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Archive for the ‘Thoughts About Others’ Category

Before one talks about Islam and the Middle East these days, it is important to start with a context.  There is so much disparaging that I believe it is critical to show the side of life and belief that are not talked about or portrayed on Western media channels.

Unlike Western languages, Middle Eastern languages are symbolic.  A word is more than a concept or a group of letters or set of grammatical rules.  A word is a philosophy.  The above image showcases Compassion. I do not read or understand the language so I will share the explanation from the page from which it is shared:

Bismil-Laahir-Rahmaannir-Raheem is the soul of Islam which recognizes and honors the very existence and all Blessings, Compassion and it’s the very source of all Mercy from Almighty Allah Subhaanahu wa Taala who responds to our moral integrity and our tremendous love for Him . This is said at any tasks that Muslims take before entering a house, eating, reading a book and also beginning any prayers.

I find it appropriate for this blog post because I use this post to join my voice to those of outsiders begging for compassion for Raif Badawi and those like him.  For those unfamiliar with Raif Badawi, you can read a summary of his story here.  Before you start pontificating about Islamic barbarism, I’d like to remind everyone of a certain period in Western History called The Holy Inquisition.  Those who claim the West has become more civilized would have to answer the question my heart friend labeled by others as an atheist has asked: if you believe in a loving God, why must honoring his love be done through the destruction or demeaning of others?

Many Western countries believe in the separation of Church and State.  In this belief lies the assertion that each should have no authority over the other.  In the Middle East the approach has been Church and State are one.  Muhammad was both a religious prophet and a military general.  He brought unity to the Middle East.  You can read a brief account of his life here.  His legacy was preserved for centuries but now the current state of chaos and destruction has many questioning and looking for the path that will restore safety and order.  An insight on some of the debates.

I do not know the sum totality of Raif Badawi’s writings or talks.  All I know is the little I have read in the link I have shared.  A see a man bitter about the level of despair he is living in and desperate for a change that will bring peace and order so he can sleep soundly knowing his wife and children are safe and healthy.  In anguish we say many harsh things that, in a calm state, we would most likely have said a little differently.  Add to this the mixed blessings of youth that has not yet been tempered by aged deference to the status quo or to patience.

Most importantly, I cannot tell people of another country how they should administer their own laws or what they should believe and do.  What I can do at this time is share my confusion.  The Islam I grew up watching as an outsider was so peaceful and benevolent it made me feel Christianity often feel short on the true meaning of God and Love.  The Islam I see today is factionalized and violent.  The writings and principles of Islam have not changed so what has happened?

There are times in any culture and history when a person or an action becomes symbolic of a much larger meaning than the context in which it originally took place.  Raif Badawi and others are becoming such symbols.  Throughout the Islamic diaspora there is open debate on the rights to self-determination, religious practice and self-expression.  Here are views from Malaysia and Britain.  As an outsider, it is hard for me to understand how flogging anyone will settle such debates.  Catholics have tried flogging and self-flagellation  both of which still have supporters.  However, for most (myself included), such practices alienate people from religion, acceptance and tolerance.

It is important to note that daily life still goes on despite chaos and conflict.  Here is an image from a caligraphy workshop:

Fear and terror should have no part of daily life.  Hence, for me the debate is not about whether Raif Badawi should be flogged, imprisoned or exiled.  The debate is about what is the best mechanism to practice Bismil-Laahir-Rahmaannir-Raheem in the current Middle East?  As an outsider, I humbly beg for mercy to be shown as a symbol of compassion and tolerance during such difficult times.

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So I’m working and email alert comes into my inbox.  New York Times article Suicide Bomber from U.S. Came Home Before Attack. As I reach the bottom I come across this:

“I lived in America: I know how it is.” he said. “You think you’re happy? You’re not happy. You’re never happy. I was never happy. I always sad and depressed.”

There will inevitably be a lot more demonizing and rejection by many who read the article.  However, I would like to offer a ray of hope to anyone feeling the same way as the young man.

When a whole planet seems to have turned against you, refuses to recognize you as a beautiful part of humanity, labels everything you are and everything that looks like you as something that needs to be destroyed, it is hard to connect with others or feel that life is worth living.  

You try to be happy but what is the point?  You get up in a good mood, you turn on the television and there is talk about how everything like you is evil.  You pray and calm down.  Some of your friends say why pray, who will help us other than death? You walk out the door and there are stares and comments on a good day.  Most days probably worse.  

You try to explain: look people, I’m not saying everything about my people is right, we are definitely different from your people, there are things I don’t agree with in my customs and your customs but it does not make me evil.  All of a sudden self proclaimed experts tell you “facts” about your beliefs that are so far from the truth you wonder how this person calls themselves a rational human being.  You are told what you “must believe” is true and you are told what you “must be thinking” and why when nobody has taken the time to even ask you if that is true.  Most of the time, those that do ask are just waiting for you to say a word or phrase that anyone else would use in order to misconstrue what you say into a warped representation of your beliefs. Anything you say or do is ALWAYS used against you.

So, you stop speaking.  You only socialize with those who are exactly like you.  You see those like you and everyone is angry.  Everyone feels hated.  Tempers flare.  Someone says something and that hurts someone and, next thing you know, those exactly like you are at each others throats.  There is no end to the constant fighting and negativity.  All you want as a human being is to find acceptance and peace but where? how? when?  

No, I’m not Middle Eastern or Islamic but I am half Kenyan, half Puerto Rican.  I wish I could say that in 2014 humanity in general has evolved past the stigmas that have destroyed countless of lives over the centuries but it has not.  

What I do know, if you behave like the stories the stories win.  Stay alive, stand firm, stand strong.  Those who attack have an inner war that is not yours.  Keep your peace by letting them keep their war inside themselves.  Don’t put their war inside you.  Your goal is for your humanity to win.  If you destroy yourself and others, how will your life stand in testimony to the truth instead of the lies?  

 

 

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To my nephews (sons) Scotty and Dasi:

I always promised your Mom that if anything ever happened, I would care for you. The problem is I’ve never given this Mom thing daily practice. While I learn, here are some lessons to remember:

Little things (most important first)

Your Mom was (is) the personification of love and faith. She wanted us all to understand and experience the rapture of God’s love. I look around me and often find it difficult to believe. Your Mom never had that problem: “make it through another day,” she would say, “you will see…” Sometimes days turn into years. She taught me to look for little signs along the way. A baby’s smile. Stories from those who have experienced miracles. A flower. People helping people or risking their lives to save someone/something for no good reason. “You’ll never see these things if you don’t look. That’s why the Bible says ‘seek and ye shall find’.” Here is a video of what love looks like through my eyes (by the way, no graffitti – you need to respect property that is not yours; use a canvas or cardboard) . Here is a video of what love looks like through your Mom’s eyes (she loved images like these – make plans to find such places and take your own pictures).

Make time for the little things. Your Mom would say, “Cecilia, on those VERY special days (she’d consider them miracles and bless God for witnessing) that you actually go to your Church, why don’t you ever invite me?” I would laugh and say, “because I don’t plan. On those rare occasions that the Spirit moves me to go to mass, I just find one and go.” I should have planned! I always thought there would be more time.

Work hard, even when you are too tired to go on. Play and relax as well. God willing you find work that you love so you enjoy work as much as you do play. There is no need for stress or anguish in this world. Get the maximum education there is but don’t loose your common sense. Somethings once lost are lost forever. Even complex things have a simple purpose (e.g. your brain keeps you alive).

Stand your ground and be proud of who you are but NEVER put others down even when they are stepping on you. Cream just floats its way to the top, dissolves, and makes everything yummy (plus is very slippery if stepped on). Be like cream!

What I learned about death from your aunts and uncles: “We like to say that those who have passed are lost. The reality is we know exactly where they are. We get confused because we feel them in our hearts and picture them in our minds but cannot hear them with our ears or see them with our eyes. Yes we miss them but we should rejoice for the pleasure to have known them and been with them.” Always remember that you are the delight of your parents and that when we see you, we see them.  Your presence in this world keeps your Mom alive for us.

Big things (most difficult second)

ONE: Talk to us when things are bothering you or don’t make sense. You may not like or agree with what we have to say and, yes there may be other better ways but always remember, compared to us, you are young. If we don’t know everything, you certainly don’t either. We have seen a lot in this world and are here to protect you, as best we can, from what is bad so that you can spend your lives enjoying what is good. There is no need to repeat our mistakes so when we tell you you are making a mistake, listen!

TWO: Speaking of bad, there are people in this world (from all incomes, colors, places, professions, even “faiths”) who are right proper Devil worshippers. They look like everyone else, they may even be beguiling and seem sweet or appear in need of help (some even beg for help asking you to give them strength and show them the way). You will recognize them because they speak intolerance and negativity (they will even have facts that are valid, but misconstrued, and reasoning that passes logical tests but fails ethical ones). They will never leave room for other arguments and will even calmly and patiently take time to dissuade you so they can teach you something better. Evil’s best disguise is to look more seductive than or just like good but something will always be off and they will tell you something is off with you. You will see the glimmer of pride in their eye when they feel superior to someone else. Some are boastful others appear meek but they thrive on fear and distrust (ill intentions). Dysfunction is logical to them and always someone else’s problem (while professing or promising to help you get rid of it). They avoid putting their real beliefs in writing or displaying them publicly. They talk of drama instead of going to the theatre and supporting the arts. When they see kindness they call it weakness. When they hear the truth, they mock it. In Africa we say they act like hyenas and jackals (remember the scenes from the movie Lion King). However, this is an insult to hyenas and jackals. The animal brain functions on instinct. The human brain can distinguish the subtleties between good and evil and makes choices. When such people attack you, first, come to us immediately. Trust your aunt who has tried to fight such people alone – the military does not send lone soldiers to fight wars and such people (even when they first appear individually) never travel alone. Second, if we are not there or can’t get to you immediately, know that we will get there. Third, don’t defend yourself using their beliefs, words or tactics. The battle with them is a long war not a short skirmish. If you let their ways creep into your life, you’ll win the battle but lose the war. Take it from a Catholic (we’ve taught a lot of Holy wars).

THREE: Help your father! He works very hard to give you every opportunity. He gets tired and frustrated just like you do. He misses your Mom even more than you do. She was his soulmate, best friend, guide and source of happiness. Keep this blessing alive by helping him the way she would help him. It is you who carry her blood in your veins not us. We are here to remind you, love you and support you. Make sure everything that you do is something that would have put a smile on her face. You know the one I mean.

FOUR: Don’t pray like I do. “Dear Lord, those with a lot of accumulated knowledge often lack common sense. For an all knowing, all powerful being, you don’t have any common sense. When I asked you to save Hildah, common sense would have told you I meant keep her here with us happy, healthy, wealthy (you sometimes forget we need money). Don’t talk to me about your wisdom when you can’t show me common sense and don’t tell me about mysteries I can’t understand because if you really were smart you could explain things in ways that I CAN understand!” Your mother was very afraid that God will send me a personalized lightening bolt someday so that I gain instant enlightenment, literally! In case she’s right, pray her way. “Dear Lord, I know you are all powerful for you sent your son Jesus as a sign of LOVE. [Sidenote: not everyone belives in Jesus or God and you must respect that. However, just about everyone in this world has heard of this crazy preacher who was willing to die for his beliefs and forgive his tormentors. There is even a book about it and several movies.] You blessed me with two sons and you know I love them more than my own life. You know full well that I did not want to leave them but I will not question your wisdom. I will trust that this is the best decision for me, for them, for my husband, for my family and for my friends. Please protect them at all times, especially when they are not listening or aware they are in danger. Please instill in them your strength and all powerful wisdom so that they can make this world a better place for everyone. Let them bring your kingdom of peace, love and happiness to this earth, one person at a time. Let those who know them believe, protect and help them for we are all your children and must see ourselves in each other. AMEN (meaning: thy will be done).”

To the World:

When Hildah was alive, she was always near her sons. They may not have a biological mother but they still have a mother in me their aunt. Let no one say I cannot be reached or be found. Even if something were to happen to me, I have written this so that what is expected of them is clear. If anyone tries to harm them or cause them trouble, you now know the face that will come after you.

I need to deal with a challenge they have faced up front. My nephews would get frustrated by people who put them down for being African. When their mother was alive, she would face such people on their behalf and stun them with the grace of her presence. I am not as tactful or peaceful. I also don’t want anyone questioning them when they share what I tell them so I am writing it here for ALL to see. Despite negative images, stereotypes and propaganda, THIS, is Africa (click to see video). We are clans not because we are primitive and backwards but because we know the importance of keeping track of family (not just immediate but 12 to 18 removed along with their spouses and their children). If you have chosen to forget or lose your connections you may laugh at our dependence on oral history but the human mind, especially as a collective, is a better supercomputer than any invention and holds more details than any written or visual record. Scott and Dasi Nanji belong to the Mobit and Nanji clans from Cameroon (West Africa). They are also answered for in the East and I hereby formally request for the Karachuonyo and Nyakach clans (Kenya) to accept and welcome them and grant them safe keeping.

[Note to family: yes, they tell the truth when they say “Aunty Cecilia says not to send money.” In case you haven’t heard me directly, we are not billionaires living at the Ritz and there is plenty of money to be made back home plus a better lifestyle. They are still children and will decide how to handle these issues when they are grown men and settled. Right now their priority is their school fees and then it will be establishing their careers. Like me, Hildah came to the US after high school; we’ve been here so long it is what we know and we have responsibilities to the kind Americans who were shocked we would venture so far from family and have welcomed us into theirs. They have asked that we stay and show success here. For these boys, America is home. It is where they were born and raised. Different from what we are used to, yes. On the bright side who would have ever thought the first black US President would have Kenyan blood and serve two terms! What other country has a Constitution that protects such things? As for the country people (for non-Africans, “country people” does not denote rural; it means the people who share a land/area/region and culture as their own): The ones in Connecticut taught me as much US history and culture as they could in 4 years. The ones in Pittsburgh taught me we value the same things as people. The ones in Colorado showed me their natural landscapes and asked if I found them as pleasing as ours, to which I readily replied yes. The ones in California have taught me, “don’t talk like us, talk like yourself. We love learning from other people. Oh, and here are some fresh vegetables you might actually like.” I actually look for veggies now, can you believe! I have yet to live South but, when I visit, they eat and talk like we do! These are a special people and there is a lot to learn and share. Hildah lived in Pittsburgh but traveled all over to see friends and family plus places on a map. She asked that her body not be taken home and burried in Pittsburgh so her sons could visit on Mother’s Day. This request has been honored. My wishes for burial when I die – no screaming because I am most singularly unanimous in my decision. I don’t want headaches over my dead body; it will have served its purpose by that point. Burn my body (cremation) and spread the ashes in as many locations as you think my body should be. This way I will achieve in death what is impossible in life – to be physically present in multiple places at once. Hildah was going to make sure you all did this even if she didn’t agree with cremation. Now I’ll just have to hear you gasp for my own self.]

On the Puerto Rican side, talk about Catholics and Holy miracles (caray! Pues, nunca es lo que uno espera hacer sino lo que Dios mande). I have two sons and I need help from Mamaseses and Papaseses! We’re like white rice (found everywhere in the world) so please help me look after these boys and call me if they misbehave. Ya tu sabes

The final song played to celebrate Hildah’s life before the burial: My God is good, I will lift him higher! Followed by two Christian words known and spoke in all languages: Hallelujah, Hossana! (apologies for poor image and bad sound in the video) .

Hilda Memory

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From childhood we are indoctrinated to believe that power and money are bad and turn us into bad people.  Phrases like, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” or “money is the root of all evil” fill our daily vocabulary, and worse still, our sub-conscious awareness.

The irony of all of this, and the danger, is that it turns us into helpless victims when the reality is, power and money are neither good nor bad, it is the choices we make on how we use them that determine their impact.  Even more important is the need to recognize that, if we buy into this philosophy, we surrender the power over our daily lives, we surrender the ability to impact the world around us, not because we are acting, but rather because we are failing to act.

Ok Cecilia, what are you really talking about?  Right now, everything:

  • surrendering our ability to create jobs for ourselves by saying it is only government or large businesses that can create jobs;
  • surrendering our ability to help each other out financially by saying it is only banks who can lend money to people;
  • surrendering our ability as adults to stop bulling in schools by hiring experts to solve the problem instead of telling our children AND children who are not our own that such behavior is 100% wrong and will not be tolerated;
  • surrendering our ability to stop the media from the constant spew of negativity and vitriolic confrontation by tuning in to shows that are full of intrigue and people shouting at each other or people plotting against each other or denigrating each other (aka reality tv and talk shows and murder shows and gossip shows)  when the simple way to change this tide is to watch (or do) something different;
  • surrendering our ability to uphold Constitutional rights on which the United States was formed by allowing extremists to call all Muslims terrorists or state than anyone who is in favor of upholding equality for ALL is a Nazi or a Facist, or failing to recognize that the Constitution calls for separation of Church and State so if homosexuals have a Civil Union (legal issue) it has no impact on whether they have a Religious Union (where each religion can impose it’s own moral bias while still allowing everyone else the freedom to have their own beliefs).

Yes, my list could go on forever and it is not limited to the US. Here are foreign examples:

  • accepting that corruption is just the way things are and paying bribes which not only surrender ones power but, worse still, finance the oppressors so they can gain more power at one’s expense!
  • electing politicians who are well known to take money from special interests (public or private) and spend all their time pandering to those special interests while ignoring requests tied to the one thing that enables them to hold elected office in the first place: your vote!
  • supporting political regimes, anywhere in the wold, which maintain their dominance by banning opposition or worse still, torture, imprisonment, and other acts of hostility or violence for the simple reason that it is “personally or strategically convenient” to do so at this particular point in time!

Of course I could go on forever but my focus is now adequately clear. Little wonder the world is in a mess and yet we lament as if it takes power or money beyond what we have individually available to change this.

It is time to abandon the false notion and to reclaim our personal power.

First and foremost is the need to recognize that emotions cause the release of chemicals in our body and nervous system.  Prolonged exposure to the same type of emotion (positive or negative) is as addictive as taking drugs such as cocaine. In the same manner a drug addict gets accustomed to the chemical stimulus of a drug and needs more of the drug/stimulus, our bodies intuitively realize the connection between our behavior and the release of chemicals and start reacting in a way that will generate the type of chemicals that have accumulated in the system. Hence, if the stimulus is constantly negative, we will do increasingly negative things;  if the the stimulus is constantly positive, we will do increasingly positive things.  For those unfamiliar with literature on this concept, here are some references:

CharmingHealth.com “Negative Thought Patterns could Instigate Addiction Tendencies” http://www.charminghealth.com/negative-emotions/addiction.htm

The Economist (Feb 12, 2004) “I get a kick out of you: scientist are finding out that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people.” http://www.oxytocin.org/oxytoc/love-science.html

HealthMad.com (Aug 12, 2007) “The Physiology of Anger” http://healthmad.com/mental-health/physiology-of-anger/

Additionz.com (emotional checklist for addicts: hint, if you find you have a lot of these symptoms, you need to find ways to start managing your emotions) http://www.addictionz.com/feelings_and_emotions.htm

As with anything in life, the goal is to maintain a balance.

The second step is recognizing when one is having a reaction that is based on fear (fear that if I help someone else I will not have enough for me, fear of being ridiculed, fear that if I accept a different perspective/behavior I will become the same way, fear of being retaliated against…).  As Frankin D Roosevelt once so eloquently and succinctly stated:

“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

You can read the full and inspiring speech here http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/apr/25/greatspeeches

With respect to what one can do, an easy first step is to alter our behavior.  If we accept the falsehood that only certain people such as Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt, Mayor Bloomberg…have the power/money/both to effect change in this world, we miss the golden opportunity to make the most radical change of all – change in the world immediately surrounding us.

The most recent example of an unsung hero I’ve seen is Shirley Sherrod. Who? The woman who works for the US Dept of Agriculture, got fired because an extremist deliberately misrepresented her speech and claimed she was racist so nobody bothered to verify the truth, and, was then hired back when the very people she was alleged to have harmed publicly stated she was the one person who did something to help them.

Nobody has given Ms Sherrod a plaque, nobody has given her a medal.  How she stays sane and positive through all of this is a mystery to me, especially after hearing the famous speech during which she shared pieces of her life story:

It is about 43min long and well worth listening to.  However, for those who prefer reading or the Cliff Notes version, here are the highlights:

Ms. Sherrod grew up in the South (Baker County, Georgia) dreaming of moving to the “freedom” of the North because African Americans who had gone North would come and visit relatives showing off fancy cars and clothes.  Unbeknown to their Southern relatives, many Northerners were pulling a Gatsby move (borrowing and renting clothes and cars in order to create the illusion of wealth).

She grew up in a family of of 5 sisters with a father who, despite loving his daughters dearly, wanted a son so badly he gave all the girls boys nicknames.  When she was 17yrs old and filled with excitement about going to college up North, her mother got pregnant for the sixth time and her father announced to everyone this was his son.  He was right but never got to see his son because 2mths before his son was born, he was murdered in June of 1965 by a white man and, despite there being 3 witnesses, there was no conviction.  Being the oldest, Ms Sherrod had to give up her dreams of going to college up North and stay in Georgia to help her mother raise her siblings while also going to college.

Prior to this, the county Sherriff lynched her uncle (Robert, aka Bobby, Hall) in the early 40’s and, much to everyone’s surprise, an all white federal jury convicted him of depriving her uncle of his civil rights (murder against a black man would not stick on those days).  The Sherriff appealed his conviction to the US Supreme Court and the Court overturned the conviction on the basis that the appropriate charge was murder; the Court also issued a statement saying that, in order to convict of murder, intent had to be proven thereby setting the Sherriff free.  Details of the case Screws vs United States can be found here http://supreme.justia.com/us/325/91/case.html There are some who are attacking Ms Sherrod by saying her statements are false because the court records state that her uncle was murdered and do not state that he was lynched.  To such people I would ask: is murder by any other name any less deadly?  You are missing the forest for the trees.  The important issue is not the word that she used to describe the act but the fact that it took place and was sanctioned by a man who took an oath “to protect and to serve”! Why is it those words (protect and serve) are very conveniently missing from your rhetoric? Yes, there are many outstanding law enforcement officials who deserve to be highly praised but Sherriff Screws was certainly not one of them nor is such a heinous act defensible or excusable in any way.

When Shirley Sherrod graduated from college she again had hopes to leave Georgia but, the mystery of fate, her job opportunity came up with the USDA in Georgia.  By now she is fed up of living in Georgia and, understandably fed up with those who were white.  Fate or hand of God, a white couple (Roger and Eloise Spooner) are assigned to her for assistance because they were in danger of loosing their farm.  She did her duties per her job description and put them in the hands of an attorney.  Much to her surprise, the couple came back to her office after some time in sheer desperation.  The attorney had done nothing and they were certainly going to lose everything if she did not help.

This was the transformational moment in her life.  She suddenly realized poor white people were not treated any better than poor black people. She remembered stories told by her parents and other older adults that  Jim Crow laws in the South had be instituted because it was necessary to keep people working at extremely low wages and in horrible conditions in order to make profits.  The “benefits” gained from indentured servitude and slavery had to be preserved in order for this to continue.  However, after slavery was abolished the poor were beginning to band together and it was necessary to drive a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks so Jim Crow laws were put in effect in order to create the illusion of preferential treatment but the truth is that poor whites were just as exploited and oppressed, just in different ways.  All this came rushing back to her in a single moment and a rage lit inside of her because she realized that this white couple begging for her help was no different from any member of her family who had been victimized.  Ms Sherrod decided she would do every thing in her power to ensure that their rights were preserved.  She succeeded and the couple was able to keep their farm!

You can hear their gratitude in their own words

It was also at this moment that Ms Sherrod realized the fight is not a fight about race but a fight against those who continually use their positions of influence, money and/or power to spread fear, false information, and, to oppress others.  She realized the importance of taking action to undo such misdeeds in one’s daily life, not just through legislation or demonstrations.

I will end by saying this should be a lesson to us all in how to do the right thing in our daily lives (even when we are filled with hurt and anger).  I find it often helps to have a mantra as a guide during difficult times.  For me, the Rotary 4 Way Test is always helpful:

4 Way Test of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Let this be your guide the next time you have to Think, Say, or, Do anything.

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New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof is coming under fire for his May 22, 2010 commentary titled Moonshine or Kids?

Kristof starts his commentary by discussing poverty in general terms.  Specifically, he focuses on the issue of spending choices.  He asserts:

“…[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”

This is not a new assertion. Others have said the same thing – the decision making habits of poor people tend to be focused on short-term gratification instead of long-term investment.

A more detailed elaboration of this point can be found in the work done by Dr. Ruby Payne through her Framework for Understanding Poverty.  Dr. Payne points out there are socio-economic biases in our “hidden rules of behavior.” Middle Class decision making is driven by work and achievement. Decision making by those living in generational poverty is driven by Survival, Relationships and Entertainment.

If I were to attempt to summarize Kristof’s argument, it would be as follows:

  1. Spending habits of poor people need to be examined
  2. Bad budgeting causes as much deficiencies as the lack of money
  3. Mothers are more likely to invest in their kids than fathers
  4. Microsavings programs should favor mothers over fathers

To substantiate this argument, Kristof cites a book he co-authored titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” There is also a website where people can get involved Half the Sky Movement.

Seems like a simple enough argument and not one you would think would draw a firestorm of controversy.  However, here is a sample of negative reactions:

“A blame-the-poor classic with particularly overt Calvinist moral messaging”

“This Week in Bad Advocacy”

“Are Poor Africans Bad Parents?”

The reason for all the anger???  Despite the fact that Kristof asserts he is talking about global poverty issues, he only gives one example in his commentary: a poor family in the Republic of Congo.  Most of the column’s real estate is dedicated to this one example which immediately begs the question, if one is trying to discuss global poverty, why is the only example mentioned one from Africa?

Western media in general (not just Kristof and NYT but other print and television media) seem to have only one depiction of Africa – its failures, corruption, starving children, irresponsible adults, ….Rod Chavis (UPENN African Studies Center) elaborates on these issues in his paper “Africa in the Media” (1998).  Little attention is given to books such as Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think or movies such as Africa Open for Business.  On the count of negative portrayal of Africa when there are negative examples from other areas, Kristof is guilty as charged.

Unfortunately, the focus on this one issue detracts from the validity of an extremely important issue:

What can we do to find ways to encourage those faced with generational poverty to make financial decisions that benefit them (instead of spending their money on goods and or services that benefit others)?

Kristof recommends focusing on women/mothers. This strategy has been proven to be effective but, if one continues with the assertion that fathers invest less in their children, it still does not answer the question: how do we incentivize fathers? If both parents are responsible for the child, should it not also follow that both parents must be empowered to more beneficial behavior?

While I do not like the way in which Kristof illustrates his point, I do have to thank him for attempting to generate national dialog on the issue of behavioral incentives.  You can read my reactions to his post by viewing Comment #377.  As is pointed out by AID Watch “[t]he efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor”

If there is any strong attack I would leverage on Kristof it is the focus on mothers and microsavings as a “silver bullet” solution.  Poverty is as complex of an issue as the human beings which are trapped by its grasp.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, in order to succeed, we must start with what we have shown to be successful and build from there.  Mothers and microsavings are just a good a starting point as any other.

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There is nothing like listening to Futurists. Established conventions of what must be are shattered, obliterated, forgotten.  This doesn’t mean that everything Futurists propose is immediately practical.  I’m still waiting for Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons (not to mention a car that folds up into my briefcase).

Despite all the talk about sustainability, one has seen very little Futurist proposals.  You can imagine my delight when I came across this concept of a future city in Busan Korea.

The concept: what would happen if we applied Moore’s Law to sustainable technology?  They started with existing materials and concepts.  One of the materials (still cutting edge) is ETFE foil.

I don’t know much about the material.  First learned about it in a vertical farming presentation. Prof. Despommier (Columbia Univ. microbiologist). Most of what he told us is contained here http://www.verticalfarm.com/presentations.html

I wrote down that it is as refractive as water, self cleaning, clear enough for astronomy observations without causing distortion, and insulating.

Here are applications

The Eden Project (southern England)

Eurofresh Farms (Wilcox, AZ)

ETFE specs http://www.k-mac-plastics.net/etfe-sheets-film.htm

The concept of movable buildings is not new. Tents are movable buildings. In a very different manner so are cruise ships. So why am I so excited? This concept proposal suggests we create buildings that move around in order to maximize solar energy during the day and conserve energy at night.

Yes there are practical reasons we don’t want our buildings moving about – mostly because we don’t want the pounds of stuff we keep in them moving about. However, what if the building could move without any internal vibration?

Also, we are currently obsessed with the equipment we use. We search for energy efficient light bulbs, low energy appliances, etc. What about thinking of a building like a mini-cell eco-system? An eco-system in which everything including the exterior membrane modulates and adjusts to conserve resources. Right now we use building exteriors as insulation but what if they could be generators as well?

As for The Jetsons, well, take a look at the video and perhaps your faith will be restored…

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During any major political endeavor, especially those which involve sacrifice and huge amounts of spending, politicians will compete to tell us why the endeavor is necessary.  All arguments focus on Why? this is necessary.

However, the details of the how always seem to be overlooked.  Close to nine years after  9/11, the war in Iraq draws to an end (we hope), the war in Afghanistan continues, skirmishes in Pakistan, conflict between Israel and Palestine, the threat of terrorist attacks continues and we are told WHY we must remain engaged.

Very little discussion is focused on how we are engaged; more importantly how we end this peacefully.  It is very hard to find balanced perspectives which illustrate what has been done right and what has been done wrong.

For this reason, I would like to give Kudos to STRATFOR on their analysis of the issues.  Here are three key reports which not only analyze competing interests but also the fallacy that systems which work well in one country can be readily transferred to other countries which do not share the same cultural beliefs, priorities, or modus operandi.

Baghdad Politics and the U.S.-Iranian Balance http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100419_baghdad_politics_and_usiranian_balance?fn=9216094818

Three Points of View: The United States, Pakistan and India http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100427_three_points_view_united_states_pakistan_and_india?utm_source=GWeekly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=100428&utm_content=readmore&elq=5ddd8ae7c9da4f5e8fce416543cdf229

(Forthcoming: Israeli-Arab Balance of Power)

These reports are republished with permission of STRATFOR

There is also an excellent framing of the terrorism debate which puts things in a much more appropriate context than the one offered by politicians.   The current anti-terrorism activity is not about U.S. versus Muslims or claiming that people hate us because we are American.

It is about understanding the Jihadist movement which represents various extreme and fragmented factions within Islam (just like we have extreme and fragmented factions within Christianity)  Lest anyone has forgotten what the terrorism in Northern Ireland was like or the Oklahoma City bombing, Wako, the KKK, neo Nazi groups, etc. here are some reminders of Christian terrorism:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_terrorism

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/religionandtheology/2432/the_return_of_christian_terrorism________/

http://www.au.af.mil/au/aul/bibs/tergps/tgdom.htm

The current anti-terrorism debate  is also about recognizing that there are just as many Muslims opposed to Jihad as there are Christians and, instead of trying to lead the fight against Jihadist factions, the U.S. needs to take a secondary role and support the Muslims who are opposed to Jihadist extremists.

The Jihadist Strategic Dilemma http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20091207_jihadist_strategic_dilemma

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

We need to learn to see past the rhetoric and start to see the people.  One has to ask oneself, if the need to survive is the most basic of human instincts, what makes a person over ride this instinct to survive and become a terrorist or suicide bomber?  What could possibly be so wrong that death is considered to be a welcome alternative?

There are a multitude of reason but for now I will just point to two as they relate to the war in Afghanistan.

Poverty: When someone has nothing to loose including hope for the future,
radicalizing them is a piece of cake.

Experiencing Hatred from Others: Those who are not poor can be radicalized also. 60 Minutes interviewed a former radical this past Sunday.
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/04/23/60minutes/main6425491.shtml?tag=currentVideoInfo;segmentTitle

He grew up in London’s middle class but saw how his white friends were
constantly attacked (beaten & stabbed) just because they would walk
with him in public. When Iraq was attacked, the agrument that the US
is at war because we hate Muslims seemed perfectly logical to him.

This is what is so worrisome about all the current anti-Muslim rhetoric – it
reinforces such beliefs.  To put things in a different perspective, as a Catholic, if suddenly news media and people were to start saying “wearing a crucifix around your neck is bad or should be banned,” or saying “all Catholics
are sex offenders just look at what their priests do,” I would become
radicalized too!  Needless to say when he witnessed tortures during
interrogations his beliefs became even more extreme.

Ironically, it was being thrown in prison with some notorious
extremists (e.g. Anwar Sadat) that changed his perspective. They
showed him he was wrong and the war is about power not hate.  He now
spends his time trying to convince other Muslims that it is not a war
about religion.  Uphill battle though. His wife left him calling him a
sellout.

The differentiation between power and hate may seem trivial.  However, for many, power/oppressive power is something you can bargain with and eventually overcome.  Hatred is a non-starter to which the only response is reacting with like violence.  Turn the other cheek is a lesson most of us have heard.  However, when it comes to how we behave, our instinct to defend ourselves and retaliate typically makes us forget this lesson.

The lesson from all this?

It is not just the actions of our politicians and soldiers which matter.  It is the actions, thoughts and words of each of us in our daily lives which also have an impact on this war.  What we say and do DOES matter, especially when others (i.e. the whole world) are watching!

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