Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Art of the Professional Share

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

13 Grandmothers' Council

Jyoti, aka Jeneane Prevatt, is an internationally renowned spiritual advisor and psychological consultant; who carries a bundle of fire. Jyoti is the one of primary forces behind the creation of The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. At Kayumari, her retreat near San Francisco, she went to the top of the mountain there and the Mother said to her: "many people from all over the world are going to come here and pray, I don't care how they pray I just need them to pray right now in this moment of our history." And so she became the guardian of this mountaintop with that intention.

Three years into living on the land in 1998, the Mother came to her again and said, "I'm going to give you one of my most precious baskets and in this basket I'm going to put some of my most precious jewels, these jewels represent lines of prayer that go back to the beginning of time; you are not to mix them, you are not to change them, you are to keep them safe and protect them and walk them through the doorway of the millennia and hand them back to me, I have something we're going to do." And up the 14-mile logger road came many, many elders that began to initiate her in the lines of prayer that these jewels represented and to teach how to take care of this basket and how to keep it safe.

Finally, many years passed and it came time to make a study with the 5th jewel in the basket. Her daughter-in-law wanted to find her practice in the field of addiction. So she ended up discovering the plant called Iboga. Through that she ended studying Ibogaine, one of the alkaloids of the Iboga plant. Jyoti said to her: "the way that old people raised me was that if we're supposed to work with a plant and particularly one that is not from this land, then we as a family should go to Africa and meet with the elders of the Bwiti people.“

The intention was to get permission to use this plant and if the Bwiti said no, then to come back and go on a meditation and look to see where the path is taking them next. If they said yes, then to ask the Bwiti to guide their footsteps and their way; so that they will tend to the teachings and the plant in the right way outside of its country. And so, as a family, they went to Africa for the Bwiti initiation. In that process the vision of the basket came up again and Jyoti knew that it was time for this to be put in motion.

After sitting in meditation for some time on her return Jyoti received the following message: "Granddaughter you must start with the seed of it all, the seed of it all is relations. If you start with your relations, then everything will unfold from there, don't worry." So she got on the phone and sent emails out to her whole community, and all the places it lived, and asked them to speak to their elders and to get guidance for which grandmothers were being called by the Universe, for this council. She got 16 names, wrote a letter to them and got answers from 13 of these grandmothers saying they would come.

Next came the process of putting together a gathering of women in Phoenicia in upstate New York, in the Dalai Llama's Medicine Retreat Center. They came, although nobody knew how it would be when they came, nor was there an agenda except to bring them together; but when they got together they recognized each other, they recognized something was happening. The profound energy was recognized at the table when the 13 sat down. Later they came to discover that there are many prophesies amongst most of the indigenous peoples around the planet about the time when the grandmothers speak, about the time of the 13 Grandmothers' Council.

A 71 year old Yup'ik Grandmother, who lives in Alaska, spoke this story. When she was nine, her grandmother sat her down and said: "when you are old and grey like me you're going to be called to sit on a council of 13 Grandmothers. I've prepared 13 sacred bundles and there are 13 of my sacred stones and I have found 13 white eagle feathers for you. You must protect these and keep them safe. And when it's that time, pass the bundles to each of the Grandmothers and take one for yourself and sit down and know that I am standing behind you and all of your ancestors are standing behind you and the times we've been telling you about and preparing you for are here".

The 13 Grandmothers decided they were going to take this basket that their community had walked through the doorway of the millennia with, that they would receive this basket that the Mother had given as representative of her, and they would go to each other's home place, every six months and hold a seven day prayer for world peace and light the holy fire. To date they have honored the Mayan, Mazatec, Tibetan, Lakota, Takelma, Havasupai/Hopi/Tewa and Santo Daime traditions; marking the 7th fire for the next 7 generations.

The 13 Grandmothers usually together for three days for their own private council, because they're also growing their own relationships; and growing their own empowerment process, as a council. When they sit down at a council there are seven languages translated simultaneously, and the Grandmothers remind themselves that they're there for peace and unity and have to step out of themselves to transform that which wants to divide and conquer them. The other part is when they open the doors to the public for four days and they lead prayer at morning, noon and night.

Each of them dresses, as they lead prayer, in their own regalia. Through the day attendees have three different nations that lead them in prayer. By the end of the day another kind of space is opening for everybody. By the end of the fourth day things have happened - people write letters about how cancers have disappeared, bad situations in their families have healed when they go home, people report the Grandmothers coming to them in their dreams and answering their prayers or touching them in some way. The Grandmothers will say they're not here to tell them what to do; they're here to remind people that the answers for everything they need to do live inside them.

In response to the question: "what can people do to encourage and develop right relationship with the planet and their relations?"; the 13 Grandmothers offer their insight. Take a glass of water, this amazing element that Grandmother Aggi says can hear us, and take this glass of water every morning and go outside and face the sun and give thanks to that day with that water. Pour that water on the Earth and feed her first, then take some for yourself and have your family stand with you while you do this, let your children drink this water, let your companion drink this water. Start your day this way; it puts something new in motion.

They also tell the story of a psychologist that was taking small groups into the Amazon. After being in canoes for several days, they got out of their boats and they saw oil in the river. They saw an old man standing by the river and went up to him and the psychologist said to the old man: "I'm so sorry for what we have done to your river." The old man looked down the stream and he said: "things are as you dream them, you once had a great dream. You had many beautiful dreams but then your dream turned into a nightmare." And this young man said to him: "but I don't know what to do, I don't know how to change out of this nightmare," and the old man said: "The world is as you dream it, turn around and pass a new dream, pass an awakened dream, one with wholeness and balance, pass that to the one standing right behind you, do this as long as it takes you to do it."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Field Philosophy

Philosophers have spent enough time cogitating in their armchairs. A new generation has undertaken a more engaged approach, working with cognitive scientists and designing experiments that will “test” people’s intuitions about traditional philosophic puzzlers such as the existence of God, the objectivity of ethics and the possibility of free will. The result: new, empirically-grounded insights available to philosophers and psychologists. The experimental philosophy movement deserves praise. Anything that takes philosophy out of the study and into the world is good news. But it’s an open question whether experimental philosophy really satisfies the Socratic imperative to philosophize out in the world. 

Another group of philosophers is experimenting with an approach called “field philosophy.” Getting out into the field means leaving the book-lined studies to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers; drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.

Growing numbers of philosophers are interested in this kind of philosophic practice. Some of this field work in philosophy has been going on for years, for instance within the ethics boards of hospitals. But today this approach is increasingly visible across a number of fields like environmental science and nanotechnology. Some philosophers have worked with, and challenged, the food industry on the application of recombinant DNA techniques to agricultural crops and food animals. Others have helped to integrate ethics and values concerns with the ongoing work of scientists and engineers. One team even assisted the Chilean government in creating a UNESCO biosphere reserve in Cape Horn.

The “field” can even include the lab, featuring “embedded philosophers” who, like embedded journalists of recent wars, work daily alongside lab scientists and engineers. Field philosophy has two roles to play in such cases. First, it can provide an account of the generally philosophical (ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, ontological, metaphysical and theological) aspects of societal problems. Second, it can offer an overall narrative of the relations between the various disciplines (e.g. chemistry, geology, anthropology, public policy and economics) that offer insight into our problems. Such narratives can provide us with something that is sorely lacking today: a sense of the whole.

Field philosophy, then, moves in a different direction than either traditional applied philosophy or the new experimental philosophy. Whereas these approaches are top-down in orientation, beginning in theory and hoping to apply a theoretical construct to a problem, field philosophy is bottom-up, beginning with the needs of stakeholders and drawing out philosophical insights after the work is completed. Being a field philosopher does have its epistemological consequences. It means sometimes seeking to provide “good-enough” philosophizing - it often lacks some footnotes, but attempts to provide much needed insights.

The willingness to take these constraints seriously has meant that the work is sometimes dismissed by other philosophers. Across the 20th century, philosophy has embraced rigor as an absolute value. Other important values such as timeliness, relevance and cost have been sacrificed to disciplinary notions of expertise. In contrast, “rigor” in field philosophy is seen as involving a delicate balance among often competing values. To put it practically, field philosophers often edit themselves; realizing that sometimes what is needed is not the 7000-word scholarly article but rather a three-minute brief or a one-page memo.

Make no mistake; field philosophy does not reject traditional standards of philosophic excellence. Yet in a world crying out for help on a wide range of ethical and philosophical questions, philosophers need to develop additional skills. A field approach to philosophy helps with the challenge facing the academic community today. Underlying the growing popular distrust of all societal institutions, lies a social demand for greater accountability for all those who work in the industry of knowledge production. With budgets tightening, demands will soon be made on philosophy and on all the humanities - to justify its existence in terms of its positive and direct impacts on society.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Save Mapungubwe

On 8 April 1933, a remarkable discovery was made in the then Transvaal region of South Africa: a grave of unknown origin, filled with gold-work, was found on the summit of a natural rock stronghold in a wild region. The site was Mapungubwe Hill, Place of the Jackal.

Mapungubwe, which served as the capital of the ancient Mapungubwe Kingdom, situated on the international borders between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Since the site was discovered, the same story of Mapungubwe has been told. It's a story of a flourishing Iron Age metropolis on the Limpopo ruled by an African king almost a thousand years ago. 

The Kingdom comprised a sophisticated state system, with highly developed agriculture, mining and metallurgy industries; and traded with countries as far afield as China. According to the Archaeology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mapungubwe represented 'the most complex society in Southern Africa at the time'.

In July 2003, the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape became South Africa's fifth World Heritage site and was officially announced as Mapungubwe National Park in May 2004. All cultural items that blossomed from the complex, highly developed state and culture found within Mapungubwe; are part of a heritage collection and the remains of this ancient society can be viewed at the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

Now this treasured World Heritage Site is under severe threat. An Australian company, Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) has been given the go-ahead to begin construction of a mine less than 6km from the borders of the Mapungubwe National Park; and adjacent to the World Heritage Site. This will compromise the environmental integrity of the area as it relates to the natural habitat, ecosystems, cultural heritage and related aspects of the environment.

Several leading non-governmental organisations including the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA), the Mapungubwe Action Group (MAG), the Wilderness Foundation South Africa (the WFSA), the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (the WWF) and BirdLife South Africa (BLSA), have lodged and appeal against CoAL to mine.

However they cannot stand alone for long. The mining at Mapungubwe is just the start with many more mining projects to follow. Anglo Coal has already bought large tracts of land in the area and intend to prove in court that mining rights supersede environmental legislation. The predatory behavior of the economic elite has never been so nakedly on display. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Guardians of the Gates

Indigenous African culture honors gay men as having a higher vibrational level; which enables them to be guardians of the gateways to the Spirit world. The conventional Western view limits itself by focusing only on their sexual role. Among the Dagara of West Africa, for example, gender has very little to do with anatomy. It is purely energetic. In that context, a male who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is. Anatomic differences are simply there to determine who contributes what for the continuity of the tribe.

The gay man is looked at primarily as a "gatekeeper." The Earth is looked at, from the tribal perspective, as a very delicate machine or consciousness, with high vibrational points; which certain men must be guardians of in order for the tribe to keep its continuity with the Spirits that dwell there, being Spirits of this world and Spirits of the other worlds. Any person who is at the link between this world and the other world experiences a state of vibrational consciousness which is far higher, and far different, from the one that a normal person would experience. This is really what makes a gay Dagara man gay. So when they are born they begin to vibrate in a way that Elders can detect and, sooner or later, they will follow them to the gateway that they are connected with.

By the same token, gay men often have children; because they’re fertile, just like heterosexual men. To then limit gay men to simple sexual orientation is really the worst harm that can be done to such a person. To decide that all he is, is a sexual being. Precisely because of the fact that the knowledge of indigenous medicine and ritual comes from gatekeepers, it’s its simply incorrect to take the position that gay men are the negative breed of a society. In a society that is profoundly dysfunctional, what happens is that gay men have their life purposes taken away from them; and what is left is this kind of sexual orientation which, in turn, is disturbing to the very society that created it.

Today, Western urbanized society is suffering from a gradual ecological attrition; and it is because the gatekeepers have been prevented from doing their jobs. They have been marginalized and isolated from the mainstream; having been separated from their natural roles. And because they have been fired, we accuse them for not doing anything. If we look at the earth differently, we will find out gradually that the gay men that are bothersome to mainstream society; are going to start taking their posts. They know what their jobs are. They are not of this world. They come from the Otherworld, and they were sent here to keep the gates open to the Otherworld, because if the gates are shut, this is when Mother Earth, will shake - and all of us will be in deep trouble.

Why is it then that, everywhere in the indigenous world, gay men are a blessing; and in the modern Western world they are cursed? Because, whenever a modern society wants to shut down another culture; it will attempt to marginalize the keepers of ritual. They know that this is where the life-pulse of that culture is. That’s pretty much what’s at work in the Third World, and what has happened to indigenous cultures all over the world. And, its not that gay men must be asked for forgiveness; that’s just tokenism. Rather, they serve as an example of the illness that modernity has brought to us; and that we must use that to begin working at healing ourselves. The gatekeepers will find their positions again; if we start to heal ourselves, they will remember.

Quotation Nation

May those from under our feet
breathe the warmth of community unto us
so that the peace we seek
mounts our bodies and sits upon the chairs of our hearts
sprinkling love and joy all around us.
Prayer of the African Medicine Man
Kounbaterzie Dabire Guinian

Friday, October 8, 2010

White Sangoma

The phenomenon of Europeans who have graduated as sangoma - the ancestrally guided spiritual healing system of South Africa - has become a contemporary cause célèbre, a matter for academic and popular debate. In some circles the idea is dismissed as inconceivable. African sangoma optimistically embrace the introduction of Europeans to their ranks as a natural and positive innovation. Biomedicine meanwhile generally dismisses sangoma healing ideas and practice and thus ignores the potential advantages of co-operation with this parallel healing system on which between 60 and 80% of the majority population still depend.

The integrative approach to medicine familiar in Asia and China has yet to be tried in Southern Africa, where efforts at collaboration between traditional and biomedical practice remain few and far between. Arguably cooperation is more problematic in relation to those traditional healers - such as the sangoma of South Africa - who attribute their healing gift to the spiritually defined agency of ancestral authority. Biomedicine appears relatively sanguine about the ‘re-education’ of traditional birth attendants and surgeons, for example - but is noticeably less quiescent, when it comes to the question of interactions with spiritually inspired healers. In South Africa, with a few notable exceptions, biomedical practitioners persist in refusing to take seriously sangoma practitioners and resort to calling them witchdoctors; a rejection which denies to sangoma the respect they willingly give to biomedicine.

This resistance, amongst Western trained practitioners, largely stems from the healing role of sangoma; which is integrally linked to the honing of communications with the potent agency of ancestral spirit. However, some African commentators query the existence of European ancestors. A question which then arises is how European sangoma experience ancestral others; are they, to take a rather obvious examples, African or European, both or other? And how do they communicate? The common answer is trance or semi trance, which is part of the experience of all sangoma and is familiar, idiosyncratic and spiritually personalised to the individual; irrespective of race. Trance gives temporary access to other, ancestral levels of consciousness and knowing, and as such is used by most sangoma in their diagnosis.

Another interesting question is; how do these European sangoma perceive their practice? Preliminary research suggests that most interpret sangoma as a form of healing rather than a religious expression. Some European sangoma interviewed bring to their training a prior religious faith, which they distinguish from sangoma, but find to be either renewed or strengthened by their experience. Whilst several note similarities between the role of sangoma and priest, they appear to have discovered a comfortable independence between their religious beliefs and sangoma practice. This position is generally reflected in the experience of the African sangoma, most of whom retain a powerful Christian faith whilst practicing as sangoma.

Does becoming a European sangoma constitute a hybrid experience? Preliminary conclusions draw on the essential idiosyncrasy which characterizes the ukuthwasa experience, in which each candidate to sangoma invokes the spirits of deceased family members, clan predecessors and a multitude of other, more numinous spiritual entities. This implies that every new sangoma, African or European, is a hybrid; a unique complex of ancestral strains and influences, a product of ancestrally derived hybridism. Finally, the inevitable traces of ancestral agency in the sangoma experience - its ancestral hybridism - renders every sangoma practitioner a hybrid, in the sense of being new, different and authentic.

In a democratic South Africa however, European sangoma have an opportunity to act as a channel or bridge between peoples and cultures; which were previously segregated. European sangoma can be contemporary healers of colonial wounds, and as mediators and translators between biomedicine and traditional medical practice, a function with particular significance in the context of HIV/AIDS interventions. By acting on behalf of their European ancestors (most of whom deliberately undermined and derogated African healing practice), the European sangoma of post-Apartheid may become a conduit for cultural and political acts of healing. Whilst individuals might not go so far as to practice sangoma as an ‘act of atonement’, few are unaware of the potential of a ‘micro-political’ transformation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Quotation Nation

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." 
Douglas Adams
Last Chance to See

Friday, September 10, 2010

Not So Funny Money

What is of interest, is how quickly conversations about money polarize into a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games are those where one person's gain is another's loss. A poker game is zero-sum. Those busy accumulating boat loads of money, try to hide its zero-sum nature by saying that the "pie" is getting bigger. Prosperity is not a zero-sum game, though "prosperity" is too easily associated with monetary wealth, which is not the same thing at all. Clearly, quality of life is not a zero-sum game - quite the contrary. All of the things that we might call "true wealth": health, enough to eat, shelter, meaningful work, diverse habitats and resources and beauty - none are diminished by all of us having more.

But, this is not true of money. If everyone had a million bucks, what would a million bucks be worth for instance? Money is a mask, it pretends to be wealth. And its pretension is backed up by force. Money has power because of scarcity, and the threat of scarcity. Without money I will starve and die, even if there is food around. Without money I will become homeless, sleeping in the rain and shivering in the cold. Therefore, when I say I need some dirty work done, you say yes. I say yes. We say yes.

Money seems like a natural and necessary part of the world, but, actually, it is neither. Few really understand money, and certainly no one, not even the governments that print money, control it, despite their best efforts. In some ways money is the ultimate pyramid scheme - its value is surprisingly sensitive to human attitudes. Others make money their god, their master. Being pragmatic, realistic; is the justification. "Money will win. Trust me. And either you are with the haves or you are with the have-nots." But how much "have" is enough? There seems no limit.

Julius Caesar borrowed large sums of money from his officers. Not only did this enable him to pay off his mutinous troops, but it insured that the future success and prosperity of his officers depended on his own. Money is a drug; if the right dosage can be found - printing just enough, not too much - it's like magic. As long as people keep buying things they don't need. As long as those in the business don't hoard too much - which is of course their only reason for being in the business. As long as the real resources don't dry up, the illusion of prosperity can be maintained with more and more IOU’s. To the future. To the earth. Like all stimulants, money steals from tomorrow.

Aristotle said that money was meant to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. He called the ability of money to engender itself usury, the birth of money from money; and called it the most hated sort of money making. In Africa especially, money is about poverty and the threat of poverty. It is poverty that gives money value. By threat of poverty, I must not only work - which people have always done - but I must work for money, even if that work has no value or is destructive. And money is about power - power backed up by guns and prisons. Poverty, power and prison are money's soul, flesh and bones.

It's a question of scale and edge; before money, subsistence level was the poorest one could be and was the way most people lived. Money has created a poverty below subsistence. Today some "earn" enough money in one hour to feed, and shelter, 100 people for a whole year; or to pay 20 000 people minimum wage. Perhaps the bottom of the scale is a better measure of the wealth of a society, than the gold and jewels at the top. Zen roshi Robert Aitken once said, somewhat enigmatically, that it is easier to practice "true poverty" if you own your own home.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Quo Vadis

Its not difficult to get sucked into a pessimistic, even nihilistic and apocalyptic view of things at the moment. At the same time, there is an enigma because everything that's happening is part of the universe, part of consciousness; and an aspect of what is emerging inside the mystery out of which we're coming too. Our presence here - just our very presence, without any thoughts or acts - is a response, a participation in something much larger that is invisible to us. Something that on some level, without having to posit extraterrestrials or interdimensionals, is connected and connecting to other intelligences in the universe and the intrinsic intelligence of the universe itself.

These realms are being informed by our situation in some way - again, remove any Gothic sci-fi images: we are receiving aid, advice and godspeed from them despite how things are going here, despite the fact that it looks as though morons and madmen and crime bosses are informing everything. That's the particular dialectic that we're in: things are a mess and inextricable, but we are alive and conscious and filled with the song and heart and yearning of the universe. So it's important not to over-focus on "fixing" things in the ordinary sense: politically, ecologically, economically. It's impossible. Yet on the other hand it's absolutely crucial that all of those matters of stewardship and right livelihood be tended to and remediated in exactly the mechanical and practical and moral ways that are called for. We must act. We must do the right thing. Service is absolute and non-negotiable.

Yet we are impotent against the scale of physical and financial forces. We can't plug the hole. And that's the least of what we can't plug or mend. It's like both are true and wrapped around each other: the apocalypse and the awakening. Only the apocalypse writes itself glowingly and brazenly on the face of our times; the spiritual awakening is deep and subtle, hidden inside our gestation in the universe, our pagan, untold initiation that is written in nature - the whole of nature - and in the sky. In our cells and atoms and electrons and quarks and chakras and auras too. Written but not yet transcribed, at least not at the same clarity as the darkness. We think and feel the universe - the deepest magus, angel, avatar, lover voice it has, and that has to be enough. It is enough.

This collective false human self is doomed, and no solution whatever from the consciousness of that collected false human self - however noble, however self-awake, and however righteous - is going to work. What we are looking at is an appalling, dreadful, ferocious, inescapable dark night of the species, which is going to get worse, very, very fast. That is the bad news. But there's good news within the bad news because when you understand through divine grace, and through the flicker of the divine evolutionary intelligence shining on your mind and heart, that this radical ferocious process is the sign of an enormous new potential struggling chaotically to be born, then you can begin to cooperate with that birth in two main ways.

The first is to really undergo ourselves - as rigorously and as ruthlessly and as abandoned as possible - a radical transformation which does not look like the ordinary mystical awakenings; which are essentially awakenings to transcendence alone, but is a real evolutionary mystical awakening which is destined to illuminate the mind, shatter the heart open, and start birthing the divine in the cells of matter. So we can pledge ourselves to the birthing transformation.

And the second thing that we can do, is through really fusing together the deepest mystical awareness with a commitment to unflinching divine action, we can midwife a birth through the chaos; and start in this atrocious dying, building consciously with others who are awake to the evolutionary potential of this crisis, the structures of the birth - cooperating with the evolutionary intelligence to build these structures of birth; in the hope that humanity may not be suicidally psychotic and on a death-trip, so intense that not even the pulsations of the divine will can save it from itself.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

T-Shirt Of The Month Club

Inside The Dream

Thanks to movies like Inception and Avatar, lucid dreaming has become a household word. Although definitions vary depending on your culture and the strength of your resistance towards the transpersonal, most call lucid dreaming the experience of dreaming with awareness, and sometimes dreaming with control, while the body sleeps. Everyone is now asking the same questions: Is dream control possible - or is it science fiction? Will technology ever let us share dreams like virtual reality? What fool-proof methods or pills can we take to wake up in our dreams?

The truth is, these themes were perfected thousands of years ago by our ancestors, and are still practiced today in dozens of indigenous cultures around the world. And this work is done without pills, headsets, VR goggles, and dream machines. Lucid dreaming is actually a shamanic skill, a method of heightened awareness in the dream that allows healers, soothsayers and medicine men access to information, insight and energetic powers. Lucid dreaming doesn't require technology: it is the technology.

But this is a far cry from how Westerners are taught about lucid dreaming. More often than not, lucid dreaming is discussed as a fantasy realm indulging private fantasies, seeking entertainment and pleasure. Not that there's anything wrong with this perspective, limited as it is. It's simply a marketer's dream seeking the lowest common denominator, neatly paralleling the adolescent cravings that drive the main engines of distraction and consumption in Western culture.

The father of modern depth psychology, Sigmund Freud, discusses dream interpretation as the work of culture to drain the swamps of the psyche to build monuments for the ego. On the other hand, Freud's younger colleague Carl Jung warns that, "Any efforts to drill (the unconscious) are only apparently successful, and moreover are harmful to consciousness." Unaware of this divide, but still caught in its net, many lucid dreaming books promise unlimited potential; explore, manipulate and conquer - the manifest destiny of lucid dreaming. This myth places the dreamer in the center of the world, the creator and arbiter of the dreaming landscape.

From a scientific perspective, REM dreaming has a pretty specific neuro-phenomenology. Activation of the limbic system brings strong emotions, and this is combined with an enhanced access to long-term memory - and a depression of short-term memory so we don't tend to question who or where we are. The parts of the brain that bring mental imagery are also actively firing away, creating symbolic structures for all this content. In a nutshell, dreaming is a potent mix of visual-emotional-linguistic metaphors that link to our deepest memories and experiences.

We don't have to be indigenous peoples to appreciate the shamanic aspects of lucid dreaming, but Westerners may need to let go of some destructive myths in order to participate at the deeper levels of imagination like those cultivated in dreaming cultures. Some of these myths include the idea that we as individuals are alone, we as a culture are owners of the lands we inhabit, we as a species are separate from nature; and that the universe itself is a dead, mechanistic realm of cause and effect. When we take these notions into the dream, the stages are set, the possibilities are limited and the anomalies are stamped out before they have a chance to speak up.

Dream control can be used to surrender and go with the flow. This tension between maintaining awareness and dancing with the unknown is the thin line that connects us to the source(s), leading us into a light brighter than our own lucidity. At this time in history, the ability of dreamers to tap into the wisdom of the ancients and to draw from the intelligence of non-human sources may be critical to our survival, at least for the dream's ability to make conscious what is happening in the world, in each of our communities, due to the ecological effects of civilization.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In The Land Of Elam

With respect to Women's Day and in honor of women, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, girlfriends, godmothers, fiancees, godchildren and daughters everywhere (with excerpts from Circle of Stones by Judith Duerck).

Long ago when life was still sacred, in many places on earth, the Goddess was worshipped. Known by many names in many lands as Isis, Astarte, lshtar, Ashtoteth and Hathor; temples built in her honour saw to the care of lands and flocks and kept the books and records. The Great Goddess was revered in ceremonies perpetuating the fertility and holiness of the earth. Sanctified and empowered unto herself, a woman could empower other women. Woman passed down to woman a sense of herself, of her body, of the mysteries of fecundity and regeneration. Woman was autonomous, sat on the councils of elders, served in the courts of law; and passed down the sovereign rule in many lands. The children born to woman were legitimate and respectable - inheriting her name and title in many places - whether or not she was married.

Woman was recognized for her knowledge and sought out for her advice in practical matters. She held jobs alongside men and was valued for her insight and authority in all things seen. But it was for her insight and authority in things unseen that woman was most valued. Through her feminine rituals, through the sacred art of sexual love, woman came into the direct presence of the Goddess, and through this experience, was opened to her own prophetic and oracular vision. Woman knew the mysteries of life and how to invoke the primal elements of nature, touchable and untouchable. Woman passed down to woman knowledge of the elemental energies in the earth and of herself, and of how to align herself with the eternal flow of those energies, within and without.

Among the last of nations to hold the Goddess in highest reverence and woman in a place of honour was the small land of Elam. Elam was an ancient civilization located in what is now southwest Iran, as well as a small part of southern Iraq. Situated just to the east of then Mesopotamia, Elam was part of early human urbanization; and the recent emergence of written records (circa 3000 BC) parallel Mesopotamian history. The Elamite culture and language has no established affinities with any other, and seems to have developed in isolation.

The Elam society was matrilineal, that is, in tracing descent and settling inheritance, they followed the maternal line. Their system of kinship was matrilineal too, and women held a very good position and wielded great influence. A child belonged to the clan and village community of its mother; and wealth as well as social position was inherited, not from father to son, but from maternal uncle to nephew. As regards kinship, the main thing to be remembered was that the Elamites were matrilineal, and that the succession of rank, membership in all the social groups, and the inheritance of possessions descend in the maternal line.

Property was succeeded inside the mother-line; the ownership of trees in the village grove and ownership in garden plots was ceded by the father to his son during the lifetime of the former. At his death, it often had to be returned to the man's rightful heirs, that is, his sister's children. Men had life-long obligations to work for women and their relatives in that society; they entailed a life-long obligation of every man to work for his kinswomen and their families. When a boy began to garden, he did it for his mother. When his sisters grew up and married, he worked for them. If he had neither mother nor sisters, his nearest female blood relation would claim the proceeds of his labour.

Time passed. Things began to change. Laws were introduced taking rights of inheritance away from woman. Control over her property, finances and legal affairs was given to the men related to her. Her political and social autonomy was taken, and in some places she was considered property. The most supreme gift of the Goddess was denigrated - sexual love was shamed and reviled. Her claiming of her sexuality as sacred to herself and to the Goddess was scorned and humiliated. Sexual union, once sacred and ecstatic, became debauchery. The sacred temple rituals, wherein a woman had become holy and free, were condemned as orgiastic and the priestesses as temple prostitutes.

The sacred groves dedicated to the worship of the Great Mother were condemned as closed. The serpent, venerable symbol of wisdom and nobility, was denigrated and reviled. It became, for the epochs following, a target for humiliation and derision; treated as a symbol of woman’s folly, evil, cunning and lust. This ancient symbol of life was abased as that which tempted Eve; and, through Eve, all of humankind into sin and death. The wisdom of woman, gained through her identification with her body, with the Goddess and with the earth; was no longer revered but ridiculed and rejected. Once honored as prophetess and seer, woman was now scorned. Her instincts and intuition, through which she perceived the elemental energies and the cycles of nature and her knowledge of healing, were rebuked and humiliated.

Some 2500 years later, following recent international protests, the present day Iranian government announced that a 43-year-old woman will not be stoned to death. Sakineh Ashtiani was arrested in 2006 and charged with carrying out an "illicit relationship" outside marriage; and has been in Tabriz prison ever since. Although judicial authorities have announced that Sakineh will not be stoned to death; they have not however indicated whether they have lifted the death sentence against her. Sakineh, a mother of two, had initially been sentenced to 99 lashes and stoning for "committing adultery". She has already been flogged and her stoning sentence was approved by the Supreme Court.

In the mean time Mohammed Mostafaei, human rights activist and Sakineh’s lawyer; has fled to Turkey and left his family behind in Iran. He has had to make difficult, life-altering decisions in recent weeks. The lawyer has been a longtime defender of Iranian juveniles facing the death penalty. On July 24, as activists around the world staged protests against Ashtiani's death sentence, Mostafaei was taken in by Iranian authorities for hours of interrogation. After they released him, he went into hiding. Around the same time, Iranian security forces detained his wife and brother-in-law. The brother-in-law has been released, but his wife Fereshteh is still being held in solitary confinement without charge.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, consensual sexual relations between adults did not figure in the country's criminal code. But the revolution enacted a version of Islamic law extraordinarily harsh, even by the standards of the Muslim world. Under the new regime, extramarital sex was a crime punishable by law. On the face of things, stoning is not a gender-specific punishment, for the law stipulates that adulterous men face the same brutal end. But Iranian law permits polygamy, so it offers men an escape route. Because Iranian law recognizes "marriages" of even a few hours between men and single women, men can claim that their adulterous relationships are in fact temporary marriages. By exploiting this escape clause, men are rarely sentenced to stoning. Married women accused of adultery have access to no such reprieve.

Stoning has long been criticized by Islamic jurists, most notably the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei. These jurists believe that such punishment was meted out during Islam's early history - in the 7th Century desert of Saudi Arabia - in accordance with the customs of the time, but are no longer valid. Iran tries to limit international knowledge by not announcing stoning verdicts publicly. Only slowly, and by word of mouth, do stoning cases make their way to media in Iran and sometimes elsewhere. A year-and-a-half ago, Iranian media reported that a man was executed by stoning in the city of Qazvin. We cannot know how many Iranians have been killed by such punishment in the past three decades. Sakineh Ashtiani may yet become one more. Others are in her position, but how many, no one knows.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Coalition of the Willing

Coalition of the Willing is a short animated film that discusses how individuals can use new Internet technologies to leverage the powers of activists, experts and ordinary citizens in collaborative ventures to combat climate change. The video calls for a new social revolution, bringing the fight against global warming to the people through online activism.

This carries a strong message about the power of self-organizing groups that goes beyond the fight against climate change. Using the internet to "find the others" is proving to be a successful tactic. The video highlights a return to the 60’s with the “birth of a new individualism;” shrugging off mass-market culture and bringing forth a new era of individual expression.

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Materialistic or Experiential?

People who pursue happiness through material possessions are liked less by their peers than people who pursue happiness through life experiences, according to a new study. The decade long study focused on the social costs and benefits of pursuing happiness through the acquisition of life experiences such as traveling and going to concerts versus the purchase of material possessions like fancy cars and jewelry. It found that material possessions don't provide as much enduring happiness as the pursuit of life experiences. The "take home" message in the study, which appears in this month's edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that not only will investing in material possessions make us less happy than investing in life experiences, but that it often makes us less popular among our peers as well.

The mistake we can sometimes make is believing that pursuing material possessions will gain us status and admiration while also improving our social relationships. In fact, it seems to have exactly the opposite effect. This is really problematic because we know that having quality social relationships is one of the best predictors of happiness, health and well-being. So for many of us we should rethink these decisions that we might make in terms of pursuing material possessions versus life experiences. Trying to have a happier life by the acquisition of material possessions is probably not a very wise decision.

Past studies have found that people who are materialistic tend to have lower quality social relationships. They also have fewer and less satisfying friendships. In the recent study, five experiments were conducted with undergraduate students and through a national survey. They sought to find out if people had unfavorable stereotypes of materialistic people and to see if these stereotypes led them to like the materialistic people less than those who pursued life experiences. In one experiment undergraduates who didn't know each other were randomly paired up and assigned to discuss either a material possession or a life experience they had purchased and were happy with. After talking for 15 or 20 minutes they were then asked about their conversation partners by the researchers.

What researchers found was that people who had discussed their material possessions liked their conversation partner less than those who had discussed an experience they had purchased. They also were less interested in forming a friendship with them, so there's a real social cost to being associated with material possessions rather than life experiences. In another experiment using a national survey, the researchers told people about someone who had purchased a material item such as a new shirt or a life experience like a concert ticket. They then asked them a number of questions about that person. They found that simply learning that someone made a material purchase caused them to like him or her less than learning that someone made an experiential purchase.

We have pretty negative stereotypes of people who are materialistic. When researchers asked people to think of someone who is materialistic and describe their personality traits, selfish and self-centered come up pretty frequently. However, when we asked people to describe someone who is more experiential in nature, things like altruistic, friendly and outgoing come up much more frequently. So what do you do if you're somebody who really likes to buy lots of material possessions? The short answer is you should try to change. Not just this research, but a lot of other research has found that people who are materialistic incur many mental health costs and social costs - they're less happy and more prone to depression.

One thing we can do is choose to be around people who are less interested in material goods. It's not a quick fix, but it can be done. What makes it particularly challenging is that it requires some extra effort and mindfulness about the way we make decisions about how to be happy in life.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Learning Revolution

Why don't we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it's because we've been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies - far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity - are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. "We are educating people out of their creativity," Robinson says. It's a message with deep resonance. A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government's 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poor Countries Teaching Rich Ones

At first glance, it is hard to imagine how innovations from poor countries could provide much help in solving the cost and quality problems plaguing health-care delivery in rich countries like the United States. While it is easy to understand why a poor man would want what a rich man has, why would a rich man benefit from a solution created originally for a poor man? India's Aravind Eye Care System demonstrates why rich countries should take such reverse innovation seriously.


Aravind's operations include a chain of five eye hospitals, a manufacturing facility for producing intraocular lenses and other consumables needed for cataract and other eye surgeries, a training center for imparting training to other eye hospitals in India and other countries, and a network of outreach centers. Aravind hospitals conducted 269,577 eye surgeries in 2008-09, of which nearly 50% were performed for free for poor patients. The charges for the remaining 50% were at or below market rates i.e. there were no cross subsidies.

Of the facilities' 2.46 million outpatients during that time, 50% were treated for free, and the fee for most of the others was a nominal $0.50. Aravind takes no donations or charity and yet not only makes a profit but enough to fund a new hospital every three years! All these new hospitals and expansions have been internally funded. Aravind has been doing this for more than two decades. The $64,000 question is: How? The answer lies in the elements that make up Aravind:

1. Extraordinary productivity. Aravind doctors average about 25 cataract surgeries per day (actually, over six hours), whereas other eye-care hospitals do six to eight surgeries per doctor. Aravind achieves this by having a highly streamlined, innovative, and efficient system and a highly trained paramedical staff.

2. Exploiting economies of scale. This allows its in-house manufacturing facility, Aurolab, to produce intraocular lenses (IOLs) at $5; global prices are about $80. Aravind is the lowest-cost producer of IOLs in the world. Its scale of production enables, or rather, compels it to export almost 50% of its production to other eye-care hospitals, both in India and abroad.

3. Borrowing best practices from other sectors. Aravind has borrowed concepts like economies of scale and assembly lines from the industrial sector and applied them in health care to bring down costs without sacrificing quality. Volume is critical to this mode of operation. Aravind generates volume through its outreach programs and eye camps, which are even conducted in interior villages.

4. Investing in critical activities but saving on frills. Aravind lowers its cost position by reducing bells and whistles without compromising on the quality of its equipment or medicines or the competence of doctors and nurses.

5. Aravind's ideological foundations. Its founder, the late Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy ("Dr. V"), stated his mission simply as "eradication of needless blindness" when he founded the hospital in 1976. This mission has continued to this day. All staffers — from doctors and nurses right down to attendants and sweepers — are imbued with this mission. Every patient, however poor he or she may be, must be treated with respect. Commitment is vital. Every action Aravind undertakes is tested against the criterion of whether it will help achieve this mission.

There is nothing in this model that cannot be replicated in any country — developing or developed. The keys are simple: pay close attention to operational efficiency, work on separating the core from the frills, maximize the productivity of the costliest resources (doctors and equipment), and utilize the sheer power of volume.

Aravind is a perfect example of how astonishing the results can be when produced through a congruence of vision, values, purposeful implementation and a high degree of efficiency. Its mission and vision statements are not pieces of paper on display; they come alive in each of the organization's activities.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Milking Africa

The Guardian newspaper reports that, more than £1 trillion may have flowed out of Africa illegally over the last four decades, most of it to western financial institutions. Even using conservative estimates, the continent lost about $1.8tn (£1.18tn) – meaning Africans living at the end of 2008 had each been deprived of an average of $989 (£649) since 1970, according to the US-based research body Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

The report says globally in recent years much attention has been focused on corruption – the proceeds of bribery and theft by government officials – and this only makes up about 3% of the cross-border flow of illicit money around the world. The proceeds of commercial tax evasion, mainly through trade mis-pricing, contribute 60% to 65% of the global total, while drug trafficking, racketeering and counterfeiting make up 30% to 35%. The report says Africa's percentages are likely to be roughly the same.

The scourge eats into Africa's total GDP, says the report, Illicit Financial Flows from Africa: Hidden Resource for Development. Losses rose from around 2% of GDP in 1970 to a peak of 11% in 1987, then dropped below 4% for much of the Nineties, only to increase again to 8% of GDP in 2007 and 7% in 2008. The GFI says that existing research shows that most flows to western financial institutions, and calls on G20 members to crack down on international banks and offshore financial centres.

Illicit outflows from Africa grew at an average 11.9% a year over the four decades. Some of this is attributed to oil price rises and increased transfer pricing practice. "It is not unreasonable to estimate total illicit outflows from the continent across the 39 years at some $1.8tn," writes Raymond Baker, director of the GFI.

"This massive flow of illicit money out of Africa is facilitated by a global shadow financial system comprising tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions, disguised corporations, anonymous trust accounts, fake foundations, trade mis-pricing and money laundering techniques."

This capital loss has a devastating effect on development and attempts to alleviate poverty, the report says. Even by a more conservative estimate, using accepted economic models from the World Bank and the IMF, Africa has lost $854bn in cumulative capital flight between 1970 and 2008 the report notes. This would be enough to not only wipe out its 2008 external debt of $250bn but potentially leave $600bn for poverty alleviation and economic growth.

Africa lost around $29bn a year between 1970 and 2008, of which the Sub-Saharan region accounted for $22bn. On average, fuel exporters including Nigeria lost capital at the rate of nearly $10bn a year. "The impact of this structure and the funds it shifts out of Africa is staggering. It drains hard currency reserves, heightens inflation, reduces tax collection, cancels investment, and undermines free trade. It has its greatest impact on those at the bottom of income scales in their countries, removing resources that could otherwise be used for poverty alleviation and economic growth."

It says that the huge outflow explains why aid efforts to reduce poverty have underachieved in Africa. According to recent studies by GFI and other researchers; "developing countries lose at least $10 through illegal flight capital for every $1 they receive in external assistance."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Hive Mind

The proliferation of online communities, within the Social Movement; has so far been a process fraught with confrontation, but propelled by enthusiasm. The essential problem that's been identified was that Internet users lacked a secure, centralized place to hold their identity. The way the Net is now organized, we carom between different "walled silos" that take our data and make use of it or sell it, without our knowledge. Recent opinion proposes the need for a new layer of the Internet, where personal identity information and transactions would be stored in one place, for the user's benefit. The user would then choose what parts of their profile to reveal to any group or organization they visited.

This would also allow for different organizations or companies to collaborate effectively, as their users could let them know how they were connected with other groups. Today, different NGOs reduplicate effort and even compete against each other for the same members and sponsors, with little coordination, fighting for scarce resources. It sounds quite dry at first, but if we spend time studying the issue, we will find that the lack of a way for people to maintain their own identity and control their own data is a massive problem, one that thwarts the healthy development of civil society.

The opportunity exists to implement a new vision, through a model of building a membership card program for the 'cultural creatives', the most progressive and ecologically aware subset of consumers. Most community incubators intend to build user-centered profile systems that integrate the latest aspects of this development protocol. Judging by the impassioned personal and philosophical exchanges on these forums; there is a vast amount of extraordinary material, important ideas and visionary testimonies, that need a professional media presence to reach beyond a small group and influence the broader cultural debate.

Recognizing demand, early adopters actively build social networks to bring together growing communities. This is mostly done on modest investments, often using Drupal, an open-source publishing platform. The shift from simply running another social network in virtual space to using face-to-face meetups, as a hub for organizing off-line real-world communities, also happens organically; driven by members with strong backgrounds in community organizing. They guide groups coming together in cities all over the world; realizing that, developing these nascent connections into vibrant communities, is the central mission of the project.

Even in this early and challenging stage communities have learned that, the merging of professional on-line media with a social network, which supports the growth of off-line communities - moving from virtual to visceral - is an extremely powerful innovation. As a new form of 'interdependent media', they can continually offer new tools and ideas for any growing community to explore, then report on their discoveries through articles and videos. All of this is happening at a time when the financial system and other forms of social infrastructure are breaking down and the future looks increasingly uncertain for many.

As a recent issue of Time magazine predicts, the new ten-year trend is "The Dropout Economy", where young people are forced to explore radical alternatives as work disappears and the financial burden becomes intolerable: "As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won't exist, we're on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live."

Time's forecast could be read as a desperate plea that young people, instead of rising up in fury against the older generation that depleted the planet’s resources at their expense, will make virtue out of necessity: "Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias." Ahead of the curve, activists are developing communities to serve and support these emergent, now inevitable, circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Third Industrial Revolution

Jeremy Rifkin, one of the most popular social thinkers of our time and author of The Empathic Civilization; explores how empathetic consciousness restructures the ways we organize our personal lives, approach knowledge, pursue science and technology, conduct commerce and governance as well as orchestrate civil society. The development of this empathetic consciousness is essential to creating a future where we think and behave like the whole world matters.

Religion Versus Morality

The details surrounding the emergence and evolution of religion have not been clearly established and remain a source of much debate among scholars. In view of the Vatican's current clergy crisis, a new understanding is required to this long-standing discussion; and there's no better place to start than by exploring the fascinating link between morality and religion.

There is no doubt that spiritual experiences and religion, which are ubiquitous across cultures and time and associated exclusively with humans, are ultimately based in the brain. However, there are many unanswered questions about how and why these behaviors originated and how they may have been shaped during evolution.

Some scholars claim that religion evolved as an adaptation to solve the problem of cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals, while others propose that religion emerged as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities. Although there is some support for both, these alternative proposals have proven difficult to investigate. For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one's moral intuitions.

Despite differences in, or even an absence of, religious backgrounds; most surveyed individuals show no difference in moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas. The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.

This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions. However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion; religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups.

Perhaps this may help to explain the complex association between morality and religion. It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it; that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Have A Nice War

As the current crop of apocalyptic films, documentaries and books stridently predict the end of life-as-we-know-it; it may not be a such a bad idea to have a look at the actual developments on the geo-political stage. As usual, in our bi-polar society, there will be the establishment view of the global media empires; and then there's the persistent, everyman voice of John Pilger:

Here is news of the Third World War. The United States has invaded Africa. US troops have entered Somalia, extending their war front from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and now the Horn of Africa. In preparation for an attack on Iran, American missiles have been placed in four Persian Gulf states, and “bunker-buster” bombs are said to be arriving at the US base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

In Gaza, the sick and abandoned population, mostly children, is being entombed behind underground American-supplied walls in order to reinforce a criminal siege. In Latin America, the Obama administration has secured seven bases in Colombia, from which to wage a war of attrition against the popular democracies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. Meanwhile, the secretary of “defence” Robert Gates complains that “the general [European] public and the political class” are so opposed to war they are an “impediment” to peace. Remember this is the month of the March Hare.

According to an American general, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is not so much a real war as a “war of perception”. Thus, the recent “liberation of the city of Marja” from the Taliban’s “command and control structure” was pure Hollywood. Marja is not a city; there was no Taliban command and control. The heroic liberators killed the usual civilians, poorest of the poor. Otherwise, it was fake. A war of perception is meant to provide fake news for the folks back home, to make a failed colonial adventure seem worthwhile and patriotic, as if The Hurt Locker movie was real and parades of flag-wrapped coffins through the Wiltshire town of Wooten Basset were not a cynical propaganda exercise.

“War is fun”, the helmets in Vietnam used to say with bleakest irony, meaning that if a war is revealed as having no purpose other than to justify voracious power in the cause of lucrative fanaticisms such as the weapons industry, the danger of truth beckons. This danger can be illustrated by the liberal perception of Tony Blair in 1997 as one “who wants to create a world [where] ideology has surrendered entirely to values” (Hugo Young, the Guardian) compared with today’s public reckoning of a liar and war criminal.

Western war-states such as the US and Britain are not threatened by the Taliban or any other introverted tribesmen in faraway places, but by the antiwar instincts of their own citizens. Consider the draconian sentences handed down in London to scores of young people who protested Israel’s assault on Gaza in January last year. Following demonstrations in which paramilitary police “kettled” (corralled) thousands, first-offenders have received two and a half years in prison for minor offences that would not normally carry custodial sentences. On both sides of the Atlantic, serious dissent exposing illegal war has become a serious crime.

Silence in other high places allows this moral travesty. Across the arts, literature, journalism and the law, liberal elites, having hurried away from the debris of Blair and now Obama, continue to fudge their indifference to the barbarism and aims of western state crimes by promoting retrospectively the evils of their convenient demons, like Saddam Hussein. With Harold Pinter gone, try compiling a list of famous writers, artists and advocates whose principles are not consumed by the “market” or neutered by their celebrity. Who among them have spoken out about the holocaust in Iraq during almost 20 years of lethal blockade and assault? And all of it has been deliberate. On 22 January 1991, the US Defence Intelligence Agency predicted in impressive detail how a blockade would systematically destroy Iraq’s clean water system and lead to “increased incidences, if not epidemics of disease”. So the US set about eliminating clean water for the Iraqi population: one of the causes, noted Unicef, of the deaths of half a million Iraqi infants under the age of five. But this extremism apparently has no name.

Norman Mailer once said he believed the United States, in its endless pursuit of war and domination, had entered a “pre-fascist era”. Mailer seemed tentative, as if trying to warn about something even he could not quite define. “Fascism” is not right, for it invokes lazy historical precedents, conjuring yet again the iconography of German and Italian repression. On the other hand, American authoritarianism, as the cultural critic Henry Giroux pointed out recently, is “more nuance, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent.”

This is Americanism, the only predatory ideology to deny that it is an ideology. The rise of tentacular corporations that are dictatorships in their own right and of a military that is now a state within the state, set behind the façade of the best democracy 35,000 Washington lobbyists can buy, and a popular culture programmed to divert and stultify, is without precedent. More nuanced perhaps, but the results are both unambiguous and familiar. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the senior United Nations officials in Iraq during the American and British-led blockade, are in no doubt they witnessed genocide. They saw no gas chambers. Insidious, undeclared, even presented wittily as enlightenment on the march, the Third World War and its genocide proceeded, human being by human being.

In the coming election campaign in Britain, the candidates will refer to this war only to laud “our boys”. The candidates are almost identical political mummies shrouded in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. As Blair demonstrated a mite too eagerly, the British elite loves America because America allows it to barrack and bomb the natives and call itself a “partner”. We should interrupt their fun.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Value Of Nothing

A top ten list of things of everyday items and services that aren’t as cheap as you may think.

#10 Bottled Water – Bottled water sounds like it should be cheaper – it’s 200 to 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. In the US alone, the annual energy wasted on bottled water adds the equivalent to 100,000 cars on roads and 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And the price we pay for water doesn’t begin to address the longer term issues of global shortage, for something that everyone needs to survive.

#9 Cellphones – We’ve all got them. The trouble is that one of the minerals inside our high tech toys, Coltan, is bought very dear indeed. With around three quarters of the world’s reserves of Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo, our demand for gadgets fuels bloody conflict and vast human suffering.

#8 Double cheeseburger – A value meal is a great way to eat if you’ve neither time nor money, but this cheap food turns out to be ‘cheat food’. What if we had to pay the full environmental, labour and health costs of a burger? Some researchers think we’d end up paying over $200, and that doesn’t include the modern day slavery represented by minimum wage food workers.

#7 Fish fingers – The world’s oceans are being emptied. A generation ago, fish fingers were made of cod. Now the species is commercially extinct, and we’re within a generation of killing everything in the seas. Yet the price of fish is still just a few dollars a kilo.

#6 A Free Lunch - Rudyard Kipling came across the free lunch in the nineteenth century in San Francisco, where he “paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. But the marketing freebie ends up being a way to reel you in to consume more.

#5 Googling – Would it shock you to know that two Google searches produces the equivalent greenhouse gases of making a cup of tea? The London Telegraph reported this last year and, while Google denies it, it’s certainly true that global information technology is responsible for 2% of all greenhouse gases.

#4 Toxic waste – Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, was once a senior economist at the World Bank. When he was there, he wrote in a confidential [but since widely cited] memo: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDC’s [Less Developed Countries]?” He argued that poor people valued a clean environment less than the rich, and so pollution should flow to them.

#3 Low income jobs. Part of the reason that food and energy are cheap is so that working peoples’ wage demands are kept in check. In Canada, average real wages have increased by just 1% in two decades – and in the US similar long term trends for working class people (and severe declines in the value of minimum wages). But around the world, minimum wages fall far below what families need to survive.

#2 Petroleum – The way we live today depends on our not paying the full costs of fossil fuel – with thousands already dying and many billions being lost right now. While figures of $65 trillion a year for the real cost of fossil fuel are almost certainly wrong, with 300 million people affected, it’s already a disaster.

#1 Women’s work – The world wouldn’t turn without the work of raising children, and caring for family and community. But it’s the work that is most often and quite literally taken for granted. If the work that women did were to be paid, how much would it cost? Researchers put it at $11 trillion in 1995, or half the world’s total output. Valuing women’s work would, more than any other single thing, transform the way we think about our economy and society.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

South Africa's Class Apartheid

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society; and wrote the following piece after Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address to parliament.

For cultural reasons, President Jacob Zuma is today at his weakest since taking office last May. He is suffering severe delegitimization amongst progressives and traditionalists alike, even within his majority-faction in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), thanks to a child secretly born four months ago. The revelation last week suddenly recalled his 2006 rape trial - and acquittal - immediately after which Zuma publicly apologized for his 'mistake' in having unprotected sex (she said rape) with an HIV-positive daughter of a friend. The misogyny on display at Zuma's trial followed his firing as deputy president for corruption (via a sprawling arms deal) by his then boss, Thabo Mbeki. Zuma was then charged with scores of bribery counts, which were conveniently wiped off the books a few weeks before the 2009 election by an accommodating state prosecutor (since duly rewarded).

Of apparent dismay to even his strongest supporters, the new child's mother is the daughter of Zuma's old friend Irvin Khoza, a very rough and tough Soweto tycoon who happens to be the 2010 soccer World Cup organizing chairperson. In Zulu tradition, Zuma's obligation is to pay for damages done to the Khoza daughter's reputation, a task apparently carried out discretely by underlings last December. At the point of conception in early 2009, Zuma had recently married for the fifth time (three wives are current, while one - the current Home Affairs minister - divorced him and one committed suicide), while also becoming engaged to a (different) woman. Thus many citizens believe the president now must confront his sex-addiction as a medical condition.

In short, South Africa's leader is a laughing-stock; even his most pro-polygamous nationalist base is expressing disgust, just four months before he hosts the world's most visible sporting event. Weak presidents are generally welcomed by African progressives, given the need to open space for counter-hegemonic practices and ideology. But recall that Zuma came to power last year as a result, mainly, of labour and SA Communist Party mobilizations in 2006-08, culminating in the rude but welcome dismissal of Mbeki. And now, because he is unable to galvanize momentum for any sort of political project aside from survival, Zuma appears to be drifting rightwards, to the ANC's solid financial-support base of white capital and aspiring black entrepreneurs.

Last Thursday, the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, was the day that Zuma was meant to fight back, by delivering a stunning State of the Nation speech in front of Mandela and the nation. Instead, he displayed "no appreciation of the full extent of the massive crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality," according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Statistics justifying this charge were revealed three weeks ago by middle-of-the-road economists at the University of Cape Town (UCT): "Income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008. SA's GINI coefficient inequality measure raced ahead of Brazil's to become the world's leader among major countries: from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008. The income of the average black person actually fell as a percentage of the average white's from 1995 (13.5%) to 2008 (13.0%)."

How could a democratic government adopt socio-economic policies that amplified apartheid race-class inequality? Leaders of a decent society would immediately find out the answers, then ban labour brokers and at the same time increase state-subsidized employment creation; especially for badly-needed green jobs such as construction of solar hot-water heaters and community facilities and environmental maintenance. But as the inequality data show, South Africa is just not that kind of place; it's a society in which the ruling party's crony capitalists ally with those who grew wealthy during racial apartheid and then together promote class-apartheid policies and practices to accumulate yet more wealth.

Zuma is apparently not to be trusted, for as Cosatu observed, his speech contained "nothing on the creation of decent work, the spread of casualization of labour and the scourge of labour broking, and nothing to explain how he intends to implement the 2009 manifesto commitment to 'avoid exploitation of workers and ensure decent work." What Zuma did do, however, was threaten more police brutality against the victims of his macroeconomic policies, such as was witnessed in the most militant peripheral town (Balfour) last week when police hunted down and tortured community activists. South Africa's per capita social protest rate continues to lead the world, and scenes of road blockades, burning tires and repression reminiscent of the film District 9, may prove yet more embarrassing to the SA ruling class when three billion viewers tune in to the World Cup starting on June 11.

Zuma also promised Eskom's partial privatization, notwithstanding SA's universally miserable experience with the likes of Telkom's Texan-Malaysian rip-off landline phone partners, the disastrous Suez municipal water takeover in Johannesburg, the crash of a SA Airlines-Swiss Air deal, machinations by the US energy firm AES, toll roads and many others. Privatization will, Cosatu replied, "ultimately wreck a crucial public national service and we shall continue to campaign vigorously to prevent the sell-off of a vital public asset." Many others agree. This Tuesday morning, South Durban community organizers and Climate Justice Now!-KZN activists will protest massive electricity price increases (likely to be approved by the National Energy Regulator of SA on Wednesday), vast greenhouse gas emissions from proposed coal-fired power plants, and the threatened $3.75 billion World Bank loan at Eskom's Durban headquarters.

The unity of consumers, communities, environmentalists and workers both formally employed and outsourced might prevail. An international coalition is forming to deny Eskom access to the World Bank, and if that fails, to deny the World Bank access to the $250 billion in capital it will be asking for at its Spring 2010 meetings in Washington just ten weeks from now. A decade ago, Ngwane and the late Dennis Brutus were instrumental in launching the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which followed the South African divestment movement of the 1970s-80s by lobbying institutional investors to avoid profits and interest from apartheid - or in this case, global apartheid. In this and similar struggles now intensifying here, we riff-raff are up against formidable opponents from Pretoria to Washington, including world-class experts well practiced in the art of generating poverty and inequality. Calls for solidarity against all these class-apartheid manifestations will soon ring out.