Government, energy & environment

Cultural relativism

Have you seen the new logo for the London Olympics? It looks like graffiti and is supposed to be representative of the ‘inclusiveness’ of modern Britain and the fact that the games are about ‘ordinary’ people. Strange. I thought the Olympics were about excellence. The logo is fatuous rubbish and if it’s representative of anything it’s that the cultural elites in Britain (and a host of other countries) have given up on the idea that high knowledge and culture can be taught to ‘ordinary people’. In theory our new democratic age should be a good thing. We no longer accept the pronouncements of newspapers editors and question what we are told by politicians and business. But what’s actually happening is that the dictatorship of the old elite is simply being replaced by another – all in the guise of anti-elitism. For example, at the launch of the 2012 Olympics logo, the head of culture for the Olympics turned to a large group of teenagers in the audience (de rigueur these days) and told them sincerely ‘I have to learn from you’. Really? You mean that the expertise and insights gained from years of experience is no more valuable than the immature, derivative and cliched opinions of teenagers? This cultural relativism is happening everywhere. Reading Harry Potter is as good as reading Jane Austin. Beethoven has no more merit than Justin Timberlake. Every institution in the UK seems to be failing for it. If pupils are failing science at school it’s because it’s too hard, therefore we need to change science to make it easier to understand – education policy is obviously wrong. It’s the same with museums. Every museum in Britain now has access targets for every minority, including people that don’t visit museums. So scholars and curators with expert knowledge are being sent on ‘audience development’ courses and are being told to turn museums into theme parks with exhibitions of Kylie Minogue’s dresses instead of Ming Dynasty porcelain. Even the chief political editor of BBC news has been told to set up a blog and use responses to it to inform his judgement. This is insane. Journalism (at least at the BBC) used to be about helping people to make sense of the world. It was about stretching peoples’ curiosity and imagination. These days the BBC, like everyone else, is so busy finding out what ‘the audience’ wants that it has abandoned any semblance of leadership. It is as though every institution and elite in Britain has lost faith in the intelligence of both themselves and, most crucially, their audience.
Ref: The Australian (Aus), 18-19 August 2007, ‘Strike up the band for elitism’, C.Fox. and The Spectator (UK), 9 June 2007, ‘You get the Olympic logo you deserve: in our case, One I could draw on a beer mat’, R. Liddle.
See also The Institute of Ideas
Search words: Elitism, elites, dumbing down, inclusiveness, leadership, arts policy, education, media
Source integrity: *****

Can you buy culture?

Abu Dhabi recently paid US$520 million for the rights to use the word ‘Louvre’ for 30 years. The country is spending a further US$747 for art loans and art advice. The franchising of art galleries and museums is a new trend. Abu Dhabi sits on 10% of the world’s known oil reserves and has plans to turn itself into the cultural capital of the Middle East. The new museum will be placed inside a US$27 billion centre that is perhaps the most ambitious arts project ever conceived, involving some of the highest profile architects alive today. The project is not without controversy though. In one corner sit the critics who argue that the ‘French’ collection is being compromised and diluted. On the other side are critics arguing that the new complex should feature Middle Eastern art and not ‘imported’ artefacts. The project stated with a meeting in 2004 that identified high-end tourism as a wave of the future. This, in turn, appeared to be driven by art and education, so a plan was born to attract a world-class cluster of cultural icons ranging from the Louvre to Yale University and the Sorbonne. One obvious parallel here is the Guggenheim in Las Vegas. There is also an art gallery in Skipol airport in Amsterdam. But is this really anything new? The works of Michelangelo and Donatello partly exist because of money provided by the Medicis, so culture has always been ‘bought’. The difference, perhaps, is context, but then again, everything has to start somewhere.
Ref: Newsweek (US), 6 August 2007, ‘Buying Culture’, Z. Krieger.
Search words: Art, culture, museums, galleries, middle east
Source integrity: ****

Internet-based conflict

One of the cliches about modern warfare is that future wars will be fought by groups within states rather than between states. Another is that cyberwars are the wave of the future. Both are cliches and both are true. Scada systems is a term used by technologists to describe Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, which is the remote monitoring and control of infrastructure and industrial systems to you and me. Things like dams, power grids, water supply networks and so on. Target these systems through a cyber attack and – theoretically – you can effectively bring a city or possibly an entire country to its knees for a short while. According to some sources, China has been investigating US networks like these for some time and has also invested heavily in computer-based counter measures in case someone attacks Chinese infrastructure. There is even someone in Washington (US) in charge of something called ‘Cyberspace Command’. Of course the future has in a sense already arrived. Back in May cyber attacks in Estonia were blamed on both the Russians and tech savvy ‘hacktivists’. Whoever it was, nobody claimed responsibility. But is Internet-based conflict something governments and military planners should be worrying about? The answer is yes, although in reality there aren’t many places where systems are so centralised that attacks could do much damage. At least that’s the theory. There’s also the human factor. Computers crash but people don’t. And when things break people are very good at fixing them. Having said this, the more that things become digitalised and connected the more weak points we create. Even a simple power cut can mean that cash is unobtainable (via ATMs) and digital payments via credit cards won’t work.
Ref: International Herald Tribune (US), 24 June 2007, ‘Preparing for a digital Pearl Harbor’, J. Schwartz.
Search words: War, warfare, risk, cyberspace, cyberwars
Source integrity: *****

We’ve never had it so good

Here’s a funny thing. There appears to be a total disconnect between how people feel at the moment and the actual state of play in terms of the economy, international affairs and security. In the US people see much of the world as a source of threats, while outside the US many non-Americans see the US as the cause of much of the trouble. Both viewpoints are rather unbalanced and lacking in context. Nevertheless, perception is reality to most people and the challenge facing politicians is how to convince voters that things are actually much better than they think they are.There are obviously things to worry about – climate change, resource shortages and terrorism immediately spring to mind – but even the threat poised by things like this tend to be overstated. What is definitely good news is that while authoritarianism is making a comeback, democracy is spreading and over a third of all humankind now lives in countries that are growing at around 7-10% per year (GDP). Lifespans are longer, poverty is being reduced and literacy levels are improving. Admittedly growth is uneven and issues like pollution and education still need to be addressed but things are generally better than they’ve been for a very long time. As for security, there is the looming issue of conflict between the US and China (or possibly Russia). Some observers claim this is rubbish due to US military dominance, but according to other observers, this imbalance is precisely the catalyst of future instability.
Ref: Newsweek (US), 6 August 2007, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, G. Rose.
Search words: threats, risk, anxiety, happiness
Source integrity: ****

Parental irresponsibility

In the 1990s government spotlights were firmly focused on the issue of single mothers, and in particular single mothers as parents. Skip a decade and the issue hardly raises an eyebrow outside of certain tabloid newspapers. Instead, another issue is making its way into the headlines. In the US, 2.4 million grandparents are raising their children’s children. Moreover, many of these grandparents are in poor health and poor shape financially. According to a think-tank called the Urban Institute (US), 37% of these caregivers are below the federal poverty threshold and a massive 66% are in low-income households. Implications? Clearly if parents have failed once with their own kids (i.e. because they're failed to raise kids that can raise kids - are you following this?) then things are not looking good for their kids’ kids either. One of the main consequences is mental health (on all sides) but a really serious issue is custody, which influences rights of access to both healthcare and education.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 16 June 2007, ‘Skipping a generation’.
Search words: Grandparents, parenting, kids, ageing