Menu for 2019: Cheese Please (only for your ease)

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: January 03, 2019 21:54:02

We're losing that sprightly feeling. From 1954/1956, Alfred E. Newman's "Mad Magazine" depiction captured it most poignantly: "What me worry?" His smile projected a sunny epoch. It was not just the Baby Boomers (born 1946-66) taking music to the dance-floor for more people across the globe than ever before: few, if any, in Generation X (born 1966-76), Generation Y (1977-94, also known as Millennials), or Generation Z (born 1995-2012), have reached out to an even wider audience with as much of a pack-full of pleasantries since. Few, if any, software innovations today carry the attraction of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin de-boarding Apollo 11 to walk the moon (and thereafter visiting more countries of the world than any other Apollo astronauts). Brazil winning the Soccer World Cup for the third time in 1970 is hardly an expectation these days. Much more has changed in the tone, temperament, and tastes in the time since: an optimistic, gleeful, and positive demeanour and mindset has been incrementally substituted by a 21st century beginning on as sour a note as any since the 1930s.

What went wrong? Wherever we look today, what used to be called the most democratic moment in human history during the 1990s is only whispered about privately or cautiously now. Disemboweling democracy has become so infectious that we look for the worst: which country leader does it most innovatively without having to face the global public opinion gallows, rather than the silently relentless efforts of die-hard Kant believers (like Jimmy Carter).

Then there is populism, discussed in the last Scopus issue of this newspaper. How it is souring the social climate because of soured economic conditions may now help sour political choices, giving democracy its rudest awakening (since democracy was more rooted in these very North Atlantic countries). Brexit not only exemplifies this closed mindset, but based on how Britain extricates itself from the European Union, even a worse and gloomier future could await both Britons and West Europeans. Donald J. Trump, too, aroused nostalgia and instincts, but his reality has become one of flagrantly abusing what those sentiments permitted: based on the Mueller investigation sentences thus far, daylight robbery from public coffers, fabrication and concealment, reversing personal preferences, policies, and positions, and so forth. Returning to the "robber-baron" days is not something the United States can afford any longer, and abandoning West Europe for the empire attachments it once had is equally unviable for a sinking Britain.

This malaise is not just North Atlantic. China has silenced (or "quarantined") over a million Muslims in the way Adolf Hitler did far larger numbers of Jews in the 1930s. Myanmar continues to persecute Rohingyas, even blatantly behind a refugee-return ploy, with the numbers affected also approaching the million mark. Vladimir Putin salvaging a sinking Syrian leadership compounded, rather than concluded, one of the most egregious violations of human rights in the most civilised moments of human history. His Ukranian recapture pales only by comparison, but has been as blatant as any of the injustices World War II was fought to eradicate.

The sordid list goes on. The thrusts get deeper. The souls harder to find. Umberto Bacchi, for instance, wrote as recently as September 2018 how "The world has reached the lowest level of happiness in ten years" (World Economic Forum). He relied plenty upon Gallop polls to derive his conclusions. One of them, based on questioning 154,000 people in 146 countries during 2018, found the gloomiest responses since records were kept (2006). Unfortunately, these World Happiness Reports almost always found the "dark continent", Africa, to also be the gloomiest, with the Atlantic zone at the other end of the pole.

As has been argued here, the Atlantic zone does not look all that rosy, in fact, with Chinese capital, many of the African countries at the lowest happiness tiers, look more invigorated, resplendent, and dashing than many of their western counterparts. Those surveys also show South Asian too lowly placed, with the exception of Pakistan joining China at a higher happiness level. Russia and Latin countries belonging at a higher level still, with Brazil, Canada, the United States, and West Europe round off the happiest global arenas.

That is quite a staggering misrepresentation. If we are to judge a country's happiness score by the facial gestures (or commentaries) of their chief executive, Trump's United States looks small compared to Justin Trudeau's Canada. Brexit imposes a grim disposition Britons are unlikely to easily escape. West Europeans seem preoccupied fighting for their own fraying rights or promoting their prejudices: as the French rail against Emmanuel Macron, others corner Muslims, or revive what they did best in the 1930s, vandalise Semitic edifices. Pakistan's financial crunch puts happiness on hold for the very long-haul, and the way India's provincial elections results have been pulling the rug under Narendra Modi, the country's gleeful, gung-ho moments may be lost.

Behind the creeping anomie lies a host of vectors: faster technological innovation than digestion; a generational change from striving to make both end meet towards the nonchalance that come with relative affluence; as well as distancing oneself from life's most complicated challenges, like disease controls, food scarcities, and sheer lawlessness. As our needs explode, resources have not; and should they be finite, the gloom only intensifies.

Yet, it still remains unthinkable that for a specie that managed to come to terms with its challenges and limitations without significant genetic mutation that gloom can continue ad infinitum. Quite plausibly, the good times may come rolling back, when we can expose another side of our complacency. It would be much more human, though, to cultivate the seeds to bring us all out of gloom. Short of medical intervention, there must be ways we can alter our lifestyles to promote the antithesis of gloom.

That might be an industry to invest in from 2019. Governments can help, for example, with so much of mutation capabilities already disposable, reducing the work-week from 5 days to 4 opens up a leisure space many new and old industries could capitalise upon: hotels, restaurants, and travel media could expand, fetching the money to put up at least a brief smile, but also letting longer vacations extend that smile wider. New IT (information technologies) playgrounds could be opened up so even tech-savvy nerds can relax without losing their addiction.

Behind the tools to change attitudes, steps to actually begin with attitude-change can feed into the institutionalised happiness being sought. For example, saturated business schools and deserted social science disciplines can launch courses on relaxation, split classes both within and outside a physical location called 'room'; and with monumental new problems, like environmental, climate-change triggered, and refugee influxes, how to grapple with them on-the-spot, rather than through pedagogical pathways within the classroom, might open up oceans of fret-free lifestyles, particularly in stress-loaded contexts, like classrooms, and get the juices flowing in new directions with fresh purposes than all that were prioritised in years past. Following Singapore's decision to eliminate competitive scores may be a pedagogical start that could be replicated in other arenas and domains. Reinventing the wheel is what got us here. We should not shy from returning to that practice.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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