Sunday, November 15, 2009

Internationalism versus Localism

by Paul Doolan

This is a speech I gave to the graduating class of the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham Council House, Birmingham, UK on June 2nd 2008.

Flying into Britain yesterday I had to consciously remind myself that I was entering a country at war. Enjoying this wonderful city, standing in this magnificent hall, walking across Victoria Square or sipping a cappuccino in New Street, it is easy to slip into an idyllic forgetfulness. Indeed I understand how tempting it must be to throw in one’s lot with Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,

And utterly consum’d with sharp distress,

While all things else have rest from weariness?

It’s extraordinary that a country can execute not just one but two wars simultaneously, in such comfort and with such lack of concern from the home front, where the main anxiety seems to be the price of petrol.

There are intelligent people who wield persuasive arguments that Britain’s invasion of Iraq in defiance of the United Nations was a good thing, even though there are now four and half million displaced Iraqis who are not welcome in Britain, and despite the fact that the documented Iraqi civilian death toll now far exceeds that of the bombing of Hiroshima. The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a war that has now resulted in more deaths than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, was marked a couple of months ago by a small demonstration in London.

A short time later, the world witnessed scenes of Chinese troops violently putting down demonstrations in Tibet. Thousands of protestors bravely turned out in London. But here is my point. The thousands of protestors against the violence in Tibet dwarfed the small number of protestors against the war in Iraq.

Now what is going on here? Could it be as simple as we like Tibetans and we don’t like Iraqis? Buddhists are okay but Muslims not? Was it the fact that it was bitterly cold and raining heavily on the day of the Iraq protest but on the day of the Olympic flame the weather was, a little less harsh? Could it be that British citizens and residents are more upset by violence perpetrated on Tibetans than by violence that is paid for by their taxes and aimed at Iraqis. Or do British protestors believe that their actions will influence a totalitarian government at the other end of the planet while they have given up on their own democratic government at home. Perhaps it is simply blind patriotism that keeps people at home when it comes to protesting against their own country’s actions.

Whatever the reason, it speaks volumes about internationalism when we live in a world where we are able to pick our engagement from a mediated menu of causes while displaying unconcern for the local, or national, that is, the fact that this country is at war. This is one form of internationalism. To be passionately committed to a cause that has no direct bearing upon your life while, being unmoved by issues of a national or local character.

Some years ago I read an interview with the CEO of Starbucks. He boasted that his vision was of a world with just three localities – the workplace, home and Starbucks. Imagine that world: in every city of workers rest after their toil in the same casually comfortable ambience, relaxing to the same music, sharing the same language – "one Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino Grande". Today, a Chinese tourist in Beijing has 65 Starbuck stores to choose from, including one in the Forbidden City, and the soldier in Guantanamo Bay, during a break from guarding prisoners in cages, can enjoy a Spicy Pumpkin Frappuccino Tall.

British writer John Berger has claimed that the aim of the free market is “to delocalise the entire world”. Berger goes on: “The key term of the present global chaos is de- or relocalization ……… the dream of undermining the status and confidence of all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single fluid market. The consumer is essentially somebody who feels, or is made to feel, lost, unless he or she is consuming. Brand names and logos become the place names of the Nowhere.” The Starbucks vision of internationalism, because that is what it is, internationalism, is one that exemplifies I think, this phenomena, where the brand replaces the locality.

My third example of internationalism comes from the arts, namely, architecture. Birmingham city centre has at least one stunning piece of iconic architecture that can easily be placed in the top rank in the world. I mean of course Selfridges department store. Perhaps it is significant that this curvaceous edifice, designed by Future Systems, towers over St. …… Church, symbolizing that consumption has replaced religion in our public values. The world has been watching as the new Olympic Stadium or Bird’s Nest as it is called, designed by Swiss architects and Herzog and Du Meuron, has been rising in Beijing. Norman Forster’s dome over the Reichstag has become emblematic of contemporary, cool Berlin. Frank Gehery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao attracts millions of visitors, and they come to view the building itself as much as the art inside the museum. But here is a little thought experiment. Take Selfridges of Birmingham and stick it in Bilbao, put Beijing’s Olympic Nest in Berlin, transfer Forster’s dome to Birmingham and let lucky Beijing have Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Would these buildings fit into their new surroundings? Well, no they wouldn’t actually. But in fact they would be no more out of place than they were in their original location. The thing is, these massive monuments to vanity never fitted in in the first place. How could they? These international architects, or starchitects as they are known, take no account of the context, or the local, when designing their artworks. The buildings are meant to stand out, not to blend in, and are consequently designed with an absolute disregard for the local context. That’s why they would be equally at home anywhere, because they are at home no where. And that is what makes these architects, perfect examples of Internationalism.

A parallax is a term taken from physics, which describes a gap caused by the displacement of an object when a subject changes its point of observation. A parallax can be a point between any two views which it is impossible to bridge, yet it is the persistence of this gap that allows both views to persist. Sometimes we can view a problem from an international perspective, sometimes from a local perspective, but can we see the problem from both perspectives at the same time?

A friend of mine flies once a year to Belfast, Northern Ireland as a consultant to the ministry of education, tasked with assessing the province’s progress towards implementing a curriculum that will produce global, tolerant citizens. Upon her return home she repeats to me what a funny place Belfast is. She entertains me with hilarious anecdotes about the place – the accents, the food, the innocence and friendliness of the exclusively white locals. It is, she says, a journey back to the 1950s, like entering a time warp. And, according to my friend, there is little sign of that shadow side of the North – The Troubles. She invariably finishes her account with a sigh and a shake of her head, and the rhetorical question: “So what was that all about? What a stupid waste of lives.”

Now my friend has a global perspective. The head of one international school, she sits on the board of another; much in demand as a keynote speaker at international educational conferences, she runs an annual workshop that is renowned among international educators; concerned by issues of injustice and inequity worldwide, she inspires activism among students and colleagues. Yet in her own backyard (she is British), her global perspective lets her down, and when confronted by three and a half thousand assassinations and over 20,000 maimings among a seemingly innocent and friendly population, she is stumped, and left asking “So, what was that all about?”

There is an answer to her question, but it won’t be found if one remains perched above with the global perspective, for this fails to do justice to the ‘locus operandi’ of the participants. To find the answer one has to get down and dirty, in the nitty –gritty of the provincial and small, for it is there, by and large, that most people live their lives, and it is there that the problems, in the eyes of the local actors, are created and the solutions are to be found. If you want to understand the problem, by all means take a global perspective, but remember to mind the gap.

So, the question is: does internationalism always imply a denial of the local? There are a number of examples that illuminate how an international citizen can demonstrate an equal concern for the local or national, as well as the international. One obvious one is the man recently described by the Chinese Party secretary of Tibet as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil with a human’s face”, The Dalai Lama... Whatever one thinks of his tactics no one, not his supporters nor his detractors, will claim that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has shirked his responsibilities to his nation. Though living in exile for as long as I have lived (and, despite my youthful appearance, that is nearly half a century), he has spearheaded the struggle for a meaningful autonomy. But he has also been active at the international level, undertaking a global journey in an attempt to bring psychological understanding and spiritual calm to human beings regardless of their background. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, the Dalai Lama said that “we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity”.

For my other example of a person who exhibits a concern to fight injustice, whether it be on the other side of our planet or right outside her front door, it is apt that I do not have to seek beyond the walls of this room. My vote for world citizen of the year goes to Elly Tobin. Elly is the motor and passion that keeps the College for International Citizenship driving. As well as CIC, just on the side, she organized Celebrating International Birmingham Night, she runs the Young Leaders Programme, she founded Birmingham International Voices, created the very successful Pathways into Education, has taken over the European Summer University and is Principal designate of Joseph Chamberlain Collage. She is as likely to be found involved in a peaceful action exposing human rights violations in Tibet as organising a group of volunteers in Birmingham to campaign the British government on debt relief. Elly confronts bullies, whether they be the leaders of totalitarian states, or British hooligans. She witnessed the terrible massacres of Tibetans in Lhasa in 1987, and used her pen to reveal to the world what was going on. But let me give you an example of Elly’s work at a local level that I witnessed. It couldn’t be more local, because it took place no more than fifty meters from here. One day Elly and I were traversing Victoria Square, where two teenagers had chased a “friend”, who had ended up in the fountain. The sneering teenagers looked aggressive, to put it mildly, as they taunted their friend and prevented him from getting out of the fountain. Of course the square was full of people who, like me, choose to not interfere. Elly suddenly stopped: “I’m not having this” she said. “Ere”, and off she strode to confront the hooligans. Amazingly, they crumbled before her onslaught and apologetically turned to help their friend out of the fountain. “I hate bullying” was what she said to me when she retuned to where I was sheepishly standing.

Elly’s greatest achievement is the College for International Citizenship. I arrive twice a year, deliver my part of the programme, and leave again. It is you, the students, that make this such a worthwhile and enriching experience, and it is the students who keep drawing me back. I think I speak for all the tutors when I say that it is not so much teaching that we do, as learning. It is a true privilege to be involved in a project that is international in the best sense of the word. We study the theories of internationalism and citizenship, but, most importantly, each student brings to class his or her own unique local experiences. This diversity of local experiences are shared, listened too and heard. We learn to think as citizens of the world while we listen to each others stories. The College for International Citizenship teaches us that often, an enemy is simply someone whose story you have not heard.

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