cinema; may this be because of its cinematografic qualities and not as a consequence of continuous relevance to world affairs.
Monday, October 16, 2006
Benign: this is a word to describe the title of my post when compared to that of the German newspaper Die Zeit, with regard to the measures that rich countries have undertaken to safeguard their borders from clandestine immigration. The original title of Die Zeit is followed by an English translation here: "Die Große Mauer des Kapitals. USA/Mexiko und anderswo: Wie die Armen der Welt brutal von den reichen Ländern ausgegrenzt werden." or "The big wall of Capitalism. USA/Mexico and elsewhere: How the poor of the world are brutally excluded from the rich countries."
But before one gets too hard on the Germans may I note the fact that the author of the article is not a German but the prominent American sociologist Mike Davis who teaches at University of California at Irvine. His thesis here is that Capitalism is the worst kind of frontier that could possibly segregate people, personified widely by such "superpower" actors as the United States, the European Union and Australia.
People have erected walls to separate themselves from dangerous enemies beginning with the Roman Empire Davis tells; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was hailed as the end of segregation and the beginning of 'movement', of globalization. However, the 1989 prophesy turned to be only in part true: the world, at least its western hemisphere, did embrace globalization, NAFTA, euro but it did not embrace people. For once again, the world's wealthiest fall short of facing the consequences of their acts in the eyes.
Regardless of the moral dimension of not keeping one's promises, the hostility with which immigrants have been repelled has had tangible and quite dramatic consequences with thousands dying in the American and Australian deserts or drowning in the European seas. Extremely needy or brave (depending on your perspective) individuals will not stop against any Patriot Act or Schengen Clause: there is no going-back option in the route they have chosen, in a route that leads directly to Hell with an infinitesimal probability of escape, which would mean crossing successfully km/miles of desert or swimming days and nights and illegally 'making it' in the hostile territory. Luis Alberto Urrea in The Devil's Highway (New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004) tells the story of a group of men that tried to cross the Arizona desert. Recommended only if you have hard stomachs, I have not been able to finish it myself.
How to respond? How to deal with illegal immigration? A wide array of opinions is to be found here. In the spectrum of suggestions one can find from the most extreme prospositions, such as the ones far-right European and Americans xenophobics propose to liberal all-inclusive leftist visions. Regardless of where one stands ideologically, the solution to the problem must be a sustainable one, one that respects people equally, the inhabitants of a country that claims not to afford additional immigration and the people that seek a better future. Idealistic as it may sound, and I admit it is, this way of thinking can only propel us forward, particularly in the light of the massive failures of the already adopted strategies. Unless of course we do not care about the people that die painful deaths every day, in which case I guess we are fine.
The decision to erect walls, as the United States has been doing over the past years, will only deteriorate the problem of illegal immigration; in adition to the existing threats (barb wires, patrols, shootings etc) that attack the bodies of people, the walls attack the soul of Mexicanos. The huge walls of shame, as I believe they should be called, slap people in the face by stripping them off of their dignity. There is nothing worse than the feeling of inferiority, than the powerlessness that is deliberately being injected into the daring few and their families. Wole Soyinka, the shrewd, widely admired author and advocate of peace writes about the quest of dignity in his book Climate of Fear (New York: Random House, 2005) and notes "wise is indeed the victor who knows that, in order to shield his own rear from the elements, he must not denude his opponents (93). Not for fear of retaliation but to justify the humanity we claim to possess, if I may add.
Full article: http://www.zeit.de/2006/42/Mauern?page=all#
Note: Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the english version.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Aesthetically there is nothing much in this photo. With the exception of this 'guitar-type' instrument in the middle of the photo, one can safely say that there is nothing particular or interesting in the picture... or maybe not?
Allow me to take you momentarily on a short trip to the capital of Belgium and the 'heart of Europe', yet away from the clichés, no European Union no Atomium here: welcome to Brussels! It is Sunday morning, roughly 9 AM and we are sometime in early June: don't be surprised, it is central Europe here, coats are useful all year long.
We are walking along the Madeleine/Magdalena street, a few meters/feet past the Church that gives its name to this central, car-free, street of Brussels. Everything in Brussels is written in french and flemish, although much to the dismay of the wealthier and more populous flemish community and despite the independant status of the city, on parle français à Bruxelles. This is the first, perhaps the most fundamental, division or coexistence (depending on your perspective) that you will find in Brussels. But it is far from being the only one.
You may not see them in this picture, but delegates from the European Union member states are indeed a vibrant component of Brussels. And so are the immigrants from Turkey, the Middle East and elsewhere. It so happens that the couple presented in the photo is a Belgian (based on the age). It could have very well been veiled girls or Italian administrators working for the Commission. The two musicians themselves may be Russians for the matter; the traditional balalaika certainly hails from somewhere around or past the Moscow region…
And if you think that just because we are in Brussels that everyone is rich or possesses a summer house in Oostend overlooking the Atlantic, you are, sadly, wrong. Many people barely make the ends in this otherwise rich city, the façade of which may at times conceal reality to the oblivious tourist, who dazzled by the Royal Residence or the beautiful gardens and the lavish haute-couture stores may fail to put things into perspective…
But we are sidetracking here and I apologize. Let us focus back in the photo. For one thing, you can tell this photo is taken in Brussels, or at least safely bet your money, because the store on the far right of the photo bears the inscription ‘Gaufre de Bruxelles’, gaufre being the traditional dessert of Belgium (Waffle in English, βάφλα στα ελληνικά, gofre en español). Still, the Restaurant next door boasts a nice neon-type inscription and a good selection of fine Greek wines; fortunately, 'Domaine Hatzimihali' the wines from Nemea region (‘Vins Nemea’) of the Peloponnese are not exclusively reserved to Greeks of Greece. Alternatively, if you are Greek, you make take pride in the fact that exports are still alive and contributing to the GDP. (Let us not look at the ‘how much’ question though.)
Just so as we do not forget that we live in a globalized world, or in the event that a non-speaker of English or French gets hold of the photo, there is a familiar sign to reassure him and us all, something that makes us realize that the photo in question is from a place that bears a resemblance to our very own hometown: there is ‘KODAK’! Would a modern picture of a modern capital be ‘complete’ without it?
Interestingly so, and because life makes circles, technology and the electronic evolution may dictate the death of ‘KODAK’ and other such stores and in a few years. If ‘KODAK’ is no longer there maybe a ‘Mc Donalds’ will be. Hopefully something that fits Brussels, something that has a touch of culture, something that will not stand out but will make an effort, at least, to blend in well. A task that is not necessarily easy, even in a multicultural place like Brussels.
Our photo-trip has ended. The picture may not appear interesting at first sight, but as Chinese say, it is nonetheless equivalent to a 1,000 words or maybe a handful less.
Thank you for being here. You may unfasten your belts now!
Saturday, October 07, 2006
The news that a significant percentage of food aid in Africa is wasted every year is very disturbing I believe (see link at the end). Given that aid can help tremendously people and countries -if administered efficiently- makes the above-described situation even more appalling, for it is not only food that is wasted, but human lives as well. And we do not seem to care about neither enough.
According to CARE International UK three are the factors for the food waste:
a) money is given late;
b) money is given for short period;
c) money is spent on wrong things.
Clearly, there is something wrong in the coordination efforts and whatever this is, it must be tackled in order to smoothen the relief process and assist effectively the communities in Africa and elsewhere in the world. While it is easy for all of us not directly involved in the relief process to point our finger to the mistakes, we cannot remain oblivious to the hearing of such news.
We cannot remain ignorant of the fact that 840 million people are malnourished (source: CARE) or of the fact that 44% of people in Sub-saharan Africa live with under $1 per day at least until 2002 (source: UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2006). And still, such percentages rarely make the news. While the contain the necessary dose of drama, they are neither fresh nor original nor vibrant for the media.
Do we see a metastasis of such 'attitude of indifference' among every day people too? This is too dangerous a question to answer on the spot. Can the UN and NGO efforts along with the perceptions statistics make a compelling case against the thesis of indifference? Or are we to fear that an amalgam of powerlessness and disinterest has already permeated our societies, making us all aloof observers at best, if not cynic arrogants?
"Report: Africans starve because billions in aid is wasted": http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/10/03/africa.aid.ap/index.html#
CARE International: http://www.care.org/campaigns/world-hunger/facts.asp
UN Millennium Development Goals 2006 Report: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2006/
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
In what is commonly referred to as the "Bible" of Human Rights Law "International Human Rights Law" by H. Steiner and P. Alston, I found the following evaluation of the Security Council that comes from the Human Rights Watch 2000 annual report:
"[As the Council] functions today, with the five permanent members free to exercise their vetoes for the most parochial reasons, [it] cannot be counted on to authorize intervention even in dire circumstances. China and Russia seem preoccupied by perceived analogies to Tibet and Chechnya. The United States is sometimes paralyzed by an isolationist Congress and a risk-averse Pentagon. Britain and France have let commercial or cultural ties stand in the way."
And this refers not to just any institution but to the Security Council instead, the most potent of all, the institution that is all about "security" as it's name denotes.. or maybe not? The Security Council is the international body that can make a difference, that should/would impose sanctions, that should/would safeguard (human) rights, that should/would render justice... Given that we have collectively and deliberately entrusted our fate with this Council, we might as well reserve the right to describe it as we wish: Go ahead and choose the grammatical tense/mode that you prefer, "should" or "would". What is the verdict?
Reference: The Human Rights Watch World Report 2000 quoted in Steiner H. and Alston P. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. 2nd edition. Oxford: OUP p.652
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Peter Fawcus was in many ways an unconventional man. First of all he was not a 'typical' member of the aristocracy. Peter Fawcus spent a significant part of his life in then Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) which was a British colony. He was neither a wealthy plantation lord nor a missionary. In fact, Fawcus was the resident Commissioner of Britain as of 1959. Fawkus falls under our definition of 'bad europeans' yet he is far from deserving it. Here is why:
"Fawcus and a few other dedicated officers identified with the democratic, nonracial aspirations of the BDP [Botswana Democratic Leader] leadership and were poweful allies of the African leadership. Fawcus' well-documented history of encounters with the whites, the chiefs and, sotto voce, the British government, show his deft hand in moving along. Fawcus also fought for financial resources for Bechuanaland, increasing annual expenditures in the protectorate by twentyfold between 1954-1965." (Lewis, 10-11) Fawcus also played a critical role in administering the JAC (Joint Advisory Council) which was established in 1951 and produced a constitutional arrangement for Bechuanaland and was also involved in the Constitutional Conference that took place in 1963.
When it comes to development, Botswana is viewed as the "African exception". A democracy for many years with high levels of economic growth, Botswana is "the second least corrupt, after Chile of the developing countries and is higher on that list than Japan, Spain, Belgium, Greece..." (Harrison, 123). Lewis (and Harrison) argue that Botswana success is to be found in some aspects of its culture such as an inherent democratic character, in the sound economic and social policies, in the peaceful practices with regard to conflict resolution, and, in the British administration and the personality of Peter Fawcus.
Peter Fawcus was not the average colonial administrator; he was 'the exception that confirms the rule'.. Yet it is important to make a reference to such a charismatic leader, a true gentleman, who impacted the lives of many, particulalry given the abundance of colonial personel that took advantage of or mistreated the indigenous population. Peter Fawcus stands out even when judged by our modern standards, for, how often is it really that we see people taking advantage of their position for personal gain/benefit? Fawcus could have been one such man, but he chose not to.
I end with a quote from Lewis with regard to British legacy in Botswana: "There was no large settler community claiming political power, no bureaucracy of privileged civil servants, no large houses of colonial rulers, no inheritance of inferiority..." (Lewis, 9).
Note that Botswana shares borders with such states as Zimbwabwe and South Africa...
Harrison, Lawrence. The Central Liberal Truth. Oxford: OUP, 2005.
Lewis, Stephen. Explaining Botswana's Success. Developing Cultures: Case Studies Ed. Harrison and Berger. London: Routledge, 2006. pp. 3-22.
www.gov.bw/cgi-bin/news.cgi?d=20030430 [site of the government, icludes the obituary of Sir Peter Fawcus]
Thursday, September 21, 2006
And we all thought that the end of World War II would bring peace...
But, since then, peace has died in Korea. Peace has died in Cambodia. Peace has died in Sudan. In Congo. In Ethiopia. In Afghanistan. In Rwanda. In Bosnia. In Iraq. In Sudan, for the second time now. Peace died just a few months ago in Lebanon. Worst of all: Peace does not die, we kill it.
We kill peace every day, by allowing war to thrive: We provide weapons (6 of the G8 countries are in the top ten of arms export) or simply we play the silent/mute game, "didn't see, didn't hear anything". And whenever we decide to do something, it is usually when cost is really negligeable for us: We bombed Serbia, because it was easy. It is true that to undertake major operations is no easy think. But to safeguard peace and most importantly to save the people that go in the graves when peace dies, we need to take firm positions against war, at times with economic or other cost. Unless of course we collectively decide that human life does not matter...
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International may argue that the conflicts in the world are gradually decreasing, but when we fail to agree on universally preserving some fundamental standards for all people regardless of race, color, religion, culture, can we hope that everlasting peace is no longer an illusion?
Confined in our secure bubble-world, occasionally listening to some John Lennon to lift up the spirits, well we cannot go very far this way really. We need people that can think beyond that, people with vision that will provide realistic solutions to some of the world's most tough dilemmas. We need trained individuals, but with a big heart. We 've had our share of economists. Now we want people to take charge, for we want peace. We really do.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
This might sound as an awfully dumb statement, and perhaps weird too, but it is sadly true. How often is it really that we realize that our mistakes would have been impeded, that we would made a wiser decision or simply that, in a given moment we would be 'better off' had we known what we really wanted at a crucial point? Job, interpersonal relationships, parenthood: you name it.
Of course this is not to say that people act irresponsibly, fortunately. And this is why most of the people, in such crucial decisions as marriage or children decide wisely. However, the (increasing) rate of divorces, abortions and general level of discontent among people allow for a further discussion of the matter. At the same time, there is a whole other category, of the not-so-important pivotal moments that we all face in our daily lives and we do mess up, fortunately with significantly less cost.
Is that people care less about themselves? This I cannot accept as an answer, particularly in today's world where examples of selfish behavior abound. Is that people are not able to make wise decisions? Continuously increasing levels of education in (virtually) all countries of the world seem to suggest the opposite. In addition, people are acquiring versatile experiences, which in theory make them stronger and wiser. Is that decisions become harder by the day because of the sheer amount of options? This is partly true, but would someone relinquish the amount of options just to make the decision-making process easier?
My take on the issue is quite straightforward. A significant amount of 'mistakes' or 'wrong choices' result as a consequence of the individual's inability to appropriately reconcile the given situation and his personal needs/desire, with an emphasis on the latter. The akward position of not being able to decide (or to deide badly) that we often find ourselves originates in an inability to order/rank our needs/desires.
I am not suggesting that our parents' (and grandfathers') generation were all 'too right' or for the matter 'too wise', but they had two considerable advantages over us. First, they had a hierarchy system imposed on them. Be it a religion, a society code, a 'faux-pas' system, a savoir-vivre, previous generations were much more constrained than us when it came to decision-making. Second, the amount of options presented to them and the influences exerted (of whatever nature) upon them were also far less than what people today in modern societies face.
Of course I do not blame modernity and the options that we have, neither of course do I suggest that we should go back to the old times. What I am thinking instead is how wiser it would be if our education, the way we raise our children and nurture our own selves was based more on building a sound relationship of the individual with one's own self. Spiritually or secularly, through reading or exercising, alone or in company: there are very many ways. Unless one selects the path of simply 'not caring' about himself or is in good terms with fortune, knowing one's true needs and desires is crucial in avoiding pitfalls, solving dilemmmas and ultimately improving the quality of life.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Reference: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Basics. Definitions are useful. But what is silence, really?
Silence as a choice or obligation. Voluntarily or not the giving up of talking for a second, a minute, an hour or a lifetime. Quite frequently for a specific purpose or because of a specific reason: lying, profit, fear or shame. A handful of examples. Single mothers in less than liberal (by common standards societies), victims of rape or other perceived as shameful activity, homosexuals, refugees, spies, politicians, refugees.
Silence. To me silence is one of those mysterious words, if I can call it so. Even the most precise of definitions fails to capture its true meaning for it isolates the word, a word that cannot be understood unless interpreted in context. Somebody does not talk but sheds one tear. No noise guaranteed. Someone does not talk but has signs of suffering all over. Is silence an accurate description? Similaraly: Silence in a still environment, where there is no precise source of sound, yet we feel there is too much noise, too many things going on? What is the true power of silence, and bottom line, is silence as impotent as we tend to believe?
I think that the gravity we have accorded to speech is to a great extent responsible for our attitude towards silence. And indeed we have accorded much negative significance to silence. This is because speech is associated communication.
A founding element of human civilization, speech has prevailed in virtually all cultures and distinguishes humans from other species. Because silence is deprived of sounds, it is viewed as the opposite of speech. Rightly? Perhaps. But need silence imply lack of communication too? Why has silence acquired a negative, almost anti-life connotation? Speech and noise are potent because they have several positive features that have been endorsed and further developped by individuals. First comes our bombardment of noises and speech. Noise and talking everywhere. Then it is the efficiency that speech brings: people not only communicate, but they communicate easily and quickly and rely on this "skill" for much of their interpersonal interactions. Finally, speech is one very potent way to express oneself and to release inner pressure (of whatever form).
Concepts such a muteness or stilness, both associated with silence, are not easily defined in societies plenty of action. We do not live in an isolated system such as the ones we artificially create in the labs. Interaction (Communication etc) is a constant element and occurs whether we perceive it or not. It may occur at different levels and different intensities. We may perceive it and we may not.
In the way we have defined silence in our culture, I cannot deny its existence. Of course when somebody does not talk, he remains silent. For whatever reason. But I wish to keep this definition to a bare minimum, for I reject any association between silence and lack of communication or lack of life. There are ways to communicate for all, though I do recognize that they may not be equally efficient. I condemn forced silence, this goes without a say. Yet I believe that in order to better comprehend the silenced individuals, whether they are victims or not, we have to first to comprehend silence.
One of my favorite songs, the famous "Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. Here the first and the last stanza:
Hello darkness, my old friend,
Ive come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the signs said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.
And whisperd in the sounds of silence.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
For many people sight -the ability to see- is the most important of all senses. And this is not strange considering that we perceive and experience life to a great extent with our eyes, with our sight. Of course all of our senses are important and useful, but can one envisage his present life without sight? For this reason, I admire extremely all the visually impaired individuals, who despite the little assistance we provide them, manage to live a life of dignity.
Often I wonder how inconsiderate it is of us, not to strive to help the quality of life of such individuals, particularly since we acknowledge the benefits of sight in the quality of our own lives daily: first and foremost sight renders our daily lives easier. Simple and straightforward. Then it is all the visual experiences, memories and images that we have as a result of some special moments- they have ben imprinted in our souls largely as a result of our sight. Finally there all those less memorable, yet significant experiences, that even if we cannot trace them they are still in us, with us. I am referring to such things as a glimpse of something 'different', our exposure to something 'novel', 'never seen before'. Many of such experiences have too become part of us through sight. Sight is by no means the only sense we experience life, but because it is one of the most powerful it deserves our attention I believe.
I claim no background in psychology, yet I firmly believe that such less memorable, unimportant experiences have a profound effect on people as they induce growth and development. Being exposed to a diverse array of experiences and stimuli, even unconsciously, enhances our scope of reference, the understanding of ourselves and of life more generally. Also, many of such experiences have the potential to become active if paired up with an appropriate stimulus in the future. So, when kids appear not to pay attention when you are pointing to this magnificent work of art, relax, they are still learning and becoming smarter.
Thw following is a quote from "Toute la beauté du monde", a french novel by author Marc Esposito, one which clearly demonstrates the impact of vision:
"J' étais debordé, elle iradiait de désir, j'étais suffoqué d'émotion, d'amour et d'excitation, j'ai interrompu le baiser, pour la regarder encore, et graver dans ma memoire le visage, le regard, le sourire qu'elle avait à cet instant précis, où nos vies basculaient" (318)
Friday, June 16, 2006
...for no specific reason or purpose.
Once my cousin told me that she had done an art project on “angles, perspective” and children. I thought at the time yet again something that us, non-artists, cannot comprehend! In everyday English her project can be said that it aimed at drawing objects, as a child of no more than 1,20 m tall sees them. And indeed her work was very interesting as it revealed quite angles of door knobs, tables and chairs that we, the tall people, never pay attention.
When I was 12 or 13, I don’t quite remember any more, I visited the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. As I was admiring the deeds of the ancient Greeks, I remember I noticed at one point a cat at the uppermost part of the Parthenon. Whilst the other kids that were in the group were contemplating whether the cat could make it back to the ground, my sight was still on the height of the columns and the grandeur of the ancient temple. As if I were not mesmerised and overtaken by awe already, I later found out that the Parthenon was actually colored in the ancient times, it is just that the paint has faded over the years.
Not so long ago I was in the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerpen, Brussels, admiring the wonderful works of Rubens, Jordaens and Brueghel among other Belgian and European painters. At one point I saw a beautiful painting, and naturally I approached it in order to read the name of the artist. My attention was drawn to the fact that James Ensor, a famous Belgian expressionist/surrealist painter of the 19th century, painted that particular painting in his early 20s, as a matter of fact I think he was 21. Van Gogh, I happened to read somewhere later that day, died at the age of 37.
In their 40’s and 50’s people seem to demonstrate a unique affinity for art. People’s houses become embellished by paintings, or copies of famous works of art. People quench their thirst for art with visits to local and not-so-local museums to visit the masterpiece. It is at this age that people speak of da Vinci or Micheangelo as the fathers of art and western civilization.
Cezanne, the famous French impressionist and precursor to modernism, after a lifetime of struggle for perfection, wrote in 1906 at the age of 67 –just a month before his death– that he was barely noticing some “progress” in his artistic technique.
Not all things have to follow a scheme, a plan, a strategy or be dictated by a law, a rule or a regulation. Things coexist, at times harmoniously, at times not. Too often, we run after things, leaving little time to ourselves to enjoy or simply observe.
Sunday, May 28, 2006
In a new introduction for his famous book "Night" Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, reveals the motivation that prompted him to put into words the horror he experienced in the concentration camps: "I only know that without this testimony ['Night'], my life as a writer -or my life, period- would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory his crimes to be erased from human memory." (viii)
Having read the book I cannot but agree both with the gravity that Wiesel attributes to the experience in the concentration camps and the obligation he feels towards humanity to transmit the story of his family. The story that Wiesel describes in "Night" is a personal story at one level, as it describes the final days of Wiesel's father and family in the camp; at another level it can be said that it belongs to the collective memory of the jewish people and humanity more broadly. Going beyond the personal story of Wiesel, this citation highlights an important issue - remembering.
During ancient times, people did not have computers, videocameras and, in some cases, not even "paper". Yet historical events that occurred long ago have survived through myths, stories, poems, and most importantly, constitute part of our heritage. Today we can rely on our scientific methods and modern technologies to record the historical events for us- surely, when comparing our "history books" to those of our ancestors, we are better of.
However, recording history and ingraining it into one's culture are two distinct things: while the former implies diligence and acuracy in the process of "taking history down", the latter involves taking history into the heart and making it part of one's self.
With time "flying by" quickly and recent past sounding like distant times, with a multitude of events occurring concurrently at a global level, with such extremes as nationalistic interpretations or indifference leaving their own mark, how easy is to preserve "memory", not only in books but in the heart too, how easy is not to forget what really happened, not to grant "the last victory" to the enemy?
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Long time now, I have been thinking to write about Greed. Why? you may ask. To me greed is one of the most defining characteristics of humans, and most importantly greatly responsible for unhappiness and misery. More often than not, an individual cannot possess all that he wants; yet unable to quest his thirst for what he desires, the greedy will continue on with his futile pursuits.
We see greed manifested in a wide range of human activities and behaviors: from politics to interpersonal relationships, greed is what often drives people to act in a way that others perceive as ‘absurd’. Quite often, though not always, greed is behind selfishness too- the latter is just the expression of greed. Greed and ‘the maximization of profit’? Oh, what a lovely relationship I see there…!
And before I proceed any further, I want to emphasize that I am not against economic productivity: It is just that this relationship can be potentially volatile, particularly if greedy men are in control. Of course, I am not implying that everyone is greedy; yet to mistakenly assume that money is not controlling the lives of many would create a great illusion. In what I consider a must-read book, “El mundo es ancho y ajeno” (The world is broad and alien), Ciro Alegría writes: “El más triste animal pasta soles” which literally translates: “The most unhappy animal of all grazes money”. Today, more than ever, money has acquired supreme importance in our lives, and the more industrialized is the country we live in, the greatest the role it plays.
Regardless of how you value this statement, one thing that strikes to most of us is that money, something that we invented to serve us - a commodity for transactions- has grown quite powerful, impacting the lives of many significantly, whether directly or indirectly. Money is one way of seeing greed: the willingness to accumulate more and more is based on the notion that it can be exchanged for good or services. Greed however can transcend beyond material goods; it can extend for example to power and beyod. For one thing, we need to recognize its might.
I let you with one of my favorite quotes from one of Wole Soyinka’s essays in “Climate of Fear”. Talking about power he comments: “power, as long as you are sufficiently ruthless, amoral and manipulative is within the grasp of even the mentally deficient”(57).
(In the photo a facet of modern Mexico. Aren't we really small?)
Monday, April 24, 2006
Extensive reliance on a "slave population" for subsistence and economic prosperity has been probably the biggest criticism for such ancient ("great") civilizations as the one that blossomed in ancient Athens around the 5th century B.C. Slavery is bad we have been told because enslaved populations do not enjoy the same fundamental rights that the rest of the population considers as graned. Days, years, centuries (even millennia) have gone by: we have abolished slavery, we have formulated theories regarding "exploitation and equality" as well as "free markets" and more generally, we consider ourselves well in advance with respect to promoting equality. But, in reality, can we claim we have gone that far?
In a world where democracy is almost universally espoused, we speak rather frequently of "freedom", the antidote to slavery. Yet most of the times we choose to focus almost entirely on political freedom, whereby we embrace democracy and condemn non-democratic regimes. One in fact must concede the importance of political freedom and democracy given that it guarantees, in theory, a certain level of respect for other fundamental human rights for all people.
But let us pause for a moment. We the peoples that inhabit "the democratic lands" can we honestly claim to have attained freedom for everyone in our country? Yes, if we go by the Constitutions, all people are created free and equal. But what about real-life terms? When those responsible for cultivating our strawberries and tomatoes get infinitely small salaries, that are worth almost nothing compared with their needs, can we not talk of another type of slavery? When immigrants, minorities, indigenous people or other such groups are either discriminated against, can we be satisfied with our own level of freedom and equality?
But there is more into that. Everytime we enjoy a cup of coffee that is not labelled as "free-trade coffee" we contribute further to the enslavement of the men and the children that were involved in its production. For the sweatshops that produce our jeans and clothing to become "normal factories", that is to demonstrate what in economic terms we call "corporate responsibility" and in plain english "respect for their employees" change of the status-quo is of paramount importance. Certainly. When we, the fervent proponents of democracy and equality, decide not to tolerate such situations anymore we can protest and rest assured that our voices will be heard- because we live in a democracy and our opinions matter. But wait a moment. If we are a little individualistic (jeans can be very expensive!) can we still be good democrats?
Friday, April 14, 2006
Humans are animals, or so many say. The instinct to survive and reproduce has served as a justification for many atrocious acts. Yet at the same time we tend to agree that humans are in need of each other not only to reproduce but also to grow and prosper. So, is the man an enemy or a friend to the fellow man?
The world has witnessed the rise of many great civilizations and an equal amount of destruction. At the end of the Second World War we thought that we had seen enough of disaster and signed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to safeguard the most fundamental rights, the human rights of all people. With torture, abductions and severe disparities in education, health access and opportunities among many people, can we claim to be satisfied?
As we move into the 21st century it becomes increasingly more apparent how dependent we all are to each other. And yet we notice that cleavages (social, economic, political) also grow: we have yet to reach a level of partnership and trust among people. And yet I only wonder, is this perhaps our fate? Is our 'progress' always to be tied to our 'failure', or can we break free from this plaguing pattern?
The old advice -to genuinely learn from one's own mistakes- holds true. For one thing, if people are prone to competition we may as well decrease such factors as rhetoric or poor education that are known to bring destruction. If we manage to relocate our fundamental interests within the human society/community (rather than outside of it) then the chances that our instinct for survival will not call for conflict between people but rather for cooperation increase. Lastly, let us turn around us and simply observe: If mother nature can accomodate everyone, including those of us who damage her, why can we not? Why be so exclusive?
But of course all that is very simplistic for the highly complicated issues we face, right?
(In the photo, civilization and destruction together as they coexist in Mexico City today. The religious site of the indigenous people, the Templo Mayor, was demolished in order for the Cathedral to be built, causing significant damage to the people and culture of the city of Tenochitlán (later Ciudad de Mexico). On the far end of the photo is Plaza de Zócalo, the vibrant center of the modern city.)
Sunday, April 02, 2006
I observe the casual walkers (and the baby strollers), the casual runners, the casual college kids, and well, yes, all the casual individuals as they walk the streets adjacent to the big square. Clearly, I am one of the many people who enjoy walking down the streets of a square looking at people or just looking around, and for this reason I decided this sunday too to spend sometime there. Aside from the "moving" population I just described there is this other façade of the square: the one I like to call "permanent". The 2-3 homeless people stationed outside of the pharmacy and the bank every week, the big-not-so-attractive slogans that alternate each week attempting to drag customers, and last but not least, the middled aged Asian man, who rain or shine, plays his melodious musical instrument.
No matter where you live, you can surely find commonalities between my square and the one in your neighborhood or city. Why I like squares and streets so much is because by walking -or even standing there- you can deconstruct the culture, decipher the secret codes of behavior and communication among people, and perhaps most importantly, see life. Squares are also symbolic I find. Being the meeting point of many divergent streets, they remind me of real life, where the otherwise lonely paths of seemingly different people converge either as part of daily life happenings or under strange circumstances.
And this thought of crossroads and people "moving" brings me to a chief idea of mine, the belief that life is a journey. Whilst this is no news- people repeatedly say this, write poems/stories, produce movies- the concept of "life as a journey" is substantially broad and subject to many interpretations. You can indeed talk about the significance of experience(s) or the importance of having a fixed destination, or the change or... And still what I consider as one of the most fundamental aspects of this journey is the notion of continuum: the part of the self that acts as a base, the part that glues all experiences together, that replenishes our attachement to the destination, that ultimately provides for the possibility of growth... For after all, if the square was not there, I would have not been able to observe the casual walkers (and the baby strollers) and...
PS. The following is a segment of a song about a famous street "Aristotelous St" in Salonica, Greece. The song tells a story, a quite different one, about the street and the square:
Βγάζανε τα δίκοχα οι παλιοί φαντάροι
γέμιζ' η πλατεία από παιδιάκι
ήταν ένα πράσινο, πράσινο φεγγάρι
να σου μαχαιρώνει την καρδιά
Παίζαν οι μικρότεροι κλέφτες κι αστυνόμους
κι ήταν αρχηγός η Αργυρώ
και φωτιές ανάβανε στους απάνω δρόμους
τ' Άη Γιάννη θα 'τανε θαρρώ
Monday, March 13, 2006
At an earlier post (Dec. 4th), I spoke about selfishness. Back then a tragic event had provoked me to do so; today, I want to explore selfishness from another perspective and put it in the context of our modern world. My premise remains the same: "We, human creatures, are very selfish: we don't feel grief unless it touches us, we are not grateful for what we have unless we lose it, we worship ourselves leaving everyone else that is not friend or family out. (sometimes, sadly, there is no room for them either in the bubble we have created for ourselves)".
At this very early stage I want to clarify that I do not intend to generalize since there are millions of people, certainly, who are both caring and compassionate. Fortunately. Yet it seems to me that the multitude of problems that our world faces today is to a large extent a consequence of the self-centered behavior of many people (how many I do not know, and it matters little, since what matters are the consequences of their actions). There is no doubt that much responsibility lies with governments and instirutions that make decisions; yet people are equally responsible either because they contribute directly their part to the problem or because they tacitly approve, or still, because they refuse to take action for what they think is wrong.
In lieu of apathy you can read selfishness or any other word you think captures best this behavior. Yet one must point out that this apathy can magically transform into courage and action, if the following condition is met: it has to affect the individual directly. For example you care about the forests if you live in the forest and know that a threat to the trees means a threat to you. Plain as that. You care about the unpolluted beaches of your island if you rely on tourism, cause if you are a tourist it makes little difference to you whether you dispose of your empty water bottle in a trashbin or the beach.
If reading these lines makes you scream, I am glad. Before defending yourself and your values [that would never ever make you one of "those uncivilized people"], remember that these examples are important to consider, even if they seem extreme since they reveal the mindset of many people [you thought did not exist] and more generally the obstacles that we all need to face in trying to solve any such problem.
Often times, we tend to think that there needs to be a revolution or something really big for a change to take place. Yet my take to all this is that each and everybody can make a difference. What is more worrisome to me, is how difficult it is to persuade large sums of people to do something that they see no interest in. Should we come to a day that people will be turning off their lights not because they want to lower their bills, but rather because they want to do "their part" for the environment, then I think that we will be much safer saying that the world is becoming a better or safer place than with any scientific or elaborate plan of action. So why not spending that good money on education?
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Everyday, everywhere, willingly or unconsciously we all tend to use stereotypes when referring a specific group of people that share an identity, (ethnic or religious being the most common examples). How often do we catch ourselves attributing specific characteristics to a set of people or generalizing about their behavior based on a trait? We sometimes go that far so as to predict behavior based on some knowledge we think we have. Earlier in the day i had a discussion with an American gentleman, he insisted: "Europe is different. You are in Spain today, you move a little and there you are in France. Without even noticiing, you are in Switzerland. In the US it's different. You may travel the same distance only to find that you have changed a state or two. People in America are very different, and non-Americans hardly ever realize that".
Stereotyping. For a speaker of Greek, the guess is easy since "stereo" means solid; while by no means the most accurate interpretation, understanding stereotyping as the assigning of specific, general, simplified or exaggerated attributes to a set of people is a close call. What is most important though is to notice its volatile nature: stereotyping may stir anything from friendship to politics, even rhetoric (here: inspire). Yet stereotyping appears to be one of those things that people refuse to grant importance unless they become affected harshly by its consequences: not until we lose a friend or we are stigmatized/classified for what we are (not), do we really comprehend the significance of stereotyping.
And admittedly stereotyping is an easy pitfall to fall in. It easy to create an argument based on a single notion (because X people are Y they...) rather than considering various influential parameters. Such is our "love" for stereotypes that we have even created jokes about them!Probably because stereotypes appeal to that lazy part of our brain that adores simple-straightforward concepts and rejects the more complex ones. What do you think? What is alarming however is that in a world of increasing access to information, we still uphold many of such stereotypes instead of trying to get to know how "these" people really look like. If for our ancestors stereotypes were one way to refer to people they had hardly ever met what is our excuse today?
So, should we abolish stereotypes altogether? Considering the cultural dimension of some of the stereotypes, (often they do reflect important components of a people's identity), it is difficult to dismiss the concept altogether. It is important however not to abuse stereotypes and rather to opt for a genuine understanding of another people by delving into its culture. Yet above all, what is most important is to understand that under the socially and culturally constructed façade, we all humans are the same: meme si on parle français, o español, oder deutsch ή ελληνικά ya da türkçe! Having realized that commonality, perhaps we will be able to even use stereotypes; yet at that point we will be doing so without intending to ridiculize or criticize people: two of the intentions responsible for the aforementioned consequences that divide people.
Saturday, February 25, 2006
In a world of increasing interaction between goods, people and ideas, in a world where the word "isolation" loses its significance by the day, it seems paradoxical the fact that quite often people cannot relate or even communicate successfully. Whether it is the family household or the Parliament is of little importance; what matters is that people fail to be "at the same pace" more so than not. What seems even more interesting is that gaps dividing parties tend to be huge rather than small; that collisions tend to be harsh rather than mild. Why?
While it is hard to generalize with such diverse exemples, patterns do emerge across imany ssues, even when the factors that cause them appear unrelated. The first thing that comes to mind is the complexity of issues: nothing today is to be dispelled as simple or easy; to do so it would be childish. Seldom can an issue of certain gravity be resolved using a single approach; most issues have many dimensions or layers and therefore many connotations. This is primarily because of the fact that the layers interact with one another in many ways but also because the technologic/scientific advances challenge our perceptions by the day.
To ignore or overmphasize one layer of an issue over another can shift the meaning of any concept in unprecedented ways. But this brings us to the second point which concerns the role of the individual. The interpretation one accords to a concept/term/problem, the failure or success to comprehend the layers of an issue, all depend on the individual's ability to perceive and evaluate the issue at stake. Despite the increased access to information, knowledge and education the closing of the mind has not perished. While in the past one could comprehend this phenomenon based on the historical/social elements of the era in question, what explanation is to be provided in our western societies where the rate of illiteracy has dropped so close to zero and people have the greatest access ever to information?
Certainly, one parameter to be taken into consideration involves how we use the resources available to us. With the rate of book reading(and newspaper) dropping in many countries one can question the extent that people take advantage of the resources. Second is the fact that we people may know a lot, but we often fail to contextualize the information or, with respect to others, we fail to put ourselves in their shoes. Whether this behavior reflects an inability or unwillingness to do so or results from an obsession with one's own self is yet to be known. Nonetheless it is destructive. The last scenario is the gloomiest. While information is abundant, people are masterfully channeled away from "subversive" ideas. Propaganda is not be found only in fascist/totalitarian states; the power of rhetoric most certainly has not collapsed with the Soviet Union and the fact that many among us might be "soldiers" without uniforms, (and often without knowing it), fighting in the name of some concept infiltrated to our psyche through persuasion or fear (or...) remains a distinct possibility.
Oblivious and unable to understand the root of discord, we push our case to the extreme while we refuse to look at successful cases that of course abound. Have we done any better? From divorces to riots to wars our societies have embarked on an increasingly difficult task: the search for agreement and peace, a challenge that grows more difficult by the day.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
So it will be 15 inches [~45 cm] and we will "all be burried underneath" and it will be a "white Sunday tomorrow" and... and... and... Despite the news alerts, the conspiracy theories, the predictions, the impeding catastrophy has yet to come, it is 6 hours late as a matter of fact. While aware of the coming snowstorm, they are not infrequent in the northeastern US states, the question of a friendly taxi driver -"Have you rented your dvds already?"- shocked me in many ways, not least for the fact it followed a long discourse about how snow was coming and how terrible it would be - such dissemination of "information" I thought was exclusively to be reserved for media, snow shovelling- related services and city halls.
"Well no, I have not", I replied, "I have done my groceries for the week though", I said, in a shy tone [in the US, supermarkets are open daily, including Sundays]. While this may be considered good planning, I have come to contemplate what motivated this decision of mine. I must have become more organized - with age we become mature, right? Going back to the media question and considering the gravity of snowstorms in the northeast, there is no doubt that the media should take an active stance in preparing people for such weather phenomena, right?
Overtaken as we all are, somewhere between fear, anxiety and awe, as no snowflakes have appeared on the Boston sky yet, the lines of the poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" by Constantine Cavafy come to my mind,
"Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion (How solemn the faces have become)
Why are the streets and sqaures clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought"?
Eventually it will snow. We are all waiting for the snow. Hopefully the blizzard will not last for long.