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@3QD: Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy, Ta-Nehisi Coates as “Priest”, Laudato Si’

27 Jul

The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.

Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.

And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.

As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.

Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?

As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.

And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I place my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

* * * * *

Here’s the Blogginheads.tv conversation:

http://bloggingheads.tv/embed-fallback.php/36141/00:00/68:50 Continue reading

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‘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.

It’s Time for America to Reinvent itself Top to Bottom

17 Nov

But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.

The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.

What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.

This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.

The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.

But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.

I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous. Continue reading

How to open up the debate on fracking | New Economics Foundation

10 Sep

Crowd Wise aims to facilitate fair, participative discussions through the following features:

  • A clear question, as a starting point. In this case, the question was, ‘Should we exploit the UK’s onshore shale gas, and if so under what conditions?’

  • Between four and six possible answers to that question are provided, in the form of one page descriptions of a policy option.

  • The participants divide into small groups, with each group advocating for one of the options.

  • Each group’s aim is to win a vote. The vote is a preference vote – this form of voting encourages people who disagree to talk to each other constructively.

  • Each group does this by explaining its option to the other groups, and, if it wishes, amending it, to make it more appealing, and even merging it with one or more others.

via How to open up the debate on fracking | New Economics Foundation.

Five Easy Pieces: Race in the Symbolic Universe

29 Jul

A T&T working paper: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2473235. The five pieces have been previously published on New Savanna.

Abstract: How did Western culture get from Shakespeare’s Caliban to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable? This essay examines that trajectory by consider six imaginative works: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster’s A Passage to India, Faulkner’s Light in August, Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Cosby Show. The focus is on the projective dynamics of racisim where the racial Other is made to express feelings and desires that the dominant culture denies.

The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
– Toni Morrison,
Playing in the Dark

There’s a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can’t tell whether he’s coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats–you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
– Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney,
Drylongso

Introduction: A Universe of Symbols

Each culture has a universe of symbols through which its members understand themselves and one another. We use these symbols to elaborate our mental world and to communicate with one another, for symbolism gives graphic and linguistic form to our feelings and desires. The olive branch and white dove of peace, the blood-red planet Mars betokening war, the serpent of wisdom, or of life and healing, are examples of such symbols. American society is culturally diverse. While all Americans may share some symbols–perhaps the American flag, the Thanksgiving turkey–other symbols belong to specific cultures. Each subculture has its own symbolic universe, with its own symbols.

European-American culture includes a vast network of symbols, a network in which African-Americans have played, and continue to play, an important role. The way whites symbolize blacks has more to do with the hearts and minds of whites than it does with black reality. Thus if we are to understand the role that black culture has played in the development of general American culture, we will need to understand the role that white culture has already assigned to blacks. The subject is vast, but we don’t need to survey it all in order to get the lay of the land. A few examples will serve. Continue reading

Walt Disney, Stephen Miller and the Future of Jersey City

2 Nov

Buildings … are not discrete objects. They are building blocks of a democratic society. W. H. Auden once proposed that a civilization could be judged by “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity attained.” In the spirit of service, architecture can contribute to both. Without the spirit of service, architecture can be a highly destructive force.

– Herbert Muschamp, Visions of Utopia

No doubt you are familiar with Walt Disney, the guy who made cartoons and nature documentaries, created the world’s first theme park, and gave his name to what is now the world’s largest entertainment company. But it’s been years since Disney himself appeared in the media – he died in 1966 – and his life story isn’t well-known, though there must be at least a dozen biographies of him (I’ve read four of them).

But what does Uncle Walt have to do with Stephen Miller and what do either of them have to do with the future of Jersey City?

And, by the way, WHO is Stephen Miller?

I don’t know how many laser cutters there are in Jersey City – 10, 20, 100, 763? I have no idea – but one of them is in his atelier off Harrison Street between Monticello and Bergen.

What’s a laser cutter?

It’s a high tech device used for cutting materials such as wood, plastic, leather, metal perhaps.

And what the h___ is an atelier?

It’s a workshop and design studio.

OK, gotcha, but what does that have to do with Walt Disney and what do they have to do with the future of Jersey City?

Let’s start with Walt Disney. Disney was an entertainer; he made movies and went on to build a theme park. Miller is an entertainer too, though of a different kind. He’s musician and a very good MC – he tells me he used to front a band. And he’s a slammin’ djembe player.

And I know a little about djembe players. When I lived in upstate New York I performed with Eddie “Ade” Knowles, a percussionist who toured as a percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron early in his career. I hear and feel the same power and nuance in Miller’s djembe playing that Ade has in his.

OK, so he’s an entertainer, there are lots of entertainers in the world…

Just cool your jets. Don’t go getting testy on me. I’m gettin’ there.

Take a look at this video (embedded below). It’s a promotional video that Disney prepared for Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and it shows a small city that’s very different from and far more interesting than what the Disney Company eventually built in central Florida.

Continue reading

Dr. Takeshi Utsumi: Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming

31 Oct

David Hays introduced me to Takeshi Utsumi sometime back in the 1980s. Both of them were members of an on-going seminar convened at Columbia University by Seth Neugroschel on the topic of Computers, Man, and Society. This was one in a series of seminars that Columbia has run since the middle of the 20th Century. The seminars are housed at and funded by Columbia University, but are open to participation by the general public.

Neugroschel’s seminar featured wide-ranging discussions of the social impact of computing technology. I often timed my visits to Hays so that I could attend the seminar. Those visits came to an end in the mid-1990s when Hays died. But I reconnected with Neugroschel’s seminar when I moved to Jersey City in late 1997 or 98.

Utsumi was born in Japan in, I believe, in the mid-1920s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s. For the past several decades he has been traveling in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to meet with people and groups seeking funding for projects in distance learning, telemedicine and the like. He then directs them to an appropriate place in the Japanese government where they can obtain funding for their work.

All this is in service of his idea of a Global University System (GUS), “a worldwide initiative to create advanced telecom infrastructure for accessing educational resources around the world. The aim is to achieve ‘education and healthcare for all,’ anywhere, anytime and at any pace.” You can find a 2004 interview with Utsumi HERE.

He is particularly interested in peace gaming, and has included an essay on it in the collection, Global Peace Through The Global University System. Here is an abstract of and link to his contribution.

Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming
(A Personal Recollection on Its Inception and Development)

Abstract: As a computer simulationist, I conceived in 1972 an idea of establishing a Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming (GCEPG) with a globally distributed computer simulation system through a global grid computer network, with a focus on the issue of environment and sustainable development in developing countries. This is a computerized gaming/simulation to help decision makers construct a globally distributed decision-support system for positive sum/win-win alternatives to conflict and war. It can also be used to train would-be decision makers in crisis management, conflict resolution, and negotiation techniques. This gaming approach is to devise a way for conflict resolution with rational analysis and critical thinking basing on “facts and figures.”

Over the past three decades I played a major pioneering role in extending U.S. data communication networks to other countries, particularly to Japan, and deregulating Japanese telecommunication policies for the use of Internet e-mail. I also contributed by conducting innovative distance teaching trials with “Global Lecture Hall (GLH)”tm videoconferences using hybrid delivery technologies, which spanned from Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Italy, France, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, etc. 


Using this background, we are now creating a Global University System (GUS) with colleagues in major regions of the world, which will be interconnected with Global Broadband Internet (GBI). The GCEPG is one of the proposed ways to utilize the GUS and GBI in integrative fashion. A similar scheme with globally distributed computer simulation system can be applied to various subjects as creating a new paradigm of joint research and development on a global scale. This will foster not only wisdom by collaborative interaction on knowledge but also true friendship among people around the world with mutual understanding and lasting peace. 

This paper briefly describes the history of the GCEPG project since its inception in 1972 and its future direction. It is a companion to the opening chapter “Creating Global University System” of the book “Global Peace Through The Global University System.”

Virtual Feudalism is Here: the 1% vs. the 99%

16 Oct

Over at Crooked Timber they’re having a discussion of the software SNAFU that’s occurred in the rollout of Obamacare. As anyone in the software biz knows, that’s just how it is with large software projects. The thread title suggests something more interesting and far more sinister: Neo-Liberalism as Feudalism.

That title reminded me of the work of Abbe Mowshowitz, whom I met when I was on the faculty at The Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute back in the previous century. He was interested in how the deployment of computer technology was creating virtual organizations that, he believed, would lead to a virtual feudalism:

Absent a sense of loyalty to persons or places, virtual organizations distance themselves—both geographically and psychologically—from the regions and countries in which they operate. This process is undermining the nation-state, which cannot continue indefinitely to control virtual organizations. A new feudal system is in the making, in which power and authority are vested in private hands but which is based on globally distributed resources rather than on possession of land. The evolution of this new political economy will determine how we do business in the future.

Here’s an essay I ghosted in Abbe’s name back in ’97 but which, alas, never got published. The ideas are his, the prose mine.

* * * * *

The New World Order of Virtual Feudalism

One might imagine that, in 2020 a person could be brought to trial on criminal charges in a court convened by a private corporation under provisions granted by the United Nations. What is perhaps more difficult to imagine is a world in which such an institutional arrangement is the solution to a pressing problem, and that a wide range of individual and corporate actors would agree to such an arrangement. At the moment we live in a world where criminal prosecution is primarily a power of nation-state authorities, with the United Nations being an organization created by states and having no direct power in the private sector. This imaginary trial thus violates fundamental distinctions governing our political life.

Yet I believe that such arrangements are not only possible, they are inevitable. New actors — most noticeably, large multinational corporations — have come to dominate the world’s advanced economies. Increasingly these organizations are operating in a seamless global marketplace. Ironically, as the marketplace becomes global, the great nation states and empires are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Large companies have more wealth and power than small states. These developments conjure up visions of the brave old world of medieval feudalism, in which the role of the nobility will be played by corporate executives assisted by employee-vassals who rule over legions of latter day serfs.

Day by day the emerging new world order looks like a virtual feudalism. In thus talking of feudalism I am not, however, asserting that our immediate future holds a regression to the distant past, though there may well be regressive elements. Rather, I think that we are increasingly living in a world which exhibits patterns of social organization and action characteristic of feudal societies, such as fragmented authority, private security arrangements, and a highly permeable boundary between private and public activity. This feudalism is “virtual” because these patterns reflect non-territorial organizational arrangements made possible by information technology rather than being rooted in the customs of land ownership and tenancy which existed in medieval Europe.

To get a feel for this future let us consider the life of three different individuals who are born in the current world and move into middle-age as virtual feudalism unfolds. Continue reading

The Tomato Incident | Vermont Commons

25 Sep

The Transition movement is rooted in permaculture principles, which some people call “social permaculture.” Applied on a social level, the principle of observation leads to some important foundational questions. Where are we? What’s going on? Who’s involved? Where are we going? How are we getting there? How do we work together?

This isn’t something that we can simply read articles about. We need to experience these questions together in shoulder-to-shoulder, hands-on kinds of ways (kind of like my tomato plants) to see—by trial and error- just what makes us lush, green and bountiful! Reading articles can ignite good ideas—but they have to be tried on, worn and felt. We have to experience what works and what doesn’t in order to make choices for our communities (and our gardens) that will give us thriving resilience.

This means getting out there and doing it. It means shucking off the social isolation that, as Americans, we have unquestionably accepted for the past two decades. It means letting go of the concept of ‘rugged individualism’. The Transition  movement is about transitioning away from overly individuated singularity toward an integrated synthesis. We, as individuals, will necessarily awaken to our roles as a part of the collective. We will reclaim our rightful place as ‘citizens’ instead of being merely content to be ‘consumers’.

via The Tomato Incident | Vermont Commons.

Happiness: Has the Gallup Organization been Hanging Out in Bhutan?

27 Aug

As you know the government of Bhutan has adopted Gross National Happiness as the appropriate measure of national well-being (rather than, say, oh, gross national product, GNP):

Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is somewhat easier to state than to define with mathematical precision. Nonetheless, it serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan’s five-year planning process and all the derived planning documents that guide the economic and development plans of the country. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the Environmental Impact Statement required for development in the U.S.

The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

That’s Bhutan, but I don’t live there and chances are you don’t either. But yesterday, just as I was coming out of my afternoon nap (one of the keys to my personal happiness, BTW) I got a phone call from a young lady who identified herself as being with the Gallup polling organization. She asked me if I’d be willing to answer a few questions and I agreed. Continue reading