Quick Review: Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The six part documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World captures well the foreboding and confusion of our current moment at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. Here are a few thoughts on what I found to be a thought-provoking and interesting watch:

  1. The general premise is that the freedom, prosperity, and joy that was supposed to come with the ascension of liberal democracy and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not come. Indeed, it may have led to new and more troubling questions. The sweep of history is limited to roughly the last 100 years but there is a lot to consider over the six episodes. Even if you do not agree with the argument, there are a number of threads and points of information that may be new and/or have not always been put together in such ways.
  2. The construction of the documentary adds to the foreboding as its intersperses multiple threads across different countries, montages of images set to generally upbeat pop music, and a dark instrumental soundtrack.
  3. That this work is not from an American point of view and includes important actors from around the globe is very important. There were things I had not known before. I know the American perspective on the world is very biased and yet my daily reading is almost exclusively in this realm. At the same time, the documentary is still from an Anglo perspective and it would be worthwhile to hear form voices elsewhere on what is chooses to say and show and what it does not address.
  4. Just as an example of one of the important questions raised: what happens if a democratic people elect or support an undemocratic leader? More specifically, what do the cultural and political elites do in such a moment? In the current populist period, this is a real conundrum.
  5. One thing I appreciate is the interest in thinking across contexts and time. I would argue we need more work that tries to pull together multiple strands from around the globe across big chunks of time. Put this documentary series next to Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and there may be some patterns worth considering.

While I finished watching this several months ago, the title is correct: I cannot get some of the ideas and images out of my head.

Large “sociological exercise”: nearly 1 in 6 global residents to vote in India’s elections

While Americans may think our country does things on a large scale, nothing quite matches the “sociological exercise” of democracy in India:

The world’s largest democracy is bracing itself for the most anticipated event every 5 years. To keep things in perspective, almost 1 in 6 on earth would be voting this April-May 2014. More than the election extravaganza, this is the world’s largest sociological exercise; an exercise that places everything else outside and puts the Indian at heart and mind while casting the ballot. As much as the focus on this has been the youth, there is a particular section of society which is slightly undermined yet equally important; the Indian women.

India has over 1.2 billion people while the US has over 310 million. While the American Revolution led to a new kind of country and government sometimes referred to as the American experiment (attributed to de Toqueville), this is quite different than developing a modern government and economy for so many people.

I sometimes think part of the current issues in the United States simply have to do with our relatively large population. Coming to a consensus among so many groups and interests is difficult. In comparison, other industrialized nations have smaller populations and are often more homogeneous. But, these issues are multiplied in India with even more interests.

Required for political participation: “digital skills”

Here is an argument that African-Americans and Latinos could participate more in American politics if they had more “digital skills”:

Could the key to increasing civic engagement among Latinos and African Americans be computer classes?   A growing body of research is linking Internet use, particularly social network use, and increased social capital and civic engagement.  A new reportfrom the MaCarthur foundation finds that Facebook use is correlated with increased interest in and participation in politics. Scholars like Northwestern Sociologist Esther Hargatti [sic] speak eloquently about the information gap between rich and poor online.  This gap is less about access to technology and more about developing the skills to harness the technology for political and social gain.  The ability to do information searches, send text messages, tweet, share content and other on-line skills is a central element in becoming what Evegny Morozov calls a “digital renegade” rather than a “digital captive.”

The key to using the Web in democracy-enhancing ways is acquiring digital skills.  While this concept has been measured in lots of ways, the presence of digital skills can be measured by the level of autonomy the user has, the number of access points a user has to get online, the amount of experience a user has with different types of online tools, etc.

This should be an area of interest to a lot of people: how social factors, such as race, education levels, location, and other forces affect online use. “Digital skills” are not simply traits that everyone picks up on their own. It requires a certain level of exposure, time, and resources that not all have. See a video clip of Hargittai talking about this.

I wonder how much arguments like this are behind recent government efforts to provide cheap or free broadband to poorer US residents. Here is part of the statement from the head of the FCC:

“There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots. No Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted it. Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy.”

As I’ve asked before, how close are we to declaring Internet access an essential human right?

Is America caught between democratic inclusion and economic stratification?

Here is an interesting discussion topic: America’s ability to weave/meld new people groups into the democratic process seems inversely related to America’s ability to have more economic equality.

It’s a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world…

European countries have done a better job of protecting workers’ salaries and rights but have been reluctant to extend the benefits of their generous welfare state to new immigrants who look and act differently from them. Could America’s lost enthusiasm for income redistribution and progressive taxation be in part a reaction to sharing resources with traditionally excluded groups?

“I do think there is a trade-off between inclusion and equality,” said Gary Becker, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate. “I think if you are a German worker you are better off than your American equivalent, but if you are an immigrant, you are better off in the U.S.”

I often bring this up in my introduction to sociology course: while the United States has a less than pretty racial and discriminatory history (and there is still much to do), the scale of inclusion in the United States (in a country of roughly 310 million people) is remarkable, particularly compared to some of the issues European countries face.

In the end, does this have to be a zero sum game? Is there a country in the world that has successfully done both of these things? Is there a system that can accomplish both?

And getting into the territory of values and morality, which of these outcomes is more worthwhile if you could only have one?

Sociologist says “access to information is a fundamental human right”

A sociologist talks about the importance of citizens accessing information:

Access to information is a fundamental human right and democracy can’t function unless you know what government is doing, Dominique Clement, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, said Monday.

“By denying people access to information, you’re denying a human right and you’re denying them knowledge of how governments work, and ultimately that harms our democracy,” Clement, a sociology professor, said during a Canadian Historical Association panel discussion at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Calling freedom of information law in Canada “draconian,” Clement, who’s filled about 500 information requests throughout his career, said reform needs to happen nationwide in order for those laws to be effective.

He said privacy commissioners in the provinces should become more arm’s length than they are now and should be answerable to the legislative assembly or parliament, not to any premier or prime minister.

I wonder how democratic governments would respond to this argument. I imagine they would support it and then argue that certain information need to be protected because of national security and other reasons. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there is quite a bit of public/government information that is not easily accessible. Of course, non-democratic governments may not be too happy with these arguments as restricting information is deemed vital – see Iran’s recent efforts to create a national Intranet.

But this is related to a thought I have had in the past: is Internet access, particularly because of its ability to share and produce information, going to become a human right in the near future? Should rights regarding information apply to all information on the Internet or just “vital information” that citizens might need to participate in the civic realm? What would be the response in Western nations if Internet access was severely limited, even if a case could be made for it (like a threat of attack)?

Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)

Quick Review: Burma VJ

The 2009 film Burma VJ provides an insider perspective of the troubles in Burma/Mynamar in 2008. A few thoughts about the film:

1. The movie is told from the perspective of a small group of video journalists. With some handicams (the sort of handheld camcorders you could buy for a few hundred dollars at Best Buy), these men were able to show the conditions in the country to the world, breaking the embargo on outside media put on by the military junta.

2. A quick overview of the story: when the government doubled gas prices in 2008, people responded in protest. When the Buddhist monks joined in, the protests gathered steam. As the people were gaining attention around the world, the military junta responded by arresting and beating up and killing at least one monk. The protests died out and once again, the people were left to suffer.

2a. I remember hearing about this on the news back in 2008 but sadly, I knew nothing of what had gone on.

3. One thing I have wondered about is the power of the Internet to do good. Does the Internet actually lead to better relationships between people, more knowledgeable citizens, and a more robust civil society? I am usually skeptical. But this film suggests good can come out of even a spotty Internet connection. The world’s major news networks were utterly dependent on these videojournalists. They were also able to depict the plight of the Burmese people with limited equipment and power. Although they were ultimately not successful in overthrowing the junta, they may have been close.

4. The Buddhist monks play a prominent role in this film. While the monks are not supposed to get involved in politics, they can react in defense of the oppressed people. When they join the people’s protests, the tide seems to turn against the government. This was a reminder of the ability of those with the moral high ground to produce change in society.

This was an interesting film that exposed both the plight of the Burmese people and the effect a small group of dedicated video journalists can have in a desperate situation.