Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Society in an Interconnected World

In our increasingly digital world, two basic underpinnings of progress in our society are undergoing a profound shift. One is how we learn. Learning these days is not what it was: "if the 20thCentury model of thinking was to measure the accuracy and ownership of information, the 21stCentury’s model is form and interdependence". "The greater the abundance of accessible media, the greater the need to embed thought in important, enduring, and collaborative conversations that flash across the internet, then out into non-digital realms of universities, businesses, books, and coffee shop conversations".

Today education is the enterprise of making people more thoughtful: "consider the contrast between being thoughtful and being thoughtless. Thoughtless people lack perspective, self-criticism, circumspection; they think they understand more than they really do; most importantly, they lack self-understanding..."

The other great shift is in how to interpret the meaning of citizenship. In the pre-Internet world citizenship meant "the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community".  Among today's digitally connected citizenry we may be wise to consider qualifying this definition to something more like: "self-monitored participation that reflects conscious interdependence with all (visible and less visible) community members". Digital citizenship recognizes that good behaviour online is just as important to maintaining a civil society as it is in more traditional forms of interpersonal interaction.

In a world where we can reach people quickly and easily without ever speaking to anyone, forms of antisocial behaviour like bullying and abusive invective become so much easier to do. By using avatars and nicknames we can have a degree of anonymity that was near impossible in former, more tight-knit societies. It can, and too often does, bring out the worst in us. It is so much easier to send off an unkind text message than it was to write a hateful letter and post it.

The most digitally competent citizens we have are the young, a complete reversal of the traditional model of competency growing with age. So the young, those with the least developed understanding of the important of civility and good manners in human discourse, are the ones most capable of interacting digitally, the most frequent users of texting and social media.  Whether they realize it or not, those who teach the young and very young have become the gatekeepers of a civil society, along with parents who traditionally filled that role. Yet the digital competency gap between any adult and our children widens by the day as new formats for messaging appear unceasingly.  Right now kids are into a world of picturing life online just as we adults are coming to grips with texting by micro-blogging. All in real-time, which in itself is a real challenge for us older folks.

It is likely that in no previous era in the history of human societies has their future shape been as unguessable as it is today.

"Paranoia strikes Deep, Into your Life it will Creep..."

In Ukraine’s Jews Ponder their Future by SAM SOKOL in the Jerusalem Post we read: 'Although there is "no information of Jews being targeted" as of yet, Jewish institutions are under self-imposed lock-down".  It is disturbing to encounter articles like this that reflect such a deep sense of insecurity within a long-standing minority cultural group in a European nation. While one can appreciate the unease created by the persistence of a nasty streak of antisemitism in many Eastern European societies in spite of their being where Nazi elimination squads operated with a vengeance during Hitler's push east into Russia, the 'lock-down' discussed in the article seems to reflect an ongoing level of fear and feelings of separateness which it is saddening to contemplate. 

For someone of my generation, what comes to mind is the apocryphal 1967 song  'For What Its Worth' from the now-legendary band Buffalo Springfield -

There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop. Children, what's that sound

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sochi for the Russians

Lots of ink is being spilled over the just-completed Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There is no doubt it was a success. A success at the cost of $50 billion to a still-poor Russian nation which now has a world-class winter sports facility thousands of kilometres south of its population centres and in an area which is best know for its summer dachas.

The Russian Federation is vast; it has the largest area and the greatest number of time zones of any nation-state. While ethnic Russians made up 81% of the total population in a 2010 census, within the Federation's geography live a large variety of ethnic minorities, especially in the Caucasus and in Siberia. The Federation even contains Inuit and Aleuts, whom we more commonly associate with North America. In the thousands of images of Russian crowds and athletes on television during the Games, I strained to see even one of an identifiable minority person. Norway and Canada each have a significantly smaller population proportion of aboriginals than Russia yet at the Lillehammer and Vancouver Winter Games celebrations their cultures were prominently featured. Native minorities were as invisible in the Sochi Games as the non-Han were in the Summer Bejing Olympics.

The culture and history featured in Sochi's opening and closing ceremonies is that of the Rus, the ethnic European Russian. No Tatars (who speak a Turkic language) or Samoyeds (who speak a Uralic language like the Finns) need apply.

Putin's Russia desperately wants to be seen as a core European nation, and not a multicultural melange of Eastern European and Far-eastern and Northern Asiatic primitives. Yet right next door to Sochi and at exactly the same time as the Games, a nasty conflict is going on that puts Russia clearly outside the European project. The Ukrainians, once upon a time the core Rus but now leavened by other ethnicities, including Tatar, into a distinct people with its own language, are deeply divided over the European project. Those in the East and South who see Russia as their Great Mother reject any pro-European tilt. Mother Russia is becoming increasingly vitriolic in supporting them to the hilt.

Czar Vladimir has a dilemma -  he longs to be treated as a real European rather than a Central Asiatic barbarian, yet Russia remains the only world power to hold an empire (called a federation) that widely spans two continents. It was telling that he used Cossacks, the historic symbol of Russian aggression in Asia, as his goons in Sochi.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Tribal Scotland wants its Money

The decline of empires has throughout history rarely been a pretty sight. When long-held colonies are returned to popular rule, the residents usually have trouble figuring out how to govern themselves. Plus the borders created by the now-former colonial power rarely suit them. Old rivalries resurface under the same or altered forms. Some groups try to lord it over others, or at least are perceived to be trying to. Much of West Africa, Somalia, Iraq and Syria demonstrate this phenomenon, one as old as human tribes have existed.

Sometimes the empire tries to reshape itself to become again an empire.  Post-Soviet Russia is today's poster state for that. Within its borders it rigorously represses any separatist tendencies. Think Chechnya. Where neighbours were once part of its territories, it leans on them hard. Think the Ukraine.

However outside Russia and China, the passion for geographical accretion and aggregation that characterizes empire building does largely seem to have run out of steam.  Instead factors such as a revival of interest in the cultures and language of previously little regarded historical minorities have resulted in the rise of new regional nationalisms. Countries once united in a largely voluntary way seek to part ways. Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia come to mind today, the Czechs and Slovaks last century, and the Swedes and Norwegians in the 19th century. These places went through long years of being reasonably content to be part of the larger whole. Yet in modern times they yearn to become small again in a world of littler nations.

As a Scots-born national of both Canada and the UK I watch with consternation the antics and distortions of the politicians selling the separatist creed. With both Scotland and Quebec I have no say, being a resident of neither. No voting in referenda for me.

Quebec has been at the game of escape much longer, having been in charge of its own local affairs since the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were disunited in 1791. Scotland in contrast only got back its own legislature in 1999. In both, political parties favouring separation from the federal whole have done well in elections.

When it is in power the local separatist party has provoked two plebiscites on Quebec's status. One in 1980 on independence or something they christened 'sovereignty-association', the second in 1995 on independence or 'sovereignty-partnership'. The later plebiscite was an unnervingly close-run thing. Scotland's nationalists, being now in power, are running a referendum on independence later this year.

While in Quebec the passion for separation is almost entirely restricted to the majority French-speaking population, in Scotland, where the traditionally distinct Gaelic population of the Highlands and Hebrides might be expected to favour leaving the Sassenachs, the strongest support is in the more populated Lowlands among the Scots working class. The nationalist leadership is largely Lowland, and, unlike in the fight for Irish independence, language barely features as an issue, .

Instead the Nationalist demands centre around keeping all revenues at home, and in that regard the debate is presently focusing in on what will happen with currency. The Scots want to keep using the British pound, as the Quebecois wanted to keep the Canadian dollar. The national governments are not playing along, arguing that separation would weaken the economy of the region that leaves. While the Parti Quebecois government of Quebec has lately taken a new tack of threatening legislation on the wearing of overtly religious garb in order to stir up resentment of immigrants and their foreign ways, the Scottish National Party has been oddly silent on cultural symbols and differences from the rest of Britain. It is all about the money.

While Canada has been working to engage new trading blocs for many years, the rise of UKIP in the UK reflects an opposite trend - the resurgence of the Little Englander mindset among the dominant English component of the British federation. The British may end up having a referendum on EU membership. Certainly it will be a big issue in their next national elections. Canadians have been living for a lifetime with the threat of Quebec separation, but this recent urge to disengage Scotland from Britain at the same time as Britain might seek to leave Europe, is thoroughly disquieting. What is a paid-up Canuck Brit and Scot with no say to do but hope!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Local Politics as a Morality Play

Recently an author friend reinforced for me that if one is going to write about local history or politics, it is helpful for the reader to put the information into a national (or even international) framework. 

One of our local rags (free circulation and owned by a newspaper consortium) recently carried a blisteringly offensive reader letter attacking our Town Council with words like ‘ignorant’, ‘arrogant’, ‘misguided’ and 'unqualified' for not allowing unbridled residential development, while on the opposite page the paper's columnist informed us that the mayor of that same council has been the victim of a scam by a recently convicted tax auditor who was a consultant to Solmar, a large local development firm. That Benedetto Marotta (the 'mar' in Solmar) was unaware that his high-priced consultant who falsified documents to frame the mayor was actually moonlighting from our national tax authority defies understanding. One cannot help wondering if the letter writer’s contempt might have been better directed. The same Solmar threatened a half billion dollar lawsuit against our town back in the summer of 2008 if the same council did not backtrack in its support of managed growth for the municipality.

It seems to me that there are several issues here that transcend local interest.  Apart from the fact that so far no mayor in this province has suffered similar criminal victimization, there is the cultural acceptance of the idea that threatening ratepayers with the possibility of rate hikes to pay for lawsuits against their municipality will beneficially affect outcomes.  Also the acceptance that libellous invective against elected officials is excused by 'press freedom'.  Both activities are tawdry at best. In an increasingly multicultural society like ours they can reflect behaviours imported from societies with different mores than ours, mores that reflect how developed countries once were but have moved beyond.

Some years ago I was chairman of audit for the board of a health technology start-up. The inventor who was also the CEO was a university professor with a childhood in Central Asia. As his father had been a camel herder, his achievement was extraordinarily praiseworthy.  Our auditors came to me one day with a problem. The CEO's expenses were excessive.  He travelled a lot and had been submitting his expenses in triplicate in a cunning way that disguised the fact. When I discussed this with him, he advised that the grief in his job justified this reward. It is likely that such 'extra' payment was the norm for successful people where he came from. How does one get a talented and very bright academic overachiever to understand that in the Western world such behaviour, while acceptable in the time and place of his youth, is regarded as beyond immoral and actually illegal? 

Today we have not just Sicilian and Calabrian mafia but Russian and Bulgarian mafia. They and our Asian gangs too often come from societies with limited or no tradition of public morality. It takes many generations for the sense to develop in newly governed societies that public order comes best from public morality taking hold at the grassroots and being demanded of its leaders. I wonder how, with the often rapid changes in the national origins of our new citizens, we in the older democracies can speed this process up, so that we can sustain a just society into the future?