Friday, March 23, 2007

Charging and begging cultures

Money talks, and in money terms it is possible to look at the divide between West and East as a difference of the charging and the begging culture. It does not matter where you go in the global village, people will always be after your money. But the way they extract payment from you differs greatly. In the West they will exploit your needs and charge or tax you every step of the way. In the East they will exploit your compassion and pester you until you part with some cash.

The divide goes deep and shapes attitudes. In the East there is a service culture, which is why people from the West will go on holiday to Asia or Africa. People are trying to be overtly helpful in order to be tipped. In the West, on the other hand, people won't bother with being too helpful, since you are going to pay anyway, and after-sales customer service, unless separately paid for, has completely gone out of fashion.

Western advertising is all about creating demand. "Low cost" carriers like Ryanair, for example, will try and lure you to fly to exotic locations for under ten pounds. Once you are hooked they will add airport taxes, fuel surcharge, luggage surcharge, payment surcharge (indeed: you are charged for making payment by credit or debit card which are the only payment options on offer), and your cheap trip ends up costing more like a hundred pounds. If you end up getting thirsty or hungry enroute, you will have to fork out some extra money again. If you complain about delays or bad service, on the other hand, you just about get an acknowledgment letter.

Once you arrive, however, there is a total sea change: suddenly everybody is offering their helpful services free of charge in the hope that you will feel obliged to pay them later. If you don't, they know how to make you feel bad about it. How could you possibly take advantage of their generosity without matching it with your own. Outside the mosques, at congregational prayer times, vendors and beggars will gather, not to pray but in the hope that those who did will part with some spare change after having just begged God to grant their prayers. In a way, this is also market forces at work: large gatherings attract those who want to sell their wares or appeal to your kindness.

Human nature on the whole does not differ too much wherever you go. The ways it expresses itself, however, do. Many tourists to so-called developing countries stay in the cocoon of Western hotels and restaurants, fearing too close a contact with the local populace who might "rob" them. This same fear, too, keeps them willing victims of their own governments and large corporations who extract ever larger tax contributions and charges from them. When it comes down to having a choice it is probably wiser to prefer the beggar over the charger. Persistent as a beggar might be, it is much easier to ignore him than to ignore, for example, the taxman, and if inclined to be generous, the beggar is usually also happy with taking a lot less of your hard earned money.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Zimbabwe - divide and fool

The US, Europe, the UK, and the UN all issued all issued statements deploring the assault upon the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai whilst in custody, and suddenly Zimbabwe is given centre stage in the media as the number one rogue state run by a tin pot dictator. In the West, Mugabe is more disliked for disappropriating white farmers than for the economic hardship his people have to endure. Far be it from me to condone police brutality, but I detest the moral high ground so readily assumed by Western politicians calling upon the African Union to intervene urgently as if this was the biggest issue going on that large continent, dwarfing the US orchestrated invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops, for example.

After meeting the chairman of the African Union, Ghanaian president John Kufuor, British prime minister Tony Blair offered the platitudes that the Zimbabwean people "should be able to express their political views without harrassment or intimidation or violence", adding that what was happening was "truly tragic". He surely must live in cloud cuckoo land. Unbiased observers might point to the fact that the UK's own human rights record is anything but impressive, considering that the UK found it necessary to derogate from its obligations under article 5 of the European Community's Human Rights Act in order to hold so-called terror suspects indefinitely without trial.

Nor is police brutality against people in custody an African thing. In 2003 a British Muslim, Babar Ahmad, was arrested and later released without charge. He emerged from the police station with more than 50 injuries to his body. In typical Mugabe style an internal police misconduct tribunal found that the officers had acted impeccably, adding: "We are satisfied that there is no case to answer. In fact, the officer acted professionally and with great bravery. We support his actions: he should be commended and not castigated." The EU did not mind and the US added insult to injury by getting Babar Ahmad re-arrested on an extradition warrant. The African Union should have demanded that the EU urgently intervene in this tragic case. They should also have asked for sanctions following the brutal police assassination of innocent Brazilian Chales de Menezes on the London Underground.

The sun has long set on the British Empire, but the Anglo-American establishment continues to act as if they can make the rules and break them at will. Divide and rule may have become more illusive these days, but divide and fool is alive and kicking, particularly in the mass media who thrive in this age of shameless impudence. For the war-mongering moralists in Western governments the beating of an African opposition spokesman is a global outrage whereas the torture and sexual intimidation at Abu Ghraib prison remains merely an operational anomality.

The British people are continually fed a stale diet of two-party politics, only to find both "opposing" parties to unite when it comes to the crunch. To head of a backbench rebellion amongst its own supporters the governing Labour party relied on the opposition Conservative Party to approve a renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine system at the same time as they are lecturing other countries on nuclear disarmament. Whilst trying to make their own people feel guilty every day of their lives with the new mantra of "you're leaving too large a carbon foot print behind", they chastise Iran for wanting to develop peaceful nuclear power, arguing that a country with large oil reserves like Iran does not need nuclear energy for peaceful reasons.

For now, everybody outside the Anglo-American world (maybe with the exception of China) remains apologetic whenever an accusation of wrong-doing is levelled at a lesser country belonging to the third world. Maybe it is because their elites were educated in the West. Meanwhile the Western powers have already lost both the intellectual and moral arguments. Will the world be fooled much longer by double standards passed off as political finesse, or has the time finally come to turn the tables?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Official: Israel is THE pariah state

A recent GlobeScan survey conducted for the BBC World Service confirms what most people know but governments want to deny: Israel is an unpopular state whose role is seen as anything but benign in world opinion. The poll rates countries as to whether there influence in the world is considered to be mainly positive or negative, and the results show Israel to be perceived the least positive and the most negative influence. Even Iran did slightly better in the perception of people around the world.

These results have to be viewed against the background of relentless negative propaganda against Iran whereas Israel is usually perceived in the dominant mass media as a beleagured democracy of victimised people fighting for survival in a despareate struggle against Arab and Islamic terrorism. So whilst many people in the world may have been hoodwinked into accepting the official line on Iran, they have not been fooled into believing the myth of Israel as the innocent home for persecuted Jews.

China, by the way, is seen as more positive than the USA, and the latter is perceived as more negative than Russia. It seems the people of the world do not share the American dream, but their clear vote against the role Israel is playing is most telling. Short of accusing the pollsters of anti-semitism in the design of their research methods, as the Israeli paper Haaretz does, Israel and its supporters have an evident image problem in spite of privileged access to the media. No doubt, in their typical arrogance they will respond by claiming that the world's inhabitants will need to be better educated.

This would make the Americans the best educated nation on earth: the Israeli national news service Arutz Sheva tells us that unlike other nations, the sympathies of Americans are still solidly with Israel. Who would have guessed!