Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Why I hate slavery!

The Diogenes Club has a tradition of engaging with the world, meeting with it on its own terms and hiding any agenda it may have so as to see and hear what is really going on.

As far as I can tell the understandable assumption the Diogenes Club is engaged in intelligence gathering for one nation or another misses the point. The Diogenes Club exists for a more benign purpose. I hope.

It’s almost monkish discipline of non-involvement, and such inevitably cynical other worldliness suits me. In a hostile world it pays to be dis-interested, like an outsider, timid monk, scientist or sceptic. Not many members have thereby perished at a foreign temple for getting too involved.

The now rare excursions, of engaging with the world with expeditions beyond our national borders, are nowadays a world away from our more usual reclinations of armchair travel. An armchair remains today, with few exceptions, the main ‘resort’ for most members most of the time. I actually like it that way. We still have a fine archive of past accounts in the library. That is if it possible to ignore the attractions of a deckchair or recliner on the gardens or a nearby beach.

A monk, of course, has to deal with the temptations of the real world, when abroad, more so than when at home. And a monk, a Diogenes Club member or any traveller will, when abroad, have probably encountered distasteful practices. Or, if he has delved too deep, risked being held hostage to some alien cause or consequence created by becoming engaged with the real world beyond the library-bound closed tome.

For whilst the properly prepared traveller broadens at least his horizons, there is a risk of overstepping boundaries, clashing with a culture or precipitating some tragedy through insensitivity or zeal.

One can maybe be tempted to “go native’ or undergo some kind of ‘conversion experience’, never mind any external threats to the traveller.

My favourite means of travel, cycle-touring and kayaking, leave little in the way of a wake or impact behind. One is often gone before one can be observed, or at least provoke an unfavourable reaction. We are encouraged to ‘touch the ground lightly’ as we gather impressions or explore. You should not normally change what you are studying.

Perhaps the best traveller, though, is one who has made a contribution as a result which is greater than his negative influence on the territory? (Not that the map is ever the territory of course). The Diogenes Club seems to celebrate members whose contributions are greater than their influence, anyway.

This is nothing unique to the Diogenes Club, most clubs with a long history value the contribution a member makes rather than their egotism.

Rumours persist a member concluded after long trials and undertakings such self sacrifice was the way of the secretive but supposedly influential ‘Ninja’. But no record remains in the annals of the Diogenes Club of what he found out about this group, nor is it likely going to be easy to reconstruct the history, impact or contribution of the Ninja’s from any cursory literature search. There is a problem with the Ninja, of: what did they do, and whom did they serve? And then there is the whole issue of the morality of what they achieved: Assassination Politics – well discussed here:

I might add that a favourite tome on the organisation of the Hong Kong Triads written by a police inspector has had several pages removed, thereby indicating what are the most important secrets of this group. Sadly it is (almost) impossible to obtain a replacement copy, indicating some concerted effort to hide something maybe critical from our gaze. I must remember to highlight the missing pages with some prominence in my next posting, just for the record you understand. I hate lost knowledge.

But I digress.

As a result of my recent posting about a Diogenes Club expedition to Mongolia, I am now a mentor to Mongolian natives and they to me. We enjoy a presumption of a freedom to travel, to question, to learn, (and to publish), and thereby anticipate positively influencing others or being influenced by them. These seem desirable goals of serving others. For I am told “I (at least) exist to serve”.

Not content to do things by half and because the process is so rewarding on many levels I find myself simultaneously a mentor recently to sundry travellers from Eastern Europe, from Bengal and now from Indo–China.

These are all first-rate individuals who seem to me to be the sort of traveller abroad, now in England, whom Rotary International might sponsor if I had not got there first. Two are in receipt of travelling scholarships already, so I have no monopoly in my regard for their welfare. In a dis-interested way. For we also need to see ourselves as others see us if interfering with the impressions of others. In a hostile world our activities and intentions may be misconstrued.

25 years ago I had an encounter with a Rotary scholar, and as I grow older, like the Grandmaster in The Glass Bead Game, I find hope in the next generation is the strongest emotion remaining still in Pandora’s box. It is all about the next generation. For they are vulnerable when “abroad”. As are we.

The secret is to inspire, (for others) to achieve and succeed. Even if it is not Diogenes members who actually gain the credit or any extrinsic reward. An unsung devotion is no less a success, after all. Read Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song”.

Al Queida apparently now refer to the “seeds of learning”, but here I am beginning to wander from our path. And they have a different agenda, a different message to spread. Our aspirations are motivated by an affection for learning , not a detraction from living.

It is, however, an axiom of the Club, …try to avoid going “native” …at home and abroad, for whilst much may be gained, much may be lost by total immersion. Read Herman Hesse’s short story of the trials of a naiive Missionary abroad faced with identical twins and you will have some idea of the surprises waiting in store for the erring if innocent traveller. Read Kipling’s If, and you may see the advantage of keeping some distance between yourself and others.

We need some critical distance, we need to be “the outsider” and having planted something of some consequence, bring the story or the now cross-fertilised ‘seeds of learning’ home so the experiment may be repeated or improved upon from our example.

But there is, you see, an ever-present danger of what others have called “the Asian Fetish” . Of being overtaken or overwhelmed by appearances.

The secret is to inspire others to succeed, not for them, or you, to immerse and perhaps expire, satiated perhaps, in a sea of exotic distractions. For that; pleasant though it is, and a major motivator; is not an aspiration but a descent from our task.

Reflection needs to balance action. This is taught in the martial arts, a subtle contribution to our corpus of knowledge originating largely from Asia as it happens. I am still investigating why this near monopoly exists in this quarter of the world. And the tempering of martial acts with unexpected generosity, sympathy or restraint. A master is forever halving what he knows with others, helping them with what is really meant to be a letter of passage in a hostile land.

Yet I have learned, despite the instructive sympathy and big stick of the Diogenarian way, fathers and brothers of a willing traveller can take physical exception to any seemingly insouciant mentoring of a tender acolyte. In extremis (whether provoked by innocence or outrage), would be hosts may threaten the traveller with a line in the sand, or even threaten ‘honour killings’ and the like. All to maintain old boundaries between old worlds.

We need to understand why we love, and why others hate. And when something is inappropriate, or necessary. Not all lessons are a pleasure, sometimes others would make their point at the point of a sword. For some outcomes are dependent on appearances.

Getting back to the “Asian fetish” problem, here is the best article I can find from an independent source that I have bought to the attention of the Diogenes membership already, such is its pertinence.

It is about the “Asian Fetish” and explains much.

The Diogenes Club is not impervious to history and whilst today few can find fault with the rest of us, expeditions traditionally have a chequered history of being only for King and Empire, ideology and exploitation. Think of the explorer Richard Burton or the soldier Lawrence of Arabia.

In Saigon, during the Vietnam war, writers have commented on “the political purity of the liberated zones”. This is ironic; purity was achieved by terror and torture. A monoculture sought to destroy political and cultural diversity for military and ideological outcomes. Competing versions of reality were at stake . Morality, inclusiveness or freedom was not a prime concern. Obedience was not negotiated, any argument was final.

Likewise sex is a kind of currency, motivator or “measure” within a ‘moral’ view, with travellers discovering competing views of how best to “keep this particular genie in the bottle” or at least keep it (and thereby others) under control. Freedom is actually quite rare. There are metaphorical railway lines everywhere, regulating and herding our innocent or expansive exploits, responding to the dominant ley-lines of state, custom determining our personal life experiences and different agendas.

The litmus paper of sex, and for example, freedom to consume alcohol or even listen to rock and roll are representative arguments or negotiations over a native or traveller’s obediences to competing status quo’s.

Likewise expressing a sense of humour, opposing other’s views or tolerance can be dangerous. For we all have tender behinds. Abroad we do not always meet with the benevolent instructive sympathy of a dis-interested Diogenarian ethic.

It is easy to become embroiled in another’s story. Here follows an excerpt from the website of a former Muslim Dutch Member of Parliament called Ayaan Hirsi Ali where I, (as beachhutman, ~ and independently of the Diogenes Club), responded to an interview of her battles for “freedom of the media” broadcast by the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme at 3am one night.

Ayan lives under a written death threat which was attached to a blade that killed her colleague who made a film with her challenging religious customs. This is a death threat that persists even more widely according to evidence in a televised documentary recently.

The presumption was here to publish, and publish again as nothing may be learned from the acts or the consequences otherwise. For I hate slavery. I hate the sword, (other than in a pantomime wielded by an attractive woman). I love the pen. And an open heart and mind. Not an opened and bloodied one.

When you raise your voice, you have lost the argument. By all means carry a big stick, like Diogenes, but speak softly if you wish to achieve your dreams.

It helps in hostile territory to be a bit monkish and retreat to your books or community. Yet there are challenges and temptations even in the supposed safety of your cell, cot or tent. But remember, the map others draw for you is not the territory. We can experience a clash of desires even alone in our dreams.

Years ago I read an account, (yet to be rediscovered, penned by a traveller who was visited in his dreams by two beautiful maidens who tried to tease and cajole him into converting to a particular religion. I forget the point, as I forget the ending, but I know temptation, and it can lead to slavery. Reveries are the en-djinns of distraction. Morality has a purpose, even if it is only to keep us (or others) “on the rails” towards more productive desires, and not succumb to those who would direct or deflect us from better outcomes.

For temptation comes in many forms. We need to rediscover the heart but perhaps only once we have found the edges and trodden many paths to avoid a disinheriting monoculture. There is a lot to be said for freedom.

William Carleton, a first rank Irish writer (who was peculiarly himself obedient to a ‘warning dream’ he had, rather than anyone or anything in particular) had this to say:

“Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character. The strength of a man is to be measured by the power of the feelings he subdues not by the power of those which subdue him.”

The price of diversity and freedom is a negotiation. The state, or those that would ‘bend us to their masts’, seek to control our wanderings. We may, therefore, have to resist more than temptation. In fact, we need to clear our minds of cant.

If we want to be open, transparent and accountable we must live amongst the perceptions and agendas of others. These are perceptions that seek to influence us, as we, no doubt, wish to influence them.

We may thus well be driven to explore, to undertake expeditions. To cross boundaries and borders. We should therefore assist other travellers who do the same. I do.

In so doing we may encounter well meant warnings, or intolerance, religious crimes, political conspiracies, even. But we are about as much use as a lump of coal by a railway line if we do not follow our dreams or encourage the dreams of others in the face of their and our entrapments. The nicest thing anyone can say to you, is that “you have set them free”. Not that you have enslaved them or been part of a morbid panopticon.

This is central to the Diogenarian ethos, and is a surprising departure from the conclusion most make the Diogenarians “just” follow a cynical path.

Of course, if you lie with dogs, you may catch a few fleas, but you need not follow or meet with the pack, but strike out in your own direction, following your own path, or hinting at alternatives for others to follow. Still more “lone wolf” than pack animal.

This confirms that the Diogenes Club exists for otherwise irritating “unclubbable” types. Such “travellers” need to utilise whatever material or intellectual resources are needed for the rest of us to progress from the safety of the herd. Or by our example, offer a path best not travelled alone but made safer in the good company that follows.

We may be held to account for crossing borders and questioning boundaries by those who seek to restrict our wanderings. There are more of them than there are of us. But we have a persistent weapon, mightier than the sword, to cut through this autocracy. It is the pen. Ideas recognise few borders. And though ideas are subject to the laws of the survival of the fittest, they can leapfrog physical obstacles. They prepare the mind for flight, or argument.

From the pen flow more possibilities than most recognise in their restricted kingdoms.

Borders and boundaries are where the innocent traveller can argue or negotiate with the power of the state, the influence of the herd or the institutions of obedience. It is a mission.

The goal is freedom. The cost is perpetual argument. Everything should be negotiable.

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