NPR Freeloading Considered

KPLU pledge drive KUOW pledge drive It's pledge week at both of our local National Public Radio affiliate stations: KPLU and KUOW. I've been growing increasingly angry about the interruptions in news programming required to raise money to support the stations: every "pledge break" means one less news story I get to hear. I understand - and support - this practice, and I support my local NPR stations (I'm a member of both) ... and [so] I'm angry about other listeners in my community who also rely on NPR for their news (or [other] entertainment), and yet do not provide financial support.

In December, the Washington Post reported that due to declining income, NPR was cutting 64 jobs and 2 shows (Day to Day and News & Notes, both of which broadcast their last episodes a week ago Friday) in its first organization-wide layoffs in 25 years. A more recent Washington Post article reports that the number of NPR news listeners is up by 9% (20.9 million listeners per week), presumably due, in part, to the intense interest in the momentous news reported in the past on NPR. The only estimate I can find regarding the proportion of NPR listeners who are members (i.e., contribute financially to their NPR stations) is in a 2005 article by Steve Coffman on What if You Ran Your Library Like NPR?, in which he cites a Corporation for Public Broadcasting report that "on average 20% of a station's core audience are now contributing `members' who give an average of $73.44 per year". So, if the number of NPR listeners have gone up by 1.7 million, and 20% of those listeners are contributing $75 (just to simplify), NPR should see an increase of about $25 million, and yet the Washington Post reports that income is falling short of its $160 million budgeted expenditures by $8 million. That is, despite audience being up by 9%, revenue is down by 5%.

Anyone who listens to NPR - or most any other source of news - knows that we are in the midst of a serious economic recession (The Great Recession of 2008, as some were calling it as far back as December 2007). Job losses and cutbacks in wages or hours among the general population are surely affecting NPR members, and declining revenues among most companies are surly affecting those who are corporate sponsors of NPR, and so I can understand that some individuals and companies are cutting back on their financial support of NPR. The 2008/2009 Global Wage Report, published by the International Labor Organization, predicts that "the U.S., average wages are expected to decrease by about 1 per cent in 2008 and fall even further in 2009". But this decline does not account for the large discrepancy between the increase in listenership and the decrease in membership.

According to an August 2008 study on key news audiences by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 54% of NPR listeners are college graduates (NPR tied with the New Yorker / Atlantic for the highest proportion of college graduates comprising any news audience in their survey). A 2003 report by the Educational Resources Information Center on The Value of a College Degree (based largely on a 2002 U.S. Census report on The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings - shows a strong correlation between higher levels of education and higher levels of income. For example, in 1997-1999, the estimated average income of a full-time worker with a college degree was $52,200, compared with $30,400 for a full-time worker with a high school degree (and no college). And a recent report in the New York Times on Job Losses Show Breadth of Recession noted that "unlike the last two recessions — earlier this decade and in the early 1990s — this one is causing much more job loss among the less educated than among college graduates." So it would seem that, all things considered [pun intended], NPR listeners would be in a better financial position to contribute to their local stations than the general population.

Speaking of All Things Considered, the venerable NPR afternoon news show broadcast a story on Groups Unite in Dislike of Freeloaders in April 2006, that may help provide a partial explanation for my anger:

A new study offers hints about how societies correct the behavior of freeloaders. The answer involves evolution, altruism -- and punishment.

Scientists say the explanation is important because individuals have so many incentives to let others in a group do most of the work [like financially supporting NPR]. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, uses the example of two neighbors who want to build a dam.

"You're best off if your neighbor builds the dam for you and you get to do other things," he says. "If evolution favors those individuals, it's puzzling why we might cooperate."

Yet we do cooperate.

The report, based on an unnamed article in the journal Science (but which I believe is "Cooperation, Punishment, and the Evolution of Human Institutions" [reg. req'd]), goes on to describe an experiment in which two groups of students attempted to attain a goal in an iterative game; one group had to rely solely on voluntary cooperation and another group could apply sanctions to any member who didn't [voluntarily] cooperate. The sanctioning group outperformed the voluntary cooperation group every time, due to the fact that there were fewer freeloaders (and, thus, more people contributing to the common good).

Another item included in the report triggered another anger touchpoint for me:

The results of the study, which appear in this week's issue of the journal Science, may explain a lot about how one culture evolves to dominate another.

Rob Boyd, an anthropologist at University of California, Los Angeles, says one example of this sort of cultural evolution is the decline of paganism in ancient Rome.

"Pagan Rome didn't have much a social support network," Boyd says. "So when people got sick, or when there was a plague, or things got bad, they were just out of luck."

By contrast, the Christians expected members to take care of each other. That gave them a competitive edge, he says, and led Romans to gradually switch to Christianity.

This religious reference reminds me of a good friend - one of the smartest people I've ever met, a voracious and regular listener of NPR, and a Jew - who refused to support NPR financially ... due to his judgment that NPR exhibited an anti-Israel bias. Others have disputed this bias, arguing that the "bizarre attack on NPR as "anti-Israel" shows how fringe groups are pushing Mideast debate". Another, more recent report claims that NPR exhibits a pro-Israel bias. In any case, what really angered me was that, despite all the other areas of the news for which my friend presumably believed that NPR's reporting was fair and accurate (and [thus] useful), he refused to offer any support to the single most important source of his news. It is only with great restraint that I was able to resist the urge to participate in NPR's This American Life host Ira Glass' invitation to "turn in a friend" during the last pledge drive:

I'm writing to ask you to turn in a friend. If you know someone who listens to public radio avidly, several days a week or more, talks about stuff they hear on Morning Edition or Car Talk or our show, but they never pledge...I'd like to give them a call. I'll be nice, I swear. But I will ask them why they don't pledge. And I'll try to talk them into pledging. And I'll record the whole thing and—if it works—I'll put it on the radio.

In researching material for this blog post, I stumbled upon another religiously inspired NPR freeloader, who I've never met: Joel Belz, who wrote about being a happy freeloader in a 2001 article published in World Magazine ("Today's News | Christian Views"). Despite liking the classical music on his local station, and being a self-proclaimed "news junkie" (and admitting to getting regular fixes from NPR), he claims that "public radio in my area—and I assume this is the case in your locality as well—carries an agenda that is thoroughly and unabashedly anti-Christian". He goes on to cite a litany of shows that he believes exhibit this anti-Christian agenda, including A Prairie Home Companion, a show which, ironically, another NPR listening (and, I believe, supporting) friend of mine refuses to listen specifically because of its heavy Christian / gospel messages (!).

The Wikipedia entry for Joel Belz says that he is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and his father is/was a Presbyterian minister. I found myself wondering how he feels about people who regularly attend Presbyterian services, but due to disagreement with some of the perspectives and/or actions of the church, refuse to provide any financial support. Would it be acceptable - to him (or the Presbyterian Church) - for them to be "happy freeloaders"? What if everyone who disagreed with some aspects of the Presbyterian Church withheld financial support from the church? 

So, even though I disagree with the "principles" on which some people withhold financial support from NPR, I suspect - or at least hope - that such "conscientious freeloaders" make up a relatively small proportion of the audience ... and that much of the freeloading is due to either individual unconsciousness or a growing sense of what might be called informational entitlement (information wants to be free) ... a perspective which, I fear, might be becoming part of our collective unconscious.

One of the two major daily newspapers in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer, printed its last edition on March 17 (3 days bfore the last episodes of NPR's Day to Day and News & Notes) and I've heard reports (on KPLU) that the major daily newspaper - the Seattle Times - is also in danger of shutting down [it's print operations] ... which probably heightens my concerns about the future of NPR.

Information may want to be free, but if we're not willing to pay anything to anyone to produce it, I suspect the quality of that information may suffer, as will the quality of the lives of those of us who consume and use that information.

If anyone wants to join me in supporting our local NPR stations in Seattle, I'll conclude with links to pledge support to KPLU and/or KUOW ... and my heartfelt thanks for becoming a member!

[Update, 1-Apr-2009: Mary Dunaway, KPLU Manager of Listener Relations, reports significantly lower membership numbers (via email) than was reported in the web article I'd referenced:

7% of our entire audience also supports the station. The numbers you listed below referencing 20% those are core audience numbers (people who listen more often then the overall audience). Our percent of core listeners giving is about 10%.

This is even more infuriating - increasing my desire to "correct the behavior of freeloaders".]

Augurs of hope, past & present: MLK, Milk, Obama & all of us's

Last week, on Martin Luther King Day, Amy and I watched the film, Milk, about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California (back in 1978). When we got to the Egyptian Theatre, Amy asked for two tickets to see "M-I-L-K", spelling out Milk's name. We laughed about this presumed priming effect (from it being MLK day), but it also primed my synchronicity radar as we headed in to see the movie.

Among the most powerful scenes in the movie was Milk's "Give Them Hope" speech:

Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there's a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes that she or he is gay, knows that if the parents find out they'dl be tossed out of the house, the classmates would taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant's and John Briggs' are doing their bit on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. And then one day that child might open up a paper that says "Homosexual elected in San Francisco" and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight. Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said "Thanks". And you've got to elect gay people, so that that young child and the thousands and thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world, there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, and the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us's ... without hope the us's give up. I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.

I really find this reference to us's positively inspiring, reflecting wisdom I've gleaned from other sources, perhaps most notably Oriah Mountain Dreamer, who suggests that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them".

Turning from us's to hope, another civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about this theme in his "I Have a Dream" speech:

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

While Milk makes explicit references to the civil rights of blacks in his speech, as far as I can tell, MLK never made any explicit references to the civil rights of gays (much less lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders/transsexuals). Of course, they were from different eras - Milk was able to figuratively stand on MLK's shoulders in his crusade to win full equality for LGBT people.

Black people do not have the option of hiding their race in the closet, while LGBT people do, but the perpetration of shame or the withholding of rights based on sexual preference is no more justifiable than that based on race. And if "we're only as sick as our secrets", discrimination based on sexual preference may be even more insidious. Milk urged LGBT people to come out of their closet(s):

We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives

The 2000 U.S. Census estimates that 12.9% of the population in this country is black; there is no official census for LGBT, but unofficial estimates range from 4% to 10%. While LGBT people have gained some civil rights in some places (nationally and internationally), for reasons I have never been able to understand, allowing people of the same sex to legally marry is opposed by a majority of people in this country - 55% according to a recent poll.

The newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama, is the offspring of an interracial marriage - an institution or practice that was illegal in some states at the time of MLK's speech. The right of states to ban interracial marriages was in effect until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such laws in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967. And yet, despite his interracial marriage ancestry, Obama claims he is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriages (although, according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on "Gays, lesbians hopeful despite inaugural pastor", he supports the extension of full rights to same-sex civil unions, and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages).

Unlike some critics, I was inspired by Obama's inauguration speech - from its inclusive opening of "My fellow citizens" (not restricting his remarks to his fellow Americans), through his highlighting of the crises we face, and the "new era of responsibility" we must embark on in order to address these challenges and remake America. However, having just seen Milk the preceding day, I cringed when he got to this paragraph:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

How can he promote this "God-given" promise that "all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness" and yet oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages? Does this opposition not deny LGBT people their "full measure of happiness"? I don't know if opposition to same-sex marriage under the guise of "defending" marriage is childish, but I do believe that as we, as a nation, mature in our perceptions and judgments about homosexuality (and marriage), we will come around to supporting this civil right that has been denied to a persecuted group in our society.

I was - and am - excited and hopeful about the election of Barack Obama. And yet, that same day, voters in California voted to approve Proposition 8, adding an article to the state Constitution stating

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California

and thereby striking down any municipal laws legalizing same-sex marriages.

Rick Warren, the tremendously influential and socially conservative pastor and best-selling author who delivered the inaugural prayer on Tuesday, supported Proposition 8. As with the aforementioned section of Obama's inaugural speech, I cringed when I heard Rev. Warren say the following:

Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.

Freedom and justice for all ... except, of course, for homosexuals who want to marry.

If Harvey Milk were alive today, and were to give his Give Them Hope speech today, I suspect he would amend it to include Rick Warren along with Anita Bryant and John Briggs - who had actively campaigned in support of Proposition 6 in 1978, the so-called Briggs Initiative, that would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California's public schools. Fortunately, that measure failed, and while Milk is no longer with us - assassinated by a fellow (or formerly fellow) city supervisor - anti-gay forces are alive and well, in California and elsewhere.

Although there were many other striking and/or synchronistic aspects to the movie, I'll finish off noting that the person who came to a podium at San Francisco City Hall to announce the assassination of Harvey Milk - and then-mayor George Moscone - was then-city supervisor Dianne Feinstein ... who was also at a podium during Tuesday's inauguration, as the master of ceremonies. I'd earlier written about ignorance, incendiaries, ironies and inspiration in the 2008 presidential campaign, and my concern that the incendiary invectives uttered by McCain supporters might increase the risk of assassination for Obama. I was relieved that there was no replay of the last time I'd seen Feinstein on the big screen (having seen Milk the day before the inauguration).

I have a difficult time believing that a leader who could compose and deliver an inspiring message of moving toward a more perfect union could really oppose same-sex marriage. However, given the range of risks and challenges faced by Obama (and the rest of us's), it may be a while - perhaps another generation - before any public leader at that level can come out publicly in full support of full civil rights for all people.

[Update: Another augur of hope was unveiled this week: [Washington State] Lawmakers announce 'everything but marriage' bill: "Expanding the rights and responsibilities of state registered domestic partners" (Senate Bill 5688 and House Bill 1727). Equal Rights Washington has posted a page through which citizens can support domestic partnership expansion.]

Ignorance, Incendiaries, Ironies and Inspiration

I've been growing increasingly appalled by some of the ignorant and incendiary statements made by Republican John McCain's presidential campaign and its supporters. Ironically, one of the McCain campaign's political advertisements that appears to have had the most incendiary effect on evangelical supporters, "The One", is one that I find, personally, to be positively inspiring. However, before I say more about that, I want to review other advertisements and rallying cries that appear to be designed to inspire fear and hatred, and perhaps even violence, and a few other dimensions of irony that are emerging as we move into the final stretch of this campaign.

A recent BoingBoing post, If It Walks Like A Duck and Talks Like a Duck Dept: The McCain-Palin Mob, includes a video posted by Blogger Interrupted from a McCain campaign rally in Strongsville, Ohio, a purportedly "picturesque, progressive suburb". While no one in the video called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama a terrorist, several interviewees suggested that Obama might be a terrorist, noting "he's got the bloodlines" (presumably referring to Obama's Kenyan father), "the name" (Barack Hussein Obama) and/or "the connections" (Obama's prior association with William Ayers). The setting of the video ("Strongsville"), along with the statements made by people there, reminded me of the Orwellian maxim "Ignorance is Strength", one of the most compelling - and frighteningly prescient - instances of irony I've encountered.

At a McCain rally on October 6, people were willing to call Obama a terrorist, and to propose a radical solution. In response to McCain posting the rhetorical question "who is the real Barack Obama?", supporters yelled "kill him! terrorist!" (at the 0:13 mark) ... immediately - and ironically - followed by McCain complaining about getting "another angry barrage of insults" whenever he asks that question (other responses by supporters at other rallies include "traitor!", "bomb Obama!" and "off with his head!"). I suspect McCain meant to imply that the angry barrage of insults came from Obama supporters (or perhaps the oft-maligned liberal "gotcha" media), but as far as I can tell, angry barrages of insults appear to be more of a hallmark of statements made by McCain, his vice-presidential running mate Sarah Palin, Fox News and other McCain and Palin supporters, than from the Obama campaign. And McCain's implcit or explicit endorsement of these insults leaves me questioning "who is John McCain?", a man I once considered an honorable senator and soldier.

In yet another dimension of irony (and ignorance), Keith Olbermann recently noted in his recent Special Comment on Sarah Palin's Hysteria that the Republican vice presidential candidate has a few questionable connections herself.

Palin delivered a warm, videotaped introduction to the 2008 Convention of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose motto is "Alaska First. Alaska Always", whose mission is to secede from the United States, and whose founder, Joe Vogler, once stated

The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred of the American government, and I won't be buried under their damn flag.


I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions.

In addition to "palling around" with secessionists, Palin was once blessed by Pastor Thomas Muthee, who prayed that she would be protected from witchcraft (and be able to raise campaign money), and who had earlier conducted spiritual warfare against a woman in Kenya, accusing her of being a witch, blaming her for the local crime, rallying a mob to threaten her, and chasing her out of town ... which might be considered acts of domestic terrorism (I'd be interested to know what Palin thinks of the Salem witch trials, an earlier example of evangelical excess in this country, but that would probably be interpreted as yet another "gotcha" question).

Speaking of religious fervor brings me round to the McCain campaign's political advertisement, "The One", which many consider to be a shameless effort to fan the flames of evangelical furor over [allegations about] Obama being the antichrist. Ironically, I found this advertisement to be positively inspiring.

I hope "the world will be blessed", and "the nation healed, the world repaired", by an Obama presidency. His message that "we are the ones we've been waiting for" should, I would think, strike a chord with libertarians and others who believe in self-reliance. The ad quotes Obama as saying "I have become a symbol of America returning to our best traditions". This is a welcome contrast to the McCain campaign's increasing regression toward our worst political traditions. The ad quotes Obama as saying "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal". The video cuts to a scene from The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston (playing Moses) parts the Red Sea, which may raise the specter of the anti-christ for evangelical Christians. As someone who is neither evangelical, nor [fundamentally] Christian, but deeply concerned with the health of our planet, I am inspired by the hope that our next president will help slow the rise of the oceans and begin to heal our planet.

The increasingly incendiary invective incited by the McCain / Palin campaign instill me with fear that Obama may meet a fate similar to other inspiring political figures from our naton's past. On this week's pledge week installment of This American Life, host Ira Glass played a segment from a Fresh Air earlier this year on Pete Hamill Remembers Robert Kennedy. I was deeply moved by Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, in which he raised the questions of "what kind of nation we are, and what kind of direction we want to move in". Many of those hearing the speech at the time were also moved: although there were riots in 180 American cities that night, there was relative quiet in Indianapolis.

The themes of love, justice, understanding and fellowship emphasized by RFK - and MLK - reminded me of how deeply moved I was by Obama's speech on "A More Perfect Union", which I still consider the most inspiring speech I've heard - live - in my adult political life. And the memories of the MLK and RFK assassinations also deeply move me, though in a very different way.

McCain recently described Obama as a "decent man" who we should not fear. Unfortunately, in that same speech, he also alluded to Obama's earlier relationship with Ayers, implicitly raising the very "terrorist" fears that seem to be inciting his supporters to threaten violence against Obama, thus compromising any potentially ameliorative effect of his "decent" words. As far as I can tell, the McCain / Palin campaign has adopted a desperate "win at any cost" strategy. Recent polls suggest the campaign may lose the election ... if they don't curtail their character assassination tactics, implicitly and explicitly encouraging and endorsing violence, we may ultimately experience a far greater loss.

Consistency, Change and Conventions

Between the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, and their coverage on PBS (especially the Lehrer NewsHour), I've probably watched more TV in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. It seems that change is very much in the air - or, at least, on the air - but it appears that the conception of change is not consistent across parties ... and, indeed, in at least one case, it does not even appear consistent within a single individual.

I've watched the party nomination acceptance speeches of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and John McCain, as well as the speeches by Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton - which, I suppose, could also be considered speeches of acceptance (of Obama's nomination) - and the speeches by Fred Thompson and Joe Lieberman - which often times seemed to focus more on rejection (of Obama) than acceptance (of McCain).

As is the convention with political conventions, and politics in general, the speeches were generally high on emotion and low on fact. One generally has to turn elsewhere to learn more about the facts. One source I found increasingly helpful - both for facts and an emotional uplift (particularly during the Republican convention) - was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (part of Comedy Central's Indecision 2008 coverage).

The Daily Show obviously plays loose with the facts and exhibits a certain bias throughout its coverage, and this applies to its coverage of the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. However, I suspect the level of truthfulness and bias is on a par with Fox News, and it's important to remember that the former is billed as a comedy show while the latter is billed as "fair and balanced" reporting. And, although a vocal minority on the right claims that PBS exhibits a left-leaning bias, and John McCain once claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases", I think most people recognize that PBS offers the least bias and greatest depth of any news and information source on U.S. television.

Regardless of one's views of the respective (if not respectful) biases exhibited by various organizations and shows, there was a recent segment on The Daily Show that reviewed some of the facts and fictions about John McCain as a maverick reformer - or, as they so humorously reframe it, reformed maverick - which contrasts sharply with his running mate's claim that

"As for my running mate, you can be certain that wherever he goes, and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man."

As the following video suggests, consistency is in the eye of the beholder:

Personally, despite my disagreement of some of Senator McCain's views, I had a generally positive impression of him during what the video describes as "The Wild Years (1936-2006)". But, in the segment "Abandoning Everything He'd Ever Stood For (2006-present)", the juxtaposition of statements by Senator McCain and Presidential Candidate McCain highlights striking inconsistencies in his views of the intolerant right wing of his party, a woman's right to choose (about which The Daily Show had a great segment entitled "Bristol Palin's Choice"), taxes, and the "difficulties" encountered in the war in Iraq.

Now, I suppose these statements could simply reflect that John McCain is an agent of change (i.e., he is willing to change his own views). And, as they showed in another segment on his acceptance speech, his views on change are not terribly different from the views of change articulated by the Republican nominee for president in 2000, George W. Bush, on topics such as abortion, education, taxes and bipartisanship (see the segment between 4:51 and 5:48):

I'm reminded of Ghandi's views on consistency, change and truth:

"My commitment is to truth as I see it each day, not to consistency."

Ghandi never ran for the office of U.S. President (or Vice President), and I suspect that holding - or admitting to - this kind of perspective would not serve candidates well in this time and place. He also once noted that

"I have sacrificed no principle to gain a political advantage"

This uncompromising policy would also not serve him well in U.S. politics.

But speaking of consistency, change, conventions and compromise, I want to note that in her introduction to the president's speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, First Lady Laura Bush reminded the conventioneers that she had introduced her husband during the 2000 Republican National Convention as "a man of character, whose principles would not shift with the winds of politics or polls". I do believe that President Bush has an uncompromising commitment to the truth as he sees it ... and I suppose that one of the things that has bothered me during the last 8 years is that his view of the truth is often inconsistent with mine.

A few years ago, in a revelation of the truth as he sees it, President Bush claimed that God told him to invade Iraq, which is more consistent with reality than any other rationale I've seen regarding his reason(s) for doing so. The high cost of the war in Iraq - and the willingness to continue paying the price - is one of the important differences between the two U.S. presidential candidates. While McCain supports the war, I don't believe he does so for divine reasons ... but, as a final note on consistency, change and convention, it is noteworthy that the "beautiful, charismatic, and creationist" [as Jon Stewart put it] Republican Vice Presidential candidate appears to share Bush's view that the war in Iraq is "a task from God". In the truth as I see it, this does not reflect the kind of change we need.

Satirization or Assassination?

NewYorkerCover-20080721 The New Yorker published its July 21 edition this week, with a cartoon on the cover depicting U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in a way that reflects some of the worst fears of what I suspect is a nontrivial percentage of the electorate. On the cover, shown on the right, Barack is wearing a turban, Michelle is sporting an AK47 assault rifle and ammunition belt across her chest; the pair exchange a "fist bump" under the gaze of a turban-bedecked Osama bin Laden in a portrait hanging over a fireplace where an American flag is burning. The cartoon has a caption "The Politics of Fear", but this listed on the bottom of page 2 rather than on the cover.

I have no doubt the cartoon is intended as a satirical critique of some of the more egregious and hyperbolic extrapolations and projections that have been appearing in the press, e.g., Fox News anchor E.D. Hill using the infamous Fox News question mark to make sideways editorial comments (which I've intentionally invoked in the title of this post) in asking "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?", unsubstantiated rumors of a video of Michelle Obama making "anti-white" statements, the ridiculous controversy over Obama's [earlier] refusal to wear a flag pin, and, most recently, a Newsweek poll released on Friday that reported some surprising statistics about how many people believe various flavors of the rumors about Obama's connection to Islam:

Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true.

This follows an earlier Pew Research poll released in March showing that 10% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim; among those most likely to believe this are people in rural areas (19%), white evangelical Protestants (16%), conservative Republicans (16%) and people who never attended college (15%).

What I wonder is how the satirization intended by the cartoon is likely to affect the level of misinformation about Barack Obama - will it decrease the misinformation by opening up a dialogue (through all the controversy it is engendering), or will it increase the misinformation - and misinformedness - due to the media's echo chamber effect ("a group of media outlets that tend to parrot each other's uncritical reports on the views of a single source, or that otherwise relies on unquestioning repetition of official sources") and confirmation bias ("a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs").

In my last post, writing about my experiences at Foo Camp 2008, I noted a session in which a prominent former blogger was subjected to online harassment with strong sexually-oriented and violent images, e.g., a Photoshopped image in which a noose was inserted in a photo of her head and neck and another Photoshopped image that superimposed a pair of panties over her face in a way that might be interpreted as muzzling or suffocating. Some of the people defending the authors of these images and similarly harsh words posted in an online forum dedicated to harassing this woman claimed that these were intended as "satire", and that she and others were simply taking these words and images too seriously. I found myself wondering what the response might have been if similar images had been created and posted with, say, Hillary Clinton as the target of the "satire" ... I suspect the FBI would have been involved and arrests would have been made. I now wonder what the reaction would be if Michelle Obama had been the target ... and even wonder whether she already has been such a target (!).

I'm hearing similar "overreaction" sentiments being expressed about the New Yorker cartoon - that people who are reacting negatively are simply taking it too seriously. I do tend to take things too seriously at times, but I'm not alone ... and I wonder how many "serious" people are - or were - in the "undecided" category of the U.S. electorate. The "satire" directed against the aforementioned blogger led to her departure from the blogosphere, and while I don't think the "satire" directed against [the people who spread or believe rumors about] Barack Obama will cause him to drop out of the race, I am concerned that this may negatively affect his chances for being elected president.

Despite numerous reports over the last several years that Saddam Hussein had no connection with the 9/11 attacks, an earlier Newsweek poll suggests that a surprisingly large proportion of the American public believe there is a link:

Even today, more than four years into the war in Iraq, as many as four in ten Americans (41 percent) still believe Saddam Hussein's regime was directly involved in financing, planning or carrying out the terrorist attacks on 9/11, even though no evidence has surfaced to support a connection. A majority of Americans were similarly unable to pick Saudi Arabia in a multiple-choice question about the country where most of the 9/11 hijackers were born. Just 43 percent got it right -- and a full 20 percent thought most came from Iraq.

[I cannot find a direct reference to this poll on the Newsweek site, purportedly reported in June 2007 ... so maybe I'm just spreading rumors here ... the second-hand reports of the poll certainly confirm my biases.]

I hope we'll soon see additional polls to determine the impact of this controversial cartoon. Among the questions I'd be interested to know answers to are:

  • How many people saw the cover in a physical magazine vs. a reproduction of the cover in traditional news media or somewhere on a web site?
  • How many people had even heard of the New Yorker before, or know that the New Yorker often engages in satire, especially in its cartoons?
  • What are people's initial reaction to seeing the cover? Satire? Character assassination? Confirmation of their deepest political fears?
  • How do the statistics mentioned above change over the next week or two, e.g., how many people now believe Obama is a Muslim?
  • How many copies of this issue of the New Yorker are sold? (I bought one)
  • How does the number of subscribers change?

And, of course, on November 4, we'll know the outcome of a much more important poll ... the question is whether we'll know how much this "satire" has affected that outcome.

Religion, Politics, Racism and Invisibility: Obama and Wright vs. McCain and Hagee

Robb's comment on my post about the Capitol Steps show in Seattle got me thinking - and writing - [again] about some of the religious and racial issues in the U.S. presidential race. I started to write a comment in response to Robb's comment, but as it grew longer and longer, I decided to move it into a separate blog post.

Robb is a good friend from college who grew up in the U.S. but has spent many years living in New Zealand, where he has been increasingly appreciating the natural beauty of the land (especially the mountains), the indigenous people - Maori - and their culture ... and writing inspiring prose and poetry about his experiences and growing appreciation in his Musings from Aotearoa blog. In his comment on my post, Robb, raised a number of provocative issues:

I find this issue of 0bama "throwing" Wright "under the bus" to reveal the real dark side of this issue, old fashioned racism. I still fail to see what he, Wright, has actually said that can be construed as being either inflammatory or has anything to do with 0bama directly. What are people so afraid of here, or should I write, perhaps inflammatorily, what is conservative, entrenched, white America so afraid of here? I am trying to track where I read it down, but I recall reading somewhere John McCain's religous mentor saying the New orleans devastation was the "wrath of God on those people". Where is that in the news media? 0r what things are spoken from the pulpit of many white churches on any given Sunday in the land where Emmett Till was murdered? Where is the balance?

Good questions! I want to spend a bit of time reviewing some of Wright's recent remarks before exploring McCain's religious connections.

WrightAtNationalPressClubReverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the current Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, has made a few appearances lately. I enjoyed watching Bill Moyers interview Wright on PBS a week ago, a venue in which Wright came across as a relatively reasonable - and clearly passionate - man. I did not watch Wright's more recent National Press Club speech and Q&A last week, but it was carried on C-SPAN (and there are segments posted on YouTube), and Fox News has posted a transcript; I had seen and heard snippets of commentary during the week, but it was not until Robb's comment that I decided to sit down and listen the entire speech and read the transcript.

As with my earlier experience in reviewing the larger contexts of Wright's sermons from which short snippets have been repeatedly rebroadcast in the mass media, and which have been reportedly perceived as so inflammatory by so many, I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the views expressed by Wright in his National Press Club talk on "The African American Religious Experience; Theology & Practice". And, in an effort to help provide a larger - or at least different - context than has been offered in most accounts of this talk, I wanted to share some of the excerpts that I found most inspiring.

Invisibleman Wright starts off describing the relative invisibility of the black church and black religious tradition, beginning with its roots during slavery, and continuing through the present day, referencing The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - implicitly and explicitly - throughout his remarks, and I think this invisibility characterizes - or cloaks - many of the issues that are arising throughout this controversy. As he progresses through the talk, his presentation become more inclusive, promoting liberation for all peoples, urging acceptance of differences without presuming deficiencies, and closing with an invitation to reconciliation, through which greater unity can be achieved ... and I can't help but note that the theme of unity is one of the key messages of Wright's [former?] church member, Barack Obama.

Robb's reference to "throwing Wright under a bus" highlights the unfortunate, but understandable (given the mass media focus on the most controversial aspects of Wright's views), tone of Obama's response to Wright's most recent remarks, in which he condemns the "outrageous" and "destructive" nature of some of those remarks. I find Obama's assertion that Wright is "giving comfort to those who prey on hate" to be particularly interesting. Wright's refusal to recede into the background - to become invisible - may be giving ammunition to those who prey on hate, but I don't see how it offers any comfort to anybody. The explosive charge of that ammunition is more the result of media coverage of Wright's comments than the comments themselves, which, in my interpretation, represent more of a challenge to those who promote and prey on hate rather than a comfort to them.

Anyhow, before offering further interpretations and judgments, here are some extended exerpts of the actual words spoken by Wright during his National Press Club speech: 

The black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in American history, was actually called the “invisible institution,” as it was forced underground by the Black Codes.

The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black people without a white person being present to monitor the conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between persons of African descent in this country.

Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes. Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly hopeless circumstances.  They just gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human.

They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes of the dominant culture.  They gathered to worship in brush arbors, sometimes called hush arbors, where the slaveholders, slave patrols, and Uncle Toms couldn’t hear nobody pray.


The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive.

It frees the captives and it frees the captors.  It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.

The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation.  It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically.  And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.

The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and the separate-but-equal fantasy was a theology of liberation.

It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land.  And it was practiced to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.

The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.


This principle of “different does not mean deficient” is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.  It is a theology of liberation.

The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached in his inaugural message, as recorded by Luke.

When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in the context of a sound bite, what you see is God’s desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

God’s desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people.  God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.


God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down.

God wants us reconciled, one to another.  And that third principle in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.


To say “I am a Christian” is not enough.  Why?  Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.

How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same.  And what we both mean when we say “I am a Christian” is not the same thing. The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.

Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become Europeans.

Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them.  We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us.  They are just different from us.

We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.

And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are.

Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.

During the Q&A following his speech, Wright was asked about about his recent remarks about the political nature of Obama's recent remarks renouncing some of Wright's earlier remarks.

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever’s doing the polls.  Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors.  They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.
He didn’t distance himself.  He had to distance himself, because he’s a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American.  He said I didn’t offer any words of hope. How would he know?  He never heard the rest of the sermon.  You never heard it.

Wright was also asked about his earlier assertion that "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" - still, for me, the most disturbing of his statements during the increasingly infamous sermon snippets. He referenced the books Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?, by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, and Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington, and went on to say:

I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven’t read things, then you can’t — based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.

I share Wright's distrust of our government, though I still do not believe his earlier assertion. However, given the larger scope of all he has said (at the National Press Club, during Bill Moyer's interview, and in his sermons I have watched on YouTube), I am not willing to dismiss all of Wright's views based solely on this one questionable dimension ... and I can think of many, far more destructive, examples of questionable assertions by political and religious leaders.

Speaking of which, getting back to Robb's comments, and his reference to a hateful "wrath of God" condemnation of the victims of Hurricane Katrina by a religious figure associated with U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, I tracked down an article on "McCain’s faith: Pastor describes senator as devout, but low-key" in the Associated Baptist Press. McCain's pastor, Dan Yeary, notes some controversial religious connections for McCain:

The candidate endured some criticism in February after San Antonio pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee endorsed him. Catholic and Jewish leaders denounced Hagee for statements he has made in the past that could be interpreted as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Hagee claimed the critics had misunderstood and de-contextualized his comments. Nonetheless, McCain’s campaign issued a statement in which he distanced himself from the preacher’s more controversial remarks without rejecting or repudiating the endorsement.

The senator has received less media scrutiny for a separate endorsement of his candidacy by Ohio pastor Rod Parsley. Parsley, who leads a charismatic multi-media empire, has been criticized for statements insisting Islam must be “destroyed” and for denigrating gays, the separation of church and state and secularists.

This led me to another article, "McCain, Hagee and the Politics of God's Wrath", in The Nation blog, which provides references to John Hagee - not McCain's pastor, but an endorser (and we know Obama has been criticized for people who have endorsed him) - and his "wrath of God" condemnation(s):

Hagee, whose views about a host of social issues give new meaning to the term "hateful," is not McCain's pastor. They have no personal or spiritual relationship. Rather, Hagee is a close political ally of McCain and an ardent supporter of the Arizona senator's presidential bid.

McCain sought Hagee's endorsement and continued to defend and embrace the pastor – saying he was "glad to have the minister's endorsement – even after Hagee said that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the city's "sinful" acceptance of homosexuality.

"What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God…" Hagee explained after the city experienced a national disaster that cost at least 1,836 lives – making it the deadliest hurricane in American history – and permanently dislocated tens of thousands of Americans from not just their homes but the communities of their birth and upbringing.

I hadn't heard about this rather hateful comment that Robb mentioned - it was, one might say, invisible ... leading me to wonder about the relative visibility and invisibility of religious and political connections as they apply to white presidential candidates and black presidential candidates - but it reminded me of the many hateful pronouncements by Christian Coalition of America founder, former minister and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson (who has endorsed many other Republican candidates over the years). [BTW, I was surprised to discover there is a Christian Coalition in New Zealand.] One example of hateful speech by this self-described "Christian" was uttered in response to Gay Days at Disney World:

"I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you, This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."  

I'm further reminded of some of the hateful speech associated with other conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity, but do not want to digress further. I'll simply note that while Hagee is not McCain's current or former pastor, his unsolicited endorsement of McCain seems to be far less visible in the mass media than some of the unsolicited endorsements by controversial figures that Obama has received.

Speaking of media, further on in his comment, Robb notes:

I am not at all acquainted with American television these days, hardly with New Zealand television for that matter, but I must say when I do watch television here I find the best, and most informative, and most balanced programs on Maori Televison. And even as "enlightened" as white New Zealand claims to be, I readily recall the battle in the late 90's it was to get that up and running. Privileged people are always afraid of change it would seem.

The reference to Maori Television was prompted, in part, by my reference to 1995 testimony in which Senator McCain claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases". Robb's observation that "privileged people are always afraid of change" really strikes a chord, and reminds me of an unfinished post I started months ago - after finishing Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks, and after hearing an interview on NPR with Tony Blair, in which he shared his father's perspective that "if you became successful then you became Conservative" - and may just prompt me to finish (and post) my rumination on the issue of incumbency, and the encumbrances that incumbents sometimes erect to maintain their unfair advantage(s) ... which, in my mind, relates to issues of religion, politics, racism and invisibility.

CharmingBurka: Bridging Gaps and Lifting Veils via Bluetooth

CharmingBurkaSeamless2008 I visited BoingBoing - one of my favorite blogs - for the first time in [too long] a while, and, as usual, encountered a post of great interest and intrigue: CharmingBurka:


A project by Markus Kison.


The CharmingBurka sends a self-defined picture of the wearing person to every mobile phone next to it. Laws of the Koran are not broken.

Project description

The Charming Burka deals with Freud's idea that all clothes can be positioned between appeal and shame. The Burka was chosen, because it is often perceived in the west as a symbol of repression. A digital layer was added so that women can decide for themselves where they want to position themselves virtually. The Burka sends an image, chosen by the wearer, via Bluetooth technology. Every person next to her can receive her picture via mobile phone and see the women's self-determined identity. The virtual appeals can not be gathered by the laws of the Koran and so the CharmingBurka fulfills the desire of living a more western life, which some Muslim women have today.

Therefore the Burka is equipped with bluetooth antenna/micro-controller and uses the OBEX protocol, already working with most mobile phones.

Sponsor / technology

The prototype is realised with the bluetooth marketing solution Bluebot developed by Haase & Martin, the mobile marketing company in Dresden/Germany.

This looks like a religious[ly]-inspired variation on the theme of "seeing and being seen" exemplified by the Nokia Sensor application (among others). I don't think any of these applications have achieved mass (or even signficant niche) market appeal, but they are provocative and inspiring, on a number of levels.

It appears, from a video on the site, that the CharmingBurka charmed the crowd at the recent Seamless 2008 fashion event in Boston, but I do wonder whether / how this innovative mechanism for bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline worlds - and thereby [virtually] lifting veils - would truly be accepted in a region (or even an event) with a higher concentration of Muslims ... or whether it would truly be desired by many Muslim women (living in Muslim countries). It seems to me that this kind of technology would increase the risks for such women, especially as the description of the design suggests that the user has no control over who is offered a virtual peek behind the veil.

The Bluebot site references a number of other events - including a Leipzig trade fair, a wedding fair and a Bavarian night club - in which other Bluetooth marketing systems (I see the CharmingBurka as a personal marketing system) were deployed, but the latest was in October 2006 ... leading me to [also] wonder whether / when their innovative technology will cross the chasm from novelty into commercial success. I suspect the success of such systems lies along trajectories wherein the technology is solving problems that people truly experience ... in ways that don't put them at [even greater] risk.

Celebrating the Future Within ... Everyone?

Jubilee_logo Amy and I attended the Jubilee Women's Center's 10th Annual Benefit Breakfast on Wednesday, which had the inspiring title "Celebrating the Future Within" ... and a correspondingly inspiring program that included several women recounting their challenges, and now the Jubilee Women's Center helped them rise to meet those challenges. Our good friend, Mary, is on the Board of Directors for the organization, which is why we were there.

Jubilee is a transitional housing facility that offers homeless single women from ages 21 thru 60 a safe place in which to live and renew themselves. Women pay $250 / month for rent - the rest of which is subsidized through donations (such as those that are made during the annual breakfast) - and are offered a variety of training classes to help them become more self-reliant, both personally and professionally ... as Meeghan Black, of KING 5 TV, the MC for the event noted: these training classes sound like something everyone could use.

Deacon Steve Wodzanowski from St. Joseph Parish led the invocation, which was - synchronistically (for me) - based largely on a poem, The Journey, from Mary Oliver, a portion of which I'd referenced in my last post (on Blessed Unrest (which was based largely on Paul Hawken's book of the same name)), though he recited the full version, which I'm going to include here:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles. "Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.

This, in turn, reminded of some of my earlier ruminations on Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings, which brought into focus my conflicting views on self-reliance vs. interdependence, inherence, adherence and coherence - essentially, the self vs. society. There does seem to be a conflict, or at least tension, between teaching self-reliance (independence) and yet preparing women to re-enter society (which is, by definition, highly interdependent). One of Emerson's observations closely aligns with Mary Oliver's poem (and the overall theme of the event):

Trust thyself: every heart every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

Getting back to the event, it turns out that the average age of the women residents of Jubilee is 45. That fact, together with the unexpected events along their unanticipated path toward homelessness - for which I kept thinking "there, but for the grace of God the flying spaghetti monster, go I" (leaving aside, for the moment, the gender issue) - got me thinking about Dante, and his observation at the outset of The Divine Comedy:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Susan Fox, the Executive Director of the organization, noted the stigma often associated with women who are victims of domestic violence and/or homelessness, and stressed the importance of the positivism that pervades all aspects of Jubilee's programs. She encouraged us - and everyone - to look for (and celebrate?) the essential goodness within each of these women, a perspective I try to adhere to ... and, yet (as with so many things), often feel conflicted about.

I suspect that Susan would extend this suspension of negative judgment and appreciation of essential goodness to all women, not just those whose paths happen to lead to / through Jubilee. Returning to the gender thread I suspended earlier, this got me to thinking about whether we draw the line at women, or whether we ought to suspend negative judgments and appreciate the goodness in all people, men and women alike.

Pushing further along this edge, I wondered whether / how we can offer the same graciousness to the men who perpetrated violence on the women residents of Jubilee (not that I mean tot imply that all residents there are victims of domestic violence). Can we - ought we to - celebrate the future within every person (not just every woman)?

I find this to be an immensely challenging proposition. Philosophically, I cannot justify the drawing of lines of demarcation - this person is essentially good, that person is essentially evil. However, in practice, I do this all the time (I've noted several times before my personal challenges with seeing the essential goodness in George W. Bush, who, in my judgment, is one of the biggest perpetrators of violence - scaling back social programs, reducing protections for our environment, supporting capital punishment, war and [other forms of] torture - on the face of the planet). Who knows, maybe more obvious expressions of goodness lie in his future ...

As usual, I don't have any good answers ... just good questions ... or, at least, questions about goodness.

Blessed Unrest: Environmental and Social Justice for All … or Bust!

Blessed_unrest In his latest book (and video), environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author Paul Hawken achieves a remarkable balance between breadth and depth in arguing that in order to restore environmental and social balance on this earth, we must strive for both, or we will achieve neither. Noting that "we are nature", and thus however we treat the earth affects its people and however we treat one another affects the earth, Hawken presents a systems approach in which recognizing our interrelatedness, taking advantage of our interconnectedness, and acting with greater consciousness may allow us to save ourselves and our planet from the brink of disaster.

The title of the book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, is based on Hawken’s estimate of somewhere between one to two million organizations worldwide – many of them very small and narrowly focused (hence their relative unremarkability, from the point of view of major media) – that are acting to improve environmental and/or social conditions. Although many of these organizations (some of which are listed at are acting independently, an increasing number are linking together with other organizations – in the non-profit, government and commercial sectors – to achieve greater progress ... think globally, act locally, link laterally.

The Unrest in the title presumably describes the motivations of people in this Movement – what moves them to take risks in challenging commercial rights on behalf of the rights of the planet and its peoples. I was deeply moved by the book – it is searingly provocative on an intellectual and emotional level. I’m not sure how much risk I’m willing to take on in order to join this movement … but I’ll at least write about it (Hawken notes that the key attributes to success in fighting for environmental and social justice are "gumption and persistence", so this is at least within scope for [the name of] this blog), and perhaps writing will help pave the way toward further action, by me and/or others (socio-neuro-linguistic programming?).

I found myself feeling physically ill during some passages, such as when he described a single day in the 15th century during which Spanish conquerors raped and beheaded 3,000 people in front of a [presumably complacent, if not condoning] priest. Other passages moved me to tears of sadness, as when he recounted the desecration of The Mother of the Forest, a 363-foot sequoia cut down and transported to New York to parade in front of audiences in the mid-nineteenth century, or the horrendous mistreatment of children by industrialists in England during the latter part of that century, such as the teenaged girls typically employed as benchgrinders who lost the ability to sleep, to stand, and eventually, to breathe, often dying before reaching adulthood.

Hawken highlights the history of economic fundamentalism – in which commercial rights have consistenly trumped human (and environmental) rights – perhaps most starkly exemplified by the Frame Breaking Act of 1812 in England, whereby people who destroyed machinery could be executed, while corporations running machinery that destroyed people were unaccountable. This primacy of business interests over environmental and social interests extends back through thousands of years of slavery and indentured servitude, and is still very much alive and well today, as exemplified by the “rights” of the World Trade Organization, which imposes sanctions on countries that seek to impose restrictions on commerce due to the environmental and/or human costs incurred in the production of "goods". In fact, I believe that it is the nearly unfettered ability of corporations to externalize such costs – to exclude them from any financial accounting, and thereby excuse themselves from any moral or civic accountability – that has led us to the brink of planetary and humanitarian catastrophe.

If everything and everyone is truly connected – an "Ecology 101" perspective that Hawken argues for repeatedly and convincingly throughout the book – then there are no externalities, and the sooner we (and I use the term with intentional ambiguity) adopt accounting and accountability systems with greater integrity, the better … and if we wait too long, we may give new, planetarily posthumous meaning to the cliché "he who dies with the most toys, wins".

Any kind of fundamentalism is dangerous, and, I believe, ultimately disastrous (I'm reminded of the slogan "all isms lead to schisms"). All fundamentalists are, consciously or unconsciously, promoting totalitarianism, and so all fundamentalist movements represent pathologies of power. The world would be a better place if everyone were a Muslim / Christian / capitalist / communist / etc., and so any means of shifting the balance in the “right” direction – through "expirtation, genocide and colonialism … cultural cleansing for the supposed benefit of the victim" – are justified. James Carse's observation that "all evil is the result of trying to eliminate evil" (e.g., "the only good Indian is a dead Indian") - and, for those more familiar with his insights into finite and infinite games, "evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game" - offers an interesting perspective on the fundamentalist perspective.

A quote from Bertrand Russell, from his aptly named Unpopular Essays, and reminiscent of sentiments expressed in and James Ogilvy’s Living Without a Goal, helps explain why fundamentalism is so popular:

Man is a credulous animal and must believe in something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will believe in bad ones.

Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, offers further insights into these fundamental human tendencies as they apply to the religious dimension. Hawken’s recounting of the attacks on Rachel Carlson, author of Silent Spring, a 1962 expose on the harmful effects of the chlorinated pesticides (DDT), highlight a relatively newer, secular dimension for bad grounds for belief, also known as corporate junk science, in which corporate funded "think tanks" sow seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt about any scientific discoveries that may harm their economic bottom line. This tactic of assimilation through dissimulation is promoted implicitly and explicitly by corporations, governments and their partners and co-beneficiaries, the mainstream media, more recently exemplified by reactions – or lack thereof – to threats of climate change and Weapons of Mass Destruction Delusion  … though, as Hawken observes, “any finger-pointing is inevitably directed back to ourselves" (reminiscent of my own recent revelations regarding seeing what I want to see).

Hawken notes that fundamentalism is, fundamentally, about ideology, and any fundamentalism – whether it is capitalism, socialism, capitalism or terrorism – is based on uniformity rather than diversity, and thus more inclined to justify and dictate than to question and liberate. Diversity, along with self-organization and self-regulation, are among the hallmarks of an effective immune system (or what Fritjof Capra, in his book, The Web of Life, calls an immune network), and Hawken suggests that "the widely diverse network of organizations proliferating in the world today may be a better defense against injustice than F-16 fighter jets".

Although much of the focus in the book is on how small organizations are working to improve the lots of the planet and its peoples, Hawken also includes some larger scale initiatives, such as The Nature Conservancy, which has US$4.4B in assets, the Clinton Global Initiative, which recently raised US$7.3B in pledges to combat global warming, injustice, intolerance and poverty, and the Gates Foundation, with US$29B in assets (and an annual budget that is twice that of the World Health Organization), dedicated to the eradication of disease in the developing world.

While I hope these initiatives are successful, I have to note that I think it’s ironic that Bill Clinton, who, despite his purported commitment - in the past and present - to environmental and social causes, was an ardent proponent of some of the foremost tools of promulgating environmental and social injustice, through his support for NAFTA, GATT and welfare reform (and even his former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, who I had previously thought was more populist than corporatist, has recently been defending the gross inequity of the gross pay given to many CEOs).

Toward the end of the book, after cataloging a broad range of environmental and social injustices suffered in the past, present and possible future(s), interspersed with examples of organizations that are making some progress in addressing or even rectifying some of those injustices, Hawken offers an optimistic vision about how this movement might unfold. One passage, in particular, triggered a “goose bump moment” for me, where I experienced a strong visceral reaction to the words on the page:

We cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening … What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?

As is often the case (with me), this positive feeling was soon followed by some self-critical reflection (perhaps because I was reading the book on an international flight during which, according to Atmosfair,  I was personally responsible for the emissions of approximately 3270 kg of C02 into the atmosphere): we I may be experiencing a spiritual awakening, but what are we am I doing about it?

This emotional and intellectual trajectory was then reinforced by another moving passage, in which Hawken quotes one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.

So what am I going to do? How much gumption do I really have? Is the work I do really serving to promote environmental and social justice? Is it having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my abilities? [By definition, I suppose, it’s having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my willingness.] Can I really help to empower people to achieve greater environmental and social justice in my role(s) at Nokia? I’m not sure about the “blessed” dimension, but Hawken’s book has clearly created some unrest in me.

While I have written about environmental and social issues in the past, I believe I can do more to take part in this movement … and I am taking small steps in that direction. Although not directly related to the main focus of my research, I will be participating in a session at Pop!Tech 2007 in which I will be joined by Katrin Verclas and Nathan Eagle in giving presentations and leading discussions about broad visions and specific examples of how mobile technologies are serving to empower people throughout the developing world to develop solutions to the local environmental, social and political challenges they face. It’s a small step (for me, especially when compared to the steps taken by my cohorts in the session), but it does lie along a trajectory that seems to increasingly beckon me, including my recent awakening to the enormous challenges in Africa, and my recent exposure to the ways that communities and technologies can be used to address those challenges.

I can’t say that a clear path has emerged for how I can (or will) do more yet, but as long as I keep taking even small steps in the right direction, I believe I am contributing in positive ways to this movement.

The Twelve Steps for Technology-Centered Designers

A friend and I were recently discussing the prevalence of technocentric design and thinking in many of the world's leading technology research and development centers, both in industry and academia.  During the course of the conversation, in which we recounted people, places and projects that seemed to reflect an approach that might be characterized as "technology in search of a problem", it struck me that this obsession with technology for technology's sake seems almost like an addiction in some cases. And when I think of addiction, I think of the 12 steps ... and so I decided to have a go at adapting the 12 steps for technology-centered designers.

The Twelve Steps for Technology-Centered Designers

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our users - that our expectations about the utility and usability of our technology had been unreasonable
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our ability to design technology that is both useful and usable
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our work over to the care of our user-centered design processes as we understood user-centered design
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our technology-centered design and development processes
  5. Admitted to our Higher Power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our tecnhnocentric assumptions
  6. Were entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of perspective
  7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our technocentric biases
  8. Made a list of all users our technology had harmed (or not helped), and became willing to make amends to them all
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were developing technology in search of a problem, promptly admitted it
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our users as we understood our users, praying only for knowledge of our users' needs for our technology, and the power for us to design technology to meet those needs
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

A few caveats:

  • I recognize that there are cases where "if you build it, they will come", and that some technology innovations are adapted for uses never envisioned by their designers (whether those designers were using a user-centered or technology-centered approach). The question, for me, is the starting point -- is the technology at least intended to solve a real human problem?
  • The foregoing is not intended to insult or ridicule any person, place or project, but simply to encourage reflection ... and perhaps a bit of fun. The second of Don Miguel Ruiz' four agreements, "don't take anything personally", and the 12-step slogan, "take what you like and leave the rest", are applicable here.
  • Although I feel a closer kinship to user-centered design than technology-centered design, I don't consider myself a particularly strong adherent to the former (I suppose I don't consider myself a particularly strong adherent to any philosophy, religion or political party). For that matter, I don't consider myself much of a designer, technologist or even "user" (which seems to have a rather passive connotation), either. [I'm not sure what this makes me, but I'll leave that for another blog post ...]
  • I don't feel a particularly strong affinity to the 12 steps, either, especially not as they were originally articulated. For one thing, I do not believe that there is any kind of Higher Power that has a "will" for me (or anyone else). For another, I have a problem with the monotheistic anthropomorphic paternalism reflected in the original 12 steps. In an earlier post on self-disclosure, I noted that I consider myself a confirmed non-Catholic, and although I'm warming up to spirituality, I'm still pretty cool toward religion (I recently read in Utne about a related observation made by Paul Hawken: "All ideologies lead to 'isms' and all 'isms' lead to schisms"). Although AA, Al-Anon/Alateen and other 12 step programs purport to be "non-denominational", in my own experience, they are steeped in Christianity, and thus not nearly as open and inclusive as they say they want to be ... so I adapted the original 12 steps to remove these biases. FWIW, here's a version of the original 12 steps that I believe is more open and inclusive:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power as we understood our Higher Power
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
    5. Admitted to our Higher Power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
    7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our shortcomings
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power as we understood our Higher Power, praying only for knowledge of our Higher Power's will for us and the power to carry that out
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs