Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Stories

Today, across the Christian world, people are celebrating the story of a baby boy, born in a barn, who went on to walk on water, turn water into wine, heal the sick and rise from the dead. They are celebrating as they have done for centuries - exchanging gifts, giving alms, going to church, eating and drinking. Or, in the case of the six year old boy sitting in the pew in front of me during mass, playing with their new plastic figurines of dragons and three headed snakes.

The, rather pagan, death match that seemed to be taking place between the snake and the dragon while the priest droned on about the miracle of Bethlehem, got me thinking from a child's eye view about stories. Earlier in the week I'd had a conversation with two psychologists about whether or not children can, from a cognitive point of view, deal with multiple stories. But they do so all the time. The story of a baby born in a manger who came to save the world nestles effortlessly next to the fable of a man who travels around the world in one night delivering toys to kids, which itself seems no more preposterous or believable than the tales of a sea sponge who lives in a place called Bikini Bottom (this is a reference to SpongeBob SquarePants for those who dont have under age siblings/cousins/a predilection for kid's cartoons). Children, without any difficultly or fuss, can do two things that adults struggle with; they believe in stories and they believe in many stories at the same time.

As we grow up, both of these abilities come under sustained attack. Santa is unmasked as an illusion, the stories of the Bible/Torah/Koran/Ramayana etc become quite preposterous by the light of rational day and books and films are clearly delineated into categories based on the degrees to which they relate to reality; fiction, non-fiction, based on true events. The lines harden between what is credible and what is not and jumping the fence, beyond rationality, requires faith. And in most cases sustaining that faith requires denying all other stories in their claims to validity. It is as though the leap required is so onerous that it simultaneously demands closing down on all the other alternatives.

These thoughts were mulling around my head when later, after a lot of secular materialism and frankly pagan eating, I watched 'The Nativity Decoded' - a programme on Channel 4 which promised to extricate fact from fiction in the story of Jesus's birth. Robert Beckford (who should never have cut his hair) pitted slightly sardonic historians against rigid representatives of the church. The former pointed to a more historically probable version of events (that included Mary being raped by a Roman soldier and Jesus being born at home in an underground area in Nazareth surrounded by women rather than wise men), while the latter defended the fluffier, more benign and mythic version that is re-enacted in schools at this time of year.

Many programmes and books of late have taken this line and the ammunition of the atheist is generally that there is no evidence and thus it is just a story. But, as any six year old with a plastic dragon will tell you, stories are all we have. The material and its meaning are different things and to link the two we need narratives. But equally, to prevent those stories from ossifying they must be recognized as such; stories - not literal truths but expressions thereof - allowed to evolve, open to reinterpretation and most importantly of all, not exclusive in their claims to meaning. This isn't something we need to teach children - it is something we could learn from them. Many stories, one world. And - note to Vatican - when the old story gets a bit boring, introduce a three headed snake into the equation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cognitive Disonance in Dar es Salaam

Last Sunday I returned from a week in Tanzania to the land of subzero temperatures and contaminated pork. I sat in the taxi and listened with incredulity to the news that all pork products had been recalled because a very small amount of a probably non-harmful toxin had been found in three herds. Twelve hours earlier I had walked through the market in Zanzibar where live chickens were haggled over, sold and slaughtered on the spot, giant sword fish on stone slabs, buzzing with flies were auctioned off to the highest bidder and someone had to warn me to 'watch the manta ray' that I was about to step on. The world has always been a place of contrasts but the ability to fly from one time zone, climate, way of being to another in half a day makes you very aware that it is now a place of extremes.

This was my second trip to Africa and sadly I think I have got to the point where I've stopped seeing. After prolonged exposure, at some point you normalize realities that at first seem utterly new and alien. There is only a relatively brief window of time to really grasp what is unfolding before your eyes, to contrast it with what you know, to become aware of all the implicit assumptions of your own culture and expectations by their absence in the new reality you face. I seem to have passed that point, so I watched others go through the process but felt none of it myself.

We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about mosquitoes and how to avoid being bitten by them. One member of the trip slept (in 30 degree heat) in full length pyjamas tucked into their socks and industrial size can of repellent in hand. We walked around in a collective cloud of DEET so strong you could see the insects hit the wall and simply drop. There was a lot of paranoia about food and going out after dark. And whereas when we turned up at an airport for an internal flight to find that it had been cancelled and we might miss our connection back to Amsterdam I felt the calm fatalism acquired from 6 months of plans not working out in India set in like a blessed opiate of the masses, most of the others became agitated and irritated with the local officials. When we finally did get on a plane, there were nervous jokes about the sign on the seat that said 'Use seat cushion as flotation device in case of crash'. And when we finally arrived back in surgically clean Skiphol airport everyone seemed to sigh with relief - no more DEET or hand sanitizer - we were back in regularized, standardized, predictable modernity.

All of this got me thinking about psychology. There is an implicit subtext in development that 'developing countries are lacking something, that the process of development is about filling in those gaps. I think part of my shock when I first went to the developing world was to realize that it wasn't merely a suboptimal version of the reality I was used to, like an outdated model from a few decades previous - recognisable but shoddier - but rather it was a whole different system, with different rules and ways of doing things. I was severely culture shocked - shell shocked - at first. It took a month to stop feeling miserable. It took two months to start laughing rather than crying at what seemed completely illogical (a traffic warden with a sign that says 'Halt and Go' on the same side for instance). It took three before I began to realize that it wasn't in fact illogical, it was just a different logic ('Halt briefly before you launch yourself into oncoming traffic and when you do go, go, go because they sure as hell wont slow down for you'). And it took the full six before I could begin to indulge in 'chalto hai' - relinquish the need to always be in control of time and circumstance, accept that I could not be completely the master of my own destiny, that risk was unavoidable but that usually, if you have some trust, things work out somehow. It was a psychological process - slowly wrenching my mind away from the pillars on which equilibrium normally rests: risk aversion, logical reason, understanding of my environment, and above all else - control.

In many ways, development is asking people to do the reverse journey: to alter psychologically from one mode to another, but crucially without the benefit of having their material conditions change first. It was relatively easy for me, with time, to adjust, because the reality was different, so I had to change and the psychological state I had to acquire was the one best, equilibrium response to the material environment I was in. Becoming unnervingly calm and fatalistic when you discover that all the roads are blocked with mud slides and you need to get back to Delhi to catch your flight tomorrow is the best psychological response. Accepting risk and not getting too stressed about mosquitoes is the only thing to do when you live in a tropical country. Relinquishing control is your only option when you step onto a decrepit bus taking hairpin bends over a precipice on the only road to your destination. Asking people to have different responses to the same conditions entails a considerable degree of psychological strain. But it's what the process of development does ask them to do - to become risk averse, used to standardization and legalization, accept extreme rationality, exert control, demand more from others and life etc.

In some way this dilemma was summed up from talking to a linguistics student in the University of Dar es Salaam. She explained how the fact that Tanzanians are multilingual means they are not completely proficient in any one language. They speak their tribal language at home until they go to primary school, when they start speaking Swahili. When/if they go to secondary they start English, which is also the language of instruction in university. She said the end result was proficiency, but not fluency in tribal languages and Swahili, and often quite a poor grasp of English (she estimated that only about 10% of students at university spoke English competently). From the point of view of development, a common standardized language is essential. From a personal point of view, the absence of the true fluency of a mother tongue seems, from my Anglo-centric, monolingual standpoint, appalling. It brought home the scale of the challenge and also the near barbarity of wrenching people from one system to another.

I don't want to finish on a completely anti-modern note. Travelling through the country side and seeing the desperate conditions in which people live, you cannot but want to see the material comforts of modernity. But sometimes it isn't acknowledged enough what you are asking people to do in that transition, how difficult it is to get from one state to the other and what is lost in the process. And how it delivers you to a place where your full Irish breakfast can be whipped out from under your nose for fear that, if consumed in large quantities for 30 years, you might, might suffer side effects.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thoughts from the Chalkface

I teach two courses at UCD; comparative politics and a general course in development studies. It is at times an entertaining experience, at others deeply satisfying and then again there are moments when I truly fear for the future of a world left in their hands. As you all know I am not at all prone to hyperbole (or sarcasm) so believe me when I tell you that the youth of the nation, are an hilarious, engaging and maddening lot .

Generally it's like talking to a group of hung over statues. I ask a question. They look at their shoes (almost uniformly Uggs and Converse). I rephrase my question. They look at their shoes. I show them the graph that shook me to my left core (the hockey stick with GDP per capita for the year 0 to now). They look blank. I say 'This is the single most important graph in economic history!!'. They look blank. I spend an hour explaining Sen's theory of famine to them and then ask who agrees with Sen's interpretation. No one puts up their hands. I ask who disagrees. Two hands go up. I tell the rest - over a hundred people - that they don't have to have to answer with a clear yes or no - the purpose of education being to raise you to a higher level of confusion. They look confused.

To try to lower my blood pressure and prevent the early onset of heart failure, I at times try to focus on the comedic aspects of teaching, for there is entertainment a plenty. Sometimes when I stand in front of them I feel that if I didn't actually know that they were real people I would think they were actors in a mockumentary playing caricatures of themselves: the preppy debater, the bleached surfer dude, girls with the fake tan that is different shades of orange on their face and legs, rugby players who look like they've been inflated with a bike pump and the Chloe Bartlett Browns who are all berets and smart boots. I mock, but it suits my rather dehumanizing sense of humour that they all so neatly fit into their boxes. Which leads to the none-too-challenging game of guess the box when it comes to marking their essays. Which led in one instance to an entertaining moment when, in response to the following sentence - 'One has decided to analyse the following European states...after which one will conclude' it took all my self restraint not to write 'Are you...the Queen?' But perhaps my favourite quote was when a student, in a Brangelina moment for the Enlightenment thinkers, referred to one John Stuart Marx (and what a power couple that would have been). In fact at one fell swoop he had brought together the thinkers who embody the two ideals that western thought has always struggled to reconcile - freedom and equality! Or course when I gushed about this to him he looked confused and, I'll confess, just a little scared.

This is not to say that there are not moments that are really satisfying and when you feel that in some small way you have got through to them. One such incident happened this week. We were doing an exercise that involved role playing the outcome of the 2005 German election where they had to represent the 5 main parties and simulate coalition negotiations with each other and they just came alive. After half an hour of negotiations that slowly escalated in energy and decibel level, it culminated in cries of 'We want education! And if we don't get it we're walking pal'. They were of course referring to the education ministry but I chose to see it as an unconscious plea for erudition. It came down to two potential options - a grand coalition between the SPD and CDU or a grand left alliance between the SPD, Greens and der Linke. The choice for the SPD was clear - power (in the Grand left alliance) versus stability (in the grand coalition). The three members of the SPD weighed up their options. The Left party shouted 'We'll compromise on overthrowing capitalism if you give us Social Welfare!'. The SPD retorted 'Yeah but you're a bunch of losers'. I chastised them for unparliamentary language and asked for a vote. One goes for the Left Alliance, another for the grand coalition and the last girl, with the whole class hanging on her words, eventually goes for the Left. The Greens and the Left erupt into cheers and the course of German history is reversed.

And at times I find that I actually learn something from them. In doing the same exercise with a different group we began talking about the Irish parliamentary system, which in some structural ways is very similar to the German one: two large parties and a number of smaller ones. But here a grand coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, though it would be by far the most stable, is never even on the table as an option. I asked them why. The obvious answer is history. They represent the lines along which opinion divided over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the civil war but as time has gone on, the differences have become less distinct. This was as far as my thinking had ever progressed on the matter. But they raised some important points. From the point of view of the parties, going in together, given that they have no really meaningful policy differences, would only serve to highlight this fact and undermine their claims to being fundamentally opposed. Like a Republican in a balaclava and a thug who just likes to knee cap people standing next to each other in a line up (to pick a loaded simile). And from the perspective of the electorate, having two large parties who never consider going into coalition together at least guarantees (in theory) a more forceful opposition and the opportunity to alternate governments more decisively. After the last election and Lisbon, my faith in the Irish electorate had diminished considerably, but these students put forward thoughtfull points that made sense of something which I had never fully understood before.

Although Joyce said that the universal is contained within the particular, I don't want to engage in that most Irish of qualities; parochialism. At the moment when a paradigm has been shown to be flawed, the universal need is for big-picture, blue-sky thinking. It is a moment that begs questions of academia and universities about the ways in which they train people to think. For this crisis is the result of the failure of an ideology, a failure of thinking. And before that failure came the failure of critical thinking. Although there were many who warned about the dangers of unfettered markets and unbridled capitalism, not enough people were asking questions, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigms and thinking critically - in other words doing the things that universities are meant to be training them to do. There are of course so many reasons why we are in the mess we are in and I would not have really learned anything from my 17 years of education if I did not admit to the complex, polyvalent nature of reality that rules out any easy, single faceted answers. But I do feel that one part of that solution is to teach the youth of the nation and the world to think more clearly, to ask more questions and interrogate their reality more rigorously. We need to expect more from them and put in the resources and effort to match it. Even if, for those of us teaching them, it means laying aside the comedy and taking them seriously.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Resistible Rise of Barack Obama

This week I went to see 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' by Bertolt Brecht. Led by a curiosity to see a Brecht play performed well, I left feeling puzzled and intrigued by the strange resonances of history and its episodes of hope and despair. (At this point and before I go any further I'd like to make the following disclaimer: I am not a dubious racist much as the next section comparing the rise of Hitler to that of Obama may suggest. I just have a very questionable sense of grasp of political correctness and an inability to be concise. Hence the title of this blog).

The play charts the rise of Hitler through the analogous tale of Arturo Ui, a gangster in 1930s Chicago who, with the help of a few ruthless capitalists and good for nothing thugs, comes to power over the vegetable traders of the 'Cauliflower Trust'. Think The Sopranos with bad songs, searing historical commentary and German jokes. The play charts Ui's rise not as inexorable but rather as a slow and steady advance, with numerous critical junctures, where many different actors played a part in creating a monster and clearing his path to power. He emphasizes that what has now acquired the appearance of inevitability was always resistible and that behind the rise of Hitler lay the hand of happenstance more than that of history.

Watching the play on the week that Obama took the White House, I was struck by a number of contrasts and parallels (this is the moment when you are requested to suspend disbelief at the words coming out of my mouth and resist calling the pc police until you've at least reached the end of the fourth paragraph). At somewhat comparable moments in history - chronic, systemic crises in countries beset by a mood of unease and self doubt - two politicians - both highly gifted orators able to stir huge crowds to overwhelming levels of emotion - came to power by means of a confluence of historical events, careful campaigns and a popular vote. There was nothing predestined about either and yet there was something horrifically, in one case, and thrillingly, in the other, historic about both. Crisis and war opened the door for changes that were previously impossible, of both the best and the worst kind.

But of course, if the rise of Hitler was the triumph of evil then that of Obama is, or at least we all so fervently hope, the triumph of the good. His election seems to embody what is best in human nature, what is possible in human history, to nay say the cynics, reward optimism, and most of all, restore hope. I've found myself many times this week in tears watching students at Howard College scream with incredulous joy or reading about the old African American man who photocopied the front pages of newspapers and laminated them to hang on his walls. And though this moment has been redolent with all that seems best about humanity it is also quintessentially American. Much as European applaud from the sidelines like parents who's delinquent child has finally managed to do something right, we are a long way from seeing a prime minister, taoiseach, president or chancellor with such visceral, aspirational vision, let alone one who is black.

And yet, much as I have revelled in the moment, felt vindicated in my faith in the possibility of change, the play brought a reality check. Brecht showed how Hitler changed reality to match the picture of the world that he conjured up in his speeches. He promised Germans a strong hand, law and order, protection and when they asked 'from what?' the SS ran riot and the Reichstag was burned down. He created the chaos out of which to forge the simulacrum of order. But destruction is always easier than construction, especially in a world where everything has been deconstructed to within an inch of Derrida's life. For Obama, creating the reality to match the picture of the world he paints in his speeches will be the greatest of challenges, as commentators have been so quick to point out.

The conclusion from this reality check though, is not then to relinquish hope or dismiss the importance of this moment. That would be too easy. It is rather to hold onto the hope all the more fiercely, defend it against cynicism as Obama inevitably fails to deliver all he has promised. For the final message of Brecht's play is that the death of hope precedes the triumph of evil and despair. That things can always change for both better and for worse and that this truth is an eternal source of terror and consolation. In the face of volatility two responses are possible - fear and hope. To ensure that the worst in humanity is resisted and to have any chance of making our reality match our rhetoric we must hold onto what Obama so fully embodies - unyielding hope.