Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wednesday update: lingua franca, global capitalism and questions of faith

Today, in the interests of long-term consistency (and to avoid having to come up with something new) I thought I'd briefly follow up on a few things I've written about recently.

Lingua franca

I had sent a copy of the 1928 newspaper article on romance in Esperanto which I wrote about last week to the Esperanto Association of Great Britain, as I thought they might be interested in it for historical purposes. Indeed, they were, and I received a very nice note from them, pointing out that the sort of international couplings the article discussed as occurring back then have remained a part of Esperanto culture ever since. The internationalist orientation of the organisation and their wide-ranging global conferences seem to facilitate this sort of thing, so much so that Esperanto has a nickname - Edzperanto - which has the approximate meaning of 'marriage broker' (edzo = husband, peranto=agent). Their conferences meet every year in a different country, and next year it's Japan's turn.

By the way, 'Mi amas vin' ('I love you') might help you get your own international romance underway. Just make sure you invite me to the wedding.

The Website of the Esperanto-Asocio de Brito is

Information on Esperanto education is here:

Global capitalism

An article over at the New York Times follows up on Wal-Mart's departure from the German market with a broad look at the company's international efforts. While some markets have proven more difficult than expected, and Wal-Mart, as I pointed out, really didn't fit German culture in many ways, it seems that all-in-all the company is continuing its relentless global march forward at only slightly diminished speed.

A nice excerpt:

Wal-Mart is also trying to integrate acquisitions with more sensitivity - a process that involves issues like deciding whether to consolidate multiple foreign headquarters and how aggressively to impose Wal-Mart's corporate culture on non-American employees.

In Germany, Wal-Mart stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers - a practice that some male shoppers interpreted as flirting - and scrapped the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members.

"People found these things strange; Germans just don't behave that way," said Hans-Martin Poschmann, the secretary of the Verdi union, which represents 5,000 Wal-Mart employees here.

Questions of Faith

On the faith front, the International Herald Tribune marks the 350th anniversary of Spinoza's excommunication from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam with a consideration by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein of the philosopher's thinking on religious intolerance. I'm no expert on Spinoza, but if evidence were needed that the more things change the more they stay the same, consider the following:

Spinoza's reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us - whether Jew or Christian or Muslim - a privileged position in the narrative of the world's unfolding. Spinoza's system is a long argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his: that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

There are many reasons to doubt the importance of rational thought to the psychological functioning of the human animal (indeed, more recently a lot of work seems to downplay the centrality of consciousness altogether). Actually, there are some interesting theories suggesting that self-deception is a fundamental and innate part of our mental functioning, which would feed into the self-aggrandisement against which Spinoza warned.

Nonetheless, Spinoza saw a lot of things clearly. The capacity for advanced reason - however disused and/or partial - is, I would agree, one of the key factors in the development of human ethics. Peter Singer made an intriguing argument along these lines in his book The Expanding Circle, arguing that reason - alongside evolutionary kin-selection and reciprocal altruism - has been the basis for widening the sphere of those seen as deserving of empathy and treatment as fully human.

If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.

(The book is hard to come by, which is a shame, since it's fascinating. But a brief discussion of it is here, which is where I found this quote.)

Moving along to another seemingly evergreen topic, Spinoza, seeing the need to justify our beliefs in terms of evidence,

... argued that a government that impedes
the development of the sciences subverts the grounds for state legitimacy, which
is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And
this, too, is why he argued against the influence of clerics in government.
Statecraft infused with religion is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist
on its version of the truth against all others.

Without wanting to be too glib about it, this does strangely sound familiar as well, taking into account recent events in the US with regard to stem-cell research, the resurgence of creationism, and the more general 'war on science' being mounted by many religious conservatives.

Speaking of the instabilities inherent in infusing the state with religion, Johann Hari has a very nice commentary on the Brick Lane controversy which takes up, religion, patriarchy, multiculturalism and freedom of speech.

A small shining beacon of reason, though, reaches us from darkest Kansas, where it seems the evangelical conservatives who sought to 'impede the development of the sciences' in their own way - by undermining the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools and mandating the teaching of creationist 'alternatives' in science class - may have lost their majority on the board of education. It's not yet 100% clear what the end result will be, but it's looking good and not nearly as close as the Mexican presidential election.

Finally, although I've already mentioned him twice this week and I don't want to get into the habit of overdoing it, I only just today found Christopher Hitchens's own views on the Gibson affair. Which I shall offer for your reading pleasure, uncommented.

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