Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Uzbeckibeckibeckistanstan is important.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan...*

Despite what Herman Cain may believe, these places are important.  I don't blame him for not wanting to know anything about them; indeed, in the West it's hard to find decent maps of Central Eurasia.  The borders and the topography are inscrutable: rivers and mountains are foreign sounding and difficult to place.  The Oxus, the Altai, Samarkand, Karakorum, Baikal: we have no references to these, and we can't find them on a map.  This place is on the periphery of Western culture.  Central Eurasia is the homeland of barbarians and nomads, forgotten places and forgotten peoples.  It is the Other.  The important cultural events happen elsewhere. 

Or do they?  A great grassland sea extends from Budapest to Vladivostok.  Its green and amber waves wash upon five significant civilizations: Europe, China, India, Persia, Arabia.  Over these steppes and prairies wash peoples, and with those peoples ideas, memories, and goods.  Here on the edges of the legible maps of civilization you'll find Islam, Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manicheanism, Taoism, Judaism, and even the paganism of the great open sky all rubbing elbows in ways that their prophets and proselytizers never imagined.

These are the lands of the Silk Road, and of Marco Polo.  The lands of Atilla, Tamujin, and Timur the Lame.  These lands created the stirrup, the composite bow, and the curved sword.  The brought silk, paper, and gunpowder west, and gold and silver East.  The journeys of these peoples are at least as important as the travels of the Spanish and Portugese by sea in later centuries.  But these peoples are all but forgotten.

Central Asia, the "Empire of the Steppes" as Rene Grousset puts it, has always been a land on the periphery.  This is the land of the Scythians of the Greco-Roman period.  Out of the sea of grass came Atilla and his Huns, who pushed the Goths westward and southward to trigger the final fall of Rome.  This land gave us three beacheads upon the shores of Europe: the Finns, a people apart from the rest of Scandinavia;  the Hungarians, who started out as the Magyars, but couldn't shake the reputation of the earlier Huns; and the Turks, who in their turn overthrew Byzantium, nearly came to occupy Eastern Europe, played a pvitol role in European history for 900 years, and who are still important to U.S. relations to NATO and to the Middle East.

We in the West almost remeber Genghis Khan.  He and his troops we vaguely think of as murderous barbarians and thugs.  It's true that our English word 'horde' comes from the Mongolian 'ordu'.  What we don't remember is that the Khanite was the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world.  We also don't remember that the Khanite practiced religious tolerance and freedom of conscience almost unheard of in the 12th century.  We forget that Genghis Khan is remembered in much of Asia as a unifier and builder of nations.  We also forget that it was the recall of Batu in order to establish an orderly succession that freed  Hungary and Eastern Europe from Mongol rule.

It is these people against whom the Great Wall was built.  The Khitai lent their name to northern China, remembered as Polo's 'Cathay'.  It was the Manchu who made Beijing the capital of modern China and re-instituted the civil service exams.  Kublai Khan founded the Mongol dynasty of China, the forerunners to the Ming.  Before the Hollywood elite knew the Tibetans as an occupied people, they were conquerors of their plateau.  It was memory of the pax Mongolia that led to the Mughal empire of northern India.  It was the hurricane that repelled the forces of Kublai from Nippon that first bore the name kamikaze.

Because this sea of grass and sand is the buffer zone between cultures, it will play a pivotal role in the 21st century.  We in the U.S. are in the habit of seeing Afghanistan as some sort of appendage onto the Middle East, peripheral to the culture and conflicts there.  Instead, we might see it as a nearer wing of the vaster stage of Central Eurasia, a place where West meets East.

In recent years, Gitmo has been home to a population of Uighurs, people that briefly became the bane of Western newsreaders who called them instead "Chinese Muslims" because that was easier to pronounce*.  Chinese Muslims?  Chinese, perhaps, because over the years they've become Sinocized, and because a majority of them live inside the lines on the map that China has claimed.  And muslim too, because in this buffer zone of Asia, many unexpected things are true.  But do the newsreaders remember that these are the people who gave their alphabet to the Mongols, the people who served as councilors and advisers in the 'civilized' art of government to Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons?  That they are muslim because under the Grand Khanite, there was freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?  "The religions are like the fingers of the hand," Tamujin once said.  Not bad for a barbarian.

In the 21st century, as in the last part of the 20th and before, Asia will be defined by four great powers: Russia, the Middle East, China, and India.  The place where all of these powers touch is an ocean of grass, with amber waves of grain.  Central Eurasia is important, and we might as well learn something about it.

* Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov, Roza Otunbayeva, Emomalii Rahmon, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow respectively serve as presidents.

** It's "Wee-goorr", by the way.

Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Debates Matter

Caller of the day: [paraphrased] "I don't understand why everyone is picking on Perry for his debate performances. I know lots of people who are fine in their day-to-day work who freeze when they're taking exams or certification tests. Having problems when he's center stage doesn't mean he can't do the work of governing."

Umm... I suppose, for thirteen days in 1963, if John F. Kennedy had choked under pressure, everything would have worked out fine?

There are those saying that the GOP is having to many debates.  That debates among presidential candidates don't matter or shouldn't matter.

I disagee.  While I have a certain distrust and dislike of organized government (much as I have a dislike and distrust of organized religion), if I'm going to be stuck with a federal government, then there are certain qualities I like in a president.  Debates highlight some of them.

If there must be a commander in chief, let's have one that can think on his feet.  "Nonsense!" some would say.  "Presidents have advisers who provide information and suggest possible courses of action.  All the president has to do is read speeches and make decisions."  There's more to it, I think.  Executives have to learn information, filter it, and make decisions.  While taking information in quickly, they have to be able to filter it.  Rats have to be smelled, biases detected, fallicies unmasked, groupthink disassembled, context gleaned and examined.  This process is best done against a background of a diverse education.  A chief executive who knows where Cyprus is, who knows what the issue is with South Osseta, and who knows who the president of 'uzbeckiceckiceckistanstan' is is better prepared to catch errors, find biases, and detect smoke being blown in his direction than someone who is limping along, leaning on their advisors.

A good debate will highlight that.  It will demonstrate who can think on their feet and who is relying on canned responses.  A debate will show who actually has numbers and facts ready to hand, and who can't go off script.  It will illustrate who has actually opinions on things and who is following a party platform.

Debates matter.  They separate the minds at work from the cardboard cutouts.  And in the case of Michelle Bachman, debates highlight who is bats*** crazy.

Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org

The Kids are Newbs

Let me start off by saying, I like a lot of John Cheese's stuff, and his latest piece for Cracked.com is no exception: "5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation."

But I'm not convinced of some of his conclusions.

We've slowly killed off most of the activities where kids get together with other kids and have fun (and in the process, learn how to interact).
 There is a pattern since the mid-Nineties undervaluing online interaction.  Ultimately, it seems to stem from a late twentieth century stereotype of the computer nerd, socially crippled, who interacts solely with dumb machines.  Like all stereotypes, the picture is incomplete.*

The point being, interacting with other people is interacting with people, even if a machine or a network serves as a medium.  When people interact, there are rules governing that interaction; the rules appear emergently, and are one of the foundations of culture.  Follow the rules, and one is rewarded with social success.  Violate the rules and reward is withheld.

Growing up is a process of acculturating the young.  Children learn the rules of their culture, usually in a controlled environment that cushions somewhat their failures and attempts to make clear the lessons to be learned.  Interacting with other children is a step in that process; children learn how to deal with one another, and carry those skills on to their adult lives.

That process still occurs in electronically-mediated environments, like Facebook, Twitter, online Foums, chat channels, Youtube comments sections, or X-Box live.  Children (and adults!) are logging on and interacting with each other.  In the process, they are learning the cultural rules.  Indeed, many such venues have adults who, by virtue of social status if not administrative powers, find themselves able to reinforce successful social interactions and negatively reinforce unsuccessful ones.  Online culture is still culture.

Indeed, there are dark corners of the internet where adult supervision is less-enforced, like /b/.  In places such as these, savvy children, adolescents and young adults get to create their own rules.  Remarkably, a social order of sorts does come into being.  It may not parallel mainstream culture, but a social order does exist.  In the process, children and adolescents do learn social skills and social savvy: much of my social interactions as an adolescent occurred in the local BBS culture.  In a sense, many of my social skills were learned in that environment.

Cheese is correct: kids need minimally supervised fora in which to interact, learn social skills, and have fun.  But the digital computing revolution hasn't necessarily killed that off.  Instead, a local process has simply become more globally distributed.

This last is important.  Networked communications and global trade have made the world smaller.  An American in the 21st century will need to be prepared to deal with people from outside their own local communities: people who may not speak (or type) English well, who have different cultural assumptions, who have a different body of intellectual and artistic references.  Interacting online gives children and teens a chance to learn to deal with a multicultural world.  And that's worth learning.

* In the mainframe and terminal era, and before widespread telecommuting, computer users would frequently occupy labs with one another.  As often occurs with people in close proximity, a culture formed, with it's own conventions rules, and slang.  Many of those cultural and conversational conventions carried over to electronically mediated interactions.  Over time, hackers generated their own culture: http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/

Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Religious Messages

A pastor friend of mine once promised me, "I will pray for [her] and for you."

I'm a lifelong skeptic and lapsed atheist.  I'm almost certain there's no man in the sky who answers prayers.   There are those militant atheists who would find it hypocritical of me to let it pass.

But I did.

Even though I am not a Christian, I was touched.

Because what he said to me is not "I'm going to inflict a religious ritual upon you without your consent."

What he told me was, "I care about you, and I would like to help.  I am going to do that which I believe is the most powerful, most personal, most compassionate thing I know to do."

And in that translation is everything.

So, my fellow skeptics and atheists, instead of being offended by religious messages and symbolism, let's try to look beyond the shallow meaning of those messages and find the intent of the message.  The humanity in all of the god-talk.

Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org