Monday, June 30, 2008

How Green Is Your Piece?

For GBP 199, London-based Green Homes Concierge’s inspectors will come to a customer’s home, toting heat-detecting cameras and other devices to help them evaluate energy leaks, wall insulation and appliances. Afterwards, inspectors recommend ways the home’s owner can reduce CO2 emissions, and hopefully save some money in the process. Significantly, GHC’s services don’t end there. For a full year the firm will act as a helpful concierge. Should customers wish to make the inspection’s recommended improvements, GHC will help them locate contractors and suppliers able to do the work or tell them where to buy low-energy light bulbs and other environmentally friendly items. Sure, in the US and elsewhere, energy companies have long encouraged homeowners to reduce utility bills by offering counseling and rebates on fuel-efficient appliances. Also common are government tax breaks. But, sorting through the paperwork to qualify for rebates and tax breaks can be a major chore for homeowners. While start-ups modeled on GHC’s services might not benefit from the municipal subsidies available in London, the companies’ real income could come from commissions earned through contractor referrals as well as project management fees.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nikola Tesla Commemoration

Anyone who has ever taken even a passing interest in technology or electronics has probably heard the name Nikola Tesla. His inventions are undeniable, and have allowed us to make many steps forward in technology. He invented the vacuum tube, the light bulb (yes, he did invent it before Edison; Edison just beat him to the patent office), fluorescent lights, distributors, AC power, the electric AC motor, the Tesla coil, and the radio (only credited to Tesla after his assistant, Guglielmo Marconi, sat before a court and made a sworn testimony that Tesla had in fact invented it), to name a few. Nobody really disputes his brilliance in regards to his earlier inventions. It is the inventions he was working on after his retirement from Westinghouse that have put him into the category of world-class eccentric. His designs for free power, death rays, anti-gravity ships, and amphibious airships, among others still seem to be science fiction today. There is also a lot of mystery surrounding Tesla's later years, as well as what actually happened to his protege, Marconi, after Tesla's death.

One of Tesla's better known experiments regards his famed Wardenclyffe tower, a power experiment of world-wide proportions. Tesla theorised that he could use the Earth's own conductive properties to amplify electrical current. Using the giant coil contained within his Wardenclyffe tower and a free connection to the local power plant (provided by a friend of his working for the power company), he started firing directed bursts of electricity straight into the Earth. These directed bursts of electricity would bounce off the far side of the planet, and return to the coil with a greater charge than it left with. After several cycles, Tesla's Wardenclyffe tower was producing millions of volts of electricity, and actually creating electrical arcs of up to 30 feet with a higher voltage than natural lightning. Tesla intended for the tower to demonstrate how the ionosphere could be used to provide free electricity to everyone without the need for power lines. The project's main investor, J.P. Morgan, who could not foresee any financial gain from providing free electricity to everyone, balked. The Wall Street banker famously remarked: "If this energy is available to everyone, where do we put the meter?"

The experiment continued in Colorado Springs, but came to an abrupt end when the local electric company's generator was destroyed by the amount of power being backfed into the system. Tesla's experiment caused a city-wide blackout, and evidently also was responsible for killing wildlife that was in contact with the ground, melting the soles on people's shoes to the sidewalk, and also possibly causing a massive power outage on the far side of the planet that he was bouncing the electricity off of. In addition to this, his lab glowed with a blue corona, similar to St. Elmo's Fire, and turned all of the grass and other low foliage in the area blue from the electrical discharge. While experimenting in his Colorado Springs laboratory, Tesla also claimed to have had success with teleportation; as portrayed in this scene:

Tesla's stranger inventions really are quite fascinating, and one has to wonder if they actually did work, given his proven genius with earlier inventions. Some of his stranger inventions include:

Electro Dynamic Induction Lamp - created in 1894, this lamp is said to be far advanced to anything currently available (US Patent 514,170)
Bladeless Tesla Turbine - Patented in 1916 (US Patent 1,329,559), is said to be the most efficient engine, and is roughly 20 times more efficient than currently available turbines, though is still not in use.
Ozone Generator - Patented in 1896 (US Patent 568,177). Ozone generators are currently banned for medical use in the U.S. despite claims of some doctors that ozone therapy can cure cancer and AIDS.
Anti-Gravity and the Wall of Light - Tesla theorized that a "wall of light" could be created using the sun's own rays; and within this wall, time, space, gravity, and matter could be manipulated.
Anti-gravity aircraft - Tesla had designs for saucer shaped craft that would draw power from the ionosphere; flying without onboard power plants or fuel. Also of note, Tesla's design for an electric submarine could have also been the basic design for these airships, since the cigar-shaped craft could allegedly also go underwater and act as submarines.

 The historical conspiracy associated with Nikola Tesla really began when he died. Directly after his death, agents of the United States Government raided his living quarters and prevented his family from entering. Later, when his family was allowed access to the room, it was reported by his family that all of Tesla's technical writings and research had been confiscated. Over the years, many brave and creative souls have endeavored to recreate the many different works of Tesla. A great number of those people have been threatened, have had their work and property destroyed, and in some cases, have disappeared or died. A classic example being Tesla's patented device that could draw electricity directly from the atmosphere. In a documented experiment for the Pierce Motor Car Company in 1931, Tesla built that technology into a vehicle that could run continuously on this free electricity; yet this vehicle never entered mass production.

 Tesla, arguably modern society's most visionary inventor and the man that largely gave us today's world, died penniless. Always more interested in ideas than commercial gain; he chose instead to give his genius to the world, without regard for personal enrichment. His worldview is, perhaps, best expressed in his own words, at the end of his dream for Wardenclyffe: "It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive blind, faint-hearted, doubting world! Humanity is not yet sufficiently advanced to be willingly led by the discoverer's keen searching sense. But who knows? Perhaps it is better in this present world of ours that a revolutionary idea or invention instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence - by want of means, by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, through the strife of commercial existence. So do we get our light. So all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed - only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ken Wilber's Third Way

The master of critical thought brings new insight as his own country, the USA, is poised to transcend it's calcified politics. Because of his respect for inclusive thought, and dense theorizing, Wilber usually draws amazing insight from any topic. His philosophy, The Integral Method, continues to provide some of the most current theorizing on spirituality and leadership:

While surveying the current American political landscape, it can be easy to feel as though the country is divided into two radically opposing populations: the Left and the Right. When watching the speeches, interviews, and debates on either side of the fence, there is such an incredible difference between the tone, rhetoric, and messages coming from the two major political parties that many pundits have commented that it is as though we live in two utterly different Americas, with very little overlap between the two. But the truth is, we do not live in two Americas, but in a single America composed of at least four or five different sets of values, all crammed together into a two-party political system that is becoming increasingly incapable of representing these wildly different perspectives. Many are beginning to recognize this systemic inadequacy and are searching for a genuinely Integral “Third Way” politics—a new way to break free from the restrictions of such rigidly calcified party lines, transcending both sides of the partisan divide, including the very best of both parties, without resorting to the effete compromise of mere centrism that has been typical of the political “Third Way” to date.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the different sets of values and beliefs that make up the flesh and bones of America, we must allow ourselves to step back and take a developmental view of American culture—one which can make sense of the full spectrum of perspectives that are currently at play in the political arena, while also being able to account for America’s rich political history, as the oldest functioning democracy in the world.

The premise of this sort of developmental view is simple: people evolve. As people evolve, they move through a particular sequence of stages, a sequence that has been long studied by Western psychologists and has been found to be essentially universal to every culture in the world. Taking a developmental view accounts for the “multiple intelligences” every human being possesses, including cognitive development and intelligence, values and beliefs, charisma and interpersonal skills, etc. There is a long list of these different sorts of intelligences, each growing along its own particular developmental track, but there is enough congruence in their overall development that we can begin to take a meta-view of our growth and development by using a very simple concept known as “Altitude.” Altitude is essentially a barometer of overall human growth, which uses the color spectrum to denote several major stages of development—each of which has slowly evolved over the course of human history, though still very much at play in today’s world:

"1st-Tier" values

Magenta (egocentric, magic): Magenta Altitude began about 50,000 years ago, and tends to be the home of egocentric drives, a magical worldview, and impulsiveness. It is expressed through magic/animism, kin-spirits, and such. Young children primarily operate with a magenta worldview. Magenta in any line of development is fundamental, or "square one" for any and all new tasks. Magenta emotions and cognition can be seen driving such cultural phenomena as superhero-themed comic books or movies.

Red (ego- to ethnocentric, egoic): The Red Altitude began about 10,000 years ago, and is the marker of egocentric drives based on power, where "might makes right," where aggression rules, and where there is a limited capacity to take the role of an "other." Red impulses are classically seen in grade school and early high school, where bullying, teasing, and the like are the norm. Red motivations can be seen culturally in Ultimate Fighting contests, which have no fixed rules (fixed rules come into being at the next Altitude, Amber), teenage rebellion and the movies that cater to it (The Fast and the Furious), gang dynamics (where the stronger rule the weaker), and the like.

Amber (ethnocentric, mythic): The Amber Altitude began about 5,000 years ago, and indicates a worldview that is traditionalist and mythic in nature—and mythic worldviews are almost always held as absolute (this stage of development is often called absolutistic). Instead of "might makes right," amber ethics are more oriented to the group, but one that extends only to "my" group. Grade school and high school kids usually exhibit amber motivations to "fit in." Amber ethics help to control the impulsiveness and narcissism of red. Culturally, amber worldviews can be seen in fundamentalism (my God is right no matter what); extreme patriotism (my country is right no matter what); and ethnocentrism (my people are right no matter what).

Orange (worldcentric, rational): The Orange Altitude began about 500 years ago, during the period known as the European Enlightenment. In an orange worldview, the individual begins to move away from the amber conformity that reifies the views of one's religion, nation, or tribe. The orange worldview often begins to emerge in late high school, college, or adulthood. Culturally, the orange worldview realizes that "truth is not delivered; it is discovered," spurring the great advances of science and formal rationality. Orange ethics begin to embrace all people, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...." Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the US Bill of Rights, and many of the laws written to protect individual freedom all flow from an orange worldview.

Green (worldcentric, pluralistic): The Green Altitude began roughly 150 years ago, though it came into its fullest expression during the 1960’s. Green worldviews are marked by pluralism, or the ability to see that there are multiple ways of seeing reality. If orange sees universal truths ("All men are created equal"), green sees multiple universal truths—different universals for different cultures. Green ethics continue, and radically broaden, the movement to embrace all people. A green statement might read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, regardless of race, gender, class...." Green ethics have given birth to the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements, as well as environmentalism.

The green worldview's multiple perspectives give it room for greater compassion, idealism, and involvement, in its healthy form. Such qualities are seen by organizations such as the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Doctors Without Borders. In its unhealthy form green worldviews can lead to extreme relativism, where all beliefs are seen as relative and equally true, which can in turn lead to the nihilism, narcissism, irony, and meaninglessness exhibited by many of today's intellectuals, academics, and trend-setters... not to mention another "lost" generation of students.

"2nd-Tier" values

Teal (worldcentric to “kosmocentric,” integral): The Teal Altitude marks the beginning of an integral worldview, where pluralism and relativism are transcended and included into a more systematic whole. The transition from green to teal is also known as the transition from “1st-tier” values to “2nd-tier” values, the most immediate difference being the fact that each “1st-tier” value thinks it is the only truly correct value, while “2nd-tier” values recognize the importance of all preceding stages of development. Thus, the teal worldview honors the insights of the green worldview, but places it into a larger context that allows for healthy hierarchies, and healthy value distinctions.

Perhaps most important, a teal worldview begins to see the process of development itself, acknowledging that each one of the previous stages (magenta through green) has an important role to play in the human experience. Teal consciousness sees that each of the previous stages reveals an important truth, and pulls them all together and integrates them without trying to change them to “be more like me,” and without resorting to extreme cultural relativism (“all are equal”). Teal worldviews do more than just see all points of view (that’s a green worldview)—it can see and honor them, but also critically evaluate them.

Turquoise (“kosmocentric,” integral): Turquoise is a mature integral view, one that sees not only healthy hierarchy but also the various quadrants of human knowledge, expression, and inquiry (at the minimum: I, we, and it). While teal worldviews tend to be secular, turquoise is the first to begin to integrate Spirit as a living force in the world (manifested through any or all of the 3 Faces of God: “I”—the “No self” or “witness” of Buddhism; “we/thou”—the “great other” of Christianity, Judaism, Hindusm, Islam, etc.; or “it”—the “Web of Life” seen in Taoism, Pantheism, etc.).

We can begin to see how the two major political parties have largely become amalgams of several of these stages. In the early history of politics—during the French Revolution—the Right was largely comprised of Amber traditionalists, while the Left were mostly Orange modernists. But over 200 years later, the world has become considerably more complex, having experienced the emergence of an entirely new stage of political consciousness: namely Green pluralism, otherwise known as post-modernism, during the mid 20th century. As such, Republicans now typically represent both Amber traditional values and “Wall Street” or “Ayn Rand” Orange values, while Democrats represent both Orange and Green forms of liberalism—two very different modes of liberalism that have thus far been extremely difficult for the Democratic party to unify.

If we truly want to begin creating some form of Integral “Third Way” politics, it is going to depend entirely upon leaders who have themselves achieved “2nd-tier” values, as it is only from the teal and turquoise stages of development that we can authentically honor and incorporate the entire spectrum of development. To put it another way, we need a form of “enlightened leadership” to enact decisions unfettered by partisan politics, for the benefit of the whole, rather than pandering to the few.

There is no sense in parsing words—what we are talking about here is a very real sort of elitism, a developmental elitism in which leaders more evolved than the majority of the populace are elected to office, for exactly that reason. Of course, it is an “elitism to which everyone is invited,” meaning that anyone can continue to evolve to the highest reaches of human potential, despite the fact that so few do. But merely mentioning the word “elitism” puts us on very dangerous ground in today’s political atmosphere, in which voters seem more interested in electing leaders they can “have a beer with” than ones with the moral, intellectual, and perspectival sophistication required to heal the tremendous cultural schisms that exist in America, and in the rest of the world.

Considering this spectrum of human development, it can be easy for liberals to assert that their values are “higher” or “more evolved” than those of typical conservatives—and in certain ways, they would be right. However, one of the fatal flaws of “1st-tier” stages is the complete inability to include the values of other 1st-tier stages, which makes liberals arguably more developed than most conservatives, but equally partial in their own values. As any genuine “Third Way” politics seeks to incorporate the very best of both parties, it must be inherently integral by nature, as only Integral consciousness can recognize the significance of development itself—and it is only by fully acknowledging human development, and accounting for the entire spectrum of consciousness in our conceptions of the world, that we can begin pulling together the many fundamental contributions that both the American Right and Left have made to the world.

Everyone knows about the difference between Democrat and Republican, Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative. But as ubiquitous as these distinctions is, no one has been able to give a theoretical explanation of what drives this split in a way that holds up to careful inspection—that is, until an Integral approach was applied to politics. Ken reveals what appears to be the key to a major piece of the puzzle: camps on the political Left attribute the fundamental cause of human suffering to external causes, whereas camps on the political Right attribute the fundamental cause of human suffering to internal causes.

For example, why are people homeless? Left: because they are downtrodden, they lack opportunities, they are victims of the system—all external forces. Right: because they have no work ethic, they have no family/religious values, no internalized sense of shame—all internal forces. Of course, you can be an internalist or externalist at different altitudes of development, and historically these have changed over time, as we’ve already seen. But what hasn't changed throughout it all? You guessed it: Right is still internalist, and Left is still externalist. And if we hope to have any sort of comprehensive approach to politics and the problems of the world, it is absolutely essential that we include the revelations of both, without limiting ourselves to the tyranny of either.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

So Long George, Thanks For The Laughs

George Carlin, whose astringent stand-up comedy made him an heir of Lenny Bruce, who gave voice to an indignant counterculture and assaulted the barricades of censorship on behalf of a generation of comics that followed him, died on Sunday. In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and in groundbreaking routines like the profane “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of life - politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes.

Would You, Could You, Should You?

If you're well off would you give up the excess that you own, so that all the world's people can enjoy the same advantages? Could it be done in such a way that its viable, and remain so? Should it be done to bring balance to a world spinning out of control; to ensure a future for all, even the least among us? These are intractable questions that have been pondered since biblical times, and continue to be so to the present. Let's start with a wide sampling of historical opinion courtesy of Wikipedia:

"In many societies, moderate attempts are made through property redistribution, taxation or regulation to redistribute capital and diminish extreme inequalities of wealth. Examples of this practice go back at least to the Roman republic in the third century B.C., when laws were passed limiting the amount of wealth or land that could be owned by any one family. Motivations for such limitations on wealth include the desire for equality of opportunity, a fear that great wealth leads to political corruption, to gain the political favor of a voting bloc, or fear that extreme concentration of wealth results in rebellion or at least in a limited consumer base."

"Various forms of socialism, and capitalism to a lesser degree, make attempts to diminish the conflicts arising from the unequal distribution of wealth. The economic/political system of communism forwards the idea that a government, serving the interests of the proletariat, would confiscate the wealth of the rich and then distribute benefits to the poor. Critics of state-managed economies, notably Milton Friedman, point out that the slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" turns ability into a liability and need into an asset. They cite the former Soviet Union and The People's Republic of China as examples of countries where, despite aggressive economic regulation, wealth continues to be distributed unevenly."

So by modern standards we can own as much as we can accumulate, providing we're part of the ruling class and play by it's rules i.e. don't mess with the system. And that system dictates that wealth is concentrated among the G8 and western industrialized nations; along with some Asian nations. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. The bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth. Despite this, the distribution has been changing quite rapidly in the direction of greater concentration of wealth.

So much for the undeniable facts, they hardly provide comfort; much like a fallow field's accusing stare has to the farmer who can't afford the seed to bring forth crops. This lack of security makes it fair to assume that pressure will inexorably build towards outright revolution. George Bush's concept of the "haves" and the "have mores", for example, seems to discount the effect of population numbers. Every year the planet has more poor people, but they won't remain passive forever. Which brings us to the original question: what will the "haves" forgo in favour of the "have nots", how will they do it and, most importantly, can it leverage a new world order?

Some actuaries and economists posit, that, an equal re-distribution of the world's total wealth could result in a middle class lifestyle for every family on the planet. In a perfect scenario this means equal resources for food, shelter, education, transportation, employment, gender equality, political franchise, religious freedom and racial tolerance. At a stroke we will remove the reasons that perpetuate divisions among human beings; human beings that possess DNA that differs by less than half a percent across all racial groups, according to geneticists. The implication for the species is immense.

Imagine the potential that could be released, when, the vast majority of the planet's people is no longer consumed with just trying to feed itself every day. The current fear based system will no longer be credible, the need for wars of domination and the artificial manipulation of resource shortages a thing of the past. No doubt there will be massive resistance, for the roots of fear run deep and they have been used to great effect. Two of our great religious traditions were formed on it's principle, as was every war fought in it's name, every political election ever stolen, each and every woman suppressed by patriarchy and all of the poor kept from the high table of the first world. Yet, it remains within our power to alter this reality.

There is a gigantic catch though, perhaps best described by the Cold War acronym MAD, better known as Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD was coined to describe the inevitable result of rampant nuclear arming in the 50's and 60's. Today's obsession with destruction revolves around the global environmental crisis, fuelled as it is by the relentless pursuit of material wealth; and it's exorbitant benefits which consume massive amounts of energy. Take away the need for excessive consumerism though, and demand drops which in turn ensures that the planet's natural resources aren't over exploited. The biosphere can then recover and the future of our species is partially assured. Continuing the slavish support for our current system is, thus, nothing more than a gigantic suicide pact.

However, all of this will count for nought unless what follows is universally accepted and sustainable. This fractious human civilization may finally have to start behaving in a civilized fashion, if it were to progress further along the scale of evolution. Re-distribution of wealth will undoubtedly bring relief and equality, but will we be able to parlay that into effective global cooperation? Universal security has to be the spur for greater idealism and altruism. We desperately need to redirect spending towards programs that will unleash a paradigm shift in human affairs. This will include, but not be limited to; clean energy, free education, inter-planetary exploration, global political representation, open market economics, non-profit healthcare and international employment rights. As the boundaries of our world shrink, it must follow that our views will expand to embrace possibilities beyond our planet. Possibilities that can only be grasped by abandoning outmoded concepts.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Man On

Much has lately been made of the world's trouble and strife; including the global economy, politics, the environmental crisis, food shortages and rising energy costs. South Africa also has the unenviable scourge of violent crime to add to the general malaise; not to mention the inevitable meltdown that our neighbour, Zimbabwe, is heading for. As if this is not enough for a 14 year old democracy to endure; into these macro issues strides the hulking figure of John Hlope, President of the Cape Bar. Judge Hlope has been thoroughly exposed for contravening judicial ethics and, frankly, triggering a constitutional crisis. At the heart of the issue is his intervention in the corruption trial of ANC President, Jacob Zuma. Hlope attempted to influence judges, hearing the case, in favour of Zuma; and has been censured by a full panel of the Judicial Services Commission.

While the process of the law taking it's course was as impressive as it was necessary, the country has nonetheless been left with yet another vivid experience to add to the mounting sense of dread concerning the wildly gyrating moral compass of it's leadership. It won't be an exaggeration to state that those in powerful positions have a special responsibility and, as the saying goes, much is expected from those to whom much is given. It follows that examples set, are then used as justifications by the unscrupulous and opportunistic; with the inevitable result that a downward spiral is created, fuelled by a cycle of moral decay.

The persistent repetition of the same mistakes points at fundamental flaws within our society. In fairness the Mbeki administration has strived mightily to create a centrist, and therefore stable, society in South Africa. Many socialist programs were abandoned to promote economic growth and prosperity, while beneficiaries of the previous regime were allowed to retain their wealth and had their property rights guaranteed. All of this is the name of building a just, but above all, a lasting civic structure. The tragedy, however, is that Africa's predilection for expediency is threatening to take root here. Which is why, despite having the world's most liberal constitution, we see a senior jurist such as Hlope, circumvent the law for political gain.

Stepping back from recent events and taking a deep breath does restore a sense of equilibrium though. The Buddhists, for example, believe that when the lesson is before the pupil the teacher will appear. And so it is with this multi-cultural society, in it's attempts to form a new national character and identity. A struggle which is, for better or for worse, still dominated by patriarchal thinking and attitudes. Men are too often in pursuit of short term goals, in the belief that their peers will not only admire their prowess but also seek to emulate them. Sadly they fail to appreciate that this headlong rush for influence and standing in the community, devastates the very society whose approval they ultimately seek. Like a gigantic mirror, the entire country exhibits the grotesque scars that have been inflicted in the cause of individual advancement.

This, then, has to be a defining moment for the men of this country. Never before have we had an opportunity with such promise. Yet, this portentous state of affairs is also reeling from the hammer blows of our indifference. We cannot, in good conscience, carry on the way we have been. Will the generation, in whose name we're plundering, really be grateful and admiring of our efforts? It's highly unlikely that young people will continue such a legacy, driven as they are by transparency, ethics and environmental concerns. And who can blame them, they are the ones who will have to cope with the failures we leave behind. No, its time to move our horizons forward by another 40 years; and to start seeing the world through the eyes of those that will inherit it.

Herein, of course, lies the kernel of our redemption as men. By recognizing that we are, by far, the largest contributor to the problem; we can then move on to finding the solution. We need to re-define our ability to chart new courses and to explore boldly. Its in our nature to push the limits, only this time we need inclusive goals that benefit the least amongst us. The same celebrated abilities, re-channelled, will bring South Africa's men recognition and cooperation. Our courage and bravery, so well documented in this long struggle with the most challenging continent on the planet, will now stand us in good stead. Our children will build on this example instead of tearing it down, and our women will stand by us as equals.

Staying with the Buddhist analogy we can also posit, that, the greater the crisis the greater the lesson required to move beyond it. In this vein we can agree that life ultimately confronts us with unfinished business; and so it is when we observe the developmental convulsions our country is experiencing. We will move beyond current issues with robust, and sometimes furious, debate. New leaders will rise to replace the fallen, greater understanding will take root and increasing success will inspire greater confidence and ambition. And this will happen despite outdated male attitudes, not because of them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Quotation Nation

No the men in suits,
in the Members Stand
have written the songs,
and the bleeding choirs are conducted
by police batons
beat the dead horse
the Good Friday effigy
of the honkey again to death,
the straw man you kill
will not cry mercy,
nor the man on the guarded hill
with the new flag
the ridiculous currency,
the not-so-secret police.

- Derek Walcott, ‘The Little Nations’

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pilger On Obama

In The Great Tradition, Obama Is A Hawk by John Pilger

In 1941, the editor Edward Dowling wrote: "The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it." What has changed? The terror of the rich is greater than ever, and the poor have passed on their delusion to those who believe that when George W Bush finally steps down next January, his numerous threats to the rest of humanity will diminish.

The foregone nomination of Barack Obama, which, according to one breathless commentator, "marks a truly exciting and historic moment in US history", is a product of the new delusion. Actually, it just seems new. Truly exciting and historic moments have been fabricated around US presidential campaigns for as long as I can recall, generating what can only be described as bullshit on a grand scale. Race, gender, appearance, body language, rictal spouses and offspring, even bursts of tragic grandeur, are all subsumed by marketing and "image-making", now magnified by "virtual" technology. Thanks to an undemocratic electoral college system (or, in Bush's case, tampered voting machines) only those who both control and obey the system can win. This has been the case since the truly historic and exciting victory of Harry Truman, the liberal Democrat said to be a humble man of the people, who went on to show how tough he was by obliterating two cities with the atomic bomb.

Understanding Obama as a likely president of the United States is not possible without understanding the demands of an essentially unchanged system of power: in effect a great media game. For example, since I compared Obama with Robert Kennedy in these pages, he has made two important statements, the implications of which have not been allowed to intrude on the celebrations. The first was at the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the Zionist lobby, which, as Ian Williams has pointed out, "will get you accused of anti-Semitism if you quote its own website about its power". Obama had already offered his genuflection, but on 4 June went further. He promised to support an "undivided Jerusalem" as Israel's capital. Not a single government on earth supports the Israeli annexation of all of Jerusalem, including the Bush regime, which recognises the UN resolution designating Jerusalem an international city.

His second statement, largely ignored, was made in Miami on 23 May. Speaking to the expatriate Cuban community - which over the years has faithfully produced terrorists, assassins and drug runners for US administrations - Obama promised to continue a 47-year crippling embargo on Cuba that has been declared illegal by the UN year after year.

Again, Obama went further than Bush. He said the United States had "lost Latin America". He described the democratically elected governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua as a "vacuum" to be filled. He raised the nonsense of Iranian influence in Latin America, and he endorsed Colombia's "right to strike terrorists who seek safe-havens across its borders". Translated, this means the "right" of a regime, whose president and leading politicians are linked to death squads, to invade its neighbours on behalf of Washington. He also endorsed the so-called Merida Initiative, which Amnesty International and others have condemned as the US bringing the "Colombian solution" to Mexico. He did not stop there. "We must press further south as well," he said. Not even Bush has said that.

It is time the wishful-thinkers grew up politically and debated the world of great power as it is, not as they hope it will be. Like all serious presidential candidates, past and present, Obama is a hawk and an expansionist. He comes from an unbroken Democratic tradition, as the war-making of presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton demonstrates. Obama's difference may be that he feels an even greater need to show how tough he is. However much the colour of his skin draws out both racists and supporters, it is otherwise irrelevant to the great power game. The "truly exciting and historic moment in US history" will only occur when the game itself is challenged.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Music For The Masses

Unsigned Manchester band, The Get Out Clause, didn't have enough money for a music video to promote themselves; so they simply set up their equipment in front of a series of CCTV cameras in the city center and started playing. Later on they requested the footage, under the UK's Freedom of Information Act, and edited it all together as an ersatz music video.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Cartoon Commentary

Activism 101

The 1960's have become known as the "Flower Power" era; a time of free love, social awareness and anti-war rallies across the places where young people gathered in the US. Having been borne in that decade, my recollection of South Africa was the privileged and blissful ignorance of a small minority juxtaposed with the abject failure of the state where it concerned the vast majority. Local activism was a dangerous business in every sense of the word and, certainly, not given to political niceties. However, times have changed and so has South Africa; a case could even be made that we are facing many of the issues that so occupied the left in America four decades ago.

Michael Albert, former Undergraduate Association President of MIT, has this to say: "The sixties I participated in erupted over anger at promises unmet and ubiquitous lies and hypocrisy." Compare that statement to recent unrest in South Africa and the root causes are virtually the same. The interesting aspect is that democratization and globalization has brought the country out of it's isolation bubble and we are, Rip van Winkel like, groping for solutions. With that in mind, here are excerpts from the memoir "Remembering Tomorrow" by Michael Albert, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 1968:

Would You Torch a Library?

Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon - Bertolt Brecht

When I was giving speeches at MIT, I was repeatedly asked, would you burn down a library to end the war? I would say, of course I would burn down a library to end the war, wouldn't you? A library has books. A war destroys not only books, but authors and readers. If I could end the war by burning down all the libraries in this city, I would do it in a heartbeat. And so would you, unless you are callous. But in the real world burning libraries won't end wars. What will help end the war has none of the onus of burning books. You can educate. You can demonstrate. Will you do that? That's the real question. In the documentary The Sixties, Henry Kissenger describes how Nixon was preparing to use nuclear weapons. He had to back off, however, due to immense dissent throughout the country. It wasn't burning a library that ended a war, it was amassing gigantic opposition that threatened policies held even more dear.

The Provost's Proposition

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one - John Fogerty

Shortly after the 1968-69 undergraduate association presidential (UAP) election, I was sitting in my new office when MIT's provost, Jerome Weisner, second in command at MIT, knocked on the door and entered. Weisner had been science advisor to John Kennedy. He was a Humphrey supporter and had been, and still was, a civil rights advocate. Weisner had a sense of humor, too, being known, for example, for saying that "getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose." He wasn't all bad politically, either, saying, "It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex, but rather, of keeping the United States from becoming a totally military culture." Still, we both knew that Weisner had actively assisted my opponents in the UAP election and had been miserable when I won. My campaign planks included no war research, open admissions, and indemnities to the Black Panther Party. Nonetheless, Weisner came to make peace.

Anyway, I remember three parts to our discussion in my campus student government office. In the first part, after some chatting, I asked Weisner something that I had been wondering for some time. This was the first era of antimissile missiles and I had a strong suspicion that work on them was entirely a boondoggle in addition to being politically destabilizing. So I asked about this, and Weisner took a pencil, stood it point upward, and said, "This pencil has as much chance of shooting down an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile as any antimissile missile we could conceivably deploy." Weisner knew that the antimissile program was a massive sop to high-tech industry. I asked how he could know that and not trumpet the truth. Weisner just shrugged.

My second memory of the Weisner meeting was of Weisner's prime purpose in coming to my office. He invited me to spend a weekend with him at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis on Cape Cod. He jovially told me how I would have a great time and I would meet Teddy Kennedy and others and develop friendships that would be valuable later in life. Weisner was, in short, brazenly seducing me with an offer of entry into the young people's branch of the Kennedy mystique. I dismissed the invitation without a thought. Weisner was flustered. How could I reject such an obvious invitation to power, relevance, and wealth? I tried to convey to him just how unattractive his offer was. "Would you consider an invitation to visit a mass murderer a perk? Would you consider it seductive? Or would you find it obscene? For me this decision is trivial," I told him. "I am not giving up something I would want to have."

The third item on Weisner's agenda, after I rejected his invitation, was a promise. Preparatory to leaving my UAP office and our having no further communications other than on opposite sides of police lines, Weisner told me that he would never allow me to be thrown out of MIT unless I did something utterly insane or horribly destructive. He didn't like my priorities, he admitted, and he knew we would always be at loggerheads, but, Weisner said, "I will defend your right to pursue your goals." I think Weisner probably meant it, but only because he couldn't envision what was to come. MIT had never thrown out any students for political activism and he didn't see any reason to think it would start with me. I replied that, in fact, he would indeed throw me out of MIT, despite there being no just cause. It would be for being effective at opposing the MIT administration and the war. He would do it because he would be desperate to get rid of me. He laughed and said, "Not a chance, I'll take the bet." I laughed and said, "We'll see." Ha ha, about a year later, expelled, I won.

Chemicals, Son?

I'd rather be living a free man in my grave, than as a puppet or a slave - Jimmie Cliff

Weisner dangling Kennedy's Camelot to induce me to leave the movement wasn't even the oddest or most brazen offer I got. Protocol requires that the undergraduate association president of MIT's student body give a yearly speech to notable alumni. So I had that honor, my year as UAP. My audience was a group of successful graduates returning for a kind of power reunion. Corporate executives, politicos, and media types, as well as scientists and engineers all assembled in a large lecture hall to hear the student president, me, pontificate on matters of the day. The speech was peppered with vulgar assaults on U.S. elites, including MIT's administration, the government, corporate America, and my audience. I finished to dead silence, stepped down, and strode down the aisle to leave the hall.

As I got near the door, an elegantly dressed man, probably in his forties, but maybe younger, blocked my path. I braced myself expecting to get assaulted. Instead, he held out his hand to shake, and once he got mine, he hung on, leaned in, and said in a low voice, "Chemicals." Yes, it was like the scene from The Graduate, except in the movie the industry proposed was "plastics." I looked askance at my suitor and said, roughly, "What are you talking about?" He said "Listen, you are wasting your time here. You can come with me right now. You don't even have to graduate from MIT; you can pick up a degree anytime. We'll go back to my firm in Germany"—it was some chemical company that he named—"and we will make you a vice president right off." His manner said, let's get cracking; this is an offer you can't possibly refuse. I had just savaged capitalism, corporations, his whole world, and yet all this chemical entrepreneur saw was that I was smart, confident, and a good speaker, and therefore a good profit-making prospect. He thought if he made a sufficiently lucrative offer I would dispense with all I had said and sign on with his gray-flannel operation, that my contrary allegiances would melt into nothingness.

Weisner too had heard me swear my revolutionary allegiances before he sat in my office and held out his arms hoping I would plop into them as his prod? He too thought my commitments would disintegrate upon my hearing about a Kennedy-benighted future. Who could refuse Camelot? Corporate America was worried about sixties dissent sweeping the country. Simultaneously, however, for a given individual, corporate Americans were confident offers of big-time power would easily buy allegiance.

Reasons for Rejecting Lucre

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of - Blaise Pascal

The arrogance of these co-opters, in my eyes, was incredible. But it was also daunting because I could see that offerings by the powerful most often must have successfully ensnared young souls. Otherwise my suitors would not have been so confident. What they couldn't understand about me, however, and what was perhaps most important for me to realize about myself, wasn't that I was displaying some kind of great discipline in turning them down. That kind of rejection of desirable lucre is indeed rare, and I didn't display any more of it than the next person. It was, instead, trivial for me to reject Weisner and Mr. Chemical because what they offered repulsed me. I didn't desire their bounty. In fact, you couldn't force me to go with either of them on grounds of personal fulfillment, much less on moral grounds. Their offers, even if I had nothing on my plate in their place, morals aside, were repulsive. That's what the hippies begot.

Three decades later Barbara Ehrenreich taught at the summer school called Z Media Institute. I had known Barbara intermittently for many years, but she had since gained considerable stature and was now not only a quite successful leftist author, but also a sometime columnist for Time. At a session with the ZMI students one asked Barbara, a bit incredulously, how she avoided selling out. Weren't the temptations great? Barbara said she couldn't speak for others, but in her case it wasn't a matter of great discipline or anything worthy of admiration. She just found people's sellout offers repugnant. "A future of power lunches and stressful competitive bidding in a world of pretense, even if studded with financial largesse, isn't very attractive. The people aren't interesting. The glitter isn't pretty. The power is to do only what the more powerful deem desirable. What's hard about saying no to that? It's easy." Well, that was my situation with the alumni's chemical vice presidency and the provost's Camelot. The offers were easy to reject.

Damning Dow

It is necessary, with bold spirit and in good conscience, to save civilization. The bare and barren tree can be made green again. Are we not ready? - Antonio Gramsci

One of the first militant demonstrations at MIT occurred in 1967. Dow Chemical Company was coming to recruit students to their firm. Recruitment by corporations on campuses was typical, and involved a few people setting up a temporary office to interview prospective applicants. Part of the problem was having corporations of any type at all on campus, at least for many activists. More specifically, however, the issue was Dow.

Dow manufactured napalm, which was a chemical mixture dropped from planes that burned skin even when doused with water. It was a heinous weapon, widely opposed as inhumane, and widely used by the U.S. against the Vietnamese. I vaguely remember meetings planning for the Dow recruiters. The meetings were called by SDS and MIT Resist. The protest was part of an SDS national campaign against recruiting on campus. Phil Raup, an MIT graduate student, was an active national SDS member and brought the idea to our campus. I was just getting into the Left. MIT SDS was not yet Rosa Luxemburg SDS.

We decided to block entry to the placement offices with our bodies. We blocked the entire floor for many hours. There was no real violence, but I remember a young MIT administrator, highly belligerent, a big guy with intimidating, confident manners who gave off vibes that if he had the authority he would vamp us into oblivion. His name was Paul Gray. In the 1980s he rose, as one might expect, watching garbage rise, to become president of MIT.

The logic of the Dow demonstration, which we wrote up in leaflets and distributed all over campus, was that since we wouldn't let the Mafia recruit at MIT, why should we let Dow Chemical do so? Dow produced napalm, which was more overtly destructive than anything the Mafia did. We also argued that students should not have the right to work for Dow Chemical just like community members should not have the right to join the Mafia. Overt membership in criminal institutions should confer guilt by mutual association, a view that arguably went a bit too far, not least because we were all students at MIT, which was itself a criminal institution in the same respects as Dow Chemical was, contributing in various ways to the war.

We had many discussions and arguments with students who had appointments and wanted to get in to see the recruiters, as well as with MIT officials and employees. No one got through, and even with the administration the discussions, while sometimes heated, never crossed the line to outright physical conflict. The ensuing debate (except with Paul Gray) was at this early date in MIT activism, quite civil. Eventually, the Dow recruiters gave up on-campus recruiting, though it is certainly possible they made secret appointments off campus.

The Calculus of Dissent

Strong reasons make strong actions - William Shakespeare

Many people celebrated the Dow action on the grounds that we had successfully disrupted recruitment, but I thought that was completely beside the point. Yes, we had to disrupt the meetings if we were to address Dow effectively. But disrupting meetings was a means to an end. Raising consciousness and laying the seeds for more future involvement by more people was the aim. I think we succeeded on those grounds, too, but it was a very different criterion.

Here's how I thought about it. Suppose we had been cleared out of the hall and the recruitment had continued as planned but the act of clearing us had been widely discussed on campus and had aroused more people's interest and affected more people's ideas. Assuming it aided movement building, would that have been less of an achievement? Would getting routed have made us less successful? I didn't think so. Suppose we had found a way to prevent the recruitment of MIT students by Dow but our approach had less effect on people's future views and contributed less to building antiwar activism. Imagine we surreptitiously blackmailed Weisner into calling it off. Would that have been better? Not to my thinking.

In the heat of social conflict, the above calculus wasn't always obvious to everyone. Many of my friends, for example, focused on the proximate details of obstruction, not on broader movement building. Indeed, throughout the sixties, people frequently lost track of the logic of their own actions and evaluated them by self-denying criteria imposed by media. We struck a university or tried to shut down a building or stop a meeting and looked only at the scorecard of the confrontation itself. In our confrontational posture, bent by media machinations, we judged the day and all the efforts leading up to it, and all the follow-up efforts, in terms of whether the opposed meeting occurred or not. How we assessed our actions, in other words, was sometimes incredibly self-defeating and confused, missing the real point.

The day of the demo against Dow, and all the work leading up to and following that day, should have been judged, some of us argued then and later, not on the basis of narrow, proximate, tactical details, but on the basis of movement building. One reason activists frequently focused on proximate details rather than the larger picture was that we vested the proximate with so much tactical attention that it crowded out the real prize. We got caught up in it like in a prizefight or ball game.

Another reason we often lost track of the larger picture, however, was that some people really did care only about the proximate issue and nothing more. They were not confused but only wanted Dow out. For example, at MIT there was tension between those caring only about MIT complicity, and those caring about ending the war in Vietnam, or even ending imperialism. Similarly, at strikes, there was tension between those wanting to win a higher local wage and those wanting to increase the bargaining power of labor more widely, or even to replace capitalism. And at women's health clinics there was tension between those wanting to supply medical care locally, those wanting to gain reproductive rights and to smash the glass ceiling obstructing women from management socially, and those wanting to end patriarchy globally. All over the sixties, this divide existed.

Cynicism 101

No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up - Lily Tomlin

When I would talk with MIT students about obstructing Dow, ending war research, ending the war, or ending poverty, racism, or capitalism, underneath people's confusion there was always another obstacle. Sessions would last hours. Concerns and doubts would surface. I would begin such talks offering evidence about the war's horrors. But most of the serious discussion that followed wasn't about U.S. motives, it was about whether people should resist or not. And the reason many of my fellow students repeatedly offered not to resist was because "people suck."

What these MIT students would say was that there was ultimately no point to resistance regardless of my facts, which they agreed were right, and regardless of the war's immorality, which they also admitted. The reason they gave to not demonstrate, organize, or even learn about the facts and conditions of the people we were murdering overseas was that all people are greedy, nasty, and brutish, so nothing positive was possible. These MIT classmates told me that human nature leads to war and injustice. There is no way to prevent this trajectory. You can't stop war, these classmates asserted, in the same way you can't make trees talk or make stones cry. There is no more point opposing war's trajectory, they concluded, than blowing into the wind. If we don't fight wars, someone else will. So we should do nothing.

The second most prevalent reason MIT students gave against resisting was that it was impossible to fight City Hall. You may have good goals and intentions. You may even come up with a way of seeking your preferences that wouldn't create a new mess just as bad as what you are battling against. Nonetheless, you can't win. This was the old folk's home at the college mustering defeatism on behalf of inaction. You can't stop the war, my classmates asserted, in the same way that a kid can't outbox Muhammad Ali. The state and corporations are too powerful. Even if people could live better lives in a better world, humanity is too entangled in this world to reach a better one. The obstacles are insurmountable. We are condemned. And these views are also common now, in the U.S. and probably everywhere else in the world too. Belief that there is no alternative and that you can't win change is a straitjacket preventing opposition to oppression.

I remember a related phenomenon that always simultaneously amused and depressed me. I'd be handing out antiwar leaflets, and those who didn't eagerly take the antiwar leaflet would brush it away like it was infected with deadly germs. Sometimes the person despised us but often it was clear that that wasn't the root of it. I would walk along with such people, going backward, facing them from in front, as they moved forward, and I repeatedly offered them the leaflet. They would keep refusing and I would keep thrusting it at them. They could easily take the leaflet and then throw it out, or they could shout or threaten me off, but few who avidly didn't want it did that. The leaflets were indeed germ-infected. The disease was antiwar activism. The leaflets sat atop a slippery slope. If you took a leaflet, you might read it. If you read it, you might accept its message. If you accepted its message, you might demonstrate. The leaflet was dangerous because it might hook you into something you wanted to avoid. Better to avoid seeing it.

People who actively resisted communication sometimes explicitly hated us and our views, of course. But more often their resistance stemmed either from doubting the efficacy of activism for reasons noted above, or from wishing to avoid dangerous involvement. It was important to understand this because it meant organizing was not just a matter of conveying previously unfamiliar truths, however important that aspect was. I began to realize that reaching people often entailed overcoming not only ignorance, but also fear of failure.

Organizing Mechanics

First of all two people get together an' they want their doors enlarged - Bob Dylan

In the early 1960s and right up to 1965, there were occasional, quite small antiwar demonstrations on the Boston Common. MIT students who went to these demonstrations were generally not protestors but instead part of a large crowd of sometimes-violent hecklers. Campus antiwar activity was almost nonexistent, particularly at MIT, right through my first year there. But from my sophomore through my senior year the situation went ballistic. Antiwar rallies on the Boston Common regularly exceeded 100,000 people, with only a handful of hecklers. MIT students poured out of dorms and fraternities to join marches. In 1968 and 1969, we had not only massive but also very militant demonstrations.

When I ran for office at MIT, I would go into a dorm to speak and the entire dorm would turn out to listen and then discuss the issues. These sessions would last a few hours and many folks would continue talking afterward. What happened? What induced such a change in consciousness and activism in just a few years?

Partly, events happened all over the country and around the world, and each one prodded others. There was a sequence of campus activities from the Berkeley free speech movement in the early sixties through rallies and demonstrations, to the sanctuaries, and finally the massive building occupations at many schools, including Harvard, just up the river from MIT. There were constant rallies and actions at MIT, too, continually growing in scale, but what I want to highlight here is different.

At MIT, a relatively small group of people—at first, about 15 or so—organized the campus. We redesigned corridors, put up posters, and sponsored educational events. We held rallies and teach-ins. We talked to fellow students, over and over, at every opportunity. We went door to door in dorms and fraternities night after night. We stuck leaflets under people's doors, mimeographing them all one night and then distributing them all the next night, going around to talk about reactions thereafter. We sat and talked to folks in the eating areas. We brought up the war and many other issues in classes. We continually urged new people to address their often-incredible ignorance or conservatism.

The thing about movements in the sixties is that people discovered that their pains were not due to personal inadequacies. People got angry at newly unveiled culprits. Lies were uncovered and the lies made people indignant. The antiwar movement offered a second revelation. The U.S. was engaged in a vicious war against peasants half a world away, not for a good cause, but for power and wealth. The U.S. brought mayhem on a poor peasant land. Images of assassination and destroyed towns accompanied claims that power and greed were the cause. The more we brought human carnage to light, the more we unveiled corporate motives, the more people got angry and considered systemic issues. Movement focus went from dissociating from right wingers, to dissociating from liberals, to dissociating from the underlying institutions of corporate capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

And finally, or in some ways firstly; the hippie, youth, anti-authoritarian cultural movement was similarly revelatory. Now it was boredom, irrelevance, ageism, and alienation that were shown to be not personal infections but social impositions. Hippies rebelled at suburban plasticity. Hippies rejected daily life and all its accouterments, not just the most oppressive features, but even those indicating success. Hippies found suburbia and the American dream obscene. Hippies created alternative lifestyles. It wasn't just our hair growing

Friday, June 6, 2008

Socrates' Riff

As the clamour of our times reaches ever higher pitch, it sometimes serves to cast a look at the past. The question always is: how far back? Can we find answers to the problems of our globalized world in the pre-industrial age? How about referring to the agrarian societies of the Golden Crescent to illuminate the current food crisis? Perhaps the great mystic traditions of the Indus valley can aid conflict resolution. This game can be played several ways, but it seems that it may as well be taken back to the precursor of modern society; Greece. The city state of Athens gave the world philosophy, art, science, literature, civic governance and many of the principles that guide us to this day.

It also produced Socrates, one of history's outstanding iconoclasts. In the truest sense of the word, Socrates attacked cherished beliefs and traditional institutions as often being based on error or superstition. While compiling the first dictionary of the ancient world he challenged the Senate's definition of a human, namely that of a featherless biped, by slinging a plucked chicken into their midst. In this age though, some 2500 years later, so many elements in our society remain the same. Democracy is still the dominant, yet flawed, political system of the day; characterized as it is by the peddling of influence. Human nature still largely revolves around self interest with the attendant issues of war, famine and retribution endlessly repeating the cycle. In many areas we've hardly evolved at all.

Yet conventional wisdom holds that Athens epitomized a level of civilization that inspired the great societies of the modern era. If that's the case we can certainly use more Socratian thinking in our daily affairs. For example, when Socrates was tried on charges of corrupting the Athenian youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, his wife, Xantippe, visited him in prison to bewail the jury's condemnation. Socrates sought to comfort her. "They are by their nature also condemned," he remarked. "But the condemnation is unjust!" Xantippe cried. "Would you prefer it," Socrates asked, "to be just?" How apt, the parables abound amongst South Africa's latest crop of leaders; and were we still in favour of poisoning political rivals, we would surely have run out of hemlock by now. No, far better to assassinate the character in this new media age.

Famed for his detached logic and humility, it was always the source of speculation that Socrates had an inner ear for the truth. An inherent mysticism seemed to guide his observations and responses, but perhaps idealism was the outstanding feature of his life. Known for a steadfast refusal to go along with any concept he couldn't rationalize through empirical evidence, he became synonymous with high principle; which, naturally, inspired great devotion amongst his students. So much so, that, one day Socrates was blessed by his pupils with a number of gifts; among them a remarkable tribute from Aeschines: "Nothing that I am able to give to you do I find worthy of you," Aeschines declared, "and only in this way do I discover that I am a poor man. And so I give to you the only thing that I possess - myself."

Socrates insisted on this selfless approach to intellect, but also extended it into the material world. One of his friends, well aware of his frugality, was surprised to find him in the marketplace one day carefully examining some of the more luxurious wares on display. He asked the philosopher why he bothered coming to the market when he never bought anything. "I am always amazed to see," Socrates replied, "just how many things there are that I don't need." This riposte almost seems quaint compared to the rampant consumerism that occupies so many of our waking hours. The ancient philosopher's acerbic wit would have been sure to launch a caustic comment, were his eyes privy to such banality.

Some would argue that the world is, unfortunately, not populated by such high minded individuals and more prone to the baser instincts of man. Yet its not the individual that's celebrated in Socrates, but the philosophy he developed. And so it is, that, millennia later we are being urged to turn inwards by a veritable army of self help gurus, life coaches and spiritual leaders. This being the great occupation now that humanity has imposed it's will on the planet. A noble pursuit if ever there was one; for as Socrates' protege, Aristotle, remarked: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Still, the inescapable commercialism that has sprung up around the pursuit of higher awareness will not have pleased Socrates. Perhaps then, its best to let him have the last word; in the final pronouncement he made from his deathbed, as related by Plato: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is the better, God only knows."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama & Africa

Barack Obama was put over the top today, in terms of electoral votes, and is now the anointed Democratic candidate in the race for the US Presidency. He is the first African-American presidential candidate in history, having defeated Hilary Clinton who was aiming to become the first female candidate. Obama holds dual US-Kenyan citizenship, which some feel could make him the ideal candidate for advancing an African agenda. Reality is never quote so simple though, we are talking about who gets to live in the White House after all.

We do know this; Obama was born to an American mother and a Kenyan father while they were both students at the University of Hawaii. He has spoken out against corruption on the continent (although his first cousin, Raila Odinga of Kenya, hasn't been doing him any favours). He is not a Muslim as portayed by the rightwing and seems to have a secular view of spiritual life. Although his foreign policy experience is very thin, having only served 4 years in the Senate, he has demonstrated a workmanlike grasp of issues. That he is a charismatic and gifted orator has also been well documented, bringing some flattering comparisons to Martin Luther King. His best seller, "The Audacity of Hope", gave more insight into his interracial experiences than policy thinking for a new America.

Perhaps Obama's greatest gift is that he has not yet been tainted by the political establishment. By far the youngest candidate for generations, he effortlessly connects with elusive young voters; both in the manner that he campaigns and on the issues he addresses. Unfortunately for him America does not just consist of young, urbanized minorities and therein lies the rub. He will have to convince an entire middle class that change is good, even if it's going to hurt. If they get behind him with their votes then maybe, just maybe, America can get it's domestic act together and start rehabilitating it's tarnished image around the globe. And that's what it really comes down to; is the world's most self-obsessed society ready for Obama?

Its unlikely that family connections with Africa will sway policy, but there is a significant moral dividend in placing the continent higher on the agenda. And although race should not matter, when you are an African-American candidate you are obliged to heed black history. The so-called "roots" issue is deeply ingrained in African-American culture. For Africa that's a long way from getting a leg up in terms of policy issues, however, Obama may just be the the kind of politician that can transcend the entrenched debate and take it to a new level. The presidential race will likely be dominated by domestic issues and the Iraq war, but the Republican machine doesn't fight fair and Obama will be examined like never before...and that will include his position on Africa.

The real question, of course, is what would Africa want from Obama should he be victorious in November? This doesn't appear to be a man that will give corrupt politicians a free pass, particularly if they're African. Frankly, it may well turn out to be a bit of a shock for the continent's league of dodgy leaders. So, progressive change agent meets the old guard; my money's on the young guy with the idealism. Common sense also dictates that Obama isn't going to hold with old style African politics, especially when he's clearly focused on overturning the same thing in his own country. That can only mean the writing's on the wall for every tin pot dictator and warlord still scarring the face of the mother continent.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Quotation Nation

“The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door... That's the only difference.”

Ralph Nader

Future Communication

Moral Evolution

There's no shortage of negative issues in modern life; be it political, economic or social. This blog has explored how vested interests manipulate the presence of these issues for gain. Their philosophy being that scared people are much easier to control. Naturally good news would not be in their interest, therefore, it takes work to maintain an optimistic view of life in general. We constantly need reminding of humanity's journey to higher pursuits; particularly when we start stumbling more than usual. With this in mind the best-selling author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal, Robert Wright, explains "non-zero-sumness" - the network of linked fortunes and cooperation that has guided our evolution to this point - and how we can use it to help save humanity today.

T-Shirt Of The Month Club

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Previous posts have dealt in depth with the underlying reasons fomenting civil unrest in South Africa. By now, numerous talking heads on television have filled the nation's consciousness with the scope of the problem. Stories abound regarding the inability to withstand rapid cost-of-living increases. We have been thoroughly acquainted with the big picture via the media, yet the silence from the Union Buildings has been deafening. Trevor Manuel's admission, that government has failed the poor, being a rare attempt at honesty, despite the lack of concrete action. The leadership of the country has been thoroughly exposed for lack of forward planning and macro-economic anticipation.

Those that have long accused the Mbeki dynasty of afro-pessimism are now again pointing the finger of judgement. A recent Time magazine report bluntly accused the government of not getting on with the business of governing. The implication being that first class travel to international conferences take precedence over the plight of constituents. Erstwhile ANC stalwart, Andrew Feinstein, has exposed the "politics of patronage" used by the President. An account of a consummate politician that allegedly approaches any problem as a deal that needs to be done. Even biographer, Mark Gevisser, has already printed his view of the Mbeki years called "Dream Deferred"; an extraordinary publishing step during the tenure of a sitting President.

Clearly we cannot rely on this sort of representation any longer, which means civic duty once again has to be upgraded to that of nation building. Ghandi coined the phrase: "poverty is the worst kind of violence there is". With that truth ringing in our ears, is it possible to enrich the lives of those in need without just throwing money at the problem - money being in short supply for most right now? The answer has to be a resounding yes, and for a very simple reason; we are in this confrontational conundrum precisely because we have not explored alternative solutions to state funded intervention. Self reliance espoused by the Mahatma eventually managed to lift the agrarian Indian culture to a powerhouse of the new millennium, replete with high technology industries and a red hot economy.

Obviously we can't all respond on a high level, but this is the beauty of action - its all good, no matter which level it occurs at. Let's consider the humble residential home and the potential for change within it. For example, domestic workers are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. They work extended hours, commute long distances, seldom have access to funded health care and usually lack formal education. Yet they are the women who hold together most South African families, often the only bread winners. They are trusted with the homes and children of the middle class, but don't receive vocational training beyond how to operate vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The irony cannot be lost on us.

Imagine then enabling these noble women with knowledge to match the responsibilities they have already shouldered, silently accepted and successfully carried out each day. We can start with narrow self-interest, always a popular choice, and train our domestic workers in home based skills. First aid, micro-agriculture, family nutrition, basic bookkeeping, driver education, culture workshops and social etiquette being some obvious place to start. Surely the enrichment of such lives can only bring rewards for everyone concerned. A greater stake in the success of any employer's family requires increased personal rewards for the employee too. Time and labour saving services such as access to internet banking can, and should, be extended. The home could become a cost center with financial incentives for savings on domestic supplies and services for example.

Beyond the possibility of new domestic partnerships lie the knock-on effects for society at large. For one thing we can narrow the divisions in our society by taking a more active interest in each other's welfare. If nothing else it will bring a fair exchange of knowledge for services; but the fundamental advantage has to be that we will be collaborating for mutual gain and, in the process, learning what is truly in our communal interest. Best of all it will happen where we live.

Homeland Security

Tunnel Vision

Here's a video clip from a Japanese gameshow featuring soccer player wearing binoculars. At first glance its typical television fare from the land of the rising sun, but there's usually an underlying message when one observes this fascinating culture. The players struggle with obviously handicapped vision and the results are hilarious. Then the moment breaks when the analogy hits home - so much of human endeavour resembles the bumbling players.