Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.


There’s an interesting post over at normblog* in which he comments on the apparent controversy over whether or not the US President was correct to bow when he met the Emperor of Japan. Those who are criticising Obama are accusing him of being subservient. The Washington Times for instance accuses him of selling out

what America… is about

which is that

all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.

This is apparently due to Obama being

sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

No matter that, according to one blog which commented on this editorial, the author is the son of a man who defended segregation – not the most obvious example of men being allowed to stand equal, although it was for a long time a big part of what America was about for some of its citizens. After all, What kind of person judges a person according to their parents?

What i am really interested in is the unease around respect, which when talked about in the abstract is usually considered to be a good thing. From childhood on, we are urged to respect others. In fact, we are commonly told that all human beings are worthy of respect. This being the case it could be argued that Obama’s mistake is not in bowing to an emperor, but in only bowing to an emperor. He should bow to everybody. Everybody should bow to everybody. In fact, I remember reading a book about Buddhism which contained a description of a monk even bowing to an insect (or some kind of small creature anyway) that he encountered as we walked along a path.

“Well… maybe,” you might say. “But that isn’t what i have a problem with. My problem is with the idea that any human being is ‘higher’ than another – and that is what bowing says to me.” Surely however that is exactly what respect means – to hold someone in a higher regard than yourself. For example, when we say we respect our elders, we imply that they are above us in some way: wisdom, experience, endurance of hardship; hence the fact that as synonyms dictionaries offer words like: veneration, admiration, reverence. The idea that we should respect all our fellow human beings actually rests on an assumption that we can find some aspect of any other human being in which they exceed us.

By way of objection, you might mention an artist, X, who says that he respects another artist, Y, who is quite obviously his inferior; but actually what does X respect? It could be that Y achieves so much despite the fact that he is less talented than X, that he works harder, that although his work isn’t overall of the same standard as X’s it nevertheless excels his in some areas: variety, quantity, commercial success. This list would be very long indeed if i were to try and identify everything it is possible to respect in another artist, but the point is this: for X to respect Y there must be some relevant area in which he feels that Y is his superior, or else X is lying.

One question raised by Obama bowing to the Emperor Akihito is whether or not he is indicating respect for – suggesting as ‘higher’ – a social hierarchy based on birth, rather than personal achievement. This reflects the fact that emperors, indeed like most of us, are both people in their own right and representatives of the ‘system’ or ‘organisation’ in which they have a role. As the Emperor of Japan, Akihito can be perceived as representing the a hierarchical social system; but equally he can be seen as representing the Japanese nation of which he is head of state and at a state occasion that would be the more obvious way to interpret behaviour towards him. Obama of course represents the American social system – in a number of interesting ways – as well as America as a country. Are there no ways in which Japan as a nation might be thought to be worthy of respect by America?

Still, you might protest: bowing isn’t our way. The problem with this objection is that bowing is the Japanese way and politeness, which is the way we show respect to people we do not know, is culture-specific. It is as meaningless to insist on showing people respect according to the rules of your own society as it is to insist on speaking to them in your own language. When Americans were looking European ‘kings’ in the eye it was as part of a shared and understood – even if contested – story in which the Europeans are the old colonial, dominant power overcome by the new freedom-loving American underdogs. That isn’t necessarily the case when Americans go into Asian or African countries – which reminds me: an Asian perspective on Obama’s bow can be found here.

Thinking about it, much of the anxiety around Obama betraying American ideals by bowing down in front of Akihito can be seen as fear of a foreign ‘language’ – of lacking mastery over the symbols of communication and, by extension, of the story being told. If we shake hands we feel we know what the gesture means; never mind that it might have a different conotation for the person we shake hands with. In the case of some bloggers, hidden behind rhetoric about equality, there is an even keener fear – one of not having mastery in the political domain. Japan’s come a long way since those days immediately after World War II when General McArthur could feel quite confident he had no need to bow.

* normblog has an even more relevant post here, but i hadn’t seen it when i wrote this.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!