Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aung San Suu Kyi on Hunger Strike

I heard this morning that Suu Kyi has not accepted her weekly delivery of food since August 15 and is rumored to be on a hunger strike. [1] She has spent 13 of the last 19 years in prison or under house arrest, and has not been seen in public since September, 2007.[2] And the military junta has just extended her detention for another year. [3]

Burma has one of the worst human rights records in the world: a country of only 20 million people with a thousand political prisoners, 500,000 political refugees, poets and journalists tortured for speaking out.[4]

I passed along this news to a friend and former colleague with whom I worked in Amnesty International some years ago, who was lamenting the fact that despite all our efforts advocating for human rights, such monstrosities still continue. "History has moved on into an even stranger world that I no longer feel relevant to," he said.

I know how he feels. I've been thinking the same thing lately. But what is it about this woman that makes it so insistent that the fight must go on? Imagine ... winning your country's election, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and your country's military junta is so afraid of what you represent that they lock you up and forbid you visitors, not even a dying husband wanting to see his wife one last time. This woman is a giant, and they know it. Even if they succeed in killing her, she will have won.

And where is the rest of the world, while this continues? Why aren't more speaking up for Aung San Suu Kyi??

I find that so bizarre--that an army of over 400,000 soldiers is so afraid of this one woman. It says volumes, both about them--and her.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Saturation Point

Information overkill, I am shortcircuiting today.

Everytime I turn on CNN, it's the Denver convention, 24/7, and will be for the rest of the week. Overkill with re-runs of the same footage, repeated over and over and over, as if there is no other news. (When was the last time they talked about what's going on in Iraq? I can't remember.)

So what's happening in Denver? Well, you can click here to see Amy Goodman of Democracy Now's video coverage of the Democratic National Convention. She gives some interesting interviews, some of which helped put things into perspective for me. Real, in-depth discussion, as opposed to soundbites and spin.

Maybe it's time to kill the television. So rare that anything worthwhile ever comes out of that box, and it's eating up time better spent elsewhere.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

You Are Who I Say You Are

I was thinking this morning of my best friend in high school, now deceased, whose name was Mary Lou. We all went to a Catholic school and every time she wrote her name on a school assignment, the nun would cross out the middle name "Lou" and replace it with "Louise". "No, that's not correct," my friend would say. "It's Lou. My birth certificate says 'Lou', not 'Louise'." But still the nun insisted it had to be "Louise" (because "Lou" is not a saint's name). My friend's birth name was not acceptable; she was forced to use the one the nun had assigned to her.

Then there was a friend from college days, Vladimer, from Slovakia. He had been renamed "Val" by his co-workers, who couldn't, apparently, pronounce a "v" and an "l" together.

These are examples of the perhaps unconscious reactions by people to the concept of Otherness, i.e., you encounter something that is not familiar or that somehow bothers you; it makes you a bit uncomfortable. Your solution is to change the situation to make it more acceptable. So you rename the person or thing, and in doing so reveal to the person involved, as well as everyone else, a subconscious desire to cancel out the Otherness. Some will acquiesce to this, out of a desire to be accepted or assimilated, and adjust accordingly. Others, however, may feel that a portion of their self identity has been compromised, and in some cases, forever altered.

Vladimer didn't seem to mind becoming Val. But Mary Lou stubbornly fought, from her desk in the third grade, to not become a Mary Louise.

Dunno why these thoughts popped into my head this morning, perhaps it was the winding down of the Olympics and I'm reminded again that since the Chinese began occupying Tibet, the Tibetan language and culture are being systemically wiped out. You can apparently get arrested for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama. (Shades of the pesky Borg: "You WILL assimilate!") Kind of like we did with the Native-American Indians, discouraging and downright forbidding them to speak in their own language--and renaming them. (The goal of Indian education from the 1880s through the 1920s was to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of America by placing them in institutions where traditional ways could be replaced by those sanctioned by the government.)[1]

What is it about Otherness that threatens us so? Why do we feel we have to make others be just like us in order to feel completely comfortable with them? It happens all the time, and not just with foreigners. People of some religions cannot rest until they have converted people of another religion, or of no religion, to their particular way of thinking. How many wars have resulted as a result of this type of mindframe?

I read an interesting review recently, by Naz Rassool of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas's book Linguistic Genocide in Education--or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (2000) "Skutnabb-Kangas draws on experiences of people in the USA to highlight the different pressures on some immigrants to change their names as a prerequisite of belonging to the dominant group within the country of adoption. Other contemporary examples include the widespread pressures for workers employed by Western transnational companies located within, for example, the Far East to adopt a Western (Christian) name."[2]

Check out Skutnabb-Kangas's 2002 essay entitled Language Policies and Education: The Role of Education in Destroying or Supporting the World's Linguistic Diversity.

Myriad thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning, over a cup of lukewarm Chinese flower tea.

Monday, August 18, 2008

An invitation

A dear friend and former teacher has invited me to join a religious/philosophy discussion group, which would be a very good way for me to improve my French. But I am going to decline, not because I don't need the practice--I do. But because while it purports to be a "discussion," what really usually happens is that it quickly could turn into a verbal sparring session: Someone presents a theory and cites a historical reference; someone else disagrees and challenges the validity of the 'argument', citing a different reference; and then a third person pipes in to demonstrate why his belief or opinion is more valid than that of the others'.

What does it matter, really, that Buddhism is not really a "religion" [break off here for a 15-minute discussion on what constitutes a religion], or that atheists don't believe in God, or that agnostics aren't jumping on any particular spiritual bandwagon (i.e., committing one way or another, belief-wise), or how a particular religion mutated or evolved, or what Jesus or Buddha would say about X, Y or Z? I know these things matter to some people, and they can discuss such subjects endlessly. I guess I am not one of them because it doesn't, in the scheme of things, seem all that important to me right now.

My experience of discussion groups involving religion or philosophy (or politics), has been largely that participants attempt to defend a particular belief or position to people who believe the exact opposite. There is a lot of talking, but very little actual listening, and it always seems to boil down to: "I believe X, and you believe Y," and the sole purpose of the "discussion", as it sometimes escalates into an eventual shouting match, is everyone is trying to convince everyone else that they are Right and the others are Wrong. The thing is, nobody will admit that to themselves.

For example, say a person makes a statement (about religion or philosophy or politics) and someone else replies with an alternate view. This often results in an immediate verbal attack back. If the discussion is by email, it a response might be delivered with exclamation points or words all in capital letters (indicating that someone has hit a nerve). One then responds with a counter comment or cites a reference; the other person then argues that that information is erroneous, irrelevant, or biased and offers his or her justification for the opposite view... punctuated with more exclamation points. And the war is on, ha ha. And while it's always good to gain more knowlege and be better informed, it rarely results in either party's really being all that receptive to seriously considering anything that would radically change an already deeply held belief.

To have a meaningful discussion, you first have to agree on the terms, define the language. If what X means by "God", for example, is different from what Y means by the word "God", then you're coming from different universes. Ditto for philosophical or political discussions.

To be fair, perhaps this group wouldn't turn out that way. But discussions of this sort seem to me an exercise mainly for scholars and fellow devotees. I'm flattered to have been invited. While it might be interesting to compare what Kant and Plato and Aquinas and Spinoza and Christ and Buddha all have to say on a particular subject, in the end I have really only my own personal experience to go by. I have spent years reading and thinking about philosophy and religion and don't especially enjoy having to justify whatever conclusions I've drawn, or engage in debate about why I feel that one particular belief system seems more reasonable to me than another. It's too personal a matter. Again, if I were a scholar, such lively academic conversation would be of much more interest. (It was,at one time, very much so, actually.) But you can only talk about it so much (unless it's your "field"). Everybody to his own path.

It occurs to me that the REAL reasons for my declining, though, are something much more basic: (1) I get tongue-tied when obliged to speak in front of a group; and (2) my French is not yet good enough to allow me to engage in any meaningful way in what probably would be a lively discussion with everybody all speaking rapidly, discussing books or writings or philosophers or scriptures with which I may not be familiar.

But what a nice thing to have been asked.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

No Free Press at the Beijing Olympics

The IOC issued firm statements that freedom of the press would be respected during the games. China has also insisted that, "there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games."

But foreign journalists have issued reports about everything from restricted internet access to restricted movement. They also report of being photographed by police officers while they interview athletes
. [1]

So much for freedom of the press. As for the audacity of anyone raising the issue of what's happening in Tibet--don't even THINK about it! A number of Chinese commented on this video saying, in effect, that such protests are "disrespectful" of the Chinese people and "Don't come to China if you aren't going to follow 'the rules.'"

Run that by me again, will you? "There will be no restrictions on journalists", China said. So China blocks or denies internet access and restricts journalists' movements. (And in the case of this British journalist, arrests them.)

I think that's what the Native American Indians used to call "speaking with a forked tongue."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Cobalt Blue Tea Kettle

Last week I happened to pass by a thrift shop and saw inside, high up on a shelf, a marvelous little cobalt-blue tea kettle, on sale for a mere $8.00. It was flawless, it looked brand new. (I found a similar one on sale on the Internet for $60, and another at $119.) I had no cash on me at the time and I resolved, at soon as possible, to return and buy it. It matched other items in my blue kitchen. I had bowls and dishes the exact same color.

I began obsessing about that blue kettle. I HAD to have it, I just had to. I had never seen one like it before. I wanted it desperately. It seemed, well, urgent that I go get the money and come back and buy it.

It was this sudden sense of urgency that puzzles me.

On Thursday I had an appointment across the street from the shop and arrived early, for the express purpose of going and getting that blue tea kettle. But when I went inside, it was no longer on the shelf. Someone else had bought it. I was devastated. It had become such an obsession. Why? I was willing to spend grocery money on it. I already HAVE a tea kettle--a plain, boring, rather pedestrian aluminum one. So I didn't NEED another one. But it wheezes and sputters instead of whistles and it was a hand-me-down--why not replace it with something more functional and attractive? And that cobalt blue color!, the sleek, smooth design--everything about it was perfect. And I HAD to have it--that one and no other, right then, right there.

In retrospect, it puzzles me, the force of that sense of urgency about that little blue tea kettle. It got me thinking about how strong some compulsions and obsessions are and how much they rule us. Just a random rumination today on Attachment and Obsession, and particular objects we covet and ultimately don't get to have. How does one detach oneself from the urgent longings for certain material objects?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Controlling Our Food Supply

The World According to Monsanto, a documentary by Marie-Monique Robin.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

For Tibet

At 9:00 PM.
One candle,
in my window,
with the others around the world,
in solidarity
with the Tibetans.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.

-- Kahlil Gabran