Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Log 515 April 27 2016: Thinking about freedom: and how my experience in a Chinese commune in 1978, challenged many of my assumptions, and fits into the current transformation of the globe

Some elements for M├ędecine chinoise in Xi'an
Some elements for Chinese medicine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Aerial view of the Barrio Norte section of Bue...
Aerial view of the Barrio Norte section of Buenos Aires. Callao Avenue is visible at right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a life during which I have wandered across the globe rather extensively, I have seen plenty of places in which the world’s poorest people have been living the most impoverished lives I could imagine. After leaving my native New Zealand in 1950, I arrived in India early in 1951 at a time when millions of people were sleeping in the streets under pieces of cloth or cardboard, or crowding railway station platforms on which they lived permanently, and I saw children dying on the streets, their bones being almost all that was left of their under-nourished bodies. One of the images I have never been able to forget came one day as I was walking down a hill in Kashmir when we came to an intersection where a small boy of about nine was sitting on the sidewalk rocking in his arms a dead baby, and giving vent to the most piteous wailing of distress that I had ever heard.
For a few months I lived in an Indian village, and witnessed close-up the tough lives of the peasantry. I can tell you, for a kid fresh out of well-endowed New Zealand, that was a hell of a lesson in how the majority of Earth’s inhabitants are forced to live, without medical care, adequate shelter, minimal sanitation, poorly-paid work (if any) and no education.
Later I visited Africa, where I saw the degradation of life in Kibera, often called the world’s biggest slum, alongside the glossy capital city of Kenya, Nairobi; I visited  an Ecuadorean favela built by poor people who illegally moved on to a mountain overlooking Quito, the capital city, there to establish their improvised shacks that served as the best homes they had ever known; I have glimpsed the terrible conditions of life for the poor in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, where formerly magnificent old homes had been occupied by hundreds of people, with each family carrying on its life behind dividing curtains and blankets hung from the roof.
And in 1978 I spent six weeks as part of a National Film Board crew engaged in filming the life of a Chinese commune. I spent a lot of energy trying to gather the basic information about the lives of the 15,000 people occupying that 3,000-acre commune in four separate villages. And my conclusion from the information they provided me was that, in terms of income, whether reckoned in money or in work-points, this was the poorest of the many poor places I had been in and observed during my life as a journalist.  As closely as I could figure it, the income per capita in that commune was around the equivalent of $60 a year. And yet, unlike the Indian village, the African slum and the Latin American favela, the people in this commune were all employed, their children were all in school, each family had a house, the poor benefited from welfare payments, there seemed to be adequate food readily available (although the country had emerged only 18 months before from the disastrous so-called Cultural Revolution that created chaos everywhere and brought almost all gainful activity to a halt), and they had a functioning, successful medical system based on the famous concept of the barefoot doctor.
It is true that the Communist system of government that had achieved all this for the poorest people was an authoritarian system. That was evident in every aspect, and it affected the way we were allowed to carry out our work. It is true that freedom of thought, in our western sense, had been stifled, and that answers to philosophical or moral questions tended to be repeated as if by rote. And yet, how could one not be impressed by the results, compared with the fate of the poor I had seen in other systems and in other countries?
 I have been accused many times by those around me of having been too much influenced by that Chinese commune. But the fact is, when considering the knotty question of freedom, of comparative freedoms especially, I came honestly to believe that the Chinese peasants of the Wushing commune enjoyed more freedom to exercise their innate talents and abilities than the poor, overburdened peasantry I had observed elsewhere ---- half-starved, uneducated, sickly, their labour exploited by a governing class that owned them lock, stock and barrel.
Any child who showed unusual abilities, whether it be in academic endeavours, music, gymnastics or whatever, was immediately spotted, and the best of them were transferred to special schools ---- several of which we saw in action ----where they were given specialized training in their discipline. It is true the conditions of life in these special schools were rigorous by our standards, but the quality of the work being performed by these students was astounding, to such a point that when the Chinese eventually emerged into international competition, I had no difficulty in believing that they would immediately  rank among the world’s best, as, in fact, they did.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me most of all was their care to use everything available to them in their small commune, their determination not to waste a single thing that they could put to use. This was obvious every time there was a high wind that broke off branches from the recently-planted trees that lined their roads. Those branches lay on the ground no more than a few minutes, being  gathered up almost immediately as the peasants emerged from their houses and carried them off to make some use of them.  They didn’t bother to show us many of these impressive practices: for instance, we discovered for ourselves that when they pruned their apple trees, they used the prunings to make baskets in which they sent the apples to market in the nearby town of Chengting. Similarly, when the school children, following the harvesters who had cleared away the wheat crop, gleaned the stalks that had been left behind, those gleanings were used by a group of 20 or so young women to weave hats that were essential in the high summer of the North China plain for shelter from the sun. Between the apple trees in the orchard were planted the herbs they gathered for use in the Chinese medicines they used in their health system, alongside the Western practices that they also used. Every used bottle and piece of discarded paper or cardboard was sold to the recycling plants, and the crops were sustained by the organic manure each peasant produced from the pig-pen that most kept in their backyard. Some of the businesses they established were based on using discarded materials. For instance, one such business used the small squares of discarded  metal bought from a city factory, and, in the commune, used to stamp out a small piece of a certain shape that was later used in the manufacture of a transformer of some kind.
Mother and son: typical commune shot of 1970s
Typical shot of commune in late 1970s: Photos by Michael Rank
I have always regarded it as a great irony that, at the very time we were there, in 1978,  the formerly disgraced leader Deng Xiaoping managed to take over the reins of government within the Communist party, and to set in motion the changes that have since resulted in the abandonment of the commune system and the institution of a full-scale, apparently closely managed, capitalist system of production that has transformed the face of China, and already made it one of the major financial powers in the global scene. Deng was apparently impatient of the slow rate of improvement of Chinese life. I remember him saying something to the effect that one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers. I thought it a remarkably silly observation, since, if the power required by the American worker had been compared with the power required by the Chinese workers, the advantage might quite possibly have lain with the Chinese. Nevertheless, he succeeded in imposing this general world-view on China, with results that have since astonished the world. And along with the remarkable  production capabilities of capitalism, of course, China has also imported the rest of the package --- prostitution, homelessness, unemployment, alienation, huge migration from countryside to city slum, and all the rest of the delights of capitalism that, in the Western world, have so crucially deformed economic and social life in our societies.
It appears to be a major fear of the governing American class that China is forcing its way into a position of equality on world terms, producing works --- railways, ports, infrastructure, as it is now called, of all sorts ---- in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere in Asia that our system has long known how to produce but somehow has just never gotten around to doing, our measurement being always the so-called bottom line --- profit, and all its ramifications.

It really is an interesting world we live in. Only this week China has proposed a global effort to produce the materials, solar panels, that will transform energy production in ways that will be needed to save the planet. Will this, too, be regarded by the Americans more as a challenge to their hegemonic ambitions, than as an opportunity to save the world?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Log 514 April 26 2016: Interesting films on two subjects of controversy among scientists: Experimenter, and Red Lights, both available on Netflix

English: Winona Ryder at the Marc Jacobs Show ...
Winona Ryder, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Starved prisoners, nearly dead from h...
 Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The junta members.
The Greek junta members. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This week I have come across two interesting films, on subjects only rarely discussed, from Netflix.

One is calledExperimenter, and it deals with the real-life experiments conducted by a social psychologist Stanley Milgrim from 1961 on, which have been handed down to history as the “obedience experiments”; the second film, also deals with a persistent question, that is, as to whether psychics are real or phony, and is  called Red Lights. Of the two the film on Milgrim and his experiments is a very successful film, using an interesting technique for information dispersal; whereas the second film, for some reason, falls apart in the middle, its conclusion ruining the clarity of the conclusions it had reached by halfway through.
Stanley Milgrim, author of the "obedience experiments"

Of course, these are not the first films and media presentations on either of these subjects. I remember from several years ago a most interesting TV programme made by the Swedish network, which investigated how the Greek colonels, when they were in power, found the torturers they used on left-wing dissenters. The programme  showed that they first recruited men of limited education, usually from fairly remote villages, so that they had little experience of the wider world.. They then, by the use of perverted, and brutal,  military discipline, emptied the minds of these men of all their preconceptions, all their original beliefs about good and evil. And lastly, they filled the resulting vacuum, again with a pitiless, brutal programme of indoctrination, with information which persuaded them that Communists were evil, and should be destroyed. Ipso facto, a torturer in waiting, ready and willing to destroy anyone put before them as a Communist, or as someone opposing the junta’s wishes. The highlight of the film was that it sought out men who had ben tortured, and put them together to discuss the event with the men who had tortured them, producing a fascinating and rarely observed disquisition.
Stanley Milgrim, apparently, was the Jewish son of an eastern European couple who came from a family some of whose members were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. As a child he expressed a determination to defend his people, and later he wrote (I quote from Wikipedia): "I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later. How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I’ll never quite understand.” He became an assistant professor of social psychology, first at Yale, later at Harvard, and finally at the City of New York University graduate Centre. He died young, at 51, after his fifth heart attack.
This feature film, in which Milgrim is beautifully played by Peter Sarsgard, and his wife played with understated tension by Winona Ryder, plunges almost immediately into the most notorious of Milgrim’s experiments in which the introduces a man whom the has convinced to take part in an experiment that will aid scientific research. The man is placed before a machine capable of delivering a shock, and is invited first of all to administer himself a slight shock.He is given a list of nouns, each one attached to a descriptive adjective, which the is commanded to read into a microphone to deliver to a second man in a neighbouring room who is required to read back to him each noun, and to attach it to the required adjective he has just heard.  Failure to produce the correct adjective will result in the delivery of a shock, and with each failure, the shock will be increased. What happens is that after a few failures, the recipient begins to exclaim at the severity of the shocks, to ask them to stop,  and finally to declare that he is no longer taking part in the experiment. Man number one is usually alarmed at this reaction, but the moderator when the is appealed to says, “Continue. You must continue, you have undertaken to continue” in an authoritative voice. The man usually continues, reluctantly disregarding the pain of the recipient of the shocks he is administering.  The trick is that, except for the first self-administered shock, no shocks have been delivered. Milgrim found, after repeating the experiment with different people, countless times, that an average of 61 per cent of the subjects continued to the end, disregarding the recipient’s pitiful cries for help. More importantly, Milgrim says that in all of the many repetitions of the experiment, not one person, not one, even among those who withdrew from the experiment, bothered to go into the neighbouring room to check on the condition of the man who had apparently been receiving severe shocks.
These experiments, when finally revealed in a scholarly journal, aroused a violent controversy among psychologists and other scientists. Many felt the experiments were unethical, and therefore unsupportable. Others, in later years, have felt that since the recipient was acting, most of the so-called deliverers of the shocks probably sensed there was something unauthentic about the experiment. But for the most part, the experiments have become an established part of  basic social psychological assumptions because of the light they throw on the tendency among people to obey authority, and therefore, they throw light on the Nazi followers, and on people who, in other times and other countries have performed the most horrendous bestialities at the command of their masters,
Not surprisingly, this film received extremely favourable reviews from the critics.
The second film Red Lights deals with a subject that has always interested me for two reasons. First, Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magicians of all time, hired a woman to investigate the claims of psychic mediums, and after investigating 3,000 of them, failed to find one who was genuine. In other words, their so-called contacts with the dead and departed were the result of trickery. Secondly, I once interviewed a music hall performer who, by using sleight-of-hand tricks at which he was almost incredibly skilful, pretended to his audience to be a mind-reader. In his dressing room he demonstrated how he performed the  slight-of-hand feats, which, he said, confirmed  that there is no such thing as mind-reading.
This film, directed by Rodrigo Cortes, in a Spanish-American co-production, starred Sigourney Weaver as a  convincing professor whose obsession in life was to unmask the utterly fraudulent claims made for paranormal powers by so many psychics. Assisted by an enthusiastic assistant played by Cillian Murphy, her team successfully unmasked pretenders to  paranormal powers, and the film was going along interestingly until the Weaver character died unexpectedly and in rather strange circumstances. Thereafter the script fell apart as the assistant wandered through abandoned hallways looking for evidence that a blind psychic played by Robert de Niro, embarked on a comeback after years of retirement, was not lurking around ready to play tricks on him. The Weaver character had evidently confronted this man years before, and had received some sort of experience that warned her off ever touching him again. But her assistant had no such compunction, and pursued him to the point that ---   having been severely beaten by someone, apparently employed by the De Niro character   --- he sufficiently recovers to unmask the psychic’s blindness as a pretence…. Unfortunately, in a denouement  that entirely baffled me, the assistant revealed that he himself had had psychic powers all along. Not surprisingly, this film received devastating reviews, and was also a box office failure.
Incidentally, apparently one reason Houdini became convinced of the phoniness of the claims to psychic power, was that when his mother died, Arthur Conon Doyle’s wife, a practising medium, offered to contact his mother for him. She specialized in writing the messages she received, and his mother apparently began her message with a Christian cross, and wrote 15 pages all in perfect English. Houdini said he was Jewish, his mother barely knew any English, and she would never have begun a message to wish him a Merry Christmas. Ipso facto….