Thursday, January 26, 2006

Confucianism in Singapore

From a Singapore Angle
has an interesting post on Confucianism.

The question of communitarianism is quite a thorny one. I've often thought that communitarianism works better the more homogenous the society. Quite a lot of the old Arab traditions - consensus, equality, sharing - are quite communitarian in nature, and when Arabs were more alike each other they worked really rather well. Then oil came along and created quite stark divisions of wealth and power, and communitarianism became a way to paper over the cracks of inequality and relations of power.

The argument in Asia is similar, but what intrigues me particularly about Asia is that the population is much less homogenous than it is in individual Arab countries. Singapore is very much a mixed society, what with Indians, Chinese and ethnic Malays; China itself is an empire whose populations have been more or less assimilated - though there are still noticeable tensions around the peripheries. To a greater extent than is the case in the Arab world, communitarianism in Asia requires the use of an image of an archetypal citizen whose history is shared amongst all the real citizenry.

It all rather reminds me of growing up in Singapore. I remember there was a campaign to promote the use of Mandarin as the official Chinese dialect, and advertisements encouraging parents to be less demanding and more nurturing of their children's academic careers. All blatant social engineering, and all wrapped up in a reassuring communitarian bow. Rather than the ideal type being a charismatic individual, the ideal type was diligent, thoughtful and responsible, and cared about the people around him or her. That, of course, in a country where press freedom was limited at best. That's before even moving on to China, which I won't talk about more because I simply don't know where to start.

I look at the Arab world and I don't see a communitarian national spirit, actually. There's a lot of individualism and a lot of standing on other people's faces - particularly those of the poor immigrant bastards dying out there on the scaffolds in the blazing sun, in the Gulf. The main communitarian ideal seems to come from tribal links and wasta, though that seems to have been corrupted, thanks to oil, into nothing much more than the horribly materialistic and clientilistic badgering of well-placed uncles for well-paid jobs doing nothing. Only in the most deprived areas of the Arab world - the slums of Egypt and the Occupied Territories - have communitarian movements actually gained political clout, and their imagined community is primarily the umma, rather than any ethnic/national grouping. But that's besides the point: the point is that only in extreme circumstances in which groups of people are actually all in the same boat does communitarianism seem to stick in Arab societies.

And now politicians are talking about how communitarianism could revive Western politics. I'm a little concerned about the implications of that. The liberal democratic system emerged out of vicious struggles in heterogenous societies. Western democracies have all had their revolutions, civil wars and bouts of bloodletting: the systems that they have developed are designed precisely to prevent further bloodletting and to preserve a status quo in which no one side has conclusively won. For the Western world to adopt this communitarian ideal would be to choose one of the competing visions of the 'good' life and to hold it up as an obligatory standard for the rest of society.

Hmmm.... Not very conclusive this. I think I need to think more and return to the subject. But right now I have to go write some articles.

Boom town in the sandlands.

"Over the past two years, as high-rise fever spread across town, prices for the luxury apartments ballooned...

Buyers, mostly interested in flipping them for quick profits, eagerly anted up five-figure down payments...

But the intense competition for the city's limited supply of contractors sent construction costs skyrocketing 30% last year, just as lending policies tightened, interest rates climbed and sales started to slow.

...experts say the abrupt reversal of fortune in the desert, where the mainstream residential real estate and hotel markets are still quite healthy, shows just how quickly the odds can change in even the most affluent markets if runaway speculation and overzealous development take hold.

No, not Dubai - Vegas. Still, food for thought.

(hat tip - Emirates Economist)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Alain de Botton in the Times: "I am an idiot"*

*may not have actually written these words. At least, not verbatim.

Alain de Botton reviews A Mind of Its Own, by psychologist Cordelia Fine. It's a book about something I'm quite fascinated by - how the mind can deceive itself, and how difficult it can be to trust our own perceptions.

Alain agrees - at least, it appears that he agrees, on the surface of things. But he complains that her book relies too much on reporting experiments. "
Our criteria of proof in everyday life are infinitely lower than those of science", he pouts. "When a writer such as La Rochefoucauld tells us, "We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others," it would be rare for an ordinary reader to ask for scientific proof to back this up. The charm of the insight is indeed based on the minimalism of its evidence."

Charm - yes, perhaps. After all, charm is ever so important to Mr. de Botton, with his artfully pretentious books filled with knowing allusions to the philosophers. But 'charm' misses the entire bloody point: empirical study is what allows us to *know* anything with any degree of certainty - not absolute certainty, of course, but at least we can feel reasonably confident of knowledge thus derived, up until someone comes up with better evidence. 'Charm' is a wilful, disingenuous back door through which we can let back in all that unreconstructed prejudice and ignorance. Because, as Mr de Botton fails to remember, our brain's susceptibility to self-deception means that the charms of insights wholly unsupported by evidence are dangerous indeed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reacting to Iran's nuclear programme

This isn't as crafted as I would like, but it'll do as a brain dump on Iran.

I personally think that Iran is a status quo power. Their economy is in the doldrums and the government is having problems providing jobs and the mullahs are constantly having to deal with annoyingly principled people who object to them stealing the country's wealth for themselves (curiously, Ahmadinejad is one of those people). They know that people are so pissed off that they would not fight and die for the regime the way that they did in the war against Iraq. The only reason that they did so well in that war is because people were willing to fight and die in their millions for the republic. Ergo the only military security they have is harassment of the Iraqi type – which is a pretty last-ditch strategy, and doesn't really work if you're interested in milking the country for profit rather than (like Saddam) being Saladin – or the bomb.

Others believe that the anti-zionist rhetoric in which Iranian leaders often indulge – Ahmadinejad's rhetoric was foreshadowed by Rafsanjani gloating about how they would love to nuke Israel once they had warheads to put in their shiny new Shahab-3s – is a sign that the Iranians are unpredictable and kinda crazy. There's an extent to which the Iranians have cultivated this – taking a leaf out of the book of North Korea – and an extent to which the Israelis and the US have cultivated this. There's currently a press push to highlight the fact that Ahmadinejad may or may not belong to an anti-Baha'i anarchist sect of 12er Islam which thinks that chaos will bring the Mahdi back – though I'm sceptical, partially because everyone made similarly scaremongering claims about Strauss, partially because the same articles are casting a group called the 'Builders' as a similar cult, when in fact they're a movement in the majlis that everyone who knows anything about Iran has known about for ages.(rafsanjani's power base was with the Builders, who are technocratic economic reformers, when he was president).

So basically what it comes down to is: how comfortable do you feel with Iran having nukes? It rather depends on whether you agree with the status quo or the anarchist interpretations of Iranian foreign policy. To do that you can look at the overall political structure, or you can look at the psychology of individuals. I tend to go with the overall structure because my own personal feelings get less in the way. I tend to find that most of the people who go with the psychology of the individuals find it very difficult to be objective also – which is why you get lots of scaremongering about the crazy mullahs. But that's not to say that I'm right and they're wrong. The psychology people are better at winning the policy debate, that's for sure.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Bonne Année!

My violence was exhilarating, almost cathartic. Huddled in the corner, trying to shield his face with his hands, the problem he posed me was purely aesthetic: how to achieve a fluidity and economy of movement that would ensure the maximum transmission of energy from my upper arms to the fleshier parts of his face and body. I regretted only that my brutality was not more precisely focused, more deftly delivered.

And then hands grabbed my shoulders and pinned my arms to my sides. "Arrête!", someone shouted, and with some reluctance I forced myself to be still, my heart still pounding and the blood still singing in my ears. "Il a essayé de la violer," I said, "il a essayé de la violer."

I should not have taken her there. It seemed safe enough at the time - a clean, well lit bar in an area which, though with a certain reputation, I had lived in and felt I knew well enough. We had planned to see the sunrise at the church on the hill, a reasonable idea on the face of it but pure idiocy given the rain and the state we were in. But what better way to end the year?

We must have been obvious to everyone in the place - loud, carefree, talking English. It was not long before two vultures began circling, though at first we were oblivious. When one began to play with her phone I realised that the situation had shifted to a place where we did not want to be, and as I took it back from him I asked her to be careful. "The rules are different here," I said. She, bubbly and optimistic and spontaneous in the way that I had always so admired, told me not to worry. She made a move to go to the toilets, and I asked her not to leave. She told me not to worry, and went. I gave her five minutes, and then went down.

He had pushed her down on her back on the stairs, pinning her there, his hands moving in ways I could not see. She looked up at me, and I saw that the heel of her hand was on his chin, trying to push his head away from hers. Then he was up against the wall, and I, with all the pride of a torturer, was trying to find the most articulate physical expression of my rage.

"Je pars," I said. "Je ramasse notre choses et nous partons". The hands let me go. Someone even, I think, said 'Bien fait'. And then she was there, holding on to me and I to her and the only sound my haggard breath as I sobbed into her hair.

What a way to start the year.