Monday, April 24, 2006

We live in a free world...but I want my jeans cheap!

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

Of progress and failure

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

Square thoughts

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:

Οδος Αριστοτελους

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

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