Monday, September 15, 2008

In Defense of Optimism

The first political idea I ever remember absorbing, when I was very young, was that history moves in cycles. The idea came straight from my mother, and because it became so deeply ingrained, I've looked at both history and current affairs though that assumption ever since. When you look at particular episodes of human history, they really do come across as variations on eternal themes. In fact I'd go as far as to say that theories to explain our past are only credible if they take into account these themes. Human history is, after all, build on human nature. And since history began, human nature has changed very slowly, if at all.

I blogged about this while in Arequipa, comparing the Incas' ambitions of empire with those of the Spanish. Later in Cusco I returned to the theme, trying to explain why I couldn't trust our guide Natalie's portrayal of an entirely benign Inca culture. It occurred to me then that what I was saying about human nature probably came across as fatalistic, and even pessimistic. I'm neither of those things, and so for my own peace of mind I can't leave it there. I need to explain myself a little better. For your own peace of mind, you are better off ignoring me.

Fine - stay. But I did give you fair warning.

I said that I was damn glad that Nina and Sara were not born into Juanita's time, or the time of the Santa Catalina nunnery. I am happy that they will have the chance to live beyond a brutal and premature end as a human sacrifice (assuming they behave), and beyond the confines of the cloisters. Of course I should have said time and place. There are parts of this planet where humans, and especially female ones, have strict limits imposed on their aspirations. In the small villages of Peru, like Akorakai, adolescents depend on missions like the Medical Centre of Belen for sexual education, but they are usually delivered, unfortunately, without any reference to artificial contraception because of the Catholic sensibilities of those staffing and running those missions. Early pregnancy is, unsurprisingly, very prevalent in such communities. Today, girls in places like North-East Africa are more likely than not to have their genitalia mutilated in the name of religion or culture. Child labour and soldiery are rampant, and make a mockery of all our fine century's worth of legislation. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed. The incubus of medieval superstition and faith-driven barbarism seems to sit on the chest of our pretenses to progress in the industrialised world. We continue to make the same historical mistakes. Today's empires use different instruments to achieve the same ends as
Cortes, Pizzaro, the British admiralty and the Sons of Heaven. And yet - here am I writing about this from the comfort of my kitchen table, with my un-firewalled access to the internet and my uncensored bookshelf to refer to, in a country that less that a century ago was a dominion and now enjoys autonomy. A country that a century ago was ruled as much from Rome as from London, but now respects the necessary gap between church and state. Sitting at the edge of a continent that a century ago was about to descend into bloody civil war, but now has learned the error of its ways. Something surely has changed.

Something has changed, but what? Not human nature. The situation has changed. According to Philip Zimbardo, designer of the Stanford Prison Experiment and author of The Lucifer Effect (how good people turn evil), the situations in which we find ourselves have more of an influence over our behaviour than the kind of person we are. It's obvious that the situations in which we find ourselves are dictated by the systems in which we live, and those in turn are built by history. The way we live today is shaped by the memory of the accumulated mistakes and successes of our planet's past, and as such, it has the capacity to improve.

If you want to fall asleep how do you go about it? (Try to get to the end of this blog entry, I hear you say). You close your eyes, lie down and breathe deeply. In short, you pretend. Sooner or later, depending on how much coffee you've swilled that day, your pretence turns to reality. How does a society shape itself into what it wants to be? It pretends. It makes laws that may or may not be well enforced, may or may not be well supported, perhaps representing merely a cynical ploy from cynical legislators. Give that law a generation or two to bed in, and it becomes the norm, the starting point for the generation of legislators. The abolition of slavery, the introduction of universal suffrage, the abolition of capital punishment (where that has happened) are examples of building society from the facade inwards.

It's ironic that the central argument in the Zimbardo's book, which at first blush seems pessimistic, is actually a great relief. We don't all have to be heroes or saints - this would be impossible. As a group, we just need the right structures in place to keep us civilised. (The subtitle of the book could just as easily be how evil people turn good.) It's possible to see this aspect of our human nature as a reason in itself to be downbeat, and point out that civilization is just a veneer over the beastly truth. But what a veneer! Nobody scoffs at Everest because it's just part of a thin Earth's crust. Nor should they undervalue the veneer of human civilisation. It did not have to come into being. It didn't come about by accident. It arose from our nature as a species. And while we do keep repeating the same mistakes, as our civilisation gets older, and our our various national histories get woven into one international story, we are getting just a little better.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Half a World Away

Today I was trading notes with a friend who spent some time in New Zealand. Before ever we left, he and I had talked a little about his time there, spent exclusively on the South Island. Interested though I was back then, it was an entirely different conversation this second time. Once again, being there makes all the difference. The abstract concept that I had mentally filed and labelled 'New Zealand' a year ago has been erased, and in its place are memories of a real country.

I never did find the time in South America to come back to the topic of New Zealand on this blog, so I hope you'll indulge me in a little reverie and soapboxing now.

Two images come immediately to mind when I think back on our time in NZ - especially on the South Island - that were constants in an otherwise ever-changing landscape. Firstly, the braided river systems. Wide stretches of rockstrewn flatlands through which trickled a few inches of water. Every time we drove over a bridge, we saw another one. The second, was the permanent company of birds of prey which hovered over every road we travelled like an Unholy Spirit. Both of these images bring me back immediately to the sensation of motoring though thousands of kilometers of breath-taking New Zealand beauty, and I once again experience the sense of mission and common purpose that seemed to travel with us during those weeks and months.

I'm happy to say, once more, that nostalgia plays no part in these memories, because nostalgia suggests some element of regret. And we regret nothing about NZ - not even saying goodbye when the time came. We had an unforgettable time there, made some new friends (I will email Dee - I really will!), and in 12 weeks we got to almost every angle of those amazing islands. We got, if I can be so mercenary, what we came for.

That said, I can't pretend to really understand New Zealand in any profound way, because I didn't get to understand any New Zealanders very well. They are a welcoming, hospitable people who nevertheless retain a degree of reserve that differentiates them from Australians. This is emphatically not a criticism, just an observation from somebody who has acquired the Irish habit of assuming everybody wants to be his best friend. 'Reserve', to an Irishman, is something one does to a hotel room.

It could be that the difference between Australians and New Zealanders (and in a very tenuous way the difference between the treatment meted out to the Aboriginals and the Maori) can be partly explained by the kind of people who travelled from these islands to those ones, around 150 years ago, to populate the new colony. If Australia was the dumping ground for the criminal class, New Zealand was the Ark that would carry those who wished to leave the iniquities of Britain and found a new Better Britain in the south seas. Christchurch, for example, was founded by an association presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and whose advertising...

(taken from here)

...sought diligent labourers who could be vouched for by their local clergy. It was altogether a different way of making up the numbers than the policies that were been pursued in Australia. And this goes some way towards explaining why the percentage of Irish in New Zealand has always been much lower in New Zealand than in Australia, English and Scottish being the two dominant colonising cultures. Many generations have come and gone of course, and gold rushes in particular must have changed the composition of the population, but I feel that something of that original conservative and religious character remains around the South Island in general and Christchurch in particular (remember those absurdly long school uniform skirts!?).

But here's the kicker: I suspect that it was because of that streak of religious conservatism that New Zealand established practices that today would be considered the work of liberals. New Zealand was famously the first country in the world (yes, the whole world) to give women the vote. It was also the first, as far as I know, to set up something like social security. It was, in short, a great big open-air social experiment, and Kiwis knew it and were proud of it. They were driven not by a modern radical spirit, but out of a modern application of widely-shared christian values. That coin's other face showed itself too, for example in a relatively late acceptance of legalized homosexuality (1986) - seven years before Ireland, it should be noted, but still tardily at odds with NZ trail-blazing in other matters.

And of course I can't help but wonder whether this deliberately worthy approach to social mores, informed as it was by christian charity, might not have shielded the Maori from some of the worst excesses seen in Tasmania and mainland Australia. Don't get me wrong - the Maori had it bad and for a while it looked like they and their culture wouldn't last. But since 1867 New Zealand provided for Maori representation in parliament. It was only four seats to be sure, a sop with little political power, but it was four more than in any Australian colony, and these crumbs were enough to feed the political ambitions of certain sections of the Maori community, Apirana Ngata perhaps the most famous of these, his bust on prominent display in the foyer of the House of Parliament in Wellington. Mere gestures like those four seats, even if made cynically and in a paternalistic spirit, are made in any case because there is public support for the ideals that they feign. And once institutionalized, they can grow in significance over generations until they finally become what they first only pretended to be.

Today in New Zealand Maori culture is strong. There are problems for sure, but the situation is incomparable to that of the Australian Aboriginal. Anne, whom we met at a Wellington Bookcrosser meeting, told me that Maori in Australia (and there are many) find communicating with Aboriginals there to be as hard as talking with Martians. Some Maori idealists of Anne's acquaintance returned from missions in the Oz outback bitter and even racist.

As I suggested in an earlier blog entry, the Maori themselves were certainly better prepared for Europe's arrival, thanks to their agriculture and all that it led to in terms of social structures and complexity. This social and cultural similarity with Europeans meant that in times of war the Maori were able to fight back and in times of peace there was a great deal of intermarriage. But it was the nature of those who came to settle their lands too, which had an influence on the fate of the Maori, cushioning what might have been a mortal blow.


Back in Europe now, and trying to cushion the blow of returning to normal life (a term I can't take seriously), we can't help but look for signs of change and growth in ourselves but especially our kids. Yesterday, Sara demonstrated her new ability to pick things out on our globe here at home. She found all the countries we had been to with relative ease, immediated heading south of the equator, and generally showing a certain ease with the planet that she simply didn't have before we left. Letizia told her to put one index finger on New Zealand and the other on Ireland. Wow! She couldn't get over how far away these two points were from each other - they couldn't possibly be further. It's half a world away. And yet for as long as those braided rivers continue to trickle through my thoughts, and the birds of prey haunt my memory, it will always feel very, very near.

Now, before I disappear up my own artistry, here's a demonstration of how NOT to perform the haka, which I made to the collective embarassment of my family and the combined ridicule of three tables of Japanese tourists in a Rotorua hotel:

Em - that's me on the right, in case you weren't sure.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Family Recreation

I'm a man of my word - a few too many words if truth be told. Back in Chile I promised the kids that on our return to Cork I would invest in a game of table soccer (or taca-taca as the Chileans had it). Yesterday, already a bit ragged from my first week's work, I stopped off in Lidl supermarket to buy their special offer. That Lidl had table soccer as a special offer was in itself a sign. It was meant to be. This sport of kings, now our official family sport, was destined to work its way into our home.

Who would have thought that the buggers weighed so much, though. Even with a strapping Pole by the name Piotr helping me to carry it out of the shop, I nearly became the first fatality ever recorded in the annals of the sport of taca-taca, almost flattened by a flatpack. It would have been an honourable exit to be sure, but somewhat premature in my table-soccer career (ah yes I remember Lawlor, they would say, full of promise but never made it out of the carpark).

It seems that fragments of our journey are trying to make their way back to us. After I finished putting together the table, I headed out to buy some beer. What should wink at me from the shelf but a six-pack of James Boag - a fine and flavourful Tasmanian beer which kept us good company on many's the evening in Oz. Let me tell you now that there are very few things as satisfying as a good beer to wash down a resounding taca-taca victory over people half your size and a quarter your age.

This isn't just recreation, it's a recreation of our journey. The fastest, most chaotic way to play taca-taca is in four - the speed is a multiple of a two-person game. When the four of us are around the table we are suddenly back on the road, back in our Fiji sandals or our Chilean boots, screaming our heads off.

It's not that I'm suffering from nostalgia for the road - at least not yet. The only thing I really miss since we came back - and especially since I returned to the office - is my girls. They were the stars of this show. It wasn't perfect - there were many problems along the way. But it was real. By the time our journey was over we had a slightly different way of communicating - a better one. A number of people have asked us, since our return, how we coped with the logistics of travelling with children for so long. The truth is that logistics is what we do at home. During what little time that I can afford each day with Nina and Sara, I typically spend it managing them. Telling them what to do. Mealtimes, tidying up, bedtime - family life can be very regimented. Of course we had to do these things on the road as well, but there was always loads of time left over. Time to explore together places where none of us know what we would see. Time to talk through problems and disagreements rather than to just issue parental diktats on the way out the door. Time to just hang out and begin to actually enjoy each other's company, and learn a little more about each other as people.

These are things that cannot survive the return home in their entirety. There's too much competition. The girls want to spend time with their friends, and I'm missing 40 hours a week. But we've noticed some changes. Since we got back, Nina and Sara are willing to spend a little more time with us, forgoing time with their mates. And with the memory of the trip as a reference point, a living example, we can reach for other, better ways of communicating rather than the rushed staccato set-pieces of the past.

So when it is just the four of us, around the taca-taca table, screaming, twisting, punching the air in triumph or burying our faces in our hands - we could be anywhere. It doesn't really matter where we are. The spirit of the trip returns with a speed and strength that makes me think that it will never be far from the surface.