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Friday, April 15, 2011

A Piece of Suffering

One cannot weep for the entire world, it is beyond human strength. One must choose.
Jean Anouilh
I saw the old man again yesterday. 
He was sitting on the curb right in front of the bakeshop. He was wearing ragged clothes that must have been new many summers ago.
The old man’s skin was blackened by countless days out in the hot sun. A result, I suppose, of roaming and dragging himself around the concrete pavements of the metropolis, whose inhabitants barely notice him and others like him. His face was leathery, loose skin tiredly draped around the facial bones, barely hanging on. The lips were sunk in, betraying lack of teeth. And then I looked into his eyes.
They were glazed, unfocused; and it was as if the old man was staring at something faraway, something that only he could see. I shuddered a bit at the thought.
His hand was held out, in the classic pose many Filipinos are familiar with—the hand of begging. But the old man looked as if he wasn’t aware of what his own hand was doing. It must have taken years of unbearable hardships, years of begging for a few coins from strangers, to have that indifference to one’s begging hand. It was heartbreaking. 

I first saw the old man about a week ago. I saw him on the sidewalk, shuffling along, his right hand holding on to the concrete sort-of bench that lined the street’s sidewalk. He was bent over, painfully so. His face etched with a mixture of pain, suffering and something else: world-weariness? Life-weariness? 
Whatever it was, it was something I would never forget, and I hope nobody I knew would get the occasion of wearing that expression. I hope I would never get to wear that expression.
It was easy to see why he had difficulty walking; his feet seemed to be swollen, encased in a pair of flip-flops that were about to fall apart. He was clutching a length of plastic string, the kind that you use to tie packages with.  I was briefly reminded of Maupassant’s old man.
But this old man was no Maitre Hauchecorne; I didn’t think he was conscious of anything or anyone at all when he picked up that piece of string. It occurred to me that he would be using it to keep his flip-flops from falling apart altogether. It was a punch in the gut seeing him painfully shuffle along, holding that piece of string, and realizing what he intended to do with it.
But what was really heartbreaking was that people didn’t even give him a passing glance. They just continued on, unconcerned, oblivious of the suffering around them, not even taking time to look around and notice that the world is an old man painfully shuffling along. That instant seemed to me a microcosm of the whole world.
While others are worried about their car’s mileage, this old man is worried that his flip-flops will fall apart, and what little protection his dirty, battered, swollen feet has, will be gone. While others are worried that their favorite hotel in Boracay will be fully-booked by the time weekend rolls around, this old man doesn’t even know where he might rest his tired, broken body.
I don’t know where the old man came from, but somebody told me he frequents that place near the bakeshop.
Do people give him something to eat, I wonder. And where are the church people, where are the do-gooders, where are the government officials who gets misty-eyed at the plight of the poor people, especially during an election year? Where are the priests, where are the bishops? What’s keeping them busy nowadays?
Can’t they give even a new pair of flips-flops to this old man?
Surely, we can’t all be apathetic.
After all, apathy is one of humanity's greatest sins. Isn't it?

Sometimes, there is nothing left to do but scream.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Origins of the Concept of Culture

Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century B.C., gave us one of the first accounts about culture. He wrote at length about his travels throughout the Persian Empire, which included parts of Asia and Africa and much of Middle East. He wrote about the cultural and racial diversity of these regions, noticing the different ways people lived in certain regions as compared to people who lived in others. Due to Herodotus’ account, many people attributed cultural diversity to racial differences.
From the 5th century to the 15th century, European countries began sending out explorers throughout the world in search of new sources of goods and other materials. The resulting contacts with other cultures sparked the Europeans’ interest in cultural diversity.
The English word “culture” came into use during the Middle Ages; it comes from the Latin word for cultivation, as in raising food crops. We can say, then, that the idea for the word originally referred to people’s role in controlling environment.
By the 18th century, many scientists and philosophers in Europe believed that culture had gone through several progressive stages of development.
Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist, was among the firsts to broach the idea of cultural evolution. Later on, during the 19th century, many people in Europe used the term culture to refer to controlling the unrefined tastes and behaviors of other people, usually those from the lower classes.
The word culture then became associated with intellectual training, refined tastes, and the mannerisms of the upper class. Anthropologists use the term civilization to refer to the same thing; however, in this context, civilization also refers to the height of cultural evolution.
In other words, a cultured person—to the anthropologists—is a civilized person.
Scientific discoveries that started in the 19th century pointing to a much, much, older Earth made anthropologists, scientists, and philosophers rethink their previously held views about the world and its people. New ideas were introduced on biological, social, and cultural development as scientists acquired evidence of an older planet and the changes it underwent over hundreds of millions of years.
In 1865, British naturalist Sir John Lubbock advanced the theory that human societies had gone through long stages of cultural development, with each stage marked by technological advancements. He viewed the so-called primitive societies as representing humankind’s earlier cultural stages.
According to Lubbock, the stages of humans included the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), the Neolithic (New Stone Age), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. He also stated that other aspects of cultural development, such as morality and spirituality, go hand-in-hand with each stage of humanity’s technological advancement.
In 1864, British philosopher Herbert Spencer published his work, “Principles of Biology,” wherein he put forward his own theory on biological and cultural evolution. Spencer argued that everything in the world—including humans and human societies—advance toward perfection. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” for he believed that evolution was characterized by constant struggle for survival, and that the weak die. Stronger and more durable races and societies replace the weak ones until finally only stronger and more advanced people remain. His theory on evolution actually preceded Darwin’s.
Basically, he applied what was subsequently known as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to people and societies; that they are subject to the same laws of natural selection like the plants and animals are in nature.
Other writers labeled this as Social Darwinism, which was used by western colonizers to justify their conquest of other countries. However, Herbert Spencer had always been a critic of imperialism.

Another anthropologist, the American Lewis Henry Morgan (considered as one of the founders of modern anthropology, along with Tylor) also added his own theory on cultural evolution. He believed that technological progress is the force that drives forward social, or cultural, progress; that any social change, including ideologies, institutions, or organizations, have their beginning in technological change.
In his work Ancient Society, Morgan called the evolutionary stages ethnical periods: Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. They are further divided by technological inventions, namely, fire, bow, and pottery in Savagery; metalworking, animal domestication, agriculture in Barbarism; and alphabet and writing in Civilization. Although he may not have intended his theories to advocate racism, Morgan did believe that western culture was the most advanced form of civilization, and that Europeans were the most advanced people, both culturally and biologically.
Most anthropologists during this period developed theories on cultural development that are both racist and ethnocentric (a belief that one’s culture is superior to other cultures), even though they may not have advocated the use of their theories to promote racism. Nevertheless, others did use them to justify colonialism and exploitation of other people and their lands.
Technological advancements in the 20th century, especially in the fields of transportations and communications, made it easier for some aspects of culture to spread from society to society. This is diffusion.
Anthropologists had also developed research methods for studying cultures of small societies. One method, known as ethnology, compares the anthropologists’ findings with the findings of other studies. From there, they developed universal theories about culture.
Culture and cultural exchange have undergone rapid changes in the last several decades; technology, as Morgan theorized, had a major role in these changes. Today, television and the Internet make it very easy for us to learn how people in other parts of the world live, and we learn that customs and behaviors that seem to be very strange to others may be perfectly normal to another. This is cultural relativism— the principle that one’s beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of one’s culture.
In other words, one should respect other people’s culture.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Bard That wasn't a Bard

I was going to write a paean about the 60's poet laureate, the modern-day bard, the court jester Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan.
This article in the NY Times makes me sad.
I don't get it. He wrote all those songs that identified a whole generation; and yet he is now distancing himself from his music.

A bard of convenience, that's what he was, if what he says now is true.
No matter; the songs remain the same, even if the singer has not.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wanted: Rolling Stones

Oh, a storm is threat'ning, My very life today; If I don't get some shelter, Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
War, children, it's just a shot away, It's just a shot away...Love, sister, it's just a kiss away, It's just a kiss away

One of those 60’s song that makes you blurt out, “What the fudge happened to today’s music?”  
You know, I sometimes think that every decade we saw since then is just an insipid version of the 60’s, and without the music.
What do we have right now, really, besides an androgynous teenager with embarrassing hair? Oh yes, we also have an androgynous female who wears colorful costumes.
The world needs, among other things, a revolution in music; the last one was in the 90’s, and Kurt Cobain’s gone.
Now that I think about it, the world needs a lot of things; but first, we need somebody to point it all out for us, somebody courageous enough who would shout out that the Emperor is naked.
This generation needs a modern Bob Dylan; we need a new Rolling Stones. We need somebody who would tell us how to feel, somebody who would point to us what should be done.
We don’t need to be told that Sunday follows after Saturday, damnit.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is Culture?

It is morning. The boy looks at the clock, decides to get out of bed and goes to the bathroom. The child brushes his teeth, takes a shower, and dresses for school. He has breakfast (probably eggs, bread, and milk), which his mother had prepared. His dad, dressed for work, reads the newspaper or maybe half-watches an early edition of the news on TV while sipping coffee. The child hears the school bus tooting its horn. He kisses his parents goodbye, and then he’s off to school.
Everything that is cited above has something to do with culture. Culture is a body of learned behavior common to a given human society. It includes the patterns of behavior and thinking that people living in a society learn, create, and share. Culture differs from one human society to another. Man’s political and economic systems, religion, styles and manners of dressing, ways of preparing food, language, rituals, technology, art, rules of behavior, and beliefs are all part of culture.
Every human society has developed its own brand of culture. Often, the environment plays a major role in a culture’s development. People who live in a hot, dry climate will likely develop a vastly different culture from people who live in a cold, snowy region.
The people who study cultures are called anthropologists; anthropology is the study of culture and human development.
Although there are different kinds of culture as there are different kinds of human society, anthropologists have found out that there are elements of culture that are universal. This means that there are certain cultural aspects that are found in all cultures. For example: societies all over the world have ways of dealing with relatives; they have ways of determining what is good or bad; each has a concept of beauty, of making art, or playing games, how to raise children, rules on social conduct, and, of course, religion. Each culture has developed its own way of doing these same things.

Cultures are passed on from one generation to the next. This is how traditions start. Like the humans themselves, however, culture also evolves; it changes with the passing of time. Culture adapts—to the times, to the environment. Or rather, man changes culture to suit him. Change can also happen when different groups come into contact with other groups.
C0nflicts can sometimes happen when two different cultures collide—and/or merge and develop into the next cultural phase.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Watching First Blood

The first time I watched First Blood I was blown away. I thought it was the greatest action movie ever, and Stallone I looked up to, right up there with Jesus, or close. I was pretty young during this time, you see.  You remember the scene where Rambo stitched up his own wound? It was the coolest, most kickass scene I ever saw in a movie.
And of course: "Don't push it or I'll give you a war you won't believe. Let it go." I was mightily impressed by Rambo’s quiet menace.
In short, I immensely enjoyed the movie. 

 For several weeks after I saw the movie I even tried to talk like him. Talking in incomplete sentences, mumbling the words, and the look. You know, the way Rambo stares at people—respectful-like, but you know he could take the heads of those people and use them to wipe the floor.
I tried practicing that look, but I ended up looking like a kid who badly needs a pair of glasses. The movie’s theme song—It’s A Long Road, by Dan Hill— I tried singing it around the house, to impress my cousins. I don’t think anybody noticed, though.
Then I saw First Blood on cable recently. I was excited at first; I remembered how the movie almost made me carry a “Rambo” knife to school. I was surprised, though; the movie was not as good as I remembered it. I find the story hackneyed, and Stallone’s acting—well, I must admit, it was restrained, and not as corny as his acting in subsequent Rambo sequels. (Rambo sequels! Ugh.) Anyway, I guess I still like the movie, but it was nowhere near as genius as I thought it was.  Watching the movie again, after all these years, was a huge letdown.

The movie that was seen by the pimply, skinny, awkward, dorky, younger me was not as earth-shaking as the movie that was seen by the fat, grumpy, geeky, older me.
I guess things are not as great as we remember them to be.  
There is a philosophical explanation in there somewhere, but I’ll let it pass.

I read this quote on HumanityCritic’s blog:
A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.  –Muhammad Ali
I am nowhere near fifty, and I was nowhere near twenty when I first saw First Blood, but this quote got me thinking.  I tried to remember all the things that I thought were great during my youth, and I thought of my infatuation with the original Rambo movie.
Time does change one's perspective.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I guess.

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