Perspectives: A Review of 2011
by Raju Peddada
"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."
—Anais Nin (1903-1977)
"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world."
—Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
"Immorality: The morality of those who are having a better time."
—H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
(Swans - December 19, 2011) The year 2011 has that distinct transformative patina of 1776, 1789, 1917, 1953, 1956, 1966, and 1968 -- hazy in our rear view mirror. This year may also go down as the "year of change," more so at a personal level. And, speaking of the rear view mirror, I had, on February 22, 2008, reversed my father's car without turning around to see the way, also ignoring the rear view mirror, using only the right side-view mirror, promptly driving it into a drainage ditch on the left. Luckily, I managed to power the car out. Later that evening, as I wrote my daily journal, the manifest metaphor in that accident dawned on me: if we see only from one fixed side, we'll never know the other side.
A good peripheral vision is better than a limited left or a right one, rendering the blind spots harmless. And, surprisingly, I find the president, becoming a perspicacious geo-politician, a pragmatist, in his foreign policy design. He also unequivocally has proven to every citizen that he possesses a titanium spine when it comes to national security issues. Here is my perspective on the year.
Arab Spring or Revolution?
Actually, 2011 got its start on Saturday, December 18, 2010: the first major protest after Mohammed Bouazizi, whose paroxysmal immolation dispatched the Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his entourage to Saudi Arabia into exile. Not only did this fruit vendor banish an entrenched despot, but he ignited what extended into the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, with the Syrian and Yemeni presidents on the brink. He became that asymmetrical "black swan" of the Middle East protests. If we look carefully, these protests are hardly political in nature; they are mostly about dignity, lost in the present repression at the hands of their own ruling elite, in the lack of jobs, vacuous economic future, and destitution. Preservation of dignity became the manifest alchemy that triggered this conflagration. Morocco, Jordan, and the UAE did not experience this turmoil as a result of distinctly better economic conditions for their populations. During the American Civil War, though vehemently against the Union, men and women from the confederate towns rampaged the streets in protest against their government that could not provide jobs, nor availability or price stability for basic necessities, when a $3 bag of wheat flour had exploded to $200 per bag. It is about dignified survival.
Protests continue in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, with no definite direction for their political future. While we all are holding our breath over these paroxysms, we are uncertain as to what the region would look like after they are spent. Not surprisingly, in this turmoil, the assassinations of Bin Laden, the US-born al Qaeda leader in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, and several others had been rendered utterly anti-climactic, not causing even a flutter on the Arab street. This clearly cues us to the cause being primarily economic, more than ideological or political. It is about basic human rights, and getting rid of corruption, and its purveyors, for better governing systems. It remains to be seen what a "better governing system" means to them.
The 3/11 Tsunami
At 2:46 pm, on March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck 250 miles northeast of Tokyo, Japan, which triggered a giant tsunami. A wall of water 30 feet high rolled ashore and swallowed most of the coastal area, including the seaside town of Rikuzentakata. Residents scampered to high ground, with the rushing water lapping at their heels. There is no way to describe how I felt after watching some of the horrifying videos that were posted on Youtube, and I cannot dare to articulate or interpret any victim's experience at seeing their material and psychological destruction unfold in slow motion. Whole villages and towns simply got erased. They were scenes right out of a computer generated sci-fi film, like "The Day After Tomorrow." 15,780 dead, 4,122 missing, in addition to $219 billion in estimated cleanup costs, exclusive of the nuclear meltdown expenses, and another 82,945 housed in evacuation centers.
Despite all of this, I did not see or hear of one act of looting. One thing is manifestly evident in this catastrophe: this is a superior people, with a cast-iron fortitude, a highly resilient and sophisticated culture that knows how to resurrect itself. No country can become an economic superpower within 30 years of its complete destruction, as it did from 1945-1975. In comparison, look at our own backyard: Louisiana, after Katrina, where looting, black marketing, killings, and the blame game ensued for a whole year. The redoubtable Japanese, in the most subtle, and yet, in an obvious way, have a message for everyone: that we are all in it together.
The US Economy
Our economy would have been lousy no matter who the president was. Any economy that is based on free markets is invariably dependent on the investor and consumer confidence. And, both these factors at the moment are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for better national and international political and financial stability, which could take years. In the U.S., the average worker is fed up with the pressured working conditions. Here are five major categories where people are quitting in droves to change careers or just wait for a better opportunity: 1. Trade-transportation-utilities, 474,000 gone; 2. Professional-business service, 426,000; 3. Healthcare-social assistance, 232,000; 4. Government, 126,000 had had enough and; 5. Manufacturing, 103,000. Let's wait and see is also my own attitude.
Sex in the university
Why does Australia host the most venomous snakes in the world? Answer: Because it is infested with rodents, big and small: mice, rats, and rabbits. So, should the Australians be alarmed if they find an Eastern Brown or a Taipan slithering in their garage? Should they indulge in paroxysms of hysteria and screams through the media? Or should they take it in stride, accepting the fact that when there is prey, there will be predators. Is it really a surprise to find a sexual predator at a university? First of all, universities are, other than purveying questionable education, the bastions of sexual activity. Men and women aged 18 and up experience their first of many "encounters" that shape their emotional and psychological makeup for years.
I think Penn State's Jerry Sandusky, and others who had covered up his activities, are the collective symptom of a larger issue. But I find the prudish media circus, and the polemics of analysis on this scandal, far more ludicrous than anything imaginable. It is as if sex is an alien invasion, and this type of scandal had never unfolded before. Two thousand years ago, Emperor Augustus had banished the great poet Ovid into exile for a lusty poem on Julia's promiscuity, who was his granddaughter, the same Augustus, along with the patricians, and the plebeians of Rome, collectively yawned when they all came to hear about Virgil's "taste" for young boys, but Virgil, though a great poet, had disseminated poetic panegyrics on his Caesar -- we haven't changed much since then. This is about a man who has a fetish for boys in a country full of people with fetishes. What exacerbates this issue is the immediacy of technology today that enables every individual to send in his two cents on every little thing, every nanosecond, in judging the follies and sins of others, while they indulge in their own fetishes. I'm not in Sandusky's corner, with my two little boys, but in my own corner, looking at our own hypocrisy and pretensions of moral preponderance.
Take a close look at our entertainment landscape, with programming like "The Girls Next Door," "Sex in the City," "Two And A Half Men" "The Secret Life of an American Teenager," MTV reality live-ins, 4-7-year-old girls' beauty pageants, sexually-oriented TV commercials, and free pornography. This is the society we live in. So, is it really surprising to find sexual predators lurking around? Find these guys, indict them with no bail, give them their due process, and if guilty put them away for life. Why these warped media analyses, are we aiming to stop and abolish sexual fetishes? Remember prohibition? The people who witness abuse and stay silent are as culpable as the predators. This is the age of vigilance; we need and want whistleblowers to keep us safe. So please, next time you see someone putting a fuse on the plane, or taking your or your kid's underwear off, alert someone!
Security with Technology
Our security lies in technology: The president had expanded, albeit contentiously and some claim illegally, the deployment of drones to other regions for surveillance and engagement.
Well, the above assertion is one way to look at it, but "security with technology" also means our economic and psychological security, with new and improved products that fill needs, giving us enjoyment, and the dignity in employment. This brings me to Mr. Steve Jobs. In 1983, a few months after I had migrated to the U.S., my funds had dried up. I started looking for work as a design director. Not having a portfolio, I sequestered myself in my dorm room and created a "new and improved" Apple ad campaign and logo, inspired by Mr. Jobs, and his nascent company. It landed me my first job at an ad agency. This is what Mr. Jobs did -- he inspired me, as he did millions of others across the world. He released us from being bored with ourselves. He inspired us to create, and spawned two generations of creative thinkers. He was an offensive perfectionist, and I love offensive creators -- they are irreplaceable and indispensable to societies and civilizations. Another one that comes to mind is Edison. I saw the Japanese, already preoccupied with their national catastrophe, finding time to stand in silent reverence, with joined hands in Namastee for Mr. Jobs. I did the same.
2011 was also the year, when the 30-year-old NASA shuttle program was grounded for good. Nevertheless, NASA had launched two lunar probes on September 10, and is working on a Mars rover that weighs almost 900 kg for further probing the mysterious surface on Mars on a future mission. Also, Pratt & Whitney created a "green" jet engine that will consume 16% less fuel and reduce carbon emissions over other engines of equivalent power. More than any tech issue, I am interested in the digitally-created 3-D Tintin film by Steven Spielberg, which is due out in December. I love Hergé's incorrigible, cantankerous, and curious characters that I grew up with, and can't wait to take my boys to it.
Obama's Asian-Pacific Initiative
Asia has a problem, and it is China -- and it is all about the resources. This is the largest geopolitical development in the news today, whose importance far outweighs any other issue in 2011. China is starting to behave like the Germany of 1939. I wish there was a "finishing school" for the Chinese political establishment so they could learn to behave generously with their neighbors and become an appreciated superpower, rather than a despised one.
Recently, at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit, China had openly claimed "ownership" of the South China Sea. The underlying issue with this claim is the exploitation of fish stocks and hydrocarbons, by the exclusion of its neighbors. This is like the U.S. claiming the Atlantic Ocean as its sovereign domain for all it holds. China had openly threatened the ASEAN countries with loss of business if independent oil companies consummated drilling and exploration deals with them. China's assertive stand about the South China Sea being its historical waters is not based on any fundamental idea of international waters law or cooperation; rather, it is based on leveraging its economic power into subduing its neighbors with blackmail. This has led many Asian countries to the door of the White House and the US State Department, inviting them for an increased presence in Asia. Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Australia had already requested US bases to thwart China's creeping aggression.
The scheduled withdrawal of the US armed forces from Iraq and Afghanistan relieves us of the futile effort of bringing peace and democracy to a region that can never become secular. The new focus is the "Larger Pacific Trend" where China's heavy-handed presence is being pushed back by its neighbors. Seizing the initiative, President Obama has initiated a movement that is beginning to isolate China in its own region. The cherry of the president's geopolitical pragmatism had been the exigent dispatch of Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to Myanmar, after a 50-year hiatus, to open up diplomatic relations, where China had apparently "pushed" too far. This brings me to Fareed Zakaria's admonishment: "China has enjoyed peace, stability and free trade. It should also help produce them." I think this is going to be the Pacific Century, despite the Arab Spring.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)