Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - a melange

This post is simply a melange of things I have noticed that struck me in some way as relevant to my current thinking.

In Somaliland votes I reported on the elections in this portion of Somalia, a de facto independent state for a number of years. The opposition won the election, leading to a peaceful transition of power. In an opinion piece on Al Jazeera, Professor Afyare Abdi Elmi suggests that this significant event brings into focus two contradictory approaches to the future of the region: (1) recognising Somaliland as a new state or (2) establishing the Somali state from Somaliland. He opts for the second.

The discussion brings into focus a broader issue, the struggles many nations have and do face in maintaining territorial integrity in the face of internal division.

In the ruling by the International Court on Kosovo, Court President Hisashi Owada said in part: "The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition on declarations of independence." While this may give heart to separatist movements everywhere, the path from de facto to full de jure remains a long and difficult one.

Political entities respond to internal tensions in different ways. Their responses take place within a global environment marked by the rise of bigger entities on one side with an increased desire for closer local, group or regional identification on the other. As life becomes more complex, many seek simplified identities.

This month's Anthropology Carnival introduced me to a new concept, WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic = ‘WEIRD’. I quote:

‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ establishes that most behavioural science theory is built on research that examines only a very narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates; more specifically, those in psychology classes) -- who are, in a word, WEIRD.

Equally distorting, research published in the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology relied on 68% of subjects from the US and fully 96% from ‘Western’ industrialized nations (European, North American, Australian or Israeli). Unsurprisingly, this skews our understanding of the empirical foundation for claims being made, either explicitly or implicitly, about human nature.

weird-cartoon2 Now the point in all this is that WEIRD subjects tend, it is suggested,  to be outliers in global terms on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.

This conclusion links to another issue I have talked about, our tendency to assume that our own views are in some way the norm when in fact they probably (almost certainly) are not. I have also suggested that this is becoming an increasing problem because of the way that globalisation is jamming us all together willy-nilly.

The continuing US reactions to the release last year by the Scottish Government of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds raises some interesting issues.

Under the new definition of a devolved United Kingdom as a country of nations and regions, it seems to me that the Scottish Government was within its rights to release al-Megrahi. Whether the British Government as the central government should have intervened, indeed just how it might have intervened, is a different issue.

I wonder whether readers of this column have read any of Tom Clancy's books? I make this point because whether or not one likes Tom Clancy, I have found his books to be a remarkably good representation of one stream of US thought. One central element in those books is a belief in the centrality of US power. They are very US focused.

It is an odd feeling from my viewpoint that in my short life I have seen the final decline of one great Empire, the British, and the middle to end stages of another, the US. The point about Imperial entities is not their form of Government, but that they are big enough to consider not just that their views are central, but also that they have an implicit right to impose those views. This centrality of view continues into the decline phase even as the capacity to enforce it diminishes.

The assumption by the US Congress that it if it requests senior officials or Ministers of another state to attend a hearing then they should attend is an example.

This is not an anti-US comment. I am not anti-US, far from it. Rather, I am talking about mind-sets.

You actually see the same thing in Australia at both popular and official levels. At popular level, there is a belief that if there is an external problem, something that breaches local views, then the Government can and must do something about it. At official level, you see it in official arrogance and insensitivity in handling relations in those areas where Australia's power and influence is greatest. 

If this is bad in the US, it's far worse in Australia because our real power is so limited.


Rummuser said...

You might like to read 'The Next Hundred Years' by George Friedman.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Ramana. I will.