Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Mother Ship

If life on Earth becomes a bit tedious at times, then dream of greater heights, new horizons. Dream big! That's what Richard Branson did. He says that his inspiration for financing space tourism was his experience as a child following NASA. When he realized that he would never fly with NASA, and when he became rich enough, he created his own means of reaching space.

Take us along for a ride, pretty please!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Citizen of the World

In response to Barack Obama's recent speech in Berlin, John McCain and his spokespeople offered striking criticism. They said Mr. Obama should be speaking not to Europeans but to Americans (at least until he becomes president). They also derided his calling himself a "citizen of the world."

Here is my question: How can any person profess to be, as many Americans see in their president, “the leader of the ‘free world’” and not be at the same time a citizen of that world?

Mr. Obama articulated in his Berlin speech values that should simply be considered basic for leadership by any conscientious citizen concerned with the affairs of our time. And it seems he has proven himself intellectually able, at the very least, to imagine the scope of the challenges that he faces as a world leader in the 21st century. McCain, even in his most recent public statements, has shown again and again that he is a man imprisoned by the values of a different time, one whose narrow dimensions cloud his vision and make his judgments questionable.

Let’s hope that there are enough citizens of the world living in America to recognize the difference between the two men (and that the election this November can be a fair one).

Read Barack Obama's speech in Berlin here:

Citizen of the World

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Location location location: Place and the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior

A young American is living in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and is working as a trainer/teacher at General Motors and a local university. His good friends include many young and hip urban professionals (a dentist, a manager from a multinational corporation, a university administrator, and a PhD candidate), not the sort of folks you'd expect to lead him down the primrose path. One day he accompanies two of these friends, a couple with their two young sons, to Costa da Caparica, a 10-mile stretch of fine beach just south of Lisbon.

They head for a specific beach, Praia do Meco, a nudist beach. Being an American from the conservative Midwest, he is a bit skeptical about being butt-naked in public, even at a beach. His friends convince him that it's perfectly acceptable and that he has nothing to fear. When they arrive at the parking lot of the beach, which is set in a pine grove with a sandy floor, he wonders if he can really get nude with strangers. In fact, as they all walk to the beach with bathing suits and baggy T-shirts still on, he decides he won't completely undress. But when the group walks over a sand dune and onto the main Meco beach, and he sees at least 100 unclad male and female bodies before him, many of them laid casually across towels, others swimming in the sea, and others frolicking in the waves, he loses his fear.

His hosts take off their T-shirts, then their bathing suits, and join the nude crowd. The American, still clothed, sits quickly on a towel, and only after some time, decides to wiggle out of his suit. He doesn't want to be considered uncool or unadventurous, but he is cautious. What he eventually notices though is that everyone on the beach that day is nonchalant about their nudity. Noone is showing off. They are acting normal---just without clothing. The American starts to understand the point: it is liberating to be on a beach sunning oneself, swimming and sunning oneself again without clothes. He even develops the feeling that it is healthy, almost spiritual.

And so begins this American's adaptation to a very particular cultural norm, nude bathing, one that is much more prevalent amongst the young and hip in Europe than amongst their peers in most of the rest of the world. An exception to that is in Japan, where nude bathing in onsens, or spas, is firmly traditional, familial and common among all social classes.

For the young American, this trip to Praia do Meco is the first of many. He returns with the same family he has started the adventure with, and he goes with other friends. One day he visits with a Brazilian male friend. They go through the usual routine of wearing bathing suits to the beach, then stripping, then laying on their towels sunning themselves, then swimming, then sunning themselves again. It has all become rather commonplace.

At some point in the afternoon, the Brazilian friend points out a cabana that stands at the end of a nearby path that ascends the clay rise just behind the beach. It's a makeshift snack bar, with soft drinks and beer for sale. The two friends decide to visit, then mull over whether or not they should put their suits back on for the trip up the hill. The Brazilian dresses in his jean shorts; the young American decides to walk up the nearby slope in the nude. After all, it's a hot afternoon.

When they arrive in the cabana, it's empty, except for the dozen or so small wooden tables and benches in neat rows. There's one middle-aged woman, fully clothed, behind a big table where coolers and cases of drinks of various sorts are piled high. She doesn't flinch at the two customers, though one is naked. The guys buy drinks and take seats on a bench in the back of the place. Within the next 20 minutes or so, as the two beach goers sit and chat, others arrive from down the hill to escape the sun and to buy drinks: a young couple, a group of three, another couple with a child, and another small group. Soon the Brazilian and the young American notice that the place has filled up. Nearly every table is taken, with the cabana now holding 25 or 30 refreshment seekers. Aside from that, there is one more glaring fact: everyone except the young American is wearing some sort of beach wear (even though some are only sporting spartan bathing suits).

Suddenly, being nude has become an oddity again. In this shop so near to the nudist beach, the norms have changed. The young American becomes worried, wondering how to escape unseen. But it seems there's no way out. At last, he garners the courage to get up and leave, yet he does so while covering his private parts with his hands, something he didn't have to do down on the beach.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Searching for the Spirit of Patriotism

Recently, sometime during the first weekend of July, when Americans were celebrating the holiday Independence Day, I read Bush used phony patriotism to start war, a newly released article by Father Andrew Greeley, the American priest/writer, scholar and social critic. In the article Greeley questioned the use of patriotism by George Bush to incite uninformed Americans to support his administration's invasion of Iraq. The main thrust of the article was that after the attacks of 9/11, most Americans were so incensed that they wanted revenge and could be easily manipulated. Under those circumstances, a leader who could connect dots between the hijackings of airliners and any whiff of anti-American feelings in the Middle East was bound to captivate an audience, and that was exactly what Bush did.

Greeley demonstrates convincingly what most concerned, informed and thinking individuals on earth today see as a fact: Bush wanted to punish Saddam and he wanted oil, and he believed that by connecting the dots and making war (even when Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11), he could have both of those AND he could reshape the politics of the Middle East to his and his neo-con buddies' liking. By using the patriotism card, i.e., by calling anyone who questioned him a traitor, Bush was able to conjure up all the support he needed and he got his war.

Patriotism is an important value for many people. But just how can we recognize it in the flesh? Some would have you believe that it is unquestioning support of a country's leaders and those leaders' whims. In Malaysia for many years that meant supporting Prime Minister Mahathir and his administration's views wholeheartedly. It meant turning a blind eye to any corruption in government, to any inequity in society, to any contested government policy or action and saying "If you're a patriot, you support the government. Period."

In America in the 1960s, patriotism meant supporting the Vietnam War, 100%. There was a bumper sticker that I remember from that time that read: AMERICA, RIGHT OR WRONG.

When Bush and his cronies started to try to sell an invasion of Iraq by saying that Saddam was researching a nuclear weapon that he would then surely turn over to "the terrorists," many people questioned that specific assertion and the general logic. Even Scott Ritter, a man who had been the lead UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, had questioned it. Bush, Cheney and their dearest supporters nationwide were very quick to label Ritter and anyone else who had questions as crazy, or worse, as people who were supporting the enemies.

Sadly, these accusations have not disappeared. After reading the Greeley article, I read comments that had been posted beneath it. I was shocked at the number who not only questioned Greeley's patriotism but who also said he would "burn in hell." After checking the websites of a few of these commentators I discovered an even more serious problem. Some of these guys aren't just out for Greeley's head, they want an entire religious war. For them it's not just America:Right or Wrong, it's a bigger fight, a clash of civilizations. They believe that they alone on earth are amongst the chosen few; that they alone on earth know God and know good from bad, right from wrong. They are the American Taliban.

It's for these people that I would like to propose a course in the ideas of one of America's founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the likelihood that members of the American Taliban would read anything by Jefferson is the same as them taking a trip to Singapore and visiting one of my classes. Zero.

For the rest of us, it might be good at this time of year to pay a visit to Jeff's former mountaintop home, Monticello, or to simply visit the White House website and read this wonderful quote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."