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I was amused by the efforts of the editorial team (Tibet NI 274) to portray the cruel feudal past of Tibet that ended with the abortive uprising of March 1959 as a benevolent rule under which everyone was cared for. The uprising failed because it served the interests of the landlords with whom the Dalai Lama threw in his lot.
Tibet was under Chinese sovereignty for many years. Comments on living standards in Tibet will only be honest if they take into account the conditions in Tibet in 1950 compared with the rest of China. The map of greater Tibet, to which the NI subscribes, includes large populations of other national minorities of China. In short, the sources of information that the NI has used are clearly biased against China and conditioned by the views of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan separatists. The apparent fascination with the mystical images of Tibet and the romantic projection of that onto the Dalai Lama ignores the shrewd politician who has been rewarded with the Nobel Prize for playing politics the way the masters of the world like him to.
The benefits of reading
I was really angry with Roger Sharland’s letter in your issue on Rivers (NI 273). He thinks you are being conventional in attaching importance to ‘school skills’ like reading and writing. If this means of communication is unimportant, why is he an NI reader? No-one in their right mind can deny that reading is a powerful tool to broaden one’s horizons.
I don’t care where and how reading skills are acquired – I am not a particular fan of our school system. But for most poor people – especially women – in Third World countries, it is either at school or not at all. If a woman can’t read a newspaper, road signs or the destination on a bus, she is wholly dependent on others and she’ll feel safer staying at home and more likely to stick to the traditions in which she was ‘educated’. Tradition may involve many good things, but also many which for most of us are unacceptable: religious intolerance, the caste system, gender inequality, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, ritual torture and killing of animals, to name but a few.
I can’t believe I’m doing this – having to prove the benefits of reading!
School vs education
I would like to thank Roger Sharland for his letter on ‘education’ vs ‘schooling’ (Letters NI 273). The use of ‘education’ when Northern-type ‘schooling’ is meant is one of the verbal sleights of hand that underpin cultural imperialism. It denigrates the majority of the world’s population who may be highly educated but not schooled.
In Africa, most children who are schooled are at a disadvantage in life because they have never been educated in the skills they need to prosper in the village where they live. They have, moreover, been alienated from their parents and inculcated with foreign ideas and longings, both of which make them unhappy in their environment.
The importance schooling is given in Northern solutions to African problems keeps African countries dependent on Northern expertise and products. It requires them to seek the means to sustain them at the expense of the needs of their educated but unschooled majority.
NI could take a giant step forward in their struggle against cultural bias by refusing to misuse the word ‘education’ in the normal way.
Perhaps environmentalists should rethink their actions.
Family names first
In your review of Sister Drum (Reviews NI 273), the Chinese composer for the album, He Xutian, was referred to by his given name, Xutian, whereas people of European origin mentioned in other reviews were referred to by their family names.
This appears to be an error arising from your ignorance of the fact that the Chinese – like most East Asians – place their family names before their given names (except in cases where they have taken on Christian/ Western names). I had expected better of a magazine that is in most other ways sensitive to and aware of cultural differences.
Lim Ai Leng (A L Lim)
Your approach to the subject of Coffee (NI 271) showed just how commodities enjoyed by the industrialized West are the burden of the ‘under-developed’ world.
We have long thought that coffee was an important social metaphor. As one of the main plantation crops, it enslaved a good part of the world. Yet it also became the drink that fuelled revolutionary discourse in cafés from the eighteenth century to the present. The café system which coffee engendered, along with sugar (for coffee was never truly accepted as a mass commodity until its bitter taste could be moderated) became a vortex of the Enlightenment. Unlike beer and gin, coffee focused the mind and stimulated the intellect.
This paradox, and the fact that major capitalist enterprises – Lloyds, the Dutch and British stock exchanges etc – have an extraordinary historical link with coffee, make it an extremely important commodity to discuss.
Why, nationally, is power checked and balanced by democracy while globally we prefer a balance of terror? Deterrence has prevented direct war between the most heavily armed nations and pushed proxy war onto impoverished people. The premise on which the philosophy of deterrence is based – a world divided – would not be true if the nations with the deterrent relinquished control of the UN Security Council in favour of a gender/race/creed/nationality balanced directorate mandated by global ballot.
The democratic election of a world government would be a first step in doing justice to the people of the Majority World who presently have no say in the institutions that run their lives. Power-sharing would create a common defence policy resulting in the subsuming of militaries under unitary command.
Democracy offers the chance of a safe world. Nuclear stand-off, by definition, never can.
Is it really that difficult to organize an election?
I have just learned of a woven cloth which was draped from the Great Wall during the Women’s Conference in China. It is now going to be lengthened to stretch across villages or along roadways to major conference centres elsewhere.
This seems to me a really positive contribution, started by Cambodian women. I hope the NI will give it the high profile it deserves as it should go down in history as the most meaningful message of solidarity from any women’s group in the world. It has endless possibilities for its powerful message from women of all cultures.
Hurstville Grove, New South Wales, Australia
|The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist|
No such number
Olivia Ward writes from her sickbed after a collision in a Moscow street.
I’ve never met Sergei Grachev but I hold his fate in my hands. One word from me, and the 35-year-old delivery person will almost certainly end up in jail, his family thrown into destitution and his employment prospects shattered.
As I squirm painfully in my chair looking for a position that hurts less than this one, I would like to throw the book at Grachev. It was his reckless overtaking on an icy Moscow road that started a four-car collision which ended up breaking several of my bones and destroying my car. If it weren’t for the Volvo’s tank-like construction, police say, my life would have come to a full-stop.
I’ve seen people like Grachev on every trip I take through this country: men (and occasionally women) who view the bumper of the car in front of them as a bull views a red rag. Some are drunk, others blindly reckless in their compulsion to be first in line.
It’s this streak of power madness and ruthless disregard for others that runs through so much of life in Russia, poisoning its future and keeping it anchored in the past. It is honestly come by, dating back centuries to the Tsars, Ivan the Terrible and the Tatar hordes.
I’ve experienced it on the battlefield in Chechnya, in the war-torn refugee villages, during the bloody siege of the Ostankino television network and the storming of the Russian White House. Thousands of people have died in these events, but for what?
As I slumped in the wreckage of my car that snowy day, streams of ambulances passed by without stopping. Not even the prowling traffic police managed to pull them over, bent as they were on taxiing paying passengers to their destinations.
If I had been more seriously injured I would have died there. What kind of penalty should corrupt ambulance workers face?
I was mulling over those bitter thoughts from my bed a few nights later, when all the power went out in my building. We had already been without heat or hot water for two icy days, as usual without any explanation. In Russia, the word remont, or repairs, is an explanation in itself, unyielding and unchallengeable.
Limping to the door I could smell a powerful odour like the simmering of toxic chemicals. A thin nauseating smoke was filtering through the outer corridor, which was now strangely warm. Neighbours gathered in their night attire like curious peasants on an old-fashioned canvas, torches and candles in hand.
A friend who had groped his way to the supervisor’s suite brought us the news. ‘The repairer turned off the water-cooling system two days ago for the remont and forgot to turn it back on,’ he said incredulously. ‘That’s what keeps the wires from overheating and burning the building down. They were already smouldering.’
The habitually drunken supervisor had vanished. But a cheerful, elderly electrician told tenants that he was restoring the cooling system and would give us a bonus for our pains – the heat and hot water that the repairer also forgot to switch back on.
After three years in this country I have come to expect anything. I have comforted friends who fled burning buildings in the middle of the night, were abducted and kidnapped, blackmailed, beaten or deprived of relatives by murder or senseless accidents.
I have tried to calm them, and myself, with the hope that things were beginning to change and a new era of civilization would emerge. Now my resources were exhausted. The supervisor would pay! The repairer would pay! Sergei Grachev would pay to the fullest extent of the law.
Raving like a madwoman in a Jacobean drama, I was led back to my couch. No country, I was gently reminded, can develop a sense of responsibility in four years. The punitive approach would only convince the perpetrators that they were unjustly persecuted.
‘You know,’ said a friend later, ‘our country is made up of people who suffer and who make others suffer. That’s the way it has always been. Don’t ask why.’
Calmer, but still shaky, I thought about it next day as the telephone rang. The image of Sergei Grachev was fading into the endless greys of the Russian landscape, neither better nor worse than the other shades that loomed there. Still, something stuck in my throat.
‘It’s Grachev. He wants to make some kind of arrangement with you to avoid prosecution.’
I picked up the receiver with white knuckles.
‘Sorry. You have the wrong number.’
Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996