Thursday, January 28, 2010

ISCSC Member Builds Schools in India; Receives Award

The University of Hawaii has announced its 2010 Distinguished Alumni Awards. One of the recipients is Ashok Kumar Malhotra, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at State University of New York at Oneonta, and longtime ISCSC member. According to the news release:

"ONOLULU--The University of Hawai'i Alumni Association (UHAA) has named four honorees to receive its 2010 Distinguished Alumni Awards. Established in 1987, the award recognizes outstanding alumni who have used their UH education to excel professionally, provide inspirational leadership to others, and provide service for the benefit of the community. A dinner will be held to honor this year's recipients on Tues., May 11, at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. To reserve seats for the event, visit

UH Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award Honorees:

"ASHOK KUMAR MALHOTRA received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Rajasthan in India before coming to the East-West Center in 1963, and earning his Ph.D. in philosophy from UH Manoa in 1969. He began teaching at the State University of New York at Oneonta, where he is a founding member of its philosophy department and currently serves as distinguished teaching professor of philosophy. In 1979, he established the SUNY Oneonta "Learn-and-Serve" study abroad program in India. Since then, he has led 17 groups with more than 200 students, faculty and community members on humanitarian missions that include feeding the poor, working with Mother Teresa, assisting in medical clinics, and more recently, building three elementary and two high schools for more than 1,050 impoverished children in the remote villages of India. Much of the funding for these five schools comes from Malhotra's Ninash Foundation, a 501 c (3) charitable organization established in 1996 in honor of his late wife, Nina, to promote literacy among children and adults throughout the world. He was active on the SUNY Press Editorial Board, was a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities board, and has 12 books and numerous other publications to his credit. He has also endowed four annual "Seva" (a Sanskrit word meaning "compassionate service") Awards at UH and SUNY Oneonta. The International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations honored Malhotra for his efforts to spread literacy in India by nominating him for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize."

Ashok has been building schools in India through the Ninash Foundation. He recently returned from a trip to India, which he describes below:

"The Ninash Foundation Team of ten people celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Oneonta sister city project in India from December 27, 2009 to January 17, 2010...From December 28, 2009 to January 8, 2010, the Ninash Team visited the five Indo-International schools and was involved in a number of celebrative activities.

"On December 30, the Ninash group visited the Indo-International Culture Preservation School, Mahapura, Jaipur. Here Drs. John Koller and Mimi Forman could see with their own eyes the difference their financial contributions have made towards building the state of the art computer-library with six computers and two thousand books as well as an artisan wing in the school that will provide vocational instructions to children towards creating and restoring stained
glass windows, a dying art in India. This library and the artisan wing will be accessible to the children, faculty and members of the community.

"From December 31, 2009 to January 4, 2010, the celebrative events at the Oneonta Sister City Indo-International School in Dundlod involved the opening of the up-to-date Christy Koller Memorial Library-Computer Center with seven thousand books, computers, DVD and CD players, over head projector, email and educational games.

"The Dundlod Indo-International School that started with 50 impoverished children in 1996 has grown from an elementary to a high with 550 children. It is Ninash’s star school because it has
proudly sent 10 underprivileged children to college during 2009. The school celebrated its 14th anniversary with the performances by the children in Rajasthani, Hindi and English to entertain the foreign and local guests. It was an impressive heart-winning performance by the children.

"Moreover, thanks to the efforts of Linda Drake and generous contributions of the Oneonta and Cooperstown communities, 28 dairy goats were given away to the poorest of poor villagers of Dundlod so that they would have milk and cheese to feed their families. During the past four years, local donors have graciously contributed a total of 103 goats to the village of Dundlod. Furthermore, the Ninash Team gave away a harmonium to a blind musician of Dundlod in recognition of his contributions to providing entertainment to the SUNY groups since 1996.

"The Indo-International School in Kuran, situated in a remote area of Gujarat, which was devastated by the 2001 earthquake, was opened by the Ninash Foundation with 205 children in 2001, now has grown to 235 in 2010. From January 6-8, 2010, Dr. Malhotra and Ms. Drake
participated in a number of celebrative events: they performed the ribbon cutting ceremony to inaugurate a new High School to be built during the next year; moreover, they opened a state-of-the-art Library-Computer Center with six computers, internet along with one thousand books, news papers and educational games. The Mayor of Kuran, called the Sarpanch, celebrated by sending the first email to Drs. John Koller and Mimi Forman for their financial contributions
towards the opening of the new library in memory of their daughter Christy Koller. The importance of this event lays in the fact that this remote village in Gujarat, which was completely devastated during the 2001 earthquake, has come out of isolation now by having an internet access to every part of the globe. A momentous accomplishment for the villagers and the world!

"Other events at the Indo-International School in Kuran included the opening and switching on of the Water Filtration Plant to supply clean drinking water to the school children and the opening of a Children Center to provide after school activities. The children embellished the celebration by entertaining the guests through performances in the three languages of Gujarati, Hindi and English.

"Another highlight of the trip was an invitation from Narendrakumar, a student completing MA in Social Work from Anand University in India. He had followed the model of the Ninash Foundation by starting his own Way-Made Charity from his own personal savings. Through this charity, he built a nursery school for the 64 tribal children of Sagbara, a small town near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Dr. Malhotra was invited to be the chief guest at the
opening of the new school in this tribal area where the children gave a touching performance for two hours.

"The Ninash Foundation, a 501C (3) charitable organization, was established in 1996 to spread literacy among the impoverished children and adults throughout the world. The foundation has built five schools in the isolated villages of India that are providing education to more than 1050 underprivileged children. In order to provide free education to these impoverished children,
the Ninash Foundation needs to raise at least $30,000 in donations each year to keep the schools running. The Foundation’s goal is to raise $250,000 to set up a trust fund, the interest from which will be used to fund these schools.

Please mail your donations to: The Ninash Foundation, 17 Center Street, Oneonta, NY 13820, USA or visit the Ninash website."

In recognition of this work, Ashok has been nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Jeremy Rifkin's "The Empathic Civilization"

The Empathic Civilization

The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

By Jeremy Rifkin

Penguin, 674 pages, $35

American historian Will Durant once wrote that "our instincts ... fit us to be violent hunters and voracious polygamists rather than peaceable citizens; they must be checked a hundred times a day ... to make society and civilization possible."

In this ambitious, at times fascinating but ultimately underwhelming book, U.S. author Jeremy Rifkin takes exception to such propositions.

The veteran futurist and activist argues that this dismal and widely held view of humanity has, for too long, guided our political and economic decisions. In its stead, he presents the case for our innate benevolence.

We are, he claims, "hard wired" to care about, aid and co-operate with others. Indeed, he shows we are now regularly doing so on a global scale. Unfortunately, the very economic and technological systems that allow us this vast reach are also destroying the biosphere.

With our hyper-complex society facing multiple failures as a result of energy depletion and potentially devastating climatic changes, he believes that only a "third industrial revolution" can steer us into a sustainable future.

The industrial and social revolution he envisions (and promotes through his Foundation on Economic Trends) is premised on distributed renewable energy systems managed through global collaborative social networks.

As the author of 17 books (quite a few of which explicitly inform this one), Rifkin presents findings from across a wide range of disciplines that demonstrate our tendency towards empathy.

He follows this with a survey of Western history based on this view before outlining what he sees as contemporary trends (such as rapid urbanization and unprecedented global migration) leading to the empathetic culture he says can help us avert disaster.

Rifkin builds this case on his classification for the evolution of human consciousness that links energy and communication regimes. Accordingly, human-powered oral cultures nurtured a mythic consciousness and wood-burning script cultures a theological consciousness, while the coal-era print culture was an age of ideology.

Our rapidly aging petroleum-based electronic culture evolved what he dubs a psychological consciousness, in which Freud, Jung and others pioneered new ways to conceive of our own identities and interrelationships.

Now, he suggests that we are heading into a renewably powered digital and "dramaturgical" consciousness in which, to paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world will be our stage.

While it is certainly refreshing to find so much evidence for human goodness in one place, the problem is that Rifkin covers so many topics that few of them are given the depth they deserve.

Furthermore, he has a frustrating penchant for seeking his own path through territories previously (and famously) mapped by others, which leaves the reader bereft of insights that might have otherwise lent further illumination to his arguments.

He speculates, for example, about the pre-history of human consciousness without referring to the work of Julian Jaynes, and analyzes modes of communication media with only the most superficial of references to Marshall McLuhan.

Despite the book's considerable length, it is also surprisingly limited in scope. Beyond demonstrating our inherent goodness Rifkin can offer little in the way of constructive, normative principles for actually building and achieving an "empathic civilization."

This fundamental inadequacy is largely owed to the book's greatest failing: that the global and universal empathic civilization Rifkin envisions appears to be almost wholly derived from Euro-American culture and thought.

Aside from some early brief references to Eastern religions, ancient Middle Eastern history and Japan's education system, the studies, histories and philosophies described here are all Western.

There is almost no effort on Rifkin's part to learn from or describe the empathic traditions or histories of African, Asian, Oceanic or South American cultures.

As a result, the reader is essentially left to equate the Euro-American experience with "civilization."

Worse, rather than trying to learn from diverse traditional and indigenous societies still retaining closer adherence to familial, social and ecological values, Rifkin draws his (and our) only guidance from the very intellectual traditions most culpable for the present ecological crisis.

The oversight is a grievous one. The book's primary message may be welcome and inspiring, and its many important ideas deserving of a wide audience, but these cannot compensate for the ironic failure of their author to sufficiently extend his own empathic gaze.

By Michael Dudley

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2010 H10

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kilts, Tartans, and Mimesis

The great civilizationist Arnold Toynbee believed that healthy Civilizations have the ability to bedazzle barbarians so as to make them want to imitate the practices of the Civilization to which they are attracted, which process Toynbee called “mimesis”. As a Civilization declines, it loses the ability to impress barbarians; and the barbarians become less likely to imitate the customs of the decaying Civilization. Nevertheless, Toynbee would admit that even in late stage Civilizations, some imitation does occur.

Such mimesis accounts for most of the acquisition of culture by barbarians. Obvious late stage examples of mimesis include the Teutonic and Slavic barbarians’ conversion to Christianity, and their adoption of Roman titles and offices such as “prince”, “duke”, “count”, and “czar/kaiser”.

Some examples of influence of a Civilization on barbarians are more convoluted. The prime example that comes to mind is the fact that the Spanish introduced horses to the Americas. Some of their horses got loose and ran wild, becoming mustangs. The Plains Indians independently domesticated the mustangs. Eventually, the great horse cultures of the Plains were based almost entirely on the horses that the Spanish had originally introduced. Thus, although neither the Plains Indians nor most Europeans realized it, virtually the entire buffalo hunting culture of the Great Plains would not have existed without the incursion of Western Civilization into the New World.

However, none of the foregoing examples of mimesis are as interesting as the story of kilts and tartans. In The Invention of Tradition ( Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds.), to the dismay of Scotsmen everywhere, Hugh Trevor-Roper opines in his chapter, “The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, that the kilt was invented by an English Quaker from Lancashire named Thomas Rawlinson, who owned iron ore furnaces in Furness. When his coal supply ran low, he made a deal in 1727 with a MacDonell clan chief for a lease of a wooded area and employed Highlanders to fell trees to fuel a furnace that he set up in Invergarry.

Rawlinson’s Highlanders wore their traditional dress, which was essentially a heavy robe. Unfortunately, the heavy robes made it difficult to chop wood, so Rawlinson’s solution was to separate the top of the robe from the bottom. In this way the arms were freed to work. The result was the kilt, which was first worn by Rawlinson himself, then by his friend and associate, the MacDonell clan chief, and his subordinates, and then, through mimesis, by other Highlanders.

The story of the clan tartans is even more disturbing, and more recent. It seems that the idea of differentiated clan tartans arose after the repeal of the post-1745 Parliamentary ban on Highland dress, which ban lasted until 1782. During the ban, the only kilts and tartans that could be legally worn were those of Highland regiments in the British Army, each of which had its own pattern. When the ban was lifted, the textile merchants saw the opportunity to attract a larger market. Highlanders and things Highland were back in vogue; as Trevor-Roper puts it, “Before 1745 the Highlanders had been despised as idle predatory barbarians… But after 1746, … they combined the romance of a primitive people with the charm of an endangered species.” So certain textile merchants decided that if they could get certain patterns declared to be of this or that clan, business would boom. Therefore, they had the Highland Society (founded 1778) of London certify the various clan tartans, which patterns previously had simply been designated by numbers. Thus were the clan tartans differentiated, in London, no less.

Trevor-Roper’s arguments seem well-supported. If he is right, then I believe that kilts and tartans may represent the only known example of products made by a Civilization specifically for neighboring barbarians, who adopt the products lock, stock, and barrel as their national symbols, so that the products’ true origin is forgotten; and everyone then assumes for 250 years that the barbarians developed the products themselves as part of their customs and traditions. Perhaps there are other such examples; I doubt it.

By W. Reed Smith

Monday, January 4, 2010

Defining Religion

If one wanted to define a particular religion, one possibility would be to describe what its devotees believe and the rituals they include in the practice of their religion; but, if one wanted to define the essence of religion in general, he would have to try to identify characteristics that are common to all religions everywhere; but, if one wanted to define religion in terms of why religions exist at all and why they seem to exist in all human societies, then he would have to define religion in terms of the fundamental existential needs of humans that arise from the unique capability of the human brain to be self-consciously aware, to “re-present” experience with manipulatable words and images and create a “perceived reality” in which it lives and interprets itself and its world.

Humans did not evolve with genetic instructions which told them what kind of a world they lived in and how they should live in it and with one another. They did evolve with a brain capable of accumulating sensory information about themselves and their world, organizing that information into abstract, manipulatable, interpretive constructs, and creating the perceived realities in which they lived. These perceived realities contained the information which formed the core of the cultures which were the affective control systems of the many different kinds of societies humans have created and in which they have lived. The many different ways humans have devised to live together in societies, that is, their cultures, have usually been regarded by the members of that society as the absolute right and true way to live, usually provided to them by some sort of god or gods. However, regardless of how sacred, absolute and inviolable a particular society believed their culture to be, the ways in which humans have perceived themselves and their world, throughout anthropic time, have changed markedly and so have the specifics of their cultural information. In other words, religions are adaptive control systems.

Religion is not a “thing.” It is a psychosocial functional process and its underlying purpose is to achieve connection with unknown and the unknowable powers of the “perceived world” and connect humans with humans in mutually supportive relations. Science is what humans have learned to do to create an accurate frame of reference and fill it with testable information for understanding their world. Religion is what humans do to create a frame of “reverence” within which they can experience a sense of ultimate reunion within themselves and with the world as they perceive it. Religions are process systems which the participating societies have adjusted and readjusted over time as their situations have changed.

I see no way to define the essential nature of religion, assuming that there is such, by working from the forms, activities, and beliefs of particular religions. There are so much varieties of beliefs in a god, or gods, or the abyss in the stead of a god and in the variety of specifics from vestal virgins to temple prostitutes, from isolated hermits to suicide bombers, from the shoeless Jesus to the Pope, from the simple message of the Buddha to the elaborate mythology of Mahayana Buddhism, etc., that I can’t imagine any taxonomic approach that would not be just a list of everything having little significance for understanding the essential nature of religion and the human needs which give rise to it, other than documenting its amazing diversity.

I arrive at these conclusions by setting aside every claim to extrasensory, revelatory, and supernatural sources for information about humans and their world, all of the personal psychological reasons (and there are many) which may lie at the root of the specifics of some, or all religions, along with the historical reasons for particular religions arising at particular times. All of these are legitimate concerns when trying to define and understand what religion has become; but, understanding all of them will not explain why humans found it necessary to develop what we call religions as an essential part of their social organizations. Having set all that aside, I find that there are two fundamental existential requirements for any organized system to exist and survive, be it physical, biological, or psychosocial.

The first requirement is a binding force or field which pulls potential parts together and binds them into either a stable state or a successfully functioning process. In the case of humans, this would be a sufficiently strong emotional participation in the collective consciousness of a group usually including an object of supreme devotion. The second requirement is a sufficiently strong binding connection among the participating parts of the inclusive system. In the case of humans, this would be a sufficiently strong emotional connection and personal identification with the other members of the group.

What I have just referred to as existential requirements appear also in the great religions of the world as spiritual requirements for believers, i.e., to love their object of supreme devotion unconditionally, be it a god, gods, nature, universe, or ultimate nothingness, and show their fellow humans the same care and concern they desire for themselves. Humans have known and recorded these spiritual goals for thousands of years; but, their civilizations have never come close to attaining them.

The problem for humans has always been that nothing, not even their religions, tell them how, given the level of psychological complexity and the influence of the more primitive parts of the brain, to bring themselves into conformity with these ideals and to create a society that fulfils those requirements well enough to enable humans to live peaceful, contented, and productive lives. What should the “civil” in civilization mean? Is it a characteristic of existing civilizations or something to attain?

Why is the first story, after the creation of the Adam and Eve about fratricide, the murder of Able by his brother Cain? Why is this human violence followed by the story of God’s violence annihilating humanity, except for Noah and his family; and, that followed by the story of God limiting the communication capabilities of humans by confusing their tongues at the Tower of Babel to block their overweening desire to be equal to the gods? Why did the God in the early parts of the Bible instruct Joshua to invade the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey,” and kill every man woman and child living there?

Why is it so natural and easy for humans of all ages to fall into anger, hostility and rage while it takes years of spiritual discipline to find love, peace, and joy? Part of the answer to these questions is that we were born with “lower” brains which are part of our primitive hostile and defensive survival equipment while the potentialities of our ”higher” brains for reason and “higher” emotions have to be cultivated over time. Another part of the answer is that, while our scientific method has given us an understanding of the physical/biological parts of ourselves and our world, while and that information has been spreading very rapidly around the world, we have been left with a fundamental fear of facing, with a similar objective honesty, our psychosocial problems; and, consequently, the understanding of ourselves has lagged far behind. In the light of all this, I have to define religion, in addition, as the struggle of humanity to find, clarify, and actualize their best potentials for the highest levels of “civility” which will be an ongoing process in need continuous redefinition.

Downing Bowler