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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

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18 Tir: A Tribute July 9, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Saving the World, Social Media.
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To the tweeter known only as @Change_for_Iran

*******

…You’ll probably never read this.

I don’t even know if you’re still alive, although more than a year after you tweeted for the last time, I continue to pray for your safety. I don’t know if you’re still in Iran, or were forced to flee as many students were, or perhaps lie imprisoned somewhere in the depths of Evin. I can only hope against all odds that you are safe.

Today is 18 Tir, the 11-year anniversary of the brutal 1999 invasion of the student dormitories. I find myself thinking of you today, because it was your tweets the night of June 14 – the night history repeated itself and students were again attacked and killed in their dormitories – that brought me to #iranelection and to the Sea of Green.


******

I had been following the leadup to Iran’s 2009 election for weeks before on various news outlets: the buildup of support for Mousavi, the crowds of people – both young and old, male and female, religious and secular – all wearing green, the color of hope. The unpredecented voter turnout on election day. The excitement and anticipation for a new future: one of tolerance and openness rather than repression and secrecy.

And then, of course, the result, hastily announced and incomprehensible. The backlash of disbelief and shock. Then the protests began, building day after day.

As the crisis escalated, I read on the Guardian website that the best sources of breaking news were the Iranian students posting updates on Twitter. I was intrigued, but held back from investigating first-hand. It was, I vaguely sensed, something that I could far too easily spend hours doing. Besides, I had always heard that Twitter was a pointless, egotistical social medium good only for navel-gazers intent on telling the world what they had for breakfast. Far better to get my updates sifted through the convenient filter of a news website.

Until the night the dormitories were attacked. Then I knew I couldn’t bear to remain at a “safe” distance any longer. I had to see the confict as it unfolded for myself.

*******


I quickly opened a Twitter account and spent the next little while getting a feel for the medium. It wasn’t hard to identify the most reliable sources, and within hours I was hooked. Here were people my age posting news, videos, and pictures of the protests all around them. I saw clips of people targeted by Basij rooftop sharpshooters, or overwhelmed by teargas, as they walked and chanted for freedom. Others bravely ran back into the path of gunfire to help the injured. And every night the cries from the rooftops spread wider and wider throughout Tehran: Allaho Akbar! Marg Bar Dictator!

But it was your tweets above all that drew me in. The stories of you and your friends – ordinary students caught up in a situation far from ordinary, which you faced with courage and determination. There was one who could find the humour in anything, even when the dormitory attackers returned. I laughed out loud when you said he had given the Basij leader the nickname “King Kong!” And another who, dedicated and serious, went on studying for exams in every spare moment between protests.

I was supposed to be practicing for a music academy the next week. I couldn’t practice. I could barely sleep. My whole mind and heart was caught up with the unfolding story in Iran, the scenes of courage and determination I had seen.

And then came June 20, the first huge crackdown. A day of teargas and clubs, relentless, mindless brutality. And you stopped tweeting for the first time.

I couldn’t believe it. I feared you were dead, and yet my heart refused to accept that somebody so young, so vibrant, so full of life and determination and hope for the future, could just vanish from the world. Day after day, in minutes snatched between classes, I scanned for any sign of your tweets and watched in horror as the crackdown intensified and one by one other tweeters vanished. Sleep was impossible. On the fifth day there were reports of a massacre in one of Tehran’s central squares, and I gave up all hope. How relieved and overjoyed I was when you reappeared that afternoon with the news that you and your friends were safe.

Three days later your tweets stopped again and then…nothing.

*******

Over a year has passed since that date, and yet I go on hoping, for you and all the students of Iran. I, along with so many others who were caught up in your story during that fateful week in June, am still here and doing all I can to make the world aware of the Green Movement. As you made us aware, despite the risks you took and the unthinkable price you may have paid for it.

Thank you for speaking to us despite all the danger. For reaching out across oceans and cultural barriers to bring your story to us in our own language. Thank you for opening our eyes and our minds to the struggle of a people – one many of us had mistrusted and viewed with suspicion, but came to realize had a thirst for freedom and peace as great as our own. Thank you for breaking down the walls of our comfortable lives and showing us, first-hand, how much we can do simply by lending our support and our voice to those who are alone.

It is because of you, and the others who reached out, that #iranelection is not merely the story of the awakening of the Iranian people – but, even more, my awakening, and that of our world.

Thank you – now and always.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

On Making a Big Stink July 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Saving the World.
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“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” John 3:20

This post is dedicated in gratitude to all my friends on #iranelection who each day do research and write letters and construct websites and retweet news on #humanrights abuses…far too many to list, but you know who you are. Thank you…always.

*******

When I logged into Twitter this morning, the first news item to catch my eye was an article from the New York Times. Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, a human rights activist, was murdered in Congo nearly a month ago; his killer has not yet been found but is suspected to have connections to the government.

It is with some embarrassment I must confess I had never heard of this heroic man before learning of his death this morning. Mr. Chebeya was one of those courageous and utterly essential people who very simply and quietly go about doing the right thing and speaking out against injustice, no matter what the personal cost. For years he had documented arbitrary imprisonment, torture and execution in a country where human rights violations are rampant and corruption is endemic. And in the end he had died for it.

This tragic news hung in my mind, a poignant counterpoint, as I thought back over the previous evening’s online chat with a close friend as I told her about my group’s efforts this past year on #iranelection. I mentioned the website we had constructed containing information on dozens of death-row prisoners in Iran; the Amnesty International Urgent Action items we retweeted; our sample letters urging authorities to halt impending executions and free those arbitrarily detained.

She seemed unimpressed. “And these letters stop people from being executed?” was her skeptical question. It is a challenge I have heard repeatedly over the past year – that at one point I too accepted. How naive are you, she seemed to be asking, what kind of fairy-tale world are you living in to think that repressive regimes will care what you think of their brutal atrocities?

In answer I showed her this:

…And, for some more concrete evidence, these success stories from Amnesty USA and Amnesty International UK.

*******

The observer effect, or reactivity, is a well-known principle that experimental psychologists must account for in any study: merely the knowledge of being observed will tend to influence a person’s behavior.* Generally the subject will act more in accordance with societal norms, respond to the experimenter with “acceptable” answers or behaviour even if there is nothing “in it” for them – no possible reward or punishment attached to the outcome.

There is a reason why Mr. Chebeya was murdered. There is a reason why Iran has imprisoned and silenced dozens of human rights reporters from organizations with no political affiliation and that pose no direct threat to the ruling regime. Repressive governments do not like to have their atrocities watched, reported upon, advertised to the world. And time and again we have seen – for example, in the cases of Mohammad-Amin Valian and Maziar Bahari – such attention has led to vastly better treatment of the detainee in question and, often, their sentences being quietly overturned. Others, who are not so fortunate and have nobody to draw attention to their cases, are kept in prison under inhumane conditions or even executed. The last thing oppressors anywhere want is for us to break the silence, make a “big stink” and draw worldwide attention to their violations of human rights – which is precisely why we have to, very deliberately and continuously, go on making one.

*******

Perhaps equally important to a political prisoner, though, is the knowledge that they are not alone: the outside world has not forgotten them, people care about their fate and are working to try to set them free. As Maziar Bahari wrote after his release from Evin, “The prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten.”

This reminded me of an article posted a month ago on #iranelection (translated by our own @nchevre – thank you!!) It deserves a frequent re-reading to remind us how important our support truly is to those imprisoned and threatened by totalitarian regimes everywhere:

Let us not forget our loved ones as forgetting them is a worse fate than execution.

As always, he was interrogating me from somewhere behind me. Suddenly his mobile phone rang. After a few loud sentences he said “No, he’s still alive and kicking and sitting in front of me.” They exchanged a few more words. When his conversation was over he asked “Do you know so and so?” I responded “Yes”. He named a few more people and I said I didn’t recognize them or know who they are. He said “They were apparently together, talking and claiming that Hamze Ghalebi has been executed.” He said his friend wanted to check with him. To be honest, I’m not sure why he brought this particular subject up. I’m not even sure if the conversation he pretended to have on his cell phone was real, or yet another means to create more physiological pressure. What is interesting is that contrary to his objective, his words made me stronger and more resilient.

One of the interrogation techniques that resulted in the most pressure was their ability to make you believe that everything is over and that everyone has forgotten you. People are living their own lives. Your friends are busy and have moved on. I don’t know how to explain how painful and difficult it is to feel that you have been forgotten. It is more than difficult. No words express it accurately.

He said “A few people have talked about your execution.” I am not sure what his motivation was, but by the way he expressed himself, it became clear to me that unlike his assertion, I had obviously not been forgotten after all. I told myself, hey at least a few people were upset to hear of my execution. I hid my smile immediately so that the interrogator would not notice.

If you were to ask me “What is the most important way to help someone in prison?” I would respond “Make sure that their family stands with them and after that, make sure that they are never forgotten.” This in my opinion is even more important than working towards their release from prison. I believe that this is our minimum obligation to our imprisoned friends. It is our duty to make sure that their family is not alone and that they are never forgotten.

Keeping alive memories that have been imprisoned because of personal beliefs or politics is not just a moral obligation, but also has social and political consequences. By keeping the memories of an individual alive in our collective memories, we give a social significance to their action and their sacrifice. Every symbol, sign, phrase or message will demonstrate that those outside prison are still aware and as such enable the prisoner to further resist suppression. The more we remember, the taller they will stand and the louder they will speak. That is why keeping their memories alive and speaking about loved ones is one of the most important ways we can continue our resistance and fight against tyranny.

Keeping the memories of those who have suffered alive in our collective consciousness will allow us to build upon our experience and avoid mistakes. We must make sure that we never forget the suffering, that we keep it alive in our minds, that we remind ourselves every day so that it becomes an alarm in our ears, helping us to avoid mistakes that result from forgetting the past.

Written by Hamze Ghalebi (original post in Persian)

*******

…When we act and speak out for victims of repression and violence in Iran or anywhere in our world, it does make a difference – more, perhaps, than we will ever know.

Thank you all for reading, and caring.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*******

*Interestingly, the “observer effect” is not confined to psychology but is a recurring motif throughout all branches of science. The strangest example is perhaps quantum mechanics, in which particles will literally behave differently when they are being observed (as in the double-slit experiment). But this really deserves a separate post of its own… 😀

Lux Aeterna (or, Some Thoughts on Dawn-Watching) June 29, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Music, Nature, Saving the World.
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…The promised sequel to “Luminous Piano Music“, with a bonus: some reflections written last September and reposted here.

My cat Rumi woke me up at dawn this morning, as he generally does, demanding food in piercing tones and grabbing my ankle in his teeth upon my utterly inexcusable delay to wash a spoon (upon which I shrieked and flung a handful of water in his general direction). Either it was the ankle bite, or the early morning light and scent of the cool air drifting through my window, but I simply could not get back to sleep after having plopped the food in his dish and staggered back to bed.

Instead I began remembering last September, where I’d woken up before dawn each morning to eat a hurried meal before sunrise as part of the #iranelection Ramadan solidarity fast. This involved not eating (or, for the truly hardcore participants, which I was not, drinking) between the hours of sunrise and sunset. I was surprised at how much less difficult this was than I’d feared, though I won’t say it was exactly fun…

One of the truly wonderful aspects of the experience, though, was being able to watch the sun rise each day. Often I would put on my favorite piece of “luminous” music, Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, as the pure, translucent light of early morning streamed into my room.

*******

Lux Aeterna is one of my favorite pieces of “classical” music of all time. Though written fairly recently it recalls the intricate choral writing of the late Renaissance (particularly Palestrina) in its intricate use of counterpoint paired with a transparent, pure harmonic texture. (I happened to pick up the CD as a library discard one day; if it were not for this stroke of fortune, I would probably never have heard this beautiful but still little-known piece, and my musical life would be significantly poorer for it.) The work is in five movements, all of which I love. Though my all-time favorite is the fourth movement (which will get its own post later, I promise), the opening of the first is to me the most vivid depiction in sound of the gentle light just before sunrise. Here it is, together with some of the thoughts that came to me during that month of dawn-watching.


(Performed by Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia Orchestra with Paul Salamunovich, Conductor- thank you so much for releasing the first good public-domain performance of this piece I’ve been able to find! 🙂 )

*******

September 2009

One of the aspects of Ramadan I’ve truly enjoyed has been the opportunity to watch the sun rise each morning. When I was quite young I used to wake up automatically at sunrise each day, but over the years have gotten out of the habit. In some ways it’s my favorite time of day: the cool, fresh, calm air, the light breeze on my cheeks, the birds that wheel and soar in the pale light. I have an excellent view of the eastern sky from my sixth-floor apartment, and over the past few weeks have had a great deal of pleasure watching from my dining room table as I eat my morning meal.

A few times the show has been magnificent, a brilliant sunrise in the conventional sense: massed clouds glowing a sinister dark red, gradually changing to fluffy “cotton candy” tinted by pastels, light pink and orange against the pale blue sky. But the cloudless sunrise of most days is actually my favorite: simply a slow, calm, gradual illumination of the sky with light — blue, pale green, yellow, orange and finally the red of the sun’s rising disk.

The whole sky fills gradually up with this light. Against it, the buildings of the city seem to fade into irrelevance, faint silhouettes against a glow that is far more real and substantial than they are. My eye is drawn inexorably out, past the swoops of the wheeling birds, past the buildings, to the immense arc of the sky and down to the horizon.

The world suddenly seems like both a larger and a smaller place. Larger, because I realize anew how little my own corner of it is: such a tiny piece of the whole. Smaller, because at the same time I sense that I am connected to the world in its entirety, as immense as it might be. Somewhere far over that horizon where I am gazing, over the curve of the world, are my friends in Iran, and the same sun rose over them eight hours ago that is now rising over me. I feel that I could almost lean out and wave to them, if I tried hard enough.

At the same time I am struck by a sense of the beauty of the world – and of responsibility. I strongly believe that our world was made by a being (call him/her/it what you will) who loves it, and who loves us, and who has done us the immense honor of placing its future and well-being into our hands. And since my corner of the world is connected to every other part, my own responsibility extends far beyond my own city or country – rather, it encompasses the entire world.

In some ways it is an infinite challenge. There is nothing about which we can shrug and say “Not in my backyard”, no atrocity or conflict or violence against our own Earth which we can dismiss as being far-away and unimportant to us personally. Any John McCain or Ann Coulter who calls lightly for bombing Iran or another nation – who thinks that war is an acceptable solution for international relations and that violence against another people doesn’t matter if they live far enough away – should be forced to get up before dawn for a month and stare out at that sky.

Many times this month as I’ve watched the sun rise, I’ve been reminded of a quote by the English mystic Julian of Norwich. She writes about a vision in which:

“[God] showed me something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that seemed to lie in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball. I tried to understand the sight of it, wondering what it could possibly mean. The answer came: ‘This is all that is made.’ I felt that it was so small that it could easily fade to nothing; but again I was told, ‘This lasts and will go on lasting forever because God loves it. And so it is with every being that God loves.’”

I couldn’t do better than end with that.