Excerpt from a quirky book review — Eric Walberg’s Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games
G. S. 
initial posting 6 August 2011 - last update 26 August 2011

URL: http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/t/2011-08-06.htm

      Eric Walberg’s new book is “must reading” for every young American who wants to live a decent and reasonably long life. By birth of Canadian Jewish ethnicity, he nevertheless disdains the fashionable psychological crutch (poor me, everyone hates us Jews) that so many English-speaking Jewish Americans (and Canadians) lean on. Instead of indulging in self-pity, he has sought, with considerable success, to understand the world. His latest article, “Time to Default? Egypt vs. the IMF” at http://counterpunch.com/walberg07082011.html is, as Walberg’s articles often are, a window on the real world. [1]

      Part of the review I’m working on is not quirky — the part that urges you to read this book as though your life depended on it (because maybe it does). The “quirky” part is a result of my inability to stick to the narrow task of writing what a book review is “supposed to be.” I’m supposed to focus on what the author thinks and writes about. But my more urgent task (in my mind) is to put my effort into finding a way for life on Earth to continue, in spite of the imminent threat I see of global immolation. The excerpt that follows is a result of my inability to discipline myself to the assigned task. Forgive me, Eric.

Making a world of happy children

      If we are serious about wanting to make a good world, we need to focus on shaping the social environment so that all children are happy. What is needed for that? Clearly, each child’s needs must be met. That is not very difficult to achieve, because a child’s needs are in fact very simple. They begin with adequate nutrition, and encompass the essentials for physical health and normal bodily development. Just as important is the child’s psychological well-being. The key to development of a healthy, happy outlook on the world can be seen in much of the traditional indigenous culture that endures, though somewhat precariously, in many of the geographically remote mountainous communities of Oaxaca State.

      What are the characteristics of these small indigenous communities? It is difficult — perhaps impossible — for me to avoid romanticizing the potentialities for a truly healthy society in Oaxaca. My desire is so great for humanity to achieve a true civilization that it prejudices my thoughts. Like my faith in anarchism, my thoughts about possible human development are rooted in my desires. It is these desires that make me resonate with the values that permeate so much of Oaxacan society. These values are to such a great extent directly contradictory to the dominant values of “modern American society” that my friends and contacts there are unable to understand “or don’t want to understand” what I am saying. It is as though we are living “on different planets.”

      Instead of abstractions, let me give some concrete examples. People here are seemingly incredibly patient. They are not plagued by the incessant “need to save time.” It’s very common for an automobile to stop and the driver to wave waiting pedestrians to cross. Not always of course, and not on all roadways. It’s different than the behavior in California, where if a driver does not yield to a pedestrian who has stepped off the curb onto the roadway, s/he may be ticketed by a police officer. Here there is no threat of legal action to coerce the driver. Deferring to a pedestrian is entirely voluntary, yet common enough to make it a standard part of the driver/pedestrian interaction. On highways and speedways it’s an etirely different story. And increasingly there are more and more drivers who seem to be “hell bent to get somewhere” and who care not at all about other people. This kind of “I’m No.1” is not atypical of young people driving luxury cars who are incessently propagandized by television and other advertising media to “be modern, be chic, be hot.” So yes, young people here are like young people everywhere — they want to be “with it, up to date.”

      Most young Oaxaqueños do not have automobiles. Even those who attend rather expensive private schools are more likely to have motorbikes or to commute by bus between home and school. I live close to a school called Universidad Vasconcelas, which caters to a well-to-do segment of the Oaxaca City population. In the U.S. we would not consider it to be a university or in the class of elite private secondary schools. I would estimate that the bulk of the students are in the 16-20 age range. Like all teenagers, their primary concern is their sexuality. It’s regarded as perfectly normal to be entirely open about this preoccupation. When I walk on the sidewalk in front of the campus there are always students embracing and kissing one another — the usual greeting — without restriction as to sex. This is a part of the act of touching, flesh to flesh. Throughout Oaxaca the culture is one of touching. Warm, friendly touching, showing a good deal of affection freely exchanged. Not just among students, but among neighbors, people we become acquainted with in the market, shopkeepers, familiar peddlers, and so on. The culture is inclusive rather than exclusive.

      This quality of inclusiveness recognizes no age boundary. Wherever you go in the active parts of the city — the markets, the parks, the festival celebrations — there are innumerable groups of 2, 3, . . . people walking together, in any of which the ages range from infants being carried all the way to elderly people being helped along by members of their party. It seems as though toddlers are bubbling all around, oblivious to any restrictions on their movements. Of course parents or other older relatives keep an eye open for where the little explorers are wandering. And sometimes a little adventurer suddenly loses contact with the other members of the group and is frightened to be “alone”. Invariably nearby adults move to comfort the youngster and find the child’s party. It is as though “the children belong to everyone”, they are part of the community, which indeed they are.

      This sense of “belonging” — of not being alone — is profoundly rooted in the traditional culture. Unlike that false U.S. slogan, “No child left behind” in a culture that destroys its youth, in Oaxaca, the tradition is precisely that “every child belongs.” A walk in the Zócalo, a favorite relaxation area in the city center open to all people, is always rich with a display of tiny children being lovingly cared for by their only slightly older siblings or other relatives. Small children struggling to carry and care for even smaller members of the tribe, and doing it with love and pride. It’s their responsibilty, their work, their contribution to the functioning of their community. It is part of what gives meaning and value to their lives. Of course, from an American gringo’s perspective, the child is “being put to work,” exploited, and not even being paid for it. But from the Oaxacan’s perspective it is being part of the family, of belonging. It is part of the cement that bonds the (often extended) family into a mutually supportive group. In the thirteen years that Nancy and I have lived here, I have never seen one of these children mishandle a smaller child in its care. It really is a culture of love.

      Needless to say, Americans are fundamentally no different than Oaxaqueños. Especially in rural areas, where the pace of life is not so tightly governed by speed and the state, the same human graces are able to flourish, and islands of civility, love and mutual aid can develop, and do. But that is antithetical to the dominant culture that penetrates ever more intrusively the lives and consciousness of young people. All the forces aligned with money interests work incessantly to condition the ideas of young, impressionable people to try to make them conform with the dominant money-oriented culture. It’s akin to a minor miracle that Oaxaca has managed to retain so much of the traditional cultural values in spite of the barrage of corporate and state propaganda. I think that’s in part due to the small size, remoteness and substantial level of self-sufficiency of these communities. I think that Oaxacan campesinas and campesinos cultivate about 80 per cent of the food consumed in the state. This in spite of the continuing efforts of the state and federal governments to make the population increasingly dependent on imported foodstuffs that they must buy, with money that they don’t have. And we should not ignore the terrible nutritional shortcomings of the most impoverished campesinas/os. Children in such families suffer from stunted development — a lifetime burden to them and their communities.

      In the United States it is very common for small children, particularly girls, to entertain themselves for long periods of time by “playing house”. They make believe they are “grown people” and copy the behavior routines they see their adult female family members engaging in. There the gender separation is impressed on children early on. Little boys usually imitate the behavior of adult males in their play. In Oaxaca children of course also imitate the things that adults do, but two important differences are characteristic: activities are far less separated by gender, and the children, though they may regard their activity as play, are contributing their efforts to maintain the family. In the milpa allotted to the family for cultivating its crops, boys and girls work together removing pebbles from beans or parts of the corn infested with fungus, etc. Whereas American youngsters would think of such activity as work, to their Oaxacan counterparts it is simply part of life.

      An important consequence of the fact that from a very early age the child’s contribution to the family is essential is the development of a sense of self — the child thinks of itself (and is) a responsible family member. Thus one sees even quite young children speaking with adults “as though they are equal”. They expect to have their say, and to have their opinions taken seriously. They are not told, as American children often are, to “be quiet.” Here children are to be heard as well as seen, and they are, vociferously present. To me it was sometimes disconcerting: “Don’t those kids ever shut up?” I would think. The gulf between their culture and that of my childhood is vast. Yet I must admit, in site of occasional irritation, that I’m sure theirs is better in all significant respects. Americans may think that Oaxacan families are terribly permissive; they are, in fact, wonderfully permissive. There is room in the family for everyone. This is, for Nancy and me, of particular concern as we become gradually more and more infirm. We are thankful to live where it is taken for granted that gracious accommodation for the very young children and for the doddering aged prevails.

Making a Palestine of happy children
A model for making a world of happy people

      The destruction of Palestine should be stopped and the land returned to its indigenous peoples. I presented a fairly brief sketch for doing this without any further bloodshed, torture, theft or suffering of any of the peoples involved, including the would-be Jewish Zionist conquerors. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of seeking a non-violent, humane resolution, and to declare without further thought, That would be contrary to human nature. So easy and so fatal. One of the things I have learned from the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca is the existence of a “better way” to settle conflicts than British officialdom ever dreamed of.

      To people whose life experience has been shaped almost entirely by the contemporary dominant global ideology, the possibility of a different way of living — with a really totally different set of governing values — seems inconceivable to most of the people I know in the U.S. It must seem to them that I’m oblivious to what “human nature” is, that I’m living in a dream world. So they act like the normal people they are: they ignore me and what seem to them to be my “mad ravings”.

      No one can be expected to comprehend events and/or possibilities for human interaction that are totally outside his/her life experiences. If you tried to tell a native bushman of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa about snow, you would be thought to be delusional. Most of my American contacts have life experiences limited to the U.S. To them my experiences among indigenous Oaxaqueños who are not “naturally greedy and aggressive” seem incredible. They take me for a deluded romantic, and dismiss my vision of “how the world could be”. They “know” — they believe — what “human nature” is, and that, like an engraving in stone, it is frozen forever. I see their attitude as showing an unrelenting stubborness. And, I should empahsize, this stubborness is by no means limited to my self-labelled “liberal” friends. My American anarchist friends are also addicted to the notion that they are entitled to live at a level of material wealth that is increasingly beyond the reach of former “middle class” Americans. They too enjoy being privileged. Surprise! Surprise!

      Just yesterday (the 18th of Aug 2011) I got a letter from an anarchist friend, who wrote in part, “XXXXX and I are safely back from Bread and Puppet in Vermont, and are all fired up, with batteries recharged, and working hard to "change the world." It was raining hard the whole way back. It was a difficult drive, but XXXXX got us through it okay”. The intrepid strugglers battling for a better world by driving several hundred miles to celebrate with other “turned on” radicals. How much gasoline burned? How much ecological damage in the pursuit of fun? No clue. No interest. It’s their right to have fun. And these are committed American anarchists! Do I sound as though I have contempt for principled people who prefer to win an argument and lose the world than to lose an argument? You bet! Preventing the genocide of the Palestinians is my first priority. Here are two papers on saving the Palestinians:
http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/10252-palestinian-israeli-conflict.html http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/t/2010-11-13.htm

[1] It’s only recently that I became acquainted with Eric Walberg. His main shortcoming might be that he sometimes lets his fine sense of humor entice him to venture into dangerous territory. But at least he’s not always deadly serious and humorless, like one old guy I know. He loves words and languages. His latest piece, titled “Time to Default? Egypt vs. the IMF“, in the Weekend Edition July 8 - 10, 2011 of Counterpunch, about the struggle in Egypt, says, truthfully and playfully, “No one is trying to charge the people who gave Mubarak or his henchmen their money and then let them re-deposit it with them, but it takes two to tango.”
      “It is no secret” Walberg continues “that Egypt has put all its faith in the US and Western international institutions since the days of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, contracting a huge foreign debt, a process that was increasingly corrupt, despite being careful watched over by those very agencies. This debt is financed by foreign banks, and must be repaid in dollars — with interest. If much of the money they create and then “lend” is siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts, that is Egypt’s problem. Whether or not a fraction of it actually helps the Ahmeds in the meantime, it is the Egyptian people who are held responsible for it all and must comply with IMF “adjustment programmes”, involving privatisation, deregulation, regressive taxation, an end to subsidies to the poor, and much more unpleasant ‘tough love’.”
George Salzman is a former American Jew living in Oaxaca, Mexico, an ex-physics prof, Univ of Massachusetts-Boston.
All comments and criticisms are welcome.  <doctorsci@gmail.com>

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Initial posting of this page: 6 August 2011.
Last update: 26 August 2011