Monday, November 30, 2009
Swiss Citzens have voted to ban minarets
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. Basic Books, New York, 2007.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
I continually hear calls from education experts who repeat the mantras that good teachers are “teaching for the future” and preparing students “for the 21st century”, (which by and by, started nearly a decade ago). I am amazed at the confidence that is projected when they speak about the future. I was under the impression that a characteristic of the future is, and always will be, that its nature is hidden from us mortals. A future that is known is located already in the present, in the mind of the knower, and, paradoxically therefore, cannot be the future. Educating for the future, it seems to me, would mean educating for the unknown.
But instead, I find those who are already preparing students for the rigors and challenges of the 21st century, to be supremely confident regarding what the future will look like. And it looks suspiciously like the present, just a lot more of it – more sexy technology, more electronic instant communication, more miniaturization, more multitasking, more mobility. But this type of future oriented thinking simply betrays an obsession with the present – what I call “presentism”. I doubt very much if the future will be the present writ large.
The past record would indicate that futures generally spring one or two surprises, some of them benign and some of them nasty. Futurologists of the 2nd century AD might have shared a concern for the increasing costs of defending the frontiers of the mighty Roman Empire, but none could have predicted that within a century a small Jewish sect called Christians will have taken over the empire from within; a century ago no one was predicting the collapse of the Chinese, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, or Russian Empires and the birth of fascist and communist states, yet this all happened within a decade. And more recently, as a friend of mine pointed out, it was investments - or misadventures - in "futures" that led to the recent Credit Crunch.
We should avoid the pretense that we are equipping students with the skills that they will need for the 21st century. We have no idea what they will need. Perhaps a dexterous thumb for using their iPhone while they scan reams of electronic text is what will be needed. Or perhaps the ability to build a raft and use an AK-47? We don’t know, and we should stop pretending that we do.
Monday, November 16, 2009
by Paul Doolan
Sunday, November 15, 2009
by Paul Doolan
This is a speech I gave to the graduating class of the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham Council House, Birmingham, UK on June 2nd 2008.
Flying into Britain yesterday I had to consciously remind myself that I was entering a country at war. Enjoying this wonderful city, standing in this magnificent hall, walking across Victoria Square or sipping a cappuccino in New Street, it is easy to slip into an idyllic forgetfulness. Indeed I understand how tempting it must be to throw in one’s lot with Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters:
Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consum’d with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
It’s extraordinary that a country can execute not just one but two wars simultaneously, in such comfort and with such lack of concern from the home front, where the main anxiety seems to be the price of petrol.
There are intelligent people who wield persuasive arguments that Britain’s invasion of Iraq in defiance of the United Nations was a good thing, even though there are now four and half million displaced Iraqis who are not welcome in Britain, and despite the fact that the documented Iraqi civilian death toll now far exceeds that of the bombing of Hiroshima. The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a war that has now resulted in more deaths than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, was marked a couple of months ago by a small demonstration in London.
A short time later, the world witnessed scenes of Chinese troops violently putting down demonstrations in Tibet. Thousands of protestors bravely turned out in London. But here is my point. The thousands of protestors against the violence in Tibet dwarfed the small number of protestors against the war in Iraq.
Now what is going on here? Could it be as simple as we like Tibetans and we don’t like Iraqis? Buddhists are okay but Muslims not? Was it the fact that it was bitterly cold and raining heavily on the day of the Iraq protest but on the day of the Olympic flame the weather was, a little less harsh? Could it be that British citizens and residents are more upset by violence perpetrated on Tibetans than by violence that is paid for by their taxes and aimed at Iraqis. Or do British protestors believe that their actions will influence a totalitarian government at the other end of the planet while they have given up on their own democratic government at home. Perhaps it is simply blind patriotism that keeps people at home when it comes to protesting against their own country’s actions.
Whatever the reason, it speaks volumes about internationalism when we live in a world where we are able to pick our engagement from a mediated menu of causes while displaying unconcern for the local, or national, that is, the fact that this country is at war. This is one form of internationalism. To be passionately committed to a cause that has no direct bearing upon your life while, being unmoved by issues of a national or local character.
Some years ago I read an interview with the CEO of Starbucks. He boasted that his vision was of a world with just three localities – the workplace, home and Starbucks. Imagine that world: in every city of workers rest after their toil in the same casually comfortable ambience, relaxing to the same music, sharing the same language – "one Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino Grande". Today, a Chinese tourist in Beijing has 65 Starbuck stores to choose from, including one in the Forbidden City, and the soldier in Guantanamo Bay, during a break from guarding prisoners in cages, can enjoy a Spicy Pumpkin Frappuccino Tall.
British writer John Berger has claimed that the aim of the free market is “to delocalise the entire world”. Berger goes on: “The key term of the present global chaos is de- or relocalization ……… the dream of undermining the status and confidence of all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single fluid market. The consumer is essentially somebody who feels, or is made to feel, lost, unless he or she is consuming. Brand names and logos become the place names of the Nowhere.” The Starbucks vision of internationalism, because that is what it is, internationalism, is one that exemplifies I think, this phenomena, where the brand replaces the locality.
My third example of internationalism comes from the arts, namely, architecture. Birmingham city centre has at least one stunning piece of iconic architecture that can easily be placed in the top rank in the world. I mean of course Selfridges department store. Perhaps it is significant that this curvaceous edifice, designed by Future Systems, towers over St. …… Church, symbolizing that consumption has replaced religion in our public values. The world has been watching as the new Olympic Stadium or Bird’s Nest as it is called, designed by Swiss architects and Herzog and Du Meuron, has been rising in Beijing. Norman Forster’s dome over the Reichstag has become emblematic of contemporary, cool Berlin. Frank Gehery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao attracts millions of visitors, and they come to view the building itself as much as the art inside the museum. But here is a little thought experiment. Take Selfridges of Birmingham and stick it in Bilbao, put Beijing’s Olympic Nest in Berlin, transfer Forster’s dome to Birmingham and let lucky Beijing have Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Would these buildings fit into their new surroundings? Well, no they wouldn’t actually. But in fact they would be no more out of place than they were in their original location. The thing is, these massive monuments to vanity never fitted in in the first place. How could they? These international architects, or starchitects as they are known, take no account of the context, or the local, when designing their artworks. The buildings are meant to stand out, not to blend in, and are consequently designed with an absolute disregard for the local context. That’s why they would be equally at home anywhere, because they are at home no where. And that is what makes these architects, perfect examples of Internationalism.
A parallax is a term taken from physics, which describes a gap caused by the displacement of an object when a subject changes its point of observation. A parallax can be a point between any two views which it is impossible to bridge, yet it is the persistence of this gap that allows both views to persist. Sometimes we can view a problem from an international perspective, sometimes from a local perspective, but can we see the problem from both perspectives at the same time?
A friend of mine flies once a year to Belfast, Northern Ireland as a consultant to the ministry of education, tasked with assessing the province’s progress towards implementing a curriculum that will produce global, tolerant citizens. Upon her return home she repeats to me what a funny place Belfast is. She entertains me with hilarious anecdotes about the place – the accents, the food, the innocence and friendliness of the exclusively white locals. It is, she says, a journey back to the 1950s, like entering a time warp. And, according to my friend, there is little sign of that shadow side of the North – The Troubles. She invariably finishes her account with a sigh and a shake of her head, and the rhetorical question: “So what was that all about? What a stupid waste of lives.”
Now my friend has a global perspective. The head of one international school, she sits on the board of another; much in demand as a keynote speaker at international educational conferences, she runs an annual workshop that is renowned among international educators; concerned by issues of injustice and inequity worldwide, she inspires activism among students and colleagues. Yet in her own backyard (she is British), her global perspective lets her down, and when confronted by three and a half thousand assassinations and over 20,000 maimings among a seemingly innocent and friendly population, she is stumped, and left asking “So, what was that all about?”
There is an answer to her question, but it won’t be found if one remains perched above with the global perspective, for this fails to do justice to the ‘locus operandi’ of the participants. To find the answer one has to get down and dirty, in the nitty –gritty of the provincial and small, for it is there, by and large, that most people live their lives, and it is there that the problems, in the eyes of the local actors, are created and the solutions are to be found. If you want to understand the problem, by all means take a global perspective, but remember to mind the gap.
So, the question is: does internationalism always imply a denial of the local? There are a number of examples that illuminate how an international citizen can demonstrate an equal concern for the local or national, as well as the international. One obvious one is the man recently described by the Chinese Party secretary of Tibet as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil with a human’s face”, The Dalai Lama... Whatever one thinks of his tactics no one, not his supporters nor his detractors, will claim that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has shirked his responsibilities to his nation. Though living in exile for as long as I have lived (and, despite my youthful appearance, that is nearly half a century), he has spearheaded the struggle for a meaningful autonomy. But he has also been active at the international level, undertaking a global journey in an attempt to bring psychological understanding and spiritual calm to human beings regardless of their background. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, the Dalai Lama said that “we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity”.
For my other example of a person who exhibits a concern to fight injustice, whether it be on the other side of our planet or right outside her front door, it is apt that I do not have to seek beyond the walls of this room. My vote for world citizen of the year goes to Elly Tobin. Elly is the motor and passion that keeps the College for International Citizenship driving. As well as CIC, just on the side, she organized Celebrating International Birmingham Night, she runs the Young Leaders Programme, she founded Birmingham International Voices, created the very successful Pathways into Education, has taken over the European Summer University and is Principal designate of Joseph Chamberlain Collage. She is as likely to be found involved in a peaceful action exposing human rights violations in Tibet as organising a group of volunteers in Birmingham to campaign the British government on debt relief. Elly confronts bullies, whether they be the leaders of totalitarian states, or British hooligans. She witnessed the terrible massacres of Tibetans in Lhasa in 1987, and used her pen to reveal to the world what was going on. But let me give you an example of Elly’s work at a local level that I witnessed. It couldn’t be more local, because it took place no more than fifty meters from here. One day Elly and I were traversing Victoria Square, where two teenagers had chased a “friend”, who had ended up in the fountain. The sneering teenagers looked aggressive, to put it mildly, as they taunted their friend and prevented him from getting out of the fountain. Of course the square was full of people who, like me, choose to not interfere. Elly suddenly stopped: “I’m not having this” she said. “Ere”, and off she strode to confront the hooligans. Amazingly, they crumbled before her onslaught and apologetically turned to help their friend out of the fountain. “I hate bullying” was what she said to me when she retuned to where I was sheepishly standing.
Elly’s greatest achievement is the College for International Citizenship. I arrive twice a year, deliver my part of the programme, and leave again. It is you, the students, that make this such a worthwhile and enriching experience, and it is the students who keep drawing me back. I think I speak for all the tutors when I say that it is not so much teaching that we do, as learning. It is a true privilege to be involved in a project that is international in the best sense of the word. We study the theories of internationalism and citizenship, but, most importantly, each student brings to class his or her own unique local experiences. This diversity of local experiences are shared, listened too and heard. We learn to think as citizens of the world while we listen to each others stories. The College for International Citizenship teaches us that often, an enemy is simply someone whose story you have not heard.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
by Paul Doolan
Dutch historian Pieter Geyl penned the now famous line “History is indeed an argument without an end”. But in Switzerland, historical debate is over. Disagreement might mean running the risk of imprisonment.
In a court of law in Lausanne on March 9, 2008 a judge ended a historical controversy by pronouncing that the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is “an established historical fact”. Consequently, Judge Winzap handed down sentence on Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who in a speech in 2005 in this neutral country dared to state otherwise. Perincek received a suspended sentence in jail and a fine of 3,000 Swiss francs.
This raises the issue of the role of the judiciary in implementing state sanctioned historical truth. Few deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. But, as historian Caroline Finkel recently wrote “the devil is in the details, and only genuinely disinterested historical research will establish whether the deportation and death of the Armenians of Anatolia constituted a genocide or not”. With the spectre of jail in Switzerland if you come to the conclusion that it was not genocide, and jail or even assassination in Turkey if you conclude that it was, such disinterested research is unlikely to happen very soon.
The practice of history is gradually becoming something of a risky business. Increasingly Holocaust denial has become an illegal offense in European countries and the European Union has recently agreed that all 25-member states should pass legislation on this issue. At the instigation of Poland and the Baltic States the EU has promised to create a committee that will examine the necessity for also outlawing the belittling of, denial of, or justification for Stalin’s crimes. Meanwhile the French and Swiss parliaments have both made moves to ban outright any sort of denial of the Armenian Genocide. The USA has become the most recent country to recognize the slaughter of Armenians to have been genocide. Turkish authorities have reacted angrily. Indeed they have threatened the French with proposing a law of their own recognizing French colonial policies in Algeria as constituting genocide, and will imprison anyone who denies this. Turkey already uses article 301, which forbids insulting “Turkishness”, to prosecute those of its citizens brave enough to accept the accusations of genocide. These have included Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and the late Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered in January by a seventeen-year-old assassin. We could be facing a future when the historian, before embarking upon her lecture tour, will not only have to check for visas and vaccinations, but will also need to go over a thorough checklist of what opinions are allowed and what are disallowed. Perhaps Kazakhstan would like to declare the Irish Famine a form of genocide and ban its denial.
The majority of commentators regard the actions of the Ottoman authorities to have been a centrally planned atrocity, that is, genocide. Harvard’s Samantha Fox, refers to the Armenian tragedy as being the 20th century’s first genocide. Edinburgh’s Donald Bloxham declared the massacres to be genocide and asserted that the entire discussion around “the G word” is a waste of time. Turkish historian Taner Akcan bravely faced harassment during lecture tours and slander from Turkish nationalist fanatics on genocide denial websites, as well as accusations of insulting “Turkishness” under article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, by publishing a number of books calling for Turkey to accept responsibility for the shameful act of genocide. Journalist Robert Fisk has attacked what he sees as the cowardice of politicians, from Blair to Bush, as well as leading US universities and The Wall Street Journal, all of who are guilty of cynical collaboration with the Turkish state in denying the genocide.
So who are the non-Turkish deniers? Fisk quotes Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel: “It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide”. American historian Justin McCarthy claims that the killings of Armenians during the World War must be understood within the context of an internal war and that is does not constitute genocide. Among British historians Norman Stone ruffled feathers a few years ago when he published letters in the Times Literary Supplement claiming that there was no genocide. More recently, he commented on the Perincek case in Switzerland and wrote of a “ridiculous and contemptible business – bad history and worse politics”.
Whenever historical truth has been established, it has been the result of unfettered research, with historians engaging in open dialogue and disputation, testing the evidence and arguing over the interpretations, without fear of persecution. With parliamentarians now calling for majority verdicts on historical issues and with judges in neutral countries handing down verdicts on historical disputes and pronouncing sentence on those who deviate from the state sanctified version of the past, such a view is under threat.
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who has locked swords with the world’s most repugnant anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, perhaps surprisingly, is against outlawing Holocaust denial, considering it to be counter-productive and wrongly implying that we do not have the facts with which to answer the deniers. Upon hearing of the Perencek case she wrote in her blog: “What if the person had been a historian who ….questioned whether it should be termed a genocide….Would that person be sentenced as well? What kind of chill does this put on academic discourse? This is a dangerous Pandora’s Box”.
Some claim to be supporters of freedom of expression, but that this freedom must be curtailed “in extreme cases”. But surely freedom of expression only has to be defended in extreme cases. When everyone is comfortably in the middle, and there are no extremes, there is nothing to be defended. It is only in the “extreme cases”, and especially when one is faced with an opinion that one finds repugnant, that one faces the challenge to support freedom of expression. John Stuart Mill summarised this nearly a century and a half ago: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Pieter Geyl closed his book on an optimistic note: “The argument goes on”. But we are living in an age when mutual assumptions of infallibility are being used to silence discussion, in mutually futile attempts to bring argument to an end.