Monday, 27 December 2010

Are You Helping?

John Stuart Mill: "As for charity, it is a matter in which the immediate effect on the persons directly concerned, and the ultimate consequence to the general good, are apt to be at complete war with one another."

Charity is quite a commitment. Doing what appears to be the 'right thing' may in fact lead to greater suffering in the long term. The unsustainability of rapid population growth in Ethiopia ought to be a more ready example of this than it currently is; there are now more than 80 million people there, compared to 40 million twenty-five years ago during their last famine.

This is due to well-meaning Westerners saving starving children's lives, but not building sufficient infrastructure for those children to mature into productive, globalised adults who can import the food without recourse to usurious loans or long-term contracts for the export of useful natural resources. In essence, it is due to the brutal nature of life and death on that Continent. With high infant mortality and a lack of sex education/ facilities, there are just too many new mouths to feed.

We should not be so appalled. I remember being particularly moved by a population graph showing the relationship between foxes (predators) and rabbit (prey). As the number of rabbits increased, so the number of foxes followed. When they had made a significant dent on the bunnies, so their own numbers dwindled. This is not to quite debase a people to parity with animals; my point is to highlight our inherent tendency to keep pushing the graph higher and higher, forgetting that resources are necessary limited.

The link with the economy and capitalism's demand for constant growth is an obvious one. How fast are we able to produce and consume in order to support an ever-growing population still fast being dragged out of its natural animal state? How long can we expect for this to continue? And how willing are we to face the natural fall? Will it be the oil that's allowed this that runs out first? Or will the incredible number of people without access to clean drinking water grow larger, and closer to home?

If you are reading this, then take a moment to reflect on the abnormality of your existence. Are we an evolutionary blip, a Catalan tower of people destined to tumble solely by virtue of having been built on frail, frail people? It is disappointing to cast an eye around and see that destructive tendencies perpetuate. Maybe money is food aid fueling unsustainable growth? At least Mr Bernanke et al can conjure money out of nothing; maybe one day there will be quite enough to go around without the money itself losing its meaning, and therefore its value; but maybe not. In any case, now that you're doing your bit at Christmas/ Whenever, remember that charity is always a personal thing, and as such best starts at home, face to face.

Ethiopia Population Growth:

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Caga Tió - Catalan Tio de Nadal custom

This is quite possibly the strangest custom I've come across in Barcelona, Catalunya. The Catalan people have a Tió de Nadal in their house at Christmas. It is literally just a log. They feed it , then beat it with sticks on Christmas day until it shits presents, singing;

caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!"

shit log,
shit nougat,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don't shit well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
shit log!


caga tió,
tió de Nadal,
no caguis arengades,
que són massa salades
caga torrons
que són més bons!"

shit log,
Christmas log
don't shit herrings,
which are too salty,
shit nougat
which is much better!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Say What? Wikileaks publishes US diplomatic cables, and Julian Assange wanted for alleged Swedish sex crimes.

This week has seen the release of confidential US Embassy cables by the website, Wikileaks. How terribly exciting. US diplomats forewarned countries worldwide, the site came under several DoS attacks, and the move has been lauded and condemned in relatively equal measure.

Have we been lied to then? Not really. It is reassuring that in the main, the candid assessments by American diplomats land well within our expectations and, with a pinch, also within the implied area cast by official diplomatic announcements. Much of the Arab world worries about Iran, and has prompted the US to act. The US hasn't. We're all worried about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear facilities based on that country's challenges.

Nothing has so far knocked us for six. But this does not mean that these cables can be discussed briefly and forgotten. Unfinished as many assessments were, they have provided us with a candid, agenda-free picture of how the world appears to Americans in country. In itself, this is a valuable historical record from a prevailing discourse.

We have been treated to a fleshing-out of facts. Kant believed that to show due respect to humans as rational, moral agents, the truth must be told, allowing them to act as they see fit with any available facts. This appears to us to be a uniquely philosophical perspective. ‘No darling, you look wonderful tonight...’

In reality, it is obvious that it takes a lot of digging to uncover a whole truth. While actual lying seems rare, massaging of figures and important omissions are commonplace. This is why Wikileaks disturbs us. Here are the ostensible facts, free in so many senses of the word, for us to do with as we please. We will doubtless do nothing. Criticised leaders condemn the act of unauthorised dissemination; the public tut over supper.

But this cynical view, so typically British in its sense of inevitability, is increasingly challenged. The Iraq and Afghanistan war leaks led to real concern and proper inquiries. This new release will again raise important questions, and despite Palin’s politically expedient fury, the outing of truth is important, and appears to have been done with the mitigation of the very real risk of losses directly due to disclosures borne in mind.

Technology has allowed this. Downloading thousands of documents onto a USB stick is considerably easier than photocopying them; propagating them online is easier than having them printed. The internet has changed everything. Wikileaks has been set up in such a way to circumvent national jurisdictions. This allows them to publish what could not be mentioned in a ‘free’ press. Interested parties ought to take note of the D-notice served to the UK media establishments and read the original cables online.

This is not to assume that anything published on this extraordinary ‘free’ platform is true, or even complete. There is something of Baudrillard’s Hyperreal in the project; the single, unbiased form of truth, outshining all others. Are we to imagine that among such leaks the lack of really damaging disclosures that would actually change anything can be expected? Putin has voiced concerns; so have others.

This is not to detract from the mission embarked upon by the Wikileaks team. With little support, they have used their platform to inform on the goings-on of so many murky areas off-limits or unknown to battalions of journalists and bloggers. Their scope surpasses that of the citizen journalism seen on Twitter during the Iranian elections.

Chief among them is the Australian Julian Assange who, in a rather well-timed move, has been forced into hiding in the UK after Swedish rape allegations. I doubt many people believe the charges. Some will be glad that something is being done to put pressure on him; others will sigh at the blatancy of the attempt to stifle him after traditional channels of law proved unfit for the digital age.

Others may amusingly point out that the Australians have always been keen on the beautiful Swedes, and it’s again convenient that the majority of the world is gunning for him, guilty or not. Perhaps ‘gunning’ may be too far a double-entendre here.

In any case, long may it last. The real problems are elsewhere, powerful tides and currents compared to choppy waves. Floating on our rafts, we’ll worry about the latter, but be moved by the former. It makes interesting reading, and has something of that illicit thrill of blundering through a door marked Private. But no, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ and we shall soon see the World, who has momentarily sat up to pay attention, slump back down into a lukewarm diet of digital distraction, happiness and woe. More leaks please!