The New Revolution: Habermas’ Public Sphere & Social Networking in the Middle East

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics over forty years ago. Things have changed. The revolution is being televised.

It has been fascinating to watch the events in the Middle East unfold over the past week. Of particular interest to me is the revolution within the revolution. Up to now, with the exception of this blog, I have done my best to ignore the social networking phenomenon. I have a number of reasons, which I may go into in some future post, but this week I found myself somewhat in awe of it.

Social media has been one of the driving forces behind the uprisings, so much so that it’s prompted many commentators, such as former Mideast negotiator and Ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, Martin Indyk, to make statements such as, “You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution.” Speaking on this week’s Meet The Press, Indyk, now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, added,  “And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.”

I don’t know if that is overstating things or not. But this new revolution is certainly changing the face of revolution.

Some years ago, German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of the “public sphere,” a space in which groups and individuals could come together to engage in discussions over matters of mutual interest.  This space within social life is separate from, yet not unconnected to, the private sphere and the “Sphere of Public Authority” or the state. Habermas maintains that one of the main functions of the public sphere is to support discourses critical of the Public Authority.

However, Habermas predicted the demise of this public sphere, and I can’t help but wonder if in considering the rise of the internet and social media whether or not he has revised his thinking. Habermas said that the demise of the public sphere is inevitable because eventually advertising replaces news and media becomes a tool of the state, thus the public sphere ceases to function in the manner originally intended. It’s true that in capitalist societies nearly everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and sold, and that in dictatorships, everything becomes a tool for totalitarian rule. However, what we have seen this week suggests that the public sphere which is social networking may be inherently resistant to any attempt to co-op or destroy it.

Is this, then, an indestructible public sphere? Consider this: On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world. Mubarak’s government then reacted by shutting down access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet access from the country’s four major internet providers was blocked. And yet, Egyptians have been finding ways to break through.

We Rebuild” is a group that has been using landline phones, fax machines and ham radio to get messages out of the country. They’ve also been breaking the blockade by calling numbers that connect to modems available in other countries which provide access to the outside world. The “We Rebuild” group established a connection in Sweden through dial-up and an activist in the group wrote on Twitter: “When countries block, we evolve.”

Some people have used services like Tor, which reroutes a user’s traffic through a network of volunteers’ computers around the world, making it impossible to trace. Others are using Hotspot Shield, software that secures Web surfing sessions. And there have been reports of satellite modems and phones entering Egypt in order to circumvent government controlled telecommunication companies.

The rise of social media is hardly news. However, I haven’t given it much credence until now. Naturally, a debate has already begun about the actual role social media is playing. I tend to think it is significant. Mathew Ingram writes about this debate over at Gigacom, and I agree with his point that “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

Of course, there is no question that the real fuel for this week’s events is a suppressed peoples desire to have freedom.  Here, too, I think we are seeing the impact of social media. For the first time, people around the world can get a taste of what real freedom is like, freedom of expression, as social networking opens up avenues for them to express themselves without the need to go into a physical public square, and as we have seen, it is a powerful tool for pulling people into that physical space when the time comes.

Once people get a taste of freedom, they often become insatiable.

One final note, as much as I would love for the US government to denounce Mubarak as a dictator and get out of the dictator-supporting business once and for all, I know it is not that simple or easy. I remember very well supporting the uprising in Iran against the Shah in 1979 and we all know how that turned out. There are many reasons why the US needs to tread carefully, not the least is that who governs Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to decide for themselves. Middle East peace has many underpinnings and they are all interconnected. Please resist the temptation to look at the situation in black and white and try to see the deep complexity underneath.


The Challenge of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a comfort zone. It’s a challenge.

First, let us consider what mindfulness, that is, sitting in meditation does. Numerous studies have shown there are tangible benefits to be gained from meditation. The most recent one will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. MRI images were taken of the brains of volunteers two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  MRI scans of a control group of people who did not participate in the course were also analyzed.

You can read the details here at Science Daily, where Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author is quoted as saying,

Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

Specifically, the study found increase in the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) in participants and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. No increases were found in the control group.

That brain structure is changed by meditation may not exactly be proof of Dogen’s maxim that “sitting is enlightenment” (“practice and enlightenment are one”, shusho-ichinyo) but just sitting certainly has verifiable and substantial benefits. These studies only confirm what many persons have known for a long time. In 1954, some fifty-seven years ago, meditation master Yin Shih Tzu wrote in Tranquil Sitting,

Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this? Superficially, meditation looks easy, but if you practice without patience, determination, and a long-term sense of devotion, you will never realize its benefits.

Yin Shih Tzu alludes to the first two challenges of mindfulness. One, is simply to do it. Actually, meditation doesn’t always look easy. I can think of any number of activities that require less effort and concentration. The second challenge is to keep doing it. Not so easy either. Perhaps it is not everyone’s experience, but for me, maintaining a regular practice has at times been a real struggle.

However, the biggest challenge is to carry mindfulness in our daily life. It’s one thing to be mindful while sitting or when engaged in some dharma activity. What really matters, though, is when we are in any one of the seeming infinite irritating, frustrating, patience-testing, humor-losing, anger-provoking situations we encounter almost daily.  That’s when mindfulness really counts.

As the study cited above shows, just sitting in meditation, by itself, can naturally produce changes that help us keep our cool in stressful situations, as well as improve our ability to focus and maintain attention to whatever we’re doing; still, some active discipline is required on our part. There’s that split-second, that flash of a moment, when we make a decision to react in either a positive, neutral, or negative way. I know from my own experience that no amount of time spent on the meditation mat can aid if you have not learned the basic art of controlling your mind and emotions. Meditation helps with that, too, and that why we sometimes call it “training the mind”, and yet in the end, it’s up to us.

In the SGI they used to say, and no doubt still do, “Buddhism equals daily life.” This is the prime point of Buddhist practice. Because it’s in daily life that we confront our sufferings head on. And so, daily life is where we must overcome those sufferings. Total mindfulness.  That’s what we’re after. Or, as close to that as we can get. Daunting. Awesome.

Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live.

Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness

It’s important that always we make the connection between sitting and day to day activities. Daily life is the real challenge of mindfulness, and if you are like me, perhaps you’ve found that it is also where we get some of the most profound and useful realizations.


Grab Bag + Guns

A follow up of sorts to yesterdays post, a look at another side to the situation in Burma. From the Seattle Times: As Myanmar politics ease, tourism grows.

This was sent in by Carl, a recent interview with Dan Reed, who was a popular musician that got to spend 2 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

From This Week: Self-immolation: A brief history

On a completely different note, Ellen sent in this from (imitating Mad Magazine since 1958), “6 Cats More Badass Than You (And Most Superheroes)”

This article from the Hindustan Times is short and I love the title: Be a lotus in life.

Hard to believe, but Clint Eastwood is 80. Don’t know why it’s hard to believe but it is. Anyway, this piece is rather long, but in it, Clint remarks on Buddhism and meditation.

I watched the state of the Union speech last night on MSNBC. Now, I like and support Barack Obama, but I have to say, I don’t care who you are, if you are going to speak for over an hour on nation-wide (hey, world-wide) television, you need to schedule some commercial breaks so that people can go to the bathroom. It just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

And what is with John Boehner? He always looks like he’s in pain. I’m thinking maybe, hemorrhoids?

After the speech, I watched some of the commentary. Chris Matthews said, “The music was unity.” Lawrence O’Donnell, who I just started watching recently, and who impresses me as a very smart guy, said something about the speech being so transcendent that he couldn’t figure out what it was about. Then he added, “In the end, Republicans should be happy, it [the speech] says very little.”

Perhaps the country needed a pep talk and a message of unity, but I think we also deserved a speech that had some meat. Something missing was the problem of guns. In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing issues we need to deal with, and has been for decades now. I would think that in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, the present moment would be the perfect time to have a discussion. Especially since those who will be doing most of the talking, and the deciding, should be on their best behavior for a while.

Avoiding the gun issue is a mistake. The message that I got from the President’s speech was that to win the future we need to grapple with these enduring issues. So when are we going to do something about guns? Every day that goes by where we allow people, young people especially, have easy access to dangerous weapons, we, as a country, as a society, are committing a form of murder.

In the Tao Te Ching, it says,

As for weapons – they are instruments of ill omen.
And among things there are those that hate them.
Therefore, the one who has the Way, with them does not dwell.
When the gentleman is at home, he honors the left;
When at war, he honors the right.
Therefore, weapons are not the instrument of the gentleman –
Weapons are instruments of ill omen.
When you have no choice but to use them, it’s best to remain tranquil and calm.
You should never look upon them as things of beauty.
If you see them as beautiful things – this is to delight in the killing of men.
And when you delight in the killing of men, you’ll not realize your goal in the land.

Some believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, but it’s also a fundamental problem. The United States accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1998. Between 1980 and 2006, America has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year. I can’t help but think of the line in Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.”

except from Chapter 31, Lao-Tsu Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Hendricks


Update on Aung San Suu Kyi and Net Neutrality

It’s been over two months since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It dawned on me that I hadn’t heard much about how she was faring, which I interpret as a good sign, and so I decided to check the world wide web and see.

According to the BBC, Suu Kyi “has obtained internet access . . . Technicians set up wireless broadband at her home after the military government authorised an internet connection.” Suu Kyi’s assistant has reported that she had not yet used her connection because the signal is too weak, and additionally, she has also been feeling a little too unwell to try the internet. Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi has never been online.

The military dictatorship in Burma, strictly controls internet connections and those who apply for internet service must not be involved in politics. The Indo-Asian news service reports that “Soon after her release from house arrest, the 65-year-old leader said that although she would apply for the internet permit, she would fill in the form saying that she would participate in politics.”

The Mizzima news agency has this: ‘The connection is a communication technology called McWill. But, the telephone has not been installed. With this connection, she will not be able to use voice (internet telephony). Only an internet connection has been installed. Although they told us to provide 1 MB, currently she has received 512 KB. They said they would extend the bandwidth later.  The internet installation cost at 560,000 kyat (about $560). Suu Kyi will apply for a mail4you e-mail account, which is a product of Yatanarpon Teleport and the only officially authorised e-mail account in Burma. The authorities have access to all passwords for mail4you e-mail accounts.”

In the United States, the internet is pretty much unrestricted. In this country, we do have a dictatorship, though, but it is not the government, despite what some would like to claim, it is “big business.” And for some time now, our unrestricted use of the internet has been threatened. What’s at stake is a principle called “net neutrality”, a principle applied to users access to the internet. Basically, it means that internet service providers should not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online. It’s meant to provide a level playing field for all web sites, users and providers.

But cable and telephone companies want to charge money for easy and smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications and download files, and permission to plug in devices. If you have a fairly fast connection presently, once these companies have their way, to keep it you will need to fork over more of your hard-earned cash or be left in the slow lane.

It’s all rather complicated. If you are unfamiliar with net neutrality or if you want to get up to speed with the latest developments, I suggest you take a look here, here and here.

Last week U.S. Senator Al Franken and Rep. Dennis Kucinich both warned of what the former describes as “a growing threat of corporate control on the flow of information in our country.”

We who live in “free” countries are  fortunate not to have the kind of restrictions on the internet that Aung San Suu Kyi is saddled with in Burma. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to take it for granted. We should not.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke


Language Games

I’d like to expand on some things I touched upon in yesterday’s post . . .

Language is a system of expressions used for communication. Words are our tools. They are signs, or symbols, of a meaning, but the meaning is not intrinsic and words do always serve as a sign or symbol for some referent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered one of the leading thinkers in the 20th Century, likened language to a game, and held that meaning is dependent upon the rules used to play the game, i.e., the use of words. Because there are various uses of words, there are various rules. Within group activities, some words are used more than others are and meanings vary from group to group. For instance, in sports one hears the word “ball” a lot. The most common use of this word in sports groups is to signify the object used to play a particular kind of game. In another group, a “ball” might mean a dance.

I suppose it is logical to some individuals, based on the statements they make, that when groups, particularly religious groups, use certain words they are loaded with meanings intended to satisfy some group need beyond mere communication. This may be true to some extent, however, that should not imply that these groups are engaging in a language-game, literal or otherwise, at all times, for as Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations, “we often compare the use of words with games, calculi with fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game.”

A good example is the word “mindfulness.” Within Buddhism this is a somewhat loaded word in the sense that it conveys associative meanings that are usually well-known to Buddhists. Now, this word may be overused, and at times, improperly used, but on the other hand, it represents one of Buddhism’s core principles, so its frequent use should be expected. It is unreasonable, however, to say that its overuse is due to an attempt to cloak comfort or sanctimony. While that is possible in some situations, it is absurd to suggest that it is a universal occurrence or that each time a group uses a certain word the intent is simply to make the members of the group feel good about themselves. Such sweeping generalities are not at all useful.

Also, it is not reasonable to imply that use of certain words, such as “mindfulness”, “faith” and “ignorance” suggests that these are underdeveloped ideas. It’s like saying that in physics the word “relativity” is used frequently because E=MC2 is underdeveloped.

All words are deceptive in that they are artificial. Designation and thing designated (referent) cannot be one. Nagarjuna famously pointed out that if they were one, then wood would burn when you say the word “fire.” He also said they could not be different, but to go into that would take us too far afield.

I think that it is somewhat deceptive to take words out of context and misconstrue their intended meanings under the guise of trying to “validate” the ideas. It seems to me that there is little interest in substantiating or confirming anything. Perhaps they are trying to validate themselves by “standing above the fray.” Certainly, a bit of smugness from what I’ve seen.

In order to “validate” frequently used words, terms or phrases and analyze the motivations behind their use, it is helpful to have a reasonable grasp of their meanings. The “present moment” is one term I see criticized often and I am amazed that so many people interpret this to mean that we should cut ourselves off from or be unconcerned about the future. Actually, the present moment is like the famous “flash of lightening” in the Diamond Sutra – it only lasts but a very brief instant and then, it’s another moment. Trying to capture the present moment is like trying to catch the wind.

What the term “present moment” really signifies is an attitude of awareness where one is centered in the moments that are unfolding before you and not lost in daydreams of future events or caught up in regrets or nostalgia for past experiences. Furthermore, in Buddhism, the past, present and future are interlinked for in each so-called present moment we are experiencing effects of the past and making causes for the future, whether we want to or not.

There are two kinds of understanding. One is understanding what a person’s ideas are and the other is understanding the truth or falsity of the meaning in such ideas. The latter is rather subjective because not all people will agree as to what is true or false. The meaning that each word has in relation to other words is only a small part of the total meaning, which points the blunder of taking words out of context. Isolating a single word, and assigning to it a context or referent different from that originally used, or point to an unintended meaning as proof of some activity designed to hide from scrutiny or stifle dialogue are two very rocky roads. To go that route, rather than lump all members of a particular religious group together, it might be wiser to focus on specific sub-groups and analyze their possible hidden meanings or intentions, as there is sure to be some variation.

Those who fare on the Buddha way should strive to maintain a seeking mind. This means a mind that is open and positive. It’s only common sense that approaching any kind of teaching, religious or not, with a negative, skeptical mind will not get you very far. It may seem that I am overemphasizing this, but I can tell you from my own experience of struggle with the practice that it is a crucial point.

From Chih-Kuan for Beginners, as translated by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), here is some timeless guidance from T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i for those who sincerely want to understand Buddhist teachings and learn how to use them to transform their lives:

Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice. However, if their minds are ripe for the teaching, in the twinkling of an eye their sharp wisdom will have no limit and their spiritual understanding will become unfathomable. If they aimlessly drag about words and terms and allow their feelings (and passions) to distort the teaching, they will fritter away their time and will fail to achieve realization; they are like a man who counts the treasures belonging to others. What advantages can they expect therefrom?