Friday, May 23, 2008

It's American to disagree

So I came across a black-and-white ad in a magazine that shows Rev. Al Sharpton sitting cordially next to Rev. Pat Robertson on a couch. They’re laughing like pals. Weirder, the couch is on the beach, presumably photoshopped on there. The caption: “It’s American to disagree. It’s also American to come together in the face of a challenge. And few challenges are as urgent as global climate change …”

The next day, I saw another ad, this one with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, again on a couch, in front of the Capitol building. Looks even more photoshoppy. And where the two good reverends at least look like they’re having fun, these two Speakers look like they’re gritting their teeth and seething behind their smiles. Newt is sinking into his side of the couch while Nancy is perched like a bird next to him.

The ad directs us to, which, while it’s hard to tell what actions it actually performs, certainly has a nice message about a movement of people to help “solve the climate crisis.”

The ads are funny, and it would be easy for a cynic to mock the sentiment. But when did we subconsciously pass the moment when climate change became a commonly accepted mainstream concept? Was it An Inconvenient Truth? It seems like it was just a few years ago that it was difficult getting any politician or public official to take global warming seriously, let alone Republicans. But today, politicians are leaping over one another to seem environmentally sound, and the majority of products and advertisements tout their environmental accreditations. (I don’t want to imply any of these specific people are insincere; Gingrich did write a book on the environment, after all.)

This is a common Secret Peace trend:

  1. An idea that was once rare or scorned becomes more mainstream.
  2. A tipping point is reached after which it is gauche to disagree with the idea.
  3. People are forced to jump on the bandwagon and pretend to agree with it, even if they harbor doubts or resentments towards the new idea.
  4. Eventually (after a generation at the most), since everyone has been publicly supporting the idea, peoples’ views subconsciously shifts into genuine support.
Examples abound. It happened/is happening with every civil right, with gay rights in the process now. It’s also why Iran and China claim to be democracies. It’s exciting when the pattern happens over a short enough time span that we can notice.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cabbie Returns Stradivarius

This is from the New York Times, by Richard G. Jones, spliced a bit by me:

On April 21, Philippe Quint, a Grammy-nominated classical violinist, accidentally left a Stradivarius violin, valued at $4 million, in the back seat of a cab that he took from the airport to Manhattan on his return from a performance in Dallas. After several frantic hours, the Newark police told him the violin had been found and was at the airport taxi stand with the cabdriver who had taken him home. The two connected, and the violin was returned.

The city of Newark awarded Mr. Khalil, who has driven a taxi here since 1985, a Medallion, its highest honor. Mr. Quint gave him a $100 tip when the violin was returned, but he wanted to do more, so he arranged for Tuesday’s concert for about 50 cab drivers in a parking-lot-turned-theater outside Newark Liberty International Airport.

“Anybody out here would have done the same thing,” said the driver, Mohammed Khalil, waving a hand at his laughing, dancing colleagues.

To learn what’s going on in the world, I usually shun “fluff” articles like this one. Anecdotes that illustrate larger trends are useful, but feel-good human interest stories are too small-scale and often irrelevant. It’s a total pet peeve when someone uses anecdotal evidence to prove a point (and they usually do so to prove a negative point.)

But whatever, this one totally got me. It doesn’t prove any larger point or give any real insight … except towards the realization that most of humanity is basically good, and honest. Wait until you’re in a bad mood, and then click here to read the whole article, and see if you don’t suddenly feel like the world isn’t that bad a place. And then there’s that twist in the last sentence, too!

Thursday, May 1, 2008


On September 11th, in the beginning days of a new century, an unprecedented event took place that changed the course of history. In Johannesburg, South Africa, in the old Empire Theatre, a full house of Indian South Africans stood up and vowed to disobey their country’s unjust racist laws. They took a solemn oath to do so without shedding a drop of their enemy’s blood, though they were prepared to sacrifice their own, “to die but not to submit to the law.” With that act, the diminutive thirty-six year-old lawyer standing onstage created satyagraha. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and the date was September 11th, 1906.

My fiancée and I saw Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha at the Met Monday. (If that sounds elitist, I’ll go bowling in Pennsylvania to make up for it.) The opera tells the story of Gandhi’s early activism in South Africa.

Gandhi crafted the word satyagraha, which refers to using peaceful resistance methods for political or social reform, to replace “nonviolence” and “passive resistance,” terms that many people who practice true nonviolence don't like. Why? Because nonviolence is a negative word, defining itself as the opposite of violence, e.g., not-violence. In reality, nonviolence is the active, positive force, while violence should be described as its negative corollary. Nonviolence also carries the stigma of passivity, but according to Gandhi, it is the most active force in the world. Simply not being violent is not practicing true nonviolence — I am not emulating Gandhi just because I refrained from attacking any passersby today. Practicing nonviolence is difficult, certainly harder than practicing violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.” That is why Gandhi described satyagraha as active nonviolence. Satyagraha can be translated as “truth-force,” although Gandhi also described it as “holding to truth,” “pursuing truth,” and “direct action for truth.” He defined the three core principles of satyagraha as truth and fairness, refusal to harm others, and the willingness for self-sacrifice.

Gandhi found that violence sometimes works in the short term, but never in the long term. Sometimes violence quickly solves a problem, only to breed resentment that rears its head with more, and often greater, violence. On the other hand, nonviolence always wins out in the long term, and often brings short-term gains as well. And even in cases when nonviolence does not solve an immediate problem, it causes no harm and sows seeds of peace that are guaranteed to sprout later. As social critic Theodore Roszak wisely put it, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t ‘work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” Gandhi learned that the anticipated end of any problem, and the means for achieving it, couldn’t contradict each other. To build a permanently peaceful society, only peaceful methods are effective.

I consider Gandhi to be a scientist who discovered the new field of satyagraha. As he fully admitted, he only scratched the surface of the techniques and power available. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by Gandhi and built on his work to innovate new methods used in local campaigns. “The whole concept of satyāgraha . . . was profoundly significant to me. . . .It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.”

The opera ended with a powerful scene that featured Gandhi and Dr. King on stage together. Gandhi walked on the ground belting out the meditative music, with Dr. King preaching at a podium in the air, seemingly grabbing the music and realizing further dreams with it.