Friday, August 01, 2008

Scolded into harmony and plenty..

I. One of the remarkable qualities in Jane Austen’s oeuvre is the absence of human monsters in it, unlike the novels of her contemporaries, like Stendhal, or Ann Radcliff, whose plots are haunted by figures of radical evil that make the reader’s blood curdle in fear and disgust.

Nonetheless, we do encounter in her novels some of the most accurately and minutely-profiled despots and tormentors in the English literature, like the cruel Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park, or the benevolent tyrant, Sir Thomas in the same book, or, most memorably, Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice:

“Elizabeth soon perceived that, though this great lady was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr. Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty."

(P&P, chapter 30)

II. This week, Selma, the Iranian blogger (“It is all about a Dystopia called Tehran”) wrote a vehement post about the toll that the restrictive, anti-woman laws exact from her freedom to live and enjoy her life:

“I was out to buy a new pair of shoes, but ended up going back home empty handed and frustrated … any type of sandals or strap shoes or anything that shows a bit of flesh is basically not usable(legal) anymore (unless you wear thick stockings which defeats the whole purpose of summer sandals)

The religious police rules.”

III. On History News Network, Judith Apter Klinghoffer tells us about the 2008 Global Peace Index report published by Australia-based ‘Vision of Humanity Organisation’.

The index shows that Oman, a Sultanate, is the "most secure and peace-loving nation in the region. At the global level, it took the 25th rank among 140 countries." It also shows the US as trailing behind such countries as Syria, Libya, Morocco and Cuba. It also shows Israel to be one of the least peaceful states in the world, behind Zimbabwe and Lebanon.

It’s a confounding list. To suggest that a country is peaceful is to imply that its people are at the very least contented, secure and indeed peace loving. To rank a country as low as Israel is ranked in this list is to proclaim that basically its people are restless, belligerent, tending towards the criminal, eager for war.

When we take a closer look at the happy and peaceful Oman, we find, according to wikipedia, that it is governed by

"the hereditary sultān, Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said who appoints a cabinet called the "Diwans" to assist him. In the early 1990s, the sultan instituted an elected advisory council, the Majlis ash-Shura, though few Omanis were eligible to vote. Universal suffrage for those over 21 was instituted on 4 October 2003... “

I would not be far wrong if I described this island of serenity and contentment as a medieval dukedom, ruled by a (hopefully) compassionate and indulgent overlord.

How is it possible that a political system which takes out of its subjects' hands the responsibility for pursuing their own free choices and happiness is deemed more “peace loving” than the US? How to explain the fact that Zimbabwe, where some of the worst atrocities in recent memory have been taking place, is more “peace loving” than Israel? Or that Americans are deemed less peaceful than Cubans, or Syrians?

Another question: how can a survey treat unquestioningly the statistics and information provided by repressive regimes like Iran or Syria, regimes whose governments lack transparency and accountability, and whose formally-published statistics creatively serve to get rid of any problem. For example, when Ahmadinejad claims there are no homosexuals in Iran, what it effectively means is that homoselxuals are executed in the public squares, which makes the “problem” disappear, so that it can no longer interfere with the desirable “peace” index, no? When you treat the information coming from opaque and bellicose regimes as equivalent to that supplied by transparent and functioning democracies, the results can only reflect a distortion of reality, an optical aberration.

It is ironic that the name of the organization responsible for this index is "Vision of Humanity". It makes me feel anxious. It legitimizes the claims these non-democratic countries make to their citizens when they reassure them that the status quo -- the system which abuses their human and civil rights --is best for them, better than other countries where freedom and rights are enshrined by law and constitution. And more to the point, it chips away at Selma's moral capability to stand up to the repressive religious laws of her country, to remain convinced of the justness of her complaint.

Such distortions boost the idea that Jane Austen mocks in her portrait of Catherine de Burgh, that people’s complaints can be silenced and made to disappear by just being scolded “into harmony and plenty.”

People naturally gravitate towards places where they hope to lead more secure and economically successful life and where they can provide better futures for their children. One way of determining, then, the desirability of a place would be to take a very long and probing look at its immigration patterns and numbers. How many immigrants want to, or arrive, at Oman, Iran, Syria, etc, contrasted, for example, with the numbers of immigrants to the USA, Israel, etc? Now that would indicate something, wouldn't it?


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