February 2007

Mind Shaft
Although biological considerations may be very helpful in understanding age-related differences, I was concerned about how much was explained by biology in Nora Underwood’s recent story on “The Teenage Brain” (November). Important social issues are being swept under the carpet when “sitting on the couch playing violent video games or sitting on the couch and pounding alcohol” are presented as the natural culmination of the biologically determined need for a “high thrill payoff” and “reduced effort requirements.”

When adults talk with teens about having unprotected sex, they may well hear stories about how it is more thrilling. However, they may also hear young women explain that accessing birth control in advance suggests that they are sluts rather than respectable girls. Acting spontaneously out of feelings of love sustains an identity acceptable to themselves, their peer group, and potentially the adults who favour this cultural storyline. As young people try to make sense of their reactions to the world around them (and mris may indeed offer one kind of evidence of those reactions), they choose from a variety of cultural meanings to define who they are and how they are positioned vis-àvis peers, parents, and society.

Underwood’s suggestion that the social world is structured in a way that is out of tune with young people’s need for sleep is a good example of how observations about age-related biological changes and observations about the social world can be combined to offer a more complex understanding. There is much to be learned from research that explores the impact of socio-economic conditions, cultural values, gendered experiences, and social interactions on development. Such research requires us to turn the gaze on ourselves in ways that motivate us to change public policy, educational systems, family patterns of communication, and so forth. Improving our relationships with young people will take much more than the patience inspired by conclusions about their biology.
Mirjam Knapik
Calgary, Alberta

What Man’s Burden?
Like Gerald Caplan (“The Conspiracy Against Africa,” November), I’ve lived and worked in Africa on and off since 1964. Sadly, I’ve come to all the same conclusions with respect to the corruption of African politics, the phony “development” projects of Western governments, and the marauding capitalism of Canadian and other privatesector corporations (which Paul Martin was and still is promoting as legitimate agents of development). Our so-called development efforts in Africa have been, for the most part, disasters for Africans. If we want to start being sincere, we will have to think in terms of recompense. Of course, there is no hope for this kind of change with the current political and bureaucratic leadership at the Canadian International Development Agency (cida) and not much more from the corporatist civilsociety organizations who have been forced to compete with each other and with business for access to cida’s limited funds. It amazes me how the more we realize that every aspect of our lives is intertwined with the rest of the world (globalization, climate change, etc.), the more parochial the priority concerns of most Canadians become. Personally, I’m placing my hope in my grandchildren to take up the torch.
Paul Puritt
Ottawa, Ontario

Gerald Caplan notes that too often Westerners regard Africans as a passive, dependent people who need the West to save them from themselves. He rightly objects to this view as self-serving and racist. The West is not the solution to Africa’s problems but is in fact the cause of Africa’s problems, or at least many of them. According to Caplan, it was Europeans, for example, who “unleashed guns and ships” against Africa during the era of the slave trade. Like Walter Rodney, who made similar arguments in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Caplan portrays European exploitation as the root cause of contemporary Africa’s misery.

If only it were so simple and so morally clear-cut. As many contemporary historians of Africa have pointed out (for instance, John Thornton in his book Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800), Europeans may have had guns and ships but they hardly “unleashed” them against Africa. The African empires of the European Renaissance period were, as Caplan points out, strong both economically and militarily. Europeans didn’t impose slavery on Africa, they came to Africa and found it already flourishing there. Europeans meekly begged leave to trade with them, and permission was granted. Certainly, millions of Africans left Africa during the slave trade, but that was because other Africans captured them and sold them away. All the Europeans brought to the table was the insatiable demand of the New World plantations.

Caplan’s motive in underplaying this history is understandable. Like Walter Rodney, he’s reacting to a racist tradition that makes Africans out to be inferior and incapable. When I taught the history of the slave trade, I found that it was to this ground that Canadian undergraduates, instinctively liberal and multicultural, immediately gravitated. I made it my job to warn them that while it’s tempting to argue that Africa’s wounds were inflicted from outside, to do so is to tell the same racist story, just flipped on its head. Instead of the Africans being the bad guys and the Europeans good, the Europeans are bad guys and Africans good. But it’s still the same story: Africans are still passive and dependent, standing inertly by as Europeans despoil them and their continent. Once again, Africans become spear carriers in a European story.
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