They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A course in Human Stupidity

A course in Human Stupidity

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Day after day Sara and I walk along the wrecked streets of our neighborhood in the city of Cordoba, Argentina. We put one foot in front of the other on the uneven pavement and feel a great sense of indignation while talking about the high taxes citizens must pay to survive in very bad conditions in a city that offends and upsets people, which looks horrible and works poorly. On the way we meet half a dozen carts pulled by a horse –similar to the famous and skinny Rocinante– carrying innumerable pieces of cardboard stacked in heaps: a colorful postcard of the so-called "underdevelopment". We go into the supermarket and face the shortage of food, the astronomical prices and the speculating plot to cheat consumers and enrich traders. We buy very few things, just the staples we need to keep on eating. Some food is not anymore in the aisle, some other is far from our pocket and the rest we can buy two or three at a time. On the way home we pass several buses that remind us the ones we had ever seen in films of the World War (the first one). Before reaching the entrance door of our block of flats we must avoid the garbage left in the street for two days and cross the stream of waste material flooding the sidewalks...

After coming in our apartment we turn on the radio and listen to the news, the different political discourses and the speeches made by the president. The very same words are repeated over and over again: "growth", "welfare", and "fair redistributive policies". The Argentinean National Institute of Statistics also keeps saying the same mischievous numbers and percentages that disguise the inflationary spiral of our economy and appeal the ears of the official party leaders. That way they can deliver empty and meaningless speeches about high speed trains –in a country with roads in deplorable conditions– and about new hospitals and schools intended to be built – in a country where the existing ones are falling to pieces for there is no money to maintain them.

It is not that difficult to listen to other voices publicly denouncing the government's handling of rural schools where children have to endure the same intense winter cold in their class –for neither there is gas or electricity nor the heating installation works properly– as they feel riding on horseback to the school for three of four hours every morning; of the impassable roads in the provinces, away from the capital, because of the bad conditions; of retirement pensions, on which the elder can hardly get by... And anyone can see, as we have done with our own eyes, how public hospitals and public transports work, which, incidentally, do it whenever they want and can – provided there are not on strike.

At this point, both Sara and I make ourselves the following questions: those who write official speeches, do they really think that we are stupid? Do they really think that we are not aware of the oppressive and stinking reality that we face day after day? Do they really think that we do not realize they are holding us hostages during this ongoing crisis they insist on worsening? Might not they be the stupid ones they believe we are? Might not the media suffer from the same stupidity they make public and widely spread? Might not future history and sociology books be so stupid as to collect ordinary people's life and our daily problems as myths and legends?

Almost half a century ago, the Hungarian writer Paul Tabori wrote a book that I consider splendid. The original title is "Natural History of Stupidity". Tabori not only tries to successfully explain the term "stupidity" through the first chapter of this work but he also does an impressive review –more or less academic– of a great deal of documents (manuscripts, archives, old editions, incunabula) and extracts from them a real mix of different examples representing the true human stupidity. This colorful collection covers subjects such as thirst of gold, court ceremony, fake genealogical trees, excessive (and ridiculous) bureaucracy, laws (many of them, even more absurd), doubts, myths and love. The book does not have a single bad part in it. I find each paragraph amazing. The reader moves from one stupidity to another –every new one more surprising than the former and all of them well documented– through human history. If you manage to find it, do not miss the opportunity to have a look at its pages.

In my opinion, Tabori forgot to include in his book a chapter about political speeches and communication media, for the things thought, said and done through them (at least in this country of ours) are excellent examples of proper stupidity. Stupidity which we can do nothing against, but dealing with it and –though it is too serious a matter– treating it as a joke (for crying is of very little help here, as in most of the cases).

Paul Tabori was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908. He studied in Hungary, Austria and Germany and earned his doctorate of Political and Economic Sciences at the University of Budapest. Between the First and the Second World War he lived in 17 different countries as a correspondent. In 1937 he established in London, where he went through a state of feverish activity as a journalist and a writer. Between 1943 and 1948 he wrote a number of scripts for London Films and continued doing so during the 50s in Hollywood. For the 70s Tabori had finished more than 30 film scripts and over a hundred written texts of TV series. He belonged to numerous international writers' associations and was co-founder of the International Writer's Fund. In his last days he taught at the Fairfield Dickinson University, the City Collage of NY and the University of Illinois.

"Natural History of Stupidity" starts with the following paragraph. Does this book need any better presentation than the one offered by the author himself?

(NB. The paragraph is roughly translated from the Spanish book, since we do not have the English original).

"This book deals with stupidity, foolishness, imbecility, inability, clumsiness, vacuity, short-sightedness, fatuousness, idiocy, madness, delirium. It studies idiots, fools, persons of low intelligence, dim-witted, mentally weak, silly, ridiculous, superficial, extremely stupid, rookies and gaga, simple, mentally unbalanced, crazy, irresponsible, dull. In it we intend to present a gallery of clowns, gullible people, morons, halfwits, wimps, blockheads, oafs, dummies, dopes, dullards, nuts and lunatics past and present alike. It will describe and analyze facts that are irrational, senseless, absurd, foolish, wrongly conceived, idiot... and so on so forth. Is there something more characteristic of our humanity than the fact that Roget's Thesaurus dedicates six columns to the synonyms, the verbs, the names and the adjectives regarding 'stupidity' while the word 'sense' just takes up one?"

Someday, someone will write "History of Political Stupidity". I am sure the author will find enough material in the Argentinean newspapers and annals. However, I can say in all sincerity that most newspapers, whether international, national or regional fail to show –at length and in depth– the present economic, political, social, etc. situation faced by most Argentineans day after day (a situation that may also be similar to what is happening in other countries at this moment). They only publish and spread the empty words and the meaningless speeches delivered by official and opposition leaders. Ordinary people, as usual, remain voiceless and with our hands tied. Maybe that future book should dedicate a chapter to communication media as well... What about adding an entry for other items such as "hypocrisy", "oppression" and "abuse"?

I send to you a big hug from the yesteryear beautiful city of Cordoba, Argentina.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

University’s ill health 90 years afterwards...

University's ill health 90 years afterwards

By Sara Plaza and Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

In Chile, university and secondary school professors and students went recently on strike for an unlimited period in protest at the Education Reform Bill presented by the government...

At the Spanish universities, a storm of protest has been raised against the Espacio Europeo de Educación Superior (EEES, European Space of Higher Education, better known as Bologna, after the city where the declaration was issued). Critics and detractors believe that it will help privatize and commercialize public university; that it will diminish the quality of degrees; that it will contribute to subordinate knowledge to commercial interests; and that it will turn university into a professional training school where teaching/learning processes will be connected with practice rather than with reflection, debate, constructive criticism, research, discussion...

The Congreso Regional de Educación Superior (Regional Conference on Higher Education) organized in May 2008 in Cartagena, Colombia, by the Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe (IESALC/UNESCO, International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean) sets strict limits on the participation of thousands of researchers, fails to address the current situation in education, hardly presents new ideas and excludes a great part of Latin American thought from its working sessions. In addition, it assumes the role that had previously criticized the World Bank for, becoming a market where educative community was silenced with fruitless documents –mostly elaborated by economists– and where neoliberal terms such as efficiency, efficacy, quality, access and equality, competitiveness, innovation, pertinence, management, governance, funding, accredited programs and evaluation were widely repeated

These are a few pieces of information extracted from different media during the last week. Curiously, at the same time, we have found some articles celebrating the University Reform 90th anniversary, which stemmed from the students' requests at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba (UNC, National University of Cordoba), Argentina. Those students, seeing that their demands were not going to be met, burst into the University Assembly when the new rector was to be designated on the 15th of June, 1918 and came out on strike. The strike was supported by workers from all over the country and was meant to last for a period of time that had no fixed end. On the 21st, "La Gaceta Universitaria" (the university journal) published the Manifiesto Liminar de la Reforma (preliminary manifesto on the reform) written by Deodoro Roca and signed by the leaders of the Federación Universitaria de Córdoba (University of Cordoba Federation). Through July the university –whose control had already been taken in April, when the protests intensified, following President Hipólito Yrigoyen orders– was closed, the rector chosen by the clerical association called Corda Frates tendered his resignation and the government took over the running of the university. At that moment the statutes of the university were updated, the teaching staff changed and many of the students' requests introduced.

Among the bitter criticism leveled by the Manifesto we can find some accusations made against the current university models on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean:

"Universities have become a copy true to the original decadent societies that strive to offer a pitiful sight proper to advanced age immobility. (...) Our university regime –even the most recent– is anachronistic. It is grounded on a sort of divine law: the divine law connected with lecturers. It comes from itself. It starts to exist and stop existing with it. It keeps deepening the rift. (...) The finished reins of the power that derive from strength do not agree to negotiate with what is claimed by the sense and modern concept of universities nowadays. The crack of the whip can only sign the silence of irresponsible persons and cowards. (...) University youth from Cordoba states that they never thought to question names or employees. They rose up against an administrative regime, against a teaching methodology, against a concept of authority. Public functions were exercised in favor of particular cronies. Plans and regulations were never reformed for fear of offending those who might lose their jobs. The instruction 'you can do the same for me one day' was common knowledge and achieved pre–eminence as university statute. Teaching methodology was marred by a narrow dogmatism contributing to keep university separate from science and modern disciplines. The lessons, hidden behind the repetition of old texts, protected a spirit of routine and submission."

The Argentinean University that Deodoro Roca mentioned 90 years ago was tied to "the old monarchic and monastic domination". The Spanish university that today students dress in banners reading "NO a Bolonia" (No Bologna) seems to have been injured by transnational commercial interests that want to hold it tight, which have also pierced the Congreso Internacional de Educación Superior that took place in May in Cartagena, Colombia. In 1918, the religious feeling inspired by the Compañía de Jesús (Society of Jesus) bounded and gagged university – "strange religion that teaches to despise the honor and look down on the personality. Religion for defeated or slaves", wrote Roca in the Manifesto. At the present moment the World Bank thesis derived from the theory of human capital (stating that "the state should not invest in Higher Education" for "the act of investing in Higher Education is a regressive step") and the World Trade Organization resolution (indicating that Higher Education is something produced to be sold) both pressure into making the university community free expression become weaker.

It seems to us that little progress has been made if the place occupied by religious persons 90 years ago is now taken up by modern economists... Maybe it is a good idea to discuss and promote 2008 education laws in the light of the 1918 reformist principles. At that time it was claimed that universities should act independently of government. Today it would be desirable that they also acted independently of international market, companies, WTO, WB... It continues being good practice that the university main characters, that is, teaching staff, students and graduates keep its management in their hands. It would be worth supporting free public education. And to improve outreach activities: university, its community and its knowledge should not be indifferent to society problems and social debates, on the contrary, university should play an important role in them. No doubt, it is necessary to defend teaching freedom and to update periodically the teaching staff, and to connect teaching with doing research. If 90 years ago a sort of Latin American Unity was proposed, why cannot we reformulate the European Space of Higher Education without confusing convergence with a single way of thinking, doing and saying things, without putting aside diversity and acknowledging difficulties, pressures, errors and failures in order to share and discuss new proposals?

We can certainly feel the effects of the mercantile system in every single facet of our life immersed in this huge "global village" –less and less "unified" and more and more "colonized" as time passes– and can also notice those effects on the way we produce, use and enjoy knowledge. Mercantilism presses education (a key factor in the countries' growth, development, and progress) and information management deliberately. Our libraries and documentation centers provide conclusive proof of applying "management strategies", "quality and efficacy measures" and an increasing number of techniques and tools that seek to turn knowledge units into profitable businesses. Mercantile culture contaminates everything: policies on "borrowing fees" are being discussed in our libraries while copyright legislation makes it difficult to share, spread, and use a lot of documents and software. At the same time the digital divide broadens and the social roles of library professionals blur or vanish, information illiteracy grows... Librarianship –similar to education– is being attacked by a new model, whose advocators neither call a truce nor accept alternative ways of doing things or adaptations nor listen to reason. It seems a battle in which no mercy is going to be shown and whose victims will be the ones always injured in any battle...

In 1918, the University Reform that took place in Cordoba, Argentina, spread throughout Latin America and raised a storm of protest from students all over the region, who, going over the ideas expressed in the Manifesto written by Deodoro Roca also achieved important changes in their national university systems. Today... who will set an example of how education and other public services can be improved without freedom constraints? Who will rise up against the yoke of mercantilism?


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Voice cannot be restored to its rightful owners by writing them a script

Voice cannot be restored to its rightful owners by writing them a script

By Sara Plaza

A couple of months ago, at the local film club 'Hugo del Carril' in Córdoba (Argentina), it was presented a Spanish documentary film titled 'Invisibles: Una sola mirada y cinco historias' (Invisible ones: five stories but one only look), produced by Javier Bardem and directed by Mariano Barroso, Isabel Coixet, Javier Corcuera, Fernando León de Aranoa and Wim Wenders, which had recently won the Goya 2008 award for the best documentary film. In the review that appeared in the bulletin 'Metropolis' (Nº 55, April 2008) published by the film club itself, it could be read:

INVISIBLE ONES is a story of stories; an approach to those people condemned to obscurity by us; a wish to give their voice back to several people that fell silent by our indifference; a modest recognition for those ones that did never lose sight of them. But, above all, it is the willingness of five directors to turn visible the true and only main characters, people that we consider and like better as invisible.

I must admit that I did not like this presentation. I have become quite suspicious of hackneyed phrases such as 'give voice to people without it'. Firstly, for I regard it as affected and secondly, for it is deceitful. I think of it as an expression that makes people believe something that is not true. For a start, I do not believe that people from the badly called and worse understood "Third World" are dumb neither I agree with the idea of returning their voice to them by writing them the words, together with the instructions for how to say them. On the contrary, many dialogues and monologues that appear in the quoted film only allow the "First World" to hear what it is prepared to.

In this sense, regarding the North American film industry, the Spanish film critic Carlos Boyero wrote two months ago (EL PAÍS, April 26th, 2008):

'For some time, Hollywood has taken the third world and the old and never ending dirty tricks played on it slightly more seriously. It has done it with the best of intentions, making every effort to show a critical tone towards the disasters perpetuated by its colonizers, but never straying its attention from the gold–mines that are a box–office hit, the sacred conventions and the transparent or subterranean happy end'.

In an interview published by the same journal some weeks later (May 10th, 2008), the North American independent film director, John Seyles, also smiled before a label, 'independent', which Hollywood seems to like it very much lately:

'It is a fallacy invented by major studios in order to save money. They create smaller divisions where cheaper films are produced, which are called 'independent', and with this excuse they can pay less to actors and directors. Nevertheless, as soon as it is decided that they are going to take part in the Oscar race, forty million dollars will be invested in publicity for the film'.

Jesús Carrión, who works for the 'Observatorio de la Deuda en la Globalización (ODG, Globalization Debt Observatory) connected with the Polytechnic University of Barcelona, talking about the stock activism carried out by some NGOs, explained in an article (EL PAÍS, May 17th, 2008) that 'the danger is that big companies use NGOs to legitimize themselves'. And this is what he stated talking of the Corporative Social Responsibility programs developed by Spanish multinational companies:

'They make small donations but have great media power to achieve a publicity return on them while going on launching programs that destroy communities and territories'.

Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, in his last work 'Espejos: Una historia casi universal' (Mirrors: an almost universal story), under the headline "Americanos" (Americans) asks himself:

'The official History tells that Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first man that saw, from a mountain top in Panama, both oceans. Those living there, were they blind?

Who gave their first names to corn, potato, tomato, chocolate and to the mountains and rivers of America? Hernan Cortés, Francisco Pizarro? Those living there, were they dumb?

It was heard by Mayflower pilgrims: God said that America was the Promised Land. Those living there, were they deaf?

Afterwards, the grandchildren of those northern pilgrims took possession of the name and everything else. Now, they are Americans. Those living in the other Americas, what are we?'

Curiously enough, 'Babelia', the literary supplement of EL PAÍS published on May 26th, 2008 was titled:

To reinvent America

Madrid Book Fair gives voice to the new narrators [arrived] from the other side of the Atlantic.

Once more the 'First World' was writing the script for the 'Third', making us believe that they are dumb, blind and deaf. Once more the 'First World' was speaking of the 'Third' with a profound ignorance, since as I pointed out at the beginning of this post, the 'First World' never listen to what does not want to hear.

To my surprise, reading Simonetta Agnello's words in a recent interview (EL PAÍS, May 17th, 2008), I found out that some places in the 'First World' cannot express themselves either:

'It is a tragedy that the greatest part of what has been written about Sicily should have been written by foreigners not by Sicilians. There must be a reason'

Might it be related with the 'First World' making excuses for its own deafness by insisting on the 'Third' being dumb?