Andrea Elliott on small town boy turned jihadist

In an interview that might very well turn my last post on its head, Andrea Elliott from the NYT went on Charlie Rose to explain the new trend of American radicalization, epitomized by a small-town Alabaman boy that went on to become the face of fighting and recruiting propaganda for an Islamic insurgency based out of Somalia.

Two points are interesting.

One: the relationship between economic disenfranchisement and radicalization is not always there.  In this case, Hammami comes from a well-off middle-class family from a small town in the South, presumably without the cluster of poverty and fanaticism associated with Europe’s immigrant underclass.

Two: Elliott suggested looking at problem of radicalization not only from the angle of religious indoctrination, but as a sociological phenomenon, where adolescents channel their alienation, curiosity, and the urge to bond into, say, joining a cult or a gang.  The implications for preventative measures are bound to be quite different in this case.

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Fleshing out issues with Christopher Caldwell’s work on European immigration

Finally, an intelligent dissection and critique of Christopher Caldwell’s work on the problem of Muslim immigration in Europe.

[B]ecause of his inability to resist the temptation to try to fit virtually every trend, process, and event he considers, from the most lurid to the most mundane, into the tired category of a supine Europe doomed by its failure to breed in sufficient numbers, leached of its ethical strength by relativism and colonial and racial guilt, and complicit in its demise at the hands of an immigration both vigorously fertile and morally self-confident, Caldwell’s argument ends up not being a great deal more enlightening than books by his intellectual inferiors, above all because it so oversimplifies the reality of contemporary Europe.

For him, every kind of criminality, whether it is petty street crime in Amsterdam beyond the canals or the huge riots that convulsed the major cities of France in 2005, plays neatly into his argument about the immigrant tide. This argument is deeply flawed both factually and analytically.

True, Europe has indeed neglected the issue of integration – and the lack of economic integration further amplifies the cultural alienation of these groups.  But to lump every manifestation of social problem, regardless of its root, to the issue of faith and culture, is indeed an oversimplification.

Has Europe really responded so ineptly and cravenly to the transformation that mass immigration has brought? The facts that Caldwell gathers to demonstrate this proposition support other, far less damning interpretations. It is true that at least some of the rioters have screamed anti-French slogans. But this is really not all that different from much Mexican nationalist sentiment one encounters routinely at street demonstrations in California demanding legalization of illegal immigrants.

So I agree with Rieff when he ends the piece on a money quote: “In the fight between money and blood, history actually shows that money often emerges victorious.”

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Taking to the streets: US vs. European edition

A rant that started with an Audi ad and meandered through the requisite American distaste for conformism eventually arrived at this.

Not that the tin-foil helmet crazies are in anyways more desirable than disenfranchised anarchist mobs taking over government buildings.  And considering the reasons for protests: one for introducing universal health insurance and/or financial sector bailouts, the other against belt-tightening in wages and benefits, I’m not entirely sure the comparison can really be considered parallel.

The majority of us hit by economic hardships just want to put our heads down and get on with the whole thing, kind of like, well, Ireland.

But just for fun: fringe to fringe, protester to protester, crazy to crazy, which one would you rather?

[T]he difference between America and Europe is that, when the global economy nosedived, everywhere from Iceland to Bulgaria mobs took to the streets and besieged Parliament, demanding to know why government didn’t do more for them. This is the only country in the developed world where a mass movement took to the streets to say we can do just fine if you control-freak statists would just stay the hell out of our lives, and our pockets. You can shove your non-stimulating stimulus, your jobless jobs bill, and your multitrillion-dollar porkathons. This isn’t karaoke. These guys are singing “I’ll do it my way” for real.

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Merkel and Sarkozy talk past each other

On the idea of “economic government” in Europe, at least.

While the EU is focused on labour market and fiscal integration – mostly through an open border and a common currency, the idea of full monetary union is next to impossible without closer political integration.  The Greek fiasco is a pretty telling test of Europe’s real commitment to the EU project, because it’s not just about having protocol-obsessed summits, but requires someone to open their purse strings rather generously with little political gains – if not massive political losses.

Those outside of the immediate currency zone don’t want a Greek bailout (emphasis mine).

Since 2004, the promise made to the ex-communist newcomers was that they would replace the Club Med countries as principal beneficiaries of EU funds aimed at economic convergence within the union. Such countries, some of which, like Poland, have done better than most in this crisis, are likely to take it rather badly if future convergence flows are diverted away from them, and back to countries that have wasted so much EU cash like Greece, in what will look like a reward for failure. Add to that that newcomers outside the euro zone, like Hungary or Latvia have had to endure horrible austerity programmes in the last two years under IMF supervision, while countries inside the euro zone are to be spared IMF programmes. In this round-up of EU press reactions, you will note that Czech and Hungarian newspapers are strikingly unsympathetic to the idea of an easy bail-out for Greece.

And those at the core of the EU, namely France and Germany, can’t seem to agree on just exactly what “economic co-ordination” means.

On February 11th [Angela Merkel] said that “economic government” meant economic co-ordination among the 27 leaders of the EU. Nicolas Sarkozy, standing next to her, means something quite different by economic government: he has made no secret of wanting to increase the power of the heads of state and government from the 16 euro zone countries, turning them into an inner core Europe (that just so happens to look rather like Europe before the big bang enlargement).

When German bigwigs talk about economic co-ordination within the euro zone, they mean countries like Greece being forced to stick to the rules and to sort out their deficits. The French have traditionally used the words “European economic government” to mean something like: politicians being allowed to bully the European Central Bank about exhange rate policies, and to flout deficit rules if their countries are large, broadly hexagonal in shape, and are known for fine wine and cheeses.

Should a bail-out happen, it can really only happen based on an appeal to Germany’s self-interest – most likely the protection of the euro and the credibility of the EU economic union.  But it remains to be seen whether the Greek problem is in fact large enough to be contagious, and whether its miniscule sliver of GDP in relations to the greater EU will make it politically palatable for Merkel to sell an expensive rescue plan when Germany itself is still struggling.

Homogenizing the global literature experience

Any hopes to dealing with the translation gap that’s been blocking these non-English international blockbusters books?

If this trend is any indication, then perhaps we have little to worry about – since everything will converge to the same blend of McDonalized dullness. In an attempt to appeal to a global, and more importantly, English-speaking audience, the art of literature has been reduced to ploys and strategies.

[C]ontemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerhard Baaker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.

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Why deal with confrontation when you can hire help?

In a society where confrontation is hardly desired nor practiced, the Japanese’s reluctance to engage in face-to-face has created a whole new level of creepiness.  Where wannabe models and actors elsewhere wait tables and tend bars, the ones in Japan find employment as wakaresaseya, or splitter-uppers.

Rather than pleading with him face to face, a woman whose husband is having an affair may hire a splitter-upper to seduce his mistress away from him. Parents may engage their services to prise off the unsuitable lover of a son or daughter. Dozens of wakaresaseya companies advertise on the internet, under names such as Lady’s Secret Service and Office Shadow. They employ models, actors and personable people of different backgrounds first to trail and then to seduce their quarry.

But looking at the grander picture, these soap opera-ish home wreckers are merely one symptom of much larger problems in Japan.

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Is English heading into a even more non-standardized and fragmented form?

Numbers certainly support the theory, and on the ground reality also corroborates the trend, where English is heading in the same direction as languages like Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Latin, where the language will not merely differentiate based on accents, but where dialects will become mutually unintelligible to each other.

According to linguists, Panglish will be similar to the versions of English used by non-native speakers. As the new language takes over, “the” will become “ze”, “friend” will be “frien” and the phrase “he talks” will become “he talk”.

By 2010 around two billion people – or a third of the world’s population – will speak English as a second language. In contrast, just 350 million people will speak it as a first language.

[A]s new dialects develop, global English – or Panglish – will become simpler. Unlike French – which is jealously protected from corruption by the Academie Francaise – there is no organisation to police the English language.

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China enters Eastern Europe

Having forged some pretty sturdy commercial ties with Africa and Latin America, China is now entering Eastern Europe.  Long-time backyard of Russia, and some-time cold war battlegrounds in bygone days, many have become scourges of Europe in recent years.

Enters China with tons of cash.

China last July signed a memorandum of understanding to lend Moldova $1 billion – equal to a tenth of the east European country’s gross domestic product, and easily the biggest loan it will have received from anywhere.

Last June, it agreed to invest more than $1 billion to build power plants and roads in Tajikistan, an impoverished ex-Soviet state with limited natural resources. In March, China’s central bank agreed a three-year currency swap worth 20 billion yuan ($2.93 billion) with another former Soviet republic, Belarus.

And why would China want to throw its money into those economic basket cases?  Political capital with its main energy provider, Russia.

China will increasingly need leverage with Russia as its dealings with its oil- and gas-rich neighbor expand. Russia provides nearly 8 percent of China’s total crude oil imports, and Gazprom is in advanced talks on a deal to supply gas.

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Mysteries behind Japanese bows

The Japanese take the art of bowing just as seriously as they do with the art of honorific speechSalon investigates the four different kinds of bows through the Toyota recall debacle.

Japanese bows can be formally categorized as eshaku, a simple 15-degree bend or nod of the head; keirei, a 30-degree tilt to show respect; saikeirei, a full 45- to 90-degree bow intended to show the deepest veneration or humility; and dogeza, a fetal prostration expressing utter subjection or contrition.

But it’s not just the gradient of the bows either.

As important are the duration of the gesture, and the exact context under which it’s made. A graduating student might perform a full, prolonged saikeirei to his professor as a gesture of gratitude, but he might perform the same bow in an abbreviated form to apologize for having accidentally stepped on someone’s foot.

Now taking it to the nth degree, because this is Japan we are talking about.

Bowing is so important in Japan that parents begin to teach the practice to children shortly after they start walking, and some schools hold enormous assemblies where preteens spend hours bowing in unison to master the postures. One company supposedly developed a machine with a laser line to teach their sales staff the ideal angle for bowing to customers.

But really, it’s what those bows signify in the Japanese context that’s both mind-baffling and strangely fitting at the same time.

Still, in most daily interactions, the four categories and the precise pitch of the body matter far less than properly representing the hierarchical relationship between the two parties: The subordinate person—student, son, employee, etc.—must always must bow down lower, and stay there longer, than his superior.

japanese bows

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Why the idea of an “Asian century” is steeped in exaggeration

Someone has taken a chill pill and examined whether the idea of an “Asian century” has any bearings to reality.

The way those arguments go, not so much.  It turns out that advantages accumulated over centuries will not disappear over night, or even decades, for that matter.

As much as the Asian economies have shocked and awed the rest of the world in their speed of growth, a rapidly aging population, wealth disparity, income inequality, political turmoil, and the lack of any kind of “Asian consensus” will make the emergence of a united Asian block highly unlikely.

Whether measured by military prowess, education ranking, level of innovation, or simply, coolness appeal, it is doubtful that Asia will ever overtake the West.  Moreover, it is arguable that the world will default to trusting the devil it knows, than the devil it doesn’t.

With Asian nations still squabbling amongst themselves, many look to the United States as a neutral power broker, a role America plays around the world. German writer and scholar Joseph Joffe calls the United States today the “default power”: No one in the world trusts anyone else to play the global hegemon, so it still falls to Washington.

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Taking Japan’s kawaii cultural phenomenon a step further

A while ago, I wrote about Japan’s export of soft power through its kawaii culture, spear-headed by Hello Kitty, and now complete with culture ambassadors wearing Lolita uniforms.

The same thread was picked up by Wilson Center, whom viewed the phenomenon through more cynical lenses.  Is Japan’s obsession with cuteness merely a reflection of an increasingly infantilized and emasculated culture?

A clue as to what’s really going on may lie in the career of artist Takashi Mura­kami, an Andy ­Warhol–­like figure who has played a big role in taking cute global. In 2005 he curated an exhibit in New York titled “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.” “Little Boy” was a reference to the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, but it also “highlights what [Murakami] believes Japan has become in relation to the United States” since World War II—“a ­forever-­emasculated ‘little boy.’” Cute is a symptom of Japan’s infantil­ization, but as an “exploding subculture” it is also an assertion of Japanese soft power throughout the world, albeit an ironic ­one.

Or is it just simply, bored to death? Was the Japanese’ obsession with imperial glories simply channeled into more, mundane, matters? Is a country as rich and conformist as Japan doomed to become the poster child for post-modernism and despair?

Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession. … [T]here’s a Japanese word, otaku, denoting a whole universe of monomaniacal geek-like obsession, whether with an electronic game, some odd hobby, or the cartoonlike “manga” comic books devoted to everything from kamikazes to kinky sex.

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Testing the limit of cultural relativity

Most of us recognize the existence of cultural relativism, right?  Like, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, someone’s religious devotion can be construed as adherence to superstition and voodooism, etc etc.  There are cultural gaps and differences that we simply just cannot imagine buying into.  Like, ever.

Or, can we?

Consider this situation Roger Cohen was recently confronted with.  The practice of dog-eating, in China.

As it happened, our meal came shortly before the eruption of a furious online debate in China over a proposed “anti-animal maltreatment” law that would outlaw the eating and selling of dog and cat meat, making it punishable by fines of more than $700 and 15 days of detention.

The legislation, now under review, immediately came under heavy fire. One restaurant owner in the Chaozhou region declared: “This is ridiculous! You make dog and cat meat illegal, but aren’t chickens, duck, goose, pig, cow, lamb also animals?” Another noted a local saying: “When the dog meat is being simmered, even the gods become dizzy with hunger.”

I’m with these indignant protesters. I’m not happy that I ate dog. But I’m happy China eats dog. It so proclaims both a particularity to be prized in a homogenizing world and its rationality. Anyone who doesn’t want China to eat dog must logically embrace pigs as pets.

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Australia may save us all

Unlike its OECD brethrens, Australia is facing a population crisis, in the other direction!

Australia now has the fastest population growth in the developed world, surpassing that of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and even many developing countries, including Indonesia and China.

Nice.  Except in a rather Malthusian twist, Australia has limitations when it comes to natural resources, and even more trouble catching in terms of infrastructure. So what to do?

Australian businessman Dick Smith is opposed to population growth and says Australia should cut its skilled migration intake, and encourage people to have fewer children.

But an uptick in population density has its benefits.

“And there will be opportunities there. Greater density will mean that certain public options become viable; better public transport’s viable … so there’s all sorts of ways that we can deal with this. But closing our minds and our hearts to people from around the world is not the way that’s going to do that,” he added.

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What do the Scandinavians get right? E=MC2

Along with a heavily distributive society, what else do the Scandinavians get right?

A review of The Spirit Level finds the following:

Deep down, Norway and the other Scandinavian societies still have it right because there are a host of other social policies (affordable child care and greater paternity leave for men among them) that are sustainable on the back of a redistributive economy, but which themselves provide the basis for a more caring society.

So it’s not merely the act of wealth distribution that result in the happier, safer, and nicer societies as outlined in Wilkinson and Pickett’s research.  It’s the social policies that consistently display a “degree of care” that some countries have neglected in our pursuit of individualism and fairness, so argues the authors.

Do you buy the arguments for nanny states?

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So if apocalyptic population collapse hasn’t happened yet, it won’t?

Two arguments on why it won’t happen, and eve it does to a certain degree, it won’t matter.

Apparently, severe population decline is very limited to certain regions, also mentioned here last week.

There will be countries and regions that will suffer long-term depopulation due to low fertility and emigration – but a combination of the two phenomena is mostly concentrated in eastern Europe, particularly in eastern Germany, Bulgaria and Ukraine. But the European population will also continue to age, and some demographers predict that babies born in the first decade of this century will live to an average age of 100.

And size is not always proportional to influence, if that’s really the concern at hand.

Since the late 19th century, when a massive decline in birth rates began in most of Europe, some demographers and long-forgotten futurologists have been busy envisioning an inevitable demise of Europe and “western civilisation”. However, it is not population size but affluence and technology that make some countries more powerful than others. Switzerland, with a population of 8 million, is globally more significant than, say, Bangladesh, with a population 20 times larger.

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