ramblings of an immigrant son

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Are We Any Closer to a Prejudice-Free World?

In Activism, Culture, Current Events, Epistemology, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Lifestyle, Literature, Opinions, Perspectives, Philosophy, Politics on July 6, 2015 at 8:23 am

There were a number of converging factors that provoked me to write about this question. Being an avid reader of other’s opinions, sometimes I am prone to feel more optimism or more pessimism where the notion of “equality” is concern. For instance, I was uplifted by recent findings showing that peaceful protests are becoming an increasingly effective strategy to address social injustices. However, some of my hopefulness dissipated when I learned more about the culture of violence that persist in Baltimore. Current events have also been a subject of mix interpretation. While the legalization of gay marriage in Ireland and the United States seem to be steps forward, the tragedy in Charleston and unambiguous sexist comments made by a Nobel peace prize winning scientist have represented steps backwards.

Ultimately though, it was probably novels and films that broke the camel’s back. Although I am very interested in the inequality faced by women, aboriginal peoples, and immigrants, I have become especially curious about African American experiences in North America in recent years. Books like the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the Easy Rawlin mystery series, “In the Heat in the Night,” and the “Book of Negroes” have powerfully influenced the way I simultaneously feel empowered, outraged, rejoiced, and embittered by the progress (or lack of) in the advancement of human rights and elimination of racism. Films like “Twelve Years of Slavery” and “Selma” have only made those mixed feelings more poignant. After seeing these movies, it is understandably hard not to be bothered by the kind of suffering people have faced because of who they are and who they are not. Admittedly, I could not help but sympathize with the author of the article “Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave with a White Person”, and personally felt discomfort watching the film for the first time with anyone else except a like minded sibling.

It may seem as if I have missed an obvious source of motivation: my own experiences with racism as a non-white person. It is easy to assume that all people of colour are constantly aware of the prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that they are personally exposed to, regardless of its subtlety. However, in my opinion, it is not uncommon for children of immigrants to try to treat most forms of racism like background noise and initially look for other reasons for its presence when involuntarily confronted by it. After all, there is nothing flattering (or healthy) about being so willing to accept the possibility that you are being perceived as physically, intellectually, sexually, and/or professionally inferior because of a background you have absolutely no control over. I usually require a great deal of reflection and verification from others to acknowledge that I have been the victim of racism for whatever reason. To clarify then, it is usually easier for me to recognize how racism affects the lives of others than it is for me to comprehend how it shapes my own life.

When it comes to civil rights, there are good grounds to feel cautiously optimistic that things are gradually getting better. From the second half of the previous century, the constant outcry for the legalization of human rights and demand for political representation have leveled the playing field in some of the most unjust societies in the world. From Alabama to Soweto, institutionalized racism crumbled against the might of non-violent civil disobedience movements that have redefined the way we talk about concepts like “democracy,” “civic participation,” “protest,” and “equality.” Beyond developed countries, this momentum continues to embolden numerous ordinary people to denounce political oppression, misogyny, and post-colonial practices in all of their many disguises around the world. Admittedly, these movements haven’t always led to positive outcomes in the short run as seen in the immediate aftermath of China’s Tienanmen Square Protests and in Iran’s more recent Green Movement. Nevertheless, in the long run, the bloody suppression of these peaceful movements have done more to further their agendas than weaken them, forcing political elites to reevaluate what they can or cannot get away with imposing on a given society.

Things get more complex when it comes to seeking out radical changes on the social, economic, and cultural level. It cannot yet be said that ethnocentrism and sexism are problems that belong to the past in North America, let alone the rest of the world. In Canada and the United States, the people who tend to be the most marginalized remain visible minorities that have historically felt the greatest brunt of the colonial policies and practices of these countries. For example, the long term impact of government-backed residential schools in Canada have left communities across the country vulnerable to social turmoil, gang violence, and cyclical poverty. Although there have been efforts to celebrate aboriginal cultures and traditions as being part of their national heritage, aboriginal writer Thomas King gets it spot on when he points out that the primary way Washington and Ottawa address the issues and plights of aboriginal peoples is by simply choosing to ignore them. Tragically, the apathy of the “perfect stranger” has not only gained official acceptance, but has become the widely accepted paradigm in which most non-aboriginal peoples prefer to understand their unsettling relationship with aboriginal peoples. It has been a significant factor behind the slowness of the Canadian public to genuinely pay attention to the deterioration of water quality in the Chipewyan area as well as the alarmingly disproportionate number of missing aboriginal women throughout the country.

Mainstream culture also does not relieve the suspicion that more needs to be done where the status quo is concerned. Women in both of these countries are still paid less than their male counterparts and are all too often underrepresented in governments, businesses, and the media. One only needs to see the posters of upcoming films in a local cinema to get a fairly accurate idea of who is still getting the most screen time and who is getting the least. In all fairness, television shows and movies have increasingly becoming more representative, with a diversity of characters, themes, perspectives, and plots becoming accessible to wider audiences. Nonetheless, these initiatives are often met with intense criticism and resistance as evident in the visceral reaction of comic book fans to a non-white actor being chosen to play a major character in an upcoming film. Although a feminine and non-white presence can be found among individuals who for better (or worse) become celebrated icons in North America, the ones that get the most attention tend to be masculine- and you guessed it- Caucasian. Even perceptions of beauty remain heavily influenced by a widely accepted preference for physical attributes found mainly in people of European descent. As explored in the documentary “Colour of Beauty”, this ascetic pervades the fashion industry to such an extent that very few non-whites models, as oppose to their white counterparts, have a real chance to succeed professionally.

Civil rights leaders in the twentieth century grappled with whether legal and political gains would ever transition into economic, social, and cultural equality. While some like Martin Luther King Jr. insisted a harmony would gradually be realized, others such as Malcolm X expressed doubts about whether much beyond the superficial would really change. In the twenty-first century, it is quite easy to find ample evidence on whether the glass is half full or half empty when thinking about how close we really are to a prejudice-free world. I also suspect that answers will vary depending on backgrounds, circumstances, locations, and experiences of individuals or groups. So where does this simple-but-difficult-to-answer question leave us? Being such a challenge to answer, is it even worthwhile to pose the question at all? Well, in my opinion, maybe coming up with a definitive answer is not the point of asking the question. Rather, perhaps the purpose of stating the question is to keep alive a discourse that is as relevant now as ever. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned in his famous speech: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Certainly, by asking this question we inevitably find controversy, uncertainty, and a cocktail of facts that prevents the production of a neatly package response that we can all agree upon. In contrast, by refusing to raise the question at all, we lose an opportunity to explore possibilities of an improved way of being and run the risk of not only stagnating in our own ignorance, but doing so at the expense of fellow human beings. Therefore, if we really aspire to be the benefactors of a better world , then perhaps it is a good idea to keep bringing up tough questions. Especially one that directly relates to the lives of so many of us.



What the Cherry Blossom Still has to Teach Us

In Art, Asia, Buddhism, Ecology, Epistemology, Ethics, Health, Hinduism, History, Japan, Lifestyle, Literature, Nature, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, Sakura, Society, Spirituality, Taiwan, Tradition, Travel, Worldviews on March 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

From past to present, flowers continuously find purpose in our lives and imaginations.  Besides serving to brighten gardens, flowers fill the air with rich and subtle fragrances. They are used as tokens of affection for those among the living and dead. They remain a constant source of artistic inspiration, as seen in the Indo-Islamic artwork of medieval India and the Impressionists paintings of modernizing Europe. They are used to identify political allegiances and are often employed as powerful symbols of human achievement as well as human folly. From being an essential ingredient of herbal teas to a customary offerings to Hindu Deities, flowers remained a mainstay in the lives of numerous people from around the world. Why do these shapely but fragile angiosperms appeal to us so much?

For Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the flowers of his royal gardens provided a comforting reminder of Farghana, his beloved but forever unreachable homeland. For poets like William Shakespeare and John McCrae, flowers have been the topic of imaginative imagery and the substance of metaphoric language. While Shakespeare often used flowers to represent human emotions in his plays and sonnets, McCrae described poppies growing on Flanders fields as being torches held by dead soldiers in his powerful poem, In Flanders Field. For Buddhists and Hindus mystics alike, the lotus personifies the successful realization of spiritual enlightenment, with the roots of the flower entangled in muddy water but the blossom rising above the surface in all its captivating glory.

Obvious, people from all walks of life enjoy flowers for a variety of reasons. Although I appreciate many of these reasons, I nonetheless find that the Japan-based Buddhist perception of the cherry blossom, or Sakura, to be among the most relevant and instructive. That might seem like a fairly bold claim, but I cannot think of any flower that can better teach a human being how to think and live in our fast-paced-post-modern world. Up until the last two years, I did not pay much attention to cherry blossoms. It was during a spring visit to Yangmingshan, an active volcano near Taipei, that I first encounter these breath-taking tree flowers. Watching their pink, white, and violet pedals constantly fluttering to the ground, it struck me how sadly and beautifully these marvelous cherry blossoms seemed to come and go. Being surrounded by these falling pedals, I could not help feeling that they had more to offer than aesthetic value. However, by the end of spring, the illusive and mysterious Sakura became lost from sight and mind.

It was during my second encounter with cherry blossoms in Vancouver that my interest became rekindled. Watching how the cherry blossoms rapidly budded at the beginning of spring and gradually vanished by the end of spring, I came to better appreciate the transient but cyclical nature of the Sakura season. While visiting Vanduesen Botanical Gardens, I had the opportunity to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom side by side with pine trees, an interesting eco-cultural experience of West meeting East,  fleeting pink mingling with forever green, flower pedal next to pine cone. It was like simultaneously walking in two worlds with one foot in the Asian Pacific Rim and another in the Canadian North. Now I admit, this observation certainly says a lot about myself; after all, walking in two worlds is not exactly new stuff for a second generation Indo-Canadian. Perhaps I could even be accused of choosing to see something of myself in the Vanduesen blossom trees. Nonetheless, I prefer to think, like the cultural ecologist David Abram, that human beings tend to discover a lot about themselves in what is not human.

While my interest in cherry blossoms has since soared to new heights, it was not until I recently read a thoughtful passage in Neil Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha that I could finally fully articulate my reason for finding such frail and short-lived flowers so fascinating and inspirational. During his hitchhiking adventures across Japan in pursuit of the Sakura, Ferguson, in one of his reflective moments, observed that:

The imagery of sakura is problematic. It has long been entwine with the notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature… and yet the sword guards of samurai warriors bore the imprints of sakura as a a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life… The starkest image of sakura is that of the Ishiwari-Zakura, the stone-splitting Cherry Tree… [that] took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder… [eventually] splitting the vast boulder in two like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.

Although I already learned much about the Japanese notion of Sakura before reading Ferguson’s passage, his personal observation of  its paradoxical meanings did much to broaden and deepen my own awareness of the dynamic nature of these flower trees in a Shinto-Buddhist cosmology. While initially viewing the Sakura season as nature’s way of subtly teaching by gentle example about the “fleetingness of life,” my understanding of the cherry blossom tree gained new dimension as I recognized how it simultaneously teaches us how powerful, stubborn, and destructive the will to live can be. The Sakura season always comes to an end but always with the promise that it will begin anew next year. Problematic imagery indeed.

In a day and age where universal truths are becoming harder to maintain, and what we think we know becomes more easily debatable, perhaps the cherry blossom has something to teach us. In constantly reminding us that things that are seemingly contradictory can co-exist, it visibly demonstrates a way of thinking that is organic, pragmatic, and grounded in a world we all live in. In celebrating the cycle of birth and death on a yearly basis, it also models a natural way of being that balances an optimism for a colourful life with an acceptance of an unavoidable death. These are just a few of the revelations to be found in the beauty and sadness of Sakura.


Why asking if religion still matters may be the wrong question to ask?

In Globalization, History, Opinions, Religion on August 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm

In a recent blog posted in the religion section of newstateman.com, Duffy and Turner elaborate on how religion remains important to a considerable number of people around the world. While evaluating the pros and cons of this phenomenon, the authors highlight the need for religious understanding and interfaith cooperation in a rapidly-changing-globalizing-world.

Though a very thought-provoking read in of its self, what caught my attention was a number of reader comments. Now, it comes as no surprise that online commentary can often be filled with bull-headed and insensitive statements, with one commentator, for instance, dismissing all religious beliefs as ”rubbish.” However, it seems like some of these readers completely missed (or ignored) the authors’ key point:

“In a world that may seem increasingly secular to many of us, it is easy to forget that religious belief is a central part of life for hundreds of millions of people… [for them,] the importance of religion does not exist separately from other spheres of life — it often has a direct impact on social, political and economic issues.”

Like-minded commentators refer to all religion believers outside of the West as existing behind a so-called “walls of ignorance” and being on a “slow road towards enlightenment.” I cannot help but notice how the language they use is ironically reminiscent of the rhetoric employed by Christian evangelicals and missionaries of the nineteenth century to describe non-believers in non-European lands.  These were not the sort of things said by individuals interested in reciprocal understanding, or needless to say, cooperation on an equal footing with the ‘other.’ On the contrary, more often than not, what they claimed served to morally and ideologically  justify various colonial projects across the globe.

Moreover, one commentator referred to the political, economic, and social emergence of various religious societies as “chilling.” He seems to take comfort in a belief that the pattern of religious decline seen in the Western world will inevitably “roll-out elsewhere” and that this is desirable and beneficial for all. Does this perspective honestly seem any less dogmatic or utopian than what some orthodox Christians and Muslims believe?

From where I stand, the line of thinking in question seems far more unsettling than the facts and figures cited in the article. At best, it reveals a lack of critical thinking skills among individuals that share this attitude towards religion as a whole. At worse, it indicates just how urgent a more informed awareness of the role of religion in yesterday and today’s world is needed in a so-called ”secular West.”              

For those interested in reading the New Statesman’s article:


Rethinking the “Protestant Ethic”…

In Book Reviews, History, Religion on June 16, 2011 at 9:02 am

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. United States:  Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1958.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has received positive acclaim in the past and continues to be widely celebrated. The “Protestant Ethic” has remained a well known term in the English lexicon and the arguments it represents continues to be treated seriously within academic circles. On the surface, the content of Weber’s famous work seems persuasive and well grounded. However, a closer analysis of how the text functions not only seriously calls into question its factuality, but the alleged objectivity of the author himself. Although there have been various counter-arguments made against Weber’s conclusions, this book review will focus on the form and structure of his work.

Weber’s engagement is logical through the use of what I like to call dichotomous inclusion-exclusion frameworks within the text’s content. At the introduction of the text, the author endeavours to demonstrate the uniqueness of ‘Western’ civilization relative to others as well as emphasize its alleged “universal significance and value”[1]. At first glance, being different and universal appears to be paradoxical. However, the author overcomes inconsistency by using a framework that illustrates through a series of comparative examples the ways in which this west prevails as a center of universality. The universality of Western civilization is clearly understood to be a “specific” and yet solely “valid” rationalism that underlines its every cultural attribute.[2] In systematically comparing aspects such as natural science, music, architecture, and capitalism,[3] the author creates a narrative that does not merely outline the differences between western civilization and non-western civilizations (particularly those of a so-called “Orient”). It also demonstrates the existence of a universal characteristic within western civilization that is lacking in the others. Thus, in implementing this framework, the author is able to develop a logically consistent assertion that the West is both distinct and universal.

By no means does Weber restrict his usage of a dichotomous inclusion-exclusion framework to the introduction of his work. In formulating the notion of two historic opposing forces designated “spirit of capitalism” and “traditionalism,”[4] the author is able to neatly designate details in such a way as to ensure that they always contribute to and never contradict his arguments. In short, Weber’s ability to categorize prevents any disruption to the logical flow of his narrative. When evaluating the pre-Protestant moral systems, the author is able to consider Catholic morality as merely requiring “external devotion”[5] by categorically excluding it as traditionalist. Conveniently though, when assessing Protestantism’s maintenance of the pre-existing Old Testament morality, the author considers this related to the “powerful impetus” of a spirit of “self-righteous and sober legality” integral to “worldly asceticism”[6] by categorically including it as a necessary ingredient of the spirit of capitalism. Furthermore, what at initial observation appears contradictory continues to be overcome in the text through the implementation of the inclusion-exclusion framework. For instance, while Weber can include Luther’s biblical notion of the “calling” as part of the Protestant Ethic’s ideological chronology by considering it foundational to the spirit of capitalism, he is also able to exclude Luther’s largely non-worldly interpretation of the bible by designating it “traditionalistic.”[7] Therefore, by utilizing an inclusion-exclusion framework, the author is able to exclude and include details as needed to ensure the production of a logically engaging narrative throughout the text.

The monograph is written in both an empirical and judgmental mode. In the introduction of the text, Weber asserts that his text is a “sociological and historical investigation” analyzing all “influences and causal relationships.”[8] His choice to disregard racially comparative anthropological studies is not motivated by moral or ethical considerations. On the contrary, its absence from his discourse is due to his professional opinion that research in this field, while not without “notable achievements,” has yet to produce “satisfactory answers” to what is still “unknown.”[9] Moreover, Weber builds his analysis on the basis of facts and trends that can be tangibly verified. The fact that Germans with Protestant backgrounds dominate ownership of capital and make up the bulk of “technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprise”[10] is not fabricated by the author. After all, the observation made in Weber’s discourse is citing from statistical studies that were carried out in Germany during the end of the nineteenth century.[11] It is from this statistical trend that Weber is able to formulate the argument that the reason for the difference of work habit between Catholics and Protestants lies in the “intrinsic character of their religious beliefs.”[12] Thus, the mode of writing within the text is empirical.

Although an empirical mode is present in the content of the text, the judgemental mode of writing in the author’s analysis cannot be disregarded. Through a selective use of wording, Weber injects his personal views into what is allegedly an ‘objective’ discourse and in doing so produces a narrative that conveys his opinion as fact. For instance, in describing the Catholic priest of the Middle Ages as a “magician” able to perform “miracles and transubstantiation” and holding the “key of eternal life” in his hand,[13] the author projects a particular image of the Catholic Church to the reader. While the description in its self is not factually based (it notably lacks any citation), it nevertheless succeeds in cultivating notions of the Catholic tradition as being superstitious, fantastical, and anachronistic. Furthermore, with historical events that are consistent with his arguments, Weber also employs wording that misleads readers to interpret his opinions as factually based. In discussing the inner worldly asceticism of the puritan as taking “part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order”[14], the author portrays his interpretation of historical events in a specific way to readers (again no citation). The expression “tremendous cosmos” in itself compels the reader to perceive the development of the Protestant Ethic as an historical process involving a chain of interconnected historical events that produce an inevitable larger-than-life outcome. Therefore, along with being empirical, the mode of writing in the monograph is also judgemental.

Weber’s explicit theory regarding the development of a so-called “spirit of capitalism” is produced by the linking of specific historical events and ideologies together. The author generates his discourse by weaving past occurrences and beliefs into what appears to readers to be a historical step-by-step process with a finite outcome. Commencing the “spirit of capitalism” chronology at Luther’s theological realization of the ‘calling’, Weber regards this concept as one later reinterpreted and expanded upon in Calvin’s notion of ‘predestination.’[15] In turn, Calvin’s idea of predestination allegedly resonated in a select number of “ascetic” Protestant movements that the author claims were never completely separated from each other.[16] According to Weber, these Protestant sects, particularly the Puritans, cultivate “worldly Protestant asceticism” that eventually “gives way to utilitarian worldliness” of the modern age and organically becomes the prevailing “spirit of capitalism”[17]. Thus, by directly connecting ideologies and occurrences of a period spanning almost five hundred years in a 183-page narrative, the author formulates a historical continuity that portrays the “spirit of capitalism” as an evolutionary outcome.

Weber’s explicit theory regarding the historical emergence of a “spirit of capitalism” is generated by the confinement of the narrative’s attention to specific territorial boundaries. Conveniently, the locations from where “ascetic” Protestant movements take shape happen to also be states that Weber regards as bastions of the “spirit of capitalism”. Countries where Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and Baptist flourished include England, Holland, Germany, and the United States, all countries with pronounced Protestant traditions.[18] Consideration concerning the historical origin of the “spirit of capitalism” in non-Protestant Western Europe is notably absent in the text. Weber’s decision to limit his narrative’s focus to predominantly protestant countries is clearly intentional. After all, recognizing the historic involvement of non-Protestant countries with an alleged “spirit of capitalism” would conflict with the author’s advocacy of a historical continuity entailing the “spirit of capitalism” being exclusively a direct outcome of Protestant theological thought. Therefore, by restricting his narrative on the historical development of a “spirit of capitalism” to territories with strong Protestant traditions, the author is able to effectively ignore the existence of contradictory evidence to his arguments.

The first section of this book review assessed how Weber’s arguments within the monograph is based on dichotomous inclusion-exclusion frameworks. The second section revealed how the work is written in both an empirical as well as judgemental mode. Lastly, the third section elaborated on how Weber’s explicit theory concerning the historical evolution of a “spirit of capitalism” works. In order to acertain the strengths and weaknesses of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it is vital that readers be aware of the means by which the author conveys and establishes his arguments within the text.

[1] Max Weber. “Author’s Introduction.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1958). p. 13.

[2] Ibid- p. 26&13.

[3] Ibid- p. 13-22.

[4] Max Weber. “The Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 59.

[5] Ibid- p. 74.

[6] Max Weber. “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 165.

[7] Max Weber. “Luther’s Conception of the Calling.” p. 80&83.

[8] Max Weber. “Author’s Introduction.” p. 31.

[9] Ibid- p. 30-31.

[10] Max Weber. “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification.” p. 35.

[11] Max Weber. “Notes.” p. 188.

[12] Max Weber. “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification.” p. 40.

[13] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 117.

[14]Max Weber. “Asceticism and Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 181.

[15] Max Weber. “Luther’s Conception of the Calling.” and  “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 79-98.

[16] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 95.

[17] Max Weber. “Asceticism and Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 170&176.

[18] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 98-150.