Dear capitalist, Karl Marx might help you.

You are too young to understand the life and death of communism, this fervent idea espoused O so long ago by Marx, Lenin, Mao and countless more, this dream of toppling the evil capitalist system and giving rise to an equal, just and human world. You’ve heard of the destruction and misery this idea has sowed, of its evil leaders and deadly utopian dreams. Today, the battle is over, capitalism has won. Today you live the world as it is presented to you – a world of haves and have-nots. In this raging sea where only the fatest stay afloat, you slowly devour yourself.

Karl Marx saw enormous potential in human beings.  Their minds enables them to conquer nature and create marvelous things out of it: beautiful cities, architectural masterpieces, scientific discoveries, technological revolutions. But over and above such opulence and beauty, a vast majority of people, although taken part in this great human experiment, felt not only financially cheated out, but most importantly, mentally flushed. They took jobs that reduced them to beasts of burden, mechanical, passive, repetitive life-long chores that sucked their minds from them and expulsed material goods for others. They no longer lived to produce the fruits of their minds, but consumed the goods hewn by the imagination of a few. The material wealth was there, yet it was crowding out something essential to human happiness: the need to produce in accordance to one’s potential, to mirror one’s raison-d’être in his work. The meaningful life Marx would say, is found in conscious activity, not in passive consumption.

The point of a communist revolution was not to foster financial equality; it was creative equality that Marx sought for humanity, a trait capitalism crushed on its balade to prosperity.  Today the dream is dead and buried but the feeling of emptiness for many lingers above its grave. This is not about reviving communism. Rather, it is about improving on, giving meaning to our lives within capitalism. The question boils down to how much are we willing to sacrifice for the good $alary, for the nice car, for the good life. How many of us yearn to find meaning in our profession, a place in which we can let our minds rip in creativity? Communism was a societal revolution that fell asunder.  Perhaps Marx wouldn’t growl down there to hear speak of individual revolutions.

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Disproportional realities

At 04:15, amidst a stars-clad sky, in a small village in the Gaza strip, falls silently a bomb. The explosion levels the ground, reducing lives to smashed portraits and burned toys. The Palestinian family sleeps on forever. An eternal gasp is punctured by the wails of women and  the wrath of men.  Hidden from sight, the scene lays wrapped in agony in the collective memory of the villagers. It is shrouded by the night’s veil,  oblivious to the eyes of the media.

Tel Aviv, noon. The restaurant is brimming with cackle and laughter, kids frolicking round the tables as parents get an eyeful of the passing crowds. A fat boy marvels at the towering sundae before his greedy, gleaming eyes.  A man takes a seat beside him. He is eerily tranquil, stoned-faced but with a glazed hollow stare. The ground erupts. Journalists scurry past bellowing sirens. The camera shakes and swerves, capturing frames of an inferno. The carcass of the restaurant is swathed in ashes and smoke. Rolled in its midst, a carpet of blood and debris. The scene is carried around the world, into living rooms. The images of the blaze lights the eyes of viewers, projects them and their loved ones into the flames. The bomber sought to attract sympathy to his desperation but only raised the ire of those whose imagination has been transported and violated.  The media becomes the eyes of the victims.

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The rooster, marketing and the American deception

Bring a Frenchman on an American road and you can bet their decrepit bridges that he’ll be astonished by the amount of SUV’s plowing through the ”rugged” roads. It’s cultural, you’d answer back, and you’d leave it at that. Americans covet security, social status and roaring engines –there’s nothing to it. But who doesn’t? And why isn’t the whole world driving what has come to personify the American man himself: fat, polluting and brazenly selfish. The short answer: marketing genius. A genius awoken by that Frenchman and one that has the potential to kill you.

The story begins in the 1960’s. The end of the second world war ushers a new wave of globalization. Trade is soaring among the United States and Europe. Due to the increase in international competition, the European agricultural sector is taking a beating. The French government bows to the demands of an important farming constituency and subsidizes massively the poultry industry. French farmers could now produce more and flood the international  market with cheaper products likes their beloved emblem, the rooster.  The U.S is furious.  An international trade arbiter, the GATT at the time, rules in favor of the United States and allows it to retaliate by imposing an import tax on light trucks. If the French want to unfairly protect a sector of their agriculture, it is only fair game Americans protect a sector of their jeweled automotive industry. With the dawning of the Japanese industry beating the Chryslers and the Fords to the punch, the city of Detroit, the birthplace of American cars, can only heave a sigh of relief knowing that a part of its business will not get bludgeoned by foreign competition.

This gives Detroit an incentive to produce and sell light trucks (SUVs are considered as such).  The only obstacle is the knee-high market potential: construction workers, farmers, sport buffs -nothing to get excited about. The need was thus slim, but what about the desire? Comes along Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and considered the father of the field of public relations and marketing. Bernays understood that people’s sub-conscious desires could be exploited to make them buy things they didn’t need. If rolled-up tobacco could be shown in the same frame with a sexy girl, you can make cigarettes desirable. It didn’t take long to associate driving a SUV with a) virility a) sex c) power. By plucking at human basic insecurities and desires, marketers began the not-so difficult task of reshaping the automobile industry around the SUV, a market protected from outside competition and thus rich in earning potential. Billions of dollars in advertizing sweet-talked the American public into associating massive and polluting cars with the ultimate symbol of status, the all-out American dream.  In addition, with the cold war and later 9/11 casting a pall over their sense of security, Americans flocked to anything that closely resembled a bunker. And the Hummer was its epiphany.

Like cigarettes, the deception would be soon read in statistics. Although SUV provide a sense of security, they are nothing less than a threat to others.  Regular cars have not been built to withstand collusion with such behemoths, equipped with their high-rising bumpers that bulldoze past the other car’s defenses. In an ironic vicious circle, drivers feel they need to buy an SUV to counteract the growing dangers posed by other SUV’s. A survival of the biggest even Darwin would find freakish. But not Detroit. It is all smiles.

As it happens in tempting situations, the government finds itself in bed with business. The sale of regular cars brings moderate revenues to its coffers because a good portion of them are Japanese. The sales would simply flow back to Japan. But light trucks were a bonanza: they were produced in America and there was every incentive to let Detroit expand its automobile industry and fill with tax money the government’s pockets. It thus made sure not to impose too many safety regulations fearing it would stammer the industry’s profits. The result: poorly regulated SUVs with poor construction, with high tendency to roll over during accidents. Statistically it spells an 8% higher death rate in SUV’s than in regular cars. A danger to others, a danger to yourself. But desirable.

As for the cigarette business, good marketing and government greed conspired against you. The Frenchman’s only sin, incidentally, is to have preferred French chickens over American ones. So let him enjoy the view.

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Review of Sam Harris’ book "The End of Faith”

1.2 billion Muslims. 13 million Jews. 2.1 billion Christians. The problem: they are all potential terrorist. Their blind faith in the sacredness of holy books creates deadly schism between adherents and non-believers, unleashing waves of bloodbath that have tainted red human history since time immemorial. The solution: scrap out their irrational belief. 1-2-3 problem solved. Isn’t that too good/nasty to be true Mr. Harris?

Caveat 1: If humans were all around rational, they would be a plain commodity for lions for the greater part of their little experiment on earth. Rationalizing eats time away from the precious moments you have to act instinctively -and thus not always rationally- when threatened. It may be uplifting for us to call ourselves rational beings, but unbeknownst to even the most staunchest rationalist lurks beneath remnants of unsavory behavior. Take the belief we all harbour when suddenly faced with imminent death: we are not dead-worthy. The neighbor maybe, but not I, Moi. Something will intervene to save us. Maybe we’ve watched too many Hollywood movies where the extras meet death but the main actor keeps dodging it. This irrational feeling of immortality is ingrained in us sometimes to the very end. Saying more: an atheist who adheres to the quip “evolution is smarter than you” should ask himself why hasn’t Godarwin not eliminated irrationality, charged of superfluousness. Could it be that the belief in our immortality is a necessary for our survival, or should I dare say, at the very least a prerequisite of well-being? Hasn’t the existentialist angst derive from a failure to believe an irrational belief?

Religion, aside its other colors, could be ascribed the very same aforementioned belief, albeit fashioned out in a more structured, complex and encompassing package. Through a different angle, it could be seen as providing an invaluable service to humanity: Be what you may on earth, I’ll take care of the rest. Is it fair to negate religion based upon the premise that it is irrational? Since it is profundly useful in providing a raison d’etre for many people, it would be a delicate endeavor given the absence of any competing substitute. It may come a day when the monopoly of religion over immortality becomes tackled by the advent of science in its offering of a down-to-earth immortality. But that would be dismissing unjustly Religion’s other worthy attributes.

Caveat 2: The geneticist Richards Dawkins theorizes that our sense of morality is innate to our species. Our good versus bad pendulum has been calibrated by thousands of years of evolutionary time. This trait, not surprising, is also found in other animals as well. Consider the following experiment. Two rats are put in a cage. One is attached to electric wires, the other has access to a feeding tube. When the rat considers it’s lunch time, he goes for it. Pang, the other rat gets zapped. What the? He goes for it again, the other rat gets slighty mored cooked. After the association has been made in the brain of the feeding rat, he will stop eating to prevent the other rat from suffering. His sense of empathy, of good versus bad, gets jumpstarted. Incidentally enough, rats have no observable religion of any sort. Dawkins may be on to something…

If Dawkins heeded his theory, however, he would loosen his enthusiasm for Harris’ thesis, one that proclaims all or most religious adherents are sowed with some terrorist potentiality. The Bible, the Torah and the Koran are laden with conflictual information about moral duties. Some of these them clearly violate our sense of innate morality. When Yahweh urges us to stone to death those who extinguish a fire during Shabbat, a normal Jew wouldn’t bow to the literal version of the punishment. That is because he has his own moral compass to tell him what should or shouldn’t be taken literally. This jew adopts various worthy moral duties into his Jewish tradition. The same goes for the vast majority of Christians, Muslims and other theists alike.

Harris’ case against the wrath of religion could be lain on a minority of adherents who have adopted a literal interpretation of scriptures. These are individuals whose education and wealth has given them the luxury of perusing the books and who, through their own moraly skewed interpretations, justify their loathsome actions by stating this was the will of God. Humanity’s bloody history has been trampled by such minority forces, usurping all that lay beneath them to quench their grievances or shore up their personal ambitions. The institutionalization and state endoctrination of certain religious interpretations by a few have led many to perish in religious pogroms and inquisitions. Religious fanaticism is a wrathful and deadly wind. But to blame all religious adherents for the plight of humanity is pushing the thesis onto a slippery slope.

Religion is a big part of one’s identity. On a societal level, religion gives an identity to whole communities. The house of Islam. The Copts in Egypt. The Mormons in America. It is thus a source of ingroup/outgroup codification which in some instances can exacerbate palpable and already existing tensions. In sports, a struggle, we root for the team with which we identify best. In life, a struggle, we do the same. It is human nature to create ingroup/outgroup bubbles. Take the history of Islam. Before the coming of Mohamed, the barren Arabian peninsula was ruled by rival tribal factions vying for scarce resources. In the seventh century, Islam’s tentacles wraped the region under a common identity. Desert nomads then not only left footprints on sand alone but on human history. However great, the Islamic community was not immune to forces beyond its comprehension. Rivalry for power drew contours along trivial differences, sprouting a Shia and a Sunni community Mohamed couldn’t have foreseen. Religion itself fell prey to groupism. Scraping out religion then would not solve human propensity to create antagonistic identities.

The problems of the world cannot be encased in a box called religion. It is tempting to do so, sweet and simple, an MSG loaded candy for an atheist like Harris. The situation, regretfully, is much more complex than it appears.

It comes to my light that this essay doesn’t follow a standard ”review” of a book, but then again, who says I actually know how to write one..

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There is only a small ”I” in environment

Before you got the time to hug a tree, the environment was making front-page headlines. The Kyoto accords ebbed and flowed while Al Gore sailed his Oscar-winning documentary on global warming to standing ovations. Far-flung glaciers became wailing ice cubes, imploring attention lest we be swallowed up by mighty oceans. Recent polls unveiled the environment underdog as the champion issue in the consciousness of Canadians voters, leaving the green party stripped of a raison d’être. Overall, a hefty bucket of new developments.

North Americans are especially made aware about the ticking meltdown clock, surely since they are the biggest polluters of our planet. They are repeatedly touted that, as individuals, they can redeem themselves: buy a hybrid car or commute; recycle consumption outputs; boycott high energy burning products and other cures. During conferences on climate change they bond and clap-clap to each other, fall into trance with a crowd of do-gooders genuinely committed into rumbling the boiling pot. Yet few managed to practise what is preached. Half-hour hot showers, large comfortable cars seated by single souls and lights hunting the dark remain the norm. It is, nevertheless, not due to a lack of goodwill. Our actions, surprisingly or not, are based on common sense. It is irrational for an individual to be environmentally friendly in the state of the world today.

The reason might be simple: there is no effective mechanism that guarantees individuals, companies and countries will stick to their environmental promises. Because of the absence of an environmental watchdog, it pays for individuals to break their engagements and pollute again, leaving others to incur the cost of reducing pollution. Those who invested in their promises and changed their habits watch as their painful efforts swirl down a futile drain and give up. In essence, individuals jump on the bandwagon heading for the clean city without paying a ticket fee because their is no ticket officer. In turn, the ones who were duped into buying a ticket start imitating the free-riders. Eventually, the faithful driver himself abandons his post and joins the camaraderie, leaving the cramped package to drift towards the brink.

(For a more concise explanation, read the brackets below)
[The environmental dilemma theory gives us a clearer picture.



Take two individuals, Raph and Mike. Let’s say both attended Al Gore’s conference on global climate change and each swore they will stop polluting (in reality, it’s impossible, but let’s not mind that). They each earn 30 points and are both in the green bubble.

A few weeks into into their no pollution mantra, the air becomes clean. Both continue to make great effort to avoid pollution.

But then something changes. Mike realizes he can cheat. He thinks no one will notice if he pollutes again and does so accordingly. He ends up with clean air (at least in the beginning) but without doing extra effort. He’s the no-ticket guy on the bandwagon. He earns 40 points. Raph on the other hand is left spending more time cleaning the air and his points drop to 15.

Raph is also witty. He knows he can get away by cheating and letting Mike do all the hard work. Raph hopes to win the jackpot of 40 points.

Both of them know that the other is incited to cheat and will most probably do so since it fits their best interests. And neither one of them wants to get duped and look silly. The lack of trust and the absence of an arbiter to dissuade cheating behavior leads Raph and Mike to break their promise and pollute again. They wind up in the red bubble, lungs pregnant with dirty air.

Two individuals, devoted to saving the planet, take rational decisions and pollute once again. The moral of this game is that preaching to the individual the virtues of cleaner habits is futile if there is no way of preventing them from cheating each other out. ]

There are two ways to ensure committed individuals stick to their guns. The first but least effective is good-old social pressure. If one can be scolded and punished by his social entourage, that person is less likely to cheat. The arbiter is the eyes of society. And it is a powerful force. You don’t throw garbage directly into the street because you are thinking about the environment. It is more because you are afraid of how people will judge you. But the limitations are that social norms and judgments are very slow to change. Driving 140km/hour pollutes much more per liter than when cruising at 100km/hour but no criticism is placed on those who drive over the limit. Not yet anyways.

The second way is government regulations. Individuals should take actions and pressure their governments to change their environmental platform. This communal eye could then act as a powerful arbiter, targeting and punishing potential cheaters. By establishing a norm of conduct that can be buttressed by coercive action, Mike and Raph can establish a trust and stick to the green turf. Harper’s heavy penalty for driving SUV’s and reward for owning a hybrid identifies the potential cheaters and discourages future ones. It is one out of many policies established by a society which can render individuals’ commitments to the environment more tangible.

These two factors are needed to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. It is a powerful reminder that when it comes to intricate public goods, individuals are more often powerless when left to their own devices.

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We do not fight to belong; we belong to fight

Rwanda -2005
So different. So green. Lofty treeless hills abound the rushing scenery as we journey from Uganda’s border to Kigali. Roused by the sight of Mzungu, the European man, hawkers toe-lift themselves to our window and brandish Coca-Colas and roasted corn – they hope to make a killing. The Kigali bus station is a bustling ant farm, a maze of white dusty caravans and motorcycles; black with people. A strikingly red soil. Laterite. The color is produced by rock decay and impresses on us a feeling, as we step out from the bus, of treading on a very different planet. Our imagination cannot resist weaving a different explanation, one that runs chills down our skins. We are not at ease here. Wary bloodshot eyes stick to the new arrivals. Orbits clouded with images of past horrors. For our own sanity, we’d rather think these are forlorn glares of men trying to eke out a living out of desolation. Not of murderers.

For desolation there is. The 1994 genocidal outburst is but one of many strewning Rwandans’ macabre history. For now, a decade of peace. But the eerie quiescence that hovers about might suddenly crash, weighted down in part by a heavy grain of fatalism. Is the bloodshed really over? New policies point to uncertain directions. Hutu and Tutsi adjectives may no longer be printed on Belgium inspired identity cards – their mere whisper will guarantee you a place in their overcrowded prisons. The enemy, ethnicity, is swallowed up by the blackness of the crowd, leaving behind one common nationality. If only ethnicity was the real cancer plaguing this small, poor and landlocked community.

Ethnicity was undoubtedly a deadly force, in its ability to create a clear demarcation line between friends and enemies. Its power of identity was staggering in concocting an ingroup/outgroup dichotomy. Any Tutsi was stamped automatically by Hutus as a non-native to the land and targeted for genocide. But a line is not a cause of war; it is an instrument in organizing rival battalions. Divisive lines are made up from the observable world in order to stir the mass into a weapon of strength -”L’union fait la force”. Name your pick: religious or cultural affiliations, skin color. It is very easy, and very dangerous to do so. Scholars as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis who ponder and theorize about clashes of civilizations are actually marking lines and digging trenches that have no reasons to exist. The real danger is that seated armies are restless. They wait, and thrust for actions they do.

So what’s the real reason?

The economist Thomas Malthus predicted nature, with unflagging resolve, will check any imbalance. In the course of human history, high demographics was pitted against dwindling resources. For those familiar with economic lingo, human development was cornered by diminishing marginal returns. No matter how many hands you put to work on a land, you will reach a point where a growing amount had no more work to do nor food to lift. Famine, diseases came swooping down with terrific, almost unearthly vengeance. In some cases, human beings took things into their own hands and declared war on each other. The victors at least were given a respite from nature’s mechanism, but at a terrible price. The situation would improve until its own tail would come thrashing back.

Poor Thomas was proven wrong by  two unprecedented revolutions: an agricultural one, and its baby, the industrial revolution. New technologies in the 18th century wrenched humans out from natural boundaries – scarce resources were used more efficiently, production increases and enrichment made famine and diseases less likely. With a more complex economy came the demand for specialized labor, ushering in a middle class that sought to reduce political instability in order to secure its economic interests. This middle class is usually  what holds violence within a country in check- a social glue that subscribes to peace for continuing prosperity.

Rwanda. ”Le pays des milles collines”. It is the most densely populated country in Africa but one of the smallest and least resource gifted of them all. Those hills we saw, cut bare, every inch of land grazed out. An inefficient use of land coupled with an exploding population and a lack of sustained agricultural and industrial development was creating a simmering pot. With an absent middle class, it took very little for the pot to start boiling once again.  Nature’s resolve was surfacing. Means of escaping it were developing. Who to blame, the witch hunt began. Though the Hutus had acquired power in the late 50’s, they continued to perceive the Tutsi as the Jews of Rwanda. They looked different, with slender bodies and elongated noses. European looking and wealthier. Colonizers: traitors. Hutus united to fight, they belonged not only to secure resources, but also all that it bequeaths – status, pride, power.

After the genocide -macheting roughly 10% of the population- the new president did away with the ethnic name calling. It was labelled the ultimate culprit. Since then, a semblance of peace and prosperity.  Economic growth shortly followed and continues to this day, and Kagame and the West believe peace has been sowed- historical myopia has kicked in. The situation is improving because there is now more land per capita, less labor competition and no clear enemy in sight. Soon, structural gaps will reappear, and unless the crux of the matter is solved, new or ancient forms of polarization will emerge.

Erasing ethnicity is applying a band aid to machete wound. Psychological distress caused by uprooting identities might even worsen the pot. Let me stifle your identity and let me await your backlash. Let us then be careful with our remedies.

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There is Islam, and then there is Islamism

Islam is an idea. A philosophy of life and death; of purpose. Like any other religion or belief system, its sanctuary lies in the mind and must be guarded against mind crusaders. Worryingly, a parallel between violence and Islam is crystalizing. Detractors gloat and rave when they stumble upon Koranic verses seemingly condoning violence against the infidel pagans. Islamism is portrayed as a looming affront to Western civilization. They raise their McCarthian daggers and aim at what they believe is the source of the maelstrom: Islam, or more generally religion itself. Even respected scientists as Richard Dawkins see religion as a dangerous faith capable of terrible deeds. “If you are made to believe absurdities, you can be swayed into doing atrocities”, quips the saying. No doubt in the minds of many, Islam today stands in the limelight as the newest religion gone awry. What could explain this sudden perception? Why all this disparaging against a religion only a moment ago lay dormant in the preying eyes of scalding criticism?
In a room fat with people, the yakety-yak wafts up to your ears like a terrific buzzing… until your brain’s receptors kick in, filter out the noise, and catch the words in the haystack your tipsy friend mumbles out. Human beings are exposed every day to an explosion of information, jetting from all cracks and corners. To get the juice out of it, we tune to portraits we believe to be relevant. It is a process of simplification, of classification. When 9/11 happened, the buzzing was drowning our ability to focus on what mattered, namely pin-pointing the root causes of such vehement violence. Our fail-safe kicked in, brushed prejudice over the void and declared the matter settled. Prejudice is thus this: a natural mechanism of coping with the mysterious, the unknown. It is lazy, it is expedient; and in our globalized and complex environment, it is becoming a tempting instrument in prisming what we choose to see and understand. The sound of Islam now echoes a threatening tune, on the same note homosexuality erstwhile echoed AIDS and Africa savagery. Only with resounding effort and comprehension were such prejudice put to sleep. It is Islam’s turn to challenge its greatest deamon: the veiled minds of its faceless doubters. It will be victorious only when we recognize, in the great scheme of life, the innocence of ideas. They could be manipulated righteously and maliciously – like any ideas that humanity has met. Nationalism was a catalyst idea that has freed man from imperialism and oppression. It has also been used to oppress and conquer. The same goes for Christianity, socialism/ capitalism, and even Science. Attacking the idea is not only misguided but tantamount to destroying the very motor of Men’s creativity and progress. What must be guarded against is ideas being hijacked to bankroll the interests of ones over the others. Islamism is Islam taken hostage. Simply put, don’t shoot the hostage!

 

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