Americanah

To all those interested in Africa or humanity, broadly, please check out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. It is novel that has affected me greatly. It has been eating me inside out, almost like how Camus’s The Stranger did for me in high school. Adiche’s novel resonates with me and at the same time, challenges me. It raises a very personal question for me, that is, to what extent am I being authentic? Instead of simply living life as me, am I creating various eccentricities as a means to feign authenticity?

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Forgetting to breathe

So far, I have found at least one similarity between Third and First World living, that is my forgetting to breathe.  However, the differences behind it are starkly different in each setting. Living in a city in the Third World means walking on dirt pavements or no pavements, directly adjacent to passing vehicles, and constantly being enveloped in a mist of dirt, dust, exhaust fumes, smoke, and other pollutants. After a while, I became so accustomed to holding in my breath as soon as my nostrils caught a hint of strong exhaust or backyard trash-burning that I found myself breathing less, taking shallower breaths, or forgetting to breathe from time to time. Perhaps, my body adjusted to a new equilibrium of lower oxygen intake?

Back in the First World, today I have realized that I am also forgetting to breathe as much I believe I should. In the life of endless to-do lists and ceaseless ways to be more productive, breathing almost takes too much. Perhaps, that is why so-called mindfulness seminars and meditative practices such as yoga are so popular in First World cities? Through the development process we may lose some aspect of our primal humanity in the quest of becoming a superior homo rational?

Divisions

New experiences and knowledge brings us closer to humanity lived in ways differently than understood to us previously, yet also breeds division between our previous way of life and people therein. How to establish balance between the new and old? Is there a way to keep both or is it a zero sum game to some extent?

Finally read Brave New World

The concept of a dystopia had a quick appeal to me, ever since I picked up 1984 years ago. Perhaps, it is because of my general skepticism of almost everything. These days, progressives have referenced the similarities between the institutional strategies used to sustain the dystopias depicted in 1984 and Brave New World and the living reality of Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence in the United States. Will the Trump Administration’s use of “alternative facts” become the new normal, akin to “double-speak” in 1984? Alas, I decided to give Brave New World a read to see what I might glean from another dystopian classic.

My impression after the first few pages is of shock at how much foresight Huxley had of the direction that Western society was headed in terms of social norms in relationships coupled with technological development in reproduction and genetics. If it were not completely foresight, then disbelief at how much our society was already heading in this direction in the early twentieth century, how this path seems so incredibly predetermined, and how much our norms are driven, or enabled, by technological advance.

Although the ease at which Trump can generate ‘facts’ from baseless assertions is arguably in line with the managerial tools used to sustain the dystopias in both books, I find that the seeds of a Brave New World-style dystopian society have already been sown in the United States.

First, the norm of open relationships without long-drawn emotional attachment is a natural progression from the currently prevalent hook-up culture. In this current culture, having a one-night stand as a single adult is very normal, while declaring one’s love to a boy/girlfriend is a very big deal and declaring one’s love after meeting a person for one day is utterly abnormal. I believe that a lack of emotional depth in human-to-human relationships is one of the biggest afflictions in America. This lack of emotional depth is precisely one of the key tools used in BNW: keeping people robotically capable at their predestined jobs and satisfying their Freudian needs, but without emotional depth. At any hint of an emotion or frustration rising from within, one is encouraged to take a pill — with all of the opiating effects of drugs and alcohol without the negative after effects. This was the way to maintain a stable society, the fundamental objective, as without attachments to loved ones and religious convictions, etc., there would not be jealousy, violence, or war. This kind of engineered norm was made possible by superior technologies in this society, which gave rise to superior contraceptives and a complex and precise system of reproduction via test tubes, solely.

The second similarity is the reproductive technology. Today, test tube babies are already possible. With our increasing understanding of the human genome, we will be able to conduct gene selection in a precise manner one day and can already identify certain genetic diseases in fetuses. Though tinkering with the cells during fetal development like in BNW is not yet practiced (or not much), to my knowledge, selection of babies is already prevalent. In countries with a preference for males, female infanticide is not uncommon.  With the technological advancement of sex determination of the fetus, abortion was often used for the same purpose. In Norway, all children receive injections so that they do not grow past a certain height, deemed too tall and thus subject to shorter life expectancy.  When parents are made aware that their pre-born children carry certain genetic disorders, they may be given the option to abort. Technology often moves faster than ethical debates, because people are often reactionary to ethical dilemmas.

In my view, elements of BNW-style dystopia have long existed in Western society, before the rise of Trump and other far-right populists sweeping Europe. And I’m not sure that Trumpism substantially tips our current state of affairs towards a dystopian society. In general, my takeaway from these authors’ dystopian visions is that a healthy skepticism is a good thing and that there must be checks and balances not just within government, but over who has power in a society. Neither, the government, the private sector, or “the people” must be all-powerful. We cannot entrust rule to elites completely, even if they are technocrats–who are seemingly, a most deserving elite.

Lamentation of democracy

In this wave of far-right populist nationalism and living under the reign of “alternative facts” I’m starting to question what’s right and what’s wrong. Over the course of my education and life experiences, I’d come to hold a set of ideals and facts close to heart and mind. But, these thoughts do not satisfactorily explain for me, what’s happening in many parts of the world today. I earnestly believe(d) that reason and kindness are two fundamental forces that characterize the modern civilization that our kind has progressively developed over millennia, and that modernity and it’s associated net peace and stability are here to stay. I was convinced that democracy is indeed the answer. Of course, it’s no perfect system, but I really thought that among the choices, it is the system that works the best in bringing forth the kind of society that we want to live in and we would want our kids live in. It’s democracy, but not just that, it’s crucially about having strong democratic institutions that are supposed to last the test of time, working to foster the persistence of righteous policies and norms, while putting a brake on overzealous tyrants or well-meaning people who make bad policies that sometimes slip through the cracks and get elected into high office. We are told that in a democracy with strong institutions, one individual–even the one at the helm of the nation–has very limited power and cannot exact that much impact, whether good or bad.

My confidence in such a system has faltered under the state of current affairs. The first hit for me was on June 27, 2016 when ‘Brexit’ happened as angry, old Britons expressed their displease with the influx of migrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  People chose emotional release over rationality and restraint.  Britons denounced the learned elite and instead of paying any attention to the academic reports on the drastic consequences of a ‘Brexit’ vote, these reports were instead spun as a sort of intellectual conspiracy against the common and hard-working Britons. Facts were no longer facts, people believed whatever affirmed their emotions.

The second hit occurred on November 8, 2016 when Donald Trump was elected as the President of the United States. No one could have predicted this. Since, I was out of the country for the better part of the campaign cycle and the elections, I was able to afford an extended period of denial. However, since I have been here to witness the inauguration and events that have transpired to date, I can longer afford to be in denial. But, all I can ask is why? and how?

Have we (I) gotten it all wrong?  It appears that democracies actually produce winners and losers not so different from the way of monarchies or oligarchies in the past (and present).  Historically, there has generally been a ruling elite, a middle class, and an underclass. The shares of which vary across systems and times. The ruling elite is the one that has created the system and has vested interests in it. The middle class is the one that is able to achieve some level of prosperity under the status quo and thus also has vested interests. This group is most dangerous to the ruling elite as they can become prosperous enough to be able to want more. The underclass consists of the losers of the system. These are the people who have real grievances and most likely hold a lot of pent-up anger unless there is a strong moral philosophy, such as Christianity during Christendom, that consoles them that being poor is a virtue. When revolutions occur, it is usually led by the middle class, while using the grievances of the underclass as moral justification and to garner the support of the underclass.

Of course, the rise of Trump is a bit different, as no one would say that he is from the middle class. Perhaps, one may argue that he was not originally from the ruling elite and thus is an example of a member of the middle-class who became strong enough to want more. The Trumpist ‘revolution’ was fueled by his exploitation of the anger and grievances of the white underclass in America. But, then democracy doesn’t seem to produce very different outcomes then say, Qing China.  Yes, one would argue that in a democratic system we can redistribute the gains and appease the losers of the system. But, in reality it is seldom practiced perfectly.

Ricardian economics tells us that we are better off with trade than no trade as over time workers who lose jobs in less competitive industries will retrain into the industries in which our country has comparative advantage. But, in practice it is not so smooth. The transition can take decades and in the meantime, these are real human lives and their families who are affected. Yes, because of our democratic institutions we created the Trade Adjustment Assistance fund to help cushion the loss of the workers who lost their jobs and help to retrain them. But, the fact is many Americans who were displaced from jobs in uncompetitive industries, such as the auto industry remain jobless today. Yes, even if imperfect, one can argue that in a democracy, compensation of losers is at least attempted and considered. But, when the compensatory measures are imperfect, while we simultaneously tout democratic idealism, the underclass of a democracy may not be more satisfied than an underclass of a monarchy, regardless of real situations.

Ultimately, people are satisfied or unsatisfied when they compare expectation vs. reality. In a democracy, such as the United States, the reality may not be very bad in an absolute sense, but people also have higher expectations. In contrast, under a monarchy, historically people are not given any expectations for human rights, etc. therefore even if their reality is poor in an absolute sense, it doesn’t mean that they are less satisfied than under a democracy. Holding all else equal, the threat of revolution as indicated by the level satisfaction of the underclass may be similar for democracies and non-democracies.

Humor and the Absurd

I recently watched the movie, Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart. The amount of meta-ness about the film is almost over the top. The film is about an iranian journalist who was imprisoned for about four months during the Color Revolution in 2009.  A material contribution to his imprisonment was his interview with the Daily Show shortly before.  As a media platform that pokes fun at actual news outlets and contemporary affairs to bring to light the absurd, the Daily Show by Jon Stewart had sent a reporter to Iran during the protests in 2009 to interview with Bahari. The comedic interview led the Iranian authorities to believe that the iranian journalist was a spy for the American government.

It’s crazy that a comedic fake news shoe could have such an impact. On the one hand, Bahari’s imprisonment is tragic, and yet on the other hand, this tragic event and subsequent movie truly brought to light the absurdity that authoritarian governments are.

Anyway, I hope to think about this more.  The Chinese philosopher, Lin Yutang, was absolutely right in that the importance of humor is much overlooked in our society and that dictators lack humor.

The Death Toll of Recessions?

An article, dated April 30, 2015 in the Washington Post and written by a sister of a student who ended his own life while a student at the College of William and Mary in 2010, anecdotally suggests that the quality of counselling efforts at the College had drastically declined from from the time when the author was a student (Class of 2006).  The article begs the question of what might have changed in the school’s policies or managerial style in the intervening years to account for the decline in mental health counselling services and the negative turn in the way that the school’s administration handles students who come forth seeking help.  The suicide in 2010 was purportedly the first in five years.  Since 2010 there have been eight suicides at the school. 

It makes one wonder if what happened was that the Great Recession happened. State and local governments slashed their budgets during the recession and continued to during the recovery. As a public university, the College likely saw its public funding decline and had to adjust its own bduget accordingly. Perhaps, counselling services were trimmed down in the process. But of course, counselling efforts are no guarantee in preventing suicides. It is just one vector; but I do hope that the College can make an honest assessment of its policies and that our government and society-at-large can make it so that economic downturns will not will not exact a death toll.

‘Tis the season of good – byes and hellos

A colleague claims that he gets seasonal depression during this time of year. The sick irony of life is that the good – byes are seemingly only sad or tearful when the hello period was actually meaningful to parties involved.  Unless we’ve reached a point in life where we feel perfectly at peace somehow.  Perhaps there is a balance or equilibrium point to good – byes and hellos. Or do we simply learn to move on much more quickly and efficiently as we grow older?  Do we accept that most people are just passerby and aren’t worth the investment of a meaningful relationship?  Do good – byes get easier merely because our hellos become more halfhearted?