Blog Archive – November, 2014
- November 24, 2014
I’ve decided to learn as much as I can about brain physics. No, I haven’t been diagnosed with a frightening disease. I’m reading “The Future of the Mind” by Michio Kaku.
Besides being a renowned theoretical physicist and teacher, Kaku is someone with whom I shared an affection for radio and the airwaves of 99.5 fm. in New York where we both produced weekly programs at WBAI Radio. For more than 25 years, he’s been hosting “Explorations” (airing 2-3 p.m. Saturdays) which is now nationally syndicated.
One of the first journalistic science programs in the US (mid-1980s), “Explorations” was initially a forum exposing the dangers of nuclear energy and advocating anti-nuclear policies. Kaku also wrote about that, while his radio show grew into a review of cutting edge science where he spoke directly with leading researchers and addressed listeners’ questions by phone.
The best way to make science comprehensible is through public dialogues like “Explorations”; it was surely the foundation of Kaku’s emergence as a leading popularizer of science. In “The Future of the Mind”, Kaku’s interviews with fellow scientists integrate an enormous range of research. (He credits more than 200 scientists, many interviewed over WBAI airwaves, in his latest book.)
In 2001, Kaku extended his reach, hosting “Parallel Universes”, a television series on the cosmos. (His books had already attracted a large audience: “Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension”, and “Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century and Beyond” were followed in 2008 by the even more daring “Physics of the Impossible”.) As his influence grew and he became a frequent guest on mainstream television, Kaku remains anchored in radio.
This man can make the fantastic (but not impossible) intellectually appealing to the average person. Heh, if he inspires me to learn more about my brain, imagine how young people respond. It’s all the more fun with his frequent invocation of phenomenon we’ve seen depicted in Sci-Fi films.
Although we will doubtless hear much more from this brilliant physicist/journalist, Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind” may represent the zenith of a career that integrates disparate fields of research and demonstrates commonality between the laws of physics, the cosmos, and the human brain.
In the introduction to his latest bestseller, Kaku writes: “There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in our brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the first star outside our solar system to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders. The mind and the universe pose the greatest scientific challenge of all… one is concerned with the vastness of outer space, the other with inner space…the mind...”. Wow!
- November 18, 2014
Part 1 Democracy and The Humane Life
Westerners tend to think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their own enlightened, secular democracies. But measurement of cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking, and that distance is narrower than they assume. Islam is not just a religion, and certainly not just a fundamentalist political movement. It is a civilization, and a way of life that varies from one Muslim country to another but is animated by a common spirit far more humane than most Westerners realize. Nor do those in the West always recognize how their own societies have failed to live up to
their liberal mythology. Moreover, aspects of Islamic culture that Westerners regard as medieval may have prevailed in their own culture until fairly recently; in many cases, Islamic societies may be only a few decades behind socially and technologically advanced Western ones. In the end, the question is what path leads to the highest quality of life of the average citizen, while avoiding the worst abuses. The pat of the West does not provide all the answers; Islamic values deserve serious consideration.
The Way it Recently Was
Mores and values have changed rapidly in the West in the last several decades as revolutions in technology and society progressed. Islamic countries, which are now experiencing many of the same changes, may well follow suit. Premarital sex, for example, was strongly disapproved of in the West until after World War II. There were laws against sex outside marriage, some of which are still on the books, if rarely enforced. Today sex before marriage, with parental consent, is common.
Homosexual acts between males were a crime in Great Britain until the 1960s (although lesbianism was not outlawed). Now such acts between consenting adults, male or female, are legal in much of the West, although they remain illegal in most other countries. Half the Western world, in fact, would say that laws against homosexual sex are a violation of gays’ and lesbians’ human rights.
Even within the West, one sees cultural lag. Although capital punishment has been abolished almost everywhere in the Western world, the United States is currently increasing the number of capital offenses and executing more death row inmates than it has in years. But death penalty opponents, including Human Rights Watch and the Roman Catholic Church, continue to protest the practice in the United States, and one day capital punishment will almost certainly be regarded in America as a violation of human rights.
Westerners regard Muslim societies as unenlightened when it comes to the status of women, and it is true that the gender question is still troublesome in Muslim countries. Islamic rules on sexual modesty have often resulted in excessive segregation of the sexes in public places, sometimes bringing about the marginalization of women in public affairs more generally. British women,
however, were granted the right to own property independent of their husbands
only in 1870, while Muslim women have always had that right. Indeed, Islam is
the only world religion founded by a businessman in commercial partnership with his wife. While in many Western cultures daughters could not inherit anything if there were sons in the family, Islamic law has always allocated shares from every inheritance to both daughters and sons. Primogeniture has been illegal under the sharia (Islamic law) for 14 centuries.
The historical distance between the West and Islam in the treatment of women may be a matter of decades rather than centuries. Recall that in almost all Western countries except for New Zealand, women did not gain the right to vote until the twentieth century. Great Britain extended the vote to women in two stages, in 1918 and 1928, and the United States enfranchised them by constitutional amendment in 1920. France followed as recently as 1944. Switzerland did not permit women to vote in national elections until 1971– decades after Muslim women in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan had been casting ballots.
Furthermore, the United States, the largest and most influential Western nation, has never had a female president. In contrast, two of the most populous Muslim countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have had women prime ministers: Benazir Bhutto headed two governments in Pakistan, and Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed served consecutively in Bangladesh. Turkey has had Prime Minister Tansu Çiller.
Muslim countries are ahead in female empowerment, though still behind in female liberation.
- November 11, 2014
Thankfully, browsing bookshelves still can be an adventure.
There’s no end to new books worth reading, and those of us who enjoy literature constantly add to our ‘must-read’ list. Best sellers compete for our leisure hours; literary prizes point us to new talent. It’s hard to keep abreast. But rather than prepare myself for conversations about this year’s Nobel author (Patrick Modiano) my hand rests at a volume by 1988 Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
Hmm; how did I miss this? “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” by the acclaimed Egyptian writer is new to me. Eclipsed by Mahfouz’s popular Cairo series and missing from many online biographies, here is an overlooked masterpiece. So timely. This simple parable resonates poignantly as we innocent mortals traverse our 2014 world of endless wars.
The universal relevance of Mahfouz’s 1983, “The Journey…” is surely affirmation of his genius as a writer and political philosopher.
Layers of morality thread through this short yet complex story: there are traveler-merchants, protected and untouched, journeying through a series of cultures and wars, profiting as they proceed, unconcerned with conflicts underway or any suffering they witness. They glide amorally onto their next marketplace. (For me, together with family protocols, they are Mahfouz’ primary target for criticism.) Accompanying the travelers is Qindil, a young man who left home after betrayal by his teacher and his family. He shares his companions’ immunity but he is curious. So he dallies. Doing so, he encounters manifestations of justice and freedom.
Qindil’s ultimate goal is Gebel, a land of purported purity. Although he knows nothing of its merits and meets no one who’s been there. In the course of his journey Qindil, himself from an unidentified, fuzzy land-of-Islam, confronts a series of civilizations— in its individual way each appears to be a utopia. Each claims spiritual integrity. Blind to any of its deficits, none doubts its own superiority which, in the end, proves its demise.
Each nation lures Qindil with irresistible hospitality. (Is Mahfouz remarking on his society’s values? or Are those warm receptions a means of moving his protagonist through history? I’m uncertain.)
Qindil’s first dalliance is in Mishraq, a moon-worshipping land of free love where he joins a household and fathers four sons. He’s ultimately driven from there to Haira –he is welcome here too--which likewise claims it embodies everything humans desire and need. The same in Halba, the hero’s next destiny. Then on to Aman, and finally to Ghuroub. Readers may identify Mishraq as a primordial society, Halba a capitalist haven, and Aman a socialistic utopia. Regardless, each people believe theirs is the zenith of human existence (although it awards an unseen ruler unquestioned rights and powers over it).
War seems to prevail wherever Qindil finds himself. Haira is compelled to conquer Mishraq; then Halba is drawn into war and takes control of Aman, then Ghuroub must be subdued. Each conquest seems inevitable and morally wholesome as well. Wars are acts of grace rather than of ambition or ill will.
Qindil moves naively through these lands, withholding judgment whether or not he is mistreated. Whatever attachments or hostility he encounters, he is able to move on. His sole aim, he claims, is knowledge and thus seeks out sages at every stop.
Predictably, our traveler never reaches Gebel, his purported goal. He also seems to never acquire the knowledge he asserts is his noble ambition.
Reading this story, you’re sure to find meanings beyond those that I record. And you’ll grasp Mahfouz’ message on how humans rationalize our endless wars.[ Our Endless Wars: Re-reading Naguib Mahfouz ]
- November 05, 2014
Did our candidate win? No.
Was it a waste of my time? No.
Would I volunteer again in two years? Yes, although not for a party that puts Hillary Clinton as their candidate. (What will be my alternative?)
Next time, I my join efforts with one of the small parties—Green or Working Families. They might endorse the same candidate, but my mark in their box will hopefully demonstrate to those arrogant parties that they don’t deserve this vote. (Other citizens have already withdrawn their loyalty.)
As for my candidate in District 19: Sean won 28% of his votes from Democratic supporters and 5% from Working Families voters, finishing with 33.9% overall. This against his opponent, Congressman Gibson, who accumulated ballots from Republican, Conservative and Independent voters to win with 63%.
We should be pleased by 33.9% for our savvy first time candidate in a traditionally Republican-held area. But the 30% difference between Sean and our opponent was not what campaign organizers claimed:-- “10% and closing the gap fast”.
From a radio report on Sean’s campaign after the election, we learn he’d spent $1.84 million. He sounded upbeat; he assured supporters that he’d continue to promote issues he campaigned on.
Did that million plus go for free coffee and donuts for volunteers? Regardless, the million-plus bundle is what allowed Sean to actually enter the race. Sean is married to a very rich person, so he likely didn’t need Democratic Party funds for his campaign. More significantly, he doubtless knew there’d be nothing forthcoming from the party. It had decided to ignore the district, as it had in our state level elections.
It’s all rather off-putting, I admit.
Two phone calls I received on the eve of election day further explain why this young man entered a race he was unlikely to win. (Both were robo-calls, prerecorded messages computerized into a list of voter numbers.) One was from Hillary Clinton, the other from Bill, urging me to vote for the candidate I’d given my free time for.
What does this say? Well, it’s 2016 in Clinton-World and our wealthy, energetic Sean, with abundant resources ($$$$) and an emerging party machine in our district, will be campaigning for the woman expected to be the Democratic candidate for president.[ Been There Done That -- Post-election Thoughts (following on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 blogs) ]
- November 03, 2014
“Hello”. Good morning, I’m Barbara Nimri, a volunteer with the State Democratic party campaign. We are calling to ask … Click. (They hang up.)
Good morning, I’m a volunteer with the Democratic Party campaign in District 19. We hope you’ll be voting on Nov. 4th and we’re asking you to support …. “I don’t discuss my vote with anyone.” Click.
I continue for 3 hours—more than 100 calls. A volunteer comes into the campaign office and asks if there’s hot coffee. Someone arrives with a supply of lawn signs.
Good morning, I’m … . and we are urging voters to cast your ballot for … running for Congress this year.
“I can’t talk now, and I’ll decide when I get to the polls.”
Good morning, I’m …….. “Is he on the Working Families Party ticket? I’ll vote for whomever WOR endorses?”
There are as many as nine parties listed on the New York state ballot. Smaller parties often haven’t their own contestant, so Republican and Democratic candidates seek their endorsements. (I saw candidates with four parties endorsing them. No other choice, I guess)
Good morning, I’m… . We have a strong Democratic candidate running for Congress in our district.
“Well I don’t get out much; I’m ill.” We can arrange transport … I see. Thank you.
Good morning, I’m … . Click.
Good morning. I’m … . “I’ll make up my mind myself thank you.” Click
Good morning I’m … . “Voting's a private matter; I don’t think my vote is any of your business.” Click.
This campaign strategy is supposed to be a science. Facebook and a webpages must be augmented by volunteers—we’re all women-- congregating at call centers to work the phones, with numbers of all registered voters provided by the Board of Elections.
Campaign advice: “get your message out in 15 seconds; be cheerful; don’t argue”. Some candidates use rotocalls. Our strategy says personal live calls are best. I punch in the next number.
Our head office announces that only 10% separates us from the incumbent. He’s ahead but we’re closing in; another week until Nov. 4th. We have a chance.
With 2 days left, we concentrate on registered Democrats and independent voters . So no rebuffs, no hang-ups. Well, almost none.
Good afternoon, my name is …. a volunteer with the state Democratic Party campaign. We hope you’ll be voting Tuesday; will you support our candidate for congress?
“Yes, I expect to vote Democrat; yes, I guess I’ll vote for him.” Wonderful. We’ll see you at the polling station.
Good afternoon, my name is … a volunteer… We hope you will be casting your vote on Tuesday for… “What‘s his position on veterans?”
Good afternoon, my name is … We hope you’ll…
“I usually vote Democrat. But once they are in, whatever party, they don’t care about us. I don’t feel like voting. I don’t know.”
Good afternoon, my name is … volunteering with… .
“I received your flyers. I’m a Democrat but I don’t know him. I haven’t decided.”
Good afternoon, my name is … volunteering with… .
….“Yes, I have three daughters and I care most about women’s rights; he can count on my vote.”
…. “Yes. This is the 3rd call today. Sorry, I’m making dinner; I can’t talk. Yes, yes, I’ll vote.”
…. “I’m in Florida now ; I already voted by absentee ballot.”
….“I haven’t made up my mind yet. No I can’t tell you what my husband’s position is.”
Other volunteers are at neighborhoods across our district, moving house to house, knock on doors, leaving flyers, fielding questions about our candidate. Three arrive at our phone center feeling exhausted; it was worthwhile, they say. They like meeting voters face to face. We have to believe we can be effective.
Traditionally the US electorate is uninspired by mid-term races, most especially Democrats. Media tell us we’re letting the side down.
With less than 40% voter turnout, incumbents tend to be re-elected without a fight. (In NY’s state legislature our senator and assemblyman, both Republicans, are on the ballot; both are unopposed.)
Just get our people to the polls; that can turn the results, we’re told. We continue punching in the numbers.
After three hours I hand over my half completed list to another volunteer. See you Monday. Yes. I grab four lawn signs to post along the roadside on my way home.[ Getting Out the Vote: A Personal Experience ]
Truth is a pathless land. If you are following someone else, you'll never find it.
- a poem.. a song..
by Naomi Shihab Nye Flash
- Qur'an Surat Al-Laila
from 'Approaching the Qur'an' CD, male reciter
- Book review
The Moor's Account
reviewed by BN Aziz.
- Tahrir Team
Hanan alShaykh and Tahrir members
- Read about Hanan alShaykh and Tahrir members in the team page.
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