Friday, December 09, 2011

Aha! The truth comes to light.........

I read this article today on MSNBC. The article highlights how much US defense contractors stand to gain from the Iraqi government buying US weapons. I thought I would post it here along with a few cartoons from Michael Leunig. Unfortunately, I couldn't find one of my Leunig favorites, the one where a massive cargo truck with "LIES" emblazoned on the side is preparing to run down a small car with "TRUTH" written on it. I thought that cartoon was really the best commentary on the above referenced article. Enjoy!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some interesting observations on unemployment

Today I read the article below and thought the author made some interesting observations about the current problem with jobs in America. See what you is an excerpt:

Yes, it's huge. But only 50 people work there.

Optimists argue that the solution to the US's sky-high unemployment and income inequality is more companies like Apple--the resurgent tech company that has revolutionized the digital industry and become one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Apple has not not only created amazing, beloved products. It has created enormous profits, vast shareholder wealth, and more than 60,000 jobs.

If only America produced more companies like Apple (and Amazon, and Google, and Facebook, et al), the story goes, the country's problems will be fixed. America can retrain its vast, idle construction-and-manufacturing workforce, and our unemployment and inequality problems will be solved.

And it is true that having more companies like Apple would certainly help the US.

But we would need a lot more companies like Apple to make a dent in our unemployment and inequality problems.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Network of Global Corporate Control

To go along with the preceding post, here is a fascinating scholarly paper brought to my attention by my colleague Greg Leffel. The article offers a very detailed accounting of how a very small number of transnational corporations exert tremendous control over the sum total of decision making capacity in the global economy. The bulk of the article is very highly technical, but has enough plain text to convey the central points. So, just try to look past all the mathematics (as I did!), and focus on the text. Here is a short excerpt from the beginning of the paper:

"The structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. So far, only small national samples were studied and there was no appropriate methodology to assess control globally. We present the first investigation of the architecture of the international ownership network, along with the computation of the control held by each global player. We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers."

Poorest of the poor: Now 1 in 15 Americans

Though sobering and disheartening, this is a nice summary article on the deepening demographic realities of poverty in America. Here are a couple of excerpts:

"New census data paint a stark portrait of the nation's haves and have-nots at a time when unemployment remains persistently high. It comes a week before the government releases first-ever economic data that will show more Hispanics, elderly and working-age poor have fallen into poverty.

In all, the numbers underscore the breadth and scope by which the downturn has reached further into mainstream America."

"For the first time, the share of Hispanics living in poverty is expected to surpass that of African-Americans based on the new measure, reflecting in part the lower participation of immigrants and non-English speakers in government aid programs such as housing and food stamps. The 2009 census estimates show 27.6 percent of all Hispanics living in poverty, compared with 23.4 percent for blacks.

Alba Alvarez, 52, a nanny who chatted recently in Miami, said she is lucky because her employer rents an apartment to her and her husband at a low rate in a comfortable neighborhood on the bay. But her adult children, who followed her to the U.S. from Honduras, are having a tougher time.

They initially found work in a regional wholesale fruit and vegetable market that supplies many local supermarkets. But her youngest son recently lost his job, and since he has no legal status, he cannot get any help from the government.

"As a mother, I feel so horrible. There's this sense of powerlessness. I wanted things to be better for them in this country," Alvarez said. "I (recently) suggested my youngest go back to Honduras. It's easier for me to help him there than here, where rent and everything is so expensive."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Down syndrome's rewards touted as new test looms

I saw this article today and though the title at first seemed counter-intuitive, I quickly thought, "Yeah, that actually does make a lot of sense." I really found the article to be an interesting and provocative look at what really matters in life and what values lead to the most lasting fulfillment.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Social Inequality

I've been reading Zygmunt Bauman's newest book called, "Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities In A Global Age." I've been finding it to be a pretty good and generally insightful read. At the same time I've been talking about these issues with my colleague Greg and listening to his reflections, as he's been reading a related book called, "The Spirit Level," that also addresses the topic of social and economic inequalities and how these dynamics affect the surrounding society. I hope to be posting some selects passages from these books in the near future. But for the moment I thought I would post a short but thought provoking article that I read today on MSN about the riots in London. It highlights something that is at the forefront of my mind every time I'm allowed to exercise the exorbitant privilege of travelling and seeing so many different parts of the world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Efficacy of Life

I seem to remember writing in this space some time ago about a book by Henri Nouwen called "Reaching Out." That book is one of the most important books I've ever read, and continues to reverberate within me to this day. However, I must admit that over the course of the last year I've been falling away from some of the vital disciplines that I learned in this spiritual classic. Any of you who've read the book will remember that Nouwen constructs his narrative around what he describes as the 3 critical movements of the spiritual life, viz. the movements from loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality and illusion to prayer. I remember how stunningly clear and navigable Nouwen's guidance made my internal geography seem at that time; and what followed were some of the most spiritually rewarding months I can remember. I was feeling profoundly alone going into this meditation, and as a result quite hostile to life and those around me, as well as lost in a number of internal illusions and illusory remedies. The realization that I needed to move away from my own pain-and trying to conform my life-world to the perceived needs arising from it-and move toward God in solitude, was as profound and cathartic a spiritual revelation as I've had.

So, why am I sharing about this at present? I'm sharing because a series of events over the last six-months has cast me again into that all too familiar space of loneliness; and though manifestly aware of past experience and clear about the contours of this rugged land, I've mostly tried to make my own way. Suffice it to say that such an approach only leads to the same old illusions. How slow we are not only in learning, but in remembering what we've thus learned!

So, today I'm on my way back from lunch, and as I approach the back of our office through the parking lot, I'm looking directly at the back of the building, as always. Only today, unlike dozens and dozens of other days over the last several months, I'm finally captured by the message of the very amateurish graffiti scrawled on the building a few months ago: not alone. I look at it, shake my head and have to laugh at how foolish I feel to have come to work every day for the last several months, looking at these words, and never once allow them to look at me. I guess the hand-writing is on the wall....the joke is on me.......and the efficacy of life and God's provision-however improbable it might be-is made plain once again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Making Our Mark?

Here is a link to a fascinating article in The Economist about what some geologists are saying about the recent and accelerating impacts of humanity on the earth and some of its cycles.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Reconsidering the "War on Drugs"

Over the past few weeks I've enjoyed reading a series of articles that address the topic of the "War on Drugs." It seems that there is at least a small groundswell of new reflection and debate about this longstanding policy and its implications for our country and our immediate neighbors. I'll offer a few links for those of you who might be interested in reading further. These links are to articles questioning the effectiveness and sensibility of the policy, and therefore take a critical point of view. Please feel free to post or e-mail me links or directions to dissenting opinions should you so desire.




Thursday, June 02, 2011

What Does Lady Liberty Mean Today?

Last night (when I should have been in bed resting) I enjoyed watching the last part of Lawrence O'Donnel's show. I especially enjoyed the message of last night's "Rewrite." While out of town this past week I was having a discussion with an acquaintance who works in investments. I was surprised when, in the natural course of the conversation, he stated very strongly that people need to realize that the long-term prosperity and strength of the American economy depends upon "opening the borders" to liberal (as in copious) immigration. We talked about it and I agreed with him that the long-term demographic picture for America gives it a potential advantage due to immigration. Obviously there are many other big long-term issues relating to sustainability and the like, but this is one particular case that is interesting to me because it says so much about how we tend to view things when looking only at the immediate circumstances. Anyhow, here is the link to the "Rewrite".

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coal....also helps put the lights out.....

Here is a link to a nice article in the NY Times about a tiny "mining" town in West Virginia that was forwarded to me this morning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Missionary Attitude

Some well-worn and time tested wisdom that I encountered today, along with a picture of my kids from the UK Arboretum that somehow captures for me much of what is expressed below.

First, some thoughts from Thomas Merton (From "A Letter To A Young Activist"):

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specfic people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don't blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

...the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that your have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ's truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappoiuntment, frustration and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do his will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand...

Enough of is at least a gesture...I will keep you in my prayers.

All the best, in Christ, Tom.

And a few more from Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen- Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The phrase "practical theology" should be a redundancy

Reading this week on John Wesley's theology and came across this:

"Thus, as Wesley understood and practiced theology, the defining task of "real" theologians was neither developing an elaborate System of Christian truth-claims nor defending these claims to their "cultured despisers"; it was nurturing and shaping the worldview that frames the temperament and practice of believers' lives in the world. Theologians may well engage in apologetic dialogues or in reflection on doctrinal consistency, but ideally because -- and to the extent that -- these are in service to their more central task."

Sometimes it's difficult to remember, while in the midst of writing my dissertation, exactly what purpose it's going to serve; so I'm grateful to God for these simple, daily reminders of who I am and what I'm to be about. And I'm all the more grateful to be blessed with advisors and friends who not only agree with this, but insist upon it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some good news.....for me......

Over the last year I've been walking pretty closely with a friend (of many years) who is trying to put his life back together after an extended stay in prison. In respect of his privacy I will not go into the details surrounding his incarceration or his life in general. What I will say is that he, like most other "ex-cons," is finding it very hard to make the adjustment to life "outside the walls." As he looks for gainful employment and relationship, he drags with him every day the permanent ball-and-chain of "felony offender," as well as the deleterious effects of the enforced "institutionalization" mentality (and the related damage caused by "doing what you've got to do" to survive in prison). It is a difficult and perpetually painful journey for him that I can't begin to understand. All that I can do, as a person of quite considerable privilege, is to try to do my best to be present with him in the struggle and assist him in opening what windows of opportunity he can. He has undoubtedly made some mistakes, and he undoubtedly could have chosen to make some different choices at certain important points of time; but what anyone in my position cannot (in time) fail to recognize is that some of us undoubtedly pay a much steeper and more permanent cost for our mistakes than do others. What my friend is suffering at the moment borders upon and routinely crosses over into what Zygmunt Bauman calls, "Civic Death"-a form of life-long exclusion from the mainstream of society (quoting from Morelly's work entitled the "Code of Nature"). And it conjures up for me another further thought from Bauman's work on "The Human Costs of Globalization (from the section entitled "Factories of Immobility):"

"(Pierre) Bourdieu points out that the State of California, celebrated by some European sociologists as the very paradise of liberty, dedicates to the building and the running costs of prisons a budget transcending by far the sum total of state funds allocated to all the institutions of higher education. Imprisonment is the ultimate and most radical form of spacial confinement. It also seems to be the main concern and focus of attention of the government by the political elite at the forefront of contemporary 'time/space compression.'

Spatial confinement, incarceration of varying degrees of stringency and harshness, has been at all times the prime method of dealing with the unassimilable, difficult-to-control, and otherwise trouble-prone sectors of the population. Slaves were confined to the slave quarters. So were lepers, madmen, and ethnic or religious aliens. If allowed to wander beyond their allotted quarters, they were obliged to wear the signs of their spatial assignment so that everybody was aware that they belonged to another space. Spatial separation leading to enforced confinement has been over the centuries almost a visceral, instinctual fashion of responding to all difference, and particularly such difference that could not be, or was not wished to be, accommodated within the web of habitual social intercourse. The deepest meaning of spatial separation was the banning or suspension of communication, and so the forcible estrangement.

Estrangement is the core function of spatial separation. Estrangement reduces, thins down and compresses the view of the other: individual qualities and circumstances which tend to be vividly brought within sight thanks to the accumulated experience of daily intercourse, seldom come into view when the intercourse is emaciated or prohibited altogether: typification takes then the place of personal familiarity, and legal categories meant to reduce the variance and to allow it to be disregarded render the uniqueness of person and cases irrelevant (p.106-7)."

So, as I'm reflecting today upon my friends struggle (trying to stave-off the spectre of "Civic Death"), wringing my hands over the extensive ongoing implications of the (aptly) so-called "prison-industrial complex" and working to continue building my own estimate of the costs of the "glocalization" of society, I was reminded of that (now much deeper) statement of Jesus: "I was in prison, and you visited me." This is a statement that takes on a much deeper and far more expansive meaning when we account for the analysis of Bauman and others and come to understand just how deeply this exhortation of Jesus goes, and how far it must go to become the "leaven" that slowly works its way through the deepest recesses and abscesses of our world's dysfunction and alienation bringing healing and reconciliation (mixed metaphor intended:). This is the good news! In a society where all of the different strata and groups are in some way or another, or at some point or another, variously calling for enforced "justice" and attempting to throw one another into prison for their myriad "transgressions"-the white collars and the blue collars, the lefts and the rights, the 'socialists' and the 'capitalists' the politicians and the people-Jesus steps into this picture and says what? It truly must be one of his most revolutionary and liberating statements.......

Monday, February 28, 2011

More thoughts on current events......

The developments that we've been witnessing over the last several weeks in the Middle-East have been truly remarkable. We do not know where they will eventually go or what in the long-run will be gained from them. However, despite all the attendant ambiguities, we can be encouraged that people are uniting (more or less collectively) to at the very least ask questions about where their countries are headed and what the local and global balances and imbalances of wealth, resources, trade and power mean for them. And these recent events in the Middle-East follow a long train of related events that are having, and will continue to have, a huge impact around the globe and in our local contexts (like the mass-migrations and movements of people related to globalization, wage and resource arbitrage, war etc.).

In putting this series of posts on the blog I've often been reminded of that great scene in "As Good As It Gets," where Melvin Udall, in a moment of crisis, yells at his would be counselor "I mean, I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water!"
In a way, I've wondered if all I'm doing is "describing the water," so to speak, and not really offering anything but a clearer picture of the mess in which we're "drowning." Perhaps that is true. However, when looking at the incredible complexity and confusion of the world that we've created, it seems like we could probably never spend enough time trying to learn from one another, trying to understand each other's differences and seeking to find the keys to unlocking the doors that are undoubtedly separating us (being as clear as possible about what exactly the mess is!). I was reminded of that again this morning while reading an article about the ongoing struggles in Libya, and then perusing the comments section. I was quite amazed to read this comment:

"None of our business, who gives a @!$%#. We just need a President that will hand out oil & gas drilling permits like candy. turn Alaska into our own giant gas station and the gulf also. F-the wales and the wild life. Our own way of life is being threatened in a huge way and nothing is being done. I guess this is obamas plan for America.
We need our natural resources now."

I really thought that this comment distilled, in a couple of sentences, the kind of mentality (a functional nihilism, I would say) that is driving many people to seek real movement and change in the world. I don't share it to single this person out or even to criticize. I share it because I thought it was a really great summary statement of the type of thinking that has led the world to this current threshold moment that Immanuel Wallerstein described in my previous post. I thought it would be nice to contrast this statement with some additional thoughts from Bauman's "Globalization: The Human Consequences.".....And I've thrown in another favorite Leunig of mine to summarize in ways more eloquent and inspiring than words.......

The lie of the free-trade promise is well covered up; the connection between the growing misery and desperation of the 'grounded' many and the new freedoms of the mobile few is difficult to spot in the reports coming from the lands cast on the receiving side of 'glocalization'. It seems, on the contrary, that the two phenomena belong to different worlds, each having its own, sharply distinct causes. One would never guess from the reports that the fast enrichment and fast impoverishment stem from the same root, that the 'grounding' of the miserable is as legitimate an outcome of the 'glocalizing' pressures as are the new sky's-the-limit freedoms of the successful (as one would never guess from sociological analyses of the holocaust and other genocides that they are equally 'at home' in modern society as are economic, technological, scientific and standard-of-living progress).

As Rysard Kapuscinski, one of the most formidable chronographers of contemporary living, has recently explained, that effective cover-up is achieved by three inter-connected expedients consistently applied by the media which preside over the occasional, carnival-like outbursts of public interest in the plight of the 'poor of the world.'

First, the news of a famine-arguably the last remaining reason for breaking the day-by-day indifference-as a rule comes coupled with the emphatic reminder that the same distant lands where people 'as seen on TV' die of famine and disease, are the birthplace of 'Asian Tigers,' the exemplary beneficiaries of the new imaginative and brave way of getting things done. It does not matter that all of the 'tigers' together embrace no more than 1 percent of the population of Asia alone. They are assumed to demonstrate what was to be proved-that the sorry plight of the hungry and indolent is their sui generis choice: alternatives are available, and within reach-but not taken for the lack of industry or resolve. The underlying message is that the poor themselves bear responsibility for their fate; that they could, as the 'tigers' did, choose easy prey has nothing to do with the tigers' appetites.

Second, the news is so scripted and edited as to reduce the problem of poverty and deprivation to the question of hunger alone. This stratagem achieves two effects in one go: the real scale of poverty is played down (800 million people are permanently undernourished, but something like 4 billion-two-thirds of the world population-live in poverty), and the task ahead is limited to finding food for the hungry. But, as Kapuscinski points out, such presentation of the problem of poverty (as exemplified by one of The Economist's recent issues analyzing world poverty under the heading, 'How to feed the world') 'terribly degrades, virtually denies full humanity to people whom we want, allegedly, to help'. What the equation 'poverty=hunger' conceals are many other and complex aspects of poverty-'horrible living and housing conditions, illness, illiteracy, aggression, falling apart families, weakening of social bonds, lack of future and non-productiveness'-afflictions which cannot be cured with high-protein biscuits and powdered milk.

Let us add that all associations of the horrid pictures of famine, as presented by the media, with the destruction of work and work-places (that is, with the global causes of local poverty) are carefully avoided. People are shown together with their hunger-but however the viewers strain their eyes, they will not see a single work-tool, plot of arable land or head of cattle in the picture-and one hear no reference to them. As if there was no connection between the emptiness of the routine 'get up and do something' exhortations addressed to the poor in a world which needs no more labour, certainly not in the lands where people on the screen starve, and the plight of people offered as a carnival-like, 'charity fair' outlet for pent-up moral impulse. The riches are global, the misery is local-but there is no causal link between the two; not in the spectacle of the fed and the feeding, anyway.

"Victor Hugo let Enjolras, one of his characters, wistfully exclaim a moment before his death on one of the many nineteenth-century barricades: 'The twentieth century will be happy.' As it happened-Rene Passet comments-'the same technologies of the immaterial which sustained that promise entail simultaneously its denial', particularly when 'coupled with frantic policy of planetary liberalization of capital exchanges and movements'. Technologies which effectively do away with time and space need little time to denude and impoverish space. They render capital truly global; they make all those who can neither follow nor arrest capital's new nomadic habits helplessly watch their livelihood fading and vanishing and wonder from where the blight may have come. The global travels of financial resources are perhaps as immaterial as the electronic network they travel-but the local traces of their journeys are painfully tangible and real: 'qualitative depopulation', destruction of local economies once capable of sustaining their inhabitants, the exclusion of the millions incapable of being absorbed by the new global economy.

......... "There is another important role played by the association of the 'far-away locals' with murder, epidemic and looting. Given their monstrosity, one cannot but thank God for making them what they are-the far-away locals, and pray that they stay that way.

The wish of the hungry to go where food is plentiful is what one would naturally expect from rational human beings; letting them act on their wishes is also what conscience would suggest is the right, moral thing to do. It is because of its undeniable rationality and ethical correctness that the rational and ethically conscious world feels so crestfallen in the face of the prospect of the mass migration of the poor and the hungry; it is so difficult, without feeling guilty, to deny the poor and hungry their right to go where food is more plentiful; and it is virtually impossible to advance convincing rational arguments proving that their migration would be, for them, an unreasonable decision to take. The challenge is truly awesome: one needs to deny the others the self-same right to freedom of movement which one eulogizes as the topmost achievement of the globalizing world and the warrant of its growing prosperity.......

The pictures of inhumanity which rules the lands where prospective migrants reside therefore comes in handy. They strengthen the resolve which lacks the rational and ethical arguments to support it. They help to keep the locals local, while allowing the globals to travel with a clear conscience (p.72-76)."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman on envisioning the "city"

Here are some thoughts from, "Globalization: The Human Consequences," by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that I've been contemplating a lot as I've watched Steve and Luella Pavey fight so hard for the plight of the "Dreamers" in America; and as I've considered, prayed and participated with the efforts of so many other friends working to envision and build the spaces in which we live. Though it probably wasn't his intent, Bauman brings a profound and searching analysis to the myriad issues surrounding the two simple commandments that Jesus left us:

“The lesson which planners could learn from the long chronicle of lofty dreams and abominable disasters which combine to form the history of modern architecture, is that the prime secret of a ‘good city’ is the chance it offers people to take responsibility for their acts ‘in a historical unpredictable society,’ rather than ‘in a dream world of harmony and predetermined order.’ Whoever feels like dabbling in inventing city space while guided solely by the precepts of aesthetic harmony and reason, would be well advised to pause first and ponder that ‘men can never become good simply by following the good orders or good plan of someone else.’

We may add that human responsibility, that ultimate and indispensable condition of morality of human intercourse, would find perfectly designed space to be an infertile if not downright poisonous soil. Most certainly, it would not grow, let alone thrive, in a hygienically pure space, free of surprises, ambivalence and conflict. Only such people could face up to the fact of their responsibility who would have mastered the difficult art of acting under conditions of ambivalence and uncertainty, born of difference and variety. Morally mature persons are such human beings as grow ‘to need the unknown, to feel incomplete without a certain anarchy in their lives’-who learn ‘to love the ‘otherness’ among them.’

The experience of American towns analysed by Sennet points to one well-nigh universal regularity: the suspicion against others, the intolerance of difference, the resentment of strangers, and the demands to separate and banish them, as well as the hysterical, paranoiac concern with ‘law and order,’ all tend to climb to their highest pitch in the most uniform, the most racially, ethnically and class-wise segregated, homogenous local communities.

No wonder: in such localities the support for the ‘we-feeling’ tends to be sought in the illusion of equality, secured by the monotonous similarity of everyone within sight. The guarantee of security tends to be adumbrated in the absence of differently thinking, differently acting and differently looking neighbours. Uniformity breeds conformity, and conformity’s other face is intolerance. In a homogenous locality it is exceedingly difficult to acquire the qualities and character and the skills needed to cope with human difference and situations of uncertainty; and in the absence of such skills and qualities it is all too easy to fear the other, simply for reason of being an-other-bizarre and different perhaps, but first and foremost unfamiliar, not-readily-comprehensible, not-fully fathomed, unpredictable.

The city, built originally for the sake of security-to protect residents inside the city walls against malevolent invaders always coming from outside-in our times ‘has become associated more with danger than with safety’-so says Nan Elin. In our postmodern times ‘the fear factor has certainly grown, as indicated by the growth in locked car and house doors and security systems, the popularity of ‘gated’ and ‘secure’ communities for all age and income groups, and the increasing surveillance of public spaces, not to mention the unending reports of danger emitted by the mass media.’

...... “Not togetherness, but avoidance and separation have become major survival strategies in the contemporary megalopolis. No more the question of loving or hating your neighbor. Keeping the neighbor at arm’s length would take care of the dilemma and make the choice unnecessary; it staves off the occasions when the choice between love and hate needs to be made.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

World Social Forum 2011-Dakar, Senegal

Unfortunately we were not able to attend the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal this year. Therefore, it was nice to receive this update on the forum from Immanuel Wallerstein, wherein he offers a few observations on the forum and the impending challenges facing all the various parties who feel like some kind of fundamental "civilizational change" is necessary. I think that the paragraph in bold near the end is an important summary from one of the great analysts of world affairs. It is the exact same summary that we heard Wallerstein offering at a talk we attended during the 2010 US Social Forum.

Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 299, Feb. 15, 2011
"The World Social Forum, Egypt, and Transformation"

The World Social Forum (WSF) is alive and well. It just met in Dakar, Senegal from Feb. 6-11. By unforeseen coincidence, this was the week of the Egyptian people's successful dethroning of Hosni Mubarak, which finally succeeded just as the WSF was in its closing session. The WSF spent the week cheering the Egyptians on - and discussing the meaning of the Tunisian/Egyptian revolutions for their program of transformation, for achieving another world that is possible - possible, not certain.

Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people attended the Forum, which is in itself a remarkable number. To hold such an event, the WSF requires strong local social movements (which exist in Senegal) and a government that at least tolerates the holding of the Forum. The Senegalese government of Abdoulaye Wade was ready to "tolerate" the holding of the WSF, although already a few months ago it reneged on its promised financial assistance by three-quarters.

But then came the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and the government got cold feet. What if the presence of the WSF inspired a similar uprising in Senegal? The government couldn't cancel the affair, not with Lula of Brazil, Morales of Bolivia, and numerous African presidents coming. So it did the next best thing. It tried to sabotage the Forum. It did this by firing the Rector of the principal university where the Forum was being held, four days before the opening, and installing a new Rector, who promptly reversed the decision of the previous Rector to suspend classes during the WSF so that meeting rooms be available.

The result was organizational chaos for at least the first two days. In the end, the new Rector permitted the use of 40 of the more than 170 rooms needed. The organizers imaginatively set up tents across the campus, and the meeting proceeded despite the sabotage.

Was the Senegalese government right to be so frightened of the WSF? The WSF itself debated how relevant it was to popular uprisings in the Arab world and elsewhere, undertaken by people who had probably never heard of the WSF? The answer given by those in attendance reflected the long-standing division in its ranks. There were those who felt that ten years of WSF meetings had contributed significantly to the undermining of the legitimacy of neoliberal globalization, and that the message had seeped down everywhere. And there were those who felt that the uprisings showed that transformational politics lay elsewhere than in the WSF.

I myself found two striking things about the Dakar meeting. The first was that hardly anyone even mentioned the World Economic Forum at Davos. When the WSF was founded in 2001, it was founded as the anti-Davos. By 2011, Davos seemed so unimportant politically to those present that it was simply ignored.

The second was the degree to which everyone present noted the interconnection of all issues under discussion. In 2001, the WSF was primarily concerned with the negative economic consequences of neoliberalism. But at each meeting thereafter the WSF added other concerns - gender, environment (and particularly climate change), racism, health, the rights of indigenous peoples, labor struggles, human rights, access to water, food and energy availability. And suddenly at Dakar, no matter what was the theme of the session, its connections with the other concerns came to the fore. This it seems to me has been the great achievement of the WSF - to embrace more and more concerns and get everyone to see their intimate interconnections.

There was nonetheless one underlying complaint among those in attendance. People said correctly we all know what we're against, but we should be laying out more clearly what it is we are for. This is what we can contribute to the Egyptian revolution and to the others that are going to come everywhere.

The problem is that there remains one unresolved difference among those who want another world. There are those who believe that what the world needs is more development, more modernization, and thereby the possibility of more equal distribution of resources. And there are those who believe that development and modernization are the civilizational curse of capitalism and that we need to rethink the basic cultural premises of a future world, which they call civilizational change.

Those who call for civilizational change do it under various umbrellas. There are the indigenous movements of the Americas (and elsewhere) who say they want a world based on what the Latin Americans call "buen vivir" - essentially a world based on good values, one that requires the slowing down of unlimited economic growth which, they say, the planet is too small to sustain.

If the indigenous movements center their demands around autonomy in order to control land rights in their communities, there are urban movements in other parts of the world who emphasize the ways in which unlimited growth is leading to climate disaster and new pandemics. And there are feminist movements who are underlining the link between the demands for unlimited growth and the maintenance of patriarchy.

This debate about a "civilizational crisis" has great implications for the kind of political action one endorses and the kind of role left parties seeking state power would play in the world transformation under discussion. It will not be easily resolved. But it is the crucial debate of the coming decade. If the left cannot resolve its differences on this key issue, then the collapse of the capitalist world-economy could well lead to a triumph of the world right and the construction of a new world-system worse even than the existing one.

For the moment, all eyes are on the Arab world and the degree to which the heroic efforts of the Egyptian people will transform politics throughout the Arab world. But the tinder for such uprisings exists everywhere, even in the wealthier regions of the world. As of the moment, we are justified in being semi-optimistic.

Friday, February 04, 2011

We always have humor

I've always been mindful of that C.S. Lewis line that if evil were not so destructive it would essentially be humorous because it is so utterly absurd in its mindlessness. Well, today I was reminded of those words when I saw this video detailing the obscene crime that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has reportedly perpetrated upon the people of Egypt. I think this might be one of the greatest examples of kleptocracy. that we've ever seen (linked a Mother Jones article about another possible case!). Anyhow, the sheer brazenness and scope of what Mubarak has purportedly done is almost so absurd that it is comical; but I want to be clear that I don't mean it is a joke for the Egyptian people who've suffered from his abuse. But what can we do when "public officials (all over the world)" so shamelessly use their position to essentially loot and steal from the people? Well, I took comfort today in the attached Leunig cartoon that is really funny. If only we could devise such a device maybe we could make back the stolen wealth and solve our energy problems at the same time!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

An Arab's reflection on Egypt and Tunisia at present

Here is a hopeful article that was revealing and thought-provoking to me. As always, the “comments” section throws light (for me) upon the infinite distances that always exist between us in our attempts to try to identify with the best and most sublime in one another-to understand one another's deepest hopes and aspirations; as well as the fleeting beauty of those moments of rare connection when criticism and the need to self-protect and control, according to our own paradigms, are overcome by the identity of mutuality and understanding that can truly transform us-where the “birth” of something new can happen. The former (the “infinite distances”) reminds me of the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him, upon coming across a man afflicted with a disability (that would have been especially damning in his own day)-“Why was this man born blind? Was it the result of his own sins or those of his parents (John 9)?” I wonder what story might best capture the latter reality?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Poverty in love leads to riches?

I awakened this morning to learn that my maternal grandmother, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this week, died last night. I was planning to go to Atlanta on Friday to visit with her, say goodbye and hopefully get a chance to introduce her to her great grandson (my 13 month old son Roman). I regret that I will not have that opportunity, and therefore not be able to place the celebration of a new life alongside the somber winding-down of an old one. Naturally, the death of a family member stirs up a lot of emotions, and I know that a blog is not the best place to delve into such things. I share this news only because it, and many other current circumstances in my life, have put me in mind of an important event that happened to me several years ago, an event which I now find myself needing to revisit and contemplate. I suspect it is a place that symbolizes something we all need to revisit regularly. Hence, my desire to share it as part of my own attempt to process through this current passage in my life (sharing it is kind of like placing a "stone" or something in the ground to mark the moment).

Several years ago one of my wife's step-cousins got married in Oklahoma City. We were in attendance at the wedding which was held in a church that is very close to where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood (the target of the Oklahoma City Bombing). We arrived early enough for the wedding to go and visit the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial located near the church. It was a deeply moving and sobering experience; as was walking around the church and seeing the visible signs of damage from the bombing to part of the church's foundation. But what made this a truly unforgettable experience, placed in the context of this space, were the following words printed on the front of K.C. & David's wedding program:

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family."
— Henri J.M. Nouwen

I've been going through a phase of life, culminating in some ways today, that has brought me back to a place where I'm really needing to hear and believe these words.
They are words whose truth is captured quite powerfully for me in the picture included with this post; a picture of a woman kneeling at one of the "empty chairs"-each bearing the name of a victim-that are a prominent feature of the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. At present, I find myself needing to simply kneel and contemplate the truth that all people love poorly, that I love poorly and that forgiveness in love is indeed part of the essence of the work that Christ has left for us; a work that if taken honestly and sincerely always leads at some point to moments where we feel like we're left kneeling, feeling only the emptiness (though very different) that sin and sacrifice both engender in their turns (certainly one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life). It is at moments like this where the temptation to turn and blame others, to become angry at God and to demand that we be loved perfectly-which can only alienate-can overcome us. We all need to be regularly reminded that the greatest freedom in being able to move toward one another in love comes from recognizing the limitations of our ability to love, acceptance of our shortcomings in love (and in the losses related to love) and our determination to continue our quest to abide in the perfect and eternal love of God despite our shortcomings and those of others. So, I found a lot of hope in these words today and thought that I would take a moment to share them.

Friday, January 14, 2011


An article I read this morning made me think about a trip that I took to China a couple of years ago. During the trip we visited an amazing park in Northern Sichuan Province called Jiuzhaigou. I remember standing and looking up at one of the ridges rising above us (to around 15k feet)and remarking to my colleague Greg about how life ceases to exist as we know it at a fairly low altitude. I'll never forget his response: "Yeah, we live in a very thin strip of space, don't we?" For me, it was a moment of awe and sobriety to think about how tenuous the balance of life on earth is.

So, this morning I was reading this article (Global Food Chain Stretched to the Limit) and was reminded again of the very delicate balance of life on earth. As we prepare to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, who once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."-it is good for me to be reminded anew of the very real and very significant challenges that humanity is facing; and in turn of the hope and promise of my faith in Christ and the new kingdom he the most fragile manner possible.