The sheer energy in Asia is like a shot of adrenaline to American visitors weary from years of glum news about our slowing economy, corporate downsizing, the fall of traditional American media and our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our Superpower status weighs heavily on our shoulders, doesn’t it? That’s especially true for those of us who have devoted our lives to the corporate world of media — now crumbling and rumbling from its foundation stones.
In Asia, despite a long history of rumbling from earthquakes and revolutions, there’s an exciting electricity in which a phrase like “foundation stones” seems oddly out of place. Across Asia, men and women and emerging companies are building new structures — including new media — with a Thomas Edison-like capacity to grab a handful of components and tools and build almost anything from the ground up with a boundless enthusiasm.
The 2 videos with today’s story — and our first 2 photographs — come from Bangladesh. Despite tragic political violence and an unstable government, the energy that’s obvious in the streets and waterways of Bangladesh almost makes American muscles and brains ache just to see what’s unfolding.
On a reporting trip along one of Bangladesh’s major waterways with the East-West Center, I glimpsed an unforgettable site: A vast shipyard along the riverbank in which teams of workers swarmed like ants over giant, steel-hulled ships, tearing the rusty steel skins off old ships with hand tools! The noise of hammers, chisels and crowbars was deafening! Then, another crew would swarm the still-solid steel of the frame to hammer and weld new steel plates in place. Meanwhile, a third crew would be repairing the ship’s engines — and a fourth crew would paint the newly rebuilt vessel vibrant colors. With amazing speed, ships as big as office buildings would cruise into new life!
In another part of the capital city of Dhaka, we toured a street where the city’s buses were refurbished through a similar labor-intensive system, this time divided into a series of small shops. Because there are no “lanes” and virtually no traffic enforcement in the streets of Bangladesh, buses quickly become battered hulks as they literally scrape and bump off one another — and off the thousands of bicycle-powered taxis and other vehicles jamming the streets. Eventually, beat-up buses are driven to one end of this bus-repair street — and through a series of small shops — workers tear the entire structure apart. Shops may specialize in reupholstering bus seats, or fitting glass into bus window frames, rebuilding engines, straightening axles and steel frames, painting the exterior — on and on — until a renewed bus drives away — completely rebuilt — at the end of the street.
THINK I’M KIDDING ABOUT DHAKA TRAFFIC? Well Click on the video below and you’ll see a video clip that I made while looking out the window of our East-West van as our driver contended with this No-Holds-Barred style of traffic.
SO, how does this relate to spirituality? How does it relate to spiritual media? How does it relate to the idea of spiritual globalization? And community?
Well, first, let me underline that my description of the implosion of traditional American media is not the gloomy view of this one senior journalist. My January journeys with the East-West Center included a four-day conference in Bangkok, a first-of-its-kind Asia-Pacific Media Conference. One of the keynote speakers was Orville Schell. Fluent in Chinese and the author of many books about Asia, Schell also is the former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
That’s Schell in the snow-white hair in this photo, talking with other conference participants after his keynote address. His hour-long presentation to these leading media professionals from 23 countries described the crumbling of traditional American news media, in particular, in even more dire terms than I have used.
Schell said that market-driven cutbacks in American newspaper staffing, TV news reporting and other forms of news media is a “dangerous” threat to our country’s future. Our form of democracy, and our leadership in the world, depends on vigorous media making connections with people and cultures globally.
“Traveling around America,” he said in his address, “I cannot say that — even though the technology of media is more sophisticated now and even though we have 24-hour television channels and even though we have hundreds of cable channels — I cannot stand before you today and say the United States is better informed and is more intelligent and better able to make good decisions now than ever before.
“In fact,” Schell continued, “I would say it’s actually the opposite. Our ignorance is often profound. It’s very disturbing, very alarming if the United States is going to regain its role in the world. If the United States is going to regain its ability to lead, it’s going to have to find a way to regain its ability to inform its citizens.”
At ReadTheSpirit, I’ve often written about this profound moment of cultural change through which we are moving as a nation and a global community. Schell talked in very similar terms from the perspective of the historic changes taking place in news media, in particular.
He said, “I find it utterly astounding that as America becomes more dependent on the world and knowing what is going on around the world becomes more vital — our awareness of the world is shrinking.”
The changes are so dramatic, Schell argued, that “there are now vacuums forming here for other competitors to move in and fill the spaces. And I think we are seeing interesting signs of how this is beginning to happen.”
He pointed to the Arabic-language media produced by Al Jazeera as a sign of how entrepreneurs in other parts of the world may now be stepping into these blank holes in American media.
But, even more exciting, he said, is the potential of the Internet to connect people across vast distances with a new kind of interactive immediacy. “I think the Internet is extraordinarily interesting and every day there are just new things you never could have imagined appearing through the Internet,” he said.
Something like this had better arise soon, he argued, or American democracy itself may be in danger. “The playwright Arthur Miller said that a great newspaper is a nation talking to itself. In other words, there has to be a dialogue going on.”
As if to prove his point, the next morning’s keynote speaker was the Chinese media pioneer Jimmy Lai, whose Next Media newspapers and online media took Hong Kong by storm — and, against great skepticism from media moguls in Taiwan, crossed over into the Taiwanese media market just a few years ago and conquered that market as well.
Brash and outspoken, Lai showed up on stage with his sleeves rolled up, wearing suspenders to hold up his rumpled pants. That’s Lai in the photo at right with former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt, the head of East-West Seminars and Asian-American exchange programs.
Here’s a link to Lai’s Next Media web site, but it’s all in Chinese, so most of our readers won’t be able to understand the content. However, just like the energy in the shipyards and bus-rebuilding streets of Bangladesh — Lai has boundless energy that his general approach to media can leap vast distances. He said he’s unafraid of existing media powerhouses.
“What tempts me very much are the monopolies newspapers have exercised in some markets,” he told the crowd. “Moving into a monopoly actually is very easy because these big monopolies don’t know how to react quickly.”
The key, Lai said, is that in their market-driven quest to slash budgets and staffing levels, traditional media giants have lost touch with the single most important goal of media: to connect people into communities.
“A lot of people think that news is intellectual,” Lai said. “But, no. News is emotional. People want to relate what they are reading to their daily lives … to their value systems and their emotional responses in their own communities.”
The Internet holds huge potential, even after print editions of newspapers fade, Lai said. But, in his view, no newspaper in the world has fully grasped the chemistry and potential of the Internet.
“There is no electronic newspaper out there yet! We still have to invent it,” Lai declared firmly — and that’s despite the fact that his Next News corporation runs Web sites, too.
However, Lai did say that he has a strong hunch about the chemistry that will make online media work. The key, he said, will be focusing on “shared sentiment, shared values.” Mixed with the “pain, tears, blood and happiness of people” — and “stories about life” — people will gather around Internet sites in which they can find such stories and share with other people.
It is possible to build global community, Lai argued, even in the face of dire conditions in the world. He said that he firmly believes, “You can have the five-loaves and two-fishes effect that can hold people together.”
FINALLY, LET’S GO BACK to Bangladesh for a moment — because there’s more at stake here than even the future of America’s role in the world. Not everyone around the world accepts Schell’s and Lai’s view of that our “shared values” call upon all of us to share in building global community.
Some people around the world, even within the United States, place far more emphasis on competition than on community. Some people around the world, even close to home in America, take an extremely limited view of the kinds of people they want to welcome as neighbors. Or, as Jimmy Lai likes to put it: There are some folks around the world, even close at hand in our country, who don’t want to participate in “the five-loaves and two-fishes effect.”
I visited one of those closed communities during my trip to Bangladesh with East-West. While traveling in rural Bangladesh, I managed to talk my way into a small-town madrasah, a village school like many others established by perhaps well-meaning but unfortunately misguided local Muslim leaders.
In this school, boys essentially were locked away — living in concrete-floored rooms with their belongings in beat-up old foot lockers stacked along one wall. During the day, these same rooms became their classrooms, where the were taught to memorize the entire text of the Quran by young teachers who told me that they, themselves, were graduates of the same madrasah.
Arabic is not the native language of these boys, so they were learning, in effect, an immensely long tone poem of words they barely understood. Their curriculum did not include math or science or the humanities. When they finally graduate, they’re not likely to be “five-loaves and two-fishes” spiritual citizens of the world.
If you missed Tuesday’s story — go back to that Part 4 of our series and view the video clip of the girls studying the Quran in a large and progressive boarding school in Indonesia. Their Quran-study sessions were only one part of their day, which included a wide-ranging curriculum from computers and math to the humanities and sciences. The graduates of the Indonesian school are far more likely to become the next wave of well-educated Muslim professionals — aimed at building community.
CLICK HERE to view a video clip of this far-more-limited — and many would say more ominous — classroom in rural Bangladesh:
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NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.