Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

December has been so incredibly busy that I have not been able to blog as much as I wanted to, so I will have to fill in the gaps eventually as there are many posts that I wanted to write but didn't have time due to things that needed to get done before I went home for Christmas (my first Christmas with my parents and sister since 2005).

I don't think my dad has wi-fi and I'll unlikely use his computer much to get on Facebook or to blog. The point is to spend time with family and have great conversations and just enjoy the week because this is the first time I've been home since my sister's wedding in 2009 and I haven't seen my parents since my grandfather's funeral, also in 2009.

My week at home is going to be packed. Part of this is because I'm also visiting friends in South Carolina and North Carolina (from 28 through 30 December) and on my birthday (the 30th), I'm hoping to visit the Georgia Guidestone. After reading one lady's experience there earlier this year, I want my own mystical experience there on my birthday. So, if higher intelligences out there are reading my blog, you heard me. Meet me at the Georgia Guidestone on Friday afternoon, the 30th of December!

I'll likely catch up posts when I get back to Portland on 2 January. Some posts include an annual newsletter for the year 1991, a book review on American Fascists, the Occupy Portland camp, a special post on my birthday, the movie Astral City, and the Best of 2011.

Have a Merry Christmas and I hope you get to spend it with loved ones.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Well Meaning Gift

Earlier today, the family that gives me a ride to church gave me a few gifts. They didn't have to, though, but I appreciate it. The lady asked me if I open gifts when I get them or wait until Christmas. I have not set policy, but generally prefer to wait until the holiday to open any gifts. However, her daughter kept insisting that I open it, just to satisfy her mom, as she was so excited to see my reaction when I open the gift. I hesitated, though. She told me that I'll want to read this, that it would go straight to the top of my reading list. She even said that I should open it now because I'll want to read it on the plane when I fly home for Christmas. That intrigued me, so I decided to open it.

I laughed when I saw the title. I had never heard of this book before, but the title amused me because its obviously in reference to a conversation we had about the Facebook debate on atheists holding the priesthood in the Community of Christ. I was actually touched that she got such a book for me, even though I never would have bought it had I seen it on bookshelves. As I flipped through it, I noticed that it seems to be more evangelical Christian and thus why they'd have a problem with atheism. But most of all, the forward was written by David Limbaugh, who is a conservative author (I'm not sure if he's related to Rush Limbaugh, but they seem to have similar views). To me, that strikes at the heart of credibility. Of course, I'm going to read it since someone gave it to me as a gift and it does look interesting.

I appreciate her kindness and thoughtfulness in getting me this book. It truly is a touching gesture and I'm grateful for it. And yet, I also feel a need to express here that when it comes to books, I'm probably a bad person to buy for. This is because I have way too many books and have a hard time parting with any of them, even though I only read them once and then put them on a shelf (I'll use them for reference after they get read). When someone gives me a gift like this (a book I've never heard of, thus never would've bought), I'm conflicted because I don't like giving gifts away (I feel it is bad form, even though it isn't), but this is a book that I likely will not keep after I read it.

As I skimmed through it, trying to get a sense of the book, I had to laugh. This lady read me completely wrong. I don't actually have a problem with atheists. There is a real need for atheists in our society, as they help keep religious people intellectually honest and they ask tough but important questions. Their strict rational logic can be frustrating at times, but that's the way they're wired, I suppose. We can learn much from their rational way at looking at the world. This book looks like it rips on atheists, which may not be accurate information.

What I do have a problem with is people who become atheists but refuse to give up their priesthood calling. To not do so is morally and ethically wrong because it violates the trust between a church member seeking a special, sacred ordinance of the church in good faith from what is supposedly safe to assume, a priesthood member who believes in God and a human soul.

Another friend of mine asked me what I wanted for Christmas and mentioned that he might buy me a book. I showed him my book case and asked, "Does it look like I need another book?" I'm flattered that people realize that I love books and want to get me a gift...but unless you know that i really want such and such a book, its probably best not to buy one for me. I'm trying to keep ahead on my reading list and whenever I'm tempted to buy a book, I always ask myself, "Will I read this before the next payday?" If the answer is "no," then I won't buy it.

My reading schedule for 2012 will be politically heavy. I will read a lot of political memoirs and a few biographies on Obama, Hillary Clinton, and about the 2008 campaign. Its to help put me into a political frame of mind, although I also plan to read the books I have about finding a dream career and dating. Those are my main goals for next year, so religious books are going to have to wait until 2013. The book I want to read the most is Condoleezza Rice's memoirs of her time as Secretary of State. If someone gifted me that book, I'll be thrilled so I don't have to buy it early in the new year.

As for reading on the plane, I told this lady that I would not take this book on the plane with me because it would be too provocative and I really don't want to send the wrong impression to people. When I travel, I always pick a book to read that might be a little out of the norm for most people and one that might spark a conversation if someone initiated one with me. For this trip, I already have a couple books picked out for my journey: a biography on Aung San Suu Kyi and Amy Tan's novel Saving Fish From Drowning (which I've wanted to read for several years now). Another friend of mine gave me a book about Alaska that I haven't touched yet, but want to. Too many books, not enough time!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Music Video Monday: Robbie Williams

This week's music video selection is in honour of the failed campaign ad by Rick Perry. The ad's title is "Strong" and features Governor Perry proclaiming himself a Christian before lamenting what's wrong with our country. Though the ad didn't specifically slander homosexuals (apparently, many people took it as such), he tried to connect the openly gay servicemen and women with the prayer in school issue, which doesn't work.

Several people on my Facebook friends list linked this video and expressed their outrage. Some even called for the media to ban Rick Perry or to silence him. Why? Just because she showed his true colours? The man's entitled to his opinion. What I don't like was how people automatically assumed his ad was "anti-gay", when in fact, all he said was that he believed there was something wrong with our country when gay people were allowed to serve openly while children in school had to hide their Christianity and couldn't pray in class. The conflating of the two issues is likely to confound his followers (if he has any). Its a ridiculous comparison. One deals with adult issues, in which adults will behave as they will and are entitled to have consenting sexual relations with whomever they choose. The other deals with children who are supposed to be learning subjects in school that will help them in life, not harassing one another for not belonging to the same religion as them. And besides, if you really want to pray in school, there were many minutes available. A silent prayer can be given at any time and no one will notice. You can say one in the middle of a boring sermon. The problem comes when they enforce conformity on people and if one child doesn't "fit in" because he was raised in a minority religion, then it only serves to make that child even more ostrasized.

I think the most interesting aspect of Perry's campaign ad is how he tries to channel Ronald Reagan, from the hair (colour and style), the wrinkles on his face, and the "cowboy look." Its blatantly obvious that Perry is trying to physical resemble Reagan, as if this were enough to get a few people to vote his way. I think its safe to say that Reagan might have been a moron, but at least he wasn't a complete imbecile like Dubya and Perry.

Not long after Perry's ad made the news, people were already pointing out the similarities between the jackets worn by Heath Ledger (as Ennis) in the gay cowboy film, Brokeback Mountain, and Rick Perry in his "Strong" ad. Was this a subtle signal to someone who knows the truth about Rick Perry (there are supposedly rumours that he had an affair with another man and his wife supposedly caught them in bed together).

The controversy is hilarious, because once again, the Republicans do something that they think will resonate with voters but in reality becomes an Internet sensation. I don't think Republicans understand yet the power of YouTube, blogging, and Facebook. Politicians can no longer speak one thing to one audience and the opposite to another audience. Chances are, recordings are made and then the inconsistencies get aired. We are living in a more open age, which is a bad thing for those nefarious individuals who prefer to hide in the shadows.

The title of Perry's ad made me automatically think of Robbie Williams' brilliant song "Strong." I love the line: "You think I'm strong, you're wrong..." So, there really was no other alternative than this awesome song, in honour of Rick Perry, the gaffe riot who is becoming less and less likely to win the Republican nomination.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Last Crichton Novel (Sigh)

The last novel by Michael Crichton was released in late November. Shortly after he passed away a few days after Obama was elected president, Crichton's publisher announced that there were two unpublished Crichton novels that would be published. The first was Pirate Latitudes (which I read a few months ago and loved). The second and final one was actually a novel that Crichton was in the process of writing when he died. I was skeptical about this one, since he did not complete it. However, the publisher claims that Crichton had made extensive notes and it was at least halfway written. They hired a writer, Richard Preston (who wrote The Hot Zone, which was a hot bestseller in the 1990s and launched a spawn of killer viruses movies), to work from Crichton's notes to finish this novel. I know there are arguments pro and con about posthumous published works, but one could reasonably argue that Crichton would have wanted this novel to be published and had the misfortune of dying in the middle of writing it. How honourable it is for another writer to see that the work is done and published so fans of Crichton can have one last thrill.

That's certainly my view. Ever since I read Rising Sun in 1993, I was hooked on Michael Crichton. The reason is because before that time, I had a hard time finishing books. I would start them and then get bored (usually around page 100 or so) and set the book down, never to pick it up again. I was curious to read Rising Sun when that novel was mentioned in the 1992 primaries. At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was running high in America due to our recession and the belief that the Japanese weren't being fair in their trading policies. In the zeitgeist of that time, Crichton's incendiary novel about Japanese business practices was published (Crichton has had the most enviable sense of great timing for his novels. They always seem to be published around the time the issues he explores is in the media spotlight). As I read Rising Sun, I was both hooked and infuriated. Some call this novel "racist" with a negative view of the Japanese, but I was surprised at how many characteristics that the Japanese have that I could understand or relate to. I've only read the novel once and saw the movie once, so I don't remember the details. Perhaps I should watch the movie again for a refresher.

Anyhow, from that novel, I was hooked on Crichton and couldn't wait to get my hands on some more of his books. By fortunate luck, I was sent to Naples, Italy (from Sardinia) to deal with a persistent eye problem and while there, I took advantage of being able to buy books from the American bookstore on the military base. I bought Crichton's Congo and Jurassic Park, which I also read in 1993. My dad mailed me most of Crichton's other novels: The Andromeda Strain and Sphere. I just devoured his books. In 1994, Disclosure was published an a shipmate who had gone back to the U.S. for military training brought back that novel for me to read. It also infuriated me, because its about a man who was sexually harassed by a woman, which many people think is a joke or not possible. As one who had seen the power of a sexually harassing woman in the Navy, I know that it exists.

From then on, each new Crichton novel became a special day for me. I'd rush out and buy it the day of release. This included The Lost World in 1995 and Airframe in 1996. The next few novels were Christmas gifts that my dad gave me: Timeline in 1999, Prey in the early 2000s (I forget which year), and State of Fear in 2004. I bought his Next in 2006. Upon buying or receiving his novel as a gift (Nathan's best man gift to me was a CD version of Timeline), I would immediately sit down to read it and lose myself in Crichton's world. I know that many people criticize his lack of character development. They are essentially there to push the story forward. Its an unfair criticism to make, though, as I learned in literature class that there is more than one kind of genre for writing. Crichton tends to be more action-oriented than character-oriented. If people want character-oriented stories, then buying literary fiction is the way to go. My favourite genre is literary fiction (and I aspire to be a literary novelist) but Crichton is among my favourite writers (he was my favourite, until I discovered Jack Kerouac in 2001). What I love about his books are the way his extensive bibliography gives credence to the idea that his ideas might be closer to reality than we think it might be.

Now with Micro, this is the last hurrah. I had no hesitation to buy it when I saw it in bookstores. I'll never experience the thrill of seeing a new Crichton novel, so I'll take this moment, regardless of how much of the novel was actually written by him. For a week, I could not put this book down. It inspired me and terrified me. And it sent my mind reeling in a hundred different directions. It was classic Crichton all the way!

What is the novel about? Well, it involves technology, of course (Crichton's speciality). An unethical high-tech company based in Hawaii has created the ability to shrink objects such as machines and even humans. The point is to gather information on the tiniest substances on our planet. The shrunken humans get to experience the majesty of our planet at the most dangerous level. This novel will have you looking at nature in an entirely different way!

In classic Crichton style, he has a group of scientists (in this case, science nerds at Harvard) brought out to Hawaii and then shrunken to half an inch. If I were making comparisons, I'd say that this novel is a cross between Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Prey. While most of his novels make it to the big screen, I'm not sure I would want to see this one in theaters. The reason is because as the shrunken humans learn, the insect world (in fact, the animal kingdom) is all about kill or be killed. The endless search for more protein. So, the shrunken university scientists get to be out of the lab with their thesis and experiments, and forced to cope in a harsh, Darwinian world where only the fittest survive. There are moments of sheer terror throughout: giant centipedes, ants, wasps, spiders, birds, raindrops, bats. Being unprotected in the dark is a dangerous prospect, as that's when most of the critters go hunting for food.

I was so enthralled by this novel and I have no idea where the dividing line might be between Crichton's words and Preston's words. It flowed smoothly and the story does represent an authentic Crichton. I bet he would be proud of his work and hopefully his soul is grateful that a fine writer was able to capture his voice and style, completing Crichton's novel for him.

When I finished the book, I was sad because this means no more Crichton. I've read all of his fiction (except for Eaters of the Dead, which I may read next year). Perhaps, the story isn't over. Perhaps, he left a secret cachet of unpublished novels that has not been discovered or disclosed. I really wish that he had written his autobiography, though. His Travels is about as close as we'll ever get to a personal memoir. Its a good one, but I'd love to read more. What led this Med Student towards a writing career that focused on science and technology running amuck?

I truly hope Crichton will reincarnate soon. We need his writing talent. The world just isn't the same without him. Thank you, Mr. Crichton for all the memories. Your novels are awesome!

Here's how I would rank his novels (in terms of personal favourites):

1) Congo
2) Jurassic Park
3) Timeline
4)Pirate Latitudes
5) Disclosure
6) Micro
7) Sphere
8) Andromeda Strain
9) State of Fear
10) Prey
11) Airframe
12) The Lost World
13) The Great Train Robbery
14) Next

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Lack of Imagination

Last night, the bi-weekly discussion group that I attend had the final meeting of the year on the topic of Inequality. The turn out was pretty big (15 people by the end of it) and we weren't in our usual spot. We were crammed in a small corner, which has happened before due to someone dropping the ball on scheduling. We usually have the upper floor of the restaurant (Madison's Grill, which is a great place with a super friendly waitress). I don't mind the coziness of the back corner, but it made discussion a little difficult to hear due to jazz music playing in the background. I knew I wouldn't be able to speak much because it would take a lot of effort to be heard over the music.

The discussion covered the basics of inequality and the Occupy movement and even segued into a debate about whether people of today are smarter or more informed than people of a hundred years ago. There was even talk about those who think that life was better 100 years ago as being afflicted by nostalgia for a mythological past that didn't really exist. What an interesting debate, as this is exactly what Midnight in Paris was all about (nostalgia is fine and dandy, but if you really think about it, life is pretty good right now and we wouldn't want to trade places with people in the past. Life was meant to be lived in the now).

What stunned me the most, however, about the debate is that everyone seemed to be in consensus that capitalism is it. There is nothing better to replace it. I really wanted to jump in at this point, but people are so quick to respond that its difficult to get a word in edgewise sometimes. I'm stunned that so many of my peers have fallen for the "capitalist lie" that as bad as capitalism can be at times, its still the only legitimate economic system to have. I don't buy it. You shouldn't either. Most of the people in the discussion group tend to be liberal / progressive (this is Portland, after all) and I heard many liberal professors in BYU's Political Science department extol on the greatness of capitalism and assigning reading materials such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Jihad versus McWorld, and The End of History and the Last Man. That last book is by neo-con writer Francis Fukuyama. I remember when I first heard the title and the premise, I was stunned by the arrogance of Fukuyama's thesis, which is: capitalism won the ideological battle of history. No other system can match it. That may be true, but capitalism is probably better thought of as a parasite. It may be able to defeat ineffective economic systems such as communism and tempt people away from the strict orderly societies under Islamic law and influence, but capitalism also destroys itself as we've seen at the end of Bush's reign of errors.

What I wish that I was able to bring up to the group was this: In college, I was struck by the brilliance of "Hegel's Dialectic." Apparently, so was Karl Marx (that commie!). Essentially, you can boil down Hegel's Dialectic to three important words / concepts: Thesis - Antithesis - Synthesis. That's it. Simple and beautiful. It is a great tool for anything in life. I have used it long before I ever heard of Hegel (a German philosopher). I believe life is cyclical, so a circular or cyclical view of history and progress is probably a smart idea. If we were to use Hegel's Dialectic in developing an economic system, here's how it would be done. The basic framework for capitalism would be written down. This is the thesis. Then, you look at the critic, which would be the antithesis. In capitalism's case, Marx's Communist Manifesto is the perfect antithesis. I've read it a few times and was always impressed by how accurate the critique of capitalism is. However, since we all have an advantage over Marx, we've seen the destruction that communism brought to our planet. It is so toxic and discredited an economic system that in the 20 years since its collapse in Eastern Europe and the USSR, not a single country has gone communist. China has been moving towards a capitalist economy and it appears to be working quite nicely for them (proving that capitalism doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with democracy). Of course, the other two "communist" states are the isolated cult of personality prisons known as North Korea and Cuba. Knowing all this, it is amusing that teabaggers still fear communism like its 1955!

So, if you take the pros of capitalism and fix the cons as pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, you'd have an improved upon system. This is synthesis. But it doesn't end there. Its an ongoing process. Self-correcting. Evolving. That's the nature of life on this planet. Stagnation leads to death. And that's the problem with our system. Once people get to the top, they want to hoard all their wealth and they game the system to the point where it collapses on itself because the greed and wholesale looting is unsustainable. Under the reign of George W. Bush, we saw capitalism at its ugliest and greediest. It is my hope that people will stop buying into the lie that we've been fed all our lives about capitalism being this great economic system. Its not. We can and must do better. Our evolution as a species depends upon it.

It was strange to hear all these much smarter than me people agree that capitalism is here to stay. Am I the only one who sees another way? That way is "ETHICONOMY." Ethics needs to be the guiding principle in our economic system. Greed must be rooted out of the system and people who are greedy must be punished or frozen out of the system. Read about "the tragedy of the commons." Greed always ends up destroying what is good for the most number of people. Until more Americans cry out for economic justice and not allow greed to stand, we're going to continue to be suckered into this losing economic scheme. Counting on winning the lottery someday and voting in favour of tax policies advocated by the wealthy class is just plain stupid. America needs "capitalism with a human face." Like Soviet communism, I believe American capitalism is on its way out. History has a way of evening the score, so if we want to be on the winning team, we need to make drastic changes. Realizing that we've been indoctrinated with lies is the first step down the long road to liberation. Will you join me?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The War On Christmas Rages Through Another Year

President Obama may have kept his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, but there is one war that has been going on for far too long that shows no sign of resolution. The war? Why, none other than the Fox Propaganda Network's war on its own viewers. Keeping them dumb, compliant, and focused on non-issues while ignoring the substantive news that really matter. This agenda is getting old, and the casualties are well-meaning people who aren't wise to manipulation.

Believe me, I know! I've seen a few of my friends on Facebook post comments or article links about the so-called "War on Christmas." It stuns me that so many people can be so easily manipulated into falling for a non-issue that was concocted in a meeting at Fox headquarters. That's where Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter get together to coordinate their propaganda. The best way to manipulate people is for the principles to be "on message" and repeat the same story over and over until their lies "become truth" in the minds of their gullible and unsuspecting followers. I don't say this with any joy, because I like the people on my Facebook friends list, particularly those I know in person. It is sad to seem them fall for such propaganda and repeat the lies to their Facebook friends list.

I wish more people would get into the logic frame of mind. It would force them to ask questions like, "What 'war' on Christmas?" Apparently, the outrage is over store clerks who wish customers "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas!" Think, people. THINK! I know you're capable of it! Seriously. Sit down and empty your mind for a second. Oops, I forgot. It's already empty. Okay, that's a good start. So, think about it. A cashier at a store in a mall gets a lot of customers. Most browse without buying. Those who buy, maybe you make some small talk while ringing up their purchases. In your experience, how often do you engage strangers (or customers) in religious talk? Do you ask someone you just met what religion they are? No? Really? Okay. So, if you don't, then why would a cashier? For one thing, they could probably get fired if they did, or at least get called into the boss' office for a "chat."

A cashier ringing up purchases has no clue what your religion is. You could be a Christian or a Jew. Maybe a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu. Or perhaps an atheist, agnostic, or humanist. Or maybe a Wiccan. What about Jehovah's Witness? They don't observe Christmas. In the time it takes to ring up a customer's purchases, does the cashier have time to accurately guess the customer's correct religion in order to say, "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Winter Solstice"? Doesn't "Happy Holidays" catch it all? From Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to other religious holidays that fall in the month of December. What is so "insulting" about "Happy Holidays"? Its not exactly a "Fuck you!"

Still don't get it? How about this? If you require an underpaid cashier to validate your religious beliefs, maybe your faith isn't as strong as you think it is.

Having said all that, I am in favour of changing the greeting to a more appropriate one for our country's true religion. So, with that...


C A P I T A L I S T M A S ! ! !

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The 2011 Nonconformist of the Year is: Mohamed Bouazizi

For the 2011 Nonconformist of the Year Award, I decided to honour Mohamed Bouazizi. It is amazing to reflect on how one individual was able to change the course of human history. No other person deserves the honour this year than Mohamed Bouazizi. Here's why...

On 17 December 2010, a young, frustrated Tunisian young man had had enough of being mistreated by the police. He was a college educated Arab facing the same problems that many of his generation face: no jobs available after getting a college education. He had to resort to selling produce at the market place in Tunis, with money earned to help his family, which included younger siblings. The harassment of the police for not having the appropriate paperwork to sell his goods was simply one humiliation too much.

He took his grievances to the Tunisian government that denied a hearing. So, in frustration, on 17 December, he set himself afire in protest. Suicide in the public square. A horrific way to go.

Miraculously, he survived the burning and was hospitalized for a few weeks before dying of his injuries on January 4th. His death became a rallying cry as Tunisians rose up in protest against the government of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years. By mid-January, the leader of the country fled into exile and people all over North Africa and the Middle East rose up against their governments.

Egypt became the next focal point and eventually, Hosni Mubarak had fled the country after promising to hold elections and not run for another term. Mubarak had been in power since Sadat was assassinated in the early 1980s. Another dictator down because of the mass of people rising up to demand justice.

The spirit of Bouazizi next went to Libya, which took a lot longer for the people to oust long-time dictator Muamar Gadhafi. But, eventually, he met a violent end thanks to air cover by NATO forces led by President Barack Obama.

Now, Assad of Syria has been facing down protests in his country (and committing "war crimes"). Will he follow the same fate? The media seems bored with the Arab Spring, so Syria may actually end up like Iran or Burma during those uprisings of the past few years. Other countries faced public outcry: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, and the other Arab Gulf states.

Amazing that one man's martyrdom resulted in the ouster of three long-time dictators. Would those three men still be in power now if Bouazizi kept allowing himself to be humiliated day after day, week after week, trying to eek out a living on meager sales of fruit? Many religions consider suicide a sin, but what if it took such a drastic action to spark the kindling to set off the powder keg? For far too long, the people of the Middle East and North Africa have lived under oppressive regimes that have been in power for the entire lives of the majority of the population. People can only take so much abuse before they lash back. The questions is never "will they lash back?" but "when?" What does it take to spark a revolution? What outrage must be committed that results in the last straw that broke the camel's back?

The ripple effect of the Arab Spring did not stop in the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, progressives, liberals, and Democrats came out of their hibernation to protest the anti-union moves made by Koch-funded newly elected governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. Voters finally saw the horror of electing Republicans to state governments, not just Congress and the White House. The rallies against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin were large enough to inspire Sarah Palin to come down and rally an opposing tea party protest, defending the governor, who is likely to be recalled as soon as the date arrives when recall petitions can be made.

If that weren't enough, a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine (Adbusters) had an article suggesting people Occupy Wall Street starting on Constitution Day (the day in September marking the anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution). This sparked an American Fall, with Occupy movements forming in many cities and towns across the United States and all over the world, with tent cities and clashes with the police and the emergence of pepper spray as the weapon of choice.

With the European economy collapsing, protests are imminent in Europe. The people in power ought to be running scared, because there are more of us than there are of them. The winds of change are blowing, and with the Mayan 2012 date just around the corner, one has to wonder what's going to happen in the next year. However, when it comes to 2011, it is difficult to imagine the year playing out as it did without Mohamed Bouazizi's death providing the spark that set off the powder keg. As my favourite church campfire song goes, "It only takes a spark, to get a fire going / and soon all those around can warm up to its glowing / that's how it is with God's love, once you've experienced it / you want to sing, you want to pass it on..."

By selecting Mohamed Bouazizi as this year's Nonconformist of the Year, I'm not condoning self-immolation or suicide as something to do. There are other ways to make your point across. Its important to be alive to help build a movement or to participate. However, we never know how desperation can lead people to extreme measures. A nonconformist lives by a principle that doesn't follow the crowd. Its a tragic death, for sure, but worth honouring because of the positive ripple effects. If Mohamed's soul is looking down from heaven, I can imagine that he might be surprised at the public outcry over his death. He cut his life short, but he inspired millions to rise up and take action. The result is amazing: three long-time dictators are gone from the world scene. Let's keep his spirit alive! Long live Mohamed Bouazizi!! May your soul be in the highest degree of glory in the spiritual realm.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Music Video Monday: Ain't No Fun

This past weekend, Republican candidate for president Herman Cain "suspended" his campaign, which allows him to still collect money from donors and use for whatever he wants. This announcement came after speaking to his wife when a lady came forward, claiming to have had a decade-long affair with the married, "family values" conservative.

Of course, Herman Cain still denies that the allegations are true. His denials don't make sense, though. Think about it. If your goal was to attain some job, that this job was your dream, and someone came forward to lie about you, why would you give up your dream? Wouldn't that be letting the liar win? To give up on one's dream so easily means that he really wasn't serious about becoming president. It was all a scheme to become more famous, and it worked. I had never heard of him until he jumped into the Republican race. When I lived in Georgia, he supposedly ran for the Republican nomination of the U.S. Senate seat in 2004 but I don't remember hearing about him at all. If Republicans in Georgia did not want him as a Senator, why would the rest of the country want him as our president? My theory is that Herman Cain was a convenient way for teabaggers to claim that they aren't racist, even after some of the ugliest protest signs in the summer of 2009 that conjured up images of our minstrel show era of the early part of the 20th century.

Herman Cain's claim to fame is being a businessman who saved Burger King and then Godfather's Pizza. However, he helped those companies gain stronger financial footing by closing restaurants, which means he put people out of work. No job creator experience at all. Godfather's Pizza is not in the top three pizza chains and I don't remember seeing one in Georgia. I remember eating at one when my family lived in Omaha and I used to like it, but it has been over 25 years and I'd need to eat there again to see how I like it. I used to like Pizza Hut as a kid, too, but not so much as an adult. Living in Italy changed my taste in regards to pizza. Now, the only pizza places I'll eat are Papa John's and Pizzicato.

When I was in Powell's City of Books recently, I saw a few copies of Herman Cain's book. I was shocked by how thin the book was, yet the price was $25. I think it was less than 200 pages and hardcover. It was mostly his life story and included a section on his policy goals, which had about as much substance as a marshmallow. The guy is an embarrassment (as one can see in the video where he couldn't even answer a question about Obama's Libya policy). That people found him credible is shocking. He was a token candidate at its worst. He was used by the rightwing to bash our first African American President without being accused of racism and now that several white women have come forward regarding his history of sexual harassment and sexual relations, he's disposed of like toilet paper.

The song that comes to mind when I think about the disastrous Herman Cain campaign is Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun." The lyrics are vulgar but somehow, it seems to describe the way Herman Cain views women. One of the cardinal sins in American politics and culture is that a black man better not mess with a white woman. In the past, black slaves and African American males in the Jim Crow era got lynched for daring to have sexual relations with a white woman. We see this prejudice reinforced in classic novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, in the O.J. Simpson trial, in the negative ads for Harold Ford, Jr.'s Senate campaign in Tennessee in 2006. Had Cain merely harassed African American women or had sexual relations with an African American woman, the outcry might not have been as loud. That's because as Fox News knows well, when a white woman cries rape or sexual harassment against a minority male, the country rallies to her like a knight in shining armour to protect her honour. Its the most racist legacy of our country, even if the woman is lying.

So, good riddance Herman Cain. Count me among those who was not fooled by your fake campaign. I know what you were really after: lucrative speaking engagements, a contract with Fox News to be a conservative commentator, and to sell copies of your poorly written and thin book. That he thought people would part with $25 for such a skimpy book shows just how delusional he truly is. Even Sarah Palin's memoirs offered more substance than Cain's book. I know the campaign "ain't no fun", now you're free to make third-rate pizzas. May we never hear about your pathetic life ever again.

Friday, December 02, 2011

A Historic Meeting of Two Great Ladies

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton becomes the highest level U.S. government official to visit Burma in half a century. After Senator James Webb of Virginia visited Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma a year or two ago, he recommended that the U.S. government adopt a policy of engagement with the military junta rather than continue the devastating isolationist policies that doesn't work. His example was Vietnam. Once we normalized relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, it has become a thriving country and the lives of its people have improved. I was pleased to hear someone else advocating the same view that I've come to believe. Sanctions only seem to work on a country like South Africa, where there is a fairly large middle class who stand to lose money and their livelihoods affected by international boycotts. In countries with totalitarian rule of a tiny elite, sanctions and boycotts only serve to keep the country isolated in a cult of personality. We may not agree with the government, but by engaging the country with open trade, this leads to international contact and information exchange. That can only be good for the people who are only cut off from the rest of the world.

I was thrilled when I heard the Obama Administration announce that Secretary of State Clinton was being sent to Burma to talk with the government and to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a step in the right direction. Hillary Clinton is so lucky to be the one to meet the famous dissident.

There does seem to be a change blowing through the air, as the military junta has called for new elections and allowed the National League for Democracy to register as a political party and be on the ballot. This is the party that won a landslide in 1990 and had the military junta honoured the election, Aung San Suu Kyi would have been the prime minister. But because they did not honour the election results, Aung San Suu Kyi became a powerful symbol and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her years of house arrest, during which her husband was dying of cancer and she was not allowed to see him or her sons, has made her into international icon. U2 wrote a song about her ("Walk On") and now French director Luc Besson is showing his film, The Lady, at film festivals around the world in which Michelle Yeoh plays the Burmese dissident.

In 2007, Buddhist monks led a rebellion against the regime that ended in brutality. Had the people kept up the massive demonstrations against the government, they might've won. A typhoon also devastated the country, which exposed the weakness of the government. Perhaps the regime finally came to the realization that they can't run the country on their policies anymore. Maybe they have looked to Thailand as a model. In Thailand, which is a Constitutional Monarchy led by a King, any time the prime minister does something the powerful don't like, the military steps in with a coup to remove him from power. Now Thailand has a female prime minister and it'll be interesting to see how long she lasts before the military steps in. Perhaps Burma is finally at the place where they will allow people to vote in elections and for the opposition party to make cosmetic changes, while monitoring the situation and possibly stepping in if the party does things the military junta doesn't like. It all remains to be seen.

As one guy at the World Affairs discussion group pointed out at the last meeting, he believes that Burma is looking for new allies after China's dam project is affecting Burma in a negative way. This is how international politics gets played. Incredibly nuanced, which is why ideologues who are ignorant about the intrigue and complexities should not be allowed to play.

Before anyone says that this visit is proof that Hillary should be president, let's get real. If she was president, she would not be meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The person she selected for Secretary of State would be the one meeting with the dissident. Until relations are normalized, the leader does not meet with foreign governments or political figures. This is why the Secretary of State position is actually the best job in America. I'd much rather be Secretary of State than president. You get to deal with foreigners and build relationships, and you're meeting with interesting and intelligent people around the world. There's no denying that Hillary Clinton's popularity around the world is due to her outspokenness and advocacy for women's rights. If she was our president right now, her approval ratings would be about where Obama's are, because she would be attacked by Republicans for her domestic policies.

Hillary has said that she'll be vacating the position at the end of Obama's first term and that she has no intention of serving in political office after 2012. I'm not sure how serious she is, because I think the best thing Obama can do for his reelection campaign is to ask Vice President Joe Biden to become Secretary of State and ask Hillary Clinton to be his second-term Vice President. This will secure her place in history as the first female Vice President in history and give her a front-runner spot for the 2016 presidential nomination.

But, I suspect that this is Hillary's swansong. Her place in history is already set. If Democrats want the first female president in history, we need to start recruiting and electing into office female candidates for Congress, the Senate, and the governor's offices around the country. The Republicans are doing that because they are desperate for an energizing, historical figure. I hope the first woman president will be a Democrat, not a Republican. And I also hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will become Burma's Prime Minister after the next election. Its time for great women to lead their countries in an era of peace.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Feast at the Horn of Africa

Last night, a group of us gathered at the Ethiopian restaurant, Horn of Africa, in north Portland. This is only my third time eating at an Ethiopian restaurant (the first time was in 1995 in Washington, D.C.; the second sometime in the early 2000s in Atlanta) and I keep forgetting how good it is! But of all the three places I've eaten, Horn of Africa has the best decor. The building is loft-style, with a private room upstairs for groups. It looked like we were inside a tent.

The purpose of the gathering was to hear Jeff's presentation on his ten weeks in Cape Town, South Africa this past summer where he measured the air quality in the townships. I learned a lot about South Africa, even though I'm quite knowledgeable about the country already. However, I haven't been to Cape Town, which is one place I hope to see some day. I had no idea that the main part of the city is in a "bowl" between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean, and that most of the people live on the area on the other side of Table Mountain, away from the ocean.

South Africa still has a lot of problems in the post-apartheid era. One of them being that young, educated white South Africans face unemployment prospects if they stay, and the temptation to emigrate abroad. This is what happens when a country has spent decades building up a system of inequality in which one racial group reaped all the benefits while the other groups were denied a fair chance. Any plan to equalize the employment is controversial, especially since the education system is still unequal.

Jeff told us a funny story about how some African was asking him about his religious beliefs. Jeff considers himself a "hardcore atheist." I had no idea that he was, as the topic of spirituality has never come up in our twice a month discussion group with the World Affairs Council. Anyhow, he said that the African asked if he went to church, what holy book he bases his beliefs on, who he prays to, etc. When he said all this, I was laughing along with everyone else, but probably for different reasons. On the Community of Christ Facebook wall, the debate about atheists in the Priesthood continues. Its amazing that people still have no idea what atheism really means. Based on comments people have made on the Facebook page, they seem to think that atheism is merely the rejection of the God of the Bible, not a "strict scientific materialist" view of the universe. So, it is not surprising that an African would be confused about what atheism means.

The dinner was a feast and I couldn't help but think of the awful joke that a few guys made in 1985 when Ethiopia was suffering devastating famine. The worst was: "How many Ethiopians does it take to fill up a bathtub? I don't know, they keep slipping down the drain." When I mentioned to someone before that I had eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant in D.C., they had asked me in all sincerely, "Did you get enough to eat?" Well, did I? Man, I was stuffed last night. No one walked away hungry.

Most of the people in the group attend the World Affairs Council discussion group, though there was one lady no one had met before. She started her own non-profit organization building schools in Tanzania. When I heard that, I was stunned, because that's exactly what Orphans Africa does, another non-profit organization based in Washington that was started by church members (in the Community of Christ). I asked if she knew about Orphans Africa and she did. She named one person in the organization that she knew. Small world! But she said that the non-profit world was small and interconnected. That's interesting to know. A friend of mine wants to start a non-profit next year, but based on helping underserved youth locally.

It was a great evening among internationally connected friends, enjoying an excellent meal of Ethiopian cuisine while hearing about the challenges facing South Africa. I could use more days like this!