Got Change?

17 10 2011

There used to be a BBC radio program called, “My Word“. This was a panel game about words, featuring a regular panel of people who made a living with words, but was really more of a vehicle for Frank Muir and Dennis Norden to display their wit to a large audience. The show is still available- in reruns, of course- on NPR in some markets. Due to the timing of the re-broadcasts (at noon on Saturdays here in the Shallow South), I have managed to hear most of the shows while the wife and I do our weekly shopping.

Many BBC programs get stolen and modified for the American market (The Office is a recent example, and Sanford and Son is a more antiquated one), but I doubt anyone would ever try to adapt My Word. Without exception, the panelists on the show were extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and this alone dramatically decreases the likelihood of a successful adaptation. While it may be possible to find American writers and thinkers who are equally adept with language, vocabulary, and etymology, I find it hard to believe that any American academics who qualify would have the ability to demonstrate it with the easy humor of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Then, too, there is the real possibility that any putative literary wit would be completely unable to make the average American audience laugh, given the generally dismal level of American education.

This depressing thought brought me to a realization about the enormous cultural divides so visible in the US today. Among the many artificial divisions in American society (black vs white, north vs south, east vs west, coke vs pepsi, etc), a far more subtle division is growing: tolerance of change.

The US has long been a major source of what are frequently world-shaking changes, so it seems odd that so many in this country now want the changes to stop. America is built on change, and our scientists, inventors, engineers, and salesmen have mass-produced that change and sold it to the whole world. Our current leadership position in many scientific fields is based upon anticipating and exploiting change. We owe our extravagant lifestyle and standard of living to embracing change, but now there is an increasingly vocal minority in this country who are demanding an end to change. Worse, they are deliberately trying to roll back many of the changes that make their standards of living possible.

Some of this resistance to change is coming- as usual- from religious extremists. Religion in general basically says that certain things are beyond human ken, and people should spend all their time and energy preparing for some sort of afterlife in lieu of improving conditions here and now. Despite the available evidence, the religious extremists refuse to admit that their holy texts might be wrong, because to admit the possibility of error opens the door for questions the religiously deluded are incapable of answering. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” does not allow for differences of opinion (or evidence to the contrary), so the religious types can almost be counted upon to be intolerant of change.

Another group intolerant of change are those who aren’t willing to expend the energy required to learn how to cope with- and profit from- the rapid pace of change. Granted that many of these could also be religiously deluded, this is not universally the case. Part of the problem is the fact that the stupefying complexity of our universe can only be properly described using purely mathematical terms, and the bulk of these change-resistant people think that algebra is some sort of magic trick designed to make them look stupid. The upper-level maths needed to properly describe the universe and how it works might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs, as far as the people I’m describing are concerned. User-friendly scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are very helpful in trying to explain the nature of reality in everyday language, but only if the target audience is willing to listen. Too many are not willing to listen, and they end up resentful of those who are increasing the amount and pace of change. They also end up increasingly resentful of anyone who- unlike them- is comfortable with change.

So we end up with another artificial division, this time between those who are willing to adapt to change and those who are not. Those who are unwilling to adapt clamor foolishly for a return to a golden age which never actually existed, and decry the “decadence” of those who embrace changing times. The change-intolerant, with their rose-tinted 20/20 hindsight, never seem to realize that the “good old days” never really were all that good, and the “golden age” they pine for is nothing more than 24-carat gold-plated wishful thinking and selective memories.

Every new set of changes also changes us- how we see ourselves and the universe. For centuries, the Catholic church was philosophically wedded to the idea that Earth (and humanity) was the center of the universe. Church rituals and dogma were all derived from this “fact”, as was the stratified social order the church tried to implement. Small wonder that the leaders of the early Renaissance church were so adamantly opposed to the new evidence that not everything revolved around Earth, humanity, or even the church. Those who had a vested interest in the social order saw these new facts reducing them from the heavenly-annointed center of the universe to just another rock hurtling around a not-particularly-impressive sun in a distant corner of a medium-sized galaxy in an ever-expanding universe. The political ramifications of that one discovery resonate to this day, and the church has been forced to grudgingly admit that they were wrong … eventually. Galileo wasn’t forgiven by the church until almost four hundred years after his death.

A similar firestorm still rages about evolution by natural selection. Despite the mountains of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, millions of people absolutely refuse to accept it. Like all discoveries, this one changes how we see ourselves. It turns out that we are not divinely created in our current forms, but are rather the result of millions of years of natural selection, whose DNA is nearly identical with that of chimpanzees. Instead of being the lords of creation, we’re just a weird, bipedal mammal with a minor genetic quirk that makes our brains work differently. Some people just cannot accept these repeatedly demonstrated facts, because it means they’d have to see themselves as just a hairless plains ape with a damaged gene sequence.

This particular cultural gap is nothing new, of course. Every generation has its radicals and reactionaries. The bulk of the population, as always, will grumble a bit about the pace of change and then get over it. Those who embrace change and try to push it along will chafe at the reins of what they see as indifference by the public at large and continue to push the boundaries of what we know. Those who are unwilling or unable to adapt to change will eventually die out, because the one constant in the human universe is change.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Current status: Sick and tired

Current music: If You Only Knew by Shinedown


3 10 2010

Thanks to the US military, I’ve spent about 20% of my life overseas. I have generally enjoyed these sojourns away from the US. Among other benefits, extended travel away from home makes one appreciate home that much more.This is not to say that America is the greatest place on Earth (although I’d rather live here than anywhere else I’ve been), but rather that the experience of travel helps one appreciate what one has grown accustomed to- and taken for granted.

That said, there are some truly amazing places I’ve visited. The sixty-odd cities I’ve visited in twenty countries all have their ups and downs, but some are almost entirely up. Haifa, Israel is one such city. The Israelis I met were all very friendly, and the food was remarkably good. One of my friends said that Haifa was his version of Heaven on Earth. He said it had everything: beautiful women who speak English, like Americans, and carry guns. I have to admit the IDF bar we discovered and spent a considerable amount of time in lent a great deal of weight to this opinion. On the other hand, Haifa wasn’t at the top of my personal list. That honor goes to Antalya, Turkey.

I like Turkey. The Turks are generally quite friendly, very polite, and the merchants take “No” for an answer. The food is awesome (Doner Kebap), the women are breathtakingly beautiful, and I love to bargain. Antalya has all of this in spades. Every region in Turkey has their own version of Doner, and I find that I like the Doner in Antalya best. I also like the fact that a trip with my friends through the Old City was not nearly as harrowing as similar trips through Arab cities. We found a delightful bar in the Old City which was quite small by Western standards- basically the size of the living room in a modest house in the US. The customers all sat around a single low table to eat and drink. Later in the evening, some of the locals dropped by and played live music. Altogether a wonderful experience.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alexandria, Egypt. The city is unbelievably filthy, and the whole area reeks from the raw sewage the locals dump into the river and sea. My first visit, a man came up to me with his 10-12 year old daughter in tow, and tried to sell her to me. I had to threaten him with violence to make him go away and leave me alone. Walking in the city is taking your life in your hands- if the traffic doesn’t kill you, some of the buildings might drop large chunks of their structure on your head. On the other hand, you can get anything in Alexandria for a price.

A word about currency. I have a lot of coin and paper money from the countries I’ve visited, most of which is worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Despite the fact that every country officially mandates using their own currency, the dollar is welcome everywhere. This is important to remember, since the currency you buy on the first day of your visit will probably be worth considerably less the day you leave. Worse still, some foreign currency has literally no value outside the country. Israeli Shekels and Egyptian Pounds are two of these. Even currency which supposedly has real value outside the country probably won’t be worth what you paid for it. The official exchange rates bear no relation to any putative value these currencies have. Carry dollars or Euros for most such countries.

When I lived in Italy, for example, we would play the Exchange Rate Game. This was before the creation of the Euro, so Italy was still using the Lira. The exchange rate fluctuated from week to week- and sometimes from day to day. When the dollar was up against the Lira, we would buy lots of Lira. When the dollar was down, we didn’t buy Lira. Managing your purchases according to the international exchange rates on such a small scale is unlikely to let you score big gains, but you can live quite comfortably on the local economy by paying attention to the rates.

Travel is said to broaden the mind. My personal experience bears this out, but this is not necessarily a universal result. I made a point of trying to learn a little bit about the countries I visited and did my best to learn a little of local languages, too. Even in France, making an attempt to speak their language helps when dealing with the locals (except in Paris). In my experience, most people will forgive your atrocious accent and wince-producing grammar as long as you make the attempt. Far too many Americans act as though everyone on Earth should speak English, and if you shout English at the locals, you can be understood. In some places, a large percentage of the population may, in fact, speak English (often better than the Americans), but yelling at them defeats the purpose. For really basic utility, you need to be able to speak the following ten words or phrases in whatever local language is applicable: Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Yes, No, Where is, How much, Beer, and Toilet. If you plan on staying in a foreign city for any appreciable length of time, you’ll need to go far beyond these basic words/phrases. Here’s a hint: find someone who speaks the local language and English, and ask them for help in learning basic words and grammar. Practice your pronunciation. It isn;t easy, but it pays real dividends.

Another hint for Americans abroad- haggle. Many countries prize haggling as an art form. Most of North Africa and the Middle East have this custom, and it’s worthwhile to learn. In Turkey, for example, the merchant will invite you in to the office and bring in sweets and coffee (or tea). You can spend considerable time working your way to a mutually agreeable price, and it’s actually a lot of fun. This sort of social interaction will improve your standing with the local merchants (at least a little bit), and can often save you a surprising amount of money. By the way, whatever gimmick you think you’ve come up with to help you with your haggling, the merchant has almost certainly seen it before. As long as you are aware of this, and play the game with good humor, you can enjoy the experience.

That, in my mind, is the best thing about travel: enjoying the differences between people. If you insist on behaving as if your local customs are the Laws of Nature, you won’t enjoy your trip. Worse, you’ll piss off the locals. Visiting another country is like visiting someone’s home. Act like you would if you were a guest in someone’s house. Even if you don’t agree with your host’s customs, at least respect them. You will definitely enjoy your stay a lot more, and you might even learn something. It seems to me that Americans in general could stand to learn a lot more about the rest of the world.

Current status: Meh

Current music: Peg by Steely Dan