Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thoughts on extremism - via Qasim Rashid

I just finished a new book by Qasim Rashid, The Wrong Kind of Muslim. And while Mr. Rashid urged his readers at the end to share the story with others, I would have written this brief essay regardless.

Mr. Rashid is an Ahmadi Muslim and he writes of the experiences both of himself as well as a brief history of the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims, specifically in his birth nation of Pakistan. Frankly, prior to my reading of this book (which I found at the local library and picked up just because I found the title to be interesting), I knew of the two main sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia) and the battles that exist between them but not much more beyond that. I am familiar with the basics of Islamic teaching and have had very interesting conversations with several Muslim friends, including the Imam of a mosque in Georgia years ago, but this book was a bit of an eye-opener. And not in a particularly positive way - though Mr. Rashid strives to be as positive as he can in his personal outlook.

He details some of the horrific crimes - and they are indeed crimes regardless of how they may be viewed by Sunni Muslims in Pakistan - committed against not just Ahmadis but against any minority in Pakistan. The stories are particularly gripping and stay with the reader. The belief that perseverance against such oppression and aggression is a positive but it seems almost futile in some ways. He offers some comparison to the civil rights movement in America but I feel that is shallow and not entirely valid based on the differences between the two nations from political, cultural and religious viewpoints. I would like to believe that his positive faith in human nature will be rewarded but I fear that the more likely result is a worsening of the situation - perhaps something akin to Somalia in the 1990's - rather than a non-violent belief and push for improvement.

Something else to point out is a book should not be judged by its cover. While I found the title to be intriguing enough to pick it up and read it, I did attract some odd looks from people who saw me carrying the book. I live in the US and there is a pervasive negative view of Muslims (regardless of sect) among a segment of the population. On more than one occasion I tried to explain that while the issues may be specific to adherents of Islam, its lessons were not limited to just that. The key underlying point here lies in the understanding that extremism is not limited to any one religion, culture, nation or any other grouping. In this, Mr. Rashid is spot on and more can (and should!) learn from this point. In the US, we have extremists of many different varieties. I do not agree with most of them but I have the right to disagree (much the same way that they have the right to express those extremist views so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others) - something that is not enjoyed in Pakistan based on Mr. Rashid's observations and experience. But we must take advantage of the right to express that disagreement so that narrow-minded, extremist views do not pervade the responsible mainstream!

Knowledge is power - another key point of Mr. Rashid's and one with which I fully agree. The more we know, the better we can and will be. Extremism, unfortunately, often devolves to the lowest common denominator among its followers. It abhors knowledge outside of its own limited realm and therefore will work hard to punish, abuse, or demonize it so that it cannot take root. But when extremism is allowed to do so, the result will be as predictable as what Mr. Rashid has described in his book. I highly recommend you read it in order to gain a better understanding of what can become if we choose to continue to ignore it.

Random end of year musing

It's the end of another year and I have still tried to keep up with this blog. Granted, it's taken a bit of a hit lately as I've seemingly not had the desire to write here at the same times I've actually had the time to do so (that sounds redundant, doesn't it?). I actually have a blog post that I set aside back in October on something that struck my fancy but it is still sitting in my inbox doing nobody any good at this point. Hopefully I'll be able to finish it up and post it here soon. Fingers crossed, anyway...

For those who actually do read this blog, I should like to point out that I have not abandoned writing altogether at the end of this year. Indeed, I have actually done a fair amount of writing lately, just not here. But for the year (up until the end of October or so), I averaged at least a couple of posts between here and my professional blog - which is kept completely separate from  here for my own reasons. At the end of October, I was able to really kick onto paper the beginning of what I hope to be a decent book idea that I've been pushing around in my head, seeking the best way to open the story. It finally hit me and I was able to finally get it onto paper (thanks, in part, to a wonderful writing class I took around the same time). And when work and home life affords me the opportunity, I take a bit of time to add more to the story. The ideas still bounce around a great deal in my mind but the biggest key is getting them onto paper and, for that, I am most pleased with the progress. It's slow but it's a beginning. Each step simply takes me closer to the end of the story - or at least a decent stopping point.

I will try not to neglect this blog quite so much but we'll see how things progress. The one thing in its favor is my ADD tendencies to switch focus on different subjects at the drop of a hat - so switching gears from book to professional to personal blog will hopefully not be such a challenge. And, let's face it, the only way to ensure that I can improve my writing skills is to continue to use them. So hopefully there will be more here to say in the upcoming year.

I set no goals publicly, though. I have my own thoughts on what I hope to accomplish but I have to accept that life will throw things in the way and I cannot account for them so public goals will simply be subsumed to my personal goals in this regard. Hopefully I will be successful at them. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Musings on language and semantics

Nutritional Death

Two words that would not ordinarily be sitting next to each other in a sentence. Except in China, apparently, as it pertains to the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and revisionist history. But, before I get to the main point of this post, let's just say that the idea of using the term "nutritional death" to describe those who died as a result of the GLF is outrageous. They starved because of the irrational policies of a national government that sought to create radical change to enhance and bolster itself. If millions (whether you accept the 2.5 million put forth by the creator of "nutritional death" or the more commonly accepted tens of millions by the rest of the world) had to die as a result of those policies, they were just acceptable casualties. The fact that the records of this time have still not been publicly released for historical review should speak to the truth of the horrible consequences either way. Frankly, to suggest that "nutritional death" is an appropriate way of saying "starvation" is an incredible act of hubris.

Back to the point I want to cover, though, is the incredible use of language and how it can be used to convey different meanings and contexts. I am a lover of words (even if it occasionally seems I do not always use them in the best manner). I always find it fascinating how words can be put together to create new words with different meanings. I love to compare words from different languages to see how they match and how they are used within different contexts. They are fascinating exercises and it is a great way to learn more about the world and the people who inhabit it.

Words are what we use to express what we think, what we feel, what we believe and what we want - among other things. Words have a power to convey that no other form of communication can possess. Music and video are manners of communication but they are both limited to certain mediums. Art can transform but it, too, can only go so far. However, words can operate not only on their own but in all of the aforementioned mediums, as well. The power of the word is incredible and one that is often unappreciated by a majority - yet slickly used by a few to entertain, inspire, hurt or control.

Ask any politician the power of a word. In the American vernacular, what is the difference between a progressive and a liberal? How about a conservative or facist? Only the speaker when referring to members of one of the two main political parties. Ask any musician, particularly rappers, the power of a word. The music is often secondary to the power and the flow of the words used by the musician. A writer, whether it be a blogger, a poet, an author or someone simply detailing their lives in their diary, is helpless without words.

And when one considers words in only a single language, they fail to consider the complexity when multiple languages can be used. As one who lives in a multi-lingual household, I am always fascinated by the many varieties we use to express ourselves between languages, or even within them. Though we do not always think about it, our ability to speak Chinglish (or even Spanglish) works well for us because we can use words that make more sense in one language than the other(s). While others outside our home may not always follow the words, it works because we have established our own form of communication with words that enable us to convey what is needed. At the end of the day, is that not the end goal?

Though, to be fair, I will never use the words "nutritional death" to explain "starvation" no matter how much a government (or any other entity) thinks it is a rational expression.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Can we really save the world?

I'm sure most people (at least in the US) have experienced that phone call, or even series of phone calls, from various telemarketing organizations - usually at dinnertime. For a long time, my phone was unlisted and then added to the national Do Not Call Registry. However, what I did not know was that you have to renew your registration every so often. That was discovered recently when I started receiving those phone calls from various groups soliciting donations to their oh-so-worthy causes - usually around dinnertime. So I immediately went back and registered again with the Do Not Call list so as to stop them as it only took a few calls before I started to adopt a brusque response to anyone who dared to call and tried to guilt me into a donation - and that was when I even bothered to answer the phone.

Frankly, I think the solicitors must have been used-car salespeople in their former lives. They pushed for hard sells suggesting that I should absolutely consider donating to their charities as they were obviously assisting so many poor and disadvantaged. Additionally, they used names that revolved around things like the families of policemen slain in the line of duty and children with cancer. Now, these all sound like very fine causes and I am not averse to helping people who are suffering from these or any of the others that were soliciting my donations. However, I am loathe to do anything for a group that calls me out of the blue (particularly when I thought my number had been blocked) and starts their pitch by aggressively asking if I don't feel bad for the poor people upon whose behalf they are calling and wouldn't I like to donate some money to help them? Of course I should and would I please allow them to send me a donation card to my home address and then I can send them whatever I feel like? What next, should I give them my credit card number over the phone? Or maybe they can just send me an email with some official looking link to their oh-so-legitimate (and obviously oh-so-secure) website where I can donate money either from my credit card or bank account?

No, I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong. I actually want to do my part to help others in this world. I have been known to see people whose cars have died on them in the middle of the road and pull over so that I can help them to push their car off and then wait until a tow-truck or the police can arrive to assist them further (let's just say that personal experience taught me this is an awesome thing to do when someone - e.g. me - is stuck). I donate money to very specific charities that I have worked with for years - SmileTrain and the American Cancer Society are two that I feel very strongly about - and with whom I or people I care about have experience in the causes they champion. I donate time to charities that I feel strongly about. I receive a variety of solicitations from other organizations asking for assistance via snail and e-mail and judiciously choose those I can help and those that don't really have an impact on me, my family or community. But I cannot save the world and I do not wish to be guilted into thinking I can or should. If I feel strongly enough about it, I will do something about it. Calling to harass me and my family isn't going to make your cause look more attractive to me and encourage me to support those you propose to assist - especially in an age where there are so many fraudulent groups/individuals who seek to take advantage of the kindness of others (particularly in times of tragedy).

I am only one person and I want to help. But I also have limits. If I'm going to help save the world, then it'll happen one person at a time as I can. And not at dinnertime.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anonymous Comments

I happened to catch a blurb on the news this morning regarding the decision that the Huffington Post (a well-known news aggregator site) will soon be disallowing anonymous comments on its site. I saw this and an attempt to justify this decision as a push to create a more civilized discourse from another point of view since this is nothing new to China-watchers. After all, authorities in China have pushed for similar legislation for all China-based sites in an attempt to crack down on rampant online dissent. And I was not at all surprised to subsequently find that Chinese media have picked up on this piece of news. While this piece by Xinhua (the China Daily) did not actively take sides (at least in English, my Chinese is not good enough to read that version and it would not be surprising to read there was a different version in Chinese), it should not be at all surprising to note that the article only referenced the "positive" benefits of registering all users who wish to leave comments.

The underlying message being promoted by the Huffington Post (HP) is that this will promote a more civilized conversation and less trolling with the oft-accompanying threats and other negative commentary that can derail conversations on the internet. And, on its surface, this is a well-known problem not just on the HP but almost anywhere on the net where people are allowed to post whatever they want with the belief that they are relatively anonymous. (It is also worth noting here that I have suggested previously here and here that the idea of true anonymity on the internet is a false one but that is an argument for another day.) It is a real problem but is stripping away that anonymity the right answer? And, if so, why is it the right answer for a US-based site but not in China? Should this perceived anonymity only be available in countries or sites that are run by totalitarian governments? Do we believe that civility is something that can only be achieved by unmasking those who only say things when they feel they won't be held accountable otherwise? And do we really believe that the US government is truly benevolent in comparison to other countries (I suspect there are more than a few people who would find that idea preposterous in light of recent revelations over the scope of spying on US citizens communications by the National Security Agency) in how it governs?

This is not to suggest that the HP is right or wrong in taking this move. Clearly they feel they are taking this move to make their site better for a majority of their users. But there are always two sides to every argument and it would be wise to see what the potential consequences of such a far-reaching decision may have to chill conversation that may otherwise not be possible if the ability to remain relatively anonymous are stripped away.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Written Word

A few weeks ago, I attended a writing seminar offered by a local writers group. Despite my love and passion for writing, this was the first writing seminar I have ever attended. And it helped to kickstart me and my aspirations. I've never been a believer in these types of seminars in the past as they seem to me to be a forced effort and I don't like being forced into anything, let alone something that I feel so passionate about such as writing. But I found it was not entirely like what I had anticipated. Instead, it was a session wherein we were given a variety of topics over the course of 4 hours and asked to write about them for anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes - by hand!

Now, let me point out here that I tend to write all of my stories, articles and blog posts on my computer. The only time I really write anything by hand is when I'm writing poetry. Poetry seems to be very odd to do on a keyboard and I feel it is more elegant, for lack of a better term, when done by hand. But I haven't written anything other than poetry by hand in years - though everything I wrote when I was younger was done by hand (and I have the boxes of papers to prove it!). To me, it just seemed much easier and faster to type things as I tend to type fairly well and it helps when my mind is racing along a story path to be able to keep up. Writing by hand has been slower for me for many years and I've really fallen out of the practice.

However, at this seminar, I did not take my laptop and had to rely on handwriting. And after the first five minute exercise where I could only write up a single paragraph, my hand felt like it was cramping up on me. I wasn't sure that I could complete the remaining 3+ hours. However, I did persevere through a series of writing exercises and, by the final exercise, a 30 minute process, I produced two full pages worth of a pretty decent story that the mediator even commended as a decent effort.

More importantly, though, I was hooked on writing by hand again! Whereas writing on a computer is still faster for me and my computer has the nice ability to auto-correct my spelling (well, my typing since my spelling is usually pretty decent), I have re-discovered the joy of writing by hand. It may go slower but that allows me more time to really organize my thoughts and produce (what I feel is) a higher quality of writing. It forces me to consider what I am writing rather than just putting words to paper and then trying to go back later and sort them out via a random editing process. And considering how I feel about editing my own work, that is a huge plus.

At some point, I will have to go back and transfer my writing back onto a computer so that I can save what I have in an electronic format should I decide to seek publication (an eventual goal). But, for now, I am glad to return to what some would call a troglodyte methodology in a world that increasingly disdains anything done manually. To me, it is a more peaceful and fulfilling effort and one that I have found is allowing me to do things I enjoy again. And, at the end of the day, isn't that what is most important?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Inspiration

I love music. If there has been one constant to the events in my life it is that I tend to associate events and situations to music. For example, one time when I was being put under anesthesia prior to surgery, the doctors were playing "Our House" by Madness. That was the last song that I heard before I went out. Now, whenever I hear the song play, I am taken back to that moment immediately before surgery. It's neither a good nor a bad memory, simply a way for me to recall a given moment.

This comes in handy for me as I have a terrible memory. I often find myself unable to recall specific events or people, particularly if I have no music to relate to the situation. So I try to have music playing as often as I can in order to help facilitate a memory that can be recalled in the future. It does drive some to distraction, understandably so considering my eccentric tastes, but it is useful for me.

Beyond its capacity to assist my memories, though, I also find music to be incredibly uplifting and inspirational most of the time. Obviously, it does depend on the music and sometimes even the song, but music is more a form of poetry and I love poetry. Well, ok, to be more precise, I love to write poetry. I have a much harder time reading poetry. But music and the poetry often within is magical and provides me with feelings that life itself seems often unable to provide. Perhaps it is because I love words and the myriad ways they can be combined to convey thoughts and emotions. I sometimes wish I were equally skilled at words and could devote my time to them instead of spending my days as I do.

I guess that is a major reason for this blog - to be able to use words and practice my skills in a way that I am otherwise unable to do.

And, for the record, tonight's blog was inspired by Quincy Jones' Back on the Block album. A good blend of various styles ranging from rap to hip hop to soul. If you haven't heard it, you should give it a try.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Politics makes for inconsistencies

How hard is it to maintain a single political view? For example, the government was right to step in and enforce integration and racial equality (after denying it for so many years) back in the 60's. But should the government also be mandating emergency contraception for all females (regardless of age)? How does morality fall into that? It makes for strange politics at best and will seemingly always be inconsistent.

As some readers of this blog may have discovered, I am, among other things, an avid follower of politics and international relations, particularly as they relate to both the US and China. I find politics to be a fascinating process, if occasionally mystifying, sometimes unsavory and periodically perplexing. Looking even beyond what the politicians say and how they often seem to perform amazing mental and logical acrobatics to support positions that seem contrary to their stated views, the electorate who are most key to the process of politics are no less elastic in their own views and their votes. In some ways, I suppose that makes sense seeing as how the process seems to work in real life.

What should often be a straightforward, rational and logical process often ends up, much as math fractions reduced to their lowest common denominator, as something that in no way resembles anything approaching a straightforward, rational or even logical solution. The reason for this often seems to be a severe inconsistency that exists in how people rationalize their stated beliefs to fit within  the reality of their lives. This exists on both the individual level of the citizens as well as at a higher level within the various structures of government and its representatives.

These inconsistencies, of course, exist throughout every aspect of life but seem to be particularly pronounced within the political realm. Within the American political discourse, it is not unusual to see Democrats who argue passionately for increased government intrusion into the lives of individuals in order to benefit everyone simultaneously argue that government should stay out of women's bodies as it pertains to the argument of abortion. Similarly, Republicans who may struggle to make ends meet, often working in jobs with no form of protection from companies who unilaterally (and sometimes seemingly arbitrarily) will layoff workers with no form of recompense, will rail against unions that helped to establish many of the laws that protect workers today. These positions make little sense when observed from an objective point of view yet they are tightly held by their proponents who see no inconsistency in them.

When challenged, they will defend those positions and not see how they contradict their own lives or experiences. Or they will recognize it but refuse to admit it as it is easier to deny a truth than it is to accept that your views and your choices are inconsistent. Either way, it makes politics a difficult way of life. And while I may enjoy the study of politics, the practice of it often leaves me amazed and not a little dismayed at times. It is easy to sometimes see why so many people choose to ignore it altogether.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

We just can't see the end of the world...

Warning, I first started this post a week or two ago but am posting it as originally written. Sorry if it seems a bit dated:

No, I'm not referring to the new Brad Pitt movie opening this weekend, World War Z. That would be too easy. Besides, it's a zombie movie and I don't like zombie movies. Nor horror movies, for that matter.

No, I'm actually thinking about the issues tied to the US government essentially spying on its own people and the fascination that is focused more on the source of those leaks (one Edward Snowden) than on the issue he revealed. It has made me want to step back and pause for a bit before offering any comment here. And even then, I will try to keep my commentary short and reserved.

Mr. Snowden, despite the best efforts of journalist Glenn Greenwald to the contrary, is not necessarily a hero protecting the rights of US citizens. He committed a crime. He stole information from his employer (in this case, Booz Allen Hamilton and the US government) and then publicized it to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world has subsequently spent the last few weeks attempting to dissect his intentions. Frankly, that is a wasted effort. It is impossible to discern someone's true intentions. They may say one thing yet have something else that drives it. Heck, it is similar to attempting to determine the real reason that George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Once he committed the act, the reason became somewhat moot. The same holds here. Suggesting that Snowden here is a Chinese spy, a hero, a mercenary, a traitor or any of the other myriad reasons is really irrelevant at this point. All are probably true to some degree. And to suggest that his subsequent actions (such as now seeking asylum in Ecuador which, in 2012, received a partly free rating from Freedom House and is trending downward in that ranking scale) all validate his actions or that he has not changed since his thoughts and beliefs since he made headlines would be disingenuous at best. Regardless, the story has been focused on Mr. Snowden in an attempt to paint him as his supporters or detractors wish to paint him.

What has escaped much of the scrutiny have been the actions he revealed on the part of the US government. And surely it is no surprise that the government has worked very strenuously to keep his name in the headlines - in a very negative light in the (perhaps vain?) hope that it will not look so bad in comparison. Yes, at this point, the actions of the US government under the auspices of President Obama should be highlighted and yet they are not. A man who sought the presidency back in 2008 promising change and greater transparency has instead not only left the tools and mechanisms created by his predecessor (while promising to find ways to remove them on the rare occasions when challenged about them) but also sought to limit the rights of citizens to know what his administration is doing. As noted in many journalistic outlets, the Obama administration has worked hard to silence and prevent leaks, aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers and even going so far as to monitor journalists in trying to find those who are leaking information. Instead of the transparency promised by the president, it seems that it has gone to extremes in the other direction. And this is a problem because it sublimates issues such as the one Mr. Snowden has brought to light. Instead of the issues Mr. Snowden brought to light being addressed clearly and openly, the focus has been switched instead to the man himself. And we, the people, are too easily fooled to recognize it.

Americans have always believed that their nation is a great one and have believed in (and cherished) the ideals for which it stood. But today, instead of continuing to work hard to make their country great, they stand idly by while their government grows more into the tyranny that their forefathers fought against generations ago. They do not see where the changes taking place within the government are simply one large step in a very wrong direction and they do not care to know what the likely consequences will be. They are accustomed to others doing their thinking and their work for them and fewer are able and willing to step up to the line to continue the traditions that once made America great. Freedom and liberty are not just words or even ideals but a way of life that was previously unknown in the form once made accessible by the United States of America. We can only hope that way of life will not disappear again under the treacherous idea of "security".


Friday, May 24, 2013

Waxing Phisophic

I should preface this entry by pointing out that I actually had to go look up "philosophic" just to be sure it was a legit word and not just me making it up. I must be smarter than I think since it is. :-)

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/philosophic?s=t

I know I haven't written anything on this site in more than a month which is longer than I want to go here. But I can say that I have been doing other writing in the meantime. I wrote up a nice post on my professional blog that actually generated quite a few hits and comments and am quite proud of it. And I've also recently acquired a new notebook and have been trying to do some more writing by hand. I know, that means I'm likely the only one who'll actually see it in most cases but that's ok. That was how I started writing and sometimes it is nice to return to the basics.

It's funny, but I recently came across a collection of my written works, stories and poetry, done ever since I was in middle school from what I can tell. It's not like I've always dated my work. But it's always interesting to go back and see what you've done in the past and be able to compare it to the present. You can see where you have grown in some ways and where things have changed in your perspective and outlook on life. So it was with what I found in my collection. I only had time to go through a small portion of the work but it will give me a fair amount of things to consider and perhaps some inspiration to make some changes to how I live today and perhaps take on a simpler attitude. At the very least, it will make for some very interesting reading.

Thinking of writing has also caused me to start to look for good writing material. Over the last few years, I have not done nearly as much as I would like and I realize that it is, in part, due to the fact that I no longer carry a notebook with me wherever I go. This was my habit for many years and I kept a variety of information in my notebooks. In a way, those notebooks and random slips of paper were the closest thing I ever kept to a diary. But I do not want to just grab any old notebook and start writing in there. I want to find a nice, leather-bound notebook that will serve as a more lasting memorial to my random musings, poetry and prose. And, since I'm writing about them right now, I just found something that may work (and is comparatively cheap since some of the others I saw are several hundred dollars). I think that will be my Father's Day gift to myself.

Of course, that does not mean I'll abandon this. But since this site covers a random variety of subjects and none of my poetry, then I think there'll be enough random thoughts to spread around everywhere.

Enough melancholy for one day. Tomorrow is a new day.