Friday, 23 January 2009

Griffithgate: the West in a nutshell

As the saga with Griffith University drags on and on I am reminded how much it reflects the wider tenor that has spread through the West over the last few decades.
Aha! I hear some say - another rant against the changing times, must be in that age group, etc etc. Well, no and yes.
A quick glance at my CV and sure enough, I am whatever one's sense of political correctness permits to call me. But no, I am not railing against another hair style, a new fashion, how women walk the streets.
Throughout the last couple of generations certain changes have occurred, changes which influence our thinking, our attitudes, and how we address issues. Rather than being a contemporary whim replacing the one before, they reach more deeply into our collective psyche.
Young people used to regard childhood as a hindrance to be overcome, pushing for the time when the opportunities waiting for an adult can be savoured. For some their youth had indeed been a problem, but now those have become the standard by which to judge that initial period and not the exception that it actually had been. Youth was seen as a preparation for the future and books, that medium used to fill the gaps in your own life, reflected the achievements and therefore the possibilities the world had in store for you. Not any more.
Dysfunction, whether in the mental, social or any other sense, is discussed, exemplified and emphasised ad nauseam as if it constituted a natural part of one's life. Yet in the same breath society has adopted the notion of childhood as a state of romantic innocence, in fact ignorance, to be savoured and preserved at all costs.
Information - not knowledge, not wisdom - has been turned into such a flood that the random collection of its multitudinous parts now stands for understanding per se. Replacing the formal and sequential acquisition of knowledge that hotchpotch of ideas, half-baked conclusions and straight-out phantasies fills the minds of most; hardly anyone dares to challenge because to do so is automatically seen as being in the service of some evil authority. The effects of the influence of reason, in the end the most powerful of them all, is equated with power and no more and therefore must be bad. To be opposed, the heroic role of the challenger and the iconoclast, has been reduced to the egocentric protester who thinks smashing a car somehow symbolises the gravitas of his complaint. "Look what I have done! Can't you see my pain?!"
The social elite, those pillars of society whose duty it should be to attain and disseminate their understanding, merely wring their hands and, depending on the degree of activism in their blood, frantically search for a palliative draught or just don't want to get involved.
Even universities have not remained immune. Actual experience, the interaction with reality, is dismissed in favour of mutual referencing of theoretical musings that keeps going around in circles. A situation in a marketplace somewhere or the dynamics in a tribe for example are dismissed and have to give way to the elaborate hypothesis or the skewed perception entertained by some bureaucrats.
Excuses are valued for the exit they offer from a difficult situation, and they are applied in abundance. And what better excuse in an age of overwhelming detail than that of religion, that age-old over-spanning protection against logic and reason. Chances are a university faculty does not analyse a faith for its psychotic content but gets established to offer a pseudo-intellectual space for clerics enjoying their time under the political sun.
The biblical proverb of seeing the splinter in someone else's eye but not the beam in one's own has been turned upside down: get obsessed with the splinter in your own but disregard the beam somewhere else. Can you see the irony?
The benefits accrued from the Age of Enlightenment have given science its resources of today, and they are considerable. While most scientists make good use of them, they also can apply a distance between their world and the rest. Experience and the insights gained from them are just another facet of information competing with navel-gazing effluvium and hardly given any priority. Hypotheses and theories, especially those dealing with the human condition, are valued for their obtuse abstraction and not for their groundedness.
The results have come in. In an age of more psychologists than ever, how come depression has been identified as the most prevalent mental condition in the West? In an age of ever greater obsession with the welfare of children, how come violence drives teachers out of the classroom and basic academic skills are found wanting in young adults? In spite of tertiary institutions needing ever larger budgets lecturers often baulk when faced with material that takes them out of their personal comfort zones.
We have more knowledge at our fingertips then ever, yet our minds have grown tired and stressed from such abundance.
What happened at Griffith University is a reflection of that wider malaise; the details can be found in many of the other posts. As usual, it may require a dramatic interruption to make people realise where they have ended up.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Israel: a grassroots perspective

Israel moves into Gaza. As it hammers home its frustration with Palestinian attacks on its population there are world-wide protests proclaiming their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Of course there are the official announcements, the commentators, the lines we are fed through the media. Although cynics may differentiate between society on one side and its leaders on the other, in this case on both sides the two are largely at one.

Knowing Israel and knowing the Middle East another picture presents, a view from the grassroots that tells the story somewhat differently.

Just as individuals can be identified by their particular characteristics, so can demographics and societies. Societies do differ from each other, sometimes less, sometimes more so. And just as the social dynamics among individuals can be observed, so can their counterparts at a larger scale.

Put one person into a confined space with another and innate differences have the potential to create problems simply because each other's way of life cannot find a common ground. This equally holds true at the higher scale.

Israeli society is marked by centuries of a maturing culture that developed into a sophisticated whole where remnants of a more ideological and religious past have learned to coexist with modern sentiments. The old does exist, it does play a part, but a minor one.

The Middle East, Palestine included, did not evolve to the same extent. There traditional relationships between families, tribes, and obsessive affiliations of many kinds hold sway over daily affairs, all under the roof of a religion that infuses mannerisms to a degree hardly understood by outsiders.

The core of any religion - not its social graces but its spiritual aspect - is based on phantasy and conjecture. The core has become the soul of its bearers, at any scale. Since one's imagery must be reconciled with reality at some point, the mind has devised however subconscious means to circumvent the inevitable pitfalls. To put it crudely, it has become an expert liar to itself.

There more intense and the more pervasive the phantasy, the greater the need to lie in the face of reality.

Foreigners get a glimpse of such dynamics when engaging with the locals, whether it be a business venture or general social contacts. In the Middle East nothing is certain until the very last moment, and even then surprises can be sprung. A visitor to Israel experiences a more familiar, methodical, rational environment.

Israel does not have honour killings, precarious interactions with the opposite sex, the constant worry of transgressing a religious code hiding within some scenario. Children, indeed the general population has not been mixed indiscriminately with its militants.

At times a visitor may wonder why the constant bobbing of the head during a religious ceremony does not make anyone consider the effects on the brain, but most Jewish kids are exhorted to study and educate themselves. Try anything remotely critical in an Islamic society and suffer the consequences - better still, don't try.

Relax in a Tel Aviv café and admire the architecture of your surrounds, a modern product that found its way on to the world heritage list. A current achievement, unlike its Middle Eastern counterparts left over from a distant past. Talk, discuss, debate; then argue who pays for the coffee.

Is it any wonder the two sides cannot co-exist? But also observe who in the current climate rallies to the Palestinians' side. They are groups largely associated with constraint, impediment, anti-development. Greens, anti-Westerners, those that have lost the connection with the sophisticated here and now. Their affinities are telling.

And here is another thing. I am addressing myself to those who rather read a book than chase a ball, who rather have a serious conversation than shout the antics of a movie's rascal at each other. Every now and then these individuals will encounter the bully, who cannot stand anything above themselves and to whom civilised behaviour is anathema. The cultured victim will not lash out immediately, but resentment will build. Contrary to a certain popular misconception that intelligent people are weak, the response will come eventually. And when it does, naturally that act is out of proportion to the current provocation. Yet it also is effective, a characteristic alien to the bully. Who will be condemned? Not so much the bully, who yells and screams about the injustice of it all. Usually the bystanders will take his side, not bothering with the deeper reasons and the history of the moment. A sad set of circumstances that can be found in the school ground as well as in adult life. If at the larger scale the effects of a defensive action include the entire mishmash of civilians and children the screams become even louder. And the world sees the little faces but does not see the sadistic build-up.

Add the current Western preoccupation with the dysfunctional rather than achievement and a suffering drunk tends to get more attention than the difficulties of the disciplined. Let's not forget, one can get drunk from many things.

Israel does have a problem. Hamas is only part of it.