This earth belongs to the people

Hong Kong Students Begin Pro Democracy Strike

I hold aloft my spirit
extended to blot out
a harsh sun, unaware
its setting has begun

I hold aloft my spirit,
we come in twos and tens
neighbors become fellow soldiers
empowered, enraptured

I hold aloft my spirit
though my feet stay steady
for though time flows fast
I am here, I occupy this earth

This earth
right here
belongs to
the people.

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Shut it down: Occupy Central and the global economic system

One of the strongest, most incendiary things an individual, or a group, can do is to seize a physical place and refuse to leave. The action of occupation is as old as mass movements, and predated the big-O Occupy movement. It is used to protect people from eviction, to keep park space free from development, to block access to political institutions, and to paralyze the economic infrastructure of towns, regions, and whole nations. As was the mantra in 2011 among some activists, sometimes you need to shut this motherfucker down.

Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Protestors in anti-pepper spray gear. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Occupy Central comes from a long and storied history of nonviolence. The color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon occupied key places of political and cultural importance. Central goes beyond that to a more radical place- using occupation as an economic weapon of the people. We saw this happen with the West Coast port shutdowns three years ago, and the related Block the Boat campaign against Israeli industry. There is an added weak point in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and other major ports- access of goods and labor is of international importance. To shut down central portions of Hong Kong is to amplify the power of the act of occupation, so it can reverberate into global markets. In the short term, good business must be paid for by increased political rights. From that platform, working to change the global economic system becomes easier.

Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

Clash between umbrella-holding protestors and police. September 28, 2014. Alex Ogle/AFP

They now call it the Umbrella Revolution. It certainly has gained that tangible thing that defines great movements, whether a place, color, or object (Serbia’s 2000 peaceful revolution is sometimes dubbed “The Bulldozer Revolution” due to protestor tactics to break up barricades).

The whole world is watching. We have been blind to the authoritarianism creeping throughout Hong Kong. It has been a time to get educated, and get on the right side of affairs.

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Justice comes with an umbrella: Hong Kong and Occupy Central

Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.

Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.

Following a strong students’ strike on Friday, the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong launched Occupy Central in its full form early. They aim to paralyze the economic center of the territory, to force changes in the political structure to allow for universal suffrage and free election of the chief executive in 2017.

I first wrote about the simmering conflict over a year ago, and about Occupy Central earlier this month. It is a reminder that some of richest places in the world, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are not true democracies and their people are fighting for the same political rights that many in the developing world seek.

Hong Kong exists in the nexus between colonialism and authoritarianism, a British holding turned over to China but given certain rights that the mainland population does not have. The agreement was vague, and Beijing is attempting to keep true democracy off the table, and make an already anti-democratic system more rigged.

Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014

Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014

Occupy Central is a shining example of the mass civil disobedience that is popping up all over the world, which can challenge governments and the existing economic order that resists progress.

As with climate change, world poverty, endemic racism- there is no time for gradualism. Hong Kong has waited 17 years for full democracy and has not gotten it, and will never get it if the present state of affairs continues. The need is for people to get more radical and ambitious with their movements. It’s to go beyond symbolism and into disobedience. Nobody said a just society would come easy.

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The San Diego cycle: UU Fellowship of San Dieguito

Earlier this month I moved from Northern to Southern California. Exciting, a bit uncomfortable, but San Diego is a place of great promise and opportunity. Starting this week I will be a new transfer student at the University of California, San Diego; since I know very few people here, the half dozen local Unitarian Universalist congregations are a great starting place. Getting integrated into the community, both on a social level and as an activist, is deeply important. So I’ll be doing a write up of each place I go.

The fellowship's band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

The fellowship’s band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD, website here) is located in the hills of Solana Beach, just east of I-5. It typifies all things Southern California. The landscaping is arid shrubs and drought-resistant trees, the buildings are of grey stone and of the flat, pueblo style. What gives it a unique flair is the outdoor amphitheater where services are held, weather permitting. A hemicycle of benches surrounds a modest red-brick stage, its back butting up against a sandy hill. Beach umbrellas shield most congregants, though if one is quite pale and sensitive to sunlight (your truly fits the category) you may have to keep shifting in order to match the rising sun.

The centerpiece of the 11am service was the coming of age program, where youth start the transformation towards having their own ideas about meaning and spirituality. In total there were twenty-five teens moving forward to the next stage, an impressive amount given my original congregation had serious issues with an imbalance between elderly and youth congregants. Overall it felt like the “moving up” days of my early schools years; this was not a graduation but more an acknowledgment of progress and the foundation of future work.

Rev. David Miller, who like many in the UU tradition has the ministry as a second career, gave a speech entitled “The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age”. It dealt with the great clash in society and within all UU congregations- how does reason interact with faith, science with mysticism? He called attention to the waste that comes with hair-splitting and semantics, and that ultimately what science and religion do for individuals and the world is more important than whose ideas are better.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

 

His point regarding the ‘edge of science’ and what can and cannot be proven was well taken. It reminded me of an article recently put in a Scientific American compilation called “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” by George F.R. Ellis (PDF here). Multiverse- the idea that there are other universes outside of our own, in some structure- reaches the edge where physical theories become metaphysical conjecture. Ellis points out that if there is no way to test for a multiverse, and the theory is not provable nor falsifiable, there is no place for science. Rev. Miller illustrates that we must not lean on science for everything, because its method has only so many uses. But also, implicitly, that superstition and dogma cannot creep into the territory that science can explain.

As one hopes, the congregants were very welcoming. I was offered the chance to introduce myself early in the service and took it. Rev. Miller pointed out that given my shirt (this one from Northern Sun, only with the old logo) I was probably not a stranger to the religion. Several people came and talked about their history at UU of Palo Alto, where I came from. It was nice to talk to people from Southern California and get a sense of what the community is like down here. Members were also helpful about other congregations in the area.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.

I plan to visit all the congregations in the county (five of them, with the largest one in downtown having a branch with overlapping content), and this was an encouraging start. The low-70s weather was perfect for outdoor worship, and the campus itself has character. What the amphitheater had was character- not run-down, but also not sparkling and impersonal.

Given that I only have one class this week, I should be ready for a new congregation next week- Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

 

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History

History
not a realm of
sun-streaked progress
among angelic choirs
but often
forged in rivers of mud
a thousand leagues from home
where young men die
and forever lie
to join the stones and loam.

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The dedicated brother

I am
the desert soldier
I was
the dedicated brother
I will
find pure vengeance
I cannot
find forgiveness in the depths of my heart

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Bad logic: the argument from secrecy

Democracy Now! published an interview with academic Stephen Cohen about the Malaysian Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine.

Across many subjects and over a long arc of time, the core argument used by Cohen is familiar. I consider it a fallacy of sorts, dubbed “argument from secrecy“. Cohen notes that there is unreleased information about the crash, held (or assumed to be held) by powerful groups. He states:

They’re sitting on satellite intercepts. They have the images. They won’t release the air controller’s conversations in Kiev with the doomed aircraft. Why not? Did the pilot say—let me speculate—”Oh, my god, we’re being fired on by a jet fighter next to us! What’s going on?” Because we know there were two Ukrainian jet fighters. We don’t know, but somebody knows.

Emphasis mine. He uses this absence of information to draw a conclusion that strongly butts against the most obvious answer and the information publicly available. What is clear from the interview is that he is, under the guise of just asking questions, stating that the airplane was shot down by the Ukrainian government, using a fighter jet. Note the switch in the middle from a lack of exculpatory evidence to speculation that nobody has confirmed, including say, the Russians who would have every reason to back that up.

I am not attacking Cohen here. Nor am I asserting that secrecy is a good thing. Above all, the issue is using secrecy as a bridge towards a conclusion advocated by the individual. While the crash in the Ukraine is still not adequately sketched out, what exists does not jive well with the assertion that it a) was shot down by a jet, and b) that the jet was Ukrainian.

This method of analysis is the backbone of a continuum of scenarios. Legitimate journalists invoke it, so do academics like Cohen, and the argument from secrecy is the cornerstone of conspiracy theories. Secret information is a sort of rhetorical spackle.

Post-9/11 legislation has contributed to a secrecy culture and a deep mistrust of government explanations, though as the half-century since JFK was assassinated it’s not a new development. The JFK documents archive is a classic example- the ongoing declassification project has been slow. Secrecy has put an obstacle in front of getting the truth nailed down. But the preponderance of evidence doesn’t point to what those that use the argument from secrecy think.

There is a limited amount of information to glean from secret (or alleged to be secret) information, obviously. But rational and skeptical personalities should not use the unknown to create whatever tea leaves they would like to see. Even when facts are elusive, the temptation to switch into speculation mode needs to be resisted.

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