Monday, October 31, 2011

One Tweet Can Change the World

(This Sunday November 6th, journalist Charles Sennott, who witnessed and wrote extensively about the January 25th revolution in Egypt, will speak at the seventh annual Cornerstone Forum in Sherborn on the topic “Digital Revolution: The Power of Social Media to Change the World”.  It takes place at 4 p.m. at the Sherborn Community Center and is free and open to the public.  Sennott’s topic got me thinking about social media’s revolutionary impact on all of life.)

Tweet (noun) 1. a weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird. 2. a very short message posted on the Twitter Web site: the message may include text, keywords, and mentions of specific users, links to Web sites, links to images or videos on a Web site.
                                                            --Random House Dictionary

Can one person change the world by writing and sending a 140 character message on a digital screen?  Consider Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is an online social networking and micro-blogging site which allows users to “tweet” (send) and read “tweets (text based messages) with other Twitter followers on smart phones and computers.  160 characters is the limit for international text messages, so Twitter limits users to 140 characters of prose, with 20 characters reserved for the “tweeter’s” (sender’s) name. Twitter users “follow” (subscribe) to other Twitter authors and receive tweets in real time, then often forward those to other groups of online followers. In the digital world, Twitter isn’t all that old having just turned five last April.  But it is a big and growing form of instant digital communication and connection, with 200 million users worldwide, writing, sending and reading some quarter billion tweets per day. 

The cliché critique of Twitter and similar social networking sites like Facebook, is that these only promote digital narcissism, claim a cadre of self-focused folks letting other self-focused folks know what they are doing and how they are feeling, overblown human self-importance writ large.  “Hey! I’m going to the store.” “I’m drinking a great cup of coffee at Starbucks!” “I have a headache!” 

Yes. Twitter is largely filled with such digital “cotton candy”. Four of the top five tweeters are the singers Lady Gaga (1.5 million followers), Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and reality TV queen Kim Kardashian. (President Obama is number four.)  You have to go pretty far down the top 200 tweet list to find any other folks of substance: Bill Gates (44), Stephen Colbert (100), or Al Gore (126).  But if we look beyond the flash of Twitter, its simple and radical process of sharing information is very revolutionary, especially when it comes to social change, people seeking to transform the world from the bottom up.

Twitter’s first great moment came during the Iranian uprisings in the summer of 2009, when Iranian protesters, fighting for democracy in that theocratic land, were able to let the world know of their struggle and the government’s violent crackdown by tweeting text and photo and video links. News outlets were not there to witness, nor most foreign governments. But Twitter was and with its instantaneous and under the radar messaging the global community quickly found out about Iran’s dirty laundry.  Last January’s revolution in Egypt was largely organized not through traditional methods (from the top down of a political structure) but through postings and pages on Facebook.  Occupy Wall Street, which seemed to come out of nowhere, was in fact born in social media land. 

We live in amazing and revolutionary times, especially when it comes to mass and micro communication.  For the gift of Twitter and Facebook, so much more so than merely allowing us to connect with friends or follow a celebrity, is that these communication networks bypass the powers that be. They bring the power of protest instead directly to the streets, the people, and the activists.  With just a cell phone and a signal, one brave soul can send out the word to fight for freedom, and governments are often powerless in the face of such subversive organizing. 

If I was a ruling cleric in Iran or a communist party chair in China these days, I’d be very afraid of Twitter and Facebook.  It’s startling to consider just what can be said in 140 characters.  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal.” (79 characters.)  “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." (130 characters.)   "You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (106 characters.)   "Be the change you wish to see in the world." (45 characters.) “I have a dream.” (17 characters.)

What would you say in 140 characters?  It might just change the world for the better.


Monday, October 24, 2011

God and Politics: A Messy Mix

“They that know God will be humble.”         
--John Flavel

Is God a Republican or a Democrat or maybe a liberal or a conservative or maybe even both or how about neither? Hard to tell these days.  Because once again the Presidential election machine is cranking up and this cycle, perhaps more so than ever before in recent memory, God is getting co-opted, dragged and recruited into the messy world of politics. Makes me feel kind of bad for the Holy One, forever being claimed by this candidate or that cause, all to give righteous weight to a partisan crusade.

And so during a candidate’s forum in Iowa this month Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter of candidate Rick Perry, had this to say: "In my estimation, Mormonism is a cult. And it would give credence to a cult to have a Mormon candidate…"   Bummer for Mitt Romney and 14 million Mormons.

In late August, candidate Michelle Bachman weighed in with this interesting theological declaration: “I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. [God] said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here? Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending.”  Wow: I never knew God uses natural disasters to warn America to reduce the deficit and shrink government. 

Candidate Herman Cain on his ‘call’ to run for President: "God's been in this from the beginning." Cain says God’s personally called him to run and that this one on one message took a lot of "conversations with God".  Hmmm.  Does this mean God isn’t talking to the other candidates or President Obama?

I’d love to skewer a left wing politician on some type of similar sloppy God talk but most progressives and liberals have left behind any discussion of God or faith. In the 2008 election, Obama got so burnt by his local church pastor that he’s been rarely seen going anywhere near a house of worship in his presidency. But like all good doobie pols, he still concludes practically every single speech with this eight word mantra: “And God bless the United States of America!”  Just once can’t he use a different coda? Maybe one that doesn’t arrogantly suppose God’s cliché good housekeeping seal of approval upon whatever policy he’s proposing?      

God and politics: for me, as a person of faith, one who does this faith thing for a living, this mix, this coupling of the Creator and crass politics is an awful mess.  It’s not that I oppose candidates or politician having a deep faith, whatever their tradition.  Kudos to the men and women who take their faith walk seriously and then try to incorporate the values therein into how they govern.  America needs leaders who stand upon a personal foundation of God-given morals, ethics and ideals.  Philosophical notions like compassion for the least of these our neighbors. Peace. Justice.  Honesty. Service to others.  Humility.  Respect for God’s Creation. Who can argue against that? 

But do they have to be so self-righteous about it? So smarmily sure? So “My God’s better than your God” or “My God specifically told me to do this!”?  Do they have to imply, sometimes not so subtly, that only a person who believes in God (never an atheist) or a certain God (never a Mormon) can be President? Guaranteed if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee that the Mormon bashers and questioners will all come out of the hills. 

Do they have to wear their faith like a shiny medal of honor and twist what is at its best a private and personal relationship with the Divine, and instead use this relationship as just another way to sell themselves to the electorate as a commodity? “Vote for me ‘cuz I love God and God loves me!”

In my tradition Jesus tells a great story about two folks, a priest and a tax collector, who go up to the Temple to pray one day.  At the front of that house of worship, one self-righteous soul stands tall, arms outstretched, face proudly uplifted to the heavens and offers this prayer to the Almighty: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” And there, way, way in the back of the sanctuary, eyes averted, head bowed, is the object of the priest’s self-righteous scorn.  The tax collector’s simple prayer? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

One believer all haughty, puffed up, so convinced of his righteousness before God.  The other soul humble, acknowledging his flawed humanity, and putting himself right before an all merciful and loving God. 

I know who I’d vote for if each were to each run for public office.  How about you?    



Monday, October 17, 2011

When the Deck Is Stacked

Stack the deck (originally from card playing) 
1. to cheat by arranging the cards to be dealt out to one's advantage.    
 --McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms

What’s the only thing worse than losing at a game? Discovering that the competition has in fact been rigged from the start.  That you really never had a chance to win because a select few at the table were playing from a stacked deck. That the outcome was heavily in their favor from the moment the first cards were dealt. Losing always hurts but discovering that you lost because someone else cheated? Well, that rightfully makes us angry, even very angry.

In America these days we’re living in an angry, fractious time in our shared economic and political lives.  On the philosophical far right the Tea Party movement angrily rails against a big and often corrupt, wasteful government.  On the philosophical far left the Occupy Wall Street movement angrily denounces accumulated ill-gotten wealth in the pockets of a very few, 99 percent versus one percent. 

Yet beneath each of these seemingly diametrically opposed populist groups is a common lament, that in 2012 America the deck is stacked on both Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.  In the marketplace and halls of government, an elite few have most of the power while the many average citizens are mostly powerless to effect change in both capitalism and democracy.  And when folks feel like the game is a loser from the start, of course they get riled up. Of course they protest. 

But the game continues on.  In Massachusetts last month, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, the chief governmental official charged with regulating our state’s liquor industry, unashamedly accepted a $45,000 campaign donation from the package store owners, bar owners and liquor distributors he’s supposed to oversee.  When asked to justify this “gift”, a spokesman from Grossman’s office told The Boston Globe that “The contributions are allowed under state campaign finance and ethics laws, and no one will get special treatment in exchange for donations.” 

In Washington D.C., in the wake of the bankruptcy of a government backed solar panel energy called Solyndra, which cost Uncle Sam $535 million, the New York Times reported that Department of Energy official Daniel Spinner kept pushing the loan, even after it became clear the company was on the brink of collapse.  It may have something to do with the fact that his lawyer wife, Mrs. Spinner, works for a law firm which represents Solyndra.

In Silicon Valley, Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd, quit in August 2010 in the face of sexual harassment charges and received $23 million from the company on his way out the door.  His successor, Leo Apotheker, was fired for incompetence after just one year and received a golden parachute of $13.16 million.  In 2012 in the United States, the pay of an average CEO is 263 times more than an average worker at that same corporation. For comparison the number is 13 for Germany and 11 for Japan.  Corporate profits are at an all time historic high, nearly $1.6 trillion this year.  Yet the unemployment rate is still stuck at more than 9 percent. United States’ income disparity is at its highest since 1928 and America’s rate of poverty is one in seven, 44 million people, the highest number since 1993.

If only these tales of a stacked deck were rare or isolated but they are not.  Instead the flash of populist anger shining bright on both the political left and right is an indication that more and more average citizens believe that there are actually two games going on in the United States.  One is for the connected, the insider, the well heeled, and the elite.  Their game in politics and economics is going very well, high fives all around the table. 

But the other game is increasingly brutal and unforgiving. The other game is filled with players who find themselves locked out of the political process for lack of access and connections and cash.  The other game is filled with people who are more and more convinced that “We the people” is a hollow cliché and that the golden rule in 2012 is he who has the gold makes the rules.  The other game is made up of people who are mostly just scared in these uncertain times: retirees who fear dwindling pensions and health care, the long term unemployed who have given up hope, the young college graduates who can’t find a job and are saddled with debt, the poor who feel caught in the grip of a poverty that they cannot escape, and cynical voters who wonders if their ballots really makes a difference anymore. 

It’s not about the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, Republicans or Democrats, or blue states or red states anymore. It’s about people feeling disenfranchised, on the outside looking in and playing a game that they believe is rigged and that they cannot win.  It’s about Americans of all political stripes being very, very worried about our future as a nation.  That’s why they are so angry.

One of the moral hallmarks of a biblical faith is that of equity and justice: the notion that in a society, when all folks play fair, play by the rules, play honestly and play on a level playing field, every one wins.  But when the deck is stacked? No one wins and finally every one (save for a very elite few) loses.

So the next time we turn on the TV or read on the Internet about folks occupying Wall Street or rallying as Tea Partiers, maybe we’ll not so quickly dismiss their demands or anger as far flung extremism or mere political theater. 

They in fact are protesting against a stacked deck.  And we are all in that game. 



Friday, October 7, 2011

Steven Jobs and The Power of the Personal

Personal (adjective) 1. of, pertaining to, or coming as from a particular person; individual; private  3. intended for use by one person  --Random House Dictionary

By the time this column goes to press, millions of words will have been written about the legacy of Steven Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, who died last week.  The list of tributes and titles attributed to Jobs is a long and well deserved one: innovator, artist, CEO, visionary, entrepreneur, inventor.  I’m not an Apple disciple but I’m old enough to have lived through the radical cultural, work and life shifts which have happened in just one generation, all because of Job’s first and perhaps most important invention, the personal computer, or PC.  The key word here is “personal”.  The Apple II computer was created by Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a garage and introduced in 1977.  Even though PC home kits had been available for sale to hobbyists and computer geeks for several years, the Apple II was the first mass market home, work and school personal computer.

Until then, computing and the vast power therein—to communicate, to research and to organize information--was overwhelmingly limited to closed networks.  You might have had a computer terminal on your desk at work or school but it was still “dumb” and not at all personal. Its power came from a central computer, access to which was often tightly controlled by a department, corporation, government or university.  Computer power was regulated from the top down.  The PC changed all that, turned this relationship upside down and unchained computing power, giving it to the individual for the first time ever.

The radical effect of this cultural shift is astonishing and birthed an amazing array of personal technological products that have forever changed the way we live and interact as humans.  We have personal phones (no cord connected to the wall), personal music (no more need for record stores), personal entertainment (no more movie theaters), personal email and text (no more post office), personal social networks (no more gossip over the fence), personal shopping (no more bricks and mortar Sears and Roebuck), personal finances (no more stockbroker), personal bankers (no more tellers), and personal news (no more Walter Cronkite). 

Not all this personal empowerment is necessarily a social panacea: there’s also personal pornography (no more dirty book stores), personal cyber-bullying (no more face to face bullies), personal work (no more 9 to 5: work is now 24/7) and even a personal God (no more faith communities: just find me on Facebook!?).  That’s the thing about big ideas like the PC: they follow the law of unintended consequences.  Once a revolutionary technology like the PC is unleashed you never know where it might take us, even evolve us, as a species on the earth.  There’s no turning back.

Yet finally all technology is just this: it is a box, a machine, a collection of silicon chips. There is no life within it, no power really either.  The personal power of all our technological devices finally happens in the interaction between user and computer, the human and the machine.  Whether or not this “personal” revolution started by Job makes this world a better place to live—more connected, more integrated, more whole—is finally up to each of us, the ones who tap away at keyboards and slide our fingers along display panels. 

So rest in peace Steven.  With your one life you forever altered the way human beings live.  You gave us the power and then made it personal.  The rest is up to us.



Monday, October 3, 2011

The Soul Force of Protest

Civil disobedience (noun) 1. the refusal to obey certain laws or governmental demands for the purpose of influencing legislation or government policy, characterized by the employment of [nonviolent techniques], including protesting, boycotting, picketing, and nonpayment of taxes.         --Random House Dictionary

What if humans could change the world, not with bombs or bullets, not with money or power, not through violence or oppression, not through corrupt governments or inept Kings and Presidents, but instead with just one simple idea? It’s happening right now, and this earth-changing idea was born in 1848 in the mind of one our locals, Henry David Thoreau, right up the road in Concord.  

Thoreau morally opposed slavery and American expansionism in the Mexican-American War and believed that in paying his taxes he was forced to support governmental actions he wholly disagreed with.  Rather than pay those taxes, he refused and was arrested and jailed by the civil authorities.  In his 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government)”, he wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Thoreau’s philosophy is simple, elegant and most important, non-violent.  Rather than take up arms against the government, Thoreau argued the best way to affect change was for citizens to literally put their bodies and freedom on the line.  To civilly, not violently, protest government and other forms of oppressive power.  Gandhi read about Thoreau’s idea while in a jail cell.  Martin Luther King employed this ideal and almost singlehandedly gave birth to the civil rights movement.  And today, right now, Thoreau’s idea is on the move once again.

Beginning last December in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has swept across a region of the world long dominated by violent and repressive regimes, by military backed dictators and uber-rich and corrupt monarchies.  In just ten months, non-violent revolutions and protests have broken out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman. 

Even Americans are following Thoreau’s lead.  Last month more than 1,000 folks were arrested and jailed outside the White House in protest against the Tar Sands oil pipeline which is proposed to be built from Canada down into the southern United States.  Last weekend 700 peaceful protesters were arrested in New York City, as a part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which seeks to confront corporate greed and government inaction in the face of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.  Heck even Bostonians are getting in the act, with hundreds of folks recently marching against Bank of America and its refusal to more compassionately modify thousands of mortgages gone bad. 

As a person of faith and a citizen, what most impresses me about all of these protests is the willingness of protesters to use “soul force” (Gandhi’s term) to confront and topple governmental and institutional power gone bad.  Soul force is the idea that moral truth can be vindicated and achieved, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.  You protest oppressive power, not by hurting your oppressor, but by sacrificing your own self.  You march until your feet are numb. You confront tanks and soldiers peaceably. You meet the power of the sword with the power of love. You put your body on the line to save Creation.  You sleep on the sidewalk to say that the rich and the elite have taken away far too much from the poor and the middle class.  You sit in a jail cell and give up your freedom for an ideal.

Who knows just how far all these domestic and international non-violent protest movements will go and whether or not they will succeed?  That’s not clear yet.  But me? I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for the protesters who see the world as it is and yet refuse to accept that status quo.  Who have the courage to fight for freedom and fairness and compassion and go beyond words and best intentions to actually put their lives on the line.  Who recognize that at certain critical times in human history, the only way to force the powerful to give up power is to confront them directly, but always in peace. 

Takes a lot of guts and moral fortitude.  Yet finally this is how the world changes.  When moral truth speaks to power and then the truth wins. But first someone has to be on those frontlines. 

So thank you protesters.  And thanks Henry.  You started a revolution.