Friday, November 30, 2007

Nationalism series: What is missing in Hans Kohn's theory

Hans Kohn is one of the earlier critical writers on nationalism. I am always amazed how we, the generation of the late '90s-early '00s forget that an entire intellectual dialog took place before the '80s and that we can learn a lot from those dust-covered books forgotten on the bookshelves in the library.

I'm reading Hans Kohn's 1955 book Nationalism, Its Meaning and History. There's not much out there, on the all-powerful net, about Kohn (1891-1971), except a Wiki page. Yet, reading Kohn, one starts seeing the thread to which Ernest Gellner, today considered the father of nationalism studies, was responding. All of a sudden, the importance of the discourse flowing from one mind to another becomes almost visible.

So what is Kohn saying and what is he missing about nationalism? In a nutshell, his theory is that nationalism is a will, a sentiment, a state of mind, mostly referring to and pertinent in politics. "Nationalism - he writes - is a state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due the nation-state" (p. 9). This state of mind emerged, according to Kohn, in the 18th century, initially in England (beginning with the 17th century), where it was facilitated by ideas of individual freedoms and rights and by the Puritan messianism. Building on previous social structures, English nationalism emerged as a civilized, universal and peaceful concept (though one gets to wonder from whose perspective...). The corruption of nationalism comes with German Romanticism and subsequently with the passion of the French Revolution and the Central & Eastern European national 'awakenings'.

Beyond the obvious problem of the typology civilized/ barbarian nationalism, there are some further things missing from Kohn's otherwise challenging and norm-breaking account of nationalism:

- there seems to be an implied assumption that nationalism, at least in its 'civilized' version - where it's mostly about securing the right balance between individual and collective - is peaceful and liberating. Should this be so, I think it ignores a crucial aspect of nationalism: that of establishing the boundaries of the nation against the boundaries of others, who are not only intrinsically dangerous (because they are not 'us'), but also somehow inferior.

- there is an assumption of pre-existing nationalities before nationalism (something more akin to Anthony Smith's ethnies) which allows Kohn to speak of French or Italians before the creation of the nation-states.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On the difference between the headscarf and the hijab

In my grandma's village, all married women were wearing a headscarf. Though there were some religious remnants to this custom (a woman's head must be covered before God), most of the women were simply wearing the head scarves. My grandma always said she's cold without it. Nobody actually gave a damn about their scarves, though occasionally they were used to distinguish between urban and rural women.

Now, given that, I ask myself why the big fuss about the hijab? Where does this fuss stem from? What is so offending? Definitely not the damn piece of cloth... I mean, if some women in Western cultures wore those scarves for generations, why do we have a problem with them now?

A Calgary girl was recently prohibited from playing football because she was wearing a hijab. Now, the official reasoning is that her hijab is dangerous, cause someone can pull it during the game and hurt her. Hm, then why don't we play football naked? I mean, someone could pull our T-shirts and shorts and hurt us...

According to a UK survey done in 2006-2007, media coverage of Muslims was found to be permeated by several ideas: that there is no common ground between West and Islam, that Muslims in Britain are a threat to British traditions and ways of life, and that generally the facts were distorted and feelings of insecurity and hatred were being fosters on all sides.

Photo credits: prettydougla; aussiegal; Thomas Frederik

Monday, November 26, 2007

Women in higher education

As I was reading Ariel Levy's intriguing book Female Chauvinist Pigs, I came across some dates which were quite disturbing. Like the fact that the first female graduate student enrolled in Princeton University only in 1961. That's only a little more than a decade before I was born. By that time, my mother was studying hard to apply to university.

Here's some more dates:
  • 1877 - first woman enrolled in the Medical Department at the University of Michigan
  • 1880 - Queen's University admitted the first three female undergrads in medicine
  • 1881 - Dalhousie University admits female undergrads, followed by McGill in 1884 and University of Toronto in 1885. However, even if women were allowed to write admission exams at University of Toronto, they were not allowed to attend lectures...
  • 1895 - University of Western Ontario admits the first female undergrad
  • 1902 - a woman applying for admission at Universite Laval is rejected because of her gender, although she had a Phd from University of Minnesota...
  • 1960s - first women become tenured faculty members at University of Toronto
  • 1920 - first woman to earn an architectural degree from University of Toronto
  • 1929 - first woman to graduate from aeronautical engineering, University of Toronto

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wired teenagers: a different homo sapiens?

I recently read two pieces of contradicting news:

- the first was about an economics professor who recently joined a Canadian University and who banned laptops in his class. He argued that ever since he did that, students are paying more attention and are being more engaged with the course material.

- the second was about a provincial minister of education who argued there is need for more funding for classroom technology. The argument is that the new generation is online, listening to music and doing their homeworks at the same time, and therefore to keep them engaged, educators need to recognize that the new wired, multi-tasking teenager needs more technology to function properly.

Is the wired teenager a new species? Is she multi-tasking indeed? In a presentation on new media, the speaker was enthusiastic about how their child was doing all those things at the same time and having the best grades. "How is this possible?" he asked rhetorically. A voice from the audience responded: "Luck!"

The truth is we do not know if the performance of multi-tasking, wired teenagers is high or low. It's true that we might need to change our definitions of 'performance'. If the purpose is to have them functioning in the new technologically mediated world, then yes, we need to imbue them with even more technology. No doubt a toddler raised with a computer will have far more skills for a tech-job than the one who first saw a computer when he was out of university.

But what if education has other purposes then preparing you for a job? Call me old fashioned, but I kinda like the idea that education is about developing your mind, your critical skills, your intellectual horizon. I like the fact that I had to learn all those useless (at least apparently useless) things, that I have a vague idea of what an integer or a derivative is, that I know what a tangent is, that I have an idea of what happened in 101-103 AD in the Roman Empire, that I know who Thomas of Aquinas was and what he had to say.

The question of the difference remains; it's not new. I think every generation had it, even those less technologically savvy... In fact, I read somewhere that it is precisely this debate between optimists and pessimists that makes change possible, because it introduces so many variables in the process that change is no longer in one unitary direction. What should I do for my next class then: ban laptops (unless we use them for class purposes) or not?

Photo credits: Mike Licht

Friday, November 16, 2007

Disability is the same of a difference as gender?

I attended a very interesting presentation today about pre-natal screening of disabilities. In short, this refers to the new medical technologies available to screen fetuses for the potential/ possible (quite a muddy area still...) disabilities. The speaker proposed that we think of disabilities in the same way we think of gender: as a social construct.

At first, I thought this will require quite a leap of faith. But I am gradually starting to see the point. My understanding is that we construct something as 'disability' by reference to a perceived normality - we have a notion of what an abled body is and what functions it is supposed to have. But this understanding is very much socially constrained. Just as gender is - we talked briefly about some practices to screen fetuses for biological sex in certain patriarchal cultures, and if there's a girl, an abortion follows just because of the sex. The speaker argued that this happens because in those cultures, being a female is just like a disease, which for the Western logic is hard to comprehend. Hard but not impossible. Western logic also had (still has I'd say) it's prejudices against women. In fact, in medieval rural families, to have a daughter was a big problem - first because it was believed she won't be that of a hard laborer, second because if she married, she would take away part of the family possessions as dowry.

There was talk about deafness and how for deaf communities, deafness is not seen as a handicap. Quite on the contrary, deaf parents would screen fetuses for a deaf child, which they would then choose to give birth (read this NY Times article and think about how they talk about deafness). At first, it sounds problematic for a non-deaf person: why would you do something like this to your child? But if I would have experienced the world in silence, would I have thought the same? Am I labeling deafness a disability because of my social world and because of my experience of being in this world? After all, we would have a totally different understanding of vision if we were flies. And probably my dog would think of me as handicapped since I cannot truly smell nor hear lots of the things out there that she perceives.

If you have the patience, skim through this page from the Hearing Foundation, deploring the birth of so 'many' children with high deafness risks and advocating for pre-natal screening for deafness. It's disturbing - and the speaker also talked about this - that there is no discussion about the implications of such screening. What is a parent supposed to do if she finds out her baby has a "high risk" of deafness? I am not being against abortion here (far from me!) but it's disturbing to see how reasons for abortion are proposed to us based on social norms about the right body. The next step is the right waist size, the right shape of the eyes, the right color of skin, the right gender... Right?

Photo credits: Dragonfly eyes

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Are we any different online?

According to the optimists, the internet is here to radically change ourselves and our world. Take Negroponte's claim that online it is no longer about your age, your race or your hair color. Since the internet is global, so we will become.

But things might be a bit more nuanced than this. For instance, this survey of why we participate online shows that most of our online presence is to send messages to each other (read friends you already have, unless you are in the online dating game) and to download and upload music and videos. It is true, some of us blog. But as I can attest, this is a fashion and not all the bloggers out there are actually saying anything meaningful (me included).

The interesting part for me was to see how we make sense of our own participation. Unfortunately, the survey author does engage with this here (but you may check this link he sent me for more info), but it seems to me that we merely replicate a globalist/ optimist discourse about the internet. With the risk of being paternalistic, I'm wondering to what extent this discourse about how the internet is connecting us and turning us into a global society, empowering our everyday lives is not merely a discourse we've borrowed without truly examining what our everyday lives look like...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Choices and imagination in Second Life

If you haven't heard about Second Life, you're not hanging out in the right places, with the right people! Thank god, at least you are reading this blog! Well, Second Life is the new BIG thing on the net. It is a platform for a virtual world, where people join, create an avatar and then just hang out. You can play games, you can participate in concerts or in educational events, and most importantly, you can spend your money and buy things.

There is something really catchy about Second Life. Maybe it's the slogan: Your World, Your Imagination. Maybe it's the now over-rated idea that you can be a dog on the internet, free of any constraints, free to unleash your imagination and re-create yourself.

Well, as it turns out, our imagination is quite limited by the infrastructure. I wanted to be a neutral oval shape. But I couldn't (at least, not with my limited technical skills). It's good to be reminded that our imagination is never free, but always bounded by the choices we CAN make, the choices we are being provided with. Imagining my avatar was eventually constrained by the very gendered options: male or female. I wish we could break this line of difference at least in virtual reality...

For other interesting posts on Second Life and limitations of avatars, check:

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Celebrate your moon time with a tea ceremony!

I attended my first Cree tea ceremony yesterday. I didn't know that Native cultures have tea ceremonies, but it seems that they do, and they are quite old and quite important for building social ties within the community.

The purpose of yesterday's ceremony was to celebrate our grandmothers and all the women in our lives who shaped us. First, you get to purify yourself with the smoke of sage leaves. As the tea concotion is being prepared and poured into cups, the mistress of ceremony sings some simple songs, repetitive and short like mantras. We thought of our ancestors as we held hands, in a circle. Then we sipped the tea, which bound us together.

But the interesting stuff was - as always - the talk. The mistress of ceremony told us about the power of women in moon time - or menstruation. The name itself is touching - 'moon time'. I had to remind myself that night is not perceived everywhere as the time of sin and fault. In a dark night, the moon is seen as the source of light. The night doesn't have to be scary, it can equally be protective. In the end, it all comes down to the social stock of knowledge (as Alfred Schutz called it), those commonly held interpretations and explanations which a group holds: you interpret what you see according to the ways in which you are taught to.

And this gets us back to moon time: a time to celebrate the power of being a woman. How far away from Western Christian interpretive framework, in which menstruation is a constant reminder of impurity, of sin. "Women in moon time are the most powerful", said the mistress of ceremony. "Don't let anyone make fun of your moon time." That's when women are most intuitive and sensitive, that's when they are in touch with their body, that's when they release all the negativity and are re-born in love.

I think I like this social stock of knowledge better!

Photo credits:
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