Archive for the ‘Culture & Society’ Category



The surprise selection on Wednesday of an Argentine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new pope shifted the gravity of the Roman Catholic Church from Europe to Latin America in one fell swoop, and served as an emphatic salute to the growing power of Latinos across the Americas.

The new pope took the name Francis and is the 266th pontiff of the church. He is the first pope from Latin America, and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.

“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope, dressed in white, said in Italian from the balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica as thousands cheered joyously below. “My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.”

The selection electrified Latinos from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, and raised the hopes especially of those in Latin America, where 4 of every 10 of the world’s Catholics now live.

But the choice also may provide a strategic boost to the church in the United States, where its following would have lost ground in recent decades were it not for the influx of Latino immigrants, who have increasingly asserted themselves as a cultural and political force, and played a critical role in President Obama’s re-election.

The significance of the choice was not lost on church leaders. “It’s been more than 500 years since the first evangelization, and this is the first time that there is a pope from Latin America,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is originally from Mexico.

“It’s a huge role that we never had before,” he said.

The new pope, known for his simple, pastoral ways and his connection to the poor, is in some ways a contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an aloof theologian who resigned the office — the first pope to do so in 598 years — saying he no longer felt up to the rigors of the job. Read more…

As published in on March 13, 2013 (a version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Pope Shifts Church’s Center of Gravity Away From Europe).



Written on March 12, 2013 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Bachelor in International Relations (BIR), Culture & Society

By Rolf Strom-Olsen, Academic Director for the Humanities at IE School of Arts and Humanities


I have to admit that until very recently the sound “mooc” made me think, not of some bold experiment in democratising educational opportunity, but rather of the great Mookie Wilson, who, despite being a Met, was one of the great ballplayers of the eighties and, incidentally, the batter whose ground ball ended up defining the 1986 World Series (yes, we’re still looking at you Bill Buckner!).

But move over Mookie, the world of the Massive Open Online Course has arrived. And not that long ago either. If we excavate on Wikipedia, as the site for internet archaeology, we find that the term garners an article only in 2011, and, for a long time thereafter, is tended to by only a few ardent enthusiasts (there is even the obligatory suggested deletion for new articles of uncertain value). However, the MOOC has had a fast ascent into the world of higher education since then, propelled by:
(1) the remarkable success of several high profile sites that have become focal points for online course in drawing offerings from very reputable institutions;
(2) angst-ridden hand-wringing about the very future of the academy, largely playing out in the pages of publications like the CHE; and
(3) apparently significant public buy-in.

When I was approached by my institution to offer a class in the uncertain world of MOOCs, it was this last point – public interest – that was largely unknown to me. I mean, how many people are there that want to follow an online class in Aboriginal Worldviews and Education or Combinatorial Game Theory?

Ok, so I know the answer to that now. Lots! Really an astonishingly large number, as in (cf. Douglas Adams) vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly large. Coursera, the platform on which my class appears, generates enrolments of certainly tens, and for some of the more popular courses, perhaps hundreds of thousands of participants. Now the drop out rate is also very high – which makes sense, since the model encourages more or less blanket enrolment for any class that seems even remotely appealing, followed by mass exodus when the reality of listening to people like me for six weeks kicks in.  But when you have 50,000 people signed up, even a 95% dropout rate leaves you with 2,500 following the class. Which makes such courses an order of magnitude bigger than the typical large college lecture class.

Read more…


The Pope as Diplomat

Written on February 28, 2013 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Foreign Policy, International Law & Organizations

How the Vatican Does Foreign Policy

By Edward Pentin


Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead his weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square.

As Pope Benedict XVI abdicates the papacy, retiring to a life of prayer and study, he leaves behind an admirable, if somewhat chequered, record in international relations.

His influence in foreign affairs — like that of all popes — has been considerable. As a truly global body with over a billion members, the world’s oldest diplomatic service, and a vast network of humanitarian aid organizations, the Catholic Church is arguably able to frame foreign policy in a way no other institution can.

That was perhaps most clearly evident during Pope John Paul II’s tenure, when the Vatican sided with the West in its struggle to topple Soviet communism. But the pope and the Holy See are not foreign policymakers as such — they can only guide world powers toward a particular vision of justice and peace.

To understand Benedict XVI’s approach to foreign affairs, it’s important to note his background as a professor. More at home with books than with the diplomatic corps (many of his recent predecessors had been trained statesmen), he primarily sought to bring the teachings of the Catholic Church to the world stage, rather than dwell on practicalities. It was an approach that in many ways proved to be an advantage: Unconstrained by the protocols of diplomacy, he could more forthrightly proclaim the Christian message to a global audience — and his methods bore fruit, although not without a cost.

His pronouncements, which often went right to the core of an issue, were regularly regarded as diplomatic gaffes. The most famous example occurred during his 2006 lectio magistralis at the University of Regensburg. In his speech, Benedict XVI memorably quoted a medieval emperor who implied that Muhammad had only spread Islam through violence. Although the lecture was primarily meant to show that contemporary militant Western liberalism and contemporary militant Islam share the same erroneous approach to truth, his quotation set off a firestorm, testing the Holy See’s relations with Islam-majority nations and forcing the pope to issue an apology for the reaction it caused.

And yet his comments struck a chord with many who began to debate in their own minds the problem of violence among certain Islamic groups, even if they were unwilling to articulate the issue publicly. His comments initiated reflection on what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor, and they gave urgency to an ongoing Catholic-Muslim dialogue: No longer was it about mere niceties but more about genuine encounter. Specifically, it led Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to make an historic visit to the Vatican in 2007 and launch his own foundation aimed at improving interreligious understanding last year. Read more…

As published in on February 27, 2013.


By Leon Hadar


Despite failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of the West’s most prominent intellectuals still operate under the assumption that liberal values are universal.

In his new magnum opus, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor and Renaissance man Steven Pinker, highlights what he regards to be “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.” Violence has declined and today “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.”

But Pinker’s decline-of-violence thesis reflects a more ambitious exercise: The professor aims to develop a grand theory, one that assumes that “we” or “humanity” or “our species” have all become part of “modernity,” defined as the sense that the old foundations of societies—family, tribe, tradition and religion—are being eroded by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science.

In Pinker’s view, a global civilizing process is creating a new culture. This new way, which is more secular, more democratic, more commercial, more “feminized,” is becoming dominant worldwide, and explains why our civilization has become more conducive to peaceful coexistence. Forget the bloodbaths of the twentieth century, including two world wars, civil wars and genocides, Pinker argues. We are entering into the era of the New Peace, where violence against the “Other” national, ethnic, and religious groups, against women, children and even animals, will become a taboo. History has indeed ended and we’re all turning into one big, happy civilization.

If you have been residing for most of your life in the West and were educated and exposed to the dominant cultural currents, in places like the United States, Germany or Australia, the political civilization that Pinker is describing sounds familiar. Whether you are liberal or conservative, you would have to agree that our national societies have become less religious, more materialistic and effeminate—and that even (some) animals now enjoy legal protection.

To be sure, no one in his right mind would predict a war between the United States and Canada, or between Australia and New Zealand, or even between France and Germany anytime soon. Scotland may or may not secede from Britain in the near future. But the establishment of an independent Scotland (or Catalonia or Lombardy) will almost certainly not be preceded or followed by a civil war. Read more…

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East

As published by The National Interest on February 19, 2013.


By Zbigniew Brzezinski

Today, many fear that the emerging American-Chinese duopoly must inevitably lead to conflict. But I do not believe that wars for global domination are a serious prospect in what is now the Post-Hegemonic Age.

Admittedly, the historical record is dismal. Since the onset of global politics 200 years ago, four long wars (including the Cold War) were fought over the domination of Europe, each of which could have resulted in global hegemony by a sole superpower.

Yet several developments over recent years have changed the equation. Nuclear weapons make hegemonic wars too destructive, and thus victory meaningless. One-sided national economic triumphs cannot be achieved in the increasingly interwoven global economy without precipitating calamitous consequences for everyone. Further, the populations of the world have awakened politically and are not so easily subdued, even by the most powerful. Last but not least, neither the United States nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.

Moreover, despite our very different political systems, both our societies are, in different ways, open. That, too, offsets pressure from within each respective society toward animus and hostility. More than 100,000 Chinese are students at American universities, and thousands of young Americans study and work in China or participate in special study or travel programs. Unlike in the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad. And millions of young Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the Internet.

All this contrasts greatly with the societal self-isolation of the 19th- and 20th-century contestants for global power, which intensified grievances, escalated hostility and made it easier to demonize the one another.

Nonetheless, we cannot entirely ignore the fact that the hopeful expectation in recent years of an amicable American-Chinese relationship has lately been tested by ever more antagonistic polemics, especially in the mass media of both sides. This has been fueled in part by speculation about America’s allegedly inevitable decline and about China’s relentless, rapid rise. Read more…

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. His most recent book is “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.

As published in on February 13, 2013.

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