The end of mimesis

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I’m entering my ninth month here in Kyrgyzstan, and it feels as though the pangs of a new birth are imminent. A woman in blue, whose penchant is more for seasonal analogies, likens my present moment to the end of winter and the start of spring. Yet, whatever the rhetorical figure used, the situation seems to be that the many gambles I took coming here, to the heart of the vast Eurasian landmass, appear to be paying off.

Professional, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual opportunities are appearing that, I firmly believe, simply would not have manifested in the West. As I told everyone what I hoped would happen, by the grace of God, I am working around the system, and best of all, finding the various ways I can make my unique contributions to the future. And I’m finding my way through the dust and murk not in any trailblazing, groundbreaking manner, just in a way, my way. And that’s really the issue I want to explore here, in my first post after several months.

What provoked me to finally write something, though, were not just particular landmarks along my journey heretofore, but a concern over the manner in which the journey has been embarked upon so far — a concern, in truth, that is really for the manner in which the journey shall be embarked upon going forward. This, however, is the microscopic concern; the macroscopic concern is also about the human journey, not just where we are going as a species and why, but how. Half-way through my thirty-second year, I am speeding away from my odd Belgian period of re-teenagedom, while, as it is often said in the Bahá’í scriptures, humanity is hurtling out from its adolescence. In the dawning adulthood to come, what kind of man shall I be, and which Mankind shall we be?

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The compass

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Today is the fifth anniversary of my decision to join the Bahá’í Faith. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been learning the importance of setting deadlines, particularly when significant life choices are at stake. Five years ago, I had given myself the deadline of today to determine whether this religion and I truly fit together. I reckoned that by now, if there had been a serious problem with the religion or its community, or to wit, with me in this religion and its community, it would have appeared. I’m happy to report that no “deal-breaking” issues have manifested themselves; there have been challenges, yes, but nothing insurmountable, nothing to give me reason to pause and doubt whether I had made the right decision. I’m still in, and moreover, I still want to be in.

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NOVELLASIA: A New Fiction-Writing Competition for Central Asia

I’m proud to be one of the masterminds behind this. ;)

NewEurasia Citizen Media announces «Novellasia», a new fiction competition for Central Asia. The purpose of this competition is to help raise the profile of the region’s literary talents, both young and old, new and established.

We welcome writers who are citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The writers may be never-before-published amateurs or well-established professionals, including bloggers, journalists, novelists, etc.

There is no age or gender limit, but contestants will be required to submit proof of Central Asian citizenship. The submissions themselves may take any form: journal-style, collections of short stories, novellas (short novels), etc. However, they must always be original works of fiction.

At the conclusion of the competition, 5 winners will be selected. They will receive cash prizes of 300 Euros each and their submissions will be translated into English and published on the NewEurasia website as “blog-novels”, meaning the content will be subdivided into series of blog posts. There will also be e-book formats of their submissions in English and the original language of their submission.

All other contestants will also be published, but only after the winners have been published, and only in the original language of their submission.

Rules

  • Submissions must be original works of fiction. They must not have been published anywhere else, or under consideration for publication.
  • Submissions must be no shorter than 30 type-written A4 pages and no longer than 100 type-written A4 pages. They must also be sent as MS Word docs, not pdfs or rtfs. If the work has audiovisual content or other special issues, please confer with NewEurasia before submitting.
  • Works must be submitted before April 1, 2014 to competition@neweurasia.net. (You may also write to this e-mail to request information.)

The winners will be announced on May 1, 2014.

«Novellasia» is supported by HIVOS foundation (Netherlands)

The christening frost (of winter, photography, and philosophy)

Kyrgyzstan has entered a sort of season within a season, called “Крещенские морозы” (Kreshchenskiye morozy), the “christening frost”. Devout Russian Christians perform a baptismal rite during this period, carving crosses into frozen lakes and rivers into which they plunge themselves. And indeed, the whole interior of Eurasia seems to have been bathed in cold white.

I don’t hide from the fact that I’m very much an amateur photographer. Nonetheless, I try to push my limited aptitudes for the sake of something rather, let’s say “concretely abstract”: to simultaneously reveal to my audience and understand for myself how the world is philosophically communicative. Significance is everywhere; deeper, higher meaning is encoded within the very empirical flesh of the universe. And insofar that humanity represents a universe within a universe, studying the interaction between the natural and the artificial can be particularly illuminating.

I’m inspired by cinematographers like Sean Bobbit and Vadim Yusov, who (depending on the film, of course) have a remarkable ability to simply dwell upon an image, giving it time to communicate various complexities to the viewer. Of course, I’ve nothing of the artistic skill or technological resources to come anywhere near their work, but I nonetheless like to emulate them in my own shoddy way. From what I’ve learned so far, a lot of the key to their success is simply knowing how to frame a shot, acquire perspective, and allow things to be.

I suppose in the image I find the patience for contemplation that, ironically, I haven’t been able or willing to find in academic philosophy. Perhaps it’s because academic philosophy, for all its desire to be contemplative, too often dissolves into contention and competition, of puffed-up (usually male) egos needing to crush phantom-opponents to demonstrate their superiority. But all the arcana and feigned transcendence really just hides an animalism infecting one of the most human of endeavors. And I suppose that having been confronted with it — not to mention having read way too much French phenomenology and having worked too many years as a worldly journalist — I instinctively want to invert the reaction: I want the world to be the space of my contemplation, not the nether realm of bodiless, riskless ideas.

Anyway, because I find Bishkek to be particularly provocative in this regard, I’ve made it my training ground of sorts. My first stab was back in August/September 2011, with my photo-essay “Bishkek in Ruins“, which I hope to follow up with a new series in the next month or so (also exploring the concept of “ruination”, but from a different angle).

So, here are a few videos and photographs which could perhaps be boiled down to “the sights and sounds of a very interesting de-industrial/re-naturalizing/post-communist/trans-ideological/Slavo-Turko-Mongolic metropol in the grips of a rather sloppily wet winter”, given with my little initial comments to give a sense of the living, dying, mutating Bishkek that I see… [I've re-edited this post and removed two paragraphs, which I want to use in a later reflection; best to focus here. So, please click "Continue Reading" to see the photographs.] Continue reading

A rusted metal spring

оймо03When, after two years of exertion trying to come here, I finally returned to Kyrgyzstan this past October, I had a reveré during my second evening. I found myself among throngs of young men streaming through the streets of Bishkek — the revolutions? or something still to come? — and there you were, dancing amidst them, rejoiceful and oblivious to the upheaval around you.

How have you, in my mind, become connected to this country? Two years after you left this world, I had thought that I had let you go, not just my pain and anger about what you had done, but you, yourself — the echo of you within. Then three years later, I was beseeching your assistance to bring me here; and now, four years later, I’m finally here. Perhaps it’s like the experience of a devout supplicant kneeling before an Orthodox icon, your image is alive for me, and its meaning has gradually shifted as time goes forward.

So, yes, now I’m here, and somehow, so are you. I had a little relic from the railroad that I was supposed to bring here with me, to plant in the dry, dusty mountain soil. It was a chunk of a rusted metal spring, broken at either end. It was big enough to fit in one’s palm, probably snapped off a train.

Somehow, this devastated spring signified you: the spiral of the eternal dancer. And somehow, it seemed to signify both closure and beginning: a seed to be planted in the soil of time, an edelweiss to sprout, grow, and bloom upon the eternal mountain slopes, where it would eventually whither from the cold blasts of cosmic wind, then surrender itself to a cycle turning, always turning, turning, turning.

Then, in my last days in Belgium, I packed the spring in a box, to be stored until some future day. I’m not sure whether it was the forgetfulness of haste or somehow more purposeful, but whatever the truth, I left that relic of you behind.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter. For I feel that you have come along with me anyway — or that you were waiting here all along. Or perhaps not “here”, not the physical here, as much as the here within me, that strange inner place, where thirsts trickle forth and inexplicable passions can finally drink deep.

First snow, first birthday

220px-National_emblem_of_Kyrgyzstan.svgToday was my sixth birthday far from home, but my first in Kyrgyzstan. To celebrate, Bishkek has donned a cloak of the winter’s first snow. Above is a crystal blue sky, and everywhere wet white co-mingling with lingering autumnal golds and crimsons. I can see why the Kyrgyz made көк (blue, but “асмандай”, sky-like or azure) and ак (white, but “кардай”, snow-like and brilliantly pure) the colors of their national seal, and why it appears so often in their various оймолор (symbolic tribal patterns).

I decided not to spend the day just “about myself”, so I shared the morning talking ideas and the future of Kyrgyzstan with two very interesting philosophy students (one of whom, like me, doubles as a journalist!); then I shared the early afternoon with a wonderful woman in blue strolling Erkendik boulevard, and then the late afternoon via Skype with a dear colleague; and then finally, I shared the evening with Begenas Sartov* over a bowl of Uighur-style лагман. [Update: And then my roommates surprised me with an early morning birthday cake!]

Ah, to my readers who’ve never been here: it’s hard to describe just how beautiful the day has been, not just externally, with the crisp, chilled air and the gentle, mountainous colors, but also internally, with the calm, cool breezes of the soul, and the good company of friends and noble ideas. I want some of you, in America, in Belgium, in Britain, in Italy, and everywhere else, to come here, even for just a day, to see with your own eyes why, at least in this very moment, I’m so glad that the Divine has led me here.

* Sartov was the Kyrgyz people’s first science fiction author [he was the Kyrgyz people's first successful science fiction author; the crown of first-ever Kyrgyz science fiction author apparently rests upon the head of one Kusein or Kuseyin Esenkojoev**], who explored the interaction between tradition and modernity in his work. He is famous here for penning the novella, Мамыры Гулдөн Маалда, about a Soviet-educated shepherd and an extraterrestrial who are both vying for possession of a mystical flower in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The novella has been recently translated into English as When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish, although I think the proper name of the flower in Kyrgyz is actually, “ой-кайндан”, [the proper name is indeed мамыры гул] a flow which the characters often refer to as, “тоо мамыры” (“soul of the mountain”).

** To learn more about Kyrgyz science fiction, check out this blog post (in original Russian or translated through Google).

Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында

Салмоор ДЫЙКАНОВ, коомдук ишмер

I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).

I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.

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I have seen tomorrow, and it looks like Kazakhstan

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Last week, I returned to Almaty for the first time in two years. It was a powerful experience, not because of anything new, but rather, because of things old: as a New Yorker, I feel natural in Almaty. This is a city I know, not in a concrete way — this or that street, these or those cliques, etc. — but in my bones. This is a city that I could have been born in. And that’s actually troubling.

As is well-known, Kazakhstan has been ruled by its Soviet-era president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ever since its independence over twenty years ago. Nazarbayev is now approaching the end of his life; even if he were to live long enough to be a modern-day Rameses II, doubtlessly the extent to which he will be able to exert his will over the Kazakh state will soon begin to diminish. The question on everyone’s minds in Almaty is: what will come next?

The answer to the question depends on one’s political hermeneutics. Here’s my answer: the country will gradually, probably sooner rather than later, transition into a form of elite-driven presidential democracy, in which citizens will have the possibility (perhaps initially via plebiscite within the dominant Nur-Otan Party and then eventually through a two- or three-party system) of choosing as their president this or that member of the ruling class. The parliament may or may not gain more power, but whichever happens, for at least a generation or more to come, it will be under the careful tutelage of the office of the presidency (and if not directly, then indirectly).

The irony is, this system which Nazarbayev has engendered will greatly resemble, almost as though it were a satirical comment upon, the present system of the United States of America.

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Taking off the masks

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Мен сени жееейм азыр! Tonight is All Hallow’s Eve, possibly my favorite holiday of the Western calendar. After the American tradition of Halloween, I’ve taken to calling it the “time” or “season of masks”. The idea, though, is not that this is a period when truths are hidden, but rather, and ironically, when they are revealed.

I’m currently living with a group of American University students. They’re a very interesting bunch: a pair of rather electric Uighur brothers from the Karakol area; a Kyrgyz fellow from the Bishkek area who puts on the airs of a businessman but who, I can immediately intuit, is a complex soul beneath the surface; and a very friendly Kazakh with a very somber disposition. They are all deep-feeling young men, still trying to find themselves, at an earlier stage in the same journey that I’m upon.

Needless to say, I like these guys. We need a bigger fridge, and they need better eating habits, but I’m glad my first home in Kyrgyzstan is with them. I steal whatever opportunities I can to get to know them (although sometimes I miss a chance, e.g., right now they are at a party, and I’m just not the partying type). Certainly, being exposed to their diversity is good for me, a continual reminder that Kyrgyzstan is not just Kyrgyz (and even the Kyrgyz are not just Kyrgyz!).

One of the Uighur brothers, Alisher, strikes me as an unusually spiritually-perceptive young man. In the short time I’ve known him, he represents to me all that is right with Turkic Islam: openness, transparency, softness, a desire to be optimistic, a lack of formality, balance and submission but without resent or fatalism, and most of all, a fundamental sense of the unity of all things. One might say that it is Tengri with the face of Allah, or that it is the essence of Islam in general, which perhaps the Turkic peoples grok more regularly than most other Islamic peoples.

Whatever the case, what has impressed me isn’t whether his outlook is Turkic or Islamic; no, what’s impressed me is his outlook itself.

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Kyrgyzstan versus Belgium [perpetually updated]

2010706-kyrgyzstan-april-coup We find comparison lists all the time on the Internet, but I never thought to make one of my own. Well, it’s been almost one month since my relocation to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured, Why not try my own hand at it? And so, without further ado, here’s a comparison between Kyrgyzstan and another obscure society I happen to know somewhat well… Belgium!

BelgiumThis is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek and decidedly not spiritually-inclined list, so take it as you will. It may or may not always induce a chuckle, especially at the start. And indeed, recognizing that, to a large degree, this is an exercisn id stereotyping; and moreover recognizing that, as an American, I’m a visitor to both of these societies, I welcome any additions, corrections, rejoinders, etc. So, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

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The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

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Choosing Kyrgyz

Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).

Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.

When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.

As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.

I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.

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A Gagarin moment on the human frontier

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A beautiful Azeri woman who, alas but not unexpectedly, is quite married, remarked to me the other evening that I’m in the positions of being a “pioneer” in several senses. To begin with, there is the specifically Bahá’í sense of leaving one’s homeland to help the Cause far away, whether that be to strengthen an existing but struggling Bahá’í community, or to get a new one going.

A Bahá’í Pioneer could be mistaken as a kind of missionary, but in fact it’s more akin, as a Flemish friend of mine pointed out shortly before I left Belgium, that it’s more akin to the Social Democrat or Communist activist of a century ago: Bahá’ís in general, and Pioneers in particular, are not really converters, but builders. We’re ground-pounders, agents of a future civilization. Comrade! Have you heard of the Revolution? No? Well, it’s happening, and you can join it too…

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The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

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Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

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Peeping through the keyhole of the world

Magritte The Happy Donor (1966)

“Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favour and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In a few days, I’m leaving Belgium, quite possibly for good. I’ve bought a one-way ticket to Kyrgyzstan, with no certainty as to whether I’ll be staying in that country for a while, and very little sense of what I’m going to concretely do when I get there. Sure, there’s my journalistic work; sure, there’s the infinite task of continuing to develop expertise on a region; and sure, there’s the luster of the new, the hope that perhaps the grass really is greener on the other side, and that opportunities which evaded me in my homeland or in Europe may finally appear in an even more foreign adventure. But the truth is, I don’t really have a plan.

All I can really say with certainty is: I feel that I’m being called to take the gamble, and heeding that call is what matters, not whatever may – or may not – ensue by heeding it. I’m in a very different state of mind than when I left the United States for Europe over four years ago. In Belgium, I’ve passed through a weird period of, let’s call it re-adolescence; I’ve emerged with a firmer faith, more resiliency, not a few face-slaps of humility, and a measure of patience and liberty, if fleeting, from the chains of doubt.

I’m not expecting Central Asia to be a utopia or even a dystopia. I know that I’m running headlong into a region rampant with self-defeating behaviors, ranging from cops eying for bribes to governments not above invasion and torture to exert their will. But I also know I’m going to be among nations who laugh with their eyes and hearts rather than their lips, peoples who know what despair and joy really feel like, rather than just look like. So, instead of wringing my hands in preemptive despair, I’m detached: I will try to find out who the people are and what the land is, and focus simply upon heeding the call.

What, then, do I take away from my time in Belgium?

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The coming Global War on Hacking?

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I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

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So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?

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None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.

Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.

With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.

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The political-theological shadow of Maslow: “I have desired only what Thou didst desire”

Abaraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, often portrayed as a pyramid with the more basic material needs at the bottom, haunts much of the contemporary discourse in both religion and political science (and, perhaps, long before Maslow articulated it, the pyramid has been in the backs of everyone’s minds since time immemorial). In simplest terms, for the political, democracy and liberty can easily be undermined by a careful calculation of keeping the majority of society on the brink of physiological and psychological starvation. The religious almost seem to tacitly agree, as they counter-act by either outright denying the importance of the pyramid’s bottom tier (asceticism), sharply separating the apex from the lower tiers (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”), or asserting the apex’s dictatorship over the lower tiers (fundamentalism, theocracy). However, Maslow’s shadow is much more intricate and dark.

My friend Maarten, a student and aspiring activist in peace and conflict studies, and I share what could be called a Maslowian obsession, mine religious, his political: the relationship, and often conflict, between body and soul, this world and the next, or put another way, resources and rights, stability and liberty. At root, it is really about, both individually or collectively, the clash of desires, heteronomy’s limits upon self-actualization and self-determination, and the struggle with contingency. We’ve been thinking about these issues as they appear under the light of material crisis — such as the one going on right now in the Great Recession and the deepening of the neo-liberal order — when history very much casts entire swathes of human beings into the seeming positions of winner and loser, successful and failure, celebrated and forgotten, survival or extinction.

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Wait for the wheel (II)

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The wheel has turned once more; the fasting is done, the samovars are heated, the tea is served. Naw-Rúz has quietly returned. Today is a holiday older than memory, signifying the cosmic cycle of seasons; the eternal struggle of light and dark; the lesson that must always be re-learned at ever-subtler hermeneutical depths, as we sift through the alluvium of meaning upon the banks of an enigmatic river.

This was the first cycle since becoming a Bahá’í that I performed the full fast: that is, getting up before sunrise to eat, abstaining from food and drink, etc. In previous cycles, I ate bread and water at set times; insomnia made arising so early an impossible challenge; and solitude, wrought by a lack of like-minded colleagues, was disheartening company for the journey. Understandably, I dreaded the coming of the fast this year — but this cycle around proved different. This cycle, I had company, as well as a determination, spurred on by close friends, to step beyond doubt and foreboding to try.

I was always perplexed by my fellow Bahá’ís, who every February would anticipate the fast with excitement, and then seemed so happy to be starving themselves. Now I see why. The air has been thick with providence, and every other day the earth shook with unforeseen encounters and conversations. New insights seemed to creep around every corner. A few of the things I’ve learned, some quotidian, some esoteric, some harsh, some I needed to be reminded about, some that should not have been so surprising:

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