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Socially Constructed Reality

Consider this definition of “socially constructed reality” which I found in Tamara Green’s City of the Moon God (and she herself is describing the work of sociologist Peter Berger). The basic idea is that we build the reality we live in through conscious choices, but once it is built it becomes the ONLY reality we have in common in a society—all our behaviors are conditioned to it, and what comes from outside it no longer seems real.

This is why it must have seemed perfectly natural to a lot of people in 1950s America for blacks and whites to live apart, or why people who lived in the Middle Ages never questioned the absolute power of the nobility and the church. It also explains the danger in a complex society like ours, where there is no longer one socially constructed reality we all share, but separate realities for Millennials vs. Boomers, evangelicals vs. religious skeptics, or people from rural America which is 90% white vs. people living on either coast where immigrant cultures are the majority.

If the claim made in the quote is true, that a society however diverse must find a way to fit its separate realities into “a coherent view that the entire culture can comprehend,” then we can see that we are in danger of losing that coherence in America today. We have groups who speak completely different languages (even when we are all speaking English) and who live in different socially constructed realities. We no longer have a reassuring figure like Walter Cronkite whom everyone trusts. On issues like global warming or the root causes of terrorism we can’t even agree on the same facts. In my reality, Donald Trump is a raving lunatic, but in the reality of his followers, America is coming apart because of people like me, who love immigrants more than our flag, or gays more than God.

In fact, the socially constructed reality I prefer is one that’s always in motion, always questioning and reinventing itself—but I understand that there are people who feel deeply threatened by this because they want a reality with fixed principles that endure. Which is fine, as long as they can get it through their thick little skulls that they are only part of a much larger social fabric, which means they don’t have the right to keep the rest of us from evolving just so they can stay in their comfort zone.

On our side, we progressives need to understand that a common view of reality is important for social health, so that even if we win this battle in November 2016, we still need to work overtime to make all Americans feel like they belong here, even those who don’t want to share their space with the emerging Black/Latino/Asian/LGBT/progressive majority. Because the new socially constructed reality we are shifting to is one where white Christian traditionalists no longer dictate how the rest of us must live, but they still have a protected role in our diverse society just like the Amish, Hassidic Jews, the Navajo or any other minority group.

Anyway, here is the quote from Tamara Green’s City of the Moon God that set off the above thoughts.

    “The socially constructed world…is the reality to which all members of the group will then subscribe, and they will measure and define all their experience by it. It is only within the terms of the knowledge of this institutional order that reality becomes ‘real,’ as it were. It is, within any particular group, the sum and total of ‘what everybody knows.’ And once these institutions which define reality are operational, any deviation from them is seen as a departure from reality; thus, this knowledge provides the definition of what is knowable, or at least, the framework into which anything not yet known must fit. It is the way we make sense of our world. Of course, not everyone within the group may know the same things; and in a more complex society, the number of groups who have specialized knowledge…proliferates. Nevertheless, the sum total of what all these groups know must in some way be made to fit, at least minimally, a coherent view that the entire culture can comprehend.”

Stoking Hatred, Once Again

The Donald Trump campaign, yesterday:

    “Donald Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. … Mr. Trump stated… ‘Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anyone that the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine.'”

So he is calling for no new Muslim immigrants, students or tourists whatsoever. And a campaign spokeswoman said this would even apply to Muslim-Americans traveling outside the U.S. who then seek to return.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations:

    “Where is there left for him to go? Are we talking internment camps? Are we talking the final solution?”

Former governor Martin O’Malley, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination:

    “@realdonaldtrump removes all doubt: he is running for President as a fascist demagogue.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination:

    “Donald Trump today took xenophobia and religious bigotry to a new level. His comments are hurting the war effort and putting our diplomats and soldiers serving in the Middle East at risk.”

Governor John Kasich, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination:

    “This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States.”

Let’s hope the center holds and repudiates this self-infatuated maniac between now and next November. Daesh must be praying for a Donald Trump victory, because no U.S. politician is more capable of working with them to stoke hatred against ordinary Muslims who are, by the way, the biggest victims around the world of extremist jihadi terrorism.

Thomas Piketty: A Security-Minded Response Isn’t Enough

I’m not sure if it’s exactly kosher for me to provide my own translation of a copyrighted article originally published on a major website in another language, but this is an important piece which I’d like to make available in full to an English speaking audience.

Thus, I give you this recent analysis by French economist Thomas Piketty (who became famous for his 2013 study Capital in the Twenty-First Century) in which he argues that the root causes of ISIS-style extremism can be traced to the unequal distribution of resources in the Middle East. His remedy for jihadism is correspondingly simple: economic opportunity and social justice. These are, perhaps, not new ideas, but he presents them in an exceptionally clear-cut way, not hesitating to point out our own responsibility in the West for maintaining inequality in that part of the world.

The original article can be found in French on Piketty’s blog on the Le Monde website, and there have been several discussions of its contents in the American news media, such as in the Washington Post and in New York magazine. For any flaws in the translation, I take sole responsibility. Take it away, Professor Piketty!

A Security-Minded Response Isn’t Enough
Thomas Piketty in Le Monde, November 22–23, 2015

It’s clear: terrorism nourishes itself on the powder keg of inequality in the Middle East that we have contributed a lot to create. Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is a direct product of the decomposition of the Iraqi regime, and more generally of the collapse of the system of borders established in the region in 1920.

After the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990–1991, the coalition powers sent in their troops to return its oil to the emirs — and to Western companies. In the process they inaugurated a new cycle of technological and asymmetric wars — a few hundred deaths in the coalition that “liberated” Kuwait, versus several tens of thousands on the Iraqi side. This logic was pushed to its extreme during the second Iraq war between 2003 and 2001: around 500,000 Iraqi deaths for more than 4000 American soldiers killed, all that to avenge the 3000 deaths of 9/11, which of course had nothing to do with Iraq. This reality, amplified by the extreme asymmetry in human loss and the absence of a political solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serves today to justify all the abuses perpetrated by the jihadis. Let us hope that France and Russia, on the front lines since the American disaster, will cause fewer casualties and inspire fewer recruits.

Concentration of Resources

Beyond the religious clashes, it is clear that the entire social and political system of the region is overloaded and weakened by the concentration of oil resources in small territories without population. If we examine the zone running from Egypt to Iran by way of Syria, Iraq and the Arab peninsula, with around 300 million inhabitants, we note that the oil monarchies make up between 60% and 70% of the regional GDP for barely 10% of the population, making it in fact the most unequal region on the planet.

We must further point out that a minority of the inhabitants of the oil monarchies keep for themselves a disproportionate part of the wealth, while large groups (notably women and immigrant workers) are kept in semi-slavery. And these are the regimes that are supported militarily and politically by the Western powers, who are all too happy to get back a few crumbs for financing their soccer clubs, or for selling them weapons. It is not surprising that our lessons of democracy and social justice carry little weight among Middle Eastern youth.

To gain in credibility, we would need to show these populations that we care more for the social development and political integration of the region than for our finacial interests and our relations with the reigning families.

Denial of Democracy

In concrete terms, the oil money must go in priority to regional development. In 2015, the total budget available to the Egyptian authorities for financing the entire educational system of that country of nearly 90 million inhabitants was less than 10 billion dollars (9.4 billion euros). A few hundred kilometers away, oil revenues reach 300 billion dollars for Saudi Arabia and its 30 million inhabitants, and exceed 100 billion dollars for Qatar and its 300,000 Qataris. A development model so unequal can only lead to catastrophe. Condoning this is criminal.

When it comes to lofty rhetoric on democracy and elections, we must stop engaging in it merely when the results suit us. In 2012 in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi was elected president in a fair election, something which is hardly typical in Arab electoral history. By 2013, he was expelled from power by the military, which soon enough executed thousands of Muslim Brothers, whose social work at least served to fill in some of the gaps left by the Egyptian state. A few months later, France set that aside so as to sell its frigates and capture a part of that country’s meager public resources. Let us hope that this denial of democracy will not have the same morbid consequences as the interruption of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992.

The question remains: how is it that young people who grew up in France can confuse Baghdad with the Parisian suburbs, seeking to import conflicts here that are taking place there? Nothing can excuse this macho, bloody and pathetic turn of events. Nevertheless, let us note that unemployment and professional discrimination in hiring (particularly massive for those who checked all the right boxes in terms of diploma, experience, etc., as recent studies have shown; see also here) don’t help. Europe, which before the financial crisis managed to take in a net migratory flow of 1 million people a year, with unemployment decreasing must relaunch its model of immigration and job creation. It is austerity that has led to the rise of national egoisms and identity tensions. It is through equitable social development that hate will be defeated.

Get the UN Involved to Fix Syria

If anyone is interested in a serious answer to what we should be doing about ISIS and Syria:

We need to get the UN involved. In the past that would have been a problem because Assad’s sponsor Russia would veto any proposal from the US/France/Britain, but now that Russia has stepped in directly and paid the price (the recent bombing of a civilian Russian airliner over Egypt), they may be willing to seek a coordinated solution with other interested parties. And ALL nations in the region are interested parties. None of Syria’s neighbors wants ISIS’ influence to spread — not Iran (which has been fighting them all along), not Turkey, not Lebanon (where Beirut was bombed just a few days ago), not Jordan, not Iraq (which has its own ISIS probem), not Egypt, not Saudi Arabia or the Gulf Arabs. If there was ever a chance for Russia, the US, the EU, and all the Middle Eastern regional powers to unite on one thing, it’s getting rid of ISIS. Of course from there, interests diverge drastically — but perhaps we can all agree to act on the thing we agree on.

What’s needed are the following:

  • A no-fly zone to keep Assad from barrel bombing his own countrymen, under UN auspices. The exception being that UN forces (which might include Russia, NATO, the US, or Arab nations) would be authorized to attack ISIS from the air in a way designed to protect civilians from ISIS incursions. The model would be the air campaign in Libya against Qaddafi’s forces.
  • Safe zones on Syrian territory to provide humanitarian aid and shelter to refugees fleeing active conflict. These safe zones would be protected by UN peacekeepers (“boots on the ground”) provided by neutral nations.
  • All other forces (pro- and anti-Assad) agree to a ceasefire among each other and a political process, so as unite their efforts against ISIS. The ceasefire would lead to a new constitution, the replacement of Assad with a provisional government, and eventually, free elections open to all parties that renounce violence. The Assad mafia state would need to be dismantled, and this could be done under UN supervision over a period of 2-3 years. To appease Russia they would need to have rights to their naval base guaranteed under the new system. Turkey and the Kurds would need to reach some mutually beneficial agreement regarding control of the common border. Iran and others also have interests they would want protected, so all these parties need to be part of the settlement. But the common goal remains: Assad cedes power and all efforts are concentrated against ISIS.

One possible mechanism for accomplishing all this would be to expel Syria temporarily from the UN with a vote of the Security Council, and place them under the protection of a neutral nation under UN auspices, as outlined in the UN Charter and described here.

The UN actually has substantial powers that are never used because the Big 5 can never agree. But remember that the Korean War was fought under the UN flag. And if the humanitarian crisis in Syria and ISIS’ menace to regional security don’t provide an urgent cause for agreement among the world’s powers, I don’t know what ever will. I certainly hope the Obama administration will consider a much more proactive engagement than they have in the past. Of course, any successful engagement will need to employ political courage and diplomatic imagination as much as military muscle. And we will need to work with every single one of Syria’s neighbors, not just the ones we consider our friends.

A Friend in Trouble for Speaking Out

News reports indicate that an old blogger/activist friend, Hicham Almiraat, has been accused in the Moroccan justice system of a charge that translates roughly as “receiving foreign money for activities that undermine people’s faith in the government.” He will go on trial on November 19 in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, along with several other activists for political and journalistic rights, and the charge carries the possibility of five years in prison. (Usually in Moroccan political trials like this one, if someone is charged we can assume a conviction.) The root cause of his indictment is apparently a report put out by the Moroccan Association for Digital Rights, of which he is president, in conjunction with the British group Privacy International, called Their Eyes on Me. This report details the Moroccan government’s purchase of internet spying software from Western companies, and its effect on Moroccan activists who came forward to tell their stories. I’m not sure what we can do in solidarity with my friend, but at least download and read the report if you’re interested.

For background on the case, here is an article describing the charges and upcoming trial, and here are several earlier articles dealing with the digital spying report and the subsequent harrassment of activists by the Moroccan state: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. However, all of these articles are in French. In summary, it seems that the Moroccan Interior Minister reacted by denying that any such internet spying takes place, and even went so far as to press charges in court accusing the privacy activists of defamation! So Hicham’s upcoming trial on criminal charges is only the latest development in an ongoing backlash against the activists since the release of their report this past April.

I am sad to see that the so-called Arab Spring, known in Morocco as the February 20 Movement, has ended up accomplishing so little in terms of real, durable improvements to freedom of expression in Morocco. This type of harassment of activists for speaking out (and defending the rights of all Moroccans) is unfortunately the kind of thing one might have expected ten or fifteen years ago — so what has changed?

Netanyahu, Hitler Apologist?

Benjamin Netanyahu, who we all know is the Prime Minister of Israel, now claims that Hitler didn’t want to annihilate the Jews until he was given the idea by a Palestinian!

Here is what he actually said yesterday.

    “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini [the Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem] went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.'”

I learned about this from two articles, one from the New York Times, the other from Talking Points Memo, that discuss the actual history. Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was a notorious Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite, but Hitler had already killed a million Jews by the time they met.

From the New York Times article, here is a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem commenting on Netanyahu’s claims.

    “He moves the responsibility of the Holocaust, for the destruction of the Jews, to the mufti and the Arab world. This is a trick intended to stain the Arabs of today because of the Arabs of the past. To pile on the Arabs of the past by easing up on the Germans of the past.”

Not even the Germans want any part of this! Here is the statement Angela Merkel’s spokesman made to the press today.

    “All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust. … We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.

I’ve never been a fan of Netanyahu, but is it possible to get any worse than this?

Vote Trump for a Pure America!

This exchange occurred yesterday at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire. I call the man asking the question a “supporter” because he was wearing a Trump T-shirt.

    SUPPORTER: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. Our current president is one. We know he’s not even an American.
    TRUMP: (chuckling) We need this question. This is the first question.
    SUPPORTER: Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?
    TRUMP: We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.

So now, not only is Trump on record for wanting to deport an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in less than two years (police raids, families torn apart, train rides to the border) — apparently he is “going to be looking at” “getting rid of” Muslims (or imaginary Muslim terrorist training camps) as well.

The one good thing about getting this kind of hate speech out in the open, is that it exposes the haters for what they are — and I remain convinced that they are so far from the views of the majority of the American people, that they are only setting themselves up for defeat in the 2016 elections if they continue to talk this way. But meanwhile we have to live with their paranoid fantasies, and I worry about the kinds of things people are capable of when their emotions are on edge!

Here’s the report the quote came from.

Is the World Splitting into Tribes?

This article by Koert Debeuf proposes that a global identity crisis began around 2005 which calls into question the “liberal consensus” that we are moving, slowly but surely, toward a future of greater democracy, prosperity, openness and freedom around the world. The consequence, Debeuf says, is a return to tribalization (extreme nationalism) whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. Here is what Debeuf has to say about the current state of Arab society.

    “Most Arabs feel totally lost now. All ideologies are broken. Not one has fulfilled its promises. They don’t know anymore what to make of their religion. The ones with the deepest identity crisis see the Islamic State as the last resort…. For all the other Muslims, the Islamic State is proof of the lack of new ideas. As long as these ideas are not there, most Arabs don’t know what to choose anymore: stability or democracy, religion or secularism, pan-Arabism or nationalism, looking to the West or turning away from it.
    “Traumatized and lost, most Arabs go back to the tribal idea they know best: authoritarian nationalism. This is obvious in Egypt where president Sisi and the military are ruling with force. … It makes the Arab World a telling example of the two main roads of tribalization: authoritarian nationalism and religious fanaticism. Both are each others biggest enemy. The nationalists blame the Islamists for putting their religion before their country while the Islamists blame the nationalists for putting their religion second. The propaganda war between the two camps shows that what we are seeing today is only the beginning of a deep and destructive regional conflict.”

Whether you agree with Debeuf’s conclusions or not (personally I believe he’s too pessimistic), if you enjoy an analysis that makes deeper connections beyond the headlines of the day, this article is worth your time. Debeuf also looks at the rise of nationalist movements in Europe, Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia, and the political polarization of the U.S.

Thanks to War in Context for the link.

Caught in the Middle

I believe in God but not in divine intervention. God doesn’t send prophets or holy books (these are the creations of humans trying to understand God). God doesn’t answer prayers — in fact, God may not be paying attention at all. Humans are part of God’s project, but not a particularly essential part. In fact, there are most likely many races far more advanced than us. God didn’t make humans in his image — God made the universe to evolve, and we are one of the things in it. God isn’t focused on us. God stands back like a scientist, watching the universe dispassionately to see what happens.

I believe the best way to know God and God’s intentions is through science, because the physical laws of the universe are the only clues we really have as to God’s will. The only thing we can know for sure is that God willed a universe (assuming there even is a God, which we can’t know for sure) — and this universe has a complexity that favors life. Life exists here because it is possible, which wouldn’t be true in most of the universes we can imagine. And when something is possible, it will eventually happen. My leap of faith is to imagine this universe was set up on purpose for life to happen.

What I’ve discovered is that this viewpoint of mine, which to me seems frankly to be the only reasonable one, tends to annoy both atheists and traditional believers. The believers think I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in their God with his rules about washing your nose and feet before you pray (Muslims) or not switching on electricity one day a week (Jews) or requiring humans who speak in his name not to have sex (Catholics). I am absolutely, 100% sure that God doesn’t give a damn about petty rules like these — and while God is no doubt loving and compassionate as all the religions claim, it is really up to us to organize our societies and daily lives, and work out our laws of morality for ourselves. Nor do I believe there’s an afterlife, a place our selves go after death, where we can meet Grandma again or rap with Jesus in person. Nor will there be some vast showdown in the sky between Good and Evil at the end of the time, since Good and Evil only exist finally in our own minds. All of these things, and my refusal to accept any religious “truths” without questioning them from every angle, make most religious people think I’m a nonbeliever. And it’s true, I don’t believe in their religions the way they do — though I love to read holy books for their creative power.

On the other hand, a lot of atheists start at the other extreme, and assume there’s nothing good in religion at all. So when I try to talk to them about the purpose of the universe, and how it’s evolving toward ever-greater complexity and perfection so as to grow closer to God, they wonder what I’m doing mixing religious mumbo-jumbo with honest science. They think, “What a waste of a fine mind, to be mixed up with all that superstition.” They don’t want to hear about Sufis or Hindu saints and the revelations they had about the essential unity of all being, including us. They certainly don’t see any particular value in updating these ideas for our time, using all the latest theories of the Big Bang or the natural selection of species. It doesn’t add anything in their minds to speculate on the “unseen” because the unseen isn’t there — only what can be measured and proven is worth talking about. All the rest is an irritant and a distraction to them. Human knowledge is moving in one direction only, and the religious ideas of the past (which for them was an age of ignorance) are best left behind in abandoned monesteries, covered in dust.

(To be continued…?)

Happy Starving Cow Day!


Goulmima, Morocco, 2006. Click image to see larger version.

In my new home of East Hollywood, Los Angeles (also known as Thai Town or Little Armenia), we traditionally celebrate the first day of September by passing around postcards or little figurines of starving cows, or by giving each other knitted cow toys with the bones sticking out, or T-shirts with a starving cow image.

This is to remind each other of the suffering and mortality inherent in life, since it’s sadly ironic (or just horrifying) that an animal we depend on for food is itself starving to death.

Fortunately to properly celebrate the holiday, I just happened to have this photo handy from my travels in Morocco. It was taken in 2006 in a picturesque little town called Goulmima in southern Morocco, on the slopes of the High Atlas mountains.

You can see other random photos I’ve taken on my Tumblr account here. I continue to add more so keep checking back!