17 November 2011

Snow shorts (and some Occupy thoughts)

Earlier this week. Our institute visible on left (through the trees); City Hall on right.
We've had winter for about ten days, but as I write this on the late evening of the 17th, I must report that winter seems to have retreated temporarily: the temperature is about 40 degrees F.

Monday morning at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was quite a different story. I was watching the launch of Soyuz TMA-22, and to my amazement, the countdown continued through a snowstorm that was approaching whiteout. After years of getting used to Florida spacelaunches, with all those multiple TV cameras and clear visibility, it was startling to see just one view of the launch pad, and that view getting more and more obscured as snow hit the TV camera lens.

As the minutes ticked by before launch, I couldn't help wondering how many pounds of snow were on the rocket itself. Of course most of my thoughts and prayers were with the crew and vehicle, remembering that this launch had been delayed until investigation of the failed Progress supply-delivery launch last August was complete. Although the Soyuz launch vehicle has a good track record for reliability, the Russian space program overall has been a dismal story in recent years--and may stay so for years longer.

Two days after the successful launch, I was delighted to be back online for the successful docking of the Soyuz orbital craft with the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, back at the New Humanities Institute, we've been keeping warm, thank you. On Sunday we celebrated our sixteenth anniversary as a higher education institution.

We had a wonderful party, with skits and songs contributed by students and alums (as usual, I was roped into one of the improv drama skits...). And today we marked International Students' Day with a surprise for all students in the mid-morning classes. Instead of going to their normal classes, students were presented with a bucket of numbers, selecting their classroom by chance. In each classroom, a teacher had prepared a lesson on some subject completely outside their normal academic area. One teacher presented her collection of dolls and taught students how to make cloth dolls. Another teacher guided a class in creating edible art. Still another cooked plov with her students. And another taught her students ten out of the hundreds of ways scarves can be knotted into items of clothing or accessories. Other classes learned art history, self-defense techniques, care for cats, and so on. I showed students how to use Linux Mint and a variety of open-source programs such as GIMP to edit photos, Audacity to edit sound files, LibreOffice programs, and so on. At the end of the period we gathered in the fitness studio to report how we'd used the period.

I've been following developments in the Occupy movement with mixed feelings. Having watched month after month of police actions against the tiny groups of pro-democracy campaigners here, it's disheartening to see the kind of baton-thumping and pepper-spraying that Occupy encampments have faced. But I also recognize that city governments are walking a very thin line between freedom of assembly and public safety, and their law-enforcement actions (and mistakes) don't necessarily mean they're a tool of the "1%".

So I'm not all that tempted to second-guess either the activists or the local governments. I'm observing all of this (from a frustrating distance) on a couple of levels:

First of all, something in my heart yearns for a moral revival to sweep the capitalist world. As I'm not the only one to point out, the enmeshed ties of business and government and economic mechanisms, and their resulting concentrations of wealth and power, have become so complex that technical reforms seem wholly inadequate, even if the political will existed to apply them. A higher-level moral awakening, powerful enough to guide both policy decisions and economic transactions, is desperately needed. Obama talked in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign about an empathy gap; rarely has that gap seemed wider than now--coinciding with the gap between the highest paid and lowest paid, and the gap between financial executives' bonuses and their actual performance. Closing this gap must become more important than the ruthless individualism now prevailing, but overcoming the gap won't happen if progressives demand that only the "others" change. We need to understand and address the fears (founded and unfounded) behind that ruthlessness. To me, this is first and foremost a spiritual challenge. Christians: this is your moment to take the Message out of the meetinghouse and into the streets. (Evangelicals: yes, I'm talking to us, too! Let's show that this adjective "evangelical" still has some actual content!)

On another level, I don't worry too much about whether Occupy activists have a single perfectly aligned message. Their biggest message, after all, is simply that they exist. Their numbers, their persistence, their sheer nuisance value, says "this is what happens when you push people too far, when you stress the fabric of democracy beyond endurance with your wealth and your ideologies of sanctified selfishness." Therefore I'm hoping that, as a social phenomenon that demands attention, the demonstrators have staying power. And I hope that those who are not involved directly, whether they're in the 99% or the 1%, begin to notice that our cities are a lot less boring, a lot more fertile, when hundreds and thousands of motivated, engaged idealists meet together with new hope, new creativity, new messages. Do these audiences really want things to calm down into the previous torpor where only hyperventilating television personalities took charge of telling us what we think?

But a literal occupation of territory, day and night, with tents and toilets and all the energy required to maintain and defend that occupation, is a powerful distraction that plays directly into the hands of fearmongers. I'm happy to see a reasonable infrastructure to sustain a constant presence that respects a balance of interests and communicates engagingly with local governments. But there's not much future in acting as dismissive to the claims of the common good as those who put their own wealth first. Closing the empathy gap is a two-way process.

"Occupy Wall Street's Image Problem."

Peter Blood on "The Biblical Roots of Quaker Worship." Please read carefully and comment. I think this would be a fabulous piece to use for adult education in many meetings.

If every child were aware of his or her crucial importance to the family, what would the world be like? "What the Eisenhowers knew."

"Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power in Japan." A repost with new comments.
It is long past time for Friends to begin a conversation on nuclear power and the much larger issue of how we know what to believe. Many among us insist that what is overwhelmingly the safest of the large sources of electricity should meet standards that no other energy source meets. Many Friends insist that the scientific community is lying about the safety of nuclear power. And overwhelmingly, we as a community insist that solutions to climate change be only the ones we like, even when scientists and policy experts find these solutions partial or even counterproductive.
"Putin, the Confucius Prize, and Western Double Standards."

Turkey and its regional priorities: an interview with H. Akin Unver. (Thanks to foreignpolicyblogs.com for the reference.)

Pepe Escobar examines the Iran nuclear-weapons hue-and-cry. And the Christian Science Monitor recapitulates the history of warnings about Iran's nuclear-weapons capabilities.

An Israeli journalist reports on Palestinian freedom riders.

"Why is Google in love with Bletchley Park?"

Magic Slim!


Carol Holmes said...

I don't feel that I have much in careful, coherent thought to offer, Johan, but as a New Yorker who has visited Zucotti Park several times and who has now demonstrated with the group twice (most recently on Thursday's Day of Action), I feel a responsibility to say something.

OWS is confusing to many veterans of the civil rights, Vietnam, and anti-nuke movements. There are no big charismatic spokespeople. From what I can make out, the OWS folks at Zucotti Park have a group of articulate, thought-full people who talk to the media in rotation. Celebrities pass through. But they're guests. This has led some to--I think, mistakenly--dismiss OWS as lacking in seriousness and substance.

I have not attended a General Assembly, but I'm told that decision is by consensus. No voting. Another confusing element for old-timers. For OWS, how you get something done is as significant as getting something done. Sit with that for a while.

I have experienced the human mic. I love it! I've wondered if we Quakers should try it at large business sessions as a way of slowing things down and absorbing content. It's rather like the responsive parts of a liturgy. When you are participating in the human mic, you become a part of what's being said. You're saying it, too. A very interesting twist on "the medium is the message."

OWS is filled with young people. What could be more important? But there are definitely old-timers like me around. I found the young residents of Zucotti Park to be welcoming, generous, and deeply community-minded. (Although I was quite shaken when a young chap with a guitar and beard told me his grandfather had been at Woodstock!)

I've also found OWS to be a lot less white-skinned than some media reports might have you believe. Diversity and inclusiveness are valued. But the OWS community is cautious about being co-opted by unions and political parties.

Our mayor here in New York City did OWS a huge favor by his 1 a.m. guerrilla eviction of the Occupiers earlier this week. He brought a grand finale curtain down with a bang on what most likely would have petered out with a whimper as the cold and snow moved in.

The trashing of the OWS library, which was large and well organized, by the NYPD, most particularly the picture of a destroyed Bible, left a lingering after-image in many people's minds.

The New York Times for 18 November ran a story on how plainclothes detectives are watching churches that have offered shelter to those who had been camping in Zucotti Park before the police sweep was ordered. Remember when it used to be foreign refugees taking shelter in our churches!

I don't know where this is going, but I walked across Brooklyn Bridge last night carrying a UAW (Local 1981) sign. I'll keep at it for a while.

Remember that blizzard in Washington, D.C., where we met, Johan . . . was it February 1996? Fifteen years later, we've got a movement.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Carol!! All my diaries from those years are locked up in a bank in Oregon, so I can't look up the date--but it must have been around then. It was a year or two after we published your article in QL.

Thanks for your first-hand observations of OWS. I really appreciated it. It's hard to be so far away at a time like this.

The nearest thing to the human mic that I've experienced is the consecutive interpretation at Friends World Committee for Consultation business meetings (Section of the Americas, at least). Consecutive interpretation in a Friends business event slows down the process in at least two ways. First of all, each message must be interpreted. Second, participants who speak the language that is being interpreted must learn to withhold their exclamations of approval until the interpretation is finished, so that all expressions of approval and disapproval can have equal weight. That's a useful check to some who are accustomed to jump up without sufficient reflection.