An Appeal to the Pope on Behalf of the Creatures in the Cosmos

10 Feb

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I’ve got another post at 3 Quarks Daily, Charlie Keil’s Simple Appeal to the Pope on Behalf of the Future. Here’s a conversation Charlie and I have been having on Facebook:

Charlie Keil: Nice nesting and contexting Bill Benzon! … I’ll spread your commentary and the proposal around as far as I can reach into social media.

Some comments:
A big YES, to all those Firsts for Francis you list: First Jesuit, First Latin American, etc.

And another big YES to making this appeal to people of all religions who will need to form an ecumencal alliance if humans are to turn away from war once and for all.

A correction: be clear about the difference between “nations” (ethnic groups, tribes, those sharing values & traditions, peoples, who have a right to self-determination) and “states” (often, but not necessarily, the war-making enemy of anarcho-pacifists like myself and/or the enemy of nations trapped within states).

Correcting myself in the light of your highlighting the original St. Francis as putting the Creation, the speciation, before us as God’s other “book” to be praised and interpreted constantly. Just as “children’s liberation” and full expression can not be accomplished without peace, neither can the diversity of species by saved, strengthened, praised and interpreted properly without ending wars, banning weapons of mass destruction, creating Peace in all meridiens.

Bill Benzon: Thanks, CK. I was aware of the “nation” issue when writing the piece. Should have used “nation state” at every point.

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Charlie Keil: I’d have to go back to each sentence to see if that would work. I think it is safest, from anthropological, self-determination of peoples, classless society, and human rights points of view to just talk about states as states, because there are so few states made up of just one nation. Even homogeneolus Japan has the Ainu up north, the Okinawans down south, and a long hidden Korean underclass or caste. Whenever you’re tempted to use the phrase ‘nation state’ think of the Kurds existing in the corners of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and looking for self-determination since before the 1920s, or think of the 200 plus peoples caught in the trap that Lady Lugard named Nigeria.

On Behalf of the Future, your phrase keeps me thinking of all the ways that a Papal Peace Initiative opens the key doors to preserving species integrity and diversity, increasing awareness of Children’s Rights (European Network of Masters in Children’s Rights), and reviving the very essence of Christianity and all the other major religions.

Bill Benzon: Ah, but Charlie, THAT’s why I use the “nation state” phrase. It’s because the USofA was conceived as a nation-state that a large and important class of its inhabitants were defined as 3/5 of a person in the founding documents. Nation-states and nationalism go hand-in-hand. And this leads to a whole conversation about how people locate themselves in the world, aka identity, and that’s larger than will fit in these little FB text blocks.

Continue reading

Laudato Si’ @3QD: Bridging the Gaps

29 Jun

This month I’ve decided to turn my 3QD slot over to my good friend Charles Cameron so that he can comment on Pope Francis’ remarkable encyclical, Laudato Se’.

Charles is a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn’t take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He’s been around.

But it’s his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh “Grazin in the Grass” Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.

Charles chose bridging as his theme, noting that “pontiff” ultimately derives from the Latin: pons, pont- ‘bridge’ + -fex from facere ‘make.’ The Pontiff is thus a maker of bridges. But what is being bridged? Here’s an early passage from Charles’ commentary:

It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.

The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.

Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si’

Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis

18 Jun

An article in the NYTimes opens:

Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, as his much-awaited papal encyclical blended a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.

The vision that Francis outlined in the 184-page encyclical is sweeping in ambition and scope: He described a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this encyclical will have on world affairs. The Pope, of course, is not the first public figure to speak out on climate, and it takes more than words to change the world.

But a papal encyclical is not a speech or a white paper, it is the official expression of an institution whose history stretches back two millennia and whose constitutions live on every continent and speak a multitude of tongues. It is thus transnational in scope in a way that perhaps no other document is. And it is a teaching document (emphasis mine):

Francis has made clear that he hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement. He calls on ordinary people to pressure politicians for change. Bishops and priests around the world are expected to lead discussions on the encyclical in services on Sunday. But Francis is also reaching for a wider audience when in the first pages of the document he asks “to address every person living on this planet.”

Will that happen? And not just on this Sunday, but on many Sundays after, Saturdays too, and Wednesday evenings.

In part we can measure the impact of Laudato Si (Praise Be to You) by the opposition it provokes.

Yet Francis has also been sharply criticized by those who question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change and also by some conservative Roman Catholics, who have interpreted the document as an attack on capitalism and as unwanted political meddling at a moment when climate change is high on the global agenda.

Continue reading

Memories of a King, the Beale Street Blues Boy

15 May

It’s possible that the first photo I ever saw of B. B. King was on the cover of Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues, an ethnographic study that spilled over into common discourse and made Charlie’s career. And I’m sure I read more about him in that book than I’ve read about him since then. But I don’t recall when I first heard King’s music and I only ever saw him live but twice in my life, once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in upstate New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s and then a bit later in Albany, New York, when I opened for him as a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.

I don’t remember much about the SPAC performance except that before long he had us dancing in the aisles, at least those of us close enough to the aisles that we could get out there and dance. The rest of the rather considerable audience had to be content with giggling and grooving in or in front of their seats. By this time, of course, King’s days of struggling were over and his audiences were mostly white, as are most of the people in the USA – though those days will come to an end some time later in this century.

Dancing in the aisles: that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enters your body, lifts it up, and you become spirit. The blues? Why not, the blues?

My memories of the Albany gig are a bit richer. To be sure, as I recall, King’s music was better at that SPAC gig, for the music comes and goes even with the best of them. Our manager (and saxophonist) Ken Drumm had seen to it that King had champagne waiting for him when he arrived in his dressing room and that got us an opportunity to meet him after the gig. But we had to line up with everyone else – mostly middle aged ladies in big hats and Sunday dresses – and wait our turn. We didn’t have more than a minute, if that, in the man’s presence.

And that meeting is worth thinking about in itself. King was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. I don’t know about the rest of his band, but I recall a thing or two about Out of Control’s line-up at the time: two lawyers (I suppose we could call them ‘Big City’ lawyers for contrast, though Albany isn’t that big of a city), an advertising executive (that would be Mr. Drumm), a commercial photographer, a Berklee College drop-out, a car salesman, and an independent scholar (me). All brought together in the same place at the same time to worship in the church of the blues. I suppose I could invoke the melting pot cliché, but there was no melting going on, though the music was hot enough. As for the pot, to my knowledge the Out of Control boys were clean that night. I don’t know about BB’s band. Continue reading

‘Freedom of Speech,’ by David K. Shipler – NYTimes.com

6 May

Still, there’s trouble in paradise, the former New York Times reporter David K. Shipler finds in “Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.” Our free speech bounty still produces discord, he writes. He crisscrosses the land to provide close-ups of five clashes: Parents are rumbling with teachers and administrators over which novels get assigned in class; federal prosecutors are muzzling whistle-blowers and journalists; a theater faces defunding for its edgy political work; on the Internet, bigots are testing our free speech principles; and across the nation, activists fear that the Citizens United decision will allow the moneyed to smother free speech with television commercials.

via ‘Freedom of Speech,’ by David K. Shipler – NYTimes.com.

Kids These Days: Media Use and Parental Fear

24 Mar

My colleague Charlie Keil is worried that kids these days spend too much time with media of one sort or another (as detailed, e.g. in this report) – TV, computer, video games, whatever – and not enough time interacting directly with one another (in particular, not enough time engaging in music and dance). Meanwhile danah boyd has been researching teen media use and discovers that one reason they spend so much time online is that they can’t easily get together physically. Their lives are tightly scheduled and meeting places are few and far between.

So, is children’s media-use the result of adult micro-management? That is, kids aren’t over using media because they’re so seductive, but because their parents won’t let them play out-doors and play together.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement in favor of so-called “free-range childhood”. As far as I can tell that means growing up like I did. As long as I was home for dinner, for bed, practiced my trumpet, and got my homework done, I could roam the neighborhood as I wished. And I could take public transportation wherever I needed to go. Of course, this was calibrated to my age. I had more freedom at ten than at five, and more at fifteen than at ten. Still, within fairly generously limits, I could wander at will.

Over the past several years I’ve been reading that this kind of childhood is disappearing in favor of one where kids are taken everywhere by their parents and are slotted into all kinds of activities where they are supervised by adults, having less time for free play among themselves.

I have no sense of how prevalent such restrictions are. Over at Free Range Kids I found this: “Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.” I haven’t tried to track down that first number, but following the link for the second didn’t get me to the source document. If true, it’s shocking.

Over at Inhabitots I find this:

Once in a while I see question like this on Facebook, “At what age is it safe to let your children play outside alone?” Without fail, many parents will answer, “After 13 years,” and “After 15 years,” and most alarmingly, “Never.” You always see a few parents who disagree, but not many. The fact that the majority of parents on Facebook think that kids require adult supervision at all times, matches up with national statistics. Surveys collected by Christie Barnes, author of The Paranoid Parents Guide, found that the biggest worry among parents is kidnapping. Another study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic, showed that nearly 3/4 of parents said they are afraid that their children may be abducted. In fact, parents in the Mayo Clinic study were more worried about kidnapping than car accidents, sports injuries, or drug addiction. Many other surveys show that as many as half of American parents worry about kidnapping often, which in turn prevents these moms and dads from letting their kids go outside to play.

And that takes us back to danah boyd, who is concerned that exaggerated fears of online sexual predation distorts our sense of real dangers.

So, we keep kids indoors because we fear what will happen to them outdoors and, once we’ve driven them to media, we worry about what will happen to them there.

Meanwhile another bunch of folks are concerned about not getting enough contact with nature:

Although human beings have been urbanizing, and then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture, social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change. Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media. An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity and overweight, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” as well as to a devaluing of independent play. Nonetheless, we believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.

What’s going on?

Why is there so little opposition to the hegemony of the super-rich?

21 Mar

What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:

American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What’s missing?

Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Are we ruining our children by micromanaging their lives?

20 Mar
Clemens Wergin and his family had just moved from Germany to America, where he’d taken a new job. On the family’s first day here his 8 year-old daughter slipped out to explore the neighborhood. Writing in The New York Times, he tells us that, when she’d returned, “Beaming with pride, she told us and her older sister how she had discovered the little park around the corner, and had made friends with a few local dog owners.” It seems, though, that their new American friends “are horrified by the idea that their children might roam around without adult supervision.” He goes on to point out that:
In Berlin, where we lived in the center of town, our girls would ride the Metro on their own — a no-no in Washington. Or they’d go alone to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson. Here in quiet and traffic-safe suburban Washington, they don’t even find other kids on the street to play with. On Halloween, when everybody was out to trick or treat, we were surprised by how many children actually lived here whom we had never seen.
A study by the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.
Such narrowing of the child’s world has happened across the developed world. But Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.
Just take the case of 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora Meitiv, siblings in Silver Spring, Md., who were picked up in December by the police because their parents had dared to allow them to walk home from the park alone. For trying to make them more independent, their parents were found guilty by the state’s Child Protective Services of “unsubstantiated child neglect.” What had been the norm a generation ago, that kids would enjoy a measure of autonomy after school, is now seen as almost a crime.
Danah boyd discusses the same phenomenon in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014), where it’s the flip side of intense use of social media by teens.

Is that where the modern world is headed, to lives controlled by authority where action is limited to choosing which media channel to consume? Are we preparing to turn ourselves over to our computer overlords?

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

The East India Company: Capitalism and Colonialism Hand-in-Hand

6 Mar
For the corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.
Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.
The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

H/t 3QD.

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