In fragile times

Posted in 1 by Editor on January 17, 2011

Speaking to the BBC last Thursday – from on board the international space station orbiting at an altitude of about 400 kilometres – European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli remarked how fragile earth looked from where he stood. I watched the live interview, breathlessly. He spoke as if he were looking at a helpless baby abandoned by its mother in a skip.

How different Mr Nespoli’s humble and humbling tone from Neil Armstrong’s macho triumphalism when, as he stepped onto the moon on July 20 (or July 21, depending on your time zone), 1969, he consigned to posterity the pompous claim: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” I remember watching that too, also breathlessly.

That was 42 years ago and a long time ago that was. The Cold War rules of the game meant no one of the two empires confronting each other could afford to utter anything but grandiloquent expressions of certitude. Statements East and West had to reflect a state of complete assurance and determination.

Plans on both sides had to be announced as inevitable. Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 promise that the Soviet Union would attain communism by 1980 is a case in point. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment in front of Congress that the US would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade was another case in point.

President Kennedy’s proposal, also in 1961, to the states of Central and South America of an “Alliance for Progress” – a vision intended to pre-empt a radicalisation of the dispossessed of that continent – was yet another grandiose case in point. Listen to the language: “…we propose to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom. To achieve this goal political freedom must accompany material progress.”

Listen to the grandness: “Let us once again transform the American Continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts, a tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women, an example to the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand. Let us once again awaken our American revolution until it guides the struggles of people everywhere, not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man”.

The 1969 Rockefeller report confirmed that the Alliance programme was a fiasco: “There is general frustration over the failure to achieve a more rapid improvement in standards of living. The United States, because of its identification with the failure of the Alliance for Progress to live up to expectations, is blamed.” It also concluded that “the United States, cannot determine the internal political structure of any other nation”.

Anyway, if things did not quite work out to plan here on earth, there was still the powerful consolation of being able to snub the Russians and place a man on the moon before them in the same year as the Alliance was proclaimed dead. Sad but grand. As Buzz Aldrin said as he surveyed the scene around the lunar landing site: “Magnificent desolation.”

The pompous certainties of the 1950s and 1960s were fuelled by extreme uncertainty. Mr Nespoli’s contemporary tone is more relaxed. We don’t feel we need to bluff anymore. Extreme uncertainty continues to rule but we are less inclined to camouflage it with a show of extreme certainty.

The fragility of equilibria – social, economic, political, ecological – has become so blatantly evident the rhetoric of certainty fails to convince. The events of 9/11, followed by the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global economic crisis we are struggling to leave behind have discredited visions of a final post-Cold War equilibrium. History certainly did not end with the fall of the Wall.

• As I write, (Thursday), the situation in Tunisia – a stone’s throw from din l-art ħelwa – is very critical. Up to 50 people are said to have been killed by the police. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in and around the capital Tunis. The government blames “religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left”. Popular discontent, however, has long been simmering. Prices, unemployment, corruption, repression, these are the main issues. Education is good and the University free but graduate unemployment is estimated at 30 per cent.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Tunisia as the most competitive country in North Africa. It ranks Tunisia 32nd in the world in terms of competitiveness, well ahead of us, in the 52nd place. FIPA, the Tunisian investment promotion agency, benchmarks itself against regional competitors for foreign direct investment such as Malta.

A relatively high ranking in the Global Competitiveness Report, however, does not indicate social and political stability. It does not exclude social fragility. This is one reason why international competitiveness rankings are taken more seriously by politicians than by investors

• In fragile times it is good to remember these words from Barack Obama’s memorial speech last week for the Tucson victims: “…at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarised – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on January 17, 2011. It may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110117/opinion/what-to-do-in-fragile-times


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