Out in the wilds with wolves, moose and Wittgenstein

Our place in the world is shaky and we're looking for verities. Too bad we're looking in the wrong places The reason and judgement of people who should know better have been bewitched by words

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I'm Drifting on a Canadian river, between nowhere and the back of beyond. Beyond the reach of a telephone, that is, so the only call I'm hearing is the wild: a wolf, a moose, something that might be a bear. At this halfway point on our slow progress down the Taku to the ocean, the unfolding natural drama defies description. I'm daydreaming about who the ideal companions to share this pure, inspirational environment with would be. Ludwig Wittgenstein springs to mind. The 20th-century's greatest thinker would appreciate the purity. He gave up wealth and worldly goods to lead an honourable life, teaching children in poor alpine villages, working as a gardener in a monastery, leaving his professorship at Trinity College to serve as a porter in a London hospital during the Second World War. It's a bitter irony that the poor guy has ended up as philosophy's rent-a-sage, hauled out to justify the wanking of woolly-minded conceptualists. The last time I mentioned him in this column I was taken to task for misinterpreting his statement that words enable worlds. In fact, Wittgenstein's work was, as he described it, "a struggle against the bewitching of our minds by means of language". His career was dedicated to clarity. His first proposition in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was that the world was "all that is the case" or "the totality of facts, not of things". The limits of language, he said, were the limits of the world and so words, like pictures, could not deal meaningfully with ethics or metaphysics. Later, he came to accept that words acquire meaning through use. But I think he'd be thrown back on his original convictions about the inadequacy of language if he was confronted by the splendours of the Taku. As he put it, "... what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." In other words, you should know when to shut up. But damn it, I'll need to talk about the Taku when I get back next week.

An Acquaintance who's developing new products for a media giant tells me that, after global mobiles, the coming thing in communications technology will be phone numbers for life. The horror, the horror ... you'll be instantly accessible anywhere. Considering how much time we spend running away from life, instant accessibility is a peculiar preoccupation. To be as deep within the natural order as we are on the Taku throws a ghastly light on other strange developments in "civilised" society. The spirit of Dada lives on in research labs. Japanese geneticists have crossed a mouse with a fluorescent jellyfish. (The glow-in-the-dark rodent that resulted is supposed to make foetal research easier.) Now their Western counterparts have engineered an anorexic pig. Its meat will apparently be leaner and more appealing to fat-conscious Westerners. What else would you expect from a society where mothers are putting their babies on diets? They'd be better off taking to heart the recent bulletin which claimed diets lower the IQs of young girls. But it's all about insecurity, isn't it? Our place in the world is so much shakier than it once was, and we're hungry for the eternal verities. Too bad we're looking for them in all the wrong places. I keep harking back to the extraordinary licking the US Air Force is giving itself over adulterers in its ranks. The Latin root of the word is adulterate: to corrupt, which is, of course, the puritanical sexual fear at the heart of the witch-hunt. But it seems to me the rot set in a long time ago. The reason and judgement of people who should know better have been bewitched by the power of words. Wittgenstein's case rests.

Popular perceptions are the Achilles' heel of the multinational. A favourable impression is everything, especially when you're a totem of the leisure industry, such as Nike or Disney. Nike just scored with the visit paid by Andrew Young, civil-rights leader and former UN ambassador, to its factories in South-east Asia. He came away with a glowing but dim-witted report that praised the company for things that weren't even at issue - such as that there was no evidence of child or prison labour - but overlooked the abuses Nike has taken flak for: low wages, compulsory overtime, brutal discipline and harsh punishment. For example, the internationally documented instance of Vietnamese workers being made to run round their factory in the blazing sun till they collapsed was passed off by Young as a culture clash between the Vietnamese workers and Taiwanese supervisors. "This is the way they do things in Taiwan," he explained. "You run around to get your blood pressure up, or race your motor." Nike trumpeted his report in full-page ads in US media.

If Nike scored in Vietnam, Shell struck out in New Zealand. Contrary to its claims, human-rights, environmental and church organisations, among them Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the World Council of Churches and the World Wide Fund for Nature, continue to challenge Shell over Nigeria. Now the NZ Women's Refuge Foundation has decided to turn down a $100,000 sponsorship deal from Shell New Zealand because of its members' concerns over the company's track record in Ogoniland. The foundation is an independent trust established 10 years ago to raise money for 49 refuges throughout New Zealand. Its annual appeal is critical to the health of the organisation, given that only 26 per cent of total running costs come from the government. Shell offered to sponsor around $100,000-worth of television and other promotional advertising for this year's appeal, with use of the company's logo as part of the deal; but foundation members weren't comfortable with the link-up, especially given the refuges' long- standing support for the rights of indigenous people. So they nixed the offer. Another lesson in the perils of globalism for Shell, as its performance in Nigeria compromises its efforts to play the good guy elsewhere in the world.

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