Archive | January, 2014

The Mahatma and the Poet: Tagore’s Letters to Gandhi on Power, Morality, and Science

29 Jan

by 

“Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it.”

Slika

 

Between 1915 and 1941, Mahatma Gandhi — who was assassinated 65 years ago today — exchanged a series of letters with Indian poet, philosopher, and celebrated creative spiritRabindranth Tagore, debating such subjects as truth, freedom, democracy, courage, education, and the future of humanity as India struggled for its independence. The correspondence, collected in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates Between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941 (public library) is more than a mere addition to history’s notable epistolary exchanges. These letters are unique in that they were private in nature but public in manifestation — Tagore wrote in the Indian Nationalist intelligentsia forum Modern Review and Gandhi in his own political journal, Young India — and their spirit of mutual respect and measured response was antithetical to how such a debate might unfold today, if carried out in the public forum of blogs and online commentary. In the age of the “drunks in a barroom” model for political debate, these letters offer a poignant example of what it means to be both friends and intellectual adversaries, to stand by one’s convictions with equal parts dignity and respect for the other’s, to seek above all else to advance the public good rather than the private ego.

While he reposed his wholehearted faith in Gandhi as a leader, Tagore was critical of some of his tactics, chiefly his use of non-cooperation, which the poet saw as planting the seeds of intolerance. On April 19, 1919, Tagore writes:

Dear Mahatmaji,

Power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in all force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.

I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately such a force has already been started, and either through panic or through wrath our authorities have shown us the claws whose sure effect is to drive some of us into the secret path of resentment and others into utter demoralization. In this crisis you, as a great leader of men, have stood among us to proclaim your faith in the ideal which you know to be that of India, the ideal which is both against the cowardliness of hidden revenge and the cowed submissiveness of the terror-stricken. You have said, as Lord Buddha, has done in his time and for all the time to come:

Akkodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine [Conquer anger by the power of non-anger and evil by power of good.]

This power of good must prove its truth and strength by its fearlessness, by its refusal to accept any imposition which depends for its success upon its power to produce frightfulness and is not ashamed to use its machines of destruction to terrorize a population completely disarmed. We must know that moral conquest does not consist in success, that failure does not deprive it of its dignity and worth. Those who believe in spiritual life know that to stand against wrong which has overwhelming material power behind it is victory itself,- it is the victory of the active faith in the ideal in the teeth of evident defeat.

I have always felt and said accordingly, that the great gift of freedom can never come to a people through charity. We must win it before we can own it.

[…]

And you have come to your motherland in the time of her need to remind her of her mission, to lead her into the true path of conquest, to purge her present day politics of its feebleness which imagines that it has gained its purpose when it struts in the borrowed feathers of diplomatic dishonesty.

This is why I pray most fervently that nothing tends to weaken our spiritual freedom may intrude into your marching line, that martyrdom for the cause of truth may never degenerate into fanaticism for mere verbal forms, descending into the self-deception that hides itself behind sacred names.

With these few words for an introduction allow me to offer the following as a poet’s contribution to your noble work:

I

Let me hold my head high in this faith that thou art our shelter, that all fear is mean distrust of these.

Fear of man? But what man is there in this world, what king, King of kings, who is thy rival, who has hold of me for all time and in all time and in all truth?

What power is there in this world to rob me of my freedom? For do not thy arms reach the captive through the dungeon-walls, bringing unfettered release to the soul?

And must I cling to this body in fear if death, as a miser to his barren treasure/ has not this spirit of mine the eternal call to thy feast of everlasting life?

Let me know that all pain and death are shadows of the moment; that dark force which sweeps between me and thy truth is but the mist before the sunrise; that thou alone art mine for ever and greater than all pride of strength that dares to mock my manhood with its menace.

II

Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer; the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone.

Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer; the faith of life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailties of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt, but disdains to return it.

Very sincerely yours,

Rabindranth Tagore

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance.

Slika

Though Tagore is often misconceived as a kind of Oriental mystic — a perception no doubt compounded by his big white beard and draping robes — he was in fact a proponent of rational thought and a champion of the liberating capacity of modern science, as evidenced by his famous conversation with Einstein. In 1934, after Gandhi made a public statement calling the Bihar earthquake divine retribution for India’s sins, an appalled Tagore wrote respectfully but assertively:

[I feel] compelled to utter a truism in asserting that physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts. … We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason in those very minds — unreason, which is a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.

He argued for technology as a humanizing rather than dehumanizing force, something MoMA’s Paola Antonelli eloquently echoed more than a century later, writing in 1925:

If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man’s service.

Complement with Tagore and Einstein in dialogue about truth and beauty.

Advertisements

The Female Face of Poverty

8 Jan

Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, millions of women are still struggling to get by.

Slika

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the United States do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other.

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • Seventy-five percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population
  • Seventy-three percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled)
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled) …
  • And more likely than men to regret marrying when they did (52 percent, compared to 33 percent of low-income men)
  • Nearly a third of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them

Overwhelmingly they favor changes that will help balance work and family responsibilities. Eighty-seven percent of low-income women—and 96 percent of single moms—identify paid sick leave as something that would be very useful to their lives.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side: 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. And 78 percent said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re the majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

With this power, we women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro-life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for the right to vote. 

It’s time to come together again. By pushing back and putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream—for ourselves, for our daughters and sons, for our mothers and fathers, for our nation. We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care. 

Link

Wooden A-Frame Cabin Crowns Alpine Mountaintop

5 Jan

Wooden A-Frame Cabin Crowns Alpine Mountaintop

Set in one of the most impressive natural environments we’ve ever seen, this diminutive A-frame by Giovanni Pesamosca Architects sits high among the Italian portion of the Alps. Built in memory of prolific hiker Luca Vuerich, the little abode provides shelter for those trekking along a famed trail. Its pointed shape comes from a triangular truss structure, reminiscent of mountain crests. Constructed from medium-tone wood and prefab outer sheets, the refuge is a warm-toned beacon for hardcore travelers among the grey gargantuan mounds of nature. The cabin accommodates groups of up to nine hikers in comfort, with built-in bunks and a reminder of human comforts out in the wilderness.

The construction of the cabin was a feat in itself, requiring airlifts of supplies and a precisely-measured level base for the floor. A team of builders, many of whom knew Vuerich personally, hiked or were flown to the crest of the cabin’s ridge, where they completed the entire building process in less than a single day. Because of its remoteness, the A-frame’s design is conscious of the inability to maintain it constantly, and uses smart and long-lasting construction and architecture methods to keep it in good shape for decades to come. Over those coming decades, it will play host to many of the world’s premier hikers and most fearless adventurers seeking the supreme awe of nature in the Italian Alps.

In 1964, Isaac Asimov Imagined the World in 2014

2 Jan

But he couldn’t have known the consequences of the development he predicted—a planet whose climate is badly destabilized, whose inhabitants face mass extinctions in the years ahead.

 

Slika

 

In August of 1964, just more than 50 years ago, author Isaac Asimov wrote a piece in The New York Times, pegged to that summer’s World Fair.

In the essay, Asimov imagines what the World Fair would be like in 2014—his future, our present.

His notions were strange and wonderful (and conservative, as Matt Novak writes in a great run-down), in the way that dreams of the future from the point of view of the American mid-century tend to be. There will be electroluminescent walls for our windowless homes, levitating cars for our transportation, 3D cube televisions that will permit viewers to watch dance performances from all angles, and “Algae Bars” that taste like turkey and steak (“but,” he adds, “there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation”).

He got some things wrong and some things right, as is common for those who engage in the sport of prediction-making. Keeping score is of little interest to me. What is of interest: what Asimov understood about the entangled relationships among humans, technological development, and the planet—and the implications of those ideas for us today, knowing what we know now.

Asimov begins by suggesting that in the coming decades, the gulf between humans and “nature” will expand, driven by technological development. “One thought that occurs to me,” he writes, “is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. “

It is in this context that Asimov sees the future shining bright: underground, suburban houses, “free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.” Windows, he says, “need be no more than an archaic touch,” with programmed, alterable, “scenery.” We will build our own world, an improvement on the natural one we found ourselves in for so long. Separation from nature, Asimov implies, will keep humans safe—safe from the irregularities of the natural world, and the bombs of the human one, a concern he just barely hints at, but that was deeply felt at the time.

But Asimov knows too that humans cannot survive on technology alone. Eight years before astronauts’ Blue Marble image of Earth would reshape how humans thought about the planet, Asimov sees that humans need a healthy Earth, and he worries that an exploding human population (6.5 billion, he accurately extrapolated) will wear down our resources, creating massive inequality.

Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.

This troubled him, but the real problems lay yet further in the future, as “unchecked” population growth pushed urban sprawl to every corner of the planet, creating a “World-Manhattan” by 2450. But, he exclaimed, “society will collapse long before that!” Humans would have to stop reproducing so quickly to avert this catastrophe, he believed, and he predicted that by 2014 we would have decided that lowering the birth rate was a policy priority.

Asimov rightly saw the central role of the planet’s environmental health to a society: No matter how technologically developed humanity becomes, there is no escaping our fundamental reliance on Earth (at least not until we seriously leave Earth, that is). But in 1964 the environmental specters that haunt us today—climate change and impending mass extinctionswere only just beginning to gain notice. Asimov could not have imagined the particulars of this special blend of planetary destruction we are now brewing—and he was overly optimistic about our propensity to take action to protect an imperiled planet.

2013 was not the warmest year on record but it will come close. Last month, November, was the warmest since 1880. All of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. A video from NASA shows the dramatic shift in recent years. Watch what happens in the decades after Asimov wrote his essay. (Yellow and red represent temperatures warmer than the average for the years from 1951 to 1980.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO03ColwxHE

What color will 2014 be on that map? And what about in 10, 20, or 50 years ahead? Predictions are a messy, often trivial sport, but the overall direction the planet is heading is all too clear. As Wen Stephenson wrote in a blistering essay last year, “It’s entirely possible that we’ll no longer have a livable climate—one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive—within the lifetimes of today’s children.” No prediction should scare us more.