Arts

The World In A Slant of Light

The Economist is hard to ignore. Like an element, this British publication with its worldlier-than-thou posture goes about its business-prattling about the business of the world-with an air of infallibility. Does it matter what the planet’s political and economic leaders think since they can hardly think far without a constant detour, a frequent glance across the table, eyes fixed on this economic indicator or that survey bequeathed by the E.I.U.? You don’t have to be too interested in the Wall Street or the Uruguay Round to find the publication fascinating. I’m eager to find my bearing in the world, but often I read this periodical just for the plain fun of its orgasmic (an unlikely Economist qualifier) prose.

I compare the magazine to the elements for good reason. The elements are disinterested; a fire does not discriminate, rain falls on anyone out. The Economist eschews indifference to major human events while reinforcing its habit of certitude. Even such eccentricities as brevity and byline-lessness (except in rare and special cases) only go to strengthen this aura. It would be gratuitous to cite many instances because as an aura, this quality is central to the magazine’s being. But just these:

A story on the charge of plagiarism leveled against the writer Umberto Eco was titled “A distant echo”; the caption on a picture of the new president of Mexico reads “21st century Fox”. In one of the first stories about the Bush government, the magazine puts an asterisk on the president’s name. A footnote then goes: “To mark his coming of age, The Economist calls on the world to dispense forthwith with George Bush’s “W”. The ink saved during his presidency will rival Lake Michigan.” Some wit! Some damn well-earned presumptuousness!

Performance is crucial to the maintenance of power. The Economist performs its power every week-it’s to the Wall Street what the compass was to Ferdinand Magellan-but goes even further. It performs the role of the world’s stargazer as periodically as it encapsulates a specific trend or region for purposes of monitoring economic fortunes. And often misfortunes. In 1992, five hundred years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, it did a survey of the world in the next hundred and fifty years. The millennium edition sold in December 1999 was as remarkable for its wide interests as for the subject of its obituary column: God. (A friend of mine, an admirably fanatical Christian, dispatched a letter to the magazine’s editor saying that God, having outlived Nietzsche, would also survive The Economist. I concluded that the magazine had met its match.) Early in January it published a special edition: “The World in 2001”, just when TIME was still grappling with 2000 in pictures.

Some years ago a simile surfaced in my notebooks: “As constant as The Economist on Africa”. I have seldom read anything sunny in the magazine’s reports on African events, proof that climate is a poor measurement of political currents. The Conradian darkness isn’t limited to the heart of Mobutu’s jungle-the magazine is an expert on Afro-pessimism. There is something unquestionably negative about a cover headline that reads, “The hopeless continent” although when you read the story it is usually difficult to argue over the substance. Whenever it writes about Africa The Economist strikes in me the same note as a Sir Naipaul novel: ambivalence, a witnessing to pessimism through good writing. Wit is the British journal’s edge over the British knight.

The edition is a collection of forecasts, as awash in “will” as a weatherman’s rote. Headed “Africa’s darker shades of black” the forecast about the continent is focused on economies and presidents. Its author, Patrick Smith (editor of African Confidential), is well placed to feel economic and political pulses, his business being to perceive the world basically in terms of the use of power and exchange of goods. It is true: a nation’s surplus is in how well fed its people are. Average income per head in Africa will be lower in 2001 than it was in 1971, the story begins. After a run-down of economic indicators-the most hopeful being “fast-growing” Mozambique and Tanzania economies, the 3% and 4% growth rates for Nigeria and South Africa and the progress in combating AIDS in Uganda and Senegal-the write-up turns upon the political leaders.

Here it is, from an article written in late 2000: “Expect-and hope-to see the back of President Laurent Desire Kabila in Congo-Kinshasa. His departure could do more for peace in Congo than a dozen ceasefires… Also tipped to go is Gambia’s Colonel Yahya Jammeh, who has been taunting his bigger neighbor, Senegal, by helping rebels in that country’s southern Casamance province…President Omar Basir of Sudan is at risk…He is unlikely to last the year…” To avoid charges of sensationalism one ought to slip in, as the article does, the astute details on the crude politics. “Western businessmen and diplomats will spend 2001 rebuilding links with Africa’s pariah oil-producing states, Sudan and Libya. Scarcer and higher-priced oil will quicken the rapprochement as European companies jostle for contracts in Sudan’s nascent petroleum industry. American companies will press their government to drop its sanctions against Sudan as their European and Asian competitors expand their businesses.

“Higher oil prices will help Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, besieged by political, military and religious opposition since he was elected in 1999. But it will not win his country the $20billion debt cancellation that he has been campaigning for. Britain and America will again rely on Nigeria to keep the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone…Expect Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campaore still to be thriving at the end of the year. Down the coast in Benin, the former Marxist dictator, President Mathieu Kerekou, will win another term in multi-party elections thanks to his political cynicism and recently acquired Catholicism.” The article ends with the following sentence: “With “democracies” like these, who needs dictatorships?”

A masterly performance, as usual. But let me unpack the details. Predicting Kabila’s death is startling, and given the inglorious end to which the hubristic regime of Robert Guei came late last year, it is tempting to entertain the feeling that the other predictions about Jammeh and Bashir are just waiting to be fulfilled. The readings of the politics of oil are equally interesting. With a Republican White House, Western businessmen do not require much effort to press for business-as-usual. During the same week in late January that President Bush, an oil magnate, staked his position about oil, the trial of the two Lockerbie crash suspects was concluded. The two men are from Libya, a country that American oil merchants are eager to do deals with. There, in stark economic terms, are the super-powerful forces playing games with the suffering of the world.

I have serious problems with The Economist‘s cartography, its sense of where Africa begins and ends. The mentality behind this map is as old as that of Oronce Finé, the fifteenth-century French mapmaker. But Finé knew no better. The insights about Africa, as about other parts of the world designated economically weak, profound as they often seem, do not on the whole reflect an interest in the actual empowerment of the people. I doubt that this is the way it ought to be. When the section on African focuses on non-governmental organizations at all, it is the variety concerned with refugees, and merely as humanitarian effort. I am aware that the journal enters a caveat about the opinions in the stories belonging to their authors, rather than to its publishers. But it cares the least about such distinctions.

And just what does that final sentence mean? The world’s memory of the Florida danse macabre is quite fresh. Drawing lessons from that event, here is what an American magazine, Harper’s, has to say: “By far the best indicator of election strife is recent decolonization, an experience-along with colonization itself-that usually leaves countries so drained and destabilized that Western political expectations seem ironic at best…And this year, as the United States settles for a court-appointed president, the West might do well to reserve its expectations for itself.” Here’s the rock, here’s the hard place.

II

In May 1999 The Economist and Royal/Dutch Shell, co-sponsored an essay competition designed to get people to think about what the world might be like in the next fifty years. The contest promised cash gifts to successful essays, drawn in US dollars, no less.

This matter presented itself in stark terms, in fact so stark as to equate the tension between imaginative thinking and economic calculations: these people were asking potential entrants to perform the same kind of role that Adam Smith or Karl Marx had performed. It was difficult to see whether the impetus for such a demand was of the kind that had compelled the economic philosophers. To write not just about the future, but about what it would be like, would require more than minor talents like the ability to read economic indices or monitor the progress of technology. It required, more crucially, a language and an attitude of mind, and anyone who possessed anything close to these would hardly bother, even with the prospect of razor-sharp greenbacks.

But the depths that spring hope are bottomless.

A while back, The Economist published the result of that competition. There were over 3,000 entries, and the winning entry came from William Douglass, a 29-year-old based in Houston, Texas, in the US. Conceived as letter written by a 12-year-old Bangladeshi boy to his Internet “pen pal”, the essay showed a remarkable awareness of the pervasiveness of technology. The boy, Ramesh Pediredla, is a computer junkie with middle-class parents, and he has just found the name of the addressee, Nestor, on a reference list. Curious as a mouse, he wants to know everything, and is not shy to share his knowledge of popular culture with this new friend. He talks about his best friend, whom he’d met over the Internet when he was eight, and is mildly disapproving of his parents’ disapproval of his addiction to the Net.

The time he lives in is one of simulated tropics, of triple-decker Airbuses, of Virtual Friends, of a North American Trading Block coordinated by a Chief Representative; a time when one’s parents can arrange Special Genes to take care of such incurable diseases as cancer and HIV. The letter is dated December 8th 2050, the year in which people might hope to live to a hundred and twenty years, and lovers could spend their honeymoons in Mars, and a lucky Bangladeshi family could secure a 20-year multiple entry visa to Uncle Sam’s country. It is such a wonderful time, and Ramesh is excited by it all, although he won’t be able to take full advantage of it until he has finished his studies. The fictive epistle ends on the note that despite all the advances in technology and human capacity, what would matter most were such basic things as human lives and the will to love.

The upbeat tone of the piece was very much to my taste. The idea of an American constructing a Bangladeshi character to write to an American was inventive, allowing a comparative reflection on the problems and joys of the world, while hinting at what human beings had in common. The writer’s reflexes were well-tuned; in a write-up about predictions, he talked about what people would predict and the fact that they would continue to do so. The literary conceit enjoyed my bias-I am easily drawn to any arrangement of the unwritten rules of communication that privileges the literary and allows the flowering of imaginative thinking. And perhaps the least obvious, yet the most crucial in the process of transmission of message: that two people separated by great distances and diverse cultures could engage in instantaneous communication and take the process itself, the primary concern of this letter, as a given.

Beyond this, however, I found nothing extraordinary about the letter to recommend it as a view of the world in 2050. The problem isn’t so much the writer as those who adjudged this essay as the best. My problems are two-fold: the order of relationship between Bangladesh and the US, and, more important, the language of the piece itself.

Ramesh’s daytime job is estimated to be pushing bicycle rickshaw on the streets of Dhaka. An American is making a Bangladeshi tell him, the American, that in the year 2050, the rickshaw would still be in operation in that “Third World” country. But the Bangladeshi boy would have to wait to visit the United States to “take one of those new Airbus triple-deckers”. People from Bangladesh would still be seeking visa to the US, although the country would have by then become so generous it would give out 20-year multiple entries. I wonder whether, with this order of relationship, Bangladesh has any choice at all, whether it can cling to its rickshaws in the face of such imperial benevolence. Ramesh tells his pen pal that his parents were married “with a new legal instrument we have here, which we just adopted from the West”. At first glance, this may seem a ridiculing of the institution of marriage at the present time, but particularly in the West. But when you pause to think about it, you sense an assumption that other people could only copy the US, even in its most socially destructive habits.

Now language-the more troubling aspect. When I talk about language, I don’t mean just the structure or form of the sentence and the question of style, although these are also important. I mean the entire architecture of the letter, which stands on a notion of change propelled by technological growth but which nonetheless is insensitive to that change. As I read the piece over and over again, I had to keep asking myself: Is this how people are going to be using the English language in 2050? The prose of the piece sounds very American, the speaking voice much older than twelve years. There is little question that a Bangladeshi boy from a middle-class home would adopt slang when he talks, even at home in Dhaka. Yet it is hard to overlook the presumptuousness behind the language: that everyone will still write English in 50 years the way we do now, and that it will be American English.

I’m not trying to suggest the contrary, only to draw attention to certain developments in our vanishing present, and how they are unleashed by the movement of technology. When you process a document in Microsoft Word the spell-check, unprompted, draws red wavy lines under words or names it does not recognize. These words are usually non-English words, but specifically words foreign to American English. But the beauty of the spell-check is that one can customize it by telling it to either ignore the corrections, or add the unrecognized words to the multicultural vocabulary of one’s own word processor.

Between October 2000 and late January 2001, the New York Public Library in Manhattan hosted a major exhibition called “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World”. Every moment of idealism from the Garden of Eden, the discovery of the new worlds, the Communist Manifesto to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech of 1963 was represented at this show. What fascinated me most, however, was a small, three-paneled frame of nine vignettes titled “In the Year 2000” (En l’an 2000). It was a 1910 linocut executed by an unnamed artist who tried to project a vision of life in 2000. If the artwork was successful in any sense, it was in the newness of things located in the future. The ways he imagined that people would be receiving information or education, or commuting or observing recreational activities were grossly off-the-mark. So were the dress codes, which remained trapped in the fashion of 1910. As I read William Douglass’ essay in the special edition of The Economist, I kept thinking about this linocut.

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