Thanksgiving in Brussels
27 November 2008

thanksgiving dinner.jpg

Thanksgiving in the Verenigde Staten is a holiday and a protest. The mood at the dinner hosted by the American Club was celebratory, although rumblings went round during an aggressive invocation I admit I could have done without. I was also a bit disappointed that no mention was made of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – they suffer (in part) for their friendship with us, no? Granted, I was affected because of personal connections and an upcoming trip. Otherwise, with the exception of the one-dimensional pumpkin pie (!), the company was outstanding and the meal delicious (especially the mushroom and green bean side dish and the perfectly-roasted turkey).


Conversations were typical I guess? Politics. Who’s traveling home for the holidays, who has family traveling here. Why. Why not. Food. Wine. Needing to buy a t-shirt. I got really jazzed when John started to talk about his work as an engineer, especially when he said:

“We make tools to make tools to make things.”

THAT, my friends, is a metaphor for the language-based concept of indexicality!

John makes mongo agricultural equipment. The design gets done somewhere in the US, the product testing gets done somewhere else (I forget), and then John gets to do the actual production. Just like machine shops where I have occasionally interpreted, a significant engineering challenge is to design and build the machine that makes the tool which can generate the exact part which is needed for the machine to be able to do what it is designed to do. That isn’t all we talked about, we also broached working in seven dimensions (and here I thought I was doing good by adding a fourth!), and John and Kathy went totally off on the Bernouli Principle, which, btw, doesn’t apply in supersonic space.
A few days prior to Thanksgiving, I had begun collecting links and thinking about what I might write. The draft I started was titled, mistakes are for learning. The list I compiled of situations we still need to heal included a story on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s opposition to American Indian Rights, the illegal occupation of Hawai’i by the U.S. since 1898, books accomplishing more than bombs in Pakistan, the need to work for peace in the Middle East, and the problem so many people still have with lesbian and gay rights.
The whole eclectic collection went out of my head instantly when a pal posted a twitter feed on Facebook as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai commenced in the wee hours of the morning. While relieved that my friends and their friends and families are all ok, I continue to consider that the more people I know the smaller the world becomes. I ache for the people who’ve lost loved ones, and for the families of the terrorists – not all of whom can be happy at what their children have done. Amitav Ghosh has written a thoughtful, clearheaded critique of the rush to compare these attacks to 9/11, reminding us that “9/11″ refers

also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

Consequences. This brings me back around to that concept, indexicality. And the metaphor of a machine shop.

An index is the part of a word or phrase that points to something. Indexing is a referential act, a component of how we make meaning together, the core of what is understood when we achieve understanding. The notion of an index implies time, is perhaps even predicated upon time – at least if we understand time in a granular fashion, as a kind of motion that builds incrementally upon itself, accruing into sediments of meaningfulness. (See, if you can, this BBC documentary, Do You Know What Time It Is? by Professor Brian Cox)

So here’s the deal, as I see it. Our language really matters. What we say has substance. Our words effect the world. We elected Obama: he and his team are leading with language. Yes, they are putting together a centrist adminstration, but think “center” as in core. I’ve rarely been prouder to be American than in being part of Obama’s election, but we’ve got to get past the self-absorbed ways in which we sometimes celebrate being American as if the identity came to us pure. It did not. What is special and unique about America is that despite the terrible tragedies of our history, we absorb the lessons and move on. Now, ‘moving on’ means dealing well with the two extremes of radical diversity and horrific disenfranchisement. The former we must preserve and the latter requires redress.
The core must be solid; the boundaries must be clear. We – every single one of us who believes that there is a chance to finally turn the tide, as Ghosh says, in a long, long battle – we must use the words that signal a future that embraces everyone, instead of words “inviting” those who disagree to step outside the room. It is up to us to listen to the words and phrases of Obama and his team and make them, similar to the language of mathematics, “mean what they say, and say what they mean” (p. 14).

“To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn’t get it –

that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary.”

~ Barack Obama

The quotes I pulled from this long NY Times magazine article show me some of what I think is Obama’s deep wisdom – he is not playing divides against each other, but trying to find the places where opposite sides can connect. It is this ability to see through to the worth of values, and find ways to honor and respect the differences in values that make up all of American culture, that attracted me to him in the beginning. He understands “diversity” from the inside.

“These [white, male, working-class] voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”

What are the “cultural issues” he’s talking about?

There is a

…need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong . . .Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that.

The article (also published by the International Tribune), is interesting and informative). The reporter harks back to Obama’s emergence on the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. At that time and place, Obama spoke about a broad politics comfortable with “worshiping an awesome God in the blue states” and having “gay friends in the red states.” He elaborated to the NY Times reporter (Matt Bai),

“…that Washington’s us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. ‘If voters are similarly polarized and if they’re seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we’re not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done.’”

Some of the insights I appreciate from the reporter include describing George W. as “more of a uniter [of the American public] than he ever intended” because of the vast disapproval with his policies, and, although not naming Hillary, the evidence of how her protracted fight for the nomination has helped Obama’s organizing in the long run. “In three states — Texas, Indiana and North Carolina — more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on Election Day in 2004.”
Of course the economy is crucial – it always was, even before this crisis – but Obama recognizes and keeps talking about the fact that “cultural issues matter far more in the rural areas than they do in the exurbs, because voters see those issues as a test of whether politicians respect their values or mock them.” (Emphasis added.)
This next is a longer quote, because it might be part of what unnerves some people about him – his lack of need for public adoration. Perhaps what is unsettling about this aspect of Obama’s character (his “organized unconscious” as David Brooks recently described it) is that the absence of a need for acceptance reduces public leverage on his decisions, which subsequently ups the ante of trust. Obama will surround himself with the best and brightest of varying points of view, and then he will decide based on the calculations of his own wisdom. What will do with a President not subject to manipulation? What I hope is that this quality of self-determination applies equally to the elites.

“It is often said in politics that a candidate’s strength is also his weakness. Obama’s greatest asset as a candidate, the trait that has enabled him to overcome both a thin résumé and the resistance of his own party’s establishment, is his placidity. Even more than through his ability to give a rousing speech (plenty of other candidates, from Ted Kennedy to Howard Dean, could do that), Obama has differentiated himself from recent Democrats by conveying a sense of inner security that is highly unusual in a business of people who have chosen to spend every day asking people to love them. He does not seem like a candidate who’s going to switch to earth tones in his middle age or who’s going to start dressing up in camouflage to rediscover his inner Rambo.

Obama is content to meet the world on his terms, and something about that inspires confidence.And yet that same lack of pathetic neediness may in fact be a detriment when it comes to persuading voters who, culturally or ideologically, just aren’t predisposed to like him. I once heard a friend of Obama’s compare him with Bill Clinton this way: if Clinton sees you walking down the other side of the street, he immediately crosses over to shake your hand; if Obama sees you coming, he nods and waits for you to cross. That image returned to me as I watched Obama campaign in Lebanon. Clinton wouldn’t have wanted to leave that gym until every last voter had been converted, even if that meant he had to memorize the scheduled sewer installation for every home in Russell County. Mark Warner, a similarly tenacious glad-hander, went to rural Virginia again and again because, deep down, he needed to change people’s perceptions of who he was. Obama doesn’t connect to the world that way, which is probably why his campaign has always preferred big rallies to hand-to-hand venues. Obama gives the impression that he’s going to show up and make his case, and if you don’t fall in love with him, well, he’ll just have to pick up the pieces and go on.”

Then, there is the matter of race/racism and whether the latent prejudice of whites will adversely affect Obama’s chances. I like the reporter’s critique: “The more important question is not whether race is a factor in people’s votes but whether it is a determinative factor — that is, whether Obama’s being black is the disqualifying fact for white voters that it might have been 20 years ago or whether it has now been reduced to one of those surmountable obstacles that any candidate has to overcome.” This merely calls for scathing honesty: is Obama’s mixed heritage the ONE reason to vote for/against him? Although there is, no doubt, a small subset of the population who would say this matters the most, this is obviously the wrong basis of evaluation. I am in agreement with the reporter’s conclusion: “it may be possible for racial prejudice to exist, as all the polls suggest it does, but for it to be only one significant influence among many, including voters’ views on the economy and on McCain as an alternative.”

Finally, I appreciate Obama’s candor.
“I’m not a familiar type.” He laughed. “Which means it would be easier for me to deliver this message if I was from one of these places, right? I’ve got to deliver that message as a black guy from Hawaii named Barack Obama. So, admittedly, it’s just unfamiliar . . . I’m different in all kinds of ways. I’m different even for black people.” (Emphasis added.)
In the end, I think this is what it comes down to: can you vote for someone unfamiliar? Of course you will feel the riskiness of it, but the only rational explanation for that sense of risk is fear. Not necessarily deep dread or panic, but uneasiness with the inability to predict what will happen. We never can, of course, but the uncertainty of tomorrow (even of later today) seems more manageable when you are working with the familiar. This is change at its essence: from something known to something new. The big changes that Obama might generate will be possible because of the small changes in the hearts and minds of people like us.

There is always so much going on.
Too much?
I’ve been trying to sort out some distinctions between “being spiritual” and “being religious” (after being tag-teamed by an Eastern European cynic and an Undertaker from India for the past six years, it seems I’ve finally cracked). ;-) I know I become overwhelmed, often, trying to make sense of the whole – yet . . . the alternative doesn’t appeal. If we give up trying to grasp the whole, then what? Well, people carve out a niche for themselves, making intellectual, emotional, aesthetic choices and compromises and doing the best they can. Meanwhile, social forces twist and buckle the fabric of communities and our cross-cultural relations with each other.
When, I wonder, do we decide it is time to work together? And on what basis? At a community meeting yesterday, someone raised a concern with the erosion of constitutional rights, and someone else objected to the extremity of the claim. But world-class journalists are not supposed to get arrested in America. This occurred at the Republican National Convention, where riot police are keeping protesters as far as possible from the convention center. Since when did protests become such a problem in the land of free speech, the home of originary revolution?
Speaking of which, can you imagine the conversation in Governor Palin’s family? “Uh, mom, it’s great you just got selected to be the next Vice-President of the United States, but, uh, I’ve got to tell you something.” When does the generosity and understanding that we give our own children extend to other kids’ parents?
I was recently at a yoga center where hundreds of earnest persons went about their spiritual work. “Practice,” I thought to myself, “for being soon in another country.” All the anonymous people were nice enough: polite and indifferent. Don’t get me wrong, I was the same way: there to do what I came to do for me, open to engagement if it happened but not seeking interpersonal connection. It was a mild form of alienation. I “belonged” there as much as anyone else who had paid the fee. I look like 95% of the people who were there, and I behave similarly in culturally substantial ways. But I was bothered – it’s a commercial place from which collaborative social action might grow but (it seems) only on the basis of similarity.
In the U.S. (the one that I grew up in, have been shaped by, and currently worry about), the emphasis on individuality leads to the massive reproduction of independent spiritualists who – typically, usually – fail to commit to work together for any coherent social action. Even if people are atheists, that identity is defined in opposition to the notion of some kind of spiritual center. With secular yoga, the body has replaced god as the object of worship. In politics, the body is also central: “what” one looks like, and “how” one sounds become the basis for argumentation and persuasion.
Still . . . it is a measure of how far America has come that both candidates for President of the United States are members of multiracial families. (This point was also raised by a participant during that community meeting.) In my opinion, the most important thing Senator Obama said during the Democratic National Convention (quoted from memory) was to assert

“this is not about me; this is about you.”

We can continue to live as Americans without a common “religion,” or as Americans whose religion has become a narrowly-defined nationality, or we can find ways to build common cause with the very material of difference itself.

“This” – all of it – is about us. All of us.

George Lakoff’s important book, Moral Politics, describes the root metaphor at the base of conservative and liberal worldviews. “Cognitive studies,” Lakoff explains, have concluded “that moral thinking is imaginative and that it depends fundamentally on metaphorical thinking” (p. 41). The explanatory metaphor for both conservatives and liberals extends a notion of the family/parent to the nation/government. “The resulting moral systems, put together out of the same elements, but in different order, are radically opposed” (p. 35).
One of the interesting challenges of Lakoff’s book (i.e., another finding of cognitive science) is the myth of being conscious of one’s own worldview, and “that all one has to do to find out about people’s views of the world is to ask them” (36). Lakoff describes realizing the myth of transparent belief as “the most fundamental result of cognitive science” (p. 36).

“What people will tell you about their worldview does not necessarily accurately reflect how they reason, how they categorize, how they speak, and how they act” (p. 36).

Lakoff is careful not to tell us what our politics or our morality should be; he is not preaching or giving a prescription. Instead, he is describing the two logics composing the deep split in political thinking between conservatives and liberals in the United States. This is not philosophy; this is description. It is up to us to understand the descriptions and then figure out how to talk and reason based on the reality of these starkly different moralities.

“Our public discourse about the nature of morality and its relation to politics [is] sadly impoverished. We must find a way to talk about alternative moral systems and how they give rise to alternative forms of politics. Journalists – including the most intelligent and insightful of journalists – have been at a loss. They have to rely on existing forms of public discourse, and since those forms are not adequate to the task, even the most thoughtful and honest journalists need help. Public discourse has to be enriched so that the media can do its job better.” (2nd edition, 2002, p. 32)

Lakoff goes much further and deeper than merely slapping labels on certain brands of politics. “Classification in itself,” writes Lakoff, “is relatively boring” (p. 17). What we need – what Lakoff provides – are models. Models do much more than mere categorization, they

  • analyze modes of reasoning
  • show how modes of reasoning about different issues fit together
  • show how different forms of reasoning are related to each in other in such a way that they are all understood to be instances of the same thing (in this case, politics)
  • show links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning
  • show how moral reasoning in politics is ultimately based on models of the family

Lakoff’s hope – and mine in reading his book and trying to understand the basic point – is that by understanding how our minds work, and especially how our words give clues to how our minds work we can address political dilemmas more effectively.

“The same mind that we study for scientific reasons creates moral and political systems of thought and uses them every day. For this reason, the findings of conceptual systems research will eventually come to matter more and more in understanding moral and political life” (p. 17).

“For better or worse, this is Chicago,” said Ms. Katz, who has held fund-raisers for Mr. Obama at her home.

“Everyone is connected to everyone.”

This is what I have always appreciated about Barack Obama:

“…he’s not looking for how to exclude the people who don’t agree with him. He’s looking for ways to make the tent as large as possible” (Abner J. Mikva, a former congressman and mentor to Mr. Obama).

Both quotes are from Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side. (I have a hat, a cowboy hat adorned with abalone shell, black leather, and a ceramic bird’s skull, which someone once said – circa 1990 – would keep me safe on Chicago’s South Side.)

Obama Barack Obama’s speech on race and friendship.

An analysis from the Boston Globe: “Obama goes beyond generalities…”, which is a rhetorical skill he has utilized effectively all along.

I wonder how many more versions will be made?


Yes We Can – about Barack Obama


John he is – about John McCain


No You Can’t – about the system

Press Release about the event in Boston, February 4.

Logo No Mas Farc.jpg
Sign the petition.
Downloadable logos and images for t-shirts and signs (scroll down to get to the English versions), or make your own: white flags, Colombian flags, and/or flowers…

from Earthseed (Parable of the Sower):

God is Power –
And yet, God is Pliable –
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

I met David in the department computer lab yesterday. “So, you don’t believe in authenticity, do you?”
Nice to meet you, too! :-)
Of course I do. Authenticity is, for me, an experience not a label, a lived moment of phenomenological alignment when the energies that compose “me” merge in concordance with the energies of a situation and other involved persons, ideas – the context. I think of “peak experiences” and the experience of “flow.”
My authentic moments usually won’t match anyone else’s, in substance or in timing – everyone will experience their own authenticity distinctly. This is why shared moments are so powerful (hmmm, which is why I am so interested in them as events with the potential to change reality – see problematic moments – and so drawn to them personally as a source of incredible nurturance. I want more!)
As I muse on this, I think there may be two “categories” of phenomenological authenticity, one that is dialectically structured and one that is dialogically intentional. The former is reactive to social structure (see a negative example of coming into alignment based on a valence (intra/interpersonal attractive force) to soak up a certain strand of environmental and communicative dynamic interaction) and the latter is empowered, coming from a deliberate and conscious turning or utilization of recognized valences into a force that acts back on the dialectical conditioning.
(btw – I’m in a thick swamp attempting to distinguish dialogical from dialectical. Neither process has control over the outcome, but to subsume “dialogue” under “dialect” is to accept a singular structuration for all of human society. No, thanks.)

Guilty as charged. :-/
A friend last night told me that that approximately 80% of what I write makes sense, but there’s 20% when I lose her. That happened somewhere in the middle of reading yesterday’s post. We hypothesized: boring? Lack of transition or context? Possibly, we mused, I wander too deep into my own mind, and simply do not make the links apparent – such writing is then “not a finished product,” which can throw a reader off or away from the communication I attempt.
A few days earlier, another friend caught my systemic misspelling of Colombia and let me know (for which I am grateful, thanks). I was using the US version, Columbia, which refers to a different place and (obviously) invokes a much different context. Less obviously, but nonetheless apparent to a close reader, is what such a basic mistake reveals about me as an outsider. Just now, I’m up for a bit of self-chastising, as a pithy reviewer of television coverage of the US presidential campaign quotes Mark Twain:

…somewhere he said that “only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’”

Dang. The thing is, I invoke “we” deliberately, as an act of membering, an attempt to constitute belonging. I started doing so, consciously and with intention, at last fall’s second Dialogue under Occupation conference, which took place in Abu Dis, Palestine. I want to insist on a base level of togetherness among everyone who has participated in either of the first two conferences as a foundation for a community focused on tangible changes in entrenched institutional systems. There is no reason not to extend the boundary of “we” to include peace activists and change agents in Colombia and elsewhere in the world. The trick, as I was able to articulate a week or so after the conference, is to name violence without doing more.
Did you follow the link? I suspect this could be one place where I lose readers. Yesterday, for instance, I referenced a graduate level communication seminar on Language as Action and Performance. This link is not as straightforward as the one above concerning how we need to stop talking violence into inevitability. You have to notice, in today’s instance, that the link feeds to a whole category of posts that I have related to each other through the label Language. Geez, even as I am explaining this (to myself as well, grin) I can see how much labor I hope you are willing to undertake. :-/ (Sorry!) The thing is, I am trying to work an epistemology, and I am still learning how to convert true beliefs into knowledge. (Another friend informs me that real philosophers limit the object/referent of “epistemology” to propositional knowledge, thereby excluding the how. My exposure to the term via pedagogy (education) and sociology will not allow a separation between the process and the outcome. Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory describes this merger, and his distinction between practical consciousness and discursive consciousness explicates the interaction between “the how” of coming to know and “the what” of knowing.)

Giddens postulates a dynamic interplay between “practical consciousness” (tacit, take-for-granted knowledge) and “discursive consciousness” (knowledge/reasons that can be verbally articulated) as social agents reflexively monitor and rationalize their activities/practices. Practical consciousness is emphasized to a greater extent in this process, however, since it is linked directly with the casual mastery of routines….

A proposal for integrating structuration theory with
coordinated management of meaning theory

In addition to the theoretical precepts which I am actively attempting to put into conscious and deliberate, “performative” action, there is the whole unique history of me as an embodied human being with particular experiences of social life and relationships. As much as I try to think “out from” myself as a person with agency to influence events and meanings, I also attend “inward” to the ways I react and then respond to events and the meanings I make of them. The conditioned dialectical interactions are what I want to shift from the dominant external power of established structure to an internal force of dialogical interaction that both recognizes my freedom to move variably within a range and concentrate my energies on a specific structural feature where I sense possibilities for a turn from one trajectory to another.

As I watched myself (over the past few days) feel and try to articulate some humanity for the other side, for the enemy, I realized that I always do this. I did this two years ago when Israel began bombing Lebanon and many of my friends burst into outrage. Yes yes yes, the bombing was wrong and unconscionable. The reasons for the attack are not justifiable under any ethical rubric. And – to use words that demonize all Israelis by casually conflating the policies of the government with the individual choices of citizens is a language trap. I think the same dynamic applies to Farc. As awful, horrific and devastating as their actions have been on the nearly one thousand individuals kidnapped, and miserable and agonizing as the pain ripples have been, we – not a royal imposition, but a self-selected cadre of compassionate people – have to manage not to throw our resulting pain back into the world, even onto those who elicit it.

I believe we must learn to manage our own pain, because I have been guilty of acting mine out on beloved others and observing the devastating effects. Sometimes, the guilt and depression are overwhelming. In fact, being able to throw myself into a support network on behalf of a friend was a means for surviving a severe bout that struck the same day as I learned of Ana and Alf‘s kidnapping. Would I have devoted so much energy if I was not so desperately trying, myself, to survive? I cannot say. What I can say, is that – having done so – my commitment is real.

(Note: the title bar is also a link.)
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