Archive for July, 2006

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Sophie Scholl – The Final Days

July 27, 2006

I’m very much looking foward to seeing this film. The tragic, yet heroic story of the White Rose resistance against the Nazis during WWII has always been a personal inspiration to me. It shows that even during the most devastating times, even when it seems that all hope is lost and the power of your oppressors seems absolute, you still have the power of your own free choice. That is, you still have the power to excercise your free choice to resist, your free choice not to fall in line and become what others would want you to be – under control – and your free choice to stand up and be counted – and this is exactly what Sophie Scholl is remembered for.

Although she and her brother were executed, they have become an inspiration to people all over the world since that time and are remembered for making one of the more powerful statements about the capacity of human beings to resist and challenge power, even in the most dire of circumstances. The Nazis, by executing them only confirmed this. There have been two other films made about Sophie Scholl but I haven’t actually seen them. I think it is important for a topic such as this to be revisited as often as possible, something that David and Margaret seemed to agree with in their review of the film. The SMH review by Sandra Hall also had nothing but praise for this new effort.

Sophie Scholl - The Final Days

Image from At the Movies.

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Gorby on LNL

July 26, 2006

Phillip Adams interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev last night on LNL. It was fascinating to hear him speak on the current state of the world in general – and he’s much more of an optimist than I’d expected him to be. He is now Chairman of Green Cross International, an organisation dedicated to lobbying for a sustainable future in a number of different ways. Gorby was much more sympathetic towards the current leaders of the world than one might expect also – I guess this would come from really knowing what it is like to be under that kind of pressure. He said that policy shapers, think tanks and the public need to take a more active role in guiding our politicians to make more sound decisions in regard to securing our future sustainably instead of just lobbying for a certain position. Easier said than done though.

I would have liked for them to talk about the decline and fall of the Soviet Union a little more, but I guess Gorby is probably well and truly over talking too much about that now. I’ve been reviewing and reading many different interpretations over the last few weeks about the now seemingly inevitable end of the Soviet Union. Next month marks the 15th anniversary of the infamous August 1991 failed coup by the hardliners in the CPSU that effectively sounded the death knell for the Union and eventually led to the official dissolution of the Union on December 8, 1991. I’m preparing to write a piece on some of the main reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the failed coup attempt next month. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years already. I’ve been going over what I think are some of the better histories in relation to this and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this slowly rotting, corrupt and effectively un-socialist empire was doomed to fall from the beginning.

Hobsbawm, one of the greatest historians to have graced our presence in my humble opinion (and also a Marxist), sums it up quite succinctly: “The failure of revolution elsewhere left the USSR committed to build socialism alone, in a country in which, by the universal consensus of Marxists in 1917, including Russian ones, the conditions for doing so were simply not present. The attempt to do so produced remarkable achievements – not least the ability to defeat Germany in the Second World War – but at quite enormous and intolerable human cost, and at the cost of what proved eventually to be a dead-end economy and a political system for which there was nothing to be said… A revival or rebirth of this pattern of socialism is neither possible, desirable, nor – even assuming conditions were to favour it – necessary.” (Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century: 1914-1991).

Poor old Gorby. Although his heart was in the right place in his efforts to integrate glasnost and perestroika into the existing Soviet system, in reality, these (particularly Glasnost) were precisely the ingredients needed to bring the rotting Soviet Empire and the Union itself to their knees. More on this next month as the anniversary of the coup nears.

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Disproportionate Yet?

July 25, 2006

The IDF has employed a new tactic in their bombardment of Lebanon: “Army chief of staff Dan Halutz has given the order to the air force to destroy 10 multi-storey buildings in the Dahaya district (of Beirut) in response to every rocket fired on Haifa,” a senior air force officer told army radio on Monday.”

Surely those who keep resisting the assertion by many of us that Israel’s response has been disproportionate over these last two weeks have no ammunition left to defend what was already a feeble case. Destroying 10 multi-storey buildings in Beirut for every rocket fired on Haifa is an astounding and brutal tactic to employ – particularly when the Lebanese civilian death toll is already hovering around 400. If you want to simplify things into black and white (which our right wing counterparts seem to love to do with everything else), then on civilian deaths alone, Israel’s response has been extremely disproportionate – roughly 400 innocent Lebanese civilians dead to roughly 30 innocent Israeli civilians dead. How many more officials need to verify from the ground in Lebanon that Israel’s response has been totally disproportionate and is in effect destroying Lebanon before those who think everything Israel is doing is legitimate sit up and take notice of what is actually happening?

My question is this: If the Israeli response is a measured and targeted one as they keep claiming that it is, then why the automatic mandatory order to destroy 10 multi-storey buildings for every rocket fired at Haifa? What if there are only 7 buildings with Hezbollah fighters in them at the time of this mandatory destruction? What if there is only 1? What if there are none? As Lebanese infrastructure crumbles, more and more Lebanese citizens are becoming angry with Israel, including some Lebanese Christians who have not escaped Israel’s bombing either. This is not going to help Israel in the long run and has the potential to escalate this conflict into an all out regional war – with the possibility that as the bombing continues, Sunnis and Shiites may put their differences aside to unite against their common enemy – Israel. I think in this regard, the longer the conflict drags on (and with such entrenched determination from both sides not to budge, it seems like it will drag on for quite some time), the worse it is for everyone – including Israel whose northern regions are indeed feeling the terrible wrath of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets that, it should be noted, have not stopped being fired despite Israel’s massive campaign in the last two weeks.

What is happening in Israel and Lebanon is a tragedy. Both sides need to stop this madness – but neither will. Israel’s military machine has turned a small localised guerilla Southern Lebanese/Northern Israeli conflict into an all out war which has only exacerbated each side’s hatred for each other as well as created new recruits to each cause.

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Apocalypse … When?

July 23, 2006

Are humans simply doomed to bring about our own destruction? Is our nature to destroy ourselves like big Arnie says in Terminator II? Lately, I’ve been hearing this more and more – that it is in our nature to destroy ourselves and that one need only look around the world to find proof of this. However, I’m torn about this and have been for quite some time. OK, the world is pretty messed up and has been since the dawn of what we commonly refer to as “civilization”. But it’s not like we really have another self-conscious life form in the universe/multiverse to cross reference with is it? So how are we to know? If we evolved into something with the ability to reason and self-reflect, then this implies, even if only to a small extent, that we can be aware of ourselves and what we yearn for and balance this with how we reason about these yearnings. Do we auomatically choose war, death and destruction with this ability?

With regard to the “current situation” in the world, the question posed becomes much more complex. We must really ask to what extent each current war/conflict/fight/dispute or whatever is a reflection of this “nature to destroy ourselves” or if it is more about pawns whose free will to reason and will for natural peace (or something else) has been hijacked by the power-hungry, the elite, the religious fanatics or whatever other form of social invention that we humans have conjured up since the development of our self-awareness.

Or is it that the statement “it’s in our nature to destroy ourselves” is a completely wrong way in which to think about the issue? Since we actually have the ability to reason and self-reflect, doesn’t this imply that our “nature” (whatever it may be) is overridden by the development of our reason anyway? Do “we” really use our reason to choose death, destruction and war? If we do, then it would seem that we as humans have set up this conflict between our will to survive and our “reasoned self reflective choice” to destroy ourselves with war and what not. So, we have these two seemingly conflicting sides – our will and reason. Is there a happy balance between them – can one be manipulated by the other? Is one advantaged to win out over the other? I really don’t know.

However, I think to say that “it’s in our nature to destroy ourselves” is a little simplistic and melodramatic. It is an easy thing to agree with on face value and certainly has been envisioned marvellously in films such as Terminator II. But it is just as easy to agree with and envision that “it’s in our nature to live in peace with each other”. I think there are just as many human beings willing and reasoning for peace and love as there are death and destruction – if not more… We just don’t get the press coverage. I think the logical choice between these two conflicting “natures” is to reason and will for peace and love. Since we are aware of our will and our thought process, we have the ability to change and manipulate our environment as well as ourselves. In light of this, it would seem only logical to me to choose life, love and peace. Since we’re here anyway, we may as well make the most of it and not end it prematurely.

So, what to make of most of human history then that seems to disagree with what I think seems logical? I don’t really know. There’s living and there’s living. We’ve survived until now, but not really as a result of any concerted effort to bring about a happy marriage between our will and reason and certainly not because peace and love have won out over war, death and destruction, because, as you would be well aware, they haven’t. But again, I think it’s difficult to say whether this is a result of our “nature” or of the complex situations arising from the complex social mechanisms we’ve invented. It brings me back to a line I quoted from Tool in a previous post:

How they survive so misguided is a mystery.
Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability
To life an eye to heaven conscious of his fleeting time here.
Cutting it all right in two.

There has been much debate about what the last line means – cutting what right in two? The happy marriage of our will and reason perhaps? This would certainly be consistent with some other themes and metaphors used on Tool’s new album – but that’s to discuss at another time.

Our potential as individuals and as a collective species in my opinion is absolutely amazing and as we develop further technologically and our individual and collective consciousness expands, who knows where we will end up? I won’t use the word “limitless” because of the far-reaching implications of it, but I think almost everyone would agree that our potential is fairly far reaching. Perhaps our “fate” as a species relies on how we are to reconcile our seemingly “natural” urges with our amazing ability to self-reflect and reason. How will we reason over or about our will and will over or about our reason? I don’t know, but within me at least, I feel no conflict because I will AND reason for peace and love – to me, it just feels right and it just makes sense.

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Hello, Hello! Bonjour, Bonjour!

July 21, 2006

I’ve been listening to Michael Franti’s new album, Yell Fire and I think it’s great. The reggae influence on this album is much more prominent than on his other albums. In 2004, Franti traveled throughout Iraq, Palestine and Israel to see what he says was the human cost of war. The album doesn’t have one dull or depressing song on it though which struck me – everyone he met, all ordinary people wanted peace… So what do you get? An album of peace songs. Fancy that – people wanting peace. My favourite song thus far is “Hello Bonjour”. Some excerpts:

I don’t need a passport to walk on this earth
Anywhere I go ’cause I was made of this earth
Born of this earth, I breathe of this earth
And even with the pain I believe in this earth

and

Don’t tell a man that he can’t come here
‘Cause he got brown eyes and a wavy kind of hair,
And don’t tell a woman that she can’t go there
‘Cause she prays a little different to her god up there,
You say you’re a Christian ’cause god made you,
You say you’re a Muslim ’cause god made you,
You say you’re a Hindu and the next man a Jew
And we all kill each other ’cause god told us to? NO!
Hello, hello! Bonjour, bonjour! Hola, hola! Konnichiwa, konnichiwa wa!

Franti’s songs of protest, peace, rebellion and resistance have been a source of great comfort for me and I’m sure many others over the last few years as things have turned rather sour around the world and there have been nothing but dark days. This album comes at a time when again, we are facing more uncertainty as Israel and Hezbollah shoot, bomb, maim, injure, torture, scare and brutalise the humanity out of each other and perpetuate retribution and war for… well… who really knows? As I listened to this album in the dark last night, I was reminded of the power of art, music and poetry to connect people and give them hope – even in the darkest of days. It reminded me of a passage that I read in a zine around 5 or 6 years ago. I don’t know who the author of the zine was – I picked up a copy at uni, but it has stuck with me ever since and was resonating through my head last night as I had just finished watching the news and started listening to Yell Fire:

ART is the last frontier.
ART is both the pacifier and the protagonist.
It is important that we embrace ART in our lives in any way we can.

I concur.

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Brian Greene on String Theory

July 20, 2006

This video doesn’t really go into the how of string theory much, but for those of you who may be slightly interested, it does describe some of the features and implications of it such as the multiple universes scenario and what not. Greene made a wonderful series a few years back called The Elegant Universe which explained String Theory with remarkable clarity. It is a very difficult subject to understand, but once you start to understand the basics of the idea, it is absolutely fascinating. Enjoy.

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The Marketplace of Ideas Online – good or bad?

July 17, 2006

Is having multiple anonymous editors on projects such as Wikipedia or having say, anonymous blogs or “myspace” pages a good or bad thing? What does it actually say about the changing ways in which humans interact, access and interpret information? I’ve only just had a chance now to listen to the Philosopher’s Zone from last week with Jaron Lanier talking about why Wikipedia and similar projects are actually a bad idea.

Lanier’s thesis seems to be that it is dangerous to rely on the “Collective” averaging out all points of view and then coming to a sort of “truth” about certain subjects. He thinks that in the case of projects like Wikipedia, the expertise factor of individuals is lost to the averaging out of the collective and we are all the worse for it. I agree with him up to a certain point, but I think his reaction may be a little too knee-jerk also. I must admit that Wikipedia and projects like it, whilst being far from perfect, do excite me. I like the idea of having multiple contributors and points of view competing to complete an entry of information. Really, just because the “mob” has access to it, does this mean that the quality of the information is going to be less? Afterall, what of the competition of academics over the last few centuries trying to get their articles into the Encyclopedia Britannica? Is that not the same issue? What if one academic got to write the article on say consciousness over another with a different view of what consciousness is. Britannica has always been taken as an authority as far as Encyclopedias go. So really, the academic with one view on consciousness has always won out over the other academic with a different view of consciousness in their battle to be the authoritative author of the consciousness article in Britannica.

Wikipedia is just an expanded version of this competition and marketplace of ideas. I think Wikipedia far outstrips Britannica in this regard though because at least you can access the “talk page” for each article and you can see the decision making process in regard to the information that ends up in each article. Of course, the wiki process is definitely not perfect, but who has ever claimed that it is? It’s yet another evolved form of information access and communication to have been borne out of the internet.

I also think that Lanier doesn’t give the reader or the consumer of this information enough credit. When I visit Wikipedia, which I do probably several times a week, my critical thought process goes into overdrive. I am fully aware of what I am accessing and the potential inaccuracies, fabrications or any other nasties that it may contain. Coincidentally, this is the same thought process I use when I read books or the newspaper though and I suspect that many other people have a similar thought process when interacting in the marketplace of ideas, whether they’re online or not. Surely this is a good thing.