Opinion Pieces

All opinion pieces, editorials and commentaries on world affairs

Too Privileged

This post number two following the earlier one titled ‘Privilege‘, hence the pun in the title, on something that has been bothering me for a long while. This isn’t aimed at anyone or any group, mostly just a personal reflection/struggle.

Still struggle to put this all into words, but thankfully The Broad Experience has nicely encapsulated it in this podcast.

The Broad Experience – Episode 94: https://www.acast.com/thebroadexperience/episode94-classandcareer.

A not 100% accurate transcript: www.thebroadexperience.com/transcripts/2016/10/27/episode-94-class-and-career, though I think the differences sometimes add an element to the message.


CONTEXT: From 9-13 August, I went on a Project Mingde Voluntary Teaching Summer Camp in Dabao Village, Guangxi, China. The following was the reflections I wrote for the trip specifically, but also happened to be something I had thought about more generally in the last few months, so I felt it had heightened meaning, even if it doesn’t necessarily capture the breadth of my thoughts on this.

Hiding safely in our air-conditioned multi-storied concrete edifices, it is easy not to realise how truly privileged we are to live and grow-up in Hong Kong. It certainly was not at the forefront of our minds as the 20 of us made the trip to Dabao Village some 600 km away.

Gathering at the border crossing at a mean 8am, we made our day-long journey to Danzhou Ancient Town. The quaint and beautiful old island surrounded by a yellow silt-filled river began as a bit of a shock – what with the unfamiliar food, unstable internet connection, and undesired company of various small critters. But it soon came to represent a comforting respite from the even more foreign environment a half-days travel away. Along the way into Dabao our bus (perhaps inevitably) broke down, live animals and vegetables were sold in street stalls literally within reach from the car’s windows, and our walk into the village was pre-emptively cooled by heavy rainfall as the bus climbed upwards (though the sky had thankfully dried up by the time our walk started).

The Media Spotlight

For anyone that has been following US politics, it might have crossed your newsdesk that Eric Cantor lost his House Republican seat against David Brat. Not a small loss given that Cantor is the House Republican Majority Leader, so certainly worth some media attention. But if there’s a surer sign of the excessive media spotlight, its when a single story gets run into the ground with frankly excessive coverage. Beyond the news that Cantor lost (somewhat unclear how that single issue can get restated in so many different ways) and who might take over his job as House Majority Leader, there all manner of articles ranging from its impact on the Democratic Party, the role of the media, the role of money, the future of issues like immigration, the rise of the Tea Party, reactions from senators and house representatives.

My RSS reader exploding with Cantor related stories...

My NYT RSS feed exploding with Cantor related stories…

My point is, the fact that US politics focused almost exclusively on this singular story – devoting considerable coverage, air time, column space – is just a sign of both the intensity and excessive nature of the news media spotlight. Yes, he lost, yes it probably matters for Republican leadership, at best it’s a sign of other underlying trends. But no, it doesn’t deserve the excess of news coverage it’s garnered. Almost nothing does. Profiles on every possibly connected individual, excessive analysis of possible causes and even the most tenuous effects.

Perhaps it’s better if we all just chilled out. Analysis in the heat of the moment is almost never very useful.

Hong Kong’s Tiger Tutors

Lots of people have probably heard me joking about the asian stereotype of studying all the time. If you’ve got some free time, then I’d encourage you to watch this documentary.

Admittedly it is somewhat exaggerated and of course this sort of experience isn’t universal (so don’t go around talking to everyone from HK as if they did go through all those), but certainly it’s representative of the experience of lots of people. It also gives you an idea why I dislike the tutorial system in general. It’s not that it doesn’t help people, but rather that it should be a necessary component of the education system.

All that said, having not been through this system myself, my own experiences are only peripheral.

Why humans like to cry

This is a random collection of thoughts that came after a talk organised by the Oxfordshire Branch of the British Science Association. It was titled ‘Why humans like to cry – tragedy, evolution, and the brain’ by Professor Michael Trimble.

Why even worry about this issue? Simple really. Animals have emotions and are capable of producing tears. But humans are unique in that they cry and produce tears emotionally rather than for biological reasons.

Women cry more than men at a ratio of about 5 to 1. This raises the question of whether this is for biological reasons (in terms of the way men develop or their brains are wired) or whether this is attributable to sociological reasons (such as societal views that make crying acceptable or unacceptable in particular circumstances or for people of different genders).
I think this is, for the most part, a social construct. That said, it may have arisen from perfectly defensible societal demands such as the fact that men in hunter-gatherer time had to continue hunting or growing crops even in the face of hard times and adversity, whereas women may have had more time to mourn and grieve so to speak.
What is more interesting, as was noted by Prof. Trimble, was the question of why the gender gap hasn’t been reduced if its source has been sociological. One would expect that societal views might change given the new circumstances. And yet, men are more likely to apologise for crying, more likely to cry quietly and in less discoverable places.

Undoubtedly, crying is very much a contextual activity. The perhaps obvious explanation for crying is that it is something triggered by emotions. Joy, sorry and bereavement can all be causes, in some instances injustice also triggers crying. More interestingly are instances where there is no prescribed or specific emotion that is easily identifiable, but rather the weight of a myriad of emotions that triggers crying.


Social Media at War

Not really a large collection of new thoughts, but certainly some interesting reminders (and a few new perspectives). The CCW seminar by went through some of the obvious facts about the growth of Social Media and trends in its use by security forces and in a military context. Quite a few of the people attending were a little skeptical of whether social media would really change the way wars were fought on the ground.

The Bin-Laden raid live tweeted (from turnstyle)

I can’t say I know much in that respect, but one fo the more salient ideas was the ability for competing narratives and messages from both sides of the conflict to engage on a more immediate basis to seek to influence the conversation. I have doubts over whether this has an impact more broadly speaking, but in terms of shoring up existing supporters I can certainly see how it might work. Of course, the powerful thing about social media is the ability to instantly and continuously tailor the message depending on the feedback and sentiment that are gauged over the social network.

There was some discussion in the presentation about the psychological aspect of social media, and how social media engaged with the more emotive and spontaneous side of our minds than, say, the cognitive side of things. I would hope that doesn’t mean my ability to be rational is diminished, but I guess the point was more that social media could better influence and connect on an emotional level whereas traditional filtered media was more cognitive.

For me, perhaps the biggest point to take away was social media’s capacity to build groups and coalitions that are limited to intersections over unions. So while old forms of coalitions and groups had greater inertia, perhaps from how they are constructed, and thus are better conditioned to creating a union of interests amongst people, social media allows people to move around with greater flexibility, leading to the creation of coalitions or movements that can at times be stronger, but are also more likely to b based on the intersection of interests rather than a union of them. Which is better? I’m not sure.

5th February 2013

Gangster Squad

One of the last things that I managed to do in my winter holidays was to get a preview showing of Gangster Squad. Good timing too because I left Hong Kong the next day. The late showing in TaiKoo was also close enough to home for me to actually get around logistically.

Strangely enough, I found some of the usually annoying movie trailers at the start quite interesting. I think The Great Gatsby is going to be a cool movie, although I should probably read the book first so as not to ruin the original. Who knows. I am not a big fan of Jack the Giant Slayer. Somehow the film just doesn’t feel right, and way too fake. Man of Steel is questionable for me too. Just not sure about another Superman film. It doesn’t seem to add much by way of storyline either. It might just be the trailer, but I wouldn’t mind skipping it.

Preview tickets for Gangster Squad

Preview tickets for Gangster Squad

As for the Gangster Squad, it was a good typical guns blazing movie. Lots of shooting and fighting. It actually managed to maintain the suspense most of the way through. The story-line was a bit thin, but the scenes were cool enough for you to wanna see what would happen.

My problem was with the ending. Given that it had to be rewritten following the batman-shooting in the US, I can’t say whether this new one was better or worse. I can see why they decided not to release the film after the batman shooting of course. But the ending in the hotel lobby didn’t work for me. It was too fake for someone to rent out the entire hotel. Quite fake how it was entirely empty. I mean even a powerful guy has limits in basically taking over a hotel with no staff or anything else. And the slow-mo shot of them running around the table was cool, but was ultimately useless.

That said, the ultimate ending scene was good. Slightly fake but less so and a fitting ending I think, having O’Mara beat up Cohen.
Probably not something I’d pay to go watch, but not a bad movie overall.

Another 4 years

With academics and a lot of other things consuming my time, I’ve spent less time caring about the 2012 US elections. Myself aside, international support for Obama doesn’t seem to be significantly lower than in 2008. If the world were the electorate, it seems likely that Obama would have been elected in a much greater landslide.

But though the results are the same, 2008 and 2012 differ in one massive way: The reason. In 2008, there was genuine support and enthusiasm for Obama internationally. This was reflected by his overseas trips that did much to help Obama build up his brand. 4 years on, it was understandable given the domestic situation that Obama would be less focused on foreign affairs. But it was also notable that direct support and enthusiasm for Obama was much lower. It wasn’t that people didn’t want Obama to win, but rather than they were less likely to support him directly. The 2012 support stemmed more from a general dislike of the Republican candidate, or candidates.

This might well have been the unfortunate result of Obama’s own doing. His rock-star status and breath-of-fresh-air-appeal in 2008 created some very high expectations of how he would perform. Once in the White House, reality struck, limiting his capacity to do many of the things had argued for. The Arab Spring, the rising tensions in Asia and Europe’s slow disintegration probably didn’t help the case.

As it stands, though non-Americans are happy for Obama’s re-election, there is doubtlessly less enthusiasm for his presidency. Not that it really matters, given that the events on the ground are forcing Obama to ‘pivot’ to domestic issues.

Jumping off the cliff, or pushed off the cliff

So the world didn’t end on the 21st, but if one listens to the scary sounding ‘fiscal cliff’ new reports, then you might be forgiven for thinking that the world might end on the 31st anyways. This is hardly a perfectly accurate depiction, although there will most certainly be serious repercussions of going off the cliff. More interesting are the ‘ongoing’ negotiations in Washington to attempt to find a solution. Long framed as an Obama vs. Boehner battle, I say the ‘negotiations are ‘ongoing’ because they are hardly happening, especially with the holiday season.

Obama’s key demand, and perhaps the biggest sticking point, is his demand for a higher tax-rate on the rich. Republicans traditionally baulk at anything that looks remotely like a tax increase; a trend certainly prolonged by Grover Norquist. This made it a pleasant surprise when Boehner tentatively agreed to higher tax rates, giving up the common position of only making the rich payer more taxes through closing tax loopholes.

Source: Huffington Post

Hoping to strengthen his negotiating hand, Boehner tried to pass his now infamous ‘Plan B’, which would raise taxes only those with an income of 1 million or more. Obama’s definition of the ‘rich’ was considerably broader and approval of his Plan B might have made it easier to push for the level to be set at 1 million rather than £250,000. Sadly for Boehner, his Plan B failed horrible, imploding in his face like an egg in a microwave. Republican votes failed to materialise, doing the very opposite by highlighting his weaknesses rather than his support. Read about how it all unfolded.

Now negotiations are on ice as the respective players head off on holiday. So what’s next?