Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Village on Stilts

Yesterday morning (or what seems like yesterday, though the calendar says it was 48 hours ago) I got on a train, and then a boat, and within two hours of Kuala Lumpur, found myself at Palau Ketam, a fishing village on a mudflat island in the Strait of Maleka, between Malaysia and Sumatra.

It is only with reluctance that my managers will allow such indulgences, and thus only infrequently I am able to take the opportunity. And there are days that I will confess that I feel that I am the only person who understands what I am about when I visit such places.

I have always said that experience is the best teacher, and that to truly learn, we must leave the classroom and go out into the world. I have always felt that the benefit of online learning would be to free us from the more traditional order that keeps us in the classroom, in the office, and away from the world, away from the benefits of true experience.

Ewan McIntosh is engaging in debate in the traditional Oxford style under the auspices of the staid and world-wary officials of the Economist. This while I walk along the sidewalks among the screaming children riding their bicycles at breakneck speed on their elevated concrete and wooden sidewalks.

I suspect he does not even understand my objections to his participation, though I don't think I can say it more clearly: that the Economist is stage-managing these debates in order to distract from what can be genuinely learned.

I am not going to glamorize Malaysia - the country is far too complicated for that. Like Colombia, and like Lesotho, there is poverty. People struggle to make a living, even as glass and steel towers rise in the cities, even as the malls sell MacBooks and mobile phones. Perhaps my most enduring memory of Palau Ketam is not the old man weaving reeds around the shell of a chair or the women preparing seafood products on the floor of their house, but the sight of a flat-screen colour TV through the window of one of these houses. Poverty exists side by side with plenty, sometimes even in the same room.

The economist would have us believe that it is the free market that makes these advances possible in such poor nations, but I know better. What advances there are in places like Malaysia - and I have seen the pattern repeated elsewhere - are as a result of government services and supports. From the subsidies on fuel and food that keep the people out of abject poverty, to the housing that supports them, to the concrete pillars and concrete walkways of Palau Ketam that make life there just a little less precarious.

Yes, there is the attractive side of the free market in Malaysia. I would much rather shop in the technology mall, choosing from a hundred different vendors, than I would walk the sterile aisles of the Future Shop. I saw more 'authorized Mac vendors' in Malaysia than anywhere else I've been, as it is apparent the Monopoly has been broken there. And I would much rather wander the bazaars and the night markets than to shop at WalMart. But equally, I was cautious (to say the least) about food I knew would make me sick, and careful where I stepped on the uneven (and often dirty) sidewalks.

Many of the lessons from Malaysia will wait weeks before rising to the surface of my memories. Can you believe that I have never been in a mosque before now? What will I make of the calls of the mullahs to prayer, which I will now forever associate with sunrise and sunset, an aching and haunting call that is beautiful and meaningful? What will I make of the gangs of youths, using motorcycle helmets as weapons, fighting at the bus stop in the Brickfields?

When I think of the Economist I think of people like Thomas Friedman writing that 'the world is flat', and I certainly see why he makes such a claim. When I compare cities like Bogota and Kuala Lumpur to my own home in New Brunswick, I see clearly not how far these countries have come (and in many ways surpassed us), I am equally aware of the fragility of our hold on the advantages of a modern technological society. We are very smug in our quiet and clean towns, almost completely unaware that we are rapidly becoming irrelevant.

This should be clear: that the policies of people like those who run the Economist kept for many years the citizens of these nations living in abject poverty, and it is only through enormous force of will that governments, like the Islamic government of Malaysia, are overturning the dictates of agencies like the World Bank and the rule of the multinational corporations.

And living in New Brunswick, I perhaps better than others know how easily and quickly these agencies will switch allegiances, casting ourselves in the role of impoverished producers of commodities, eking a living with fewer and fewer of the social supports to which we have become accustomed.

I will attempt in the future to express some of these sentiments more articulately than I can today. But I want at least to capture the emotion and the feeling.

Because, you know, people like those who run the Economist always come appearing to have the most benign of attentions and carrying with them the promise of riches. They come with riches, they come with what it is you want. If you crave money, they will pay you. If you crave attention, they will give you an audience.

They can, as they have so many times before, promise to make you the king in your own country, the representative of your people, the one who carries the standard. And it is far easier to accept this, than to ask, by what right do they offer this?

Just as we know that the Americans will never allow the mullahs to rule in Iraq, we know that the Economist will never appoint the Frieres or the Illichs of our own community to speak on behalf of educators, or even on one side of a so-called 'debate'.

Just as, in our so-called democracy, the national media will never run advertisements questioning the role of multinationals in world development, or advocating socially responsible events like 'buy nothing' day.

I want also to comment on Olli Answers, who asks, appropriately, "What then is the value an expert opinion and who decides what makes an expert an expert?

Appropriate, because he also comments, "I find it rather ironic that Downes complains about the Economist’s “cult of ‘experts’” when, until now, I always presumed Downes to be a member of the cult of education experts. Isn’t Downes one of the academic elite in education?"

Whether or not I am one of the 'elite' - and I hasten to add, that I have always resisted this characterization - I would like to point to the distinction between one who has become an expert and one who has been appointed one.

If you toe the line, if you are ready to say the right things, to appeal to the right demographic, to have a certain popular appear, then you can become 'published'.

Like it or not, no matter how much you may protest your autonomy and independence, when you accept Caesar's crown, you become Caesar's king.

As for me, well, I turn my back on Rome.