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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Obama's Tribute Mission to China

Barack Obama is scheduled to visit China in November.  I suppose the hope is that it will be a sort of victory lap.

In a recent article, Orville Schell neatly summarizes the expectations going into the trip:

Will the Western democracies ever be able to accept China as it is, the better to deal with the host of new global problems that menace us all, like climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation?

("China Strikes Back!" in The New York Review of Books) Schell's article is largely devoted to how embarrassingly wrong trips to China can go, a case in point being Jimmy Carter's recent visit there.

Now, I'm no Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, but I've also made plenty of high-expectation trips to China. Even small fry like me can have our hopes dashed in excruciating ways.

A foreigner travels to China, seeking advantage
(camel optional)
Tang dynasty
It seems to me that the best way for Obama's November trip to meet expectations, is to model it on the kind of visit that the Chinese like: a tribute mission.

As I recently wrote about elsewhere, historians have observed that in many different examples of relations with (nearby) neighbors, traditional Chinese rulers exhibited little interest in outright control or even material advantage, but did angle successfully to obtain nominal submission, accompanied by explicit, universally readable symbolism. The classic form this took was the tribute mission, in which ambassadors came and offered gifts to China -- frequently resulting in the receiving of substantially greater gifts from the rulers of China. (See The Chinese World Order: Traditional China's Foreign Relations, edited by John K. Fairbank.)

In fact, Schell comments on this exact institution:

China’s new power now enables it to resist almost all forms of foreign pressure. When visitors like Carter now arrive from “barbarian” lands, China’s top officials would far prefer to confine them to something like the old dynastic system of “tribute” (jingong), which prescribed strict rules for visiting foreign emissaries from subsidiary countries like Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Burma. Such ambassadors were allowed to come to Beijing, await an imperial audience, proffer their ritual gifts to the Son of Heaven as “tribute,” and then quickly leave. Never were they accorded equal status, because, after all, there were no powers “equal” to China, only lesser ones.

Orville Schell seems to rue this new (old) stance on the part of the Chinese. But might it not be a way for the U.S. to face reality?

What Obama Should Bring

What would be an appropriate form of tribute for a U.S. mission to bring to China?

The first thing that leaps to mind is "an aircraft carrier." China has been modernizing its navy, and giving a ship would be the perfect way to let China know that we welcome their desire to be in this -- as in everything else -- just like us. (Besides, we have so many of them just lying around . . . !)

Boat of Purity and Ease (Qing Yan F«éng)
Summer Palace in Beijing, China.
On second thought, however, this might have some negative associations -- I'm thinking of the marble boat that the Qing emperor paid for with money that was supposed to go for naval development in the 19th century. Best avoid the topic of ships . . . .

Perhaps the same intent can be communicated with a gift of something intangible.  I'm thinking perhaps some kind of signals intelligence sharing? This could have numerous advantages.

For one thing, it could serve as a veiled apology for continuous U.S. spy plane activity along China's coast - with the associated incidents that engenders.

It could also serve as a veiled apology for U.S. spying on China that was revealed by Edward Snowden. (Oh yeah, people in China still remember that!)

Perhaps more important than either of these points, however, is that intelligence sharing fits with Chinese ideas of what modern day allies do for each other. And it is abstruse enough that China can spin it in whatever way they wish -- no one can kick the tires.

What Obama Should Expect to Get

The great thing about tribute relations with China is that the visiting country usually garners gifts whose value is well in excess of those they presented. What might Barack Obama expect in return?

Friends and acquaintances know that I have long been angling for a team of expert Chinese landscape designers to come to Chicago and recreate the famed garden from the classic book, Dream of the Red Chamber. (And Chicago is Obama's home town.) But perhaps I am being selfish . . . . 

Siberian weasel
China has been very successful with high-speed rail. And the U.S. needs high-speed rail. (Now don't you wish we had given them an aircraft carrier?)

Perhaps the perfect gift for China to bestow on Obama and his delegation would be some of the precious kolinsky brush hair that is produced in China.  Kolinsky is world renowned for its fineness and softness, and sells for hundreds of dollars a pound. It's the perfect raw material for making the precision brushes used by technicians to clean and polish the camera lenses on the bellies of Obama's killer drones.

Luckily, the Siberian weasels that kolinsky hair comes from are no longer considered endangered. (Not that anyone would let that stand in the way of the market for drone camera lens polishing brushes.)

It Cuts Both Ways

Lest anyone think that what I am describing is a reversal of roles, or some kind of come-down for the United States, let me hasten to say that it cuts both ways.  That is, in the modern version of tributary diplomacy each party eventually gets to play both roles: a China tribute mission will come to the U.S. bearing gifts someday soon, with the expectation of receiving an even greater boon from their host. Where Orville Schell emphasizes that under pre-modern tributary relations there were no powers “equal” to China, only lesser ones, I think the necessary emphasis today should be on no powers “superior” to China -- leaving each to draw their own conclusions about "equality."

What about the big issues to which Schell points? Aren't there important bilateral agreements to be signed?

World Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles
(click to see full size image)
(Source: Ploughshares Fund)
In most of those areas, the best thing the U.S. could do is to take the log out of its own eye before asking for China to take the speck out of its eye.

* China is dealing with minority unrest in several areas, most notably in ethnic Uighur (and Muslim) Xinjiang province. While that unrest cannot be laid totally at the feet of the U.S., it is certainly the case that the insurgencies that the U.S. has stirred up in the Mideast and Central Asia since 1990 have complicated China's domestic politics.

* China would like nothing better than to cut its carbon emissions. By all means, let the U.S. demonstrate how this can be accomplished -- while maintaining standards of living at the same time, if you please --  and China can be counted on follow the U.S. lead (as in so many other areas of development).

* China has nuclear weapons, it is true. But their arsenal is minimal. Again, let the U.S. demonstrate that it is serious about nuclear disarmament -- if not fully living up to its obligations under article 6 of the NPT, at least bringing its stockpile down to just 5 or 10 times the Chinese number -- and China can be counted on follow the U.S. lead.

The U.S. is not in a position to chide China.  While there is a profound need for advocacy on behalf of dissidents in China, the U.S. government is the least qualified of anyone to engage in that advocacy.

Related posts

The United States may set the standard for human desire -- for the mindless pursuit of the bright and shiny object -- but, heaven knows, China is not to be outdone.

(See China and USA - Like a Moth to the Flame)

How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States))

The U.S. narrative goes something like this: Somebody "bad" (e.g. ISIS) is doing bad stuff . . . . The U.S. wants to "help" -- without overcommitting. We'll just start with a few advisers (to instruct, not to fight) and a few drones (to survey, not to kill) . . . .One thing leads to another and there's yet another fight. (Lucky we were there . . . )  Does it every occur to us that we've got the narrative (and the causality) backwards?

(See Drones, ISIS, and Permawar )

Even if the current Obama administration approach of releases were to succeed in bringing about the release of everyone at Guantanamo, it would not have begun to address the wrong that has been committed.

(See US to its Humans Rights Violations Victims: "Shut up and take what you're given!" )

The problem: the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

VIOLENCE: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . "

Stop what you're doing right now and figure out when you are going to go see the Fires Will Burn: Politically Engaged Art from the Permanent Collection exhibition at DePaul. (It's up until December 21, 2014.)

You'll find examples from the show sprinkled throughout my blog posts in the days ahead. Here are two examples -- plus a third from a companion exhibition -- to give a hint of what awaits you at DePaul.

Negar Ahkami

The first work you encounter when you enter the exhibit is As I Sit Here Musing, Fires Will Burn, a 2003 work by Negar Ahkami. The image reproduced below can barely give a suggestion of the vibrancy and depth of this 50" by 50" work (executed in "coffee cup stains, gesso, saffron, acrylic and glitter").

As I Sit Here Musing, Fires Will Burn by Negar Ahkami

In a composition suggestive of a yin-yang symbol, a woman in a burka (but wearing audacious red glitter platform heels) is surrounded by genie-ish tableaus of the many male obsessions/pastimes that some of us rail about frequently -- sexualized pop singers, professional sports -- as well as some that we probably should rail about more (such as patriarchy in religion and political violence).

The yellow-brick road [a Chicago invention!] leads . . . where?

Fletcher Martin

I couldn't help noticing an echo in the Ahkami work of a much earlier work, coincidentally on display in a separate exhibition on the 2nd floor of the DePaul museum.

Ink, Paper, Politics: WPA-Era Printmaking from the Needles Collection also runs through December 21, and it's a wonderful companion to the Fires Will Burn show.

Trouble in Frisco by Fletcher Martin

Fletcher Martin's 1935 work Trouble in Frisco surprised me with how perfectly it complements the nestled yin-yang pattern of the Ahkami work, and also the way it alludes to the same paradox: why are men the source of so much trouble?

Thinking back to my days of visiting the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, which famously featured a didactic arrangement of works based on benefactor Dr. Albert C. Barnes' aesthetic theories, I wondered, "Is the proximity of these two works a Barnesian "Easter egg" provided by the curators?" (For more on the Barnes Collection and "proximity," see " An Interactive Tour Through the Barnes Foundation" by Randy Kennedy in The New York Times.)

Diego Rivera

Back to the Fires Will Burn show, I couldn't help noticing the continuity between the final work I encountered in the show with the first one.

Wounded Soldier by Diego Rivera

Wounded Soldier is a 1931 work by Diego Rivera.The soldier, head bandaged, lies on a stretcher while a woman -- presumably his wife -- kneels at his side and cares for him.

I jotted in my notes: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . . "

Much more awaits you - try to see the Fires Will Burn: Politically Engaged Art from the Permanent Collection exhibition at DePaul before it closes December 21.

Related posts

The biggest idea coming out of the 2013 Drone Summit? We will only deal successfully with the crimes being committed using drones when we understand them as part of the much larger war against communities of color . . . .

(See Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color )

Women Without Men is a recent movie by the artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.. The first time I saw it, at the end I walked straight to the ticket window and bought another ticket and walked right back in and watched it again. The film contains haunting scene after haunting scene, and it makes it clear that Iran is a place where people are able to ask questions about patriarchy and about what it is going to take to overcome it.

(See Women Without Men as a US-Iran Cultural Bridge)

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

"Inhumane treatment of young men and boys, arrests under cover of night, unjust torture while in police custody, missing husbands and brothers and sons, children stripped of internationally agreed upon human rights. For these Palestinian boys and men, we weep with the women."

(See Palestine: The Women Weep (34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk) on the Working Group on the Middle East (MCS, ELCA) website.)

A woman's covered face can refer to an oppressed position in society and simultaneously to a commitment to resistance.

(See Long-suffering and Faceless in Hong Kong )

Other related links

"'Fires Will Burn,' a lesson in social issues at the DePaul Art Museum" by Aimee Levitt in The Chicago Reader: ""

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Top 10 Ideas You Won't Hear at Chicago Ideas Week

[insert graphic representing "idea" here]

This week, thousands of people will gather at hundreds of events in Chicago to hear bright ideas, and come up with some bright ideas of their own: Chicago Ideas Week.

Not everyone can be at every session -- and some people can't be at any session at all -- and so the organizers are encouraging people to use social media to share more ideas -- e.g. with the Twitter hashtag #CIW.

I thought I'd use social media to make my own contribution -- David Letterman-style. So . . . herewith . . .

The Top 10 Ideas 
You Won't Hear at Chicago Ideas Week

Marriage Equality Rally
 Springfield, IL

October, 2013
Idea #1  . . . . . . . .  Let the Church out of the closet

Eddie Adams:
The Boat of No Smiles
Idea #2  . . . . . . . .  Extend hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country

Minecraft collaborative world
Idea #3  . . . . . . . .  Go dig up the solution to world peace in a video game environment

The Damascus Accident
Idea #4  . . . . . . . .  Stop engaging in risky behavior

Cleared for release . . .
Idea #5  . . . . . . . .  Turn the "global war on terror" on its head

The Mideast
Oilfields . . . and U.S. bases
Idea #6  . . . . . . . .  Figure out what'll be "strategic" when oil no longer is

Drones: the Future is Now
Idea #7  . . . . . . . .  Build a foundation for our 3-D future

Zero Carbon Chicago
Idea #8  . . . . . . . .  Rebrand Chicago "Zero Carbon Chicago"


U.S Attorney Zachary Fardon
Idea #9  . . . . . . . .  Find a new way to say "Violence will not be tolerated in Chicago"

"You have to face reality."Chris Chadwick,
President, Boeing’s defense, space and security unit
Idea #10  . . . . . . . .  Unlock the value tied up in a Fortune 100 company

Let the Church Out of the Closet

Chicago: Expectant
Roger Brown
If Christ Came to Chicago (detail)
It seems to me that one of the most revolutionary things that could happen in our society would be if the Church started being the Church.

That would require it to stop protecting the "Church as institution" and start putting itself out there as "Church as rebel."

It should be obvious that, implicit in this, is the idea of "Church as people" rather than "Church as tradition" or "Church as elders" or "Church as buildings" or "Church as rules."

If Christ Came to Chicago

Around the same time that I moved to Chicago, I was intrigued to learn that a powerfully influential book in the U.S. progressive movement at the end of the 19th century was If Christ Came to Chicago by William T. Stead.

And I thought, "What a marvelous idea! What would that look like?"

Whenever I hear a New Testament story, I now ask myself, "What would this sound like in the Chicago context, today?"

More than anything else, these words have stayed with me:

"He was speaking about this matter quite openly. " (Mark 8:32)

I believe we are called to speak openly about important matters.

"Speaking quite openly" about about sexuality and gender

I became re-involved in the Church several years ago because of a conversation with a friend about his concerns that the Church -- and particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) -- was struggling to be inclusive of people of all sexual identities and gender orientations.

Members of St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square join
other Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches in Springfield
for the October, 2013, Marriage Equality rally. Pastor Kim
Beckmann's sign says "Illinois: For the love of God (and I
mean that sincerely) PASS Marriage Equality NOW!"
The ELCA has now "come out of the closet" as an open and affirming denomination, and the work continues to make all ELCA congregations fully welcoming. (You can find welcoming congregations in the Lutheran and other denominations via the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches.)

One of the big challenges today is for the Church to speak quite openly about the necessity of inclusion and affirmation of people of all sexual identities and gender orientations everywhere, including in places like Africa where this is a subject of great conflict today.

On the solidarity with LGBTI people in Africa, the Metropolitan Chicago synod of the ELCA came out of the closet in May, 2014, when it passed a resolution: "Solidarity With Those Experiencing and Resisting Harsh Anti-LBTI Legislation Across Africa."

There is much more to be done . . . .

"Speaking quite openly" about about justice in the Holy Land

In recent days, the censorship of critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians has become a major social issue in Illinois.

Members of the Metro Chicago Synod, ELCA, Working
Group on the Middle East depicting weeping women
of Palestine during the 2014 8th Day Center
Good Friday Justice Walk.
As I have reflected on the firing of Prof. Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois, I have asked myself, "Is this just a narrow issue that has to do with university governance?" I reached the conclusion that it was something much broader -- it is a spiritual issue that slams right up against our call to "speak openly" on issues of justice.

If I had any doubts about this, the fact that Palestine solidarity activist Rabbi Brant Rosen felt the necessity to resign from the leadership of his Evanston congregation reassured me that this is about more than just UIUC.

The ELCA has a substantial effort devoted to working for peace in the Holy Land, and the Chicago arm of that effort is especially strong. And yet people in Christian denominations -- and especially Lutherans -- are extremely careful about appearing to criticize Israel, so as not to offend Jewish people.

If the Salaita affair has taught us anything, it is that we have got to get clear on the fact that criticizing Israel is not the same as offending Jewish people.  The Church needs to come out of the closet and speak quite openly about issues of justice in the Holy Land.

"Speaking quite openly" about about immigration

Jesus Loves Immigrants
Occupy Palm Sunday, Logan Square, Chicago, 2012
I've heard two very radical statements in recent years.

One of them was by the lead singer of the band Outernational. At a concert taking place at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Logan Square several days before the protests against NATO in Chicago in 2012, Leo Mintek introduced the song "Todos Somos Ilegales (We are all illegals)" by saying, "Someday we will look back and say that the idea that a person could be considered 'illegal' is as incomprehensible as the idea that one person could own another person."

The second was a statement by an ELCA leader who said, "The only papers that we should concern ourselves with are a person's baptism certificate."

A lot of people may not understand the second statement, and it's probably not quite properly expressed.  I think what it means is that being Christian means seeing the person, not what the State says about the person. (And that this is what baptism -- both baptism as physical rite and baptism as abstraction -- means, too.) In other words, what I think he was driving at was, "Papers? We don't need no stinkin' papers!"

One small way the Church is speaking out is by opening its doors to immigrants and standing shoulder to shoulder with them as they deal with the challenges presented by the State. For instance, see the Justice for Our Neighbors program -- one branch of which is active in Logan Square, Chicago.

"Speaking quite openly" about about money

A couple of years ago, Occupy Chicago was in full swing here. Some of us started to ask, "What would Jesus do?"

The result was the beginning of a new tradition: "Occupy Palm Sunday!"

"Is there room at the inn at the CHA’s Lathrop Homes?"
Logan Square churches' 2013 posada for affordable housing
Occupy Palm Sunday has become an important reminder to us to get out of our church sanctuaries and into the public square.  And doing that has encouraged us to do more and more and more thinking about what are the big topics we really want to speak openly about.

Some of those topics have included food insecurity, the lack of affordable housing, the need for security and justice for immigrants, the unavailability of quality health care for all, and the way in which certain people in our community are subjected to various forms of violence.

Ultimately, this has forced us to speak quite openly about what's wrong with the way money is thought about and talked about in our society.

Roger Brown, If Christ Came to Chicago
(Click to view large format image)

William T. Stead concluded If Christ Came to Chicago with a description of the Church that he envisioned in Chicago a hundred years hence.  Notably, his vision was of a unified Church that had put aside minor differences to focus on the main thing:

"The Church of God in Chicago has only one belief, and that is to do what Christ would have done if He were confronted with the problems with which they have to deal."

(You can read the full text of If Christ Came to Chicago online.)

And I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

Faced with chorus of voices saying, "Isn't it time for you to tone it down? Can't you be more reasonable? What is it you want, anyway?" Jesus kept right on doing what he was doing. And that was a sign to us about how to live our lives.

(See WWJD? Occupy! )

In gratitude to John Kass, and in keeping with what I perceive to be our shared desire to place our faith "in the world" and share the good news (while at the same time not turning people off with too much Jesus talk) -- in short, keeping my tough guy cred intact -- I herewith share some scenes from my Holy Week 2014.

(See Holy Week 2014 in Chicago - Making a Spectacle of Ourselves )

I believe Easter is God's gift to humanity of victory over death, hopelessness and frailty, and I believe that God is alive and in our midst. The witness of the Guantanamo lawyers has confirmed me in those beliefs.

(See Easter Victory: The Guantanamo Lawyers )

Friday, October 17, 2014

The 21st Century U.S. Vocation: Extending hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country

What if we've got it all wrong about immigrants?

The vast majority of people in the U.S. -- including myself -- are here because of immigration.

When we take the long view, most of us recognize that the greatest strength of the country is the new energy and new ideas that immigrants bring.

Many of us have the experience of knowing recent immigrants personally, and have enormous respect for the path that they have walked and love them and their families.

What some of us have trouble getting past is the idea that we're supposed to be digging our heels in and trying to stop the phenomenon of immigration from changing aspects of life in the U.S., and altering the dynamics of our own vocational space, in particular. But what if we've misjudged what we're supposed to be doing?

Empathy: This is personal

from "The Boat of No Smiles"
Photographs of Vietnamese "boat people"
by Eddie Adams
When we encounter the human experience of immigrants, we can begin to feel empathy. The answer to the question of "what's the right thing to do" suddenly becomes obvious.

This became very clear to me when I learned the story of the war photographer Eddie Adams and the impact he had on U.S. policy toward "boat people" fleeing Vietnam.  As explained in the film An Unlikely Weapon, Adams did a series of photographs of refugees, which he referred to as "The Boat of No Smiles," which eventually found their way into the Carter White House. The photos were instrumental in convincing Congress to admit large numbers of "boat people" into the U.S.

Many people in the U.S. -- often through the coordination of their church congregations -- devoted countless hours to assisting the people who came from Vietnam. (My sister, Patsy, was one of those people.)

Today, there are thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people in communities throughout the U.S. who work to extend hospitality and assistance to newly-arrived immigrants. For these people, this work is not a burden; it's just what you do for your neighbor.

Crossing: The ubiquitous story

When I lived in Taiwan in 1979-80, I became a big fan of Cloud Gate Dance Theater.

One of their works that made me marvel was one called Du Hai -- "Crossing the Sea." It involved a group of people facing the difficulties of a sea crossing in a small boat.

Cloud Gate Dance Theater: people and fabric
Part of what I loved about Du Hai was the way it used large pieces of fabric to convey the sensation of being in a boat among billowing waves, and the multiple uses to which they put the fabric - sea, clouds, sail, and more. Even a newcomer to modern dance, such as myself, could grasp what was going on.

Another thing was my awareness that the story that they were telling worked on multiple levels. First, of course, it had relevance for the generation of Mainland Chinese people who had ended up in Taiwan after fleeing Mainland China when the Communist forces took over. Second, they were telling the story of the general population of "Taiwanese" -- the great majority of whom were the descendants of immigrants from the mainland (mostly Fujian province), principally during the late 1700s. Third, in 1979-80, it was impossible to see without thinking of the "boat people" of Vietnam who were struggling to survive at that very moment.

Since that time, I frequently encounter images of people fleeing via boat to find refuge in a new land, -- people from Cuba trying to reach Florida; refugees from Africa trying to reach Italy; and on and on -- and every time I think, "Yes, du hai . . . . "

And the Africans brought to the U.S. in slave ships -- the most perilous du hai of all . . . .

And in the end, isn't it our own story? I don't know how your ancestors got here, but mine came on ships from Ireland in the late 19th century. If we think that was some other kind of du hai, something grand, maybe we'd better think again.

The Big Picture: Inexorable migration

Ever since I was in college, I've been reading the work of Nicholas Eberstadt. Nick writes a lot about Korea, China, and Russia and places like that, and his message, in a phrase, is "demographics is destiny."

Last Train Home delves into the
phenomenon of large-scale labor
migration in China today.
Nick points out that if you aren't thinking in terms of birth and death rates, trends in health, etc., you are likely to be thinking about yesterday's problems rather than where society is headed next year and in the next century.

And the demographic trend that trumps all the others is migration. If we want to plan for the future, we need to recognize that our own futures will be much more profoundly impacted by large scale migration than by our individual 401ks or the college majors of our children or who is in the White House.

Personally, I've seen the impact of China most clearly as it has affected China. The mass migration of workers from China's rural areas to the cities is a phenomenon, the significance of which we have not yet begun to comprehend.  However, it is certain that it is fundamental to the material changes that China has been able to bring about in the past several decades.

It occurs to me that the most important vocation of current U.S. residents -- even more important than their particular vocation as business people or construction workers or teachers or anything else -- is a general vocation of hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country.  We shouldn't be standing at the border, trying to keep people out.  We should be standing at the border trying to pull the people in.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

"There's one thing you don't understand," he said. "What you are calling 'the best and the brightest,' the leaders in China call 'troublemakers.; A hundred thousand Ph.D.'s stay behind in the U.S.? Two hundred thousand? A million? Fine! Let them! There's more where that came from! China's got nothing if not people!"

(See Why Beijing Always "Wins")

Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program (CLASP) was established in early 2014,  to provide direct living support and welcoming environments to asylum seekers.

(See About Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program (CLASP) on the Chicago Forum on LGBTI Solidarity in Africa website)

Palm Sunday 2012 in Chicago: members of Logan Square congregations gathered to share news, information and opportunities for service and advocacy on matters of healthcare, housing, hunger and immigration.

(See Occupy Palm Sunday! in Logan Square )

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Go dig up the solution to world peace in a video game environment

Phil Vischer and a few of his friends
A few years ago, I worked on a tech project for a firm that wanted to provide good clean entertainment to kids over the web.

Their idea was to focus on the Bible. They had good credentials: the key content producer was Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales.

I thought the Jelly Telly team had zeroed in on a worthy challenge: how might it be possible to utilize the affordances of an engaging web environment -- collaboration, gaming, entertaining content -- to involve kids . . . and to do it in an alternative way? They had a worldview they wanted to emphasize and in their view it was orthogonal to (and possibly at odds with) the mainstream.

What intrigued me was that so much of what kids found entertaining on computers involved conflict and/or acquisition. So for me, "alternative" meant something that didn't appeal to "first person shooter" psychology. How might it be possible for people to interact on the web in way that didn't look like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty?

My antenna were further tweaked when I started to do a bit of research into trends in game development during the past decade. I was chagrined to find that it has been the U.S. military that has seen the potential in video games and has invested in figuring out how to put them to use for its own purposes.

A game called Activism . . .

In the years since my brief stint on that project, I've focused most of my attention on social media and writing, and I'm not directly involved in application development any more. But from time to time the question would come back to mind: what do kids want?

Creative resistance: Tapestry depicting drone victims
In particular, I often thought of this when I participated in meetings of various antiwar and other activist groups, and we lamented the lack of involvement of "young people." Inevitably some wise person would remark that if we hoped for young people to be involved, we should look for and embrace ideas and leadership from young people, doing activism in ways that appeals to their sensibilities. And my imagination would turn to a game for teens, one perhaps called Activism . . . !

I've begun paying more and more attention to creative resistance and art-as-activism, and begun to understand some of the ways that alternative worldviews are expressing themselves in the way young activists do their work and live their lives.

There is so much to see. But somehow the game connection kept eluding me . . . .  Moreover, I was becoming more and more aware that the intimate relationship between the military, suppliers of drones and other weapons systems, and games like Call of Duty was becoming more and more problematic.

Finally, I was visiting friends in Washington, D.C., a few months ago and found myself talking to their brilliant and boundlessly energetic teenage son. Hearing that he spent a lot of time playing computer games, I offered up my one stock observation on the topic: "Isn't it too bad that the ones that people find the most fun are all 'first person shooters' ?" I lamented. "It's all Grand Theft Auto, isn't it?"

"Do you know about Minecraft?" he asked, wide-eyed.

Mining for a heart of gold

We trooped down to the computer in the basement and, for the next hour, Jack showed me the world of Minecraft.

One of the many "worlds"created by Minecraft users
"Several islands connected to create a huge world called World of Keralis.
In this world we can find all necessities, such as airports, harbours
including several realistically created ships and many different types of
buildings. We have got villas, skyscrapers, warehouses – anything you can
find in a real life city."

This is what, in my old person way, I took away from that tutorial:

* Minecraft is an environment in which people create lots of different "worlds."

* There is a significant opportunity to enjoy building, and to build very intricate constructions.

* People interact with each other in Minecraft by joining the servers that host specific worlds/environments.

* A lot of Minecraft worlds/environments are devoted to fantasy gaming of the kind that involves lots of battles, powers, points, etc.; but there is also a lot that is just about building stuff and appreciating what others have built.

In other words: not your father's video game. (For further explanation, see "A Parent's Guide to Minecraft")

Got to get ourselves back to the garden . . . 

Minecraft landscape wallpaper by Haven
I am just at the beginning of my efforts to learn about Minecraft, and explore its possibilities. So far, I've learned several interesting things:

(1) Minecraft does, indeed, have an entire mode of use designed as "peaceful." (See "I play Minecraft on Peaceful mode")

(2) Minecraft has already, indeed, spawned a dazzling array of inventive "worlds. (See, for instance, "11 Family-Friendly Minecraft Servers Where Your Kid Can Play Safely Online" and "50 Most Realistic Minecraft Creations")

(3) Other people are also figuring out that Minecraft is a good environment in which to encourage young people to solve problems creatively. (See "MineCraft in the Classroom?")

(4) Microsoft just bought Minecraft. (See "Why is Microsoft buying Minecraft?")

(5) Minecraft isn't the only possible platform for exploring alternative forms of collaboration virtually - just the best. (See "50 Non-Violent Video Games That Don't Suck")

So now I'm asking myself this question: what are the 2 or 3 -- or 5, or 10 -- biggest lessons about "collaborating in peaceful mode" that we might be able to witness if we were to seek the answers in Minecraft worlds?

If we expect world peace to be accomplished, we should probably look for it to be done by young people, and we should look for clues to how it will happen in environments like Minecraft.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

This exchange has always stuck with me, because once you peel away the hopeless competitiveness and lack of compassion of these two characters, you are left with a grain of truth: if you want to succeed, you need to go where the conversation is taking place. The question for us: are we willing to check our egos at the door and get busy talking to people?

(See Antiwar Agitation in 2014: Less Mercutio, More Larry Levy )

Leveling Up is the creative work that demonstrates just how thoroughly America's new ways of warfare have become intertwined with the other dominant strands in our culture.

(See Level Up, Step Up, Grow Up, Man Up . . . Wake Up)

A big Hollywood production of Ender's Game is scheduled for release on November 1. It's a perfect opportunity for us to ask: Are we happy seeing our schools turned into "Battle Schools"?

(See "Ender's Game" and the Militarization of Youth: Can We Talk About This? )


It's a pitch-perfect antiwar tale -- timeless.  You can read about it on the Michael Sporn Animation blog, and watch it in two parts on Youtube. I don't know what part of "The Hat" I like best: the totally convincing dialogue (spoken by Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore)? the original soundtrack they created?  the mythic arc of the story? the exquisite drawings? Where are we going to get more of this kind of work to power the movement to abolish war?

(See Antiwar Animation: A Lost Art? )

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry)