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Why Art, Literature Are Vital To Democracy

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Why are we here? Why
was I created? What’s the purpose of this thing called life?
To artists, whose essential purpose is creation, these grand questions are felt profoundly — the human condition is our stock in trade, even if it’s incredibly privileged to ponder it as one’s profession. As millions struggle to make enough money to eat, we struggle to make art. This is why every serious artist, at some point, questions: is what I do useful, or relevant to everyone — or is it simply luxurious?
As a creative writing practitioner and teacher, I wrestle with this constantly.
Beauty, identity, discourse, documentation, exaltation, or even just exposing a stink does indeed benefit humanity. But when the climate is changing alarmingly, and millions displaced by war are unwelcome in most places, and our leaders increasingly justify abusive power, it’s easy to question the value of telling stories or building sculpture. After all, what does a painting give to the populace? How can a writer take on a president?
Uncovering Larger Truths
The answers, perhaps, are found in art itself. One success proves the potential of all the rest.
If you remember in 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was to deliver to the United Nations a declaration of war against Iraq, the tapestry depicting Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was covered up. It was said that the image of the fascist bombardment of civilians was too shameful to face. How could we discuss an unprompted war in front of one of history’s greatest rebukes to warfare?
The details, however, were apparently more mundane. Camera crews had simply worried about the cluttered background the cubist tapestry would present behind speaking officials. And the number of journalists attending the press conference had swelled, requiring a more capacious venue down the hall.
Those facts, it is said, were behind why Guernica was censored (so to speak). Yet the covering of it, for whatever reason, uncovered a larger truth that resonated around the world. The implicit irony became explicit commentary. Picasso had unveiled the image in 1937, yet 66 years later, and 36 years after his death, the painter was still speaking to us.
A Matter of Words
At New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where I am a professor of literature and creative writing, one of my courses examines books that sought to accomplish what Guernica did. In “Novels That Changed the World,” my students wrestle with the few fictions that stretched beyond personal or literary influence and launched revolutions, addressed colonial abuse, improved public policy, forged cultural identity, or challenged repressive dogma. The 10 books span nearly a century and a half, by writers from around the world, yet, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Satanic Verses,each shares a vital characteristic.
In 1896, the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal was tried for rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy, for satirizing the abuses of the colonial Spanish friars in a saga that started with his novel, Noli Me Tangere.
We all know how that turned out — he was executed by firing squad on the eve of the revolution that ousted Spain but was later hijacked by America.
In the early 1930s, Erich Maria Remarque’s honest condemnation of war, All Quiet on the Western Front, resonated around the world — so much so that a club-footed, insecure little man named Joseph Goebbels orchestrated mobs to attack the screenings of the film-adaptation. It was one of the first displays of Nazi thuggery. Thousands angrily set upon cinemas across Germany and Austria, which led to a ban on the film and the novel’s burning. Goebbels dubbed such attacks as a “cleansing of the German spirit.” Remarque’s citizenship was eventually revoked and he fled his own country, while the regime pursued its lethal attacks on “non-people.”
We all know how that turned out — millions were killed systematically as a continent was devastated by war.
In 1989, Salman Rushdie published a novel that, he said, criticized “a powerful tribe of clerics” who had “taken over Islam” — the religion of his upbringing. “These are the contemporary Thought Police,” Rushdie wrote even before a fatwa was declared by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who was irritated at having his past exile satirized — portrayed in the book as an exiled imam aspiring to power. Khomeini condemned the book as a tool of the “world devourers” with the “entire Zionism and arrogance behind it”— a “calculated” plot on behalf of “colonialism.” Rushdie went into hiding, and those associated with the publication suffered murders, stabbings, shootings, arson, and bombs. This was, according to Khomeini, “so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity.”
We all know how that turned out — with many people now convinced that “free speech is responsible speech,” despite the fact that what is supposedly “responsible” will always be dictated by the powerful.
In my course, my students discovered that each novel on our reading list spoke against the injustices of its time, and in doing so highlighted the injustices of today. We found in every book a stubborn insistence on speaking out.
Everybody Raise Their Hands
Silence, it is said, implies consent. But that’s only half the story. Silence also confirms oppression, because the ability to speak out is too often a luxury of the privileged.
The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent — and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.
But there is hope where there is life, even such as it is now. Because it reveals potential. This is where, counter-intuitively, literature and creative writing come in.
In 1969, Lee Kuan Yew, the president of Singapore, famously said: “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford. What is important for pupils is not literature, but a philosophy for life.” In this, the founding father of that impressive small nation was wrong. A philosophy for life is precisely what literature teaches us.
You need only open a book, from oldest scripture to contemporary novels. Moses refused to be enslaved, Odysseus spoke truth to power, Atticus Finch did not compromise justice, and Hermione Granger showed us how things are done. Plato imagined a just nation, Thomas Paine proved the importance of universal human rights, and John Stuart Mill empowered the individual and revealed the necessity of freedom of expression.
It’s all there on paper and in the ether. The self and society, tragedy and triumph, right and wrong, values and ideals — Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophies for life are easily accessible through bookshops, libraries, and the internet.
Yet while it’s conventional that wisdom exists in literature, creative writing has always been seen as more rarified or intimidating. It has been celebrated as personally palliative, yes, but it’s never been considered a method to increase participation in society. After all, what good is composing poetry and writing stories when you need a job, or a nation must be founded, or a war has to be won, or cancer is ravaging the bodies both human and politic?
But creative writing can be anyone’s best training for speaking out — and if you’ve ever read novels, heard scripture, watched movies or TV, listened to songs, or learned folklore, then you’ve been studying your entire life how storytelling works. By applying your hand at creating it, you are not just attempting art, you are learning vital skills and life lessons.
Fiction teaches us about characters and empathy, plot and consequences, and the value of nuance to truth. Poetry teaches us how to distill language, value silence, and understand metaphor. Non-fiction (which certainly includes journalism) teaches us accountability to facts, critical thinking about the systems in society, and the importance of getting out into the world to listen to others. These are but a few of the skills one learns from writing creatively.
Are those life lessons not vital to democracy? To have a voice is to have a vote. To have a vote is to be represented in society. To represent ourselves clearly and confidently empowers us citizens to air our own concerns and our community’s grievances, to be accountable for ourselves, and to demand the accountability of our leaders. If we are not trained to articulate our arguments properly, we will never be heard legitimately, and we can be ignored too conveniently.
Speaking Of Democracy
My own philosophy for life comes from the art of storytelling. I persevere in participating publicly in a hostile world by knowing that good always outweighs evil. This seemingly naive notion is proven by the stories every despot or mass murderer must tell of themselves.
Adolf Hitler, for example, was convinced of his righteousness; he loved his dog Blondi, was proud of his country, and thought noble ends justified his violent means. Similarly, the terrorists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, did so for a glory they believed was far greater than themselves; they must have thought they were heroically righting a historic wrong. The notion of good always prevails, even in warped minds that are objectively proven to be evil.
What’s perilous, however, is when such corrupted stories are believed by others. In the Philippines, where I am from, a subtle war is taking place — one of narrative; righteousness is its abiding theme.
The dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who stole billions of dollars and denied democracy for more than a decade, is having his story posthumously recast by his children and their allies who benefit from his undemocratic legacy. Fake news sites and online propagandists are being recruited by the powers that be to undermine human rights, due process, and the checks and balances required for democracy — that system that still remains our best course towards equality and the only method to ensure the bloodless removal of leaders who may turn abusive.
History, it’s said, is written by the victors, and in so being it all but guarantees that they remain the victors. This is why it’s estimated that some 80% of our higher elected offices in the Philippines remain in the hands of dynasties — which are family businesses that will always present a conflict of interest between kin and country. The story is theirs to tell.
This is why I write for newspapers, write novels, and teach creative writing. I see it as the long game — a dialogue with the subsequent generations who will hopefully learn from our mistakes of the past. Yet sometimes it feels that our leaders are so entrenched that an artist’s only recourse is to have the last word — to be brutally honest and mocking in judgment in works that we hope will outlive even the bronze statues these leaders erect to themselves. But there’s defeat in even that; in the Philippines we’d call that konswelo de bobo— the consolation of the stupid. The last word may be consolingly and powerfully final, but it’s still retroactive.
What would be proactive is helping others develop strong voices so that we citizens are no longer just arguing fallaciously on Facebook and Twitter over the daily outrage, while unsatisfactory leaders ride our division towards the next election.
The antidote to impunity is accountability. We all know that. But accountability can only be demanded if our voices have consequence. A lone voice, or the voices of the educated elite, cannot legitimately speak for the voiceless, and so cannot be truly consequential. If a voice is a vote, then they must be raised, as a majority, in demanding truer representation and better leadership.
So there is clearly work to be done. Not all art must be inclusive, but no art should be exclusive. Neither literature nor creative writing must ever be privileged as a luxury, for our story will be too easily controlled that way. And while art itself might not change the world, it’s abundantly clear that it can empower those who will.
This article, written by a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, New York University, Abu Dhabi, was first published in 2017 as part of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN.

By: Miguel Syjuco

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Social/Kiddies

Hints On How To Safeguard Kids 

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Nurturing and care of children is something parents and guardians should take seriously especially in this digital era.  Children can easily hurt themselves as it is part of growing up.  This means that parents should do their best to keep them from preventable accidents.
Knowing where the children are at a particular time to avoid being abducted by unknown persons should give parents some concern.
A lot has to be done for parents to achieve that.  Parents must set up basic safety rules and regulations for their children to abide by.
We are aware that parenting can be stressful but abiding by experts advice can help achieve that.
It is necessary to take photographs of  children before they get to a  place with large number of persons.
A place like Pleasure Park, or any other tourist centre which might be crowded   can be an example.  Children from many homes can look alike and may want to leave with others as soon as they become friendly in such places that have large-volume attendance.
If you are not careful, some may also walk across the roads and walk into moving vehicles.  In as much as parents do not wish that happens to their children, it is better to be prepared in case it happens.
According to experts, a parent can take a picture of her child before visiting an amusement park or attending a birthday party.
When a parent does that, he or she can have a picture of how the children are and the kind of attires they put on that very day in case the children are declared missing.
If it is a tourist centre for instance, the parent will show the childrens’ picture to the authorities concerned and it will make it easier and more effective.
During parties and outdoor visits, watch what your children consume because they will like to taste every delicacy prepared.
Allow them take only the quantity they can consume.  Some may not be used to a lot of dishes and drinks especially the in-house prepared drinks and juice.
The effect of excess consumption might be when you finally return home for a rest and the children begin to react to food poison.
Domestic accidents are easily noticed among kids.  Keeping inflammable substances away from children is important.
An incident occurred where a four-year-old boy stroke a stick of matches into a jerry- can that contains petrol at the house corridor. The result was the entire residential building gutted by fire.
The kid had minor burn as his elder siblings together with him escaped through the back door from the kitchen.
Children should be discouraged from using candle light.
Gas cylinders must be tightly closed when not in use as children can turn it on when not in use.
Washing detergents like bleach, hypo and others must be out of reach of children because they may mistake them for water.

By: Eunice Choko-Kayode

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Social/Kiddies

Need To Take Care Of Children Worldwide

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At the end of last year, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a new report, ‘Preventing A Lost Decade: Urgent Action’ to reverse the devastating impact of COVID- 19 on children and young people. While it is easy for reports released in December to get lost in the end of the year rush, this report needs everyone’s attention. UNICEF called COVID-19 the greatest challenge to children in its 75-year history; and the situation is exacerbated by conflict, disaster, and climate change.
The facts tell a sobering story about the impact of the pandemic on children.
In less than two years, 100 million more children have fallen into poverty, a 10 percent, increase since 2019.
In 2020, over 23 million children missed out on essential vaccines.
50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this could increase by 9 million by 2022
At its peak in March 2020, 1.6 billion children were facing school closure.
Behind every one of these numbers are real stories: young children were left behind as preschool closed and food lines grew. School age children, particularly those with the most to gain, had limited access to remote learning. Teens suffered from social isolation and lack of mental health supports, and growing demands for early marriage. Parents tried their best to keep it all going; yet too often without the financial and social resources they needed. And the unpredictability of everyday life brought stress that seemed almost impossible to bear.
Fortunately, many communities around the world rallied: volunteers delivered food, distributed protective equipment and set up new hygiene facilities, and teachers worked to connect children with resources at home. We were all inspired by stories of people working for change, from health care workers to childcare providers, from youth to seniors.
Yet the challenges facing children were alarming even before COVID-19 became a household word. Approximately, one billion children, nearly half of the world’s children live in countries that are at an “extremely high risk” from the impacts of climate change and more and more children are forcibly displaced, all too often from conflict that could have been and should have been avoided.
Clearly, those in positions of power need to make investing in children, families, and communities a priority this year and in the years ahead. This is particularly true for U.S Foreign Assistance. Building on earlier work, in June of 2019, the U.S. launched Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity: A United States Government Strategy for International Assistance (2019-23). This important document outlines a strategy for investing in the world’s most vulnerable children. In 2020 Congress passed the Global Child Thrive Act, providing additional direction for U.S. Government to invest in early childhood development. These are both important steps; now we all have to assure that they receive the attention and resources that this movement deserves.
The UNICEF report outlines an urgent agenda for action for children, including recommendations to invest in social protection, health, and education as well as building resilience to better prevent, respond to and protect children. Government, business and civil society and the public need to work together. But as in any crises, each individual action makes a difference. We can not wait for someone else to step forward with a solution. Each of us must ask: What can I do to help a neighbour, work in my community, build awareness, provide another voice, help empower others? What else can we do to integrate these issues into every field of study: from health to education, from diplomacy to economic development, from environmental studies to urban planning and design?
In their powerful new book, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams with Gail Hudson, addressed an important question-How do we stay hopeful when everything seems hopeless? What is so uplifting about this story is that it draws a clear link between hope and action. It seems to be telling us that, while important, it is not the resilience of nature or the human intellect alone that matter, but also our spirit and belief in the possibilities and the power to take action. I can’t think of a better year to start.
Lombardi is an international expert on early childhood development and Senior Fellow at the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, Georgetown University.

By: Joan Lombardi

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Social/Kiddies

Disaster News And Post-Traumatic Effects On Children 

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Disaster on television and social media can trigger post-traumatic stress in kids thousands of miles away, says a research conducted by  Jonathan Comer and Anthony Steven Dick of Florida International University.
According to them, when disasters strike, the flood of images on television and social media can have a powerful psychological impact on children  whether those children are physically in the line of danger or watching from thousands of miles away.
“Our latest research uses brain scans to show how simply watching newAs coverage of disasters can raise children’s anxiety and trigger responses in their brains that put them at risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms. It also explores why some children are more vulnerable to those effects than others.”
This risk is important for parents and media to understand.
In just the past few months, news coverage has been saturated with images of wildfires burning through neighbourhoods in Colorado, tornado damage across the Midwest, a school shooting in Michigan ,news of rising illnesses from the COVID-19 pandemic and recently, the Russian and Ukraine war crisis.
With climate change, researchers estimate that today’s children will face three times as many climate-related disasters as their grandparents. And the pervasiveness of social media and 24-hour news make exposure to images of disasters more likely.
As a neuroscientist and a psychologist who study youth anxiety and the adolescent brain, we have been exploring ways to identify children who are most at risk.
Though there is harm to some kids’ mental health, but not all.
The Academy of Paediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health in 2021 as mental health professionals saw rising rates of mental health problems in youth.
Exposure to disasters in particular can trigger post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as loss of sleep, intrusive thoughts about the experience, memory impairments or severe emotional distress. But while around 10 percent of people who are directly exposed to traumatic events develop symptoms that are severe enough to meet diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a majority do not.
Understanding which factors help determine whether disaster exposure will lead to serious mental health problems may help identify children at greatest risk for PTSD, facilitate early intervention and help develop targeted mental health outreach in the aftermath of disasters.
This also applies to children exposed to disasters and other traumatic events through media.
A once-dominant theory of disaster mental health, sometimes called the “bull’s-eye model,” proposed that the negative mental health effects of a disaster were directly related to how close the person was to the centre of the event – the bull’s-eye. But more and more studies are finding that the negative mental health effects of disasters extend far beyond the immediate disaster area.
Sensationalised 24-hour news cycles on television and online are part of the reason, studies suggest. These media are designed to attract viewers and keep them engaged. This is especially true for content on social media, which often contains more graphic images and scenes than typically broadcast by more traditional news sources.
Continuous news coverage of hurricanes can help residents understand the risks but can also scare children.
So, why are some children vulnerable to these media influences, whereas others are not?
Our research points to preexisting and identifiable neurobiological profiles that can make young people especially susceptible to the harmful mental health effects of disaster-related news coverage.
When Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, we were able to use a national long-term research project that was already underway to study how children were coping both before and after the disaster. We could look at the types of disaster exposure, and whether any preexisting characteristics could distinguish those children who went on to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms from those who did not.
We were able to more firmly establish whether changes were due to disaster and media exposure, and not something else.
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study followed 11,800 children across the United States over a 10-year period using a variety of brain imaging and mental health assessments. Three of the study sites – two in Florida and one in South Carolina – were hit by Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record.
In the week before Irma made landfall, national media coverage provided highly dramatic, around-the-clock forecasting of the impending “catastrophic” storm and its threat of destruction of “epic proportions.” Irma led to the largest human evacuation in U.S. history, about 7 million people.
After the storm, we collected additional data from about 400 of the project’s participants at the three sites affected by Irma and a demographically similar site on the other side of the country, in San Diego. We assessed their exposure to the hurricane and to media coverage ahead of the storm, and the extent to which the child exhibited post-traumatic stress symptoms six to eight months after the storm, when the children were 11 to 13 years old.
We found that greater media exposure was associated with higher reporting of post-traumatic stress symptoms and the link was just as strong in San Diego youth as it was in Florida youth.
In MRI brain scans, the association between media exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms were strongest for children with a strong response in the amygdala, a brain area involved in processing fear and detecting threats.
Earlier in the study, many of the same children had been particularly reactive when viewing fearful facial expressions. At the same time, their brain scans showed reduced activity in another region of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, thought to be involved in reducing emotional arousal.
That brain activation profile marked vulnerability for developing post-traumatic stress symptoms after viewing disaster-related media coverage.
What can parents do?
These findings highlight how children do not need to be in harm’s way or even close to a disaster to be affected by it. Exposure to media coverage of a disaster can have a substantial impact as well.
They also suggest that there are identifiable vulnerabilities that might make some children more likely to be emotionally affected by media.
Scientists are increasingly interested in understanding what exposure to traumatic news coverage is doing to younger viewers who are still developing a sense of security. Recent research has suggested that parents should also be concerned about children’s exposure to social media apps such as Instagram and TikTok.
Phones in South Florida lit up with warnings during Hurricane Irma.
So what can parents do? For starters, parents can monitor and limit access to some internet content for young viewers.
While it is important for parents to get periodic updates about impending storms or fires, extended exposure to such content rarely provides additional actionable information. Intermittent check-ins of breaking news may be appropriate, but the TV and social media do not have to be on constantly.
It’s easy to routinely unplug, and it’s good for the mental health of children.

By: Ibinabo Ogolo

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