The perils of digital illiteracy

Photo: REUTERS

Photo: REUTERS

The strange twists of the US presidential campaign continue. On Friday, the FBI notified members of the US Congress that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails would be re-opened. It seems that the Bureau found through an unrelated investigation emails on a laptop which may be related to the Clinton case. In another bizarre twist, that laptop was shared between Clinton top aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, notorious sexting enthusiast Anthony Weiner. The incident raises a host of questions, beginning with why the FBI would release this information 11 days before the election, therefore at a time when such a bombshell could affect the outcome. For me, one of the intriguing questions is why would the couple have been sharing a laptop. These are well-to-do folks who are likely heavy users of the Internet and social media. Couldn’t they manage to have their own laptops? Given Weiner’s unsavory use of online media, wouldn’t he want to keep his partner from having access to his messages? And given his history, wouldn’t she want that as well? It could be that, although using the same laptop, they may have had separate user accounts, requiring individual logins – but that is not really a foolproof way to secure privacy.

There has been speculation that Abedin may have had Clinton emails on the shared laptop because Clinton wanted her aide to print them for her to read. A number of media reports have indicated that Clinton is far from tech savvy. In some cases, it may be that Clinton has asserted ignorance of tech in order to protect herself, for example, when she took literally the “wiping” of her hard drive. But other stories seem to indicate a woeful ignorance of tech-related issues. Abedin apparently had a quite difficult time, for example, getting Clinton to understand how to use the telephone for faxing. Printing emails is a bad idea on a number of counts, not least of which is the possibility of having print copies of sensitive information lying around. In fact, the whole email controversy which has so dogged her campaign has been execrated by Clinton’s failure to explain clearly how her email was set up. That failure may derive from Clinton’s tendency to want to keep her affairs private, but it’s even more likely to be related to her not taking the time and effort to understand.

When I teach courses in intercultural communication, one of the reasons I list for having students become sensitive to issues of how to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures is that we want potential leaders to have those skills and knowledge. I would argue as well that we want our future leaders to be digitally literate – that’s important not only so as to avoid snafus like the Clinton email problem, but also to serve as role models. President Obama participated in a coding workshop in which he learned to write JavaScript. We probably don’t want the US President spending a lot of time writing code, but knowing what’s involved in that process can lead to more informed decisions involving technology.

A living goddess

Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9 Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Nepal’s Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

In the US – and probably elsewhere where the movie Frozen has been popular – little girls are dressing up as princesses (and buying lots of princess-related merchandise). There was a reminder this week that there are in fact parts of the world where young girls get the royal treatment, namely through a story on NPR about one of Nepal’s “Living Goddesses”, the Kumari Devi, age 9. The story of her experience during the recent earthquake offers a mirror on Nepalese culture as well as insight into how the natural environment is seen in that country. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists, considered the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. She’s selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. According to the story, “Last month’s earthquake brought much of Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, tumbling to the ground. Nepal’s showcase temples and palaces were reduced to ruins. But save for a few cracks, the home of the city’s Living Goddess remained intact.” According to the goddess’s caretaker Gautam Shakya, the building’s square shape stabilized it, but a priest cited in the story claims it was nothing so mundane: “It’s the power of the goddess; it’s about faith…It’s been the home of Kumaris for ages and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe.” This is in keeping with an attitude towards the natural environment at odds with mainstream Western views, which maintain a secular perspective informed by modern environmental science. Whether the Nepalese view makes it any easier to deal with the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake is yet to be seen.

Nepal is majority Hindu country, with about 80% of the population, and around 10% Buddhist. But the Kumari Devi transcends and integrates the two religions:

Kumaris are drawn from the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley for whom planets, karma and an array of gods play a vital role in day-to-day life. Gautam Shakya, in the eleventh generation of Kumari caretakers, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony. “One doesn’t discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family — but she is a Hindu goddess,” he says.

That makes the Kumari Devi not only a divine being, but a symbol of religions coming together, something the world could use more of these days. The life of the Kumari is led mostly in private, with most of her time spent with priests, with only rare public appearances. People strive to see her, as that is considered to bring good luck. When she does appear in public, her feet never touch the ground, being carried in a golden palanquin. She always wears red and has a “third eye” painted on her forehead. But the princess life does not last. The Kumar devi keeps her divine position only till puberty, at which time another young girl is selected through an elaborate and mostly secretive process.

A documentary in 2007 chronicled the life of Kumaris in Nepal:

Returning to roots

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:

I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.

One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:

According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”

According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).

Abiding Traditions

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The winner of the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition

The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers was held recently, an event that has been going on for over 50 years but has recently surged in popularity, according to an article in the NY Times. The competition aims to find the best phone answerer in terms of politeness, voice (a high pitch is preferable), and efficiency in providing the information sought. Almost all the competitors are women.  According to the article:

Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners…Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”

The competition highlights the role of politeness in Japanese society, but also the position of women in the workplace.  Despite a 1986 gender equality law, women hold just 11 percent of managerial jobs in Japan.

Meanwhile, in England, folks are glued to the radio to hear the shipping forecast from the BBC, even if they live nowhere near the coast, or have no relationship to ships. It’s a tradition that points to a core value of English culture derived from being an island nation, an abiding concern for maritime weather — or, for that matter, just the weather.

NPR had a series of broadcasts this week featuring the shipping forecast and highlighting coastal communities.  Also discussed was the cultural significance of the shipping forecast.

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa. Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic. Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon’s galleons and Hitler’s U-boats.

Japan and Britain share not only a respect for traditions (many more than the ones listed here), but also the reputation for politeness, perhaps inherent in island nations with relatively dense populations. In a fast changing world, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. It’s great too to have cultures like these that have traditions that seem unaffected by the tides of globalization and successfully resist the tendency towards homogenization.

 

Selfie Society?

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

The word of the year for 2013:  selfie, according to Oxford Dictionaries, as well as linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking today on NPR. Selfie (i.e., self-portrait) describes a picture taken of oneself with a phone camera. The word has been in the news recently in connection with the picture Danish prime minister took of herself together with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.  The picture excited comment due to the fact that it was taken during the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela, maybe also for the disapproving expression from Michele Obama. The term — and the practice it describes — have been seen as symptomatic of what ails modern society, from the cutesification of English to an obsession with sharing everything one does. It does seem to point to something that a wildly popular mobile app such as Snapchat can exist principally to enable sharing of selfies. A columnist in the New York Post pointed to the narcissism inherent in the practice and commented that the picture taken by the Danish prime minister “symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline.”  It’s not just in the U.S. that such concerns have been raised, as evident in the Telegraph’s (U.K.) article, Family albums fade as the young put only themselves in picture.

On NPR today there was another story that struck me in terms of language use.  It was in a story describing the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay area.  The reporter struggled to find a way to describe the housing arrangement of a group of unrelated young people living together in a large house.  He suggested the term “commune” but it was rejected as too heavily burdened with free love associations from the 1960’s.  The inhabitants of the house use the term “co-living” to describe their arrangement.  I found the difficulty finding a term interesting because of how easily and conventionally such arrangements are described in German-speaking countries: Wohngemeinschaft (living community), often shortened to WG.  This is not only a word widely used, but so too is the practice of doing what NPR thought was newsworthy in the Bay area, unrelated young people living together. Americans tend to think of houses as single family dwellings, which is far from how they are viewed in most of the rest of the world.

Norway’s joy

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

If you happen to be in Oslo this week-end, don’t try to buy a chess set – they’re likely to be sold out. Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has defeated the defending champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, to be crowned chess world champion.  In Norway it’s not just a personal triumph but a heroic achievement that a small country would produce such a champion. It’s what small Iceland dreamed of when it almost made it to the 2014 Soccer World Cup, but was upended this week by Croatia, which got the ticket to Brazil instead. For Norway, it’s a bit of good news to displace the story that still haunts the country known for tolerance and slow TV, the mass murders committed by right-wing extremist and Islamophobe Anders Behring Breivik, who was sentenced last year to 21 years in prison for the murder of 77 people in 2011.

Norwegians were glued to the TV to watch the deciding chess match.  It must have been a welcome bit of excitement compared to other Norwegian TV fare such as real-time knitting or firewood stacking.  It’s so rare that we in the U.S. get any news from the Nordic countries and when we do, it does make the way of life there seem quite different from ours.  The only other big story this year from Norway in the U.S. media has been about the village that installed a huge mirror up on a mountain so that they could have at least a little reflected sunlight in winter. More evidence that Norwegians and other Scandinavians have to adapt to an environment that doesn’t always make life easy. It may not be surprisingly that Greenland has the world’s highest suicide rate.  All the more reason for the Norwegians to celebrate their chess hero.

What’s beauty?

miss-america

Miss America 2013

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is determined by the beholder’s cultural values.  Beauty pageants have been in the news lately.  The selection of the first Indian-American woman as Miss America is a clear signal of the diversification of US society but as well a demonstration of the wide-spread prejudices that still exist against Americans of color.  Racist tweets abounded after news of her selection.  The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is not the first woman of color to win the crown.  There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. Interestingly, it’s been pointed out that Davuluri would not have been likely to win the Miss India title:  her skin is too dark.  Bollywood beauties tend to have whiter skin. In fact, Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest.

Also in the news recently was the winner of the World Muslimah 2013 contest, a Muslim-only beauty pageant in Jakarta, where according to the Guardian, participants were judged not just on their looks but their ability to recite verses from the Qur’an and their philosophy on modern-day Islam. The comment by the winner, Nigerian Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola, after the contest:  “We’re just trying to show the world that Islam is beautiful.”

Finally, there’s also the news that the French Senate has voted to ban child beauty contests.  Reportedly, the law was prompted by an infamous photo spread in the French Vogue in 2010 of then-10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau in sexy poses and heavy make-up. It seems Honey Boo Boo won’t be moving to France any time soon.

Uncover the face

tunic_complete

Graphic by the Quebec government showing one example of a banned public dress under a proposed Charter

In the news recently there have been reports on initiatives in various countries to restrict how Muslim women may dress, specifically to ban clothing in public that covers the face.  That means outlawing the burqa and the hijab.  Most recently, there is a proposed law for Quebec as well as for the Canton of Ticino in Switzerland. Most of the initiatives now and in the past (in France and Belgium, for example) have been made with justifications centered around security (not being able to recognize the identity of someone with her face covered), safety (lack of peripheral vision when driving), or the maintenance of laity (strict separation of church and state, particularly in schools). Xenophobia, particularly towards Muslims, is never mentioned.  In some case, parallel movements pretty clearly point in this direction. In Switzerland, for example, a law was passed in 2009 banning the building of minarets, despite the fact that there are very few mosques in the country. The Quebec government’s proposed “Charter of Values,” would prohibit public servants from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols, thus insuring a “religiously neutral state.”  Yet, the province’s minister for democratic institutions, Bernard Drainville, told TIME Magazine “Quebec is not a blank page…Building our future shouldn’t come at the expense of our past, our heritage.”  What he meant by that statement is clear:  Christianity as part of the Quebequois culture will continue to enjoy privileged status.

The promoter of the initiative in Ticino is quite explicit in his goals, according to the Wall Street Journal:

[The law] is being spearheaded by Giorgio Ghiringhelli, a 61-year-old political activist and former journalist. Although burqas are rarely seen in Ticino, where less than 2% of the roughly 340,000 inhabitants identify as Muslim, Mr. Ghiringhelli said his ban could help curb Islamic extremism before it takes root, and would be “a strong signal for Switzerland and maybe for other countries” to follow suit.

Identifying Muslim dress as an indicator of political fanaticism is an attack on Islam as well as a strike against religious freedom. It’s ironic that we in the West often rail against mistreatment of Christians in Muslim countries, yet don’t see that with such initiatives we are just as guilty of intolerance and blind prejudice.

Heavymetal fans: Go learn Finnish

made-in-finland-2008I’ve been working for a number of years to get to the point in Russian that I can read one of my favorite authors, Leo Tolstoy, in the original. For stylistic masters like Tolstoy or Proust, a lot gets lost in translation.  Apparently for some fans of Finnish heavy metal band Hevisaurus, it’s just as important to learn the language to appreciate the subtle nuances in their lyrics. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of Nordic heavy metal bands has led a number of young people to learn Finnish or Norwegian, the native tongues of many heavy metal bands.  According to one U.S. fan cited in the article, Michael Brown,

Finnish bands perform with a “dark woodsy resonance” that he has come to love, he says, and “the poetic and obscure nature of the Finnish tongue really gave it a unique wave.”

It’s not that Finnish is an easy language to learn.  It’s not part of the Indo-European family of languages but rather belongs to the Uralic group, along with Hungarian and Estonian. As a consequence there are fewer recognizable cognates for English native speakers and the grammar has a notoriously steep learning curve, being heavily inflected, with its 15 (!) cases. Norwegian (an Indo-European language), in comparison, is a piece of cake, with a very simple grammar, similar to its Scandinavian cousins, Danish and Swedish. Heavy metal fans would be well advised to keep that difference in mind and try to find Norwegian bands to like.

The article speculates that there is a connection between the often apocalyptic nature of heavy metal lyrics and Nordic culture:

Olivia Lucas, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation about Nordic metal, said people “simply want to understand what the culture is like that has produced this music.” It doesn’t take long, she said, to draw a parallel between the melancholy and gloom that underpins Finnish metal and the wider Finnish psyche. “Finns are comfortable with this feeling, and don’t feel pressure to be cheerful all the time,” Ms. Lucas, 25, said. Their music “embraces this view of the world.”

According to the article, Norwegian “black metal” is even darker in tone and was long tainted by an association with violence.  Nowadays, however, it has gone mainstream, with the Foreign Ministry of Norway giving its trainees seminars on black metal because there are so frequently questions about it raised at Norwegian embassies throughout the world.

The article brought to mind for me an interview earlier this year on NPR with a black woman, Laina Dawes, a fervent heavy metal fan, who wrote a book on her struggle to find acceptance as an African-American woman in the mostly male and white heavy metal scene.

Housing Styles and Openness to Strangers

lanaiI am in Seoul, South Korea this week but was in Honolulu last week for the CALICO Conference on language learning and technology.  Walking around Honolulu and seeing how people live prompted some thoughts about the relationship between housing styles/preferences and communication patterns.  One of the things that struck me in riding around Honolulu on the bus was how open communication between strangers was.  I noticed on a couple of occasions older Hawaiians striking up conversations with schoolchildren and, contrary to the reaction typical in many other U.S. cities, the children readily responding.  Guess they didn’t get the message about not talking with strangers.  The porous barriers between people is reflected in the housing styles in Honolulu where there is an open transition between indoors and outdoors.  You see lots of furniture outside, including sofas, that would be a strange site in most North American cities.  Hawaiians love to hang out on the lanai, which is a patio that serves as another room of the house. This is related of course to the wonderful year-round weather in Hawaii, but it struck me also as being in harmony with the casual communication style.

I think those thoughts came to me from watching while in Hawaii the German news reporting on the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.  There was disbelief on the part of the German reporter in Oklahoma and the news anchor that houses there were made of wood and had no storm shelters. There are no tornadoes in Germany (hence probably the intense interest by Germans in this exotic and frightening weather event) but if one roared across the Atlantic, German houses would be ready.  They are built very securely and have heavy shutters with which to cover windows, with roofs covered in slate or ceramic tiles (not our flimsy roof tiles).  German houses are self-sufficient islands of security, fenced off additionally from the outside world through tall hedges or fences surrounding the garden areas and house. Doors are closed and locked.  When we exchanged houses a few years ago with a German family, my German colleague’s wife was quite upset that there were not locks on all the interior rooms. What a world of difference from Hawaii!  And certainly riding on public transportation in Germany you rarely see the kinds of interactions among strangers I saw in Honolulu. Germans tend to be reserved in public, but quite open and friendly once you get to know them. Maybe the difference has more to do with the weather than anything else, but it is interesting to reflect on the mirroring of environment and communication.

On talking to the strangers, there is a very nice recent TED talk by Maria Bezaitis, “The surprising need for strangeness

Feng Shui to the rescue

fengshui


In Hunan Province, a boulder was placed outside a government building to create better feng shui for superstitious civil servants. (Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times)

Article in today’s NY Times about the use of feng shui by local Chinese government officials as a line of defense against trouble. Feng shui (风水,literally wind-water) refers to the ancient Chinese techniques of orienting physical space for maximizing good spirit energy (气,qi), resulting in improved health, prosperity, and luck. It is important for many Chinese to make sure any new building is built with good feng shui, which often means orienting the building in particular ways depending on local landmarks such as bodies of water or mountains. Using feng shui, however, is officially discouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and in fact was outlawed under Mao, as the practice was considered to be feudalistic and superstitious. As more cracks appear in the Communist Party in today’s China, feng shui is making a comeback.

The article gives a number of examples of officials enlisting the help of feng shui to deal with troublesome issues such as peasant complaints, personal problems, or corruption investigations. In Zoumajie, for example, a stone wall was built by the local land resources office in order to block the bad qi emanating from a pair of stone lions in front of a different government building. Other examples:

In 2009, county officials in the western province of Gansu spent $732,000 transporting a 369-ton boulder six miles to the county seat, a move feng shui masters said would ward off bad luck. As part of the consecration ceremony, the county magistrate walked 325 feet toward the “spirit rock,” kowtowing every three steps.

In February 2010, People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, reported that Cui Xinyuan, the party chief of Gaoyi County in Hebei Province, had installed a decommissioned fighter jet in the middle of a boulevard opposite the government headquarters so he could soar to the empyrean of Chinese power. The jet was intended to block the flow of bad luck, according to local residents, but it ultimately just blocked traffic.

In the latter case, the official’s use of a jet to counteract bad qi didn’t prevent the official from being sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery.  It turns out that hard work and honesty may actually be a better way for officials to prosper, but work is no fun and bribes can be awfully temping.

Name: “Jihad”

jihadIs it a provocation or an incitement to terrorism to name your son “Jihad”?  How about if you send your son, Jihad, to school wearing a t-shirt stating “Je suis une bombe” (I am a bomb)?  This actual case is being tried currently in France, with a judgment expected next month.  The boy in question was born Sept 11, 2009 and was given the name Jihad by his parents.  Last fall his uncle gave him a t-shirt with the bomb quote on the front and on the back, “Jihad, né le 11 septembre” (Jihad, born September 11th), which he wore one day to nursery school. Bouchra Bagour, the mother, was reported to police by the teacher and charged with “glorifying crime”.  She and the uncle now face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a 45,000 Euros fine. They say the shirt was supposed to be a joke and highlight the boy’s birthday.

In fact, the actual meaning of “Je suis une bombe” is something like I’m fantastic (like English ‘da bomb’).  Jihad is a first name that has been used for a long time.  The case has created much discussion in France.  Here’s one comment from a reader forum for the French daily Le Parisien:

“Je m appelle Jihad , j’ai fait des études et je n’ai aucun problème dans ma vie. Jihad n’est pas un prénom né le 11 septembre , vous êtes au courant ? Il est donné depuis des millénaires. Le mot jihad à la base veut dire lutte contre ses péchés.” (My name is Jihad, I’m a university graduate and have never had any problems [with my name].  Jihad is not a name created by September 11th, did you know that?  It’s been used for millennia.  The word jihad means to fight to overcome one’s sins.).

It’s not just in France that the word Jihad arouses controversy. Last fall conservative blogger Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative ran a series of ads on buses which stated, “”In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man…Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.” In response, the the Council on American-Islamic Relations has begun a campaign to educate Americans both about the traditional meaning of jihad and the real nature of Muslims.  The “My Jihad” campaign is running ads on public buses, featuring Muslim Americans talked about the struggles they have confronted (i.e., their “jihads”).

Norwegian wood

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood" & inspired a TV program about firewood.

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood” & inspired a TV program about firewood

There have been several stories in the media (NT Times: Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians) recently about a cultural phenomenon that may strike outsiders as very foreign, the importance of how firewood should be stacked. The stories were inspired by the enormous popularity in Norway of a book about firewood (Solid Wood by Lars Mytting) and also of a prime-time TV show on the same topic.  The TV show focused on chopping and stacking wood and was watched by over a million viewers (out of a total population of 5 million), but it also caused considerable controversy – a number of viewers contacted the station complaining that how the wood was being stacked was all wrong.  It turns out that there are strong feelings in Norway about how the stacked firewood should be oriented in reference to its bark, whether the bark should face up or down, so as to aid in faster drying.

The TV special was actually 12 hours long, with the first 4 hours showing and discussing wood cutting and stacking, with the final 8 hours showing live a fire in a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.  Through the hours, one could see wood being added and sausages being roasted on sticks, but no sounds were heard other than the burning of the fire.  One comment reported by NY Times article: “’I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited’, a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. ‘When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher…I’m not being ironic,’ the viewer continued. ‘For some reason, this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.’”  Such sentiments were not universal, however, as the article reports: “On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: ‘Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.’”

The last time Norway was in the news was for something diametrically opposed to the program’s images of peace, calm and simplicity, namely the deadly rampage by Anders Brevik in Oslo in 2011, resulting in 77 deaths. The popularity of the firewood book and TV special may be related to the aftermath of this event, which caused considerable soul-searching in Norway.  Wood burning stoves and the cultural practices that surround their use have a long tradition in a country with long and severe winters.  Firewood culture harkens back to a traditional Norwegian way of life, free from the violence and political strife of the world today.

Culture & success

Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel during his recent trip abroad raise interesting questions about the relationship between cultural values and economic success.  He compared the much higher per capita income in Israel compared to Palestine:  “Culture makes all the difference…and as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”  He didn’t enter into any specifics on what cultural differences he had in mind, presumably aspects of the culture that favor industry, frugality, and an entrepreneurial spirit?  Or was it individualism (Israel) versus collectivism (Palestine)?

This echoes the discussion that has arisen from President Obama’s comments that successful businesses in the United States were not built exclusively by the business owners, but owed part of their success to the infrastructure created by American tax payers.  Objections were quickly raised that business owners created success exclusively through their own initiative and hard work – the triumphant result of unbridled individualism.  Reminds me of the hefty debates over Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village” and the criticism of this advocacy of “collectivism”.  A particular virulent attack on collectivism comes from the “one government” critics.

Romney’s remarks were criticized in that he didn’t talk about the very unequal opportunities in Israel and Palestine.  He was also way off in stating that personal income in Israel is twice that in Palestine:  it’s more like 20 to 1. Of course what Romney meant by “success” was exclusively economic prosperity – as a businessman that is understandably his focus.  Is the point of his comparison that Palestinians would be well advised to change their cultural values?  It would be interesting to see where the Israel and Palestine rank in happiness indices.