an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan

A bonobo world, etc 16 – bonobo countries and leaders, nationalism and internationalism

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newspaper cover picture September 2015

If it’s reasonable to reduce the bonobo world to a few clichés  – caring and sharing, making love not war, sexual healing – then maybe it’s reasonable to describe the USA, with its overblown military capacity which empowers it to intervene in other nations unilaterally, and its puritanical religious heritage which seeks to narrow the very concept of love, as the anti-bonobo world. Of course the country has its doves and communitarians, but it’s surely become famous, or notorious in recent times for its anti-government individualism, its aggressive jingoism, its extraordinary incarceration rate, its rich-poor divide, its gun culture, and other such charms.

Of course we’re observing the country at a very low ebb, with its criminal President sulking and predictably refusing to concede that he has been soundly beaten in the recent election, and the worst is likely yet to come. Courts are being inundated, death threats are flying, and no doubt private arsenals are  being brought to a pitch of readiness. The Trumpets, or the Retrumplicans as some have called them, are preparing for their Alamo, but historians will look a lot less kindly on this one.

Certainly it’s a very diverse country, and many observers feel it would be better off if divided into two, or three, or more. This might encourage healthier competition and interaction between the Divided Nations. One nation might learn from its neighbour that being less punitive, say, in its drug or petty crime policies is ultimately more productive. Another might recognise that public-private partnerships in business are the key to revitalising its economy, and so provide a template for others to follow. Yet another might note that its severe anti-abortion policies are causing health and welfare problems not shared by its neighbours. 

Then again, there’s already division into states, which each have a fair degree of autonomy, and that doesn’t seem to have reduced the national mess. And the USA seems to pay little attention to Canada, a far less obnoxious country overall.

So is there any serious possibility that the USA can become more bonoboesque? Or should we simply abandon it and look to Europe, or New Zealand perhaps? Or, shock horror, one of the Asian countries, such as Japan, or Taiwan if it still exists as an independent country by the time this writing is done? What signs of bonoboism should we look out for? Of course we don’t want to become more like bonobos in any precise way – hanging out in treetops isn’t really a human thing these days. But curbing our aggression, mainly though female power and the power of numbers or group support, and becoming more genuinely community oriented, sharing resources and tasks (including children and child-minding), and generally being more touchy-feely, these are real possibilities, and some might argue necessities, for a successful human future on a successful planet, that’s to say a planet we share with, and want to keep on sharing with, as many other forms of life as possible. If we look at nations, those rather artificial entities, for examples of the turn towards bonoboism, we find pluses and minuses everywhere. Japan is a more community-oriented nation than most, but its history of international violence and failure to come to terms with that history pose a serious problem, and overall its record on protecting and supporting other life forms, especially in the oceans, is pretty abysmal. It also has a problem with a dearth of women in leadership roles, in business and politics, which is particularly disappointing considering the country’s low birth rate. Women are staying in work longer, putting off or abandoning the idea of having children, so you might expect their leadership opportunities would be greater. This needs to be explored further in future posts.

The USA, though rather late in giving women the vote, no doubt considers itself a bastion of modern feminism, and as I write, President-elect Biden is seeking or being pressured to make his administration the most female in the country’s history. Yet the rugged individualism that the country still espouses has always had a male cast, with its gun ownership obsession and its dark, thuggish sub-cultures. The Me-Too movement also appears to have its typically American puritanical side, which I also intend to explore, with fearful delicacy, in future posts. 

So my search for bonobo-world promise should take
me to places where female leadership has already been achieved, though more often than not by more or less solitary women in a largely male ocean. The most long-lasting female leader in recent times, in undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential countries, is Angela Merkel, who has been Germany’s Chancellor for over 15 years. She appears to be a centrist – a liberal leading a conservative government – and clearly a survivor, though that’s probably understating her effectiveness. Merkel landed herself in trouble of sorts during the 2015 European migrant or refugee crisis, when over a million refugees flooded Europe, fleeing from war-torn or highly destabilised countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems her own uncertainty as to how to handle the crisis reflected to a fair degree that of the German people. The country accepted a large number of refugees, and within a couple of years the flood had subsided, as had the crisis over Merkel’s leadership. One way in which she mollified the concerns of nationalists was to insist on Germany’s unity under Christianity. No doubt she is a sincere Christian, but as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in Homo Deus, religion is very far from being the force it one was in Europe, and appealing to the best human values of tolerance, compromise and acceptance of diversity should suffice.

All this raises the question of whether there really are German or Australian or British values. As a teacher of international English who has taught students from scores of countries, I’ve found that it isn’t difficult to develop relations based on entirely human elements, such as trust, curiosity, humour and pride. Leaders for some reason like to speak of national characteristics, one hears this all the time. But are that nation’s neighbours really so very different? And is it better to emphasise our differences, or our similarities?


Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2020 at 7:49 pm

covid-19 – on civil liberties and death in the USA

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Canto: So, in the USA, according to today’s Worldometer figures – and it’s not unreasonable to say that these figures are only as reliable as the reporting agencies, and are probably understated – there have been slightly more than 203,000 deaths from covid19 – that’s almost 250 times the number of deaths in Australia, which has one thirteenth of the US population. This is a stark illustration of the USA’s failure to protect itself against this virus, in comparison to some other countries. Maybe this is an unfair comparison, though I honestly don’t see why it would be, but we can make an even more stark comparison. The liberal democracy that is Taiwan, the world’s gold standard in terms of response to covid19, with its population only slightly smaller than Australia’s, has experienced seven deaths so far. So, to compare with the USA, that’s a fourteenth of the population, but the USA has suffered almost 30,000 times more deaths from the virus. Such are the almost unfathomably various degrees of success in dealing with this pandemic. I’ve chosen these more or less opposite ends of the spectrum – and, to be fair, the USA isn’t the shit standard (in comparison to gold), as Brazil’s performance is even worse – in order to reflect on how best to save lives, which is surely what we want to do above all else, as a matter of common humanity.

Jacinta: And our discussion will be based on a statement made by the US Attorney-General, William Barr, who described the current lockdown in the USA as the greatest erosion of civil liberties in the country since slavery. But maybe, as an outstanding humanist, and a follower of the meek and mild Jesus, a supporter of the downtrodden, who told his followers that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 23-26), Barr was speaking positively about the lockdown as a sacrifice that must be made to save lives – especially those of the poor, with whom he so strongly identifies as a follower of the aforementioned Jesus.

Canto: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, but I think the more straightforward one is that he thinks people should be free to mix and mingle, in spite of the pandemic. In any case I’ve not heard of him wanting to impose any restrictions of any kind, in spite of the covid19 death rate in the country. It would be interesting to know what he makes of the fact that covid19 is disproportionately affecting the poor as well as African-American and Latino communities. He himself is a multi-millionaire, unlike Jesus, and Euro-American, also unlike Jesus. Yet he calls himself a Christian and believes that Judeo-Christian values, whatever they may be, are the basis of civilisation, at least in the USA. I’m not sure if he’s ever sampled any other society. 

Jacinta: Which brings us to Taiwan. What is it that has made Taiwan the gold standard in dealing with this pandemic? Is it Christianity, of a different kind from that which the multi-millionaire Barr espouses, in spite of Jesus’ teachings? Or is it a very different, but equally, or more, effective tradition? Did Taiwan even experience a lockdown, of the type that Barr seems to have such strong feelings about?

Canto: So let’s explore Taiwan. in fact it has had a complex and very turbulent history, especially over the past century or so, one that, I’d say, would have made its citizens value their hard-won freedom rather more than those of most nations, including the US. I can’t imagine that these people, who’ve undertaken rebellion after rebellion, would allow their government to take away their ‘civil liberties’ without good reason. They just wouldn’t stand for it.

Jacinta: Could it be that they’re just more educated than ‘Americans’, as to their national interest? And even as to what’s required in dealing with a pandemic? It certainly seems that way.

Canto: In fact last month the US federal health secretary (I didn’t know they had one) was over in Taiwan praising the country’s covid19 response. That was a good thing to see. 

Jacinta: Yes and many prominent nations are warming in their relations with Taiwan, not before time, and it’s annoying the Chinese government no end. But on covid19, I suspect many ‘Americans’ will dismiss Taiwan’s success as typical of Asian nations and their collective, ‘sheep-like’ mentality. Clearly, collective pro-community action trumps selfish individualism when it comes to pandemics, but I’m sure Taiwan’s success can’t be explained in such simplistic terms, as the Taiwanese have fought long and hard, against the communists, the Japanese and the Kuomintang, suffering massacre after massacre, to achieve multi-party democracy. So the idea that this is about tough-minded, risk-taking ‘sovereign citizens’ who won’t be pushed around by so-called health experts versus namby-pamby obedient puppets of the state who’re prepared to sacrifice their freedom just for the sake of their lives – well, this is surely a furphy. 

Canto: So what do we make of this Barr character? He attacks ‘lock-downs’ – which are simply a needed response to the refusal by so many to wear masks and to practice physical distancing. Sometimes authorities need to clamp down, when so many lives are being lost. Every government, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, has done something to try to reduce the spread of this virus. As would be expected. And this has necessarily impinged on ‘civil liberties’, because there are obviously other priorities. So, again, what point is Barr trying to make?

Jacinta: I can’t honestly say, but it does appear that he’s opposed to lock-downs, so presumably he has other ideas for saving the lives of ‘Americans’, but I’ve no idea what they may be. He’s also said recently that ‘scientists aren’t seers’ and that ‘free people make their decisions through their elected representatives’, which is a little incoherent, because when it comes to epidemics, sensible people should obviously listen to the advice of epidemiologists, especially those who are expert in the disease, virus or pathogen in question, rather than to politicians. You don’t even have to be an adult to realise that.

Canto: Yes, people are free to decide on their own science by popular vote, but if they did, we’d still be living in caves and believing that the earth is flat. Such are the limits of democracy.

Jacinta: So in times like these, the politicians should work with the experts, which is exactly what’s happening in all those countries that have handled covid19 most successfully. It’s notable that when he talks about these freedoms and civil liberties he makes no mention of all the suffering and the deaths in the USA. It somehow doesn’t seem to be relevant to him. What a bizarre, creepy character. 

Canto: Well, as a multi-millionaire – and I didn’t realise that politics was such a lucrative business – he very likely lives in one of those gated communities (with the emphasis on the gate rather than the community). Covid19 is disproportionately affecting African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, factory workers, prisons, aged-care facilities. Not really the sort of people you associate with gated communities. So I can only suppose he’s out of touch with much of the suffering. Lock-downs affect people universally – though obviously in different ways, depending on whether you’re in a mansion or a hovel – but the financial elites naturally don’t feel equal to the poor, and their ‘inequality’ is a matter of great pride to them. Barr is being a spokesperson for these types, I think. They’re having to suffer lock-downs because the less privileged are dying. It’s just not fair. 

Jacinta: And I just want to add something here about scientists. I’ve met a few of them, and I wish I was one of their number. They don’t pretend to be seers – my experience is that they tend to be nerdy, self-effacing types, not power junkies as many politicians tend to be. They generally tend not to display all the knowledge they have – it often has to be dragged out of them, whereas the worst politicians often claim knowledge they don’t have and like to belittle the knowledge or understanding of their rivals. In this respect, Barr is very much the politician, and little else.

Canto: Yes, and meanwhile the deaths keep piling up in the USA, and at the federal level the scientists are being sidelined by the politicians, the CDC is being stifled, and the world watches on with alarm, disgust and sometimes a smug sense of superiority. It isn’t of course the end of US ascendancy – the states with the most massive weaponry will always be the most powerful – but as to moral authority, that’s fast disappearing. If you leave aside the many non-democracies, which nation is less worthy of respect and emulation than the USA? I can’t think of too many.

Canto: Well, on a more hopeful note, there’s an election coming, and the country may start to redeem itself. But it will take far more than an election to do that, IMHO.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2020 at 10:47 pm

the politics of Covid-19: the China problem

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the sharp rise, and gradual decline, of active cases in South Korea, from Worldometer

So far we have no treatment for Covid-19, and can only use non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to stop or slow its spread. Evidence from Wuhan has conclusively shown that stringent NPIs have been effective in this regard. Not only did the case rate fall sharply from early February (after rising sharply from December to the end of January), but the proportion of critical cases was substantially reduced over the whole period. While recent very low numbers reported from China are creating an understandable skepticism due to the Chinese government’s tight grip on information, experts generally agree that the Wuhan data is reliable.

Reducing the rate of transmission is the goal of NPIs. Once the transmission rate (Rt) is reduced to less than 1.0, cases will reduce, and this will show in the statistics (while taking account of an incubation period of roughly 5 days and laboratory confirmation). Analysis in this JAMA article of the Wuhan measures, which became increasing stringent over a two-month interval, and which analysts divided into five consecutive periods, suggests that the period 3 measures (strict travel restrictions, including automobile travel, and home quarantine) were the likely determining factors in Rt reduction. This analysis, however, conveniently chimes with the fact that the more severe period 4 and 5 restrictions, involving heavily policed physical distancing measures, central quarantining, and door-to-door, individual-to-individual screening, would not go down well in an open society. I don’t want to cast doubt on the article, but this is China we’re talking about, and there are all sorts of political sensitivities in dealing with this heavy-handed economic giant.

I’ve long been thinking about this, but a Sydney Morning Herald article I found on my twitter feed (I virtually never tweet but it’s a useful resource) has prompted me to explore a bit more. It’s about Taiwan.

Taiwan’s experience re Covid-19 is worth comparing to Australia’s as their overall population is the same as ours. For a while I’ve been perhaps complacently touting Australia’s success in keeping the numbers down – we’re now the world’s 29th in number of cases, compared to 18th a couple of weeks ago. But Taiwan shits on us in this respect – 388 cases compared to our 6313, 6 deaths compared to our 61. It ranks 98th out of the countries and regions on Worldometer’s list.

The SMH article is essentially an interview with Professor Su Ih-Jen, the infectious diseases expert responsible for Taiwan’s response to Covid-19. He explains that this response, probably the most successful of any country, is all about Taiwan’s mistrust of China. The relationship between the two countries is about as bad as it can get, with China using its power internationally to stifle Taiwan’s voice in international forums such as the World Health Organisation. China has never recognised Taiwan’s nationhood, and is seen as an ever-present danger by the Taiwanese. So when word spread about the outbreak in Wuhan in December, Taiwanese experts assumed the worst and acted quickly, imposing quarantines and travel bans from China. The country had learned lessons from the first SARS outbreak, also from China, and substantially increased their numbers of ventilators and hospital beds. And have spent the past 17 years literally rehearsing for this new outbreak.

So while Taiwan’s success can’t be measured in any precise way in terms of its relationship to China, it has undoubtedly been a major factor. It’s worth considering in terms of other states influenced by the CCP. Hong Kong, for example, has a population of some 7.5 million, with obviously a very high population density. That’s somewhere between a third and a quarter of Australia’s population, yet it has less than a sixth of our confirmed cases – and we would be one of the most successful countries in containing the outbreak, by any measure. I hardly need to go into Hong Kong’s somewhat perilous relationship to China, but it’s worth comparing Hong Kong, with its 4 deaths so far, to New York State, the USA’s most hard-hit region, which has suffered over 10,000 deaths. That state has about 2.5 times the population of Hong Kong. It’s of course possible that there’s been suppression of data in Hong Kong, but it’s more likely that its preparedness, given its proximity to and intense suspicion of its powerful neighbour, provides a better understanding of its success.

A more complex case is that of South Korea. Having recently read a potted history of Korea, I’m now an expert haha. Korea, like Japan, has been massively influenced historically by Chinese culture, and generally recognises its debt. Of course there have been tensions, and battles, between the two nations, but they have generally been in uneasy alliance for centuries. Koreans adopted a variant of Chinese writing for their language, until the Hangul alphabetic script became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far. It’s one of few countries that can boast a surplus in its trade with the economic giant. Tourism both to and from China has always been very popular, though the South Korean government introduced measures to reduce the flow of Chinese tourism in 2017. In the early days of Covid-19 reporting, South Korea was often mentioned as one of the most, if not the most, affected/infected nations outside of China. That has since changed dramatically, with the country receiving sometimes grudging, and certainly qualified, praise for its response. It developed effective testing kits in a matter of days, and is now exporting them to the world. Its rapid mobilisation of all government departments, its widespread testing of asymptomatic subjects, its quarantine measures, have been generally seen as exemplary. It seems South Korea has also learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003, though its late recognition of the dangers has sadly cost lives. Could this be because it was too trusting of China’s first muted reports of the virus? And couldn’t it be said that South Korea’s eventual forceful response, regarded as overly intrusive by some westerners, owed something to that of its largest trading partner?

So neighbourhood politics have definitely played a role in how the response to Covid-19 has played out in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, though the details are necessarily fuzzy. It’s also surely the case that complacency, even exceptionalism, in those regions far from what has been deemed the epicentre, has been very costly. In those regions, alertness about, and full preparedness for, the dangers of viral pandemics in general, setting aside China, should be the major lesson.


A brief history of Korea, by Michael Seth, 2019

Written by stewart henderson

April 14, 2020 at 12:13 pm