A Nomad’s Destiny: Breaching Noetic Walls
Looking back at his childhood and looking beyond the distracted lives that we live, Augustinos Touloupis suggests a few links between a nomad’s conception of reality and the struggle to understand its meaning from a distance.
One thing all prophets agree on is that the rest of us refuse to see what’s directly in front of us. They have always warned that we are largely blind to what is really going on in our immediate surroundings and even to the meanings behind our own actions. Looking and seeing are apparently two very different things. I began to fathom this notion at a young age at the urging of my father who insisted on paying attention to the minutest details in our surroundings. He always played games to test our awareness and understanding. I, in turn, found profound lessons in experimenting with and testing the awareness of others. Hiding things right in front of people was a simple accomplishment; appearing unrecognised directly before them was not that much more difficult. People never pay enough attention.
My father’s work with United Nations peacekeeping missions offered a wealth of phenomena for observation. Borders and their impact on human behaviour was one of them.
Nowhere were such divisions more apparent than in Jerusalem where I spent my early childhood. It is considered one of the most contested lands on the planet. The source of the conflict lies in the ownership of the rock where according to monotheistic religious tradition Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac.
Another notion that my father inculcated in us was that there are numerous sides — not just two — to every issue, and that each of these sides deserved equal consideration.
Jerusalem, which lay directly on the Israeli-Jordanian border until 1967, was not merely subject to political and military divisions but the enclave of the old city contained within its walls a diverse multitude of cultural and religious identities — there were Arab, Greek, Jewish, and Armenian neighbourhoods, each with its own competing sects and sub-sects. One small example of this confusion is evident in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It houses nine different Christian faiths, each of which is wary of the others. However, the opinions that members of one belief have of the others can be considered fluid. Priests and monks remain divided over whether the greatest threat to the purity of their flock’s faith comes from Jews, Muslims, adherents of Eastern religions, or other fellow Christian churches. It is a discussion without any professed conclusion. It has always been a heated discussion. Always without end, and it was a source of much confusion during my early school years.
It was difficult living with all this adult nonsense. So as a child in the midst of these fierce political, ideological, and spiritual battles, I began to develop my own guidelines for peaceful co-habitation. These involved the realisation that conflict resolution is only possible if all sides agree that:
1) No one is completely good or absolutely bad. Everyone is a mixture of good and bad to varying degrees.
2) No one is completely right or completely wrong. Again, there is in each of us a mix of the two.
3) One must identify that which is good and right in oneself and in one’s own side, and then one must do the same for one’s opponents and for their side.
4) All that is left is for the various sides to work with that which is good and right for everyone involved.
I came across the final notion in the works of theologian Rosemary Radford-Ruether; her concept of a “usable past” explores how and why one should retain ideas that were good in one’s faith and reject the ideas that were problematic and anachronistic.
Growing up, I firmly believed that these guidelines might work if all sides negotiated in good faith.
Of the many wonders modern physics has revealed to us, perhaps none is greater than the fact that reality is a construct affected by its observer. We are reminded of how little we understand our universe from the writings of Plato to the classic experiments of quantum mechanics and the scientific and spiritual studies of the effects of placebos and psychotropic substances on our consciousness. A vast chasm separates our perception of reality and our conception of our perception of that reality, and, I would argue, that this is the very thing that gives nomads an edge over other tribes. Nomads believe that our understanding and information about the world is never absolute, but it can be amended with the passage of time.
Take, for instance, the South Asian fable of the tribe of blind mice, some of whose members ventured afar to find and describe an elephant. Each blind mouse on the quest found and felt a single part of the elephant and on their return the mice could not agree at all on their description of the animal. A blind nomad would most likely have checked out most of the elephant before offering a description.
We are oblivious to the atmosphere that surrounds us just as fish are unaware of the water they are swimming in. A goldfish in a glass bowl will only realise the essence of water and of the glass bowl when it is separated from them. Societies that have remained on a fixed piece of land for millennia have fewer avenues open to gain an understanding of their immediate milieu and its relation to the greater whole. It is not impossible, merely more difficult.
One example of such short-sightedness is the striking off from collective memory of a critical piece of Pakistani and world history — the 1974 Pan-Islamic Summit held in Islamabad. The summit’s two hosts, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muammar Gaddafi, gathered all the leaders of the Islamic world in one place and submitted to them a radical proposition: A united Islamic bloc that would rival the hegemony of the NATO and Warsaw Pact adversaries. The geo-political implications of a third bloc, with a population of 800 million at that time, controlling huge natural reserves were obvious. The ends met by both men could signify the seriousness of the threat they posed to the established world order.
More recently Hellenic police found South Asians chained in huts to work as slaves in Greece’s agricultural sector. Only a nomad would see the irony in that. In the early 1970s, Bhutto had led a campaign to free slaves chained in huts for work in Pakistani fields. The new century has not brought progress.
Evidence of how we can become blind to our surroundings is easily found in the familiarity of daily life. Those who travel daily to and from a school or place of work often do not remember the commute. How many times has it happened that you arrived someplace that you visit on a daily basis with no recollection of having made the journey?
The problem is compounded by our toxic and distracting media environment. By the 1970s, scientists in the developed world had already found out that the ever-present advertising leviathan was having a detrimental effect on society. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the supermarket. The human brain cannot cope with the thousands of messages vying for its attention among the mountains of merchandise, so its defense mechanism forces it to down-shift gears. The scientists even had a name for the condition. They called it the “Supermarket Shuffle” after a description of the pre-hypnotic state of shoppers pushing their trolley carts across the aisles.
Scientists in the United States had determined that this was a problem because consumers had to be exposed to a commercial message at least three times before it would begin to draw their attention. That was back in the ’70s. By the 1990s, this requisite number of exposures before one could begin to be swayed by the sirens of consumption had risen to nine. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out what that number is by now.
I merely realised all this was going on — and hence decided to pursue a study of mass communication — because I had been born and raised in parts of Asia where advertising and the mechanisms for moulding public opinion were apparently either non-existent or were still floundering at an infantile stage. In the pond where I had been swimming I was oblivious to the mass indoctrination already taking place because there it was only reserved for schools and places of worship. It was the shift to a crass ethic of consumption that sparked my own awareness. Mass indoctrination comes in many forms, and I only became aware of them when a change in the message caught my attention.
Nothing had prepared me for the carnage that the human psyche was subjected to in the major cities of the West, and I failed to comprehend how everyone else was failing to notice what was happening to them. Moving to Boston in 1980 after living in Rawalpindi made me feel like a country bumpkin on an excursion to hell.
At first, I lived with a partner who loved to shop. Saturday was the day she reserved exclusively for shopping, and it was for me the most painful day of the week. Venturing inside malls and giant department stores, I felt like a rat entering a maze that delivered electric shocks. I had trouble focussing my eyes for hours afterwards. The constant interruption of commercial messages made watching television or listening to the radio equally painful, and reading major newspapers was practically impossible. I had to use pieces of black cardboard to cover the ads in order to read the thin lines of newsprint in between. This was decades before the advent of Ad Blocker.
It was during this time that I also became aware of a radically more profound truth; one that was cause for more serious concern. There was a layer of insulation separating information — and consciousness — inside and outside the United States. It was a Great Wall of sorts and the mechanisms of its implementation were quite formidable.
On the simplest level there was the absence of shortwave radio sets. Nearly every radio I had seen and used in the so-called less developed world was able to receive shortwave broadcasts. In the US, one only found radios with FM and AM reception. This limited the listeners to stations located between one hundred to a few hundred kilometers. They lacked the access to other interests and opinions across the globe available to every country bumpkin with access to a radio receiver in Rawalpindi.
What was worse is they, like the aforementioned proverbial goldfish, were unaware that theirs was but one possible mode of existence among multitudes. It also explains the faith Americans profess in the superiority of their sacred way of life and why they cannot understand that others may choose different modes of living, all of which may conceivably co-exist in peace.
Signs of this ignorance of other viewpoints were everywhere. The majority of Americans carry their ignorance with them when travelling abroad. They carried the bricks with which the US embassy was built in Islamabad all the way from the United States. Even the eggs that embassy staff consumed were shipped from the United States. There was a huge drop in morale when the shipping container that transported those eggs was delayed by a few weeks. People melted at the thought of going without American bubble gum. Trying local bubble gum was apparently out of the question.
People have a blind spots for their own actions. Classical literature is a testament to this enduring truth. Literary heroes since the time of Homer always have a fatal flaw. In the case of the warrior king Achilles it was his heel.
During the Cold War, the American news and entertainment media always portrayed citizens of the Soviet Bloc as violent warmongers. Their own side’s propensity for war escaped them. It was funny that Russians were also portrayed as drunks in a land where the ravages of alcohol were evident everywhere. You couldn’t walk the streets of America barefoot with all the shards of glass from broken alcohol bottles strewn everywhere. This led to the eventual ban on glass containers in public spaces. The protagonists of most major Hollywood productions have nearly always been in the grip of a booze addiction. You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies where this is not the case. But they only recognised the problem in Russian drunks.
Another measure of the extent of centralised control was the political system. The Americans always chided the Soviets and other totalitarian societies for having single party systems. Having two almost identical parties in power instead has been taken as evidence of freedom and democracy.
Moreover, consider an average American’s access to newsprint. Average American newsstands only sold one or sometimes two local papers. At a few more centrally located outlets you could also find one of the major national newspapers. Only a few cities had any outlet selling foreign newspapers and magazines. A visit to Athens, Greece, will cure anyone of any misgivings on the topic. Since the mid-1970s, every kiosk in Greece has offered a range of newspapers for sale that includes the entire spectrum of political thought and opinion.
The mechanism that had erected this great information wall was not content with maintaining a closed bubble of opinion but was also active in propagating across the globe that opinion bundled with the lifestyle that came with it. Information was not allowed to penetrate the inside of the wall but flowed freely outward. This explained why all the major national media in the “Free” — meaning non-Soviet — World were obligated by treaty to broadcast the same programme. Whether you were a television viewer in Beirut, Amman, Karachi, Athens, Nicosia or elsewhere, your choice of programming was limited to a 6PM viewing of an American cartoon followed by an American children’s programme. The late evening news was followed by an American or British feature film. The cycle repeated itself again the next day.
To return to the parable of the blind mice, we could say that history is an insufficiently observed elephant and that there are a great number of omissions in its telling. No one listened to the ponderous speeches of politicians and leading luminaries about European economic and monetary union. Then, as now, the reality faced by populations was in sharp contrast to the reality being described to them by their leaders. Greece’s entry to the European Economic Community was launched with a visit by French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing whose motorcade from the Athens airport to the capital crossed hastily built motorway overpasses with still drying concrete. Despite the epic speeches delivered for the momentous occasion, the immediate result was that the population was urged to adopt austerity and belt-tightening. The austerity extended to cutting down on the use of electricity, and Greece’s rulers banned night-time lighting displays. They even had one bulb disconnected in every traffic light in the capital. Orders to bury tonnes of farm produce — mostly olives and oranges — added to the confusion of everyday Greeks. The ruling class explained that this was necessary to “protect markets”. It may be argued that the European Union was not embraced in Greece until the liberalisation of the television market and the airing of European channels, several of which featured late night softcore programming. European standards were foisted on Greeks in the form of programming, such as the Italian-German Tutti Frutti game show which featured scantily clothed models and housewives disrobing to win a prize.
The extent of the hold on reality by the media became overt during the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when the media literally made elephants disappear. This was how Reagan came to be dubbed the Teflon President. It was the dawning of the era when endless war would become the cornerstone of the drive to secure world peace.
The great information wall worked outward in a way that obliterated most opinions except for two (always two) and world opinion was always corralled into a discussion of these two, which could be easily managed by specialists of manipulation; a majority of the population would be guaranteed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion
Could we seriously ask ourselves whether there is no alternative to endless war? Greek state television had aired some amazing documentaries during the ’90s, in the era before the Internet became widespread. These were the kind of documentaries that would never have been allowed on American television. One such documentary was about an arms dealer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who hailed from Constantinople (Istanbul) and was of Greek ancestry. He was known as “The Mystery Man of Europe” and was even called the “wickedest man in the world”. Sir Basil Zaharoff was the greatest weapons merchant of his day and was responsible for the outbreak of World War I, according to several British and French historians.
Zaharoff, or “Mister ZedZed” as his associates called him, became the prototype of the modern arms dealer. He established his own banks to extend credit to his customers. Most significantly, he controlled the press and even owned his own newspapers to manipulate public opinion, which is how the myth of the inevitability of war between France and Germany was cultivated in the years before the Great War. This explains why some of us may still be confused about why millions had to die because an Archduke was shot in Sarajevo. Although the idea of using the Balkans as a flashpoint was originally attributed to Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s, the illusion that led to the war was created by Mr. ZedZed and persists to this very day, more than a century later.
The present-day technology of the mechanisms that control public opinion is based on the know-how gained from the military recruitment drives of the Great War. Is our current history — or our perception of it — not based on an endless series of media campaigns?
I have my own parable to tell. It was a mystery that has held my interest for decades and one which was only recently resolved. It involved a lecture delivered in the mid-1970s in Islamabad by an American director of an international foundation and involved the health of Pakistani infants and the necessity of American tractors to cure any deficiencies. In that lecture, Dr. X was of the opinion that lack of nutrition caused the low weight and low intelligence of many infants in Pakistan. The problem, according to Dr. X, stemmed from the traditional farming methods employed by Pakistani farmers. The problem would be solved by the adoption of modern farming technology and by buying the machinery that offered the highest yield, which ostensibly came from the unmatched tractors that were being manufactured in the United States.
The contents of that lecture were a source of amusement for me and my Pakistani friends for many years. Not only were we unaware of any epidemic of low infant birth weight and intelligence aside from a few cases here and there, but it was also obvious to us that intelligent Pakistani students were more advanced in their studies than intelligent American students.
At the back of my mind, I remained open to debating the issue. After all, Dr. X was a much-respected scientist and member of his community and one could not completely disregard his assertions. Could he have been right? It was always a possibility.
My doubts grew when I visited the United States. The food destined for public consumption there was horrible. There were tomatoes and cucumbers that had little taste and no smell, and fruits and vegetables covered with films of chemical wax, and even the garlic was irradiated. The pinnacle of New World nutritional achievement was apparently American cheese which could be left in the sun forever without spoiling, it seemed. Meanwhile, the economic crisis of the late ’80s and the advent of Perestroika made popular among American farmers the little red tractors from the Soviet Union, which may have lacked air-conditioned cabins with stereo sound systems and television sets, but were cheap and easy to maintain.
On one trip I met a Canadian scientist who had just retired and was travelling in a mobile home. He told me that his last job had been to research the nutritional health of cows in the US. White spots were appearing on the hides of cattle across the Midwest. The cause was a vitamin deficiency attributed to the lack of nutrients in the soil. Dr. X’s farming methods had left the topsoil across his country bereft of precious vitamins and minerals.
The oil price shock during the early years of this millennium was a major cause of the financial crisis that followed. It was at this time that some American farmers — hit by steep oil prices and rising levels of debt — stopped using tractors and switched to farming with animals. If only Dr. X could see the irony.
It was only a few years ago that I came across the answer to Dr. X’s riddle and it nearly caused me to fall off my chair. The answer had already been known to NGOs operating in Pakistan for at least a decade. Apparently, there was indeed a problem of low birth weight and low intelligence among many Pakistani infants. However, it was not due to the lack of nutrition in the food but rather it was caused by a lack of food. The problem was one of distribution. I read this a year before Pakistan announced record grain crops for which it was grappling to find adequate storage space.
There are indeed many ways to observe an elephant.