For a while I have been thinking of writing to you, or should I say “you”, since the you I am writing to is an imaginary locus formed part from a distant memory of Jamee, part from myself. And I still remember two words I first heard from you – “mordant” and “trenchant”. There was a third latinate word there, too, that I have forgotten. Now, this was definitely you, diplomat son from Karachi. How far from the subway drivers of my childhood´s Oslo, immigrants from the villages of illiteracy, ostensibly from the same country as you. Pakistan – carved out of the empire, with regions with crazy names like “North West frontier area” and “Tribal territories”. But these are things I realized much later, along with the clannish structure of your native lands – there was an article lately about how these structures structure marriages in Oslo today. Of course that makes sense. Social structures are part of who we are – where we travel, they travel.
Mordant, then, from “mordre” in French, and Trenchant, from “trancher”, French again. Norse conquest of Normandy followed by Norman conquest of England followed by English conquest of India, the words like ribbons through time and space. And before all that, the Roman conquest of Gallia, linking the north of France to Rome. Ah, Rome. Visualizing the Pantheon sends a chill down my spine. Why this connection?
Lying next to me on the train seat as we roll through the flat countryside north of Oslo is Le Monde Diplomatique. As if I had recently bought it at the newsagents in Ecully, or maybe at the Gare du Nord. Le Monde Diplo, symbol of cultural capital and the right liberal – tier monde attitudes. That´s me, then.
The Charlie Hébdo attacks almost made me nauseous when the news broke, and I know that this was due to my connection with France and with that completely irreverent streak in French culture. Like Italy, I suppose. The cultural pressure to kow-tow and brown-nose is strong in the schools, in the work-place, in the family – so when the floodgates open, they open big-time. At Centrale de Lyon, they once wrote “Barre-toi” on the wall (“get lost”) on the eve of a visit by a top politician called “Raymond Barre”. This made such an impression on me that I remember it to this day. I tried to read Le Canard Enchainé back then, and I remember also the attitudes of fellow students when it came to authority. You pretend to respect. But never more.
It´s the same in Italy.
We were (wild) and young and free.
And while Frank diligently filled his little notebook with neatly scribbled Russian vocab, I never had that diligence. I suspect I still do not have it. But one thing I have learned while working as a consultant is that you have to make sure you meet expectations, so you gotta stay tuned to what they are. And thank goodness working life in Norway has human dimensions. Some years ago I talked to an American working in a factory near Chigaco. I think he got up at four to start his long commute by car, I can´t remember the length of his working day, but it was late by the time he was back. I am living in a bubble of privilege with my fellow countrymen. While the Poles and Lithuanians fill in the blanks.
I´ve learned a lot about myself (or have I??) – yes, I have. But I know you would recognize me. The humour, outgoing style and intelligence. The curiosity. The ability to be annoying. They are still there. Even some of the restlessness. A sort of impatience with the world, too. In one sense I am more cynical, in the sense that I have lowered expectations. My fellow men and women on this planet … what to say? I think we struggle to summon sufficient empathy. We remain locked in patterns of thinking. In short, we are highly developed, but not highly developed enough. Prejudice and short-sightedness have fertile conditions in our minds.
I mean, evidently peace and good living conditions are but an extended hand away for the entire planet, but greed and distrust get in the way. And religion! And indifference. And a number of other vices.
I vividly remember a tall guy of Algerian descent at Centrale de Lyon. He told me of this troubles renting a room. You did not need to talk to him for long, or even look at him for long, to see that he was an upright fellow of good background. Yet, prospective landlords saw only his olive skin, black hair and vaguely Algerian features. I keep this in mind when I read about the riots in the banlieues. And returning to Le Monde Diplo, long article there about Japan and the demographic shortfall which shall have to be filled by immigrants – but the country is deeply xenophobic and has a “blood” approach to citizenry. Like Germany and Israel. Unlike the US and France. Though you could argue that the Republican ideals are only skin deep … below lurks the old chauvinism. In both countries. And in “mine”, but I must say Norway is pretty open. The deputy of Labour is now a woman in her early thirties, daughter of immigrants from Pakistan. For some reason her surname is Tadjik, which does not sound terribly Pakistani. She´s married to an infidel, though, so not your typical Qu´ran-waving person.
So the question then is really about progress, and I hesitate to conclude. We can safely say that since back then, the Soviet union is no more and China looms a lot larger, the Arab world is like a chrysalis bursting open in fits, letting out not just butterflies but much else besides, before shutting itself again. Islam is waiting for its Enlightenment, its Illumination, washing over it, replacing the Medieval with the Ambivalent, to leave only pockets of madness, like the Hasidic Jews in New York that I recently read about, or the millions of fundamentalist Christians in the US. The US needs its own Enlightenment. Admit of it. God never existed outside our imaginations.
We can say one thing though – capitalism has prevailed. The only pockets for resistance are best forgotten – North Korea, Cuba. In Nicaragua the Chinese are building a new canal, a sort of Panama 2.0, though I imagine they will give it a different name. 25 years ago this would have been conclusive proof of a Communist takeover in the region (“Middle America”, we call it). These days, not so much, just proof that the Chinese are loaded and are building their own empire.
It´s time to stop building empires.
On that note – see you soon, I hope.
This was a long and thoughtful trajectory through our personal, and I guess political, histories since Ecully days, Jon. I see much of the old Jon in these passages and that reassures me since we were close and in these passages I still see the guy I used to have long rambling discussions with into the wee hours of the night drinking the unbelievably powerful coffee that would subsequently keep me awake after I went back to sleep in X520.
Where I differ from you my friend is that I see clannishness everywhere in this world–including in the “developed” West. Not just America but Europe too. I dunno about religion (I certainly have met many deeply spiritual people as well as doctrinaire secular ones over the years), but certainly I do believe that nationalism is the opium of the people–it’s drummed into young children from a very young age.
I too was nauseated about the Charlie Hebdo massacre–as I was about the Israeli aggression in Gaza last summer and many times before; or the invasion of Iraq which left countless numbers of innocent dead Iraqi children, women, and men. And the complete hypocrisy and connivance of the Western political establishment to these crimes against humanity. Not to mention the weapons manufacturers who continue to rake in trillions….
But I think there is hope for humanity, my friend. It comes in the form of defiant and principled people who stand up for dignity and human rights everywhere. You have them in Norway; they exist here in the US; and they exist in Pakistan, Egypt, and Palestine.
Indeed alternatives to capitalism have failed–but capitalism itself has failed much of this planet’s population and, if the climate scientists are correct in their assessment (which they are), this economic system has failed the planet too.
So the quest for the future remains–what it will be and how we as humankind can get “there”. We need to go beyond a mordant, bitter, and satirical analysis of the present–with its ominous drift toward Fascism in the form of the National Security State (as Edward Snowdon and others have revealed to us, the brave souls)–to one which is analytical, compassionate, and visionary.
So that’s my 2 cents worth…let the conversation continue!