I have some things that I want to talk about and I have no other platform to say it. Therefore I shall be spending this blog post on a topic that holds next to zero relevance to what you are probably here for. If you are here just for the cynical Gundam humour or the pretty cosplay pictures, then feel free to ignore this entry because you will not find anything missed. But if you found that my previous rants offer you something new and worthy, then please read on.
Hope for a better world
It is not often that one senses history being written. History is only such because it is the past, and often the greatest achievements made in humanity’s past were acknowledged only in their distant future. Perhaps the figures of our previous generations were simply larger in death than in life, and perhaps a degree of mysticism gets caught in the passing down of their stories, but somehow one gets the feeling that there are too few public leaders who can inspire and unite like those from before our time.
But today I felt something, a feeling which one only gets to experience a few times in his entire lifetime. I felt that I was watching history being made in a single moment. Though our collective mundane routines gradually build up over time to give birth to what will be one day called heritage, the awe-inspiring sensational of history being made can only come from great deeds and great people of colossal impact. I have only felt this once before in my lfe thus far, and that was the night* I stood in front of my television as I watched the live CNN broadcast of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. * I live in GMT+8
And today it was Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia.
Now before you groan, I acknowledge that the fact that because tech-savvy Americans are overwhelmingly Democrats and that political popularity on the internet tends to create a mindless legion of fans that turns off moderate/neutral parties with its incessant praise for the candidate (just take a look at the number of Obama articles showing up on the Digg front page), the pro-Obama message is getting somewhat old and diluted.
But I honestly believe that Barack Obama has done much to deserve it and I will try my best not to let this article degenerate into another groupthink exercise.
Of course, I am in no way suggesting that Obama’s speech will have as much historical impact on the world as the 9/11 attack. In fact, while I do believe that he has a very good chance of becoming the next president, I am under no delusion and I know very well that his speech will ultimately amount to nothing but a footnote in history if he fails to clinch the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
All I am saying is that his speech invoked within me a sense of hope for change, that perhaps this may just be deem as the starting point of a revolution in the history textbooks of generations down.
A deficit of empathy and a surplus of apathy
While the main theme of Obama’s speech from Tuesday dealt with racism in America and its pervasive influence on a society that does its best to pretend it doesn’t exist, the underlying message is one that can be found in his book The Audacity of Hope: It is a criticism against the senseless polarization of ideological groups and a lack of common ground between opposing world views.
Partly, the media and its corporate agendas are to be blamed for this. It is often simpler and more profitable for news network to filter issues down to their core slogans and define entire public personalities with a few lines of soundbite.
But the real reason why people are so susceptible to such over-simplifications is due to ignorance and apathy. Apathy is not fixable as far as I see it, for there will always be people who do not feel compelled to know beyond their immediate surroundings. On the other hand, I feel that ignorance is curable and the way to do it is to make information so easily obtainable and experiences so widely accessible that apathy will not be enough to keep a person ignorant.
This issue has been at the back of my mind for a while, and occasionally something comes along to remind me of it, the most recent example being Tibet.
While most Westerners, after decades of Hollywood activism, are convinced that the Chinese government is an evil monolith and Tibetans are being repressed on a daily basis, most ordinary Chinese people are equally convinced that Tibet rightfully belongs to China and the central government is spending a huge amount of their tax money in bringing modernity and wealth to the remote region.
The language barrier prevents the two group of exchanging ideas meaningfully and you end up with two ideological groups who engage in massive groupthink within their own ranks. There is zero effort made to understand the other side, because the other side is simply “wrong” or “evil”.
The truth is somewhere in between. While Tibetan grievances with regards to the preservation of their culture should be addressed by the central government, pro-Tibet actvists should also reconsider their unquestioning support of the acts of violence being committed by the rioters in Lhasa.
I find it baffling how Western commentators refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoings on the Tibetan side while not missing a single chance to slam China. As pictures of destroyed shops owned by Han Chinese streamed out of Lhasa, I did not see a single English comment condemning these acts of violence against innocent civilians. Instead, the all the self-righteous indignation was being directed at China for sending in troops to suppress what was essentially anarchy with angry mobs.
The fact is that Free Tibet activists look like hypocrites when they ignore the elephant in the room and overlook any misdoings by the rioters. This prevents ordinary Chinese from paying any serious attention of their message. At the same time, ordinary Chinese do not seem to comprehend just how negatively their nation’s actions are being perceived by foreign spectators.
The same two-way bigotry and ignorance are corrupting Sino-Japanese relationship, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Serbian-Kosovar issue, the whaling confrontations between Australia and Japan, and even US politics.
Yes we can
The message Obama brings is one of change, but not many people understand just what kind of change he is talking about. Most politicians promise change in one form or another but ultimately fail to deliver, and because of that many feel that Obama’s campaign lacks substance. I disagree.
The change he talks about is very specific: he wants to create a less polarizing government. He recognizes the stupidity of how politicians rather stick to party lines than weigh the pros and cons when handling issues, and he has made reconciliation, both domestic and foreign, a core part of his message.
Can he really accomplish that even as president? That’s hard to say, but the fact is that he is one of the few politicians who has even identified it as a problem. There is a natural tendency for people who feel they are in the right to simply dismiss or even smother the opposition’s message, but ultimately that fails to address the real issue.
Cuba is a very extreme example of this, almost to the point of being comical. If US seriously intends to bring democratic change to the government, then lifting the sanctions would be the best way to do it. But the current president seems to treat this issue as a matter of personal pride, and refuses to “give in” as long as Cuba does not get down on its knees and beg for forgiveness.
The ideological differences that were the cause of this divide have long ceased to matter: Communism is beyond dead. The standoff today is nothing more than the result of chauvinistic pride. The fact that Obama has said that he is willing to engage in unconditional dialogues with Cuba is a huge plus in my book.
A better world tomorrow
Now while I am unmistakably pro-Obama (and which non-American isn’t?), and this post was indeed sparked off by the speech he made, the purpose of my post is not to convince you to vote for him (if you are American).
I strongly believe that the next generation of people will be more and more like Obama, as technology overrides geographical divides and people grow to be more accepting of differences. The WW2 and Cold War generations may be stucked in perceiving the world through a “them vs. us” mentality, but perhaps one day that will not have to be the case.
Empathy is derived through shared experiences. Since the dawn of time, this has always referred to geographical location, race, religion, culture and language. It is difficult to empathize with the unknown, and it is all to easy to fear and hate it. At the time of WW2, coming into regular contact with foreigners was a rarity and most people saw the world beyond their own as whatever their government propaganda had depicted it as.
This is still very much true in many parts of the world today, but at least it’s improving. Internet has made it possible for the ordinary person to at least have some idea as to what the other side feels. If virtual reality were to reach the level seen in Matrix someday, then perhaps we will finally be able to empathize with a person on the other side of the globe just as we empathize for the friends physically next to us.
Primitive tribes consolidated into towns, cities and ultimately nations because improvements in technology and bureaucracy allowed people to empathize and understand each other over a greater geographical area. As such, I see nationalism as an issue that has to be resolved through technology.
Then again, maybe I am being too optimistic about technology as usual because I love it so much. Perhaps a mature global information network will not result in more world-savvy individuals like Obama, but rather polarize people in different ways than before. Still, at the very least, I don’t see anti-Apple radicals bombing Cupertino.
Either way, I think we can all do with a lot less ignorance and a bit more empathy. It makes me cringe when people dismiss entire nations or races due to an uninformed self-righteous opinion, but at the same time I wish people paid more attentions to the social background and disenfranchisement that produce such distorted world views in the first place.
P.S. I just watched Evangelion 1.0… It’s the same show as before! What a money-milker. >_<