Thursday, October 17, 2019

My Log 766 October 16 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade 201: Some reflections on Western attitudes to freedom of expression; every achievement in life depends on a full belly to begin with; we have a great deal to learn from what is happening around the world right now


I have  been reading through reports of political and social opinions  in Europe that have been sampled over the last few decades by Pew Research.
“Most Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, and more than 40% of Hungarians and Slovaks, for example, said they felt most people in their countries were better off than 30 years ago; in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, more than half felt things were worse.
“Asked how they felt their countries had advanced, central and eastern Europeans were most positive about education (65%), living standards (61%) and national pride (58%). They were less happy about about law and order (44%) and family values (41%), and a majority (53%) said healthcare had got worse in the post-communist era.”
I have been trying to reconcile these views against what I have always understood to be the prevailing Western viewpoint about Communism, whether in Europe, China or Latin America, which to summarize, held that “people are in chains, freedom of expression does not exist, political expression is confined to one-party, and law and order is conducted arbitrarily against anyone who expresses dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy.”  A description of hell on earth.
Although I never lived in an authoritarian one-party state, I have always bowed to the opinion often expressed to me by my peers that in such a state I would very quickly have been whipped off to jail if I had ever tried to exercize the level of dissent that I have normally been able to express in Canada with no deletirous result on my ability to make a living.
I am not sure, however, that this is the last word to be said on this subject. I have always felt there is something excessive in the tenacity --- one might almost call it fanaticism --- with which the Western thought process has clung to the view that  freedom of individual expression is a quality that overrides all others.  One surprising Pew figure is that 56 per cent of Europeans delivered from authoritarian governments did not express their satisfaction with the freer system of law and order that they have now found themselves living under.
It has always seemed to me --- I guess ever since that day in 1951 when I first stood on the wharf in Bombay, having just been dumped into the biggest culture shock of my young life as I watched some officials pull the body of a dead man from the harbour, officials who, in response to my breathless inquiry as to what happened to him, merely shrugged and said, “He must have fallen in. Or jumped,” --- that poverty might be the greatest single influence on the exercise, or lack of it,  of human freedom. And that the India into which my wife and I subsequently plunged wide-eyed, and half-terrified by it all, where people had been killing each other only three years before in their millions because of their religious differences, that India had been transformed – the best estimate is of up to 15 million people displaced, between one and two miion people murdered --- into two nations in which hundreds of thousands of them were living under cardboard shelters on the city pavements, where, open for all to see, were the bodies of countless emaciated babies, just about to draw their last breaths.
Following that sharp encounter with the reality of the modern world into which we had so insouciantly embarked, I made it my business to see as much as I could of the areas in which the world’s poorest people live.  I not only lived for several months in an experimental Indian village, whose purpose was to uplift the lives of those many thousands living in surrounding villages, where I got my real lesson in what it is to be one of the world’s poorest people, but later in life I had the chance to visit  a slum now regarded as one of the world’s worst places of human habitation, Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.  I also collaborated on making a National Film Board of Canada film about a Latin American favela, or shantytown, built across a hillside above the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, by a group of  impoverished squatters who, under the organizational leadership of a local .communist,  had moved in and begun to establish residence there. That film was really about the best strategies by which the wealth of the Western world might be put to best use in  aid of residents of shantyowns, which, it argued, would be best brought about by the money going directly to the residents, without passing through (usually corrupt) national governments on the way. Finally, I spent three months in 1978 helping with the shooting of a film about an agricultural  commune operating under the Chinese Communist system.
It was against this  limited contact with  the lives of the poorest people on each of the major continents that I drew some conclusions about the limits to what seems to be the western idea of freedom.
For example, how could one talk of freedom for people forced to live in an environment like that of Kibera, which, when I visited it in the mid-eighties, had an estimated population of up to half a million people, we were told, mostly migrants from the villages of east Africa, who found themselves living impoverished lives, with no social services available to them, under minimal forms of government, in a community that could not even organize how to pick up the garbage that was thrown so carelessly into the middle of the main street, a community markd by, in the words of one social worker I met there, “every social problem you might care to mention.”?  
All of these communities were among “the poorest of the poor” in this world. Each was trying to make some impact on its circumstances, but in only one of these was any real improvement in the lives of the residents easily discernable. That was in the Chinese Communist commune established on the North China plain among what one western geographer once described as “the greatest collection of agricultural communities on earth.”
In some six weeks of relentless questioning I gathered enough information about the circumstances of this commune to enable me to classify it as equally poor in income to those other poor communities I had or have since visited on other continents.  Yet this was the only place among them where every citizen had his or her own house built by the commune according to strict rules of communal help; the only place where everyone was employed, either in agriculture (by far the biggest industry), or in small sideline occupations requiring great tenacity and persistence to make them work at all; where every child was in school, with the prospect that any child showing any special talent of whatever kind could be whisked on to some special school for special training; where the general health of the community, based on the system of so-called barefoot doctors, each with six months of medical training,  appeared to be almost on a par with our own; and in which, this the crowning touch, they grew enough food to feed everyone of the 15,000 people who lived in the six villages (known as production brigades), scattered around the commune, with extra food available to sell to surrounding towns.
Within the possibilities usually open around the world to such impoverished communities this achievement was something truly exceptional. Although it was carried out by an authoritarian government which had its ciients under tight control, nevertheless in any accounting of the freedom of citizens to lead a productive life, it has always seemed to me that this Chinese system, as I saw it operating for myself, was superior to the fumbling efforts being made to deal with poverty in more-capitalist orientated societies, where, in fact, the state seemed to be actively working against the solution to poverty conditions, rather than actively working, as in China,  to reduce them.
Having come to understand the history and background to the nearly total destruction of Chinese land and life against which they were struggling, it seemed to me unlikely that the peasantry, the principal beneficiaries of what looked to me like such a successful agricultural effort, would ever permit the State to turn away from Communism. And it was certainly a surprise to discover later that in the very same year we made our film, 1978, the recently-elevated and restored power-behind-the-throne Deng Hsiao Ping, enunciated a whole new direction for the Chinese economy that has set them so firmly on the capitalist road, and with such spectacular results. Following the death of Mao, the Chinese leaders emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution vowing to espouse a programme Chou En Lai had outlined in 1975, called the Four Modernizations. This was the banner for the wholesale change in direction of the Chinese economy.
Although at that time, 1978,  China wseemed to be groaning with food, food growing in every square inch of land, food piled in huge hea ps on the city streets, food markets bulging with fresh vegetables and cereals, and a distribution system that seemed to share it out as far as one could tell, equally, later history suggests that  the surplus gained from this success was not enough to prompt a successful industrialization of the economy, and so it was concluded that the new direction must be followed, even if it meant abandonment of many of the proudest achievements of Chinese Communism, like the Iron Rice Bowl, guaranteed for every citizen and worker, and so on.
It appears thast most of the draconiasn restrictions on personal behaviour have been relaxed, and China has become almost the opposite of the caricature pedalled in previous times of a society attentive to everyone’s needs. The shorthand casricture I use is that in those days, in internationasl sports, they played by the slogan, ”friendship first, competition second,” and they really seemed to mean it,  whereas in our modern times they seem to be as desperate to win at any cost as are the athletes of every other country.
Whas I set out to say, I guess, is that considerations about freedom of individual expression are out of place in a society that lacks the simple qualities of freedom, such as adequate nourishment and education, secure shelter, devoted nurture, and a path forward towards personal and even deeper goals in life. With these achieved, as the uproar in Hong Kong seems to indicate, new goals lie ahead that have to be fought for.  We should never forget that right now many hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are studying in the West --- 144,000 of them in Canada at last count ---  hoping to bring back with them the best knowledge available in the modern world.














My Log 766 October 16 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade 201:

Some reflections on Western attitudes to freedom of expression; every achievement in life depends on a full belly to begin with; we have a great deal to learn from what is happening around the world right now

I have  been reading through reports of political and social opinions  in Europe that have been sampled over the last few decades by Pew Research.
“Most Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, and more than 40% of Hungarians and Slovaks, for example, said they felt most people in their countries were better off than 30 years ago; in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, more than half felt things were worse.
“Asked how they felt their countries had advanced, central and eastern Europeans were most positive about education (65%), living standards (61%) and national pride (58%). They were less happy about about law and order (44%) and family values (41%), and a majority (53%) said healthcare had got worse in the post-communist era.”
I have been trying to reconcile these views against what I have always understood to be the prevailing Western viewpoint about Communism, whether in Europe, China or Latin America, which to summarize, held that “people are in chains, freedom of expression does not exist, political expression is confined to one-party, and law and order is conducted arbitrarily against anyone who expresses dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy.”  A description of hell on earth.
Although I never lived in an authoritarian one-party state, I have always bowed to the opinion often expressed to me by my peers that in such a state I would very quickly have been whipped off to jail if I had ever tried to exercize the level of dissent that I have normally been able to express in Canada with no deletirous result on my ability to make a living.
I am not sure, however, that this is the last word to be said on this subject. I have always felt there is something excessive in the tenacity --- one might almost call it fanaticism --- with which the Western thought process has clung to the view that  freedom of individual expression is a quality that overrides all others.  One surprising Pew figure is that 56 per cent of Europeans delivered from authoritarian governments did not express their satisfaction with the freer system of law and order that they have now found themselves living under.
It has always seemed to me --- I guess ever since that day in 1951 when I first stood on the wharf in Bombay, having just been dumped into the biggest culture shock of my young life as I watched some officials pull the body of a dead man from the harbour, officials who, in response to my breathless inquiry as to what happened to him, merely shrugged and said, “He must have fallen in. Or jumped,” --- that poverty might be the greatest single influence on the exercise, or lack of it,  of human freedom. And that the India into which my wife and I subsequently plunged wide-eyed, and half-terrified by it all, where people had been killing each other only three years before in their millions because of their religious differences, that India had been transformed – the best estimate is of up to 15 million people displaced, between one and two miion people murdered --- into two nations in which hundreds of thousands of them were living under cardboard shelters on the city pavements, where, open for all to see, were the bodies of countless emaciated babies, just about to draw their last breaths.
Following that sharp encounter with the reality of the modern world into which we had so insouciantly embarked, I made it my business to see as much as I could of the areas in which the world’s poorest people live.  I not only lived for several months in an experimental Indian village, whose purpose was to uplift the lives of those many thousands living in surrounding villages, where I got my real lesson in what it is to be one of the world’s poorest people, but later in life I had the chance to visit  a slum now regarded as one of the world’s worst places of human habitation, Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.  I also collaborated on making a National Film Board of Canada film about a Latin American favela, or shantytown, built across a hillside above the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, by a group of  impoverished squatters who, under the organizational leadership of a local .communist,  had moved in and begun to establish residence there. That film was really about the best strategies by which the wealth of the Western world might be put to best use in  aid of residents of shantyowns, which, it argued, would be best brought about by the money going directly to the residents, without passing through (usually corrupt) national governments on the way. Finally, I spent three months in 1978 helping with the shooting of a film about an agricultural  commune operating under the Chinese Communist system.
It was against this  limited contact with  the lives of the poorest people on each of the major continents that I drew some conclusions about the limits to what seems to be the western idea of freedom.
For example, how could one talk of freedom for people forced to live in an environment like that of Kibera, which, when I visited it in the mid-eighties, had an estimated population of up to half a million people, we were told, mostly migrants from the villages of east Africa, who found themselves living impoverished lives, with no social services available to them, under minimal forms of government, in a community that could not even organize how to pick up the garbage that was thrown so carelessly into the middle of the main street, a community markd by, in the words of one social worker I met there, “every social problem you might care to mention.”?  
All of these communities were among “the poorest of the poor” in this world. Each was trying to make some impact on its circumstances, but in only one of these was any real improvement in the lives of the residents easily discernable. That was in the Chinese Communist commune established on the North China plain among what one western geographer once described as “the greatest collection of agricultural communities on earth.”
In some six weeks of relentless questioning I gathered enough information about the circumstances of this commune to enable me to classify it as equally poor in income to those other poor communities I had or have since visited on other continents.  Yet this was the only place among them where every citizen had his or her own house built by the commune according to strict rules of communal help; the only place where everyone was employed, either in agriculture (by far the biggest industry), or in small sideline occupations requiring great tenacity and persistence to make them work at all; where every child was in school, with the prospect that any child showing any special talent of whatever kind could be whisked on to some special school for special training; where the general health of the community, based on the system of so-called barefoot doctors, each with six months of medical training,  appeared to be almost on a par with our own; and in which, this the crowning touch, they grew enough food to feed everyone of the 15,000 people who lived in the six villages (known as production brigades), scattered around the commune, with extra food available to sell to surrounding towns.
Within the possibilities usually open around the world to such impoverished communities this achievement was something truly exceptional. Although it was carried out by an authoritarian government which had its ciients under tight control, nevertheless in any accounting of the freedom of citizens to lead a productive life, it has always seemed to me that this Chinese system, as I saw it operating for myself, was superior to the fumbling efforts being made to deal with poverty in more-capitalist orientated societies, where, in fact, the state seemed to be actively working against the solution to poverty conditions, rather than actively working, as in China,  to reduce them.
Having come to understand the history and background to the nearly total destruction of Chinese land and life against which they were struggling, it seemed to me unlikely that the peasantry, the principal beneficiaries of what looked to me like such a successful agricultural effort, would ever permit the State to turn away from Communism. And it was certainly a surprise to discover later that in the very same year we made our film, 1978, the recently-elevated and restored power-behind-the-throne Deng Hsiao Ping, enunciated a whole new direction for the Chinese economy that has set them so firmly on the capitalist road, and with such spectacular results. Following the death of Mao, the Chinese leaders emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution vowing to espouse a programme Chou En Lai had outlined in 1975, called the Four Modernizations. This was the banner for the wholesale change in direction of the Chinese economy.
Although at that time, 1978,  China wseemed to be groaning with food, food growing in every square inch of land, food piled in huge hea ps on the city streets, food markets bulging with fresh vegetables and cereals, and a distribution system that seemed to share it out as far as one could tell, equally, later history suggests that  the surplus gained from this success was not enough to prompt a successful industrialization of the economy, and so it was concluded that the new direction must be followed, even if it meant abandonment of many of the proudest achievements of Chinese Communism, like the Iron Rice Bowl, guaranteed for every citizen and worker, and so on.
It appears thast most of the draconiasn restrictions on personal behaviour have been relaxed, and China has become almost the opposite of the caricature pedalled in previous times of a society attentive to everyone’s needs. The shorthand casricture I use is that in those days, in internationasl sports, they played by the slogan, ”friendship first, competition second,” and they really seemed to mean it,  whereas in our modern times they seem to be as desperate to win at any cost as are the athletes of every other country.
Whas I set out to say, I guess, is that considerations about freedom of individual expression are out of place in a society that lacks the simple qualities of freedom, such as adequate nourishment and education, secure shelter, devoted nurture, and a path forward towards personal and even deeper goals in life. With these achieved, as the uproar in Hong Kong seems to indicate, new goals lie ahead that have to be fought for.  We should never forget that right now many hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are studying in the West --- 144,000 of them in Canada at last count ---  hoping to bring back with them the best knowledge available in the modern world.



Some reflections on Western attitudes to freedom of expression; every achievement in life depends on a full belly to begin with; we have a great deal to learn from what is happening around the world right now

I have  been reading through reports of political and social opinions  in Europe that have been sampled over the last few decades by Pew Research.
“Most Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, and more than 40% of Hungarians and Slovaks, for example, said they felt most people in their countries were better off than 30 years ago; in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, more than half felt things were worse.
“Asked how they felt their countries had advanced, central and eastern Europeans were most positive about education (65%), living standards (61%) and national pride (58%). They were less happy about about law and order (44%) and family values (41%), and a majority (53%) said healthcare had got worse in the post-communist era.”
I have been trying to reconcile these views against what I have always understood to be the prevailing Western viewpoint about Communism, whether in Europe, China or Latin America, which to summarize, held that “people are in chains, freedom of expression does not exist, political expression is confined to one-party, and law and order is conducted arbitrarily against anyone who expresses dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy.”  A description of hell on earth.
Although I never lived in an authoritarian one-party state, I have always bowed to the opinion often expressed to me by my peers that in such a state I would very quickly have been whipped off to jail if I had ever tried to exercize the level of dissent that I have normally been able to express in Canada with no deletirous result on my ability to make a living.
I am not sure, however, that this is the last word to be said on this subject. I have always felt there is something excessive in the tenacity --- one might almost call it fanaticism --- with which the Western thought process has clung to the view that  freedom of individual expression is a quality that overrides all others.  One surprising Pew figure is that 56 per cent of Europeans delivered from authoritarian governments did not express their satisfaction with the freer system of law and order that they have now found themselves living under.
It has always seemed to me --- I guess ever since that day in 1951 when I first stood on the wharf in Bombay, having just been dumped into the biggest culture shock of my young life as I watched some officials pull the body of a dead man from the harbour, officials who, in response to my breathless inquiry as to what happened to him, merely shrugged and said, “He must have fallen in. Or jumped,” --- that poverty might be the greatest single influence on the exercise, or lack of it,  of human freedom. And that the India into which my wife and I subsequently plunged wide-eyed, and half-terrified by it all, where people had been killing each other only three years before in their millions because of their religious differences, that India had been transformed – the best estimate is of up to 15 million people displaced, between one and two miion people murdered --- into two nations in which hundreds of thousands of them were living under cardboard shelters on the city pavements, where, open for all to see, were the bodies of countless emaciated babies, just about to draw their last breaths.
Following that sharp encounter with the reality of the modern world into which we had so insouciantly embarked, I made it my business to see as much as I could of the areas in which the world’s poorest people live.  I not only lived for several months in an experimental Indian village, whose purpose was to uplift the lives of those many thousands living in surrounding villages, where I got my real lesson in what it is to be one of the world’s poorest people, but later in life I had the chance to visit  a slum now regarded as one of the world’s worst places of human habitation, Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.  I also collaborated on making a National Film Board of Canada film about a Latin American favela, or shantytown, built across a hillside above the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, by a group of  impoverished squatters who, under the organizational leadership of a local .communist,  had moved in and begun to establish residence there. That film was really about the best strategies by which the wealth of the Western world might be put to best use in  aid of residents of shantyowns, which, it argued, would be best brought about by the money going directly to the residents, without passing through (usually corrupt) national governments on the way. Finally, I spent three months in 1978 helping with the shooting of a film about an agricultural  commune operating under the Chinese Communist system.
It was against this  limited contact with  the lives of the poorest people on each of the major continents that I drew some conclusions about the limits to what seems to be the western idea of freedom.
For example, how could one talk of freedom for people forced to live in an environment like that of Kibera, which, when I visited it in the mid-eighties, had an estimated population of up to half a million people, we were told, mostly migrants from the villages of east Africa, who found themselves living impoverished lives, with no social services available to them, under minimal forms of government, in a community that could not even organize how to pick up the garbage that was thrown so carelessly into the middle of the main street, a community markd by, in the words of one social worker I met there, “every social problem you might care to mention.”?  
All of these communities were among “the poorest of the poor” in this world. Each was trying to make some impact on its circumstances, but in only one of these was any real improvement in the lives of the residents easily discernable. That was in the Chinese Communist commune established on the North China plain among what one western geographer once described as “the greatest collection of agricultural communities on earth.”
In some six weeks of relentless questioning I gathered enough information about the circumstances of this commune to enable me to classify it as equally poor in income to those other poor communities I had or have since visited on other continents.  Yet this was the only place among them where every citizen had his or her own house built by the commune according to strict rules of communal help; the only place where everyone was employed, either in agriculture (by far the biggest industry), or in small sideline occupations requiring great tenacity and persistence to make them work at all; where every child was in school, with the prospect that any child showing any special talent of whatever kind could be whisked on to some special school for special training; where the general health of the community, based on the system of so-called barefoot doctors, each with six months of medical training,  appeared to be almost on a par with our own; and in which, this the crowning touch, they grew enough food to feed everyone of the 15,000 people who lived in the six villages (known as production brigades), scattered around the commune, with extra food available to sell to surrounding towns.
Within the possibilities usually open around the world to such impoverished communities this achievement was something truly exceptional. Although it was carried out by an authoritarian government which had its ciients under tight control, nevertheless in any accounting of the freedom of citizens to lead a productive life, it has always seemed to me that this Chinese system, as I saw it operating for myself, was superior to the fumbling efforts being made to deal with poverty in more-capitalist orientated societies, where, in fact, the state seemed to be actively working against the solution to poverty conditions, rather than actively working, as in China,  to reduce them.
Having come to understand the history and background to the nearly total destruction of Chinese land and life against which they were struggling, it seemed to me unlikely that the peasantry, the principal beneficiaries of what looked to me like such a successful agricultural effort, would ever permit the State to turn away from Communism. And it was certainly a surprise to discover later that in the very same year we made our film, 1978, the recently-elevated and restored power-behind-the-throne Deng Hsiao Ping, enunciated a whole new direction for the Chinese economy that has set them so firmly on the capitalist road, and with such spectacular results. Following the death of Mao, the Chinese leaders emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution vowing to espouse a programme Chou En Lai had outlined in 1975, called the Four Modernizations. This was the banner for the wholesale change in direction of the Chinese economy.
Although at that time, 1978,  China wseemed to be groaning with food, food growing in every square inch of land, food piled in huge hea ps on the city streets, food markets bulging with fresh vegetables and cereals, and a distribution system that seemed to share it out as far as one could tell, equally, later history suggests that  the surplus gained from this success was not enough to prompt a successful industrialization of the economy, and so it was concluded that the new direction must be followed, even if it meant abandonment of many of the proudest achievements of Chinese Communism, like the Iron Rice Bowl, guaranteed for every citizen and worker, and so on.
It appears thast most of the draconiasn restrictions on personal behaviour have been relaxed, and China has become almost the opposite of the caricature pedalled in previous times of a society attentive to everyone’s needs. The shorthand casricture I use is that in those days, in internationasl sports, they played by the slogan, ”friendship first, competition second,” and they really seemed to mean it,  whereas in our modern times they seem to be as desperate to win at any cost as are the athletes of every other country.
Whas I set out to say, I guess, is that considerations about freedom of individual expression are out of place in a society that lacks the simple qualities of freedom, such as adequate nourishment and education, secure shelter, devoted nurture, and a path forward towards personal and even deeper goals in life. With these achieved, as the uproar in Hong Kong seems to indicate, new goals lie ahead that have to be fought for.  We should never forget that right now many hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are studying in the West --- 144,000 of them in Canada at last count ---  hoping to bring back with them the best knowledge available in the modern world.















2 comments:

  1. Very interesting observations, Boyce. However, I see the text has been repeated three times. Any chance of deleting two of them?

    ReplyDelete