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Six Impossible Missions Before Breakfast June 21, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Everything has to be possible.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

About a month ago, I was chatting with a friend at church, who I’ll call Ken (not his real name.) We were discussing environmental activism: in particular, the Alberta tar sands and the devastating effect that they would have on our climate if fully developed. Ken has been a long-standing activist working to help provide clean water, medical care and education to children in less affluent countries, so he’s certainly no naysaying cynic. But even he felt that some missions were impossible. “They’re going to be developed,” he flatly stated. “It’s just going to happen.”

My immediate reaction was quite a visceral one; I wanted to shout back, “Whose side are you on anyway?” Instead I talked a bit about how the Keystone XL project had been delayed due to immense public pressure. (In the meantime Enbridge, facing opposition from environmental and Native groups to their planned Northern Gateway pipeline, has launched a massive on- and off-line ad blitz to convince Canadians that this is a Good Idea. If Enbridge is spending vast amounts of money to promote their project, apparently they – at any rate – don’t think it’s inevitable!) But he wasn’t convinced, and reiterated his statement: Alberta’s bitumen deposits were going to be developed.

“I refuse to believe that,” I returned heatedly.

“Why?” he asked.

“I can’t afford to incapacitate myself as an activist. If I think the goal is impossible, then why would I work to try to achieve it? I’d totally lose hope, just give up.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that the campaigns against them are pointless,” he hastened to explain. “They may accomplish quite a bit – for example, raising public awareness of the larger issues. Even having a small impact can be worthwhile.”

This reminded me of the oft-quoted starfish parable, though the metaphor wasn’t really applicable here. In Ken’s own work, helping even one child get food or education was a worthwhile goal. But what good was simply “raising public awareness” if it didn’t translate into higher-level political action towards saving our climate from a global meltdown?

In the days that followed, I kept thinking about my reaction: “Whose side are you on anyway?” Why had I immediately seen Ken’s statement as dangerous, emotionally toxic – even, on some level, a betrayal?

The answer, I think, has to do with belief and the central role it plays in activism – a role which needs to be more widely recognized and utilized by activists themselves. Susan Griffin tells a compelling story about belief and hope in her article “Can the Imagination Save Us?“:

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination…And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In our modern, scientific worldview, we tend to think of belief as being flimsy, dispensable, even worthless. The real world is “out there”, after all: objectively observable and utterly independent of our personal beliefs. Right?

Well, that may be the default, “common sense” way we perceive the world. But most evidence indicates, on the contrary, that belief is a powerful force. In medicine, the placebo effect can often have a powerful effect on our body’s internal systems, mimicking the effects of potent drugs. Mysticism and quantum mechanics suggest our beliefs may even affect the “external”, physical world. But it is certainly the case for human systems – governments, corporations, and countries – since it is only we who give them existence. We are not passive observers, helplessly shunted around by vast mechanistic systems over which we have no influence. Rather, we collectively create the systems which drive our daily lives by individually participating in, supporting, or modifying them – ultimately, by our affirmation or denial of their validity.

A good example is money:

Money is nothing more than a piece of paper stamped with a particular number showing the amount it represents – or, today, a few electronic pulses stored in a computer server. Surely neither of these has any intrinsic value. When we say we have strong confidence in a particular currency, we mean not the physical pieces of paper or electronic signals we exchange, but rather in the institutions – the governments and banks – that issue and store it for us.

If I am a money trader, every time I invest in a currency – say, the Canadian dollar – I am implying that I BELIEVE in the value of that currency. In other words, I have faith in the strength of the Canadian economy and in its government. By selling my investment, I am implying I no longer have the same belief that the Canadian dollar is a strong currency. If enough of my fellow investors notice my actions and follow suit, my belief will spread; it may even trigger a mass sell-off of the currency, which will plummet in value and hurt the country’s economy! This is known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the very fact of my belief has helped to make my belief a true one. The same thing happens when the people of a country (as in the revolutions of last year’s Arab Spring) collectively lose belief in the capability or right of a regime to govern. The regime, which seemed so vast and monolithic, fragments and collapses…because the belief which had sustained it is now gone.

The oil-centered system currently threatening our planet, and all its manifestations – including the oil-friendly Harper administration running Canada – are not immutable or invincible, any more than the regimes overthrown by the Arab Spring. Human beings created them, and human beings can change them. If all Canadians believed that the tar sands should not be further developed, and descended en masse upon the oil fields of Alberta to physically block TransCanada and Enbridge from reaching them, then I can guarantee you the tar sands would remain untouched. 😀 On the other hand, if all Canadians agreed that the tar sands should be developed, then the pipelines would probably already have been built. (The actual outcome will probably fall somewhere between those two extremes; but where is entirely up to us.)

“The tar sands will be developed” is an extremely destructive statement. Just by uttering and believing it, one is abdicating one’s own power to actively create our world’s future –  and willingly handing over that power to Enbridge and TransCanada. A corporation is not some all-powerful god; it doesn’t even have a physical form. Like money, it exists as signatures on paper, shareholders in board meetings and bits in computer servers.

And what about our government – the Harper government, so intent on destroying our country’s environment and the world’s climate? It is our government. We elected it, and we can unelect it in three years’ time, and in the meantime we, Canadians, can make it clear to Harper that he needs to represent our views on this issue, not our own. Any government, corporation, or other legal entity exists and continues to function only by the collective will and belief of its people. For this reason it is essential that we do not give the enemy (and by this I don’t mean individuals, but the collective forces trying to destroy our environment) our implicit assent by believing their victory is “inevitable.” Such a self-fulfilling prophecy plays right into their hands; we’ve given away the game before it even began, conceded the war before a single shot was fired.

There was a time, after all, when an end to slavery seemed “impossible.”

Later, there was a time when an end to segregation and apartheid seemed “impossible.”

There was a time when it seemed “impossible” that women would ever get the vote.

Or gay couples get the right to marry.

Or that laws would be passed protecting children from hard labor in factories, or ensuring they could go to school – for free.

And I could go on, and on, and on. None of these gains just fell into the human race’s lap. They were all hard-fought victories – fought, and eventually won, by people who believed the “impossible” was possible. And because they believed it…it became reality.

Please do me a personal favor today…humor me. 😉 Go and believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Or dinner, or whenever you happen to be reading this blog.) Six things you wish were different about your own life, or society, or the world – I don’t care which. Six missions you think are totally, absolutely, fundamentally IMPOSSIBLE.

Then believe them. Consciously and deliberately. And help to make the impossible, possible.

…You’ll be happy you did. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

I think we’ve all been hypnotized… June 18, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Social Media, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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hypnotized

I think we’ve all been hypnotized…

…why keep polluters subsidized?

(To the tune of $1 trillion a year, no less?!?)

That’s the subject of today’s Twitter storm to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies. The Rio +20 summit begins in two days in Rio de Janiero, and one of the questions that will be addressed is an agreement to end enormous subsidies – estimated at 750 billion to 1 trillion annually – to fossil fuel companies.

Now, 1 trillion dollars is a LOT of money. It’s so enormous that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around at all, frankly. But here are some stats for comparison which might help you to make some sense of it:

* For $10 billion a year (1% of 1 trillion) we could ensure every child in the world has the chance to go to school.

* For $30 billion (3% of 1 trillion) we could provide clean water to everyone on the planet, saving the lives of the 2.2 million people, most of them children, who die each year from waterbourne disease.

* For $30 billion a year (3% of 1 trillion) we could end world hunger in 10 years, saving the life of one child every six seconds.

* For a mere $3 billion a year (0.3% of 1 trillion!!) we could end malaria deaths worldwide, saving the life of one child every 45 seconds and the lives of 1 million people every year.

Heck, we could achieve ALL of the above, and still have over $900 billion left over.

With 1 trillion a year we could create the world we all dream of. A world where no child goes hungry or without an education or dies from an easily preventable illness. We could subsidize renewable, clean energy that will last us for centuries to come. We could ensure workers worldwide are paid fair wages and work in safe, clean conditions instead of toiling in unsafe factories for pennies per hour. There’s no end of the list of what we could do, really.

So, with that in mind, WHY on earth are we wasting this golden opportunity, paying fossil fuel companies – who make mega-profits in any case and definitely do NOT need handouts – to pollute our earth, raise CO2 emissions and warm our planet?!?

This is, frankly, obscene. It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t believe if you didn’t actually live on our planet. It’s like something you’d read in a Kafka novel or see in a crazy sci-fi dystopian movie. It’s like deliberately slamming our collective head into a brick wall over and over and over (once for every year we go on doing this). It’s such insane, self-destructive behaviour that, really, I think the only reason it continues is that it’s so unbelievable that we can’t really wrap our minds around it. So we don’t think about it, and they’re able to go on pulling the wool over our eyes.

Like I said…I think we’ve all been hypnotized.

No longer. It’s time to think about it and then to stop it. Please join me.

It's time to end fossil fuel subsidies!

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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My last picture was of a mousetrap…so here’s the mouse to go with it.

It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.

The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.

I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).

Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.

And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:

KILL IT!

Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.

My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.

But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?

There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. 😉 I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”

But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.

For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do – strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!

…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.

Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.

I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”

We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.

I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”

“…We’re both human.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Lux Aeterna… September 21, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Human Rights, Music, Saving the World.
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Troy Davis was executed tonight. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes ago, at 11:08.

His last words, to those who killed him: “May God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls. Look deeper into this case so you can find the truth….. I am innocent.”

There is nothing more I could possibly say tonight except, in the words of a friend from Twitter: “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

On Trial in a Parallel Universe September 15, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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I imagine it just like a scene out of a movie – a courtroom movie.

Set in a parallel universe.

You’re sitting in the defendant’s box, your lawyer beside you. Gazing out at the room, the judge’s stern face, the weary expressions of the jury members, you try to look relaxed. Confident. Innocent.

After all, you know you’re not guilty. You left the scene long before any shots were fired. There’s nothing to connect you to the crime – no murder weapon, no fingerprints, no motive, nothing. In a few hours you’ll be free, and hopefully they’ll get back to tracking down the guy who really did it. Beside you, your defence lawyer is confident and smiling. This should be an easy case.

The prosecution calls their first witness in, and you blink, surprised. It’s a close friend of yours, a guy you’ve known for years. Why would the prosecution ask him to testify? That’s right, he was there the night the cop was shot – you vaguely remember seeing him before you took off. They must be desperate. Well, he’ll straighten them out soon enough.

Your friend’s being sworn in, and now the lawyer’s ready to ask the first question. He doesn’t waste time. Did he see the shooting?

Yes, your friend answers. He’s oddly nervous, casting twitchy glances around the room. He doesn’t meet your eyes.

And can he identify the murderer?

A pause. Then – “Yes,” your friend answers. Then he points right at you. “It was him. I saw him shoot the officer. He’s guilty.”

For a long moment, you can’t seem to make sense of his words. You must have misunderstood, he must have pointed somewhere else – maybe there’s another suspect on trial that day?

You stare at your friend pleadingly. He doesn’t look back.

The ground seems to lurch and spin beneath you.

And that’s just the start.

The next two hours seem to go by in slow motion as witness after witness comes to the stand. Some are your friends, some you just ran into on the street once or twice, one of them you got in a fight with a few years back. A couple of them you’ve never seen in your life. One of them – a guy who was always looking for trouble – had been there that night, and you’d actually wondered a couple times if he had shot the cop.

But they all agree on one thing as they point to you. “He did it. He shot the officer. Guilty.”

Guilty.

You stare at the judge’s severe, implacable face. You hardly dare to glance at the jury, but when you do you find them watching you coldly. You can tell what they’re thinking – you see it in their eyes. Murderer.

Even your defence lawyer is watching you, brow furrowed. You can practically see the thought written on his face – maybe he did it after all?

You’ve got to be dreaming. Please, let me wake up now. This is insane. This is madness. This can’t be happening. This is a court of justice, for God’s sake.

But as the parade of witnesses continues, and the mountain of evidence continues to grow, even you can’t help but start to wonder if you really are innocent.

*******

I don’t know exactly what it was like to be Troy Davis at his 1991 murder trial. But that’s how I imagine it when I read the evidence now available, from Amnesty International. Of the witnesses that testified against him, all but two later recanted their testimony, citing police coercion as their reason for testifying.

Their affidavits – recanting their testimony – are here, and they make heartbreaking reading. Most said the police wouldn’t stop asking questions, wouldn’t let them go, until they gave the answers they knew the police wanted to hear: that Troy Davis was guilty. Several were given pre-written statements to sign. One of these witnesses, totally illiterate, could not read the witness statement he put his name to.

This is the sort of story I’ve gotten used to hearing about from Iran. A country where torture and arbitrary imprisonment are the norm. A country where your guilt is all too often pre-determined and the security forces won’t stop until they get the answers they want. A country where the innocent are punished and it is the guilty who determine their sentence.

Not the United States of America. I’m not an American citizen but for me, as for so many across the world, the United States has always represented freedom, justice, hope. The world’s first modern democracy, where all are equal before the law. A place where people are always presumed innocent until proven guilty – “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

What has gone wrong? How has the system failed so badly as to let something like this occur?

I’ve contacted both Gov. Nathan Deal (phone (404) 651-1776, fax (404) 657-7332, email here, web contact form here) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (phone (404) 656-5651, fax (404) 651-8502) asking them to grant clemency on Monday – Troy Davis’ last hope. I urge every reader of this blog entry to do the same. Yes, every phone call, every fax, every e-mail matters.

IMPORTANT: JUST IN (yes, literally as I write this blog entry!) – Please contact Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney Larry Chisolm as well. He can support Troy Davis’ request for clemency for seeking to have the current death warrant withdrawn. You can contact DA Chisolm here.

If you’re like me, and making phone calls to people in government totally freaks you out, THAT’S OKAY! YOU CAN STILL HELP! Fax (especially) and e-mail are also effective.

The very real truth is that this is Troy’s last chance. If the Board rules against him on Monday, then – barring a miracle – he’ll be executed the following week. Put to death for a crime that, in all likelihood, he did not commit.

Please, let’s do everything we can to stop this atrocity from occurring.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

The Second Coming of The Lorax (Or, the Day after May 21) May 22, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Childhood, Christianity, Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.

I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.

At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.

Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.

Disappointment? Why?

*******

Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.

She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”

But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?

My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?

Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…

…Wait.

*******

“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”

The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*

Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.

And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
“UNLESS.”
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”

But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.

The child listening to the tale.

“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

“SO…
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.

Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”

Indeed, why?

“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?

Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a  $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.

But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.

The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)

The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)

_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.

Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)

Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.

Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.

Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.

*******

In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:

1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?

2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?

But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:

1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?

2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?

As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…

In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”

Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?

But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)

Give Back their Childhood…for 7 Dollars January 11, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Childhood, Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media.
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How much does it cost to give a kid back their childhood? Just $7.

“I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him, and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I said I had no choice.” Susan, a 16-year old girl

“As a soldier, I had 24-hour sentry watches and was forced to keep alert. The days were abusively hot, and I often scoured the hillsides many miles for firewood, split the wood, and worked the farms.  The nights in the mountain winds were freezing. It was then that the reality of my life often hit me and I would lie awake and cry with no blanket and little hope.” Sanan, a 9-year old boy

“The soldiers found me and put me in jail for deserting. For three or four days, I couldn’t eat or sleep.  The food was horrid.  The smell was worse.  We slept in our own feces.  I cried and screamed for mercy.  During the days, we were slave laborers with no sleep at night…I had been in jail just a little over a month when one of the staff from Project: AK-47 came and negotiated my release.” Neso

Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day (and to my delight “Trafficking Awareness” is currently a trending topic on Twitter!) One of the most horrific forms of human trafficking are the use of child soldiers, in which children as young as 5 are bought, lured or simply kidnapped into the army and forced to fight. Often young children, both boys and girls, are subjected to repeated rape and physical abuse. Those not forced to participate in armed combat (often younger children and girls) are assigned work in the army camps, forced to train in brutal conditions, or – considered expendable – sent to perform dangerous activities like spying or clearing mines. Their childhoods are stolen. It’s estimated that there are over 300,000 child soldiers active today.

Project AK-47 exists to give children like these their childhoods back. After negotiating their release from the army, they provide the children with housing, food, a quality education and a supportive, caring “family” to replace the one that they’ve lost. How much money does it cost to do this? Just $7 a month.

That’s right. $7 a month – less than the cost of two lattes – is the difference between an abused, terrified child forced to kill others and a happy, carefree child living a normal childhood. Though there are many worthy causes to support, that has got to be one of the best deals, in terms of results per dollar, that I can think of. (Which is why I’m sponsoring three – for the average cost of a single Chinese takeout meal a month.)

I urge everyone who reads this, and wants to do something real to combat human trafficking, to go to the Project AK-47 webpage and sponsor a child. Just do it. It’s probably one of the best investments you’ll ever make…and instead of one more killer, our world will have one more child who can live a normal childhood.

The Contrapuntal Platypus

Ten Reasons to Support Project AK-47

1. Maximum impact per dollar. When was the last time you could save, feed, house and educate a child for $7 a month?

2. There are over 300,000 child soldiers in our world today.

3. Project AK-47 negotiates child soldiers’ release, thus ensuring their safety after release and spreading awareness. (Often the army will freely let them go if they’ll be provided with education.)

4. Project AK-47 doesn’t move rescued children to another country, but rather gives them the tools they need to become the country’s next generation of leaders – putting an end to the cycles of violence responsible for child soldiers.

5. As child soldiers are often seen as expendable, they’ll be told to perform dangerous or lethal tasks such as mine clearance, spying or suicide attacks.

6. Project AK-47 doesn’t just rescue children from a life of combat and dangerous military duties, but from repeated physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

7. Though more people have become aware of human trafficking in recent years, few realize the extent to which children are used as soldiers in today’s world.

8. Buying and wearing a AK-47 dog tag inscribed with the name of a child soldier is an easy way you can help to raise awareness of this issue.

9. Think back to your own childhood…what price tag would you put on it?

10. And last but not least: no kid should be a killer.

Asian vs. Western Education: A Third Way? (My response to Amy Chua, Part 1) January 8, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Saving the World, Teaching.
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(This is Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua, focusing on her article though a music teaching/educational lens. UPDATE: Part 2, consisting of some more general thoughts on parenting and how to “motivate” children to learn, is now up here. Comments, questions, and debates are welcome!)

A friend of mine tweeted an article today titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, which he suggested would more accurately be called “How to Rob Your Child’s Life and Live it For Them.” It’s written by an Asian mother, Amy Chua, who quite genuinely believes that the Asian method of education – rote memorization and practice, insistence on high achievement, and strict discipline – produces the most successful, and in the end happiest, children. When I tweeted back my initial reaction to the article, my friend responded, “She forgets that in order to become a musician, you need talent first and then you can practice like hell.”

I found this assertion extremely interesting, but limiting – just as I found the author’s stance more compelling than one might think at first glance, but also ultimately flawed. The Asian model assumes that rote practice and strict discipline can ensure “success.” In contrast, the Western model argues that inherent “talent” – either you have it, or you don’t – is first and foremost essential. Frankly, neither of those educational models seems ideal. Isn’t there any other alternative?

Though there are aspects of Ms. Chua’s article I quite strongly disagreed with (never allowing one’s children to have a playdate or be in a school play? Requiring them to be the top student in every academic subject?), I felt she hit some things right on the mark. She states:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work… Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun…One of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

Agreed 100%. This is where the Asian theory, for me, comes out far ahead of the Western theory of “talent”. The Western model is horrendously disempowering, not to mention disheartening; children tend to assume, if they can’t get something right away, that they “aren’t good at it” and should just “give up.” (Of course, if I’d done this there’s no way I’d be a pianist today.) Say what you like about the Asian system – at least it provides some scope for improvement.

It’s only after this point that, for me, the Asian theory goes totally off the rails…

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.

Ouch! The problem with the Asian model is that it assumes any failure to do well (in academics, music, etc) is due to lack of motivation, practice, or work ethic. As a teacher I know that far more often it’s due to a fundamental lack of understanding.  The child’s current level of comprehension is on one side, the concept is on another, there’s a gap in between – and no amount of screaming, punishment or shaming will give the child the ability to jump over the gap, any more than yelling at me would make me able to leap a fifty foot wide crevasse. Excoriating the child for “not getting it” won’t make the child any more likely to get it, only make them feel guilty for something that isn’t their fault. Rather, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to give them – one by one – the tools they need to bridge the gap on their own, and guide them through the process.

As an example of what can go so terribly, horribly wrong with the Asian model, I’ll hand it over to Ms. Chua once more.

Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7…working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey”…incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms. Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day…I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic….I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

“Mommy, look—it’s easy!” After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano…When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”

A success story for coercion? Not quite. Not being a child psychologist, I won’t speculate on what sort of damage can be done to a 7-year old by repeated insults, bullying and threats (not to mention withholding water and bathroom breaks – surely this would count as physical abuse?) As a piano teacher, however, I can pretty firmly state that no real progress was made here.

Here’s the first warning sign: “We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart.”

This is pretty much a universal problem among pianists – playing left and right hands separately, and putting them together, are two very different mental and physical tasks! It was certainly not due to the 7-year old being “lazy”, “self-indulgent”, “cowardly,” or “pathetic.” Even less was it due to a fundamental “lack of talent” (as per the Western approach). Rather, it is simply a technical problem the child hasn’t learned to deal with. Tackling a problem like this is not the child’s responsibility nor, in fact, the parent’s (unless that parent has extensive training in music.) It is the teacher’s, and Ms. Chua should have taken the issue to him or her in the next lesson. Trying to “shame” a 7-year old into playing two-hand cross-rhythms, without help from an experienced teacher, is like trying to “shame” her into solving algebra problems when she’s never been introduced to the concept before. Lack of understanding is not something one should feel guilty about.

However, it’s pretty clear Ms. Chua did not herself have the musical experience to analyze the problem and break it down into a form that Lulu could solve. Rather she tried to solve the issue by brute force – and for hours on end this was unproductive. But then, the light dawned…or did it?

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Just like that! Magic! And all it took was hour upon hour of bullying, threats, verbal and physical intimidation, insults and screaming, right?

Not so fast. Unfortunately, by Ms. Chua’s account, it sounds as though her daughter stumbled across the solution by exhaustive (literally!) trial and error more than anything else. All piano students have moments where something that didn’t work before, magically starts to fit together. Unfortunately “magic” can only go so far; the student is left with little or no understanding of what they did to make it work, or how to fix it if – almost inevitably – it stops working again at some point in the future (usually the night before a major performance!)

Threats and insults aside, the problem with rote drill as a learning method is that it tends to entirely bypass the important long-term goals (musical understanding) in favour of more peripheral short-term ones (learning “The Little White Donkey” for the next day.) As a result, the child gets “good” at playing a lot of individual pieces but often has little or no general musical comprehension, artistic expression, or even music reading ability. (More on the weaknesses of the rote system, in my own and others’ experience, here.)

An ideal educational model neither relies on inherent “talent” nor “discipline” as primary strategies for teaching. Certainly, it can be useful to exploit a child’s strengths as a teaching tool (case in point: one of my students had an amazing memory for pattern and harmony, though he had difficulties reading music. I assigned him various technical exercises in the circle of fifths pattern – usually something only more advanced students would tackle. He learned them easily.) Likewise, rote memorization and repetition can be a useful tool for learning. However, neither works as a good fundamental teaching model.

Above all, a good teacher needs the ability to be both creative and analytical (pop-culture notions of right- and left-brained people aside, the two are not mutually exclusive!) Creativity is needed in order to formulate a problem in new ways, using analogy, stories, visual images, metaphor or whatever else is needed to get an idea across. Analysis is essential for breaking down a problem into steps and then handing the student the tools they need to process those steps, one at a time – so that the previously unleapable gap becomes a series of shorter hops, or if necessary easy steps.

This dual strategy of creativity and analysis produces short-term results as well as long-term understanding. But, more important than either, it gives the student the tools they will need to solve, not only musical problems, but any problem requiring creative and/or analytical ability. Ms. Chua’s assertions aside, bullying and insulting a child won’t give them self-esteem. However, neither will telling them that “everyone has different talents” and “someday you’ll figure it out” (what kid can’t see through that sort of rhetoric to hear the underlying “you’re not good at this” and “I’m not really sure why you can’t get it now”?) What will give a child self-esteem, however, is showing them the strategies they will need to solve any problem they encounter. And, unlike a late-night, tearfully forced mastering of “My Little White Donkey”, these are positive, empowering lessons that will last a lifetime.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* I taught an Asian student last year who transferred into my studio. After several years of study under a “rote” method, her technique and imitative ability were quite good but she was unable to read even a simple 2-line piece in C major. Furthermore she had no comprehension of how the music was constructed, what the composer’s markings meant or what the piece was trying to portray.

I told her mother that we would need to spend some time working through the lower RCM levels to improve her reading ability, after which we could return to more advanced music. We did so and she made excellent progress, moving through about 5 RCM grades in as many months. However, about 6 months after she began lessons, her mother called to tell me that she was leaving my studio. The reason (as I found out when I asked to speak with the daughter; her mom wouldn’t tell me) was that, apparently, she “wasn’t progressing fast enough.”

I asked the mother how quickly she expected her daughter to progress – and how passing six grades in half a year could possibly be insufficient. From her answer I gathered that she wanted her daughter to be playing the sort of “flashy” music that she’d been working on before and that goals such as long-term understanding, music reading and expressivity were, for her, secondary to surface brilliance and showiness.

Similarly, when my sister taught English in Japan for a year she found that the educational system was almost entirely structured around drill. Students would memorize, word-for-word, a small set of formulaic conversations with little understanding of their meaning or structure. As a result they would be able to say, for example, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please” but have limited ability to modify the sentence to ask for two cups of coffee, or a cup of tea instead. Many of her students who had studied English in school for years still were entirely unable to have a basic conversation with a native speaker.

I don’t mean to suggest with these anecdotes that all Asian teachers or students fall into this stereotype. However, it does seem to be a major weakness of the rote system that it promotes quick results over true understanding.

2011 Weekly Challenge: Write Year-Round for Human Rights! January 1, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Human Rights, Iranelection, Saving the World.
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Happy New Year! As I mentioned yesterday, today I’m unveiling my 2011 New Year’s Human Rights’ Challenge. Though I created it as a personal New Year’s Resolution, I invite others to join me!

A few months ago I featured this video on my blog:

For the past two years I’ve meant to participate in the Amnesty Write for Rights event (held Dec. 10) and Greeting Cards Campaign (Nov 1-Jan 31), but it’s a busy season for piano teachers, and this year in particular was…chaotic. I did consider about setting myself the goal of writing greeting cards to the 31 prisoners over the 31 days of January. However, these cases have already been widely publicized and by all accounts these 31 prisoners are getting enormous volumes of mail. What Amnesty needs, I suspect, is more people who will make an effort to consistently write appeal letters during the other 11 months of the year.

So my personal goal for 2011 is:

Once a week throughout 2011, I will pick an Amnesty Urgent Action, write and send an appeal letter, and feature the case here on my blog to help spread awareness.

Why this goal?

(1) I’ve known for a while now that I wanted to become more involved in fighting for human rights in a number of regions. I’ve been on Twitter’s #iranelection hashtag for a year and a half now and have sent dozens of Iran-related Urgent Action Appeals for prisoners suffering in Evin or on death row.

However, as my interest in human rights has deepened over the past year, I’ve become less and less content to simply focus on a single country. There are oppressed people worldwide who need our voices, both to demand their rights be respected and to spread awareness. Even if all those in prison in Iran were liberated today, the fight for human rights would go on in many other places…and until all of us are free, none of us truly are.

(2) One of the perennial challenges of blogging is, as a friend observed last night, getting started. If I’ve made a commitment to blog about a human rights case once a week to help spread awareness, this will definitely be a strong motivating factor for blogging in general. A popular #iranelection saying, “We are the media” – “we” being bloggers, tweeters and other social media users – is particularly applicable when it comes to human rights cases, which the mainstream media tend to neglect. If we don’t publicize these cases, nobody will.

(3) A great side benefit of following the current human rights issues in Iran is that I’ve come to know so much about Iran’s amazing history, culture, and language. But Iran’s “story” is only one of hundreds. There are so many other cultures and countries in the world that are equally fascinating. What better way to discover them than while fighting for human rights?

What this means is that I’ll be posting here about a new human rights case each week. At the very least I’ll repost Amnesty’s summary and instructions for writing an appeal letter. If time permits I’ll hopefully do a bit of digging and include some more background. (I may include some sample letters for particularly urgent cases, but Amnesty does encourage people to write appeals in their own words. And really, if it were my life in danger…would I want people sending “form letters” to the only person who could save me?)

Please do leave your responses, comments, questions…I would love to get feedback on this idea! (And if you’d like to participate, please do subscribe to my blog for weekly updates!)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

A 2011 Teaser (Contrapuntal Platypus is Back!) December 31, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media.
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Yes, I’m finally back…after a month of piano festival application/Christmas recital craziness, Rumikitty chaos (it seems he did eat the string and it is now, er, gradually reappearing) and a family-wide epidemic of Norovirus – aka stomach flu – perfectly timed for Christmas Eve. Yay! 😉

Thank goodness December is almost over (and I survived, if barely). Here’s to a more consistent* year of blogging!

Now for the 2011 Contrapuntal Platypus Teaser…

While thinking over my 2011 New Year’s Resolutions, I realized that I wanted to (1) post more blog entries and (2) do more for various human rights causes worldwide. So I decided to combine the two, and begin the year by posting a special Human Rights Challenge…for any who dare to take part 😀 All will be revealed tomorrow at midnight!

Until then…Happy New Year’s Eve!

– Contrapuntal Platypus

* On this topic, I was chatting with a friend online who’d been thinking of blogging for a while, but who told me he preferred to “finish what he’d started in 2010” first. (I’m bad about that too as you can probably tell if you’ve been following…)

At once this reminded me of a joke I’d seen floating around the Net:

“Dr. Neil proclaimed the way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started.  So I looked around my house to see things I had started and hadn’t finished; and, before leaving the house this morning, I finished off a bottle of Pinot Noir, a bottle of Chardonnay, a bottle of Baileys, a bottle of Kahlua, a packet of Penguins, the remainder of a bottle of Prozac, Valium prescriptions, the rest of the Cheesecake, and a box of chocolates.

You have no idea how good I feel.”