An ode to minorities

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than distrusted, marginalised or persecuted, minorities must be celebrated for the role they play in strengthening society and bridging chasms.

A Syrian refugee performs 'Ode to Joy' Photo: © Jure Eržen

A Syrian refugee performs Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. Photo: © Jure Eržen

Monday 28 December 2015

Globalisation was meant to move us beyond our narrow tribalism and make us all members of one big happy human family. While at its best, globalisation has succeeded in making people thrive on diversity, at its worst, our globalised world has led to a rising fear of difference and a huge surge in identity politics.

And as a growing number of states falter or collapse, economic inequality widens and poverty deepens, minorities are regaining their traditional status as targets of hatred and scapegoats. The active persecution in places like Syria, Iraq and Myanmar, as well as the mainstreaming of a neo-fascist discourse among the no-longer-far right in America and Europe, compels me to dedicate this ode to minorities.

As an Egyptian who has divided his life between the Middle East and Europe, I have been part of one minority or another for the greater part of my life. Unlike many Arab intellectuals who lament their “estrangement” or “exile”, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a member of a minority, one can interact with and belong to more than one culture simultaneously. We have our home culture, which is mundane to us but exotic to our surrounding society. And just beyond our doorsteps lie the exoticness, for us, of the everyday of mainstream society.

I still remember the day I moved to live in England. I looked out of the window at a rain-speckled London playground where a group of strangely coloured children were playing in ways that were eerily familiar to me.

That sense of familiar foreignness would accompany me on my first day at school, during my entire education and when I visited friends. The fact that we spoke different languages at home, often ate different food, had parents with very different cultural reference points and celebrated different religious festivals – even though my parents also allowed us occasionally to mark Christmas – made us mutually exotic.

But I evolved to slip relatively effortlessly between both cultural spaces, to belong, at least in my mind and heart, to both societies and traditions. And the bafflement my otherness sometimes caused was offset by genuine curiosity and interest, while the racism of strangers was counterbalanced by the love and sympathy of friends.

After many years, moving back to Egypt didn’t remove the foreignness. If anything, it accentuated it. Although I’d been led to believe that this was a homecoming, it felt to my teenage self like a move to a foreign and exotic land.

And society felt my foreignness too. Although I was accepted as essentially an Egyptian, I was also “el-Inglezi” (the English guy) or even a “khawaga” (foreigner, usually Western). Though I’d spoken Arabic at home with my parents, it was woefully inadequate for dealing with Egyptian society and the English with which I communicated with my siblings became the new exotic.

With time, my Arabic became convincingly natural, but some of my lifestyle choices elicited curiosity and sometimes raised eyebrows. Likewise, no matter how acclimatised I became to Egypt, certain elements remained foreign, especially the culture of profuse flattery and the verbosity of interpersonal exchanges.

Of course, belonging to more than one society is not always complementary, especially when significant cultural and political differences exist. Squaring the circle of contradicting cultural demands is, admittedly, a challenge. It leads some in pursuit of an elusive and usually false “authenticity,” while others go to the other extreme and attempt to assimilate so completely into the mainstream that they adopt not only its ways, but also its prejudices towards and misconceptions of their minority.

Personally, I’ve chosen the path of individualism, to hold the stick where I feel comfortable, to mix and match a blend that suits my tastes – and to hell with those who don’t accept me on my terms.

With my Arabist-Belgian wife, we have taken this potpourri approach to assemble a domestic cultural collage. Our six-year-old son has two religious heritages, and the secular convictions of his parents, can already speak four languages fluently and embraces the unfamiliar, the exotic. He feels comfortable everywhere, but I fear this may change as he gets older.

Even though Iskander is blond and looks totally European, if Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump represent an enduring trend in the West, he may come under immense pressure to jettison his Arab side. Similarly, the fact that he has not been raised as a Muslim and instead has grown up in a religiously sceptical household may cause him trouble in the Arab world, if its conservatism is not overcome.

History is replete with examples of how minorities make a society stronger and more humane, and getting rid of them costs everyone dearly. As outsider-insiders, minorities bring creative energy, ambition, drive to achieve, and often hold up a mirror to the excesses and transgressions of mainstream society.

This makes defending minorities in everyone’s interest, if only because societies that persecute or eliminate a minority don’t stop there – they exhibit an ugly tendency to identify sub-groups of the majority to scapegoat and target.

Being a well-fitting misfit everywhere has facilitated my evolution toward a more inclusive and embracing humanism – a mash, not a clash, of civilisations. In these troubled times of widening chasms, the world needs the bridging role of minorities more than ever.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 15 December 2015.

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Invading Europe without invaders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Any objective observer can see  that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. So why are so many Europeans afraid of refugees?

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.  Photo: © Jure Eržen

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word.
Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 9 October 2015

It has been wondrous to behold the massive outpouring of sympathy towards refugees in Europe. Every “refugees welcome” placard and act of solidarity has restored my faith a little in our human ability to do collective good. Those poignant acts of solidarity – from donations of meals and clothes to people offering their homes to those who have taken flight – which have shamed our leaders into action have been kindling to warm my heart during this winter of human misery.

But it strikes me that, as the mainstream has warmed to the refugees and their plight, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of fear and anxiety usually expressed by the defenceless towards ruthless conquerors.

Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word. Yet, across Europe, conservatives have been singing, in chorus, the refrain “Islamic invasion”.

“They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and, stuck on a major transit route, has been building a wall to  keep the refugees out.

What is most remarkable is that Bishop Kiss-Rigo’s comments were a rebuke of his spiritual boss, Pope Francis I’s commendable appeal to European churches to take in refugees.

Much further west, similar calls to man the barricades could also be heard. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” said Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran.

When it comes to prosperity, the influx of refugees (equivalent to just 0.37% of the EU’s population since 2012) poses little to no threat, economists and other experts agree. An analysis by the Brookings Institute  reveals that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees.

If the European economy stands to benefit from the influx of refugees, why all the panic?

One reason is economic anxiety. Across Europe job insecurity has risen dramatically while youth unemployment in many countries is perilously high. In addition, the corrosion of the welfare state and severe austerity measures have left millions reeling in shock.

Rather than attribute Europe’s economic ills on the continent’s growing welfare state for the wealthy, the corporations exporting (or “outsourcing”) jobs for greater profit and financial sector mismanagement, far-right demagogues find it easier to blame the weak, and kick those who are already down. In addition, the periphery countries dealing with the brunt of the crisis are the poorest and least-equipped to do so.

Beyond economics, many Europeans are genuinely concerned about the potential danger to their security posed by refugees. While it seems far-fetched and even preposterous to people like me that those fleeing the combined terror of the Assad regime and ISIS will themselves turn to terrorism, many ordinary Europeans do not possess the luxury of that insight.

In addition, there is the slim chance that ISIS will play on these fears and send a handful of terrorists amid the flow of genuine refugees. In such an instance, all it need take is a single act of calculated terror to cause Fortress Europe to pull up the drawbridges it has recently slightly let down.

However, fears about security are subordinate to anxieties about culture and identity. Since World War II, Western Europe has witnessed a remarkable demographic transformation in which citizens from former colonies – and from Turkey, in the case of Germany – and their offspring now constitute a significant minority of the population.

Though many have related to this new multicultural reality as enriching and empowering, others have found it troublesome and threatening, particularly those who feel their culture is superior to those of the immigrants. When coupled with the corrosive effects of globalisation and rapid technological development, as well as the rapid demise of religion in many parts of Europe in recent decades, many feel adrift in an uncharted ocean.

Although fanatics capture the headlines and people’s imaginations, this death of religion has also been occurring among what Europe identifies as its Muslim minority, which was never defined so monolithically in the past. For example more than a fifth of “Muslims” in France don’t believe in Islam nor practise it.

One reason why anxiety towards Muslims carries an extra punch compared to other groups, such as Indians and Chinese, is the centuries-old mutual rivalry between neighbouring Islam and Christendom (nowadays referred to as the West).

Just as the crusades continue to cast a shadow over the Middle East, Islamic expansionism in the early centuries of Islam have left their mark on European identity, both negatively and positively.

This partly explains why an older Spanish gentleman told a friend of mine: “There is more than one way to re-conquer Spain.” This is despite the fact that it has been half a millennium since Spain completed its Reconquista and expelled the last Muslim king in Andalusia, Muhammad XII of Granada.

This Muslim menace is shrouded in the mists of time and subsequent might for the powerful former empires of western Europe, which partly explains why they have been able to absorb large Muslim populations. However, this is less the case in some parts of central and southeastern Europe, where the Ottomans dominated until relatively recently, and whose independence was won at a huge cost. But this should be something that unites them with the Syrians who, like many eastern and southern Europeans, were victims of the Ottoman empire too, especially once it shed its multicultural tolerance.

Remembered history, along with the resurgence of religiosity and its negligible Muslim minority, might help explain why Slovakia wished only to take in Christian Syrian refugees. After all, what is today Slovakia was a frontline in the constant wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, though Slovakia, except for a small sliver in the south, was never actually ruled by the Turks.

Populists and demagogues have been riding, and fanning, the wave of re-Christianisation and growing Islamophobia by playing the history card relentlessly. “When it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” said Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right “Viktator”, evoking memories of the Ottoman carve-up of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary which empowered the peasantry but destroyed the ruling class.

This is a far cry from the earlier pronouncements by Orban, who is an atheist who now regularly talks about “Christian values”, that “Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore.” What Orban’s swinging rhetorical pendulum underlines is that there is no “clash of civilisations”, just clashes of interests and convenience.

Moreover, any sensible observer should be able to see clearly that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. In our interconnected world, people need to conquer their fears and let sensibility and humanity reign.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 1 October 2015.

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Social media and the end of nationalism as we know it

 
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By Osama Diab

As social media strip away the space and time separating like-minded people, is the notion of “nationalism” becoming too small for us?

Friday 8 June 2012

Not in the very distant past, the media and media platforms were mostly specific to individual countries, and the interactivity and communicativeness of traditional media was very minimal. Unlike social media, people from two ends of the world were unable to communicate directly and form communities using traditional media, such as radio or TV. The rise of social media has given rise to virtual spaces in which virtual communities can be formed and flourish. But what effect will this have on actual physical spaces and communities that are based on geographical proximity?

The idea of cosmopolitanism can be traced back thousands of years at least to the time of ancient Greek philosophy. However, historically, cosmopolitanism was confined to philosophy and was limited to haughty debate among philosophers, sociologists and academics. This might be changing now, and due to the renewed interest in globalisation, cosmopolitanism might find its way to the grassroots level. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist argues that “[cosmopolitanism] has left the realm of philosophical castles in the air and has entered reality”.

Nationalism, based on geography, wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the mass media. Benedict Anderson, the Irish scholar, argues that print-capitalism laid the bases for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print-langauges capable of dissemination through the market”. Today, the world is becoming more compressed in terms of time and space, crushed by faster transportation and communication, and the closing of distances this involves. When we take into consideration the speed at which data travels, time and space actually almost completely collapse.

Will our unprecedented ability to communicate through time and space increase the scope of imagined “national” communities? If nationalism in essence is the ability to identify and belong to a people in a particular geographical area, what are the factors that determine the size and the scope of this area of community?

Benedict Anderson famously argues in his book Imagined Communities that speakers of the different variety of English, French, and Spanish who would often find it difficult to understand one another, became able to communicate and understand through print and paper. They then became aware of the other similar people in their ‘langauge-field’, forming the so-called imagined communities. Driven by the capitalists’ desire to enlarge markets, they pushed out the boundaries of their community to form larger communities.

Anderson links the emergence of nationalist ideologies with the emergence of print capitalism. According to Anderson’s theory, the limit of which people will imagine a community is, at least, partially dependent on the media they share and the interest of media owners (the capitalists) in unifying factors, such as language, in order to get a larger amount of people to consume their products. In this process, many minority languages and cultures might be suppressed, but nevertheless, bridges of understanding and empathy are arguably built. So what happens when the media cross national boundaries to cover the whole globe and the interests of capitalists becomes transnational?

In a similar manner to how profit-driven capitalism encouraged the “assembly”, or convergence, of vernaculars into a single language, enabling people identify with a larger community for the first time, the modern multinational corporation and global media encourages people to “learn” a global language. This phenomenon is like Anderson’s print-capitalism but on a much larger scale.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese corporate strategist, states that global firms must share a common language and that mother country identity must give way to corporate identity. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca inevitably intensifies the level of communication and shared cultural experiences between people from different parts of the world at an unprecedented rate.

Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish social anthropologist, argues that in order for a transnational corporation to operate in a global world, it must not have ties with any particular location and develop a more decentralised approach by getting rid of the central headquarters mentality. The global forward-looking firms must create a system of values to be shared by company managers regardless of their backgrounds or whereabouts to replace “the glue nation-based orientation once provided”.

This is why in multinational or transnational corporations, who in some cases, are bigger, wealthier and more powerful than states, the role of the human resource management is to create a culture and identity for the company which will develop a feeling of loyalty similar to that citizens feel towards a state. In this model, the corporation an employee works for becomes part of their identity in what Hannerz calls the “transnational source of identity”. The same applies to social and political movements which share the same cause. The “we are the 99%” slogan is mostly associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but was used in many other Occupy camps around the world.

Paradoxically, the very regime that created and was the engine behind globalised free trade is now being fought and criticised using the tools and weapons it created. If we take Occupy activists from two different countries as an example, they would probably communicate and coordinate in English using Google Mail, Facebook or Skype and transfer money through an HSBC account and they might even book a conference hall in the Hilton for their annual meeting. This makes the anti-globalisation movement quite globalised and highly reliant on transnational corporate brands to express its anti-corporate sentiments.

It seems inevitable that we, and more certainly future generations, will be less likely to identify ourselves primarily in terms of a narrow geographical areas, and more likely to associate along more cosmopolitan lines, according to political or cultural identity, for example. This will require a new approach to studying these phenomena such as Beck’s “cosmopolitan sociology”.

It might be useful here to draw on Raymond Williams theory of the three cultural moments: dominant, emergent and residual. In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

Cosmopolitanism is no longer a naïve and rosy vision that the world will become more pacifistic and a better place to live, but rather a perception of the self where national borders play a less significant role in the modern person’s identity, or rather multiple identities. It is also useful not to view cosmopolitanism and nationalism as conflicting and mutually exclusive. Human beings are capable of ‘hosting’ multiple identities. Therefore, the growth in cosmopolitanism doesn’t instantly suggest a decline in nationalism, but would just add a new layer of empathy which is the ‘cosmo’, or the globe, that wasn’t commonplace before due to the relative limitation in means of transport and communication.

It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity. An Egyptian Marxist might be able to identify more with an Italian Marxist than with a ‘fellow’ Egyptian Islamist. Amid the increasing importance and impact of virtual places, geographic spaces will begin to face some serious competition. Sharing your concerns with someone thousands miles away from you while thinking of your next door neighbour as a stranger might be an increasing phenomenon in the near future.

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Revolution@1: The Egyptian revolution as a historical event

 
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By Osama Diab

In the social media age, revolutions will no longer be followed by the constructing of a national identity based on just one “universal” truth.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Recognising the importance of producing a grassroots, street-level media by the people and for the people, a group called Kazeboon (Liars) was founded following the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution to record the human rights violations committed by the security forces. They use simple citizen journalism tools, such as camera phones, and equipped with a projector, they roam the streets of the nation to screen the films they make in order to, in their own words, “keep the balance of truth”.

As a counter move, a group called Sadiqoon (Honest) was founded to project a positive image of the military police and try to prove by film that violence was carried out by protesters.

These two rival projects reflect divisive sentiments and narratives that are common in Egypt and are splitting the population. But which of these narratives, and many more, will actually make it into the history books remains the interesting question.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and sociologist, argues that the winners in any social or political struggle use their newly acquired political power to suppress the defeated’s alternative account of events. But do governments still have the luxury to suppress opposing narratives in the age of social media?

The historiographical approach to documenting major social and political transformations and the introduction of a new order differ quite considerably from one time to another, and from place to place. Pierre Nora, the French historian, explains that one approach is constructing a unified standard version of “what happened” in order to promote a unified national identity and social cohesion where the nation usually end up having a standard language, national holidays, etc. This approach was mainly predominant in the UK and France. However, in the United States, a large country with various traditions, the approach to writing history allows for more diversity and a wide range of narratives to emerge.

The construction of a unified national identity which Nora refers to requires the existence of a centralised media apparatus, usually government-owned, which sends a standard message to all the citizens of a nation. However, this is a fading phenomenon all over the world due to globalisation and the emergence of decentralised media. This means that it is getting increasingly hard for any government to have total control over the means of producing media and culture.

In the United States, some of the history and even the visual culture that emerged from the Civil War, was written by the defeated (the Southerners). Popular Hollywood box office hits, such as Cold Mountain and Gone with the Wind all tell the story of the civil war from a Southern perspective. In addition, even though the USA didn’t ‘win’ the Vietnam war, most films about Vietnam are American.

The openness and freedom of the American media, along with its diverse tradition, is probably what allows it more than other nations to present different and sometimes conflicting narratives and accounts without awakening the fear that this might affect national identity or social cohesion.

The Egyptian revolution is one of the first major political and historical transformations to be driven by online activism, but most importantly, this online activism still cast its shadow on how people want their revolution to be remembered, and there seems to be no consensus on the matter.

The so-called Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular are perfect examples of when diverse interpretations become inevitable in the age of digital media and open access to information. Arab countries are a good example because they have always been under authoritarian rule, with the media, culture and history traditionally under tight government control. Even though the new media and the information era have been covered quite intensively as the driving force behind the Arab revolutions, little has been said about the way it might affect how these revolutions, important historical events in their own right, might be remembered by future generations.

Even governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution are very wary of the sensitivity surrounding official accounts of what happened. The National Archive of Egypt appointed the head of the history department at the American Univeristy in Cairo, Khaled Fahmy, to take charge of its project to document and archive the revolution.

Fahmy is well aware of the challenge he faces. He pointed out in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events. “When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time,” said Fahmy.

Fahmy, therefore, is attempting to only collect as much primary data as possible without trying to impose a certain narrative and leave it to the people, especially future generations, to construct their own narratives about the revolution and its period. Fahmy also makes it clear that, since the revolution was leaderless and decentralised, this should also be our approach to writing its history and accessing it. There are also a few other organised non-governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution by the Bibliotheca Alexandria, American University in Cairo students and alumni, and others.

The fact that the revolution was leaderless makes it a politically sensitive topic. Many factions seem to be fighting to claim ownership of the revolution and attempt to emphasise and stretch their role in it.

A power struggle has emerged in post-revolutionary Egypt to try and fill this power vacuum. Claiming ownership of the revolution and fighting the old regime is central to this power struggle. This dispute is expected to cast its shadow over the writing of the revolution’s history and help further diversify the narratives and interpretations of the events which are taking place.

The media play an important role in constructing national identity to the extent that some argue that nationalism as we know it did not exist before the invention of the printing press, which enabled the emergence of the first mass media. Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities argues that the emergence of print led to the emergence of nationalism because it helped members of a nation ‘imagine’ and identify with a wider community with which they shared no direct contact.

Referred to sometimes as history’s first Facebook revolution, tthe role of social media continues even after the revolution and is causing fragmentation in society, as well as difficulties for the new political leadership to construct a new and unified national identity. More importantly, it is causing a diversity of historical narratives to emerge, not just about the recent revolution but also abut older historical events in which certain narratives were suppressed and swept under the carpet.

However, over time, it might be proven that nationalism and social cohesion are not necessarily linked to having only one version of the ‘truth’ while suppressing all the other versions. Future generations are likely to grow up surrounded by a whole range of historical and political narratives thanks to the decentralisation of media production. On the bright side, this phenomenon might promote tolerance and enhance people’s ability to coexist and accept difference.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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Mobile revolution in the Middle East

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.

 

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Making globalisation pay

 
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By Khaled Diab

Big corporations are using the banking crisis as an excuse for exploiting cheap labour. Is it time for a global minimum wage?

4 February 2010

For beer lovers, Belgium is the nearest place to heaven on earth. The country’s 125 or so breweries produce an estimated 800 standard beers, each of which is served in its own distinctive glass. This mushrooms to nearly 9,000 when special editions are included.

Given this ocean of booze, you would expect that the temporary loss of a handful of beers would cause hardly a ripple. In a country where beer receives the kind of appreciation reserved for wine in other cultures, the recent threat to supplies of some of Belgium’s favourite tipples captured headlines and caused distress.

The “Beer Crisis”, as it became known, was caused by striking workers blockading three breweries owned by the world’s largest beer giant, AB InBev, which, among other things, produces the popular but bog-standard Stella Artois and the more upmarket Abbey beer Leffe.

The immediate cause of the blockade was AB InBev’s plans to trim its Belgian workforce by 300 (with another 500 to be scrapped in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), ostensibly because of falling beer consumption in western Europe.

Despite the inconvenience to the beer-drinking public, most Belgians are sympathetic with the strikers. “We’re with the strikers,” declared one regular at a café in Halle. “If the beer flows dry, that is only a relative problem.”

This is because, InBev (previously known as InterBrew), though it is admired for raising the global profile of Belgian beer, has become infamous for its cavalier attitude towards its workforces, which have endured several ‘restructurings’ in recent years to cut costs, while the management pays itself lavish bonuses, engages in expensive prestige acquisitions (such as the US makers of Budweiser), and exports jobs to countries where labour is cheaper.

Faced with this public relations disaster and the loss of market share to smaller breweries, InBev’s management has backed down for the time being and the blockade is being lifted.

Workers at the nearby Opel plant in Antwerp have not been so fortunate. Despite an offer of a €500 million bailout from the Flemish government, and voluntary pay cuts agreed by the unions, troubled US car giant GM has decided to close the 85-year-old Antwerp plant, axing 2,600 jobs in the process. The decision is all the more puzzling because the plant still turns a healthy profit.

It seems that InBev and GM are taking advantage of the current financial crisis. Both are shifting jobs to countries where labour is cheap, while GM seems to be subsidy shopping and has successfully pitted the German government against the Belgian government.

And they are not alone. With their massive revenue streams and the mobility to shift their assets rapidly, countless multinationals have used globalisation to hold governments to ransom and stack the global trading system unfairly in their favour by ‘outsourcing’ their operations to so-called low-cost countries while selling their output in higher-cost wealthy countries.

So what can be done to curb this kind of corporate excess and greed and put a brake on this undignified race to the bottom?

One idea could be to develop an international minimum wage and integrate the concept into the architecture of the World Trade Organisation, especially since the Doha round of trade talks is ostensibly aimed at triggering sustainable development. What could be more sustainable for the global economy than affording all workers a decent income?

But, even assuming that WTO member states can muster up the political will to set such a global standard – after all, both rich and poor countries would have their own reasons for opposing it – attempts to set an international minimum wage would face umpteen practical hurdles.

For example, if you set it as an absolute amount, what would you take as your reference? Universalising, say, western European levels would be unaffordable for developing economies and unfair to European workers who have to contend with some of highest costs of living in the world.

Instead, we could determine a minimum standard of living to which all workers should be entitled and use that to calculate a fair wage for each country using purchasing power parity. However, given the magnitude of global income disparities, this would disadvantage local companies in poorer countries who, compared with multinationals, do not possess the resources to pay such wages – nor can the domestic markets they cater for absorb the extra cost.

So, until we have true global economic convergence, it would be far better to start the process of fairer trade at home, and more strictly regulate our multinationals. Today’s giant corporations are often likened to small countries. However, there are important differences: they are not tied down by geography and, given the paucity of international regulations, they can get away with practices that would be considered unscrupulous or even illegal in their home territories.

Just as the vast majority of developed economies from which most multinationals hail have minimum wage systems in place, it’s time global corporations were made to apply similar practices in their overseas operations in poorer countries.

In addition to an absolute rock bottom wage which they cannot go below, multinationals should be obliged to implement an indexed salary system in which workers in their overseas operations cannot earn less than, say, half of what a worker doing a similar job in their home territory earns.

Complaints are bound to be heard about how this interferes with the efficient functioning of the free market. But I doubt CEOs and top managers would be so blase if it was their own jobs that were to be outsourced. I’m sure India and other developing countries are teeming with intelligent, capable entrepreneurs who could probably do a better job than many of our current crop of avaricious business leaders, and at a fraction of the cost.

Besides, the free market already functions inefficiently – the rich domestic markets of multinationals are still quite well-protected fortresses. And, though we may have freer movement of goods and services than in the past, the movement of labour is severely restricted. In a truly free market, workers would go where the best-paying jobs are, rather than the jobs going to where the worst-paid workers are.

More importantly, at its core, economics is about human wellbeing and if free-market orthodoxy fails to deliver on this, then something needs to be done to balance efficiency against ethics.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 31 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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