The ‘White Privilege’ Myth

October 6, 2017

We are going through a storm of ideological subterfuge thanks to disaffected intellectuals needing a new “cause” to justify their existence. These are the cultural misfits who want to replace capitalism with some form of collectivism, and they’ve been at it since the French Revolution, if not earlier. This is the same tribe who, through street-level anarchy, are trying to “bring down” the System. Not that capitalism doesn’t merit criticism, but change can happen through the promotion of effort and intelligence, without creating conditions for a race war.

The movement to disenfranchise “white men” is an attempt at demonizing so-called Caucasians with the accusation of “racism,” a move which itself is a racist attempt to score political points. Instead of progressing to a single-race view of humanity, which is the rational view, propagandists are reversing gains in equality by denouncing people of a certain skin colour. Their objective is to make white males objects of resentment and hate, to besmirch Caucasians in history, so that people as embittered as they are can get ahead. This is not progressive. If anything, it’s a step towards perpetual social conflict.

“White Privilege” is the idea that skin colour is the key to material success in Western society. If you are white, propagandists say, you are born to better treatment; you get ahead more readily, get into positions of power, are given a higher income, not because you have earned it, but simply because you are “white.” Supposedly, the deck is stacked against everyone else, especially those from so called “visible” minorities which can be anything from “black,” to “Asian,” or “Hispanic.” The roles of culture and social class, of course, are wholly ignored in this hypothesis because they toss a spanner into their pseudo-argument. That there are people who buy this idea wholeheartedly, though, testifies to the lack of thought behind such claims and to the power of resentment.

To test this hypothesis, and see how malevolent it really is, consider the thousands of young men – from white, working-class families — who were sent to die in foreign wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, South East Asia, and Europe in two world wars. Certainly, men of “colour,” blacks, natives, and Asians, did their share of bleeding and dying, in the same conflicts, but what all of these men had in common was not race but social level. They were mostly working-class. And, in the case of Germany, Russia, and Europe, for the most part, the sacrificed were just plain white. It’s hard to see any of the millions who died as “privileged.”


Today, with fewer wars, this is not as apparent, but certain is that the so-called “privileged” white people are rapidly becoming minorities as western countries are being transformed by migrants from all over the world. And the remaining European “whites” are as underprivileged as anyone else.

Consider the falling incomes of the lower-middle classes in Europe, America, Canada, and Australia. It’s hard to see people who are working part-time, who are struggling from paycheck to paycheck, as “privileged.” Many are ill-nourished and overweight because they can’t afford good food; others are discouraged, have given up trying to make their dreams come true. They are on welfare, disability allowance, and other forms of social assistance as much as any coloured people. Or they are hooked on drugs of one kind or another. What “privilege” do you see there? As for the colour factor, aren’t the Asians the successful ones in America, Canada, and Australia? Aren’t their children outperforming all others? Are they also “privileged,” or do they just try harder?

I recall working late at a university library, long after most students left for home. I was there, and so were hundreds of Asian students, doing homework, studying hard, working to succeed. They were there because their culture valued achievement; they had parents who pushed them, parents who demanded they advance the family, parents who invested in their children. Other students were partying, or stoned, or just drunk. Those “coloured” immigrants, who also worked hard, earned whatever some could call “privileges” for they put their noses to the grindstone and got on with the job. What they had in common was cultural, not racial. Former President Obama and his wife are among those who had the values and self-discipline to earn the fruits of their talents, as are minorities who “make it” within the existing system. You don’t have to be white to make it in Western society, but you do have to work for what you get.

Fact of the matter is that we have moved beyond race as a determinant to what position on the social ladder you occupy. Today, it is ability, plus opportunity, that counts. It is merit and, often, luck or timing. Fact too is that white people are not doing as well as some think. I know of a man who worked since the age of fourteen. He has never not worked, right up to his retirement, and he had all kinds of jobs to put himself through university, although his education never really paid off in monetary terms. As a sessional teacher, over thirty years, he had three sick days off, unpaid. He barely managed to save anything. People like him are actually becoming more common, even though they are white.

Today, even those who manage to secure permanent posts are making less than their predecessors did, are working longer hours, have less security, and are more disillusioned than their predecessors. It is doubtful they would describe themselves as “privileged,” even though they are white, and they see their children not being offered golden opportunities due to their skin colour. As a matter of fact, many see being white as a disadvantage for you get little sympathy for your lack of minority status. In fact, today, the reverse is true.

It is racist to insist that skin colour is the ticket to the good life. Rather, there are very influential, culturally-transmitted values behind “making it” in our society. Literacy is one of these. You don’t often see books in working and lower middle-class homes. Those families that do have them, and encourage their children to read, do have an advantage, but you don’t need to be white to be literate – or to take an interest in educating their children. They do need to be real parents to kids who will make them proud. If we look at the failures and complainers in our society, we will find an absence of encouraging parents, no matter what colour they are.

Encouragement is paramount. Families in which children are taught that it’s “useless” to even try to succeed, or those who claim the cards are stacked against them at birth, set kids up for failure. And, youngsters who do manage to educate themselves, and achieve even a modest lifestyle, are often undermined by envious, spiteful members of their own communities who see them as sell-outs, racial, religious, or ethnic traitors. You find this situation even among impoverished whites, which is one factor behind their lack of progress. Other factors behind failure are continuously playing computer games, drinking and drugging themselves into a permanent state of dejection. Your enemies are not white and at the top, they are within your own head.

There are social examples which give the lie to “white privilege.” When East and West Germany merged, hundreds of thousands of East German workers joined the unemployed, and unemployable, for they neither had the necessary moxie or skills to work in the competitive, technological West.


Some were able to retrain; others fell by the wayside, sank into alcoholism and despair. Now, with millions of migrants flooding into the country, providing competition for lowly-paid jobs, working-class Germans are threatened with permanent asocial status. Those who are elderly have been on the verge of poverty for years. With migrants needing more and more public funds to be integrated into society, resources are stretched. East Germans (“whites”), who need training at public expense are left to fend for themselves. Where is the “privilege” in that?


So-called “privileged” whites are feeling the heat, and not just in Germany. Don’t wonder too long why white Americans elected Donald Trump. “Making America great again,” to many, means reversing the decline of the middle and working classes. And we’re not talking race here; we’re talking saving a social sector that includes blacks and Hispanics, indigenous people, and others – all threatened with permanent poverty in a post-industrial meritocracy in which only the highly-trained and educated will have access to the good life, irrespective of race. It’s time we wake up to this historic process.

A racial analysis of the situation is misleading and harmful. Today, as always, it’s about the old class struggle for whatever fruits are gained from work. With the exception of those born into wealth, and the one-percent who own mostly everything, there is no “privileged” race.


The Literate Self

September 19, 2017

The Literate Self*

In the English language there are many expressions and words that indicate our high valuation of the individual. Any dictionary will give you pages of words that have “self” as a component. Philosophically, self is synonymous with the ego, but encompasses one’s nature, one’s uniqueness; in short, one’s individuality which is positively valued in Western culture. In fact, the idea of self and being have become interwoven in Western culture. What accounts for the relatively high value placed on the self in the West as compared to a lesser value in more collectivistic cultures?

Literacy has been a key instrument in the formation of a strong sense of selfhood. This is not to say the West has been more literate than other parts of the world, but to claim that, in the West, the ability to read and write has functioned differently as a result of at least nine hundred years of this skill being disseminated. In Europe and America, literacy became a common mode of knowing when most of humankind still relied on oral communication. As we shall see, where literacy is combined with greater access to information, it produces personalized ways of knowing, thinking, and acting. It produces an individual.**

A personalized intellectual life can only develop within a liberal policy towards the dissemination of information, and this has not happened on any large scale in most world cultures. In fact, even today governments are busy screwing down the hatches to ideas in order to keep a more or less controlled status quo going. So, it is safe to say that while everyone has a private self, not every culture values the development of personal opinions, ideas, and thoughts because these give the person a heightened sense of uniqueness. And the sense of being unique is at odds with collectivistic ways of life.

lay reader

Since the time of the European Renaissance, the liberation of intellectual life has triumphed over authoritarian control, with the exception of periods of backsliding into authoritarianism and mass conformity. What accounts for the difference between the West and the rest when it comes to the cultivation of the self? We can always go back to the ancient Greeks, but keeping with our theme of reading and the development of a sense of individuality, one of the more recent highlights of this relationship came with the Confessions by Augustine (354-430 C.E.).

Augustine was an early leading theologist, bishop of Northern Africa, and later promoted to sainthood in the Roman Catholic pantheon. His writings are unique for their times because they focus on the “I” of first-person narration. They are introspective and self-critical, written in the hope of discovering “truth” within, rather than following the received “truths” from authorities. Augustine believed that truth comes from God but can be discovered within the person during moments of “illumination.” He encouraged self-exploration within a framework of bettering the Christian. But Augustine also advocated silent reading at a time when monks would recite aloud to themselves or to each other, sharing whatever they learned from scripture. It is the importance of silent reading we need to consider.

By shifting to the inner voice through silent recitation, individuals entered a wholly different experience, a different mode of cognition. This, of course, would be true mostly of the intellectual elite, those who were taught to read and to write. It largely excluded the masses until more recent times. But, back in the eleventh century, silent reading allowed the person to mull over and to relate what he read to what he already knew. The person no longer depended on orthodox interpretations of texts; he was freed of his mental slavery to develop new ideas, even from texts that the intelligenzia was expected to know by heart. As Alberto Manguel notes: “the text became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge” (1996, p.51). Silent reading is believed to have allowed the person to develop a distinct sense of a unique self.

This intellectual shift had social consequences. From predominantly oral to increasingly literate culture, in Europe the world of social relationships, first centered on oral interaction, shifted to the interior — to private thought, speculation, and philosophy. This epistemological shift is believed to have had dramatic consequences for the nature of “scientific” communication and cognition. For instance, printed texts permitted analysis “for deeper levels of meaning” (exegesis). Dictionaries standardized the denotation of words, permitting greater objectivity and accuracy.

Literacy also brought with it “abstract categorization… logical reasoning… [and] articulated self-analysis…” (Ong, p.55). It gave rise to a sense of personal “ownership of words,” as opposed to collective possession, and it encouraged thinking that was more “religiously neutral” (p.132). To a great extent, the ability to read and write brought the individual a sense of having a unique inner life. This set the stage for numerous cultural changes in Europe.

With the spread of literacy, European societies developed subgroups, or religious sects, that had their own interpretations of the textual knowledge that was once restricted to the few. Consequently, society became more atomized as individuals associated with like-minded people who shared ideologies. This process of social diversification continued until it received a boost from the German monk, Martin Luther.


The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), was an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church. For various reasons, Luther came to question many of the practices and teachings of the Church. Like Augustine before him, he was stricken with a sense of doubt and inadequacy in his relationship to God. In this, Luther was influenced by the humanists and “free-thinkers” of his times, men who questioned received ideas with a rational perspective. Their avid search for meaning was part of what became known as the Renaissance, a great time for the emergence of people buried under years of mysticism and closed-mindedness. Literacy was essential to this “rebirth” of humankind.

In Luther’s theology, matters of belief became an individual problem. He stressed that it was not the “good deeds” and payoffs to the Church that would get the believer into heaven, but a deeply-felt sincerity and spiritual authenticity that could only come through awareness of one’s “self” (Erikson, p.219). With its emphasis on introspection, Protestantism marks a turning point in Western man’s intellectual maturation towards self-confidence, especially in matters of ideology. Self-knowledge, spiritual self-improvement, rational education, and a degree of self-restraint and hard work were now indicators of salvation (p.217). This mentality, fueled by increasing levels of literacy, represented a major step towards the modern age.

Luther’s teachings spread rapidly throughout Northern Europe once Gutenberg’s printing press was able to disseminate ideas at greater speed than ever before. Disenchanted Christians were ready for reform, and they took up the new teachings with a vengeance. Once Luther had translated the Bible into the language of the people (vernacular German), people could read the sacred Word for themselves, and the clergy was no longer needed to mediate the sacred Word. Greater personal independence and greater self-confidence contributed to a sense of personal autonomy and responsibility. Of course, there were a nexus of factors, all mutually reinforcing each other, in establishing not only individualism but its descendent, the modern capitalism (Erikson, p.231).

During, and after, the Renaissance, rational communication promoted linear thinking as in the essay form, the journal article, the scientific paper, and report. Linear communication jettisons the floridity of oral speech to concentrate attention on the essential theme or message. Of course, whether this format of communication is capable of real “objectivity” or not is debatable. However, literacy gave words greater accuracy even as they provided deeper layers of meaning (recorded in dictionaries).

Literacy found its most fertile soil in early America where popular education stressed the need for rational thought in human affairs. The first European settlers, the Puritans, emphasized reading and writing as means of self-improvement just as Augustine and Luther had. By keeping spiritual diaries or autobiographies, the Puritans practiced spiritual self-examination. They favored the “plain style” of writing, devoid of the rhetorical tricks and colorful language of oral communication, because they believed people could be led astray by “satanic” verbal deception (Ruland & Bradbury, p.11).

There are, of course, additional factors that led to the development of Western individualism. Some of these have yet to be discovered. However, it is safe to say that, in the Western experience, silent reading, increasing levels of literacy, greater personal autonomy, and the values of hard work and progress have been instrumental in producing the modern world, for better or for worse.

*First published in IATEFL ISSUES, April 2004.
** Elsewhere I argue that those days are over. Massification is killing individuality despite our fooling ourselves into thinking we are so unique.

Ezrahi, Yaron (1996). “Modes of Reasoning and the Politics of Authority in the Modern State.” In David R. Olson, Nancy Torrance (Eds.) Modes of Thought. Explorations in Culture and Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Erikson, Erik H. (1958/1993). Young Man Luther. A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Fernandez-Amesto, Felipe (1997). Truth. A History and Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bantam.
Manguel, Alberto (1996). A History of Reading. New York, NY: Viking Press.
Ong, W. J. (2000). Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.
Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury (1991).
From Puritanism to Postmodernism. A History of American Literature. New York: Penguin Books.
Triandis, Harry C. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Twilight of the Individual

September 10, 2017


Even in the freest society power is charged with the impulse to turn men into precise, predictable automata. — Eric Hoffer (“The Unnaturalness of Human Nature”)

Pundits like to equate the Internet with individual freedom of choice, freedom of association, freedom of self-expression, as if the supremacy of the individual were an established fact. Well, this is more wishful thinking than actuality for, given a historic perspective, decade after decade, we are less personally free to follow our own courses. On the contrary, we are increasingly sucked into a grand illusion of “freedom” while heading further away from being unique. The trend is towards groupings, and the only choice available for most is which groups to be part of.

douglas fairbanks and masses

What do we consider individualism to be anyway? If you look the term up, you will find it equated with self-reliance (a prime virtue of the early colonists), independence (very American), freedom, rights to private property, personal privacy, self-fulfilment, and a right to go where you want to go, etc. But what you find is that, over time, in America and elsewhere, these traits have all been compromised to such an extent that we need to ask What is really going on? How “free”are we?

Take self-reliance. To many in our consumer society, this means going to Home Hardware to pick up tools to work on their automobiles, houses, or cottages. It means, the person can help him or herself, skirt the aid of experts to accomplish tasks of all kinds. If you have personal problems, why rely on psychologists or spiritual helpers when you can resort to libraries full of self-help books to fix yourself? A couple of decades ago, all of this might have done some good, but today you can barely find the alternator on your car, let alone re-program its complex computer, or change the tires without violating your warranty. You are dependent on experts. And forget self-help books as you will end up collecting them before seeing any appreciable changes in your own behaviour.

Yes, you are still pursuing individual happiness, but do you even know where it lies? You used to in the days when you were told to get a job, get married, have kids, and be satisfied. Today, there are more life-style choices than before, but then more people are piling into the same ones and, next you know, you’re just a little cog in another wheel. The guy and girl living in the first “tiny house” are now a community of tiny homes. Caravans cross America in convoys. It’s harder to be original or do things alone.

The bigger picture reveals trends that are equally anti-individual. First, there are fewer unique, well-paid jobs for those who lack genius in a speciality, or for those prescient enough to lead the next wave into the future. Increasingly, the rich do get richer, while the middle-class sinks into the working-class — which is doomed to welfare hell. Forget about owning a house or other property because prices are going out of sight, and you are indebted for your education even while you work three, or four, part-time jobs. How will you realize your individual dream in such an economic atmosphere – provided you have a dream, that is?

Then there is the matter of “thinking for yourself,” developing your own views, working things out for yourself in matters of politics, ideology, etc. Well, when was the last time you met someone who did not think like you do? And, if differently, how much of his or her ideas were you able to stomach? Take a look at the left and right-wing demonstrators, the so-called Anarchists, or the “freedom-of-speach” advocates. If there are so many people with individual views, why do we always see only two sides to any issue? Right-Wrong; Democrats-Republican; Liberal-Conservative; or, nowadays, Establishment vs the Totally Disaffected? Life isn’t like that. There’s a lot of space between, undefined, but no less valid and deserving to be heard. What happened to the Middle?

Where are you supposed to get “independent” thoughts if the media is controlled by syndicates who back one or the other political ideology on ever issue? Truth be told, if you did have independent views, you would make yourself scarce for fear of being pepper-sprayed or beaten to a pulp. Ditto for expressing you ideas online. If you bump up against established wisdom, you will be shouted down, harassed to your very doorstep. So much for democracy; so much for individual thought and freedom of expression. Our systems of ideas – especially the political — are illusions and probably always have been. So let’s stop fooling ourselves. The nature of society demands we fit into one slot or other, and we tolerate the “other” slot merely until we can eradicate it. Simply put, humans don’t like difference.

This brings us to the fanciful idea of “critical thinking.” As an educator, I’ve been told to teach students to “think out-of-the-box,” come up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. But when someone manages this miracle of unique thought, they no longer fit the cookie-cutter patterns in our established education systems. Imagine being told to teach “critical thinking” under the regime of Political Correctness. How long do you think a “critical thinker” can last in the stifling political atmosphere dominating Western campuses today? You might as well be in Communist China, or Saudi Arabia. Critical thinking is a dangerous thing when society wants ideological uniformity, and that is the trend today. The only area in academia where you can come up with anything new is Science and Technology, but forget the Social Sciences and Humanities. They are in the grips of Bolsheviks.

The mass media, including Hollywood, have our minds in their grip. They produce films that tell it like it is, according to their world-view. Who won the last war? Who is guilty of war crimes? Ask Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. What happened in Vietnam? Who is hatching conspiracies? Do UFOs exist? Ask Netflix, the propagandists of the day. And forget about any contradiction from film critics. They attend the same cocktail parties as the producers and directors do and are just as uncritical. Hollywood is the biggest propaganda factory on the planet, and it is spreading its tentacles worldwide. Coming to a theatre near you: more bullshit designed to make you see the world Our Way.

There is such a dearth of variety in cinema and television, in America and in the West, generally, we might as well be living in China. If you want dissenting opinions, you can find them on the Web, but these tend to be so outrageous that you would need to suspend intelligence altogether to grasp any of it — or have such a low IQ that cartoons could tell you what to believe. Today, “entertainment” is the moniker for propaganda, and has been for decades. No one wants you thinking for yourself because the days of “rugged individualism” are over, and what remains is but a poor shadow of what once was. Besides, what does it mean to “think for yourself?” Do you even have a “self” that can think? Even if you did have a self, you would not get the chance to claim it for your soul does not belong to you. Others have their eyes on it.

Today, massification is the dominant policy, no matter where you live. In the West, collectivism has nasty connotations of communism and fascism, or religion, mass-brainwashing – all the things individualism used to be hostile to. But the mass-market is ever expanding into greater aggregates, world-wide. Marketing and production systems are being synchronized, standardized. There is little room for individuality here. Similarly, products are the same wherever you go. You can buy the same stuff in China, Malaysia, Germany, or the USA. And, life-styles are coming to approximate standard consumer models with the illusion of choice. To be sure, there is something comforting in this. The stranger is not so strange anymore. He or she buys the same stuff, wears the same clothes, takes the same tours, or pretends to be experiencing something unique in the same hostel on Mount Everest. Contrast this with possibilities of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago, and you will see what I mean. Individual experience, like individual thought, has become a myth.

Consider, too, that the concept of individualism has been an illusion all along. We actually don’t like to be alone. Very few can survive on their own wits without the occasional hand from a neighbour or stranger. Even the pioneers relied heavily on the wagon trains to get them out West and then needed the Army to protect them from hostile natives. Farmers are more into cooperative efforts than going it alone. Ditto the rancher with his vast herds of cattle. He might be the boss, but he is out of business without a collection of hired hands, and the lone cowboy, where would he find employment if not on a ranch? Individualism is more of a goal, or a self-flattering fantasy, than a reality.

While it is true that radical, independent thinkers have given us some of our greatest inventions and ideas, most of us would not be willing to pay the price they had to pay in rejection, isolation, or fear of elimination. Also consider how few great thinkers there have been among the billions born and expired over the ages. The individuals have been few and far between, and now that there are over seven billion humans on earth, how many great minds stand out?


The natural tendency among humans, especially when populations increase, is towards standardization, conformity, collective values and behaviours. In America, especially, when there is a new trend, people get on boards as though affirming individual thought, but almost immediately, their thing, whatever it is, is marketed, made available to everyone, and swallowed by the system. Think of the hippies. Think of the once-unique Burning Man Festival, or the waves of black-clad “Anarchists.” (Get your Anarchist outfit for only $59.99 now. Available online.*) If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious.

chinese consumerism

It seems to be in the nature of things that individuality is drowned out over time. For instance, recall that we used to have local and regional dialects. Everyone spoke English in England, but even within a city like London you could discern “accents” which made the speakers unique. You could tell people which neck of the woods they came from as soon as they uttered a thought. People also had unique costumes that identified them as members of a distinct culture or tribe. Now there are millions wearing the same outfit and even more speaking “standard” languages so that any sense of smaller groupings is disappearing fast. Some languages and cultures are dying out altogether as they can’t compete. From the regional to the universal; simple folk to anonymous masses, anyone or anything unique is disappearing rapidly. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen.

Politically and economically we have a similar process in history. Remember the little kingdoms that used to dot Europe and Asia? Well, they have become countries and regional associations like the European Union and ASEAN, with the same goals and values and, don’t be surprised, increasingly the same shopping malls, airports, train stations, and homes, containing the same “Made in China” television sets, VCRs, computers, and ceiling fans. Not to mention the car in the garage. If you look at Singapore you will see the prototype for Shanghai and (probably) Kuala Lumpur. Whatever there was of “local” has become global with everyone trying to live according to one (often outdated) model. I’ve been on university campuses in Canada that were based on models from California. Given the great differences in climate, not appropriate, you might say. Not even rational. Of course not, but there it is. Today, modern campuses in Canada and the US all look alike. Even graduation gowns are the same, as are courses, and exams, dormitories, parking lots. Imitation is the easy way out, and standardization makes the world more familiar, less scary. We actually don’t like the unique.

Is individualism even possible? Do you have a “self” to develop, or are you just an aggregate of possibilities gleaned from the social menu you were born to? The answer is some of both. But individuality is a possibility rather than a reality in social settings. It depends on the degree of freedom a society permits for a being to develop him or herself, according to his or her personal aspirations or needs. How tolerant of difference is your social nest? And, here, I don’t mean can you be a hippy or a sectarian of some kind. Being a member of any group demands standardization. So, the first thing to be wary of is joining groups. The group, the clan, the religion does not function on difference but on uniformity and, usually, there is some little dictator who tells others what to think and do. Groups exist to be led, like sheep. Even among the so-called “anarchists,” there are rules, rulers, and followers. Otherwise, why would they be all wearing the same outfits? Truth is, they want to be in a group; they want to surrender to a shepherd rather than figure out what to do with their lives.

If you want to develop your potential as an autonomous entity, don’t join groups; read a lot; investigate ideas, rather than submit to them, and keep yourself open to new possibilities. Center yourself on you, not selfishly, exclusively, but in a confident, self-disciplined way. You don’t need to submit to anyone if you can centre yourself in your self. And to do that, you need your will — the determination to overcome the slave within that longs to be outer-directed, the self that is afraid of being alone. The slave longs to be controlled, wants to worship an Other. To escape joining the masses, you need to work on your own will-power. And be vigilant, for the world does not look kindly on those who have command over themselves, those who cannot be subjugated to the will of another.


A Man Trapped in ‘Group One’

September 7, 2017

A Note on Dr. Li Zhisui (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. Translated by Professor Tai Hung-chao. Foreword by Professor Andrew J. Nathan. Random House.

Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power. — Eric Hoffer

When Chairman Mao Tsetung died on September 9, 1976, not long after his historic meeting with President Richard Nixon, Mao’s body was entrusted to the hands of underlings who frantically tried to preserve what they could with the limited knowledge they were able to glean from the Vietnamese colleagues who had pickled their Ho Chi Minh some years earlier. There was great pressure to come up with a convincing corpse to display to the masses. Even a wax dummy was produced, “just in case.” The sweat literally pored off the brows of doctors attempting to replace an ear that had fallen off the corpse’s head, and the torso was so bloated it wouldn’t fit into the Chairman’s clothes. But, they did manage.


Among the physicians charged with preserving Mao was Dr. Li Zhisui, the dictator’s personal physician for over twenty years. Dr. Li had been keeping a secret, detailed accounts of his life and times with the Chairman but, writing many years later, from recollections rather than the notes which he had destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Li presents a life of grand anxiety mixed with luxurious isolation within an elite of guards, nurses, functionaries, and sycophants – all expertly played off against each other by the willy Chairman Mao.

Among this entourage was Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, once a young beauty in the film business, increasingly turned into an embittered hypochondriac seething with resentment. Among those she detested most was China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, painted by Dr. Li as a scrounging “dog” obediently licking Mao’s feet. Not a flattering portrait of a man others consider a “perfect revolutionary.” The other hated figure was Dr. Li himself, probably resented for his proximity to the Chairman.

Dr Li and Mao

Mao seems to have had a lot of contempt for those who served him unfailingly. Zhou Enlai had been with the Chairman since the early days of the Communist struggle, defending Mao against critics within the Party, tagging along on the great man’s path to the top and, at times, doing the man’s dirty work. Yet when Zhou needed it most, Mao did not permit Zhou to undergo cancer surgery, which probably sealed his death warrant just months before the Chairman took his own last breath. As for Mao’s eternally devoted wife, she met her fate in front of a tribunal and was imprisoned for life, although released early, only to commit suicide. No one around Mao met a happy end.

Dr. Li’s memoirs give valuable insights into the workings of those in power. Often making decisions in ignorance, determined to fit square pegs into round holes, come what may. Mao took unilateral decisions during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution which, in retrospect, were great wastes of time and human life. Millions perished in famine and political persecution designed to keep the leader in power. There were those who saw disaster on the horizon but, given the atmosphere of terror the Chairman radiated, they kept quiet lest they be accused of “counter-revolutionary” attitudes. You seldom knew where you stood, or for how long. People fell in and out of favour; all was unpredictable under a leader who, in Dr. Li’s words, was “devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth.” In other words, Mao was a sadistic psychopath, not unlike Stalin, Hitler, and many others. What he knew best was how to juggle factions, keep everyone off balance, and mesmerize the masses looking for a god to worship.

We learn much about Mao. For instance, his manipulation of comrades loyal to the point of condemning themselves to labour camps during “struggle” sessions. He would discard followers as fast as he took them up. This included many who had accompanied Mao on the Long March, a historic trial of Party solidarity which separated the devoted from the uncommitted. As the author notes, time and again, Dr. Li feared for the safety of his family and himself, for his fate was their fate. But, he says, “Even as I became aware of [Mao’s] ruthlessness, I protected myself by watching in silence.” Could be the doctor was both fascinated and terrorized by the situation he found himself in. And the biggest challenge, always, was remaining “apolitical” while living within a highly charged fishbowl called “Group One,” the Chairman’s elite team.

We also learn something of Mao’s personal habits. For instance, Mao never used Western type seat-toilets. Instead, he would travel with his own bed pans, even on state visits, and he would bring his own bed on his personal train. He would swim daily in any of the villas regional commanders had built specifically for him, and he would never announce where he was going until the very last minute out of fear of assassination. He had a host of food testers through which he avoided poisoning and would travel on his train guarded by tens of thousands of militia stationed along the tracks. All air traffic would be grounded when the Chairman took to the air. Mao learned from Chinese history to be both cautious and ruthless.

On several campaigns, like “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao encouraged free debate on Party policies. But once critics had come forward, even with mild proposals, he turned on the “vipers,” as he called them, destroying their careers, their families, and condemning many to hard labour in “re-education camps.” Those who opposed his will were denounced as “rightists,” or “counter-revolutionaries,” rejected by the Party, and denied the means of making a living. Dr. Li found himself banished more than once, only to be recalled to the Chairman’s side because the leader had ailments which included chronic insomnia, bronchitis, and colds. Mao trusted his personal doctor — but then he didn’t. One could never be sure.

Mao gave Li, and other doctors, a hard time as he would seldom listen to advice or undergo treatment until it was almost too late. And, of course, each time Mao’s health was compromised, the politburo held Dr. Li personally responsible. When Mao eventually succumbed to his fate, Dr. Li needed to come up with an acceptable “cause of death,” while being suspected of knocking-off the Chairman. He just managed to save himself.

We also learn some unsavoury details of the Great Helmsman’s health. For instance, Mao was saturated with venereal diseases which he carelessly passed on to young sexual partners. Mao understood little of modern hygiene or medicine, seldom bathed, popped sleeping pills, and slept with young women in order to gain longevity from their body fluids. In essence, Mao was a peasant, intellectually and culturally. However, a true Machiavellian, he knew how to survive among the “vipers.”

Under extreme strain, Dr. Li tried to resign, but each time he was cajoled back under threat. He makes it clear he believed in the great project to build socialism, believed in the Chairman, although he had misgivings, mostly about Mao’s sexual ethics. It could well be that Mao would have shown more respect for Dr. Li and others, who come off in the memoir as sycophants, had they stood up to the Chairman once in a while, but then this is easier said than done given the circumstances. What emerges from the memoir is a picture of people dazzled by great power but at the cost of their souls. Dr. Li’s memoir ends on a note of personal – perhaps belated — regret at having deprived his wife of a normal existence and having come away with so little at the end of a journey.

The memoirs would be more informative had Dr. Li been a psychologist, or had he the imagination of one, for we don’t really gain an understanding of what motivated Mao. What was it that made him so cold-heated? Hatred of his father? An unhappy childhood? A sadistic nature? Madness? The devil? These are questions for those who write about builders of empires on the corpses of people. As it stands, though, Dr. Li’s memoir is one of the most interesting on the subject of personalities in Mao’s “Group One.”

Random Trains of Thought

August 13, 2017

One cannot be much of a philosopher without a good measure of detachment, even alienation. To see the Cave as Cave one must be in it, but not of it. — W. F. Vallicella

To a man utterly without a sense of belonging, mere life is all that matters. It is the only reality in an eternity of nothingness, and he clings to it with shameless despair. — Eric Hoffer

1. On Anniversaries Calling for “Remembrance”

I have been trying to become clear about the atrocities committed against human beings in places like Auschwitz. I am tempted to repeat the dozens of cliches coined to sum up the matter – the “we must never forget,” or “Germans have a special responsibility to remember….” While these positions have some merit, it is clear that we may well remember, but we do so even while ignoring the inhumanities being committed all over the world here and now. In fact, it is far safer to “remember” historical outrages than it is to do something about those afflicting humanity today. And we certainly seem addicted to focussing on the past. This neatly gets us off the moral hook of taking action today.

In the 1960s, there were lots of people remembering crimes committed by the Nazis even while Vietnamese civilians were being incinerated with napalm. How many good people got out of their comfortable chairs in front of their TVs to write a letter to their local politicians, voicing opposition to a criminal, undeclared war? Or, what about people who suffered terrible abuse and death after World War Two? We can’t get enough info about Jews being abused and killed, but what about other vicitims?

Estimates of German civilians (yes, women and children, too) murdered in post-war revenge killings range from 500,00 to 2,000,000. They go unmentioned. What about justice for them? Or, don’t they count because…well, they’re German?

And, what about the many people in the Soviet Union thrown into the Russian gulag, left to rot for minor offences? Or the millions sacrificed to economic experiments in China? Who remembers them during “Remembrance Day?” Most people are not even aware that there were such crimes committed after the Second World War.

Historic memory has been very selective, and not just in the West, because history serves political, propagandistic purposes, not truth. History and truth have never been allies. We are told whom and what to remember, and tend to interpret history in terms of Good vs Bad simplicities. We the good; them the bad. How stupid can we get? We give ourselves little credit for intelligence beyond that of children being told what is what: And don’t question the experts.




2. The Fraud of “Belief”

Belief in anything is a substitute for understanding Truth. — Corlett and Moore, The Buddha Way.

People use the term “believe” like they use the word “think,” as in “I believe in democracy,” although belief ought to be a much more solid conviction than a mere thought. Belief ought to be predicated on study, trial, experience, and knowledge forged on the anvil of rationality. It should be the outcome of a search for truth, arrived at after a validation of hypotheses, not merely on wishful thinking. Those who profess “belief” in any idea ought to have, honestly, struggled with various possibilities in an attitude of rational scepticism. They should have doubted to begin with, not blindly have accepted a life-defining ideology, as is usually the case with politics and religion.

When it comes to “believing” anything, we should doubt all idea-systems. Nothing should be above rational scrutiny, and only ideas that pass rational examination should qualify as “belief.” No religion is above doubt. And this should not be restricted to the field of religion but extend into history. All conclusions arrived at by historians should be taken with a grain of salt for a history, by definition, is a “story,” a narrative accepted by society for a variety of reasons, including justifying of actions taken in the past. Ditto all philosophical and political “beliefs.” Even once arrived at, ideas should remain open to new findings, as is done in Science.


3. Photography

Photography is fascinating not least because it deals with the fleeting plethora of impressions that never stands still long enough to permit study. Photography allows a more in-depth look, a chance of contemplating the everyday to find meaning, if not on a conscious, then on an unconscious level. “Straight” photography, the unmanipulated image, gives us food for contemplation in that it seems more in touch with “reality” than, for example, what paint and brush can produce. Supposedly, the personal element is removed, or less in evidence to obscure what we suspect is there – there in “reality.” Hence, we allow photographs (or video) as evidence in court whereas paintings, as legal evidence, would seem absurd. Photos come closer to optical actuality than other forms of recording, or at least we think so.

However, the thing that is most valuable about photography is the sense that it arrests process – the continuous flux of life, change in the environment that suspends us. Form and substance morph without end like clouds form and reform, or disappear, in an endless continuum, with one form never the same as the other. Subject to time and space, like life itself, nature transforms itself endlessly, and we are left to wonder at it all. In this chaos, we need to feel there is design, a measure of predictability. (Hence, too, the need for a divine being who orchestrates “Creation.”)

The camera offers us a chance to glimpse such an Order. Like catching a sight of a ghost, we “capture” reality at a fraction of a second, convinced that it reveals “reality” to a comforting extent. Chaos is not the way things are, we tell ourselves, because where there is Order, there is intention, design, intelligence, and meaning. On a subconscious level, this is reassuring against the tremendous mystery, but is this another illusion?


4. Left and Right: a Pox on Both Your Houses

I resort to the BBC, the CBC, ZDF, France24, occasionally to CNN, to Reuters, the Guardian, and the ABC, and I find that all of these have one thing in common. Along with countless other news purveyors in the West, they are exclusively left of the political center, and seem absolutely incapable of understanding right-wing or populist concerns. For instance, today on the CBC, in an interview with with a German film-maker, there was no challenge to the view that countries like Hungary and Poland refuse to towe the line with the EU that is demanding they allow thousands of immigrants into their countries. The explanation offered for this refusal was that these countries are “selfish;” they got into the EU for the benefits but are unwilling to take the “responsibilities.” Sounds right? Well, consider that Poland, Hungary, most of the Baltic states, were conquered and subservient under the Muslim Ottoman Turks for some four-hundred years, and now they are supposed to allow hundreds of thousand – eventually millions – of Muslims into their countries? Why is anyone surprised at their reluctance to repeat history?

That this little historic tidbit never comes up in liberal media is indicative either of (a) ignorance of history, or (b) intellectual dishonesty: turning a blind eye to the obvious while attributing maliciousness to anyone who does not agree with the prevailing, liberal view on all matters. This arrogance is not just in the media, but among people who have studied any and everything except history, people who do not take history seriously, people who cannot think out of the box they were born in. Calling such people “educated” or “intellectual” is being too generous. They are historical anachronisms.

We should have a hard look at what the political reality is today. Look at what political ideology has become over the last twenty years or so. Today, the liberal Left, or “socialist” perspective, is bankrupt of ideas. It has failed to provide a substitute to the consumer capitalism that is ravishing the natural world, flooding our societies with junk, and perverting human values to the point where everything is reduced to money. The Left depends on this very capitalist monstrosity for its survival. It is tolerated by the moneyed one-percent, who own everything, because the Left has become too weak to offer viable alternatives. Communism is dead; socialism is in disarray. As for the nationalistic Right, they can offer nothing new either. They are powered by nostalgia in the form of ethnocentrism, racism, religionism, old-fashioned conservativism in an age when such ideas are passe. The world has changed, yet the Left and the Right are singing the same old songs, and their adherents have not woken up to the new facts of life.

The new facts are that technically-advanced people are redefining group membership. Professionals in India, China, Japan, Europe, America – everywhere — have more in common with each other than they do with their own nationals. The same can be said of the very rich. Most of them actually don’t care where they live as long as they live well. Look at how many of them make their money in one country and then move to another. They will go wherever they find opportunity and security. Money moves globally, as do its owners. And the same can be said of professionals. As for who is Left and who is Right, such questions barely matter because the mobile classes have surpassed traditional classification. The ones who are still engaged in the old game are the sleep-walkers, like ghosts haunting ancient battle fields. They demonstrate and counter-demonstrate, fling accusations at each other, and increasingly indulge in violence — the last resort of the frustrated inarticulate.

We can expect the Left to sink into Anarchy (a process well underway), while the Right gains power here and there but has no viable solutions to economic and cultural problems from its current, limited perspectives. The best the rest of us can do is position ourselves in the political middle and find new roads as they open up to the future.

5. Genetic & Ideological Survival

Howard Bloom (The Lucifer Principle) is one of those who talks about life as it is, which is to say, he isn’t intimidated by those who see humans as essentially benign — if it only weren’t for capitalism, of course. Bloom sees humans as creatures determined by both biology and ideology, twin forces that work in tandem to assure the survival and supremacy of groups in constant warfare against rivals. In nature, ferocious creatures tear each other apart in order to pass on their genes; so do humans, competing to the point of genocide — to assure their kind thrive at the top of “pecking orders.”

But where animals and humans differ is that we have a drive in addition to genes: self-replicating clusters of ideas, ideologies, cultural values, political systems, religions — in short, memes. These compete with other meme structures for resources, space, and influence on a global scale. That is not to ignore the cooperative element both in the animal world and in human life, when it suits a purpose, but it is not the default drive in human evolution. That drive is behind the competition of idea systems, or meme-plexes.

The Lucifer Principle has much that challenges received (but naive) wisdom. For instance, Bloom says we kill not just to protect our tribes and families, but to promote our genetic material. Killing and dominating others includes the females of the species who are just as likely to turn violent as males when it comes to promoting offspring and tribe. Bloom cites studies into our old, “reptilian” brains which we share with apes citing, for instance, studies showing that female baboons kill offspring belonging to rival mothers. This is survival of the fittest for genetic dominance. Similarly, among humans we find genocide which, historically, is quite common and often goes hand in hand with ideological competition.

We kill for ideas that bind our groups together against rivals. Here we enter the realm of politics, ideologies, and cultures, with memes competing for dominance in a pecking order (a term from the study of hens competing genetically). Societies are formed by shared memes that unite groups against others. As for keeping everyone in line, internally, the high priests of ideas stamp out dissention to maintain the status quo. Rival ideas are suppressed while popular frustrations are externalized against enemies or scape-goats.

Bloom notes that, despite revolutions, where systems have been turned upside-down, the resulting status quos usually look like the previous ones, with new players in key positions. Life is more certain at the top. But, revolutions exist not just amongs humans as they are quite common in the animal kingdom. At the root of the phenomenon is genetic and memetic competition for survival.

Rivalry often involves demonstrations of a willingness to torture, maim, and kill. Often, a society or “superorganism” (Bloom’s term) demonstrates its ferocity by totally eliminating entire towns or cities to make a point. Think of the Huns, the Mongols, the Romans, the Nazis, ISIS, Pol Pot or the people who dropped the atomic bombs for that matter. We all do it at some point in history – that’s the way it is. What is more, if we show weakness, self-doubt, pacifism, our rivals for prominence are encouraged to peck away at us until we are vulnerable enough to topple. Then we get be the bottom-feeders, and they enjoy the high life. This should be cause for reflection given the current state of world affairs.

Howard Bloom, (1995). The Lucifer Principle. A scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, The Atlantic Monthly Press.


Mexican Mornings

July 12, 2017

Oh patria mia Jesus Helguera

(Oh, Patria Mia, Jesus Helguera)

Mexico City,
Stirring, twisting to
Police arrive,
Armored, helmeted,
Stationed outside jewelry
Shops, banks, Sandborne’s–
Coffee time for uniforms.

Old man, eyes shut,
Sets jaws firmly
In semi-sleep.
He has seen it all.

Office workers, half-awake,
Spew out of Metro tunnels;
Shuffle, coffee cups
Held out like offerings
To the gods of yesterday.
Suited, pot-bellied,
Exits hotel elevator,
His secretary trailing
A guilty look.

The contaminating soup
Begins to form.

Trotsky’s fortress,
Remarkable ugliness,
Poorly furnished,
Imagine Trotsky awaiting
The ice-pick.
Boredom, perhaps,
Minding the rabbits and hens,
Waiting for Communism.

Old one, Stalin-mustached,
Picks his nose
To the rhythm of a distant
Noon day gun blast.
Thousands wander:
Click, Click high-heels;
A bird’s Screech;
Cars honk.
Droning speaker —
Workers’ demo’ a block removed;
Red flags flapping,
Costumed natives
Knitting, eating, listening

“I’m from Canada.”
“Good. We hate Americans.”
Ah, the Trump Effect.
Charming, disarming Mexicanos,
Race-conscious, simple,
Oppression on Diego Rivera faces.

Hotel Victoria.
Yes, Trotsky was here,
Here, there, and everywhere.
No, no breakfast here, not now,
The old grounds-keeper shrugs:
It’s all about what used to be.
What happened to the silver mines?
Or the tourists?
Is it the Narcos keeping us away?

Changing Dollars in a bank,
A ritual:
Show your passport; hand over bills;
Supervisor rubs bills between fingers,
Holds bills up to light.
Comes the magnifying glass.
Satisfied, you get your change.
Outside, truck full of armored soldiers;
Machine guns dying
To blast someone to Hell.

Taxco zocalo: birds sing
Praises to the Patria
Drones a loudspeaker.
Sleepy heads pass on stones of
Glistenig morning light —
Harsh suggestions of glory and pity.

There is free coffee
In the bus terminal,
But the machine aint working.
The attendant shrugs: Es Mexico.

On Someone’s Bench

July 11, 2017

AT times I have wondered
At old people sitting
On benches, listening
To children delight
In life,
Watching birds peck
At dirt,
Feeling breezes
As high as the trees
Where clouds form and reform
As if on cue —
Life in progress.

Old people sitting on benches
“In memory of….”:
Another bench-sitter gone
But remembered, as if
It mattered.

I wonder no longer
At old people on benches
Sitting, as I am,
On someone’s bench.

(Kingston, July 2017)

A Clash of Voices: The Middle Easterner in America*

May 5, 2017

When foreign students come to study in the United States, certain of their cultural and language habits often interfere with communication and lead to misunderstandings. This is as true of students as it is for any others, suggesting that it would be prudent for teachers to know something of the linguistic practices of their guest-students to facilitate mutual comprehension.

In this article, we will review how, in intercultural exchanges, characteristics of speech and culture often conflict with mainstream American communication patterns. This should be especially useful to counselors and instructors who are in contact with foreign students or those working with or employing people from Arab-speaking countries.

In the so-called Muslim world, the Arabic language is highly regarded as the vehicle that was used by God to communicate with the Prophet Mohammad. As such, for Muslims, Arabic is the epitome of stylistic and grammatical construction. Because the Qur’anic style is as important as the messages it conveys, those who master its highly poetic qualities are credited with superior wisdom and learning and thus are often considered persuasive. Therefore, it is no surprise that educated Arab speakers frequently adopt the lyrical style of the holy book (Nydell, 117). But, such poetic ability is not necessarily universally admired or credible. In fact, it can arouse suspicions of a speaker’s craftiness.

To many Americans, the combination of charisma and speech ability is frequently considered potentially demagogic, more frequently associated with fascists and other misleaders of the world than with “plain speaking” democrats. In other words, in the USA, eloquence is commonly seen as a craft with which people are “bamboozled” by unscrupulous fast-talkers. Consequently, the eloquent, well-intending foreigner, in conversation with Americans, may come across as long-winded and evasive. He may even be considered untrustworthy.

Interestingly enough, in the Arabic conception of language, words have almost metaphysical or magical powers. Words are thought to be able to influence events themselves, thus epithets and blessings are common, while cursing is normally avoided. Speaking ill of individuals, especially in public, where repercussions can be certain, is normally avoided. Thus Middle Eastern students may be surprised at the use of vulgar speech in American public life and open criticism leveled at people without regard for personal feelings. (Of course, this has changed considerably at the political level when Arabs level insults at those they oppose publicly. It’s not unusual for calls of “Go to Hell,” and similarly offensive talk, to be levelled at the police and non-Muslims, probably as there are no consequences.)

Amongst Arabs, open expressions of admiration for things are traditionally avoided. For instance, when a foreigner comments favorably on some possession someone has (“I love your watch. Where did you get it?”), the Middle Easterner just might offer it as a present rather than be envied for it (Nydell, 119-120). This can lead to confusion on the part of the person making the compliment.

In Middle Eastern cultures, speaking indirectly replaces the “direct” speech favored by Americans. This is especially so if the subject matter might be embarrassing or hurtful. Still, Arabs are able to glean meaning from subtle clues in a conversation. Here, a circumspect style is used to “save face” for all concerned, or to conceal the intentions of the speaker. For instance, I have been told that at a prominent school in an Arabic-speaking country, the word “cheating” is not used to direct students not to peek at each others’ exam answers. Rather, students are cautioned to avoid “cross-communication”. This cautious choice of language allows those who haven’t been able to resist temptation to save face. The kind of bluntness (“Call a spade a spade!”) that Americans are used to is simply bad manners in many societies. So, it is often with shock that the Arabic-speaker is directly confronted when he expects an artfully delivered, soft rebuke. Conversely, Americans are frustrated hearing “soft-pedaling” when they expect “plain talk”.

To convince others of something, Arabic-speakers frequently employ appeals to the emotions rather than to reason. The impetus behind this is that in the Arab world, people, not reasons, data, or factual evidence, are instrumental in making things happen. An appeal to the human heart rather than to the head is more difficult to resist. Moreover, in arguments, Arabs tend to follow a circular line of ideas rather than the common linear structure of English. This makes it hard for non-Arabs to identify the “point” of the talk (Feghali, 361). In Arabic, asides and personal anecdotes are common. They take matters out of abstract realms into the concrete world of everyday life.

In conversation, Americans might note that Arabs like to resort to compliments. These are usually conventional phrases offered as part of good manners. However, compliments (“You are such a good teacher…”) can be repeated to the point where foreign listeners wonder whether they are being buttered up for a request. Conversely, if criticism must be leveled by an Arabic-speaker, it comes in a softer form than Americans are used to, or it is given through an intermediary. This round-about route, in itself, could be misperceived by an American who expects a message up-front, delivered face-to-face.

The tone in which things are stated is also very important in Arabic speech. Tone of voice conveys the sentiment and degree of seriousness behind the message. Here, a level, controlled American voice can be misinterpreted by the Arab as lacking seriousness or resolve. To an Arabic-speaker, a “weak” tone seems to flow from weak intentions, whereas a forceful, loud (or angry) delivery, with frequent voice modulation, is not only captivating but “determined” (Feghali, 368). Moreover, the ironic tone of voice, or witticisms commonly used by Americans to signal an attitude on a subject, is generally avoided in Arabic speech. This also holds true of using slang (Al-Kaysi, 142).

Culture determines what people talk about. For instance, the Arabic-speaker learns that anything to do with his family is not to be discussed in public (Al-Kaysi, 143). He or she does not normally talk about mothers and sisters, nor about himself or herself in any boastful way. Arabs also learn it is bad manners to be inquisitive of others or to display pleasure at someone’s misfortune (Al-Kaysi, 139-140). So, it may be confusing to hear individualistic Americans speak of themselves in the first-person singular as though they alone existed. Where Americans often begin an utterance with “I”, Arabs begin with “We,” reflecting the importance of the group over the individual.

Finally, what can well-intentioned, non-Arabs do to facilitate communication with an Arab speech-partner? First, they can speak more slowly to give the foreigner a chance to hear what is being said. Then they can listen and give the speech-partner full attention. They can also establish a human rapport that goes beyond impersonal relationships — by asking about the newcomers’ problems adjusting, progress of their kids in school, and so on. They should avoid jargon, word play, and double entendre, or slang, and colloquialisms. Speakers can rephrase messages to assure clarity and use simple sentences that don’t run on and on. But, most of all, speakers can consciously be aware of speech conventions that are commonly used and can cause problems in communication.

*First published by IATEFL Issues, Nov.-Dec., 2003

Anderson, Janice Walker. (1997) “A Comparison of and American Conceptions of ‘Effective’ Persuasion” in Larry A. Samovar, R.E. Porter, eds. Intercultural Communication. 8th Edition. New York: Wadsworth, pp.98-107.

Al-Kaysi, Marwan Ibrahim. (1991) Morals and Manners in Islam. A Guide to Islamic Adab. Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation.

Nydell, Margaret K. (Omar) 1996. Understanding Arabs. A Guide for Westerners. Revised Edition. Yarmouth ME: Intercultural Press.

Parker, Orin D. (1976) Cultural Clues to the Middle Eastern Student. Washington, D.C.: AMIDEAST.

Ideological Blindness and Political Extremism, a review of Jamie Glazov’s United in Hate. The Left’s Romance With Tyranny and Terror (2009)

April 17, 2017

The personal becomes the political. I’ve reflected on this idea over the years, concluding that our individual needs and wants eventually express themselves in our political persuasions which, unfortunately, often become fixed even though we otherwise evolve over time. So we tend to see the world in terms of concepts and impressions usually gathered in our teens, and carry these like so much outdated luggage into the future, interpreting events in terms of an acquired Weltanschauung. Many of the people I grew up with are stuck with the same world-view they had in the days of their youth, unwilling or unable to see the world anew despite radical cultural changes, demographic shifts, fantastic technology, and possibilities of thought. Why is this so?

In my teens, I admired “revolutionary” heroes. I applauded the Cuban revolution wholeheartedly, seeing those who fled Communism as “gusanos” — essentially, as traitors. I also did my little bit to protest the Vietnam war, and have not changed my mind about its waste of life, but otherwise have remained open to opposing viewpoints even though, on an emotional basis, I felt the right-of-centre was somehow “wrong.” The good guys were socialists, Leftists; even the Baader-Meinhoff gang had a romantic air about them. I had no sympathy for their many victims, although that has changed over the years. So I would say my opinions have changed, but the question remains why some people can’t transcend their narrow prisms and re-consider their beliefs.

To answer such questions, I have read people like Wilhelm Reich, whose Mass Psychology of Fascism influenced me greatly. I’ve also turned to Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Man for Himself, The Art of Loving, etc.) who wrote from a Marxist perspective, tracing submission of the masses to dictators back to early Protestantism and its sense of alienation, sin, and struggle for salvation which individuals still experience in the modern age. To escape these psychological pressures, people turn to mass-movements, ideologies promising a new way of being, none of which have not ended in a bloodbath.

More recently, I turned to Jamie Glazov, author of United in Hate. The Left’s Romance With Tyranny and Terror (2009). Lest the title puts off some Left-leaners, most of what he says is equally valid for the extreme Right. The point of all these studies is that we choose political views that address deeply personal issues like social alienation, our sense of justice, but at the risk of becoming part of the darkness we fear most. Each of these works offer insights into ourselves and a chance of acquiring an equilibrium during times of ideological extremism. But we need to be aware of why we choose sides and avoid adding to the injustice.

So, what do we learn from the book? Glazov refers to Eric Hoffer who talks about the spiritual emptiness and dissatisfaction that drives individuals to join groups in the hope of easing their pain. Such people identify with “victims” of the “capitalist” world, yet not without a sense of guilt as they have benefited from the very system they despise. They come to admire “whomever…society disapproves of and fears” — in our time, terrorists, anarchists, religious fanatics. Glazov says the Left wants to destroy the society they were born into and build a utopic system in which they will figure prominently, a society in which they will be “taken care of.” Such people express approval for groups like Hezbollah, Al Quaida, the Taliban, anarchists, and other enemies of contemporary civilization, yet if they had to spend time with such fanatics, they’d wet their pants.

(It’s all about controlling who believes what.)

Today, the disaffected are legion. They inhabit Western universities, schools, the media, and public institutions. They speak with self-righteousness, asserting their “right” to judge those who do not share their narrow perspective. Glazov includes in his collection of the self-righteous George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, H. G. Wells, and a host of “Leftists,” many of whom closed their eyes to Stalin’s massive crimes while expressing alarm at right-wing atrocities. Such figures “considered free expression their inalienable right, but hated the society whose institutions gave it to them,” says Glazov, characterizing them as hypocrites.

Today’s “Leftists” have names like Oliver Stone, Naomi Campbell, Normal Mailer, Susan Sontag, Francis Coppola, and even Steven Spielberg, according to Glazov. All have had free access to the media to spread their dissatisfaction while benefiting enormously from the society they denounce. For such people, the Third World is full of “victims” who are somehow “pure,” simple, and innocent, while the capitalist West is the grand oppressor. And, says Glazov, among the underdogs are Muslim fanatics whom Leftists mistake for “revolutionaries,” despite their misogyny, intolerance, and totalitarianism which the Left, supposedly, abhors. Glazov sees the contemporary Left as aiding and abetting Islamists, of finding excuses for their atrocities, lacking in all sympathy for the maimed and killed. In this, he is correct to a great degree.

However, I would not limit Glazov’s profiling of “believers” to those on the Left because the Right is just as misled, just as naive, and just as capable of one-eyed vision. The point is to understand how personal feelings determine political allegiances in times of increased polarization and violence. None of us are not immune from being taken for a ride by those with media access. That, for decades, most of the media has been dominated by Leftist liberals has unbalanced our political understanding and is threatening our democracies.

Today, the trend is towards less variety of expressed opinions, increased surveillance, coercive Political Correctness, and a narrowing of the mind. The recent resurgence of right-wing political parties is a reaction to the predominance of liberalism. Unfortunately, once the pendulum swings, it usually goes too far in the other direction, and we become just as blinded, making it harder to assume a balanced, intelligent perspective.

For something on the Baader-Meinhoff “revolutionary” mania, see this film review, then see the film for yourself:

A History of God (book review)

April 1, 2017

Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God (1993), a popular read, tends to focus on common ground among the world’s major religions, no doubt trying to “defuse” conflict with interfaith understanding. She was a doctoral student at Oxford, but failed to get her degree (for unspecified reasons), yet ended up becoming a popular presenter on UK television. For her interdenominational work, promoting mutual comprehension, she has received numerous awards, although plenty of criticism, too, for what is seen, in some quarters, as being apologetically pro-fundamentalist Islam.

In her year 2000 publication, The Battle for God. A History of Fundamentalism, Armstrong continues her comparative approach, focusing on rival religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to show a common difficulty reconciling the modern spirit of logos with the mystical, traditional mythos, respectively polarities of Science and Religion, rationalism and faith. She sees modern life lacking in religious feeling, myth, and faith, dominated, as it is by scientific and technological rationalism. What she does not investigate, however, is how the Arts can fulfil the human need for transcendence, mistakingly assuming that religion has a monopoly in the spiritual department. But then, she is a believer, and her views reflect this.

So, what can we take away from her Battle for God? I found interesting her explanation of how Christianity did not, at first, conflict with scientific rationalism because early European scientists were believers who saw no contradiction in examining God’s footprint on the natural world. Studying creation was not the same as denying a Creator. Thanks to this mindset, Christianity became forward-looking, in contrast to Islam which experienced a decline in progress and fell into nostalgia for its “golden age.” Europe developed industrial societies while Islamic regions remained agrarian, looking to tradition for how to live a correct life. The two worldviews clashed with the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt, coming with modern weapons and the new science of archaeology that threw Islamic values into doubt. Since then, says Armstrong, Arab Muslim states have tried one or another approach to “catch up” to Christian countries, all without success. The result has been resentment and rage. She says a sense of helplessness and “fear of annihilation” characterize Islamic societies, hence today’s fundamentalism.

Also interesting is Armstrong’s account of differences between Martin Luther, who seems to have hated everyone (not just Jews), and John Calvin, the Swiss theologian, who promoted the value of hard work, progress, and the rational study of Creation. She claims Luther was more of a mystical reactionary, making Calvin the true father of progress. Also interesting is her portrait of Newton: she sees him as wanting to analyze scripture rationally, de-mystify it, to reveal the blueprint of God’s creation, so to say. However, she notes, such attempts were met by rejection in the form of witch-hunts and persecution, not unlike what infects fundamentalist Islam today.

According to Armstrong, a prevailing fear throughout history has been of technological and intellectual developments that pitted logos against tradition. Such periods were met with fears of the Apocalypse — not unlike what we see in major religions today. Armstrong notes that American religious “awakenings” (revivals) preceded the American Revolution and other periods of instability, phenomena which informed the Iranian (Shiite) revolution of the 1970s as well. When times become turbulent, says Armstrong, people look to fundamentals for stability – not a new idea, but Armstrong traces this theme through the development of the three major faiths to make her point.

Lest we see fundamentalists in purely negative terms, Armstrong reminds us of the critical role that Christian evangelicals played in the emancipation of slavery and the promotion of women’s rights. Social progress in America was pushed by religious groups when, in Europe, it fell to socialists and communists to improve the lot of the ordinary human. Europe, too, responded much more to rational discourse on sacred texts than did America, while figures like Karl Marx, or Julian Huxley and others, taught “scientific rationalism” as the key to liberation from mythical thinking. According to Armstrong, rational thinkers are behind the absence of religious faith and responsible for a sense of abandonment which she thinks characterizes Europe. They are also responsible for Jews becoming secularized and integrated into countries like Germany (before Hitler), or abandoning religion altogether for socialism and atheism. (Armstrong seems to see this as tragic.) She blames progress, and the insecurities it brings, for push-back millennialism, times of mass-neurosis that culminate in great wars. World War I was one of these, according to her. Of course, her implication is that, once again, we find ourselves in an unhealthy, historic sitution today.

Armstrong tries to convince us that Islam can be “modern,” but in its own way, although this would require a lot more logos than mythos, far less dogmatism and mysticism than is currently spread around. She cites several attempt at “reforming” Sunni and Shia religious teachings, but notes repeated setbacks initiated by the imams who have always feared losing power. She affirms that modernity cannot be foisted on Islamic societies, saying they need to find their own accommodation with the future – which partly explains the “theologies or rage, resentment, and revenge” we see today. Islam may be struggling to advance itself, but there is definite push back from the hard-liners, and there are many of them.

Another point, worth commenting on, is Armstrong’s view of Naziism as a “secular ideology,” a view that is disproven by research into how “mystical” the Nazi movement actually was with its torch-light parades, blood and soil rituals, blood flag rites, its symbolism, mass “revival” meetings, and pseudo-scientific research into “racial roots.” We could view National Socialism an attempt at reclaiming the religious solidarity that was eclipsed by modern individualism, an attempt at reigniting faith over rational thought, recapturing the sense of security when God was in his heaven and all below was in order. But then, Armstrong doesn’t study fascism as much as she studies religion.

So, now what must we do? Well, Armstrong would not have been rewarded recognition if she weren’t “politically correct” in encouraging mutual understanding among the faiths. According to her critics, she leans a bit too far in one direction rather than assuming an “objective” stance, but then encouraging tolerance might be the only thing we can do, considering the mess the world is in, but tolerance has its limit which the public is about to reach.

Societies can’t have material progress, science, and high-technology while subscribing to superstition, dogmatism, misogyny, and murder of those they don’t like. Modernity requires some trade-offs. Religion needs to become a personal, spiritual matter, not a political ideology that keeps the masses subservient to the religious establishment and promotes empire building. Dogmatism is passe, and the sooner we realize it, the sooner we we are capable of moving on. The future beckons the brave, not the fanatics.


Karen Armstrong