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The end of the perfect melons

Picture credit: Malaysia Tatler

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On May 2019, two melons from Hokkaido sold at the prices of 45,000 USD.

Yes, you heard it right. Two melons.

They were not your “regular” melons. According to Business Insider, which published the documentary on the world most expensive melons, these two are considered the “most perfect” in terms of size, sweetness and even the cracks on their skins.

The documentary went on a great length about the culture of melons in Japan. It’s a part of a “gift giving” culture – where exchanging melons is symbolic and signifies a lux life, generosity and yes “Japanese perfection”.

The farmers featured in the documentary demonstrate the growth and development of melons from its inception. Each of these “perfect melons” is grown on beds with air-conditioning and heating in order to control the temperature, they are watered on exact amount to ensure the exact result. Each tree, although can grow multiple melons, the only “perfect” one will be kept to let it grow. Each day, they will receive hand massage to ensure the absolute highest quality – not just about the taste but how it looks.

In Japan, melons are not just fruit. Growing them represents Japanese culture of hard-work, discipline and most of all the quest for perfection.

This quest says a lot about Japanese culture. Take the Omakase, where the chefs serve the “most perfect” pieces of fish that comes through the kitchen each day.

The farmers love crafting their skills, the buyers love their cash. Win-win.

“it’s part of the culture” – so they say.

Talking about growing melons reminds me so much about the stories of Japanese educational system.

Japan has long prided itself for being competitive educational system where students “perfect” their scores and rank ahead of their peers. Japanese students go through ardent educational system that compels them to memorize rote learning, excel in exams and get into prestigious university. It is believed through “this perfect route” students will succeed and be satisfied.

This culture has pushed Japan to lead economic competition with others for decades. The 1970s saw the United States published a paper, the Nation at Risk, to outline the fear that the United States’ students were falling behind the Japanese.

Despite valuing the collective, comformative and community, behind Japanese educational success is fierce competition amongst students that cause discomfort and discontent. One can go as far as argue that such mindset nurtures distress within the society.

I have had the privilege teaching Japanese students during my teaching career. One of my Japanese students, Mami Oda from Yokohoma, brought my attention to what she called “the dark side of Japanese success”.

When she talked dark, she meant, really dark.

The growing phenomenal of youth suicide.

Mami analyzed this tragedy in plain word:

Although Japanese are known for their hardworking and it is just work ethic that has helped build this prosperous country, but such focus is detriment to their health. While thinking only about contributions to companies or organizations, they are forgetting about themselves and their own achievements. Economic affluence does not necessarily lead to happiness.

On average, there were 30,000 people annually committed suicide, in other words,  more than 80 people a day committed suicide in Japan. In addition, more than 3 million are bereaved families who died in suicide. Therefore, one in 40 people were bereaved families of suicide.Data has shown that suicide is the top cause of death among 15 years old to 39 years old.

Report by CNN shows similar trajectory and confirmed this analysis.

More Japanese children and teenagers killed themselves between 2016 and 2017 than in any year since 1986, according to a government report.

The latest survey shows 250 elementary and high school age children took their own lives in that year for a variety of reasons including bullying, family issues and stress, the country’s Ministry of Education said Monday, according to local media.

Of course, suicide is multi-facet, deeply personal and highly sensitive to individual and context.

This is not to generalization. But the prevailing youth distress calls us to look deeply and critically into the values our society upholds and the impacts these values have on the mental health of our young.

The world that values perfection suggests that is one type of form that fits just right. Instead of celebrating the culture of fitting in to the perfect mold, an education system can do better than that.

It should.

It must.

Education system should encourage individual students to express their thought, senses of selves and creativity. Because a healthy and sustainable society values diversity and inclusion, we need to instill these values within our students since the start of their lives.

Cartoons, books, stories, movies and parenting – all that count to make a child a whole.

There isn’t a single activity that nurtures and ensures “perfect students”.

In education – talking about any single outcome is myopic. It is a process, an experience and the growth of that individual that defines who they are and become.

I watched this documentary about the “perfect melons” as an educator who believes, values and embraces diversity in children development. Wearing that hat, I am reminded of the educational philosophy by John Dewey, the renown educator of the twentieth century on this subject.

According to Dewey, a child is like a flower that we should let them grow naturally and organically. The family, schools and society have big parts to play like water, sun and soil that nurtures them.

As a society, we have a moral obligation to help our children develop to their fullest potential in the paces they can take, in the way most comfortable to their characteristics.

It is not just taking the village to raise a child. It takes the whole forest and a healthy forest requires diverse kinds of organisms to instill within these children to respect the differences of others’ talents, interests and ideas and of course, their own, perfectly imperfection.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

New Social Compact

Discerning the Human Element Amid the Pandemic

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“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

There is something about the Covid pandemic that will be remembered for decades and centuries to come. It is not even so much the economic costs or travel restrictions per se, but first and foremost the human element that came from many people across the planet in expressing support and solidarity as well as in making their contribution to fighting the crisis. The future will harshly judge the current nationalistic/individualistic excesses that persist despite the raging pandemic. It is at times like these that the global community needs to rediscover the values of the humanist legacy and humanitarian diplomacy.

A lasting sour impression from the Covid crisis is that countries most economically advanced lacked leadership and vision in the midst of the pandemic. There could have been greater cooperation between the world’s largest economies and a more emphatic reaction from global institutions/organizations as well as regional arrangements. The degree of bickering and conflict observed throughout the pandemic period suggests that the lessons of the past and the legacy of the humanist thinkers have yet to be internalized into the global community’s way of thinking.

At the same time, the world is set to change as a result of the Covid experience – a longer-term perspective on economic development, the importance of social bonds and support lines, the very existence of something that lies beyond the proverbial “old normal”. The rise of ESG (environment, social, governance) is one of the new trends taking hold on the back of the pandemic shock. Other themes include debt relief to least developed economies as well as provision of medical equipment and vaccines for the disadvantaged groups of countries.

Indeed, what will be remembered is the human element in international diplomacy – the sending of medical equipment, vaccines, doctors and specialists. At times, such feats were performed not by the purported leaders of the world, but by small economies with scant resources of their own. The Cuban experience in this respect is particularly telling amid the Covid pandemic – not only did Cuba provide doctors and equipment to developing countries, it also created a vaccine of its own that it furnished to its regional neighbors. It is not only the strength and the advances of the national health care system but even more importantly the ability to share these advancements with the global community that counts the most during such fateful times.

And then there is also the humanitarian diplomacy and the legacy of humanism accumulated by humanity in facing dire adversities in the past. The legacy of the humanists of the past centuries such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Erasmus, Thomas More, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vladimir Vernadskiy. Perhaps one of the best ways to summarize this legacy from the vantage point of today’s crisis is to refer to Vernadskiy’s words: “Humanity has a bright future ahead if it comes to realize this and does not employ its mind and efforts to destroy itself”.

What does the world community need to undertake to address the weak response to the pandemic? Nearly every major crisis faced by the world in the past was followed by a reconfiguration of global architecture, with new coordination mechanisms and new international organizations being created. Perhaps this time it is not so much about the creation of new organizations, but rather the greater responsibility that is to be taken by the major powers represented in the UN Security Council.

In particular, there may be a case for a code of conduct during global pandemics and crises to be adopted by the countries endowed with a permanent UN Security Council status. Such a code of conduct may include commitment not to resort to trade and other restrictions pertaining to humanitarian assistance or trade in medical equipment, not to resort to sanctions, as well as not to engage in military conflicts. The list of such commitments may be refined of course on the basis of the experience of the world community during the current pandemic and previous episodes of global economic crises.

In terms of academic experiences during the pandemic one of the most gratifying was the T20 meetings and discussions about how to design anti-crisis measures and support the world economy. In the context of one of the working groups Valdai partnered with the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) from Saudi Arabia to come up with the proposal for the G20 (that was included into the T20 communique) to create a platform for the sovereign wealth funds of the G20 nations to coordinate among other measures anti-crisis stimuli for the benefit of the global economic recovery.

In the course of the pandemic I received multiple letters of support and solidarity from friends and colleagues from various think-tanks across the globe – from Italy, from China, Argentina, US, UK, and many other countries. Often these were expressions of solidarity not only with my colleagues from Valdai, but more broadly with Russia and its people.

Whatever the grand ideas and writings coming from the many think tanks around the world, it is the simple words of support and solidarity that rang most deeply in the many exchanges throughout the past year.

I have also come to know volunteers working nightshifts in Moscow city hospitals to fight the Covid pandemic during whatever time they have left from their main (and rather intensive) work. Not surprisingly, these people exhibiting self-sacrifice during the height of the pandemic also express the longing for an inter-connected world, with greater solidarity and people-to-people contacts across the globe.

It is that kind of human solidarity that generates the energy to make further strides ahead whether as an individual or as a country or a global community. The energy and the will to persevere amid adversity, to stand above the “vaccine nationalisms”, protectionism, sanctions and war-mongering, to look into what is ahead and discern a better world for future generations. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “the future is more beautiful than all the pasts”.

From our partner RIAC

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New Social Compact

Feminist perspective of the War,Peace and Politics in International Relations

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India is a land where Mahatma Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence were born, but it is also the land where Mahatma Gandhi was assassin by Godse for preaching ‘Feminine’ ‘non-violent’ politics and for making Indian men less ‘manly’ by promoting peace. Masculinity is a social definition given to men and boys in society, it is associated with strong, powerful, brave, and macho characteristics. The understanding of security is limited for many years in International relations(IR) and hence the understanding of a secured state is associated with a leader who has masculine characteristics capable of handling security.

Politics across the world is understood in the terms of power and strength of the leader and other masculine characteristics associated with being ‘manly’ enough to control a state. While feminine characteristics are associated with weak, soft, and gentle behavior, even when women are elected as leaders, they are expected to hold strong manly characters to stay in politics. Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, prefer being addressed herself as ‘sir’ and her policies did not include a gender perspective.

In Gender, Justice and the Wars in Iraq (2006), Laura Sjoberg demonstrates that women’s presumed status as innocent civilians make wars harder, not easier, for them, by defining them as protected without regard for their actual safety . On Iraq’s economic sanctions, feminist insights from the study of economic sanctions as the war in international relations are not only valuable for their contribution to IR’s theories of sanctions, but also for their generalizability to IR’s crucial questions, such as what constitutes foreign policy, what counts as war, and how war affects people

Feminists see that war and military are often threats to women’s and other vulnerable groups’ security as they are competitors for scarce resources during and after a war on which women may depend more than men, instead of seeing military power as part of a state’s defense against security threats from other states, it should be seen as a product of patriarchy. The large defense spending on soldiers and military weapons rather than creating a safe society for women at home or spending on climate action that could create safer lives for women is an example of a masculine approach to war.

The feminist approach in IR demonstrates how the security of individuals is related to national and international politics and how international politics impacts the security of individuals even at the local level. IR feminist theories focus on social relations through gendered lens,rather than power relations or anarchy, they see an international system constituted by socially constructed and gender hierarchies that contribute to gender subordination rather than traditional understanding of security.

In 2019 In the Lok Sabha elections of India, Narendra Modi, and his party used his 56-inch chest in the election campaign to associate his capability of handling the security of India with ‘manly’ characteristics. While more than 3 lakhs of children die due to starvation in India every year, the Indian prime minister wins elections by boasting about his 56-inch chest capable of defeating terrorists. Feminists believe that the social construction of masculine characteristics is reflected in politics especially in IR because political theory and practice are both dominated by men. The understanding of war and violence is also associated with men, it praises soldiers, diplomats, and leaders that promote protection from war.

Modern Enlightenment science has incorporated a belief system that equates objectivity with masculinity and a set of cultural values that simultaneously elevates what is defined as scientific and what is defined as masculine. The western liberal and realist understanding of masculinity and politics are limited and discriminatory towards women. While the world is facing nationalism wave in politics, leaders like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Putin promote a masculine idea of Security in the world to protect their national interest and secure nation through military expansion.

The understanding of security, war, and politics are interlinked in creating the foreign policy of a country. In a country like India, the United States, or Russia where leaders promote masculine characters through their election campaigns, where the state controls the reproductive decisions of women, or in a country like India where weapons are worshiped, the foreign policy and politics of the state are influenced by masculine characters and are valued for national security.

Rape, domestic violence, harassment against women in their own country is not subjected to war but a traditional understanding of the war in IR as feminists have pointed out is as if women require protection during war and soldiers are fighting to protect the honor of women, in reality, it is often women’s protectors (men) who provide the greatest threat in everyday life. Rape, domestic violence, harassment against women in their own country is not subjected to war but a traditional understanding of the war in IR as feminists have pointed out is as if women require protection during war and soldiers are fighting to protect the honor of women, in reality, it is often women’s protectors (men) who provide the greatest threat in everyday life.

For feminist scholars, a security that is global and multidimensional with political, economic, and ecological facets that are as important as its military dimensions. The security of individuals and their natural environment is considered as much as the security of the state.  National security needs to be inclusive of security of all from security threats such as domestic violence, rape, poverty, gender subordination, and ecological destruction as well as war. For example, Sweden has a feminist foreign policy, which means the understanding of security is through a gendered lens, feminist foreign policy not only broadens what security means but also who is guaranteed security in the world.

While feminism is a new approach of though in IR, the case study of Sweden explains the importance of feminist foreign policy that believes in gender equality in decision making, promoting peace and does not promote masculine characteristics associated with war and use of force in foreign policy and makes secure, happier nations. While the discourse of security is dominated by masculine characteristics in IR, states can be secured with wider perspective of human security associated with gendered lens.

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New Social Compact

Debunking Magical realism through Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

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There are few names in the Latin American literature, which it comes to famous novels and short stories, Columbian writer Gabriel Gracia Marquez is one of them. Throughout Latin America, he is popular with the name Gabo and was one of the intellectual literary writers of the 20th century. For his tremendous work, he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1972 and Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1982. During his literary journey, he has written numerous acclaimed novels such as One Hundred years of Solitude published in 1962 and Love in the Time of Cholera, which was published in 1985. His popular writing style is often known as magical realism, which later emerged as a major literary movement in Latin American literature. He has also written numerous famous short stories, and among them “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is very popular in Latin American. The American Review published it in 1995 in the Spanish language. The title of the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” tells the story of a shadowy old man, who one day appears in the family courtyard. The old man was not an ordinary person, because he was having some strange characteristics such as an enormous pair of wings, which was a new thing for the people, who were living in town. Hence, with the magical depiction of old man character, the author explains the conflict the ordinary people encounters concerning their cultural belief. Moreover, the whole story is written from the context of third-person narrator.

On the other hand, the presence of an old man character with huge wings represents the Magical realism of the author. Throughout the story one of the most interesting thing about the old man character is that after his appearance in the family court people began viewing him as a normal human being. But for some, he was different from the normal man because he got the huge wings that make him look like an angel, who is dressed like a rag-picker. The major character in the story is Pelayo and Elisenda in whose yard, the mysterious old man first appears. In the story, the author describes the strangeness of this old man in these words “His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar”. This clearly shows, though initially Pelayo and Elisenda found him a strange creature but, after the closer contact, they began viewing as a normal human being just like them. Nonetheless, the old man with mysterious wings was still a strange creature for the other people in town.

When Pelayo and Elisenda brought the old man to the physician in the town, the physician took the advantage to examine the physical uniqueness of this old man. For the physician, the old man was a new thing for him, because throughout, his carrier, the doctor has encountered something like him. As the author writes about the physician; “What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too”. Similarly, when Pelayo and Elisenda informed their neighbor about the mysterious old man, the neighbor tells them that he is an angel. This scene in the story explains how an individual thinks and feels when he/she encounters something different, mysterious, and strange. Moreover, this also explains the limitation of the human mind and the lack of knowledge about different things. This happens, at one moment the couple decides to get rid of the old man and even planned to kill him because they thought he might be a curse. Later, they change their plan and decides to imprison him and in prison, the mysterious old man suffers severe abuse and mistreatment.

Soon after the imprisonment of the old man, the people began whispering stories about the old man. Some villagers began perceiving him as an angel, while the other considered him as evil, who is God’s curse on the village. In this respect, the story The very old man with enormous wings Marquez is a mixture of compassion and sadness. Because the couple Pelayo and Elisenda wanted to get rid of him but the old man refuses to leave them until their life is transformed. As it is written in the bible “Do not be forgetful to entertain a stranger, you could be entertaining an angel”. The real reason, why the old man was a stranger to the couple and villagers because he was unattractive and he was having huge wings that embarrassed them. Throughout the story, the people in the town curse him and makes fun of him, but the old man never fights back because he is compassionate and he understands the fact that he cannot speak their language. Overall the whole story demonstrates the context of bad and good human nature because seeing the beauty is one thing while ignoring a person based on the fact that he is ugly is weary.

In contrast, the central theme of Gracia Marquez’s “The very old man with enormous wings Marquez” is the Coexistence of compassion and cruelty, which explains the feeble response of selfish and greedy humans towards those,  who are different, strange, ugly, and weak. For instance, the major characters in the novel the couple Pelayo and Elisenda imprison the old man and abuse him, and even they planned to kill him because he was ugly and weak. But once they thought, they could benefit from the old man by showcasing him in the village, they decide to keep him to accomplish their appetite for money. In a nutshell, the moral of the story was religious has always been a shallow set of beliefs, which ignore the principles of morality. Hence, the treatment of the old man in the town after his appearance in the family yard clearly shows that people in the story are faithless having inconsistent faith.

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