Tuesday, July 12, 2005

71. Numbers, Time, Culture & Politics (replay)

Just for the hell of it, basically ....

I have decided to introduce numbers into the titles since it might make it easier to refer back to previous posts in the future.

Read that line again. Actually, it does make sense: it refers to posts that haven't even been made yet (the future) but which will be overtaken by further posts (the future's future) which will relegate near future posts to the position of antecedents. The future thus becomes the past of the future's future. Got that?

I love it.

The ever-flexible English language even has a whole cluster of verb tenses (think about the possibilities of the future-perfect-progressive: "she will have been going", for example, "she may well possibly have been going" is even better because it confuses foreigners) which takes into account these possible projected moments of future time -- these resting points -- which have been (will be) overtaken by the exigencies and demanding pressures of hurry-up, tick-tock, never-stopping time. Reminds me of my Scoutmaster,School Principal, Company Commander ... my mother.

This delightful cluster of verbs -- which we definitely don't want to teach because we don't quite understand them ourselves -- is formally known as the future perfect, as in "Your parents will have arrived home from their trip before you have had the time to clean up the mess from the party that they didn't know had been held in their absence."

This is a classic example of good grammatical English, in the sense that nobody in their right mind would ever say it. Most native speakers of the language would say something like this: "When your parents come home they're going to kill you."

But the English language thinks of everything. It's on a permanent Terror Alert, particularly the verbs in the family. Nothing will be allowed to surprise them. It gives new meaning to the expression "March of Time".

But what if time is not linear? Oh, God. What if it is circular, ovoid, quadrilateral, elliptical, rhomboid ... even non-measurable? The world clings to Newton and common sense, never mind religion. Einstein is just a little bit too scary.

Imagine you had an ordinary watch measuring a day in 24 hours of 60 minutes each. That's not so hard to imagine because that's what you do every day. Imagine everyone around you measured a day in 32 hours of 45 minutes each. (And why not? -- 24/60 is totally arbitrary). Is it the same thing?

Yes and no.

Yes, because 24x60=32x45 (1440).
No, because appointments at 28.06 or 31.12 confuse.

This is a gentle introduction into what it really means to live in a different culture from the one you grew up with.

The basics are the same (24x60=32x45): the human body, parents and children, boys and girls - even cars, telephones and computers. But the details of the system are different and occasionally annoying ("meet you at 28.06"): assumptions, unspoken rules, manners, religious beliefs, the interlocking cultural "wristwatch" of shared information which everyone understands.

Everyone understands except YOU - the foreigner - at least in the beginning. When dealing with other cultures (it works in BOTH directions) the idiots are the ones who refuse to even consider a different way of doing things than the one which is familiar to them. Sometimes they even demand that foreigners should immediately change to their way of thinking, because ... because it is BETTER!

There is a political lesson in this observation. The Al Quaida people should pay attention because the rest of the world most definitely does NOT share their apocalyptic vision of righteousness. We despise them as fanatics and do not want to be like them at all. It's a lesson Mr Bush and his more unthinking supporters might take on board as well. We don't want to be like you lot either. That goes for Mr Kerry and the Democrats as well.

The Americans - Republicans and Democrats alike - are an energetic, free, expansive, generous and essentially isolated people. They live on a continent which is huge and which absorbs most of their attention; less than 10% of US citizens have passports and travel abroad. With a population of 300 million they represent about 6% of the total world population yet consume about 50% of the world's resources. This is economic and political success on a scale never seen before. Naturally, there is a great deal of pride in this accomplishment.

Pride is one thing. Imagining that the rest of the world wants to emulate America is a step too far. Many Americans I have met seem to be under the impression that the rest of us (the other 94%) are straining at the leash to go to America and become American citizens ourselves. As far as I can make out, this is not an accurate reflection of how people in the rest of the world really think.

There are three conditions which cause people to emigrate and leave their home countries (whether to America or elsewhere). Without these conditions - and even when one or more is in effect - there is no great urge to leave home. Most people never leave home at all. These three conditions are (in descending levels of seriousness)
1) poverty; 2) war; 3) political, religious, or ethnic oppression. Without one or more of these factors, people basically stay where they are. I think people from established older cultures have no interest in uprooting themselves unless they are forced into it by extreme conditions. Examples abound.

In the past, America has been respected as a tough and independent republic -- largely because of its isolation. Nobody across the oceans worried too much about what it was doing in Mexico, the Caribbean and in Central and South America. America's belated entry into the two World Wars of the 20th century was appreciated by the victors. Its contribution to the First War was negligible, but its contribution to the Second was decisive. That was when America was truly admired.

Since then, I'm afraid, it's been going a bit downhill.

There was a huge outpouring of sympathy and solidarity after 9/11. That could have been transformed into a world campaign against the shadowy conspirators and murderers of Al Quaida, a campaign in which many nations, equally threatened, would have joined with enthusiasm. The alliance of the democracies (not to mention the not-very-democratic regimes) has been squandered and dispersed. America has been barking out orders like a Sargeant-Major. Decisions are made in advance and sovereign nations are asked to sign up or face trade sanctions. You are either with us or against us. This is not an intelligent way to proceed. There is a difference between asking people to help you and kicking them in the butt. I think a lot of this goes back to the mental isolation of America and the need of the political leaders to show disrespect for foreign opinion in order to gain a reputation for patriotism at home. It's a wonder Tony Blair puts up with it, but that is another story.

Bush in New York last night was a cheesy replay of Hitler in Nuremberg. No moral comparisons, dear friends - I'm just talking about the show.