Thursday, 30 July 2009

On reasoning

The worst, one of my lecturers in law school explained, is not to come to a decision, reasons for it you will find afterwards. For many years I took this only as a telling illustration of how practitioners of the law operate: you do not reach a decision by solving problems, you reach the decision first and then you argue the problems away. Over the years however I came to think of this approach as a very human way of dealing with the complexities of life. We usually do what we do without thinking too much why we do it - and afterwards we justify our actions.

Some time ago, a British journalist was interviewed on BBC's "Hardtalk". He had been allowed to play mouse when Tony Blair's inner circle was about to decide whether to go along with the Bush government in invading Iraq. What had baffled him, the journalist said, was how easily ("off the cuff", I believe he said) the decison had been taken. No heated arguments with knowledgeable people, pundits, and the like. No, nothing of that sort, just ... okay then, let's do it ...

In short, we mostly do not use our brains to solve problems, we use them to justify our actions.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Kim's world

In 2008, when teaching English in the Brazilian town of Santa Cruz do Sul, one of my fellow teachers was Kimberly Krulikowski from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kim, a linguist by training, had (and obviously still has) clear and distinctive views on pretty much everything and the kind of dry humour that I love (and that is not often found in North Americans). When I recently came across Kim on Faceboook, I also encountered a number of examples of her quite particular world view. Here are some of my favourites (I asked her permission, she doesn't mind me posting them here):

Religious views: no thank you

Studying a second language puts me in awe of how I ever learned a first one.

One of these days, I will play the violin again. Definitely before I'm thirty. Until then, it will stare at me from across the room, untuned and dehaired.

I'm actually happier than my face lets on.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Feeling spent

The other day, I came across an article in The Observer that attempted to explain how the modern world that we have created makes us sick. The author, William Leith, not only tells the story of Kate and others but also his own story - and it is not least his sharing of what he went through that makes this article so convincing. Here is how it begins:

On a Sunday morning in early June, Kate, a 36-year-old counsellor, was sitting on a sofa, drinking a cup of tea, and saying she didn't think she could go on any more. "I can't see a way out," she said. "I look at my life and I don't see any possibility of hope." She dipped her head and put a thumb up to her eye to brush away a tear. "I know I've said it before. But this time... I've come to the end."

Kate said: "I don't know what to do. God, I could just give up. Yesterday I had this feeling that I could just give up my responsibilities. I could become derelict and hopeless. But that's not the way to go, is it? I have a child. I have my job. Something's got to give. I don't know what, but something's got to give, because I'm at breaking point."

I was talking to Kate about exhaustion. I should say, first of all, that Kate is not her real name - she does not want me to use her real name. What if her boss knew the state she was in? For one thing, she is responsible for the wellbeing of other people - people who are supposed to be more vulnerable than her. Although sometimes, these days, she's not so sure.

What state is Kate in, exactly? She is drained beyond belief. Her facial expression reminds you of one of those young combat veterans you see in war photography; she has a "thousand-yard stare". Her facial muscles are somehow bunched up. Her body, she says, aches all over. She is often dizzy and nauseous. She describes her mental state as "foggy" and "fuzzy". On top of this, she has persistent bacterial and viral infections - this month she has had a cough; last month she had aches and fevers. She has just finished two courses of antibiotics; her cough, she says, is dying down. But when one thing dies down, another always springs up to take its place.

Once or twice a day, while she's working, Kate feels as if she's going to faint. It's as if her entire system is shutting down. "Something descends," she says. "I feel draped in it. It's like a curtain coming down." What's the explanation? Kate does very little physical labour. She does not run, or cycle, or walk long distances, or carry heavy loads. Her exhaustion may feel physical, but it is coming from somewhere outside the physical realm. "It's weird," says Kate.

But there's nothing weird or abnormal about Kate. She is one of an enormous number of people with a similar constellation of symptoms - millions of people at the end of their physical, and spiritual, tether. Frank Lipman, a South African doctor working in New York, has identified the condition in hundreds of his patients - he has a word for it: "spent". Lipman says that feeling spent is an understandable response to the 21st century. If you put a human being in a modern city, and add computers, mobile phones, credit cards, neon lights and 24-hour shopping, he says, what do you expect?

The full text you will find here

Friday, 24 July 2009

Consensual reality versus facts

When I asked Sukey why the Hmong community accepted her so readily, she said, "The Hmong and I have a lot in common. I have an anarchist sub-personality. I don't like coercion. I also believe that the long way around is often the shortest way from point A to point B. And I'm not very interested in what is generally called the truth. In my opinion, consensual reality is better than facts."
Anne Fadiman: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Von Döneressern und Ausländerfeinden

Am 10. Juni 2009 fand sich auf Spiegel online ein Artikel der 18jährigen Schülerin Ildiko Mannsperger, die vor kurzem ihr Abitur am Hölderlin- Gymnasium in Nürtingen abgelegt und mit ihrem Beitrag "Von Döneressern und Ausländerfeinden" für die Schülerzeitung "Spongo" beim Schülerzeitungswettbewerb des Spiegel den ersten Preis in der Kategorie Reportage gewonnen hat. Es ist ein toller Text und er gehört gelesen. So fängt er an:

Ich bin Deutsche. Mein Vater ist auch Deutscher. Meine Mutter auch und meine Schwester ist auch eine Deutsche. Zumindest haben wir alle einen deutschen Pass und auf unserem Personalausweis steht unter Nationalität: deutsch. Und trotzdem werde ich immer wieder gefragt ob ich wirklich aus Deutschland komme, denn so sehe ich gar nicht aus. "Wie sieht denn ein typischer Deutscher aus?", frage ich mich dann immer wieder. Existiert dieses Bild vom perfekten Deutschen mit den blonden Haaren und den blauen Augen immer noch?

Meine Großeltern waren Immigranten, sie sind aus anderen Ländern nach Deutschland eingewandert. Meine Eltern hatten hier keinerlei Probleme mit deren Herkunft und wurden und werden hier als Deutsche akzeptiert.

Doch das Thema Migration ist gerade in letzter Zeit immer mehr in den Vordergrund unserer Gesellschaft und somit auch in den Vordergrund der Medien getreten. In der Schule werden Bücher zum Thema Migration und daraus entstehenden Problemen gelesen. Man liest im Unterricht etwa über Schicksale, die dramatisch, beängstigend oder vielleicht auch hoffnungsvoll sind. Doch diese Schicksale sind immer noch Fiktion. Man kann sich mit ihnen nicht identifizieren. Sie sind meist zu weit weg. Aber es stimmt: Migration und Migrationsprobleme gibt es überall um uns herum.

Es ist Montag. Ich habe Ferien. Ferien sind super, da kann ich morgens immer ins Fitnessstudio gehen. Meine Mutter ist auch dabei. Ich will mich gerade auf mein Spinningrad setzen und losradeln, als eine Frau meine Mutter anlächelt und sie in gebrochenem Deutsch begrüßt. Ich kenne die Frau nicht, aber irgendetwas in ihrem Gesicht kommt mir bekannt vor. Doch ich denke nicht weiter darüber nach. Als unsere Sporteinheit vorbei ist, lächelt die Frau wieder freundlich meiner Mutter zu, fragt sie noch wie es ihr geht, und verabschiedet sich dann wieder.

Ich glaube sie ist Türkin. Was mich da so sicher macht? Sie hat eine etwas dunklere Haut, dunklere Augen und dunkles Haar. Ihr Akzent lässt darauf schließen, dass sie nicht in Deutschland geboren wurde. Sie trägt jedoch kein Kopftuch und auch ihre Kleidung ist alles andere als zugeknöpft: ein Top und dazu eine kurze Sporthose. Man muss allerdings dazu sagen, dass wir uns hier in einem Fitnessstudio nur für Frauen befinden.

Der vollständige Text findet sich hier

Monday, 20 July 2009

Why explore space?

40 years ago, on 20 July 1969 (at 10:56 p.m. New York time; on 21 July, at 3:56 a.m. Swiss time - my father had woken me up to watch it on TV), Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon. It was also the moment the American space program died, writes Tom Wolfe in The New York Times, because the so-called space race between the Soviets and the Americans was seen as just one thing: a military contest. Here's an excerpt:

NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.

For the full text go here

Saturday, 18 July 2009

How photography forces us ...

… how photography forces us to see a past that's still lurking in the present. As Ennis explains to a pair of newlyweds holding a pose before his apparatus: "The light is carrying you now, like a word into an ear, through the lens and onto the glass. This little instant of your lives will not go into the future but will remain here, seeded in time as you grow leaves above it."
Michael Redhill: Consolation

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The magic of Africa

The magic of Africa is its rhythm of timelessness however urgently it may express itself. See it personified in the attitude of the man spending hours absorbed in the doing of nothing. See it reflected in the ritual of people talking to one another, the way bodies then move to positions of acceptance and of ease. The mystery of Africa is not in its darkness, nor in what the albinos consider its unexplored, dim past, nor even in its huge but untapped human potential, let alone its propensity for massive dying. No, the essence of Africa is in its clarity, its bareness, its horizons burned clean of history and of time. It is so clear, so natural, that it becomes incomprehensible. I had to come here to insert space, to make the inner construction a little more impervious to time. To blow the mind.
Breyten Breytenbach: Return to Paradise

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Google problem

In order to get what we want, we do of course need to know what it is that we want. To muddle through does not seem to be an option — as a concept, that is. Nowadays, we need business plans, exposés, and dispositions. And, we need to be able to ask the right questions — otherwise Google can't really be of help. A bit of a vicious circle, isn't it? To be able to ask the right questions I need to know what I want yet if I don't know what I want I won't know what and how to ask.

Needless to say, to know what one wants is often helpful. As long as one is looking for the familiar, that is. And, there is of course no doubt that Google is a great research tool. One however shouldn't forget that it is based on data that are toneless, bloodless, and do not smell.

In real life — the one that can't be as planned, managed and controlled as quite some would wish — to know what one wants not only often overlooks what one needs, it also guarantees that one will most certainly miss all the things by the side of the road. Moreover, in real life we often simply do not know what we want — and that is of course a blessing: just think of all the things you wanted, and got, and that were not good for you.

One of the modern manifestations of our wants is the business plan — or, for the more literally minded, the exposé. Such a plan often represents nothing but what we nowadays call a vision — not so long ago, people who suffered from visions were put into psychiatric care — based on which banks grant loans and editors commission articles. I find this baffling. I mean a plan is nothing but a plan — even if you call it "realistic" — and more often than not just plain wishful thinking.

And, then there's the thing with "the right" and "the wrong" questions — "the right questions" are the ones we have answers for. It is worth noting however that when we say "this is a good question" we usually mean that we have no answer (or too many) for it. Yet in our efficiency-minded times, where the validity of a project depends on whether it is doable, questions such as "Where do we come from? What do we do here? Where do we go from here?" are considered interesting but — for the majority of us — impractical for we can't really answer them. Since this is difficult to accept, we make up reference points and thus create a world in which we are a bit less lost. As Sharon Cameron writes in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain: "It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you are in the real."

Our modern obsessions demand that we should know what we want and then stay focussed on our goals. Probably not as much as George Bush, Jr though — a man famous for knowing without asking questions — whom Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner complimented for being "steady"? "Events can change," Colbert said, but "this man's beliefs never will. He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday. No matter what happened Tuesday." In other words, to know what one wants and to pursue — or, in the case of Mister Bush, have others pursue — that goal vigourosly often leads to disasters. As the wise joke goes: Do you know how to give God a good laugh? Just tell Him what your plans are.

For the full text go here

Sunday, 12 July 2009

East keeps meeting West

East keeps meeting West and the dalliance, however hostile at times, gave rise to the birth of the Toyota, Japanese jazz, a movie harmonizing the talents of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, much better TV sets. My neighbor in Maine thanks Honda's competition for the fact that his five-year-old Ford product does not rattle. ("They used to, you know, them Fords, but no more, no more. Thanks to them Japs. I fought them in the Pacific. Clever fellers, don't you think?").
Janwillem Van de Wetering: Afterzen. Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear

Friday, 10 July 2009

Hundert Tage

Geht das überhaupt, hab ich mich sofort gefragt, dass da einer, der selber weder Entwicklungshelfer ist (oder gewesen ist) und sich 1994 auch gar nicht in Ruanda befunden hat, geht das, dass so einer, ein Dramatiker, laut Klappentext, ein erfolgreicher dazu, dass also so einer Relevantes über Schweizer Entwicklungshilfe und die Massenmorde in Ruanda zu sagen hat? Es geht, ja, und es geht gut, und das hat vor allem damit zu tun, dass die Fragen, die Lukas Bärfuss aufgreift, die Themen, die er behandelt, ganz grundsätzlicher Art sind und uns so recht eigentlich alle angehen.

Ich selber war zu der Zeit, in der das Buch spielt, als IKRK-Delegierter vor Ort in Afrika, nein, nicht in Ruanda, in Südafrika. Ich erinnere mich nur noch, dass die Geschichten, die wir über das IKRK-Buschtelefon mitkriegten, bei mir den Eindruck hinterliessen, dass diejenigen, die damals vor Ort in Ruanda waren, das Fürchterliche, das sie dort erlebt hatten, wohl ihr Leben lang mit sich herumtragen würden. Und dass ich froh war, dass ich nicht dorthin musste. 

Was weiss ich sonst noch vom Ruanda jener Zeit? Das, was ich in den Büchern von Philip Gourevitch (einem Journalisten des „New Yorker") und Roméo Dallare (dem kanadischen UN-General, den man später alkoholkrank und lebensmüde auf einer Parkbank auffand und der sich wieder auffing, sofern das überhaupt geht) gelesen habe. Ich mag hier nicht in eigenen Worten nacherzählen, was in dem Buch steht, denn diese Art der Buchkritik erinnert mich etwas zu sehr an die Bildbeschreibungen in der Schule. Mir ist es hier nur darum zu tun, auf dieses Buch neugierig zu machen. Und am besten, so scheint mir, stellt man ein Buch vor, indem man daraus zitiert. Und genau dies will ich hier tun und ganz einfach auf ein paar Passagen hinweisen, die mich sehr angesprochen haben. Die sehr gelungene Selbsteinschätzung des Entwicklungshelfers Paul (er steht hier stellvertretend für viele Entwicklungshelfer) zum Beispiel: 

„Mir war mein Land über geworden, seine Kleinkrämer mit ihrem notorischen Vergessen, und das Leben war mir zu kostbar, um mich wie die meisten meiner Freunde in eine Nische zu verkriechen, die Haare wachsen zu lassen und in irgendeinem besetzten Pferdestall revolutionäre Postillen zu drucken, auch zu schade, um mich auf die andere Seite zu schlagen, als gewöhnlicher Bürolist meinen Teil des Reichtums einzufordern und zuzusehen, wie ich den Mund nur möglichst voll bekommen konnte. Ich wollte mich nicht als Kanonenfutter in den Schützengräben des Kapitalismus verschleissen lassen, wenn ich mich opfern sollte, dann nur für eine grosse Sache und dazu musste ich weggehen. Mein Land brauchte mich nicht, doch dort, in Afrika, war noch ein Tausendstel meines Wissens ein Reichtum, und diesen wollte ich teilen." 

Und dann diese sehr schöne Charakterisierung von Bürokraten – Entwicklungshelfer und andere Humanitäre sind ja in erster Linie international tätige Bürokraten, auch wenn sie sich selber nicht so sehen: „… die Direktion wusste, wie man einen Mann passend für seine Funktion machte. Weil ich mich dem Haus und dem Wagen würdig erweisen wollte, nahm ich meine Arbeit ernster, ich wurde selbstbewusster, und mein Ton höflicher und bestimmter. Wenn ich bei der Arbeit auf Schlendrian stiess, auf der Post wieder einmal die Briefmarken ausgegangen waren oder ein Paket aus der Zentrale zwar angekommen, aber noch nicht weitergeleitet war und man mich mit den üblichen, vormals erfolgreichen Ausreden abspeisen wollte, dann verlangte ich jetzt die augenblickliche Behebung des Missstandes. Auch legte ich grösseren Wert auf meine Garderobe, zog jeden Morgen ein frisches Hemd an und rasierte mich sorgfältig, und so eintönig die Arbeit auch blieb, war ich mir nun meiner Verantwortung bewusst. Ich erkannte sie nicht in der Arbeit selbst, sondern in meinen Privilegien." 

„Er liebte dieses Land vorbehaltlos, und was er zuhause abgelehnt hätte, entschuldigte er hier grosszügig. Er hatte sich mit keiner Faser am Zynismus angesteckt, der so viele im Internationalen Dienst nach Jahren der ergebnislosen Plackerei befällt, und abgesehen von seinem chronischen Schnupfen erfreute er sich eines ewigen Frohsinns, dessen wesentliche Ursache geputzte und in Apothekertüten abgepackte Karottenstangen waren, die Ines, seine Frau, ihm jeden Morgen bereitete …" 

Dieses Buch berichtet davon, wie es diesem Paul (aber nicht nur ihm) in Ruanda zur Zeit des grossen Mordens im Jahre 1994 erging. Wer sich dafür interessiert, „wie Menschen damit umgehen, dass sie immer nur eins von zwei Übeln wählen können, ohne die Folgen ihres Tuns abschätzen zu können" wie Roman Bucheli in der NZZ treffend schrieb, der sollte dieses Buch lesen. Und wer sich zudem noch für die entwicklungspolitische Realität interessiert, für den ist dieses Buch schlicht ein Muss. 

Lukas Bärfuss 
Hundert Tage 
Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2008

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Drinking Culture

Go to the culture section of any newspaper or magazine and you will find book reviews, essays on architecture, art exhibitions or articles on the question "How Jewish was Franz Kafka" (the online version of the International Herald Tribune on 18 August 2008). What you will however not find in that section are articles on, say, hooliganism or binge drinking, despite that both are very much cultural phenomena.

"Air rage attacks by British passengers have trebled in the past five years, with pilots blaming airport delays for allowing passengers to get drunk", I read in the online version of The Daily Telegraph of 19 August 2008. Why not blame (partly, at least) British drinking culture, I wonder?

Monday, 6 July 2009

Fixer of Hearts

… Sukey Waller, the psychologist at Merced Community Outreach Services … "a sort of hippie-ish revolutionary" … told me: "Here's my phone number. If you get my answering machine, you will find I speak so slowly it sounds as if I'm in the middle of a terrible depression or on drugs. Please don't be alarmed. It's just that I get a lot of calls from clients who can't understand fast English." Sukey's business card read, in Hmong and Lao, "Fixer of Hearts." She explained to me, "Psychological problems do not exist for the Hmong, because they do not distinguish between mental and physical illness. Everything is a spiritual problem. It's not really possible to translate what I do into Hmong - a shaman is the closest person to a psychotherapist - but fixing hearts was the best metaphor I could find. The only danger is that they might think I do open-heart surgery. That would certainly make them run in the other direction."

Anne Fadiman: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The truth about writers

Recently, while glancing through the book section of the Los Angeles Times, I came across an article that elaborated on how writers are spending their time. If you've thought that they surely will be writing, you might be interested to learn that they sort of do ... but only just sort of. Want to know more? Here's the article.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Warm and cold people

And in distinguishing French people into types or groups within their nation, the only classification that I find satisfactory is between the warm and the cold. Warm people are those with whom I feel I have established human contact and with whom I can share emotions; cold people are those who hide behind masks and whom I do not feel I have really met. The distinction is partly subjective, and partly the result of barriers that humans, for one reason or another, feel it necessary to place between themselves. I like a nation when I have met more warm than cold people. I do not have to agree with them, nor to share their tastes, to find people warm; and a person who appears to be cold sitting across a desk may turn out very different on holiday. These barriers of incomprehension seem to me to be more important than national frontiers or party conflicts.
Theodore Zeldin: The French