“Brave” Opinions

I started out thinking that this newsletter would be technical, then realized that I am currently (maybe permanently) burned out on writing about my one great area of technical expertise, CD-R. So the thing took a travel-writing sort of turn, but then the events of and following Sept 11 made that seem trivial. My last edition got more serious, and one person wrote that I was “brave” to take on the topics that I did.

Honestly, I didn’t think of it as taking a big leap – I feel that I’m simply sharing thoughts with an extended circle of friends, and I hope that you perceive this as a conversation in which you are welcome to take part, even if (so far) I’m doing most of the talking. Calling this a “newsletter” doesn’t give me any particular authority, and I don’t claim to know all the answers or always to be sure of what I’m saying. One reader took issue with some of my comments in the last issue, but I think we’ve sorted that out – we’ve established that we both like a good argument. <grin>

This is different from what I was doing before for the company, and I’m still feeling my way into it. After years of technical and marketing writing, I’ve moved to the op-ed page. Here I don’t have the restrictions of representing a company, and can be candid about my own thoughts and opinions. Where there is opinion, there’s always room for dispute, so I don’t expect you always to agree with or like what I have to say. But I do hope you’ll always feel free to discuss it with me.

Now, It’s Personal

A few weeks ago I wrote about Woodstock School, and you probably guessed from the tone as well as the content that the place means a lot to me. Before I arrived at Woodstock, I had led a tumultuous life which included attending nine different schools in several different countries. Woodstock was a haven and a refuge, and it provided a much-needed stable point of reference in my chaotic life.

So, if there is any place in the world that I truly call home, it’s there – on a beautiful campus tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from the world and all its troubles.

Or so I thought.

Today, through the alumni network, I learned about the publication in The Indian Express newspaper of the prison diary of Ahmed Omar Sheikh. A British national of Pakistani origin, he was jailed in India in 1994 for kidnapping four people. His objective was to hold them for a very particular ransom: the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, a Kashmiri separatist militant then in an Indian jail. In 1999, a plane was hijacked in India, and this time Sheikh succeeded: the planeload of hostages was released in exchange for the freedom of Azhar, Sheikh himself, and another. According to the Express, “The FBI is exploring leads that Sheikh could have been involved in the transfer of $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks in the US.”

The diary recounts Sheikh’s arrival in India in 1994 and his various attempts to find foreigners, preferably Americans, to kidnap. His plan was to befriend a foreigner travelling alone, and invite the person to visit his “family”, who would then take the traveller hostage. While travelling about in search of victims, Sheikh wrote:

“Next morning, I went to Woodstock School… and applied for a job as a teacher. … if I got it, I could easily bring one of my co-teachers down to visit my ‘relatives’… I had an interview with the vice-principal and I didn’t get offered the job!”

In other words, he hoped to take a job teaching at Woodstock so that he could kidnap one of its American teachers.

In the event, nothing happened; the vice-principal either smelled a rat, or simply didn’t care for Sheikh’s qualifications. But this news was a fist in the stomach to me. I had already accepted, reluctantly, that now is not the time for me to go to Mussoorie for the 20th-anniversary reunion that I and my classmates were so looking forward to. I’m not so concerned about my personal safety – I have a very good sense of self-preservation and am alert to possible dangers. But, with war going on in the vicinity, things could get messy and travel become more difficult, and I didn’t want to leave my family in Italy to worry about me if I got stuck.

But now I must even more reluctantly accept that my beloved school is a potential target. And that truly hits me where it hurts.


In July, 2002, Shaikh was sentenced to death in Pakistan for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl.


Some Thoughts on Extremism

Talking with a friend about the events of September 11th, he mentioned that many devout Muslims, and even Hindus, are offended by some things they see on Western television. My first reaction to this was: “If it bothers them, they don’t have to watch it.” In some countries, governments try to “protect” their people from material that may transgress “local standards,” though censorship is more often in the interest of protecting the governments themselves than their citizens’ social values. We in the West react with horror at the thought of such censorship, and many people go to a great deal of trouble to obtain materials that their governments don’t approve of (hence the popularity of shortwave radios to pick up the Voice of America and the BBC World Service).

However, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Compared with standards in Europe, Americans are downright prudish. In Europe, billboards featuring naked women are common; in Italy, even supposedly serious news magazines boost sales by putting a picture of a naked, full-breasted woman on almost every cover. In the US, such goings-on would be dimly viewed by the peculiar anti-pornography partnership of Christian Conservatives and feminists. (The feminists fear that such uses of women’s bodies are exploitative. Many American religious conservatives, as far as I can tell, are simply horrified by the thought of sex for anything other than procreation.)

Does this mean that everybody in America is so politically correct, or so conservative? Of course not. But there seem to be an awful lot of people in America who put an awful lot of energy into trying to tell other people how to live their lives. Even when I agree with their basic beliefs, this frightens me.

I hate, loathe, and despise the Taliban for similar reasons: they have managed to impose their way of thinking – an extremely conservative way of thinking – on most of their country, to the grave detriment of all its citizens, but especially the women. Since I (unlike them) believe in democracy and freedom of choice, I fully grant every member of the Taliban the right to determine for himself what his religious beliefs are and how he will live his life in accordance with them. But I don’t agree that the Taliban have the right to impose those beliefs on anybody else.

Afghanistan in recent years is a chilling example of what can happen when “righteousness” is taken to its logical extreme. Could it happen in America? Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two prominent American religious conservatives, spoke on television:

[Falwell] “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”” quoted in the Washington Post

In other words, if America as a whole practiced Falwell’s brand of Christianity, God would protect us from terrorists.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical extreme, and you have the America imagined by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t read this book already, I strongly recommend that you do. The society it depicts is not that different (for women) from Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Similar thoughts, more elegantly expressed: Fighting the Forces of Invisibility, By Salman Rushdie

Globalization vs. Local Culture

Originally published in Adventive’s
I-Branding Digest,
Oct 2, 2001

Context: I am American, but have lived half my life overseas, of which the last ten years in Italy with my Italian husband.

From what I’ve seen in extensive travels and living abroad, most cultures are very resilient, and most adult members of any culture are eventually capable of deciding for themselves what they do and don’t want to assimilate from a foreign culture.

Example: When I was going to high school in India 20+ years ago, an Indian businessman who had gone to university in the US opened a restaurant in Delhi (Nirula’s). It consciously imitated Americanisms such as fast food and 31 flavors of ice cream. Some of its patrons were foreigners like myself who occasionally craved a taste of “home”. But the huge majority were Indians.

When I returned to India four years later for college study abroad year, Nirula’s was thriving and had become a countrywide franchise. One of my classmates argued that it was an example of American cultural imperialism. From his point of view, the entrance of McDonald’s into India must have been even worse. And yet, and yet…

Obviously there is demand in India – by Indians! – for both Nirula’s and McDonald’s. In both cases, an American concept has been not merely transplanted, but adapted to its new environment. I don’t expect to ever see beef hamburgers served anywhere in India, but “mutton” and veggie hamburgers are selling very nicely. These restaurants also serve Indian snack foods that you would never find in an American McDonald’s.

American fast-food franchises the world over have adapted in similar ways to local tastes and cultures. In any country you go to, for a quick education in cultural differences, step into the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sure, the decor, colors, typefaces, etc. will look familiar – those are aspects of the brand identity that people are reassured by and want to retain. But the menu may contain quite a few surprises. McDonald’s in Italy serves espresso. And beer. And offers a choice of ketchup or mayonnaise with your fries.

Similarly, Indian languages and music have taken in what they like from the west and adapted it to their own needs. In the Seventies, disco music was as popular in India as the rest of the planet. Nowadays you get delightful mixes such as traditional bhangra made into dance music. This music is brought back across the ocean both by Indian emigrants and strange people like myself, where it can add a new dimension to the Western cultures which helped to create it – I’m told bhangra is very popular in some London dance clubs.

Oh, and another example: Coca Cola. Biggest brand on the planet, right? Remember a few years ago when there was a huge fuss in the US about “New Coke” vs. “Classic Coke”? “How dare they touch the sacred recipe.” Well, folks, the recipe for Coke in other countries has been different for a long time. In Asia it’s sweeter, because people there prefer it that way. In Europe it’s made with cane or beet sugar, instead of corn syrup (which I think tastes a lot better).

So who’s imperializing whom?

Note (Oct 7, 2010) – Interesting to see that Nirula’s is now using the tag line “It’s desilicious”. Desi is Hindi for “of the country,” i.e. Indian. When Nirula’s was founded, foreign was cool. Nowadays being Indian is cool. And that’s cool!

The Infamous Miniskirt Photo: Give the Customers What They Want!

The photo above first appeared on the Adaptec website in April, 1998.

Over the years some of my colleagues griped that having a picture like this on a corporate website was “unprofessional,” and I suppose it was. But (a) why does “corporate” have to mean “boring”? and (b) there’s a story behind it.

It all started with a (rare) vent of my own to the Adaptec discussion list, titled “How NOT to Obtain Customer Service.”

Which I later followed up with “How Not to Obtain Customer Service – a Final Peeve”, which included this throw-away comment: “I used to wear miniskirts to conferences, precisely because this made everyone assume that I was a purely decorative booth bimbo. I then enjoyed the shock on people’s faces when I proved to have a brain or two in my little head after all!”

I wasn’t surprised when this resulted in several requests like: “How about a couple of mini skirt photographs to prove your point regarding Deirdre being a female name?” I laughed them off, until I received this plaintive note: “I’ve had a really tough week. I could really stand to see you in a miniskirt.” So I dutifully put on my miniskirt and had my husband take the picture, and posted it on the site for the benefit of our list subscribers.

Time marches on… I still adore the denim “Born 2 Burn” shirt and the cowboy boots, but, sadly, don’t  fit into the miniskirt quite as well as I did…

Deirdré Straughan on Italy, India, the Internet, the world, and now Australia