Brexit, Trump & Sanders Insist: We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. But Who Are We?

When faced with the madness of the world, I often get the impulse to just retreat into my own private little corner and raise the drawbridge—let the world go to hell, just leave me in peace! But of course, no sooner does such a thought manifest than I realize how ridiculous it is: there are no “private little corners” anymore on this crowded planet, we are all as interconnected as a hive of bees, and just as vulnerable to plagues, whether mental or physical.

I’m sure you’re aware that bees have been having all kinds of problems lately, caused by humans overworking them or meddling with their environment through chemicals. In one common scenario, chemically addled bees simply lose their way out in the field, unable to navigate their way back to the hive. Out there alone, even surrounded by flowers, they die.

Today’s very close vote by Britons to leave the European Union seems to me just such an addled choice, driven by xenophobia and the injured feeling of having given up too much for too little in the way of rewards. Sound familiar, Americans?

I don’t know enough about Brexit supporters to be able to analyze their motives—I am sure we will be treated to an earful of punditry on that subject in the days to come. What I do know is that this vote symbolizes—or even actualizes—a dangerous political current that we are facing here in the U.S. as well.

Is it pure coincidence that Donald Trump was in Scotland on the eve of this historic vote for just exactly the kind of political extremism he represents? Am I out of my mind to see shades of conspiracy in this series of events: UK votes to leave the EU… stock markets crash…softening up the US electorate with the fear and crisis Republicans have manipulated so well in the past…allowing the engineering of a Republican presidential win, with Trump or someone else at the helm, maybe Paul Ryan?

Oh, give me my moat and drawbridge should that ever come to pass! And yet I know there would be no moat wide enough to protect me or any of us good-hearted people from the danger such a scenario would represent.

The only way around this is straight through, with full engagement. I am heartened to see the mainstream media beginning to regularly fact-check the inimical Mr. Drumpf and trumpeting the fact of his constant shameless lying. But the general public, particularly of the Republican variety, doesn’t read The New York Times. How can we communicate to them the catastrophe they’d be inviting by allowing the Republican Party to have its way with America? How do you communicate with people who won’t listen to reason?

The latest episode of U.S. Congressional charades—I mean, politics—in which the distinguished Democrats of the U.S. House of Representatives sat defiantly on the floor of the Chamber, phone video feeds flying high, signaled not only these courageous Representatives’ desperation to be heard on the gun control issue, but also the tactics that succeed in our weird, through-the-looking-glass times.

Go ahead, Paul Ryan, you can try to shut down the official cameras that, through C-SPAN, would have informed Americans about this bizarre act of democracy happening in the heart of the U.S. empire. Social media is the new Paul Revere, riding at lightspeed to alert the populace, and it is much harder to shut down.

Of course, both sides are working social media. We on the side of sanity—that is, peace, justice, prosperity for all—must work it harder and smarter. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment we’re in now. We can’t have a Brexit scenario happening here with the U.S. presidential elections. No. Way.

Here are some questions I wish I didn’t have to ask:

  • Why are we allowing the Republicans to get away with stealing our democracy by not appointing a Supreme Court judge? Would they ever allow Democrats to get away with that, should the situation be reversed, with a Republican president making the appointments? We are we standing by passively and allowing this to play out as they want it to?
  • Why do the Republicans want the general populace of the US to be armed with the most deadly weapons a single human being can carry? When the Second Amendment was enacted, it was because at that time, ordinary citizens would often have to be called upon as spontaneous militia. Is that part of the diabolical Republican playbook now too? Think about that for a moment, you don’t have to use too much imagination to see where that scenario goes….
  • Fear and hate thrive on crisis. Could it be that what the xenophobic, bigoted haters fear most of all is a peaceful, just, prosperous world, where everyone is doing just fine?

They’ll tell you such a new world is impossible, but I know that’s not true.

We humans are blessed with extraordinary intelligence. If we chose to use it for the good of the hive, and each member of the hive, we would thrive and create a global civilization that would rival our greatest utopian dreams.

We are capable of it, and we’ve already envisioned it. We just need collective and individual determination to turn back the tides of hatred, fear, violence and isolation. We need clarity and dedication to work together, locally and globally, to manifest the better world our hearts know is possible.

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Bernie Sanders allowed us to see, in a visceral, lines-around-the-block, stadiums-overflowing kind of way, that there are a lot of us good-hearted people here in America, just waiting for a leader to call us together.

We’ve got to stop waiting.

In our networked, hyperlinked times, we don’t need a single charismatic leader anymore, and that’s what the shining example of Bernie shows us: that each of us can and must pick up where he leaves off, and do what we can—just as he always, his whole life, has done what he could—to remake this world according to a positive vision of social and environmental justice for all.

We can, we must…and we will.

DIY Media: Reading the Oil Glut and Stock Slide Against the Backdrop of Climate Change

I have been puzzling over the lack of media coverage, let alone analysis, of the huge stock market slide this past week, coupled with the oil glut and consequent low gas prices for consumers. What does this mean?

I went on a hunt through the media for explanation, or at least discussion, and turned up precious little—not in the mainstream media, not in the progressive media, not even in the business media. The facts were being reported, but no one, not even the pundit/oracles, were trying to tease out the deeper meanings of the current scenario.

For example, take this article in business section of The New York Times. It reports the story of oil as though climate change and alternative energy were non-existent. It’s all about production, investment and returns—not only financial returns, but pipe-dream returns to the naiveté of the 20th century, when the ability of the planet to support endless growth of human activity seemed limitless.

When we bring alternative energy into the picture, the analysis gets a bit more complicated.

It seems that the oil glut is good news for the planet (less exploration, less extraction), good news for the consumer (lower prices at the pump) but bad news for investors who had been banking on fossil fuels to be a never-ending gold mine.

More importantly, it’s also bad news for alternative energy developers and producers, because low gas and oil prices diminish consumer demand—we’re less incentivized to make the investment in a home solar array or make sure our next car is a hybrid or electric vehicle when oil and gas prices are so low.

In my search through the media for more explanation of the oil glut, I found some suggestions (by commenters, not by journalists) that the low oil prices might be a Saudi manipulation precisely to dampen enthusiasm for shifting to alternative energy, in order to slow down the transition away from oil.

If that were the case, the Saudis would be digging their own graves and bringing the rest of the planet down with them.

Given the bigger picture of undeniable, stark and looming climate change, governments, investors and consumers must use their purchasing power to drive the market towards clean energy. We should not be fooled by the smoke and mirrors of low oil prices, or intimidated by the stock market jitters into backing into the traditional “safe” investments of fossil fuels.

That way does not lie safety—it lies collapse.

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It would be nice if the pundits of the mainstream media (The New York Times, for example) would focus more attention on the biggest story of our time: the race to adapt to and mitigate climate change. It would be nice if instead of just blandly reporting the news, journalists would reach out to scientific, political and economic experts for deeper analysis.

But thanks to the Internet, we can do that work of reporting for ourselves now. We can read publications from all over the world, of all political stripes, in any discipline, any time. If we care about what’s happening to our planet, we need to become more alert, placing the superficial narratives reported in the media against the backdrop of the bigger and deeper realities that often cast quite a different slant on the news.

We live in a time when anyone with an Internet connection can become an engaged citizen of the world, able to exchange ideas, influence others, and galvanize social movements. The American rightwing, with their crude emotional ploys, seems to be doing a much better job of activating their base lately than the progressives, Bernie Sanders a lone and very active exception!

We can do better, and we must. It sounds weighty but it’s true: the future of the planet depends on the choices each of us makes now.

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21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?

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There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

Storytelling and Resistance: Whose Narratives Are You Listening To? What Stories Are You Telling?

Generally when I turn on the radio or open up The New York Times or other media sources, I am immediately assaulted by the SAME OLD BAD NEWS.

Another hundred children gunned down by fundamentalist militants.

Another police brutality case.

Another round of insane Republican shenanigans in Congress, hijacking the taxpayers, the environment or the nation itself with greedy, mean, shortsighted policies.

The list goes on and you know it as well as I do. We live in a time when stories do not have happy endings and even the heroes get shafted.

Although I think it’s still pretty clear who’s right and who’s wrong, being wrong doesn’t mean you are necessarily unsuccessful. Mysteriously, the bad guys often win in contemporary news narratives. Even when a scapegoat is chosen to die on his sword, the game goes on, and since the media loves to cover the most powerful, most colorful players, it can often seem like there’s no glory in being good or right. Only in being powerful.

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

I’m happy to see our quiet, serious President finally starting to flex his muscles a little and learn how to play this game.

Re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, well it’s about time! So what if the Cold Warriors complain, let them grumble into their mothballed cups.

Shake hands with China’s President and make some progress on global climate treaties, hell yeah! Where I come from, that’s called leadership—the kind of leadership that’s aimed at the future, not digging in its heels and trying to hold us all back in a carbon age that has outlived its usefulness.

Now I want to see President Obama reject that Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. Falling oil prices are the perfect excuse for saying what we all know to be true: tar sands oil is an abomination that, if extracted, will incinerate our planet. For the sake of all our children and the generations to come, we must leave that dirty oil in the ground and move on to a clean energy future.

Yes, this means that the bad-guy oil moguls must reinvent themselves as good-guy renewable energy czars. We’ll keep giving them our money…if they show themselves to be the planetary stewards we’ve been waiting for.

I keep thinking about the slogan I read somewhere (I believe it is a Chinese proverb): Crisis = Danger + Opportunity.

There is no doubt that these early years of the 21st century are a dangerous, crisis-ridden time. But they are also a time of great opportunity.

We have the chance to wake up and start telling some new stories, in which Good and Right actually do prevail; in which Greed and Vindictiveness are punished; in which deeds are measured not in dollars generated, but by how much they will benefit the greater good of the planet and all her denizens.

I suggest you pay attention to the stories you’re hearing; to who’s telling them; and who benefits from the version that hits the media fan.

Me, I like to pay attention to some of the storytellers who may not make it into prime time (as in, the front page of The New York Times), but surely merit a place there.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

For example, Bill McKibben, winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award for inventing 350.org and working tirelessly to raise awareness about climate change; Vandana Shiva, a relentless opponent of Monsanto’s assault on biodiversity and a champion of small farmers and their heirloom seeds and organic farming practices; and Sandra Steingraber, who is leading a most inspiring movement against a huge corporate conglomerate seeking to store pressurized natural gas beneath the floor of Seneca Lake in upstate New York.

These are the heroes and heroines of our time. In these cold, dark days of the Winter Equinox, human beings have always gathered around the fire to listen to stories. I say, don’t waste your time listening to the canned stories our news media prepare. Find and tell your own stories, and make sure they’re stories that inspire hope.

Here’s a good story, if you’re looking for one: how the citizen resistance to tracking gas in New York State triumphed, with Governor Andrew Cuomo backing away from this highly risky practice in the wake of intense negative pressure.

Stories matter. Words have power. Let’s make sure we are telling each other stories that will serve as bridges into the future we want to live.

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Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

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So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

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There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

As a college professor with a focus on media and issues of social and environmental justice, it’s my responsibility, I believe, to be tuned into the news of the day.

I need to know that, as reported by Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times, “For roughly 30 hours over several days, defense lawyers for three former United States Naval Academy football players grilled a female midshipman about her sexual habits. In a public hearing, they asked the woman, who has accused the three athletes of raping her, whether she wore a bra, how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex and whether she had apologized to another midshipman with whom she had intercourse “for being a ho.”

I need to know that the Obama Administrations efforts to regulate and clean up the American coal industry “are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”

I have to follow the progress of the latest massive floods in Colorado, noting that they involve the release of unknown quantities of toxic chemicals into the region’s waterways; these floods happened in a populated area of Colorado that also happens to be the site of thousands of gas fracking wells.

Then there are those unprecedented wildfires in California, finally under control after having burned 400 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, with “a solid 60 square miles burned so intensely that everything is dead.”

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13 Photo by Robert Martinez

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13
Photo by Robert Martinez

I have to pay attention when our nation threatens missile strikes on another Middle Eastern country, or there’s another crazy gunman on the rampage with assault weapons in a peaceful civilian setting, or a bunch of ideologically blinkered Republican politicians threaten to shut down the U.S. government and force us to default on our international debt obligations, putting the world financial system in jeopardy, simply in order to embarrass the country’s popular Democratic African-American President.

To do my job well, I have to know about these issues and episodes, and so I follow the media daily.  And yet day by day I grow more resentful of being dragged along on storylines that I find so—so—well, so boring.

They’re boring because they’re so repetitive.  Another fire, another flood, another mass shooting, another U.S. missile or drone strike, another government shutdown to be averted at the last minute.  Another woman raked over the coals when she tries to bring a rapist to justice.

And in the background, the real story, the Big News of our time, grinds on relentlessly, it too so endlessly repeated that we have all become blind, deaf and dumb to it.

I’m referring, of course, to the story of global climate change, with its attendant melting ice, rising seas, rising temperatures, erratic weather and, ultimately, mass extinction of life as we know it on Earth.

I understand why very few humans alive today want to grapple with that story.

If the news episodes I listed above are boring in their repetitiveness, the Big News of climate change is just too scary to take in.

No wonder so many people of all ages just don’t bother following the news, preferring instead to focus on televised sports or the latest mini-series or movies.

People seem to have a fatalistic approach to reality lately.

Obamacare will go through or it will be defunded, no matter what we think or do.  Fossil fuel plants will continue to burn, not only unregulated but subsidized at that; politicians will continue to act in criminal ways (shutting down the U.S. government is an act of treason in my book!), boys will continue to be boys and get slapped on the wrist when a woman dares to cry rape–no matter what we do.

The entire American populace seems to be locked in some kind of slumped-over apathy, just trying to keep up the mortgage payments, trying to stay healthy in an increasingly toxic environment, trying to raise decent kids despite the toxic media entertainment landscape in which the kids spend most of their time.

I’m slumped over with the rest, a lot of the time.

But there is something in me that resists this posture, too.  There is something in me that yearns for a different narrative.  Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

Not a return to the triumphalist patriarchal Manifest Destiny that led us inexorably to the disastrous brink on which we now perch.

Not the macho environmentalism that tries to beat the fossil fuel villains in the courts and the high seas.

Not the moralistic sermonizing of those who see the world in strictly black-and-white, Good-and-Evil binary oppositions.

I’m hungering for something deeper.  Something bigger.  A story that truly acknowledges where we are today as a species, and can help us to perceive the way forward out of the current slumped-over morass of bad news.

Briane Swimme

Briane Swimme

The closest I’ve been able to come to such a story so far is the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.  In their visionary description of the “Ecozoic Era” that we could create, acting in the best interests of the planet as a whole, I find the map and the compass I’ve been seeking to guide me to a livable future.

In the final chapter of their book The Universe Story, Berry and Swimme lay out a vision that, tragically, we have not heeded in the more than 20 years since the book appeared in 1992.

“In economics it is clear that our human economy is derivative from the Earth economy.  To glory in a rising Gross Domestic Product with an irreversibly declining Gross Earth Product is an economic absurdity.  So long as our patterns of consumption overwhelm the upper reaches of Earth’s sustainable productivity, we will only drive the Earth community further into ruin.  The only viable human economy is one that is integral with the Earth economy” (256).

“We need an inter-species economy, an inter-species well-being, an inter-species education, an inter-species governance, an inter-species religious mode, inter-species ethical norms,” they say (257).

Berry and Swimme end their vast “journey of the universe” by describing the celebratory aspect of the universe, which perhaps only humans, at least of the beings on Earth, can fully appreciate.

The cosmic celebration--courtesy of the Hubble telescope

The cosmic celebration–courtesy of the Hubble telescope

“Everything about us seems to be absorbed into a vast celebratory experience,” they say.  “There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of self-conscious awareness” (264).

In other words, our role is to be the storytellers of past, present and future.  Of all the amazing beings on the planet, no one else can fill this particular niche.

It is our privilege and our curse as humans to KNOW so much about what we are doing at any given moment on the planet, and to ceaselessly narrate that knowledge.  Now in the 21st century, aided by the global neural network of the World Wide Web, we have never been more tuned into the on-going global story, but this knowledge often becomes oppressive, since so much of what we are asked to absorb is negative, bad news.

It’s time to rebel–to resist the battering of the bad news, to become producers rather than just passive consumers of knowledge.

We need to start telling new stories.  Empowering, positive stories that light the way towards the human beings we could become, the human civilization we could create, in concert and harmony with the rest of the Earth community.

What stories do you hold locked in your heart, tenderly sheltered from the glare and cacophony of contemporary pop culture?

I suggest you look to the home ground of your deep childhood for inspiration.  Remember the stories you told to yourself then, or that you heard the flowers and the insects singing.  Remember the way the motes of dust twirling in the sunlight spoke to you.

Remember what it felt like to have an unmediated, imaginative connection with the world around you.

Then speak the truths that come out of that primary knowledge.

Politicos beware: the citizen journalists are coming!

Mitt Romney really hit the jackpot this time, caught on video tape callously dismissing half the population of America as not worth his time because they don’t pay taxes.

As “The Caucus” blog in The New York Times pointed out today, in fact it’s only 18% of Americans who pay no federal or payroll taxes.  And of those, “more than half were elderly and more than a third were not elderly but had income under $20,000.”

What a way to make a winning pitch to potential donors in the 1%.  Let’s just throw all those poor old folks under a bus, shall we?  Are there no workhouses?

Ripostes like this have been coming in fast and heavy for the past 24 hours, since the incriminating video clip first appeared on the Mother Jones website, and thence made its way virally around the Web.

What I think has been insufficiently analyzed so far is the provenance of this video.

Today in my media studies class, we were talking about how the old media model, what the textbooks call “legacy media,” is crumbling, to be replaced by myriads of web-based information producers, often referred to as “citizen journalists.”

The guy who released that covert video of Mitt Romney talking up a GOP horse’s ass was a citizen journalist of a sort.

We still don’t know exactly who shot the film, but we do know that it was sent to Mother Jones by James Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

The point is, these are obviously very different channels of information flow than scripted “press conferences,” or even the kind of access granted to card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

The video has so captured the attention of America because it affords us a ringside seat in the inner echelons of political power.  Next thing you know, someone will be shooting video (or at least making a covert audio recording) of the proceedings of a closed-door Goldman Sachs board meeting.

Hey, Richard Nixon was the master of this kind of bugging.  Let us not forget Watergate, or the Oval Office recordings.

But now the tables are turned, and the technology genie is out of the brass lamp and running gleefully through the land.

No longer are wiretaps and tiny voice recorders the provenance of James Bond and the FBI.  Now anyone with a bit of tech smarts and some fortuitous access to the workings of power can record what goes on there, and send it out for the masses to interpret as they see fit.

Last week it was the crazy anti-Muslim film, cheaply and poorly produced but sent out like a message in a bottle on the high seas of the internet, which washed ashore in the Middle East and provided the spark for a new round of anti-American violence.

This week it’s a citizen journalist with a Flip cam in his pocket, pulling back the screen in the GOP Emerald (cash-green, that is) Palace to reveal the true face of the mean-spirited man who would be the Republican President.

As a teacher of media studies in the 21st century, I am excited by the possibilities that my students will enjoy of leaping past the old gatekeepers and getting their investigative work out to the public.

I’m also not quite sure how they are going to make a living doing it—that’s one small detail that remains to be worked out.

But one thing is sure: in this day and age, it is going to be a lot harder for a politician to maintain a public image that is at odds with who he really is when he’s at home.

I hope that means that the next generation of politicians is going to have to be—gasp!—sincere.

 

Internet Rage

Protests against the US this week, responding to the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer

That a boorish, crude, poorly made video could set a whole region on fire with righteous rage and cause the death of a highly respected American diplomat and his staff is a sign of the dangerous new world we live in.

I asked my media studies class yesterday to think about whether we are better off now than we were before the internet age, or whether the amount of time we all spend on the Web is dumbing us down by making us restless, superficial consumers of so much raw information and half-truths that we no longer have the time or inclination to sift through it all and figure out what really matters.

My students, digital natives all, were enthusiastic about the interactivity of the internet, the unparalleled opportunities it offers for entertainment and lightspeed communication.

But we all sobered down some when we contemplated the dark side of the internet promise, given form this week in the jump from You-Tube to Muslim Main Street.

We watched a few minutes of “Innocence of Muslims,” the purported “trailer” for a full-length movie that may very well not exist.  Actually we watched less than two minutes of the film, all that we needed to understand why it has angered religious Muslims.

The film makes a mockery of the Prophet Muhammed, and presents the religion he founded as bloody and uncouth.

I’d like to see how evangelical Christians would feel if a similar film was made about Jesus Christ and his religion.

The Egyptian government issued a statement today recognizing that American filmmakers have the right to freedom of speech, and therefore cannot be prosecuted for their insulting production.

But they can certainly be condemned.  Hate speech is not allowed in the U.S., and this film walks a fine line; it is certainly insulting and intolerant, if not outright hateful.

The film only made waves in the Middle East when someone translated it into Arabic, and then reposted it on You-Tube.

Maybe they thought Muslims would think it was funny.

No one is laughing, not at all.  And the rage comes out against America and all Americans, even though the majority of Americans would be just as turned off by this film as anyone in the Muslim world.

Even as I write that familiar phrase, “the Muslim world,” I know it’s false.  The internet has shrunk our globe so much that the old boundaries between cultures and nations no longer hold.

Out there on the internet, we’re all part of a vast interconnected universe of humanity, a distributed digital brain hosted by the global Cloud.

We have the capacity to send images and words around the world at lightening speed, but on the ground we’re still the same old people we have been for hundreds of years, weighed down by our enmities and prejudices, our pettiness and our greed.

The freedom of communication facilitated by the internet is marvelous, and few of us would want to see it censored.

But we need to understand the power of words and images to manipulate and twist our perceptions of the truth.

We need to learn how to become responsible producers and informed, discerning consumers of all the representations we send up to the Web.

That ugly film does not represent America, any more than the savage reprisal on the Libyan Embassy represents the Muslim community.

The internet should be used to connect us, not tear us apart. We need to be smarter than that.

Occupy Earth

In the week since the Occupy May Day General Strike, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of the event.

Friends who were in New York City that day say it was tremendously exciting, especially the permitted march from Union Square to Wall Street, which apparently stretched out strong over some 30 blocks.

As far as I could tell, mainstream media reported only the arrests that occurred, and that fairly grudgingly.  There has been little effort to explain or explore the anger and frustration that propelled hundreds of thousands worldwide out into the streets on May Day.

Maybe that’s because it’s an old story.  Yesterday’s news!  We know that students are unhappy about being $1 trillion in debt; we know that millions of homeowners are unhappy about being “underwater” with their mortgages, or losing their homes due to foreclosures.  We know that there aren’t enough jobs to lift our economy out of the doldrums.  It’s old news, people!  Tell us something we don’t know!

So the question becomes, is a protest effective if it is ignored by the mainstream media?

I would say yes: the fact that the MSM treated May Day as unimportant is more revealing of how out of touch the editors are than of whether or not the protest was real and meaningful.

On social media, May Day was well covered, especially at interactive, citizen journalism-type venues like Livestream and Twitter.

And if you go on the Occupy Wall Street site now, you’ll find that the organizers are already bounding on to the next action.

May Day was just one in a whole series of protests planned. It was an opening volley of what promises to be an intense, engaging spring.

But it opened up a question that is not likely to go away any time soon.

How important is it to actually show up, in the flesh, for a protest?

I was berated by one reader for choosing to stay in my classroom on May Day rather than joining the protests.

Other readers expressed their support for my decision to “occupy my classroom,” where my individual presence was perhaps more important than it would have been as an anonymous member of the crowd on Broadway.

I have been pondering this question in the past week.  As someone who is deeply involved with new media, I have to say that I believe that what happens in cyberspace is at least as important as what happens in physical space.

Maybe it’s even more important.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people participated in the May Day protests online, via Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and so many other interactive platforms.

The protests spread around the world, just like the May 5 “Connect the Dots” climate change awareness events.

Through the magic of cyberspace, we were all united in a common goal: expressing our outrage over the cynical manipulation and impoverishment of the 99% by the 1%, and demanding that the interests of the 99% be taken into account in matters of political and economic policy.

Although I have no doubt that face-to-face General Assemblies and marches are important, it is ridiculous to discount the impact of what goes around and comes around in cyberspace.

Are we approaching the weird tipping point when our cyber-selves will be more important than our physical selves?

As I keep reminding people, cyberspace is totally dependent on electricity for its existence.

So if we want to preserve cyberspace as a place of radical openness, communitarianism and oppositionality, it behooves us to pay attention to the real 99% in the current equation: the natural world that has been providing us with the means to create the current that runs the virtual world.

I might be tempted to buck my agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and make the leap from cyber-protest to physical protest if the goal were defending not just jobs or homes or social equality, but the underpinning of it all, the great mother herself, our beloved community, our Earth.

Webizens Unite!

The fuss over the SOPA/PIPA legislation last week is the marker of a generational shift in our understanding of the media: we’re at the transition point between 20th century media models, which rely on centralized, profit-driven control over production and consumption, and 21st century media models, which are all about open access and the free circulation of ideas.

While I’m generally a strong supporter of the open-access model, I do see some dangers to it.

For one thing, when we operate on a distributed intelligence model, information is so widely available that none of us really has to feel responsible about knowing anything.  We can just look it up, after all.

But when we rely so much on others to be the keepers of our collective intelligence, we become vulnerable on at least two crucial levels:

  • Vulnerable to being manipulated by the producers of that knowledge—think Fox News, for example, with its so-called “fair and balanced” reporting.  As long as we are aware that Fox News is reporting from a distinctly biased point of view, we can take their information under advisement, and balance it ourselves with other sources.  As long as there are other sources.  And as long as we have the education to be able to sift through it all and form our own informed opinions.
  • Vulnerable to loss of access—as in the one-day blackout on Wikipedia last week. It’s like kids who rely so completely on the calculator that they never learn their multiplication tables.  All well and good, until the day when they don’t have a machine available to make the calculations, and they’re left helpless.

Our society has become so totally tuned in to media that we would be lost without it.  And that kind of dependency is dangerous.

I think about the big push now to digitize libraries.  Of course, I love the idea of being able to carry 4,000 volumes around with me on one slim little e-reader.  It’s awesome!  But on the other hand, a little voice in the back of my head worries: what would happen if we lost ready access to electricity?  What would happen if there were shortages, so only the elites were able to power up their notebooks and Kindles?  Where would our libraries be then?

We’re already living in a society where social class, access to the Web and social influence form a tight, circular web.  Privileged kids today are growing up totally plugged in and able to make the best use of the amazing collective intelligence of the Web, while kids from poor backgrounds, worldwide, are growing up on the other side of the digital tracks, out there with the garbage and the weeds.

As the big media companies work ever more aggressively to stake their claim in the wild west of the Web, fencing off bigger and bigger areas of the digital commons, we need to become more vigilant about guarding our freedom of speech and our free access to the Web, and making sure that more and more of us really do have that access and the knowledge needed to make good use of it.

WordPress blogging platforms like the one I’m writing on are like little free information lanes alongside what are becoming ever more hulking, fenced and patrolled toll highways.  The fact that anyone can start up a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page for free and get their voice out to the public immediately, with no censors, is a 21st century version of a time-tested Constitutional right that we need to make sure we defend.

Corporations don’t like the free circulation of “media content” because it escapes their profit-driven model.  That’s what they were trying to accomplish with their anti-piracy legislation—a way to shut down any website that did not pay its toll.

Looking into the brave new future that awaits us, I see increasing conflict over these basic issues of access to and control over the media.  I also see that unless we are successful in making the shift to renewable energy sources, it is conceivable that basic access to electricity, which we in the West now take for granted, may become less easily obtained.

As a blogger who relies on platforms and hardware that I could not possibly produce myself, I feel my vulnerability keenly.  I need Apple and WordPress to get me going, and the electric company to power me up, or I’d be dead in the water.

If I ever woke up and found the power out and my web browser blank, well…I could always go back to zining! But I would miss the incredible distribution powers of the World Wide Web.

Last week some 7 million webizens barraged Congress with protests of the proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation, and we won the battle!  We have to maintain our stations though.  As with the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s going to be a long siege.

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