Nationwide protest

The acquittal of George Zimmerman, self-appointed neighborhood watchman, who followed and killed Trayvon Martin inside his own gated community (!) is a blatant example of racism. As has been said repeatedly, if a white 29 year old man had come up to a gated community and gunned down a 17-year old white boy, all hell would have broken loose. But a black boy tracked and killed by a white man, who got injured in the process? That is put down to self-defense. The perpetrator gets off, scot-free.

It’s sobering to watch the two main witnesses for the prosecution, whose testimony broke the case:

Treyvor Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel was on the phone with him during the incident, and should have been the star witness, but when she opened her mouth to speak, she was inept, to put it mildly, and nearly incomprehensible to the court during her 7 hour examination (Language Log discusses race, Ebonese and Jenatel’s use of “creepy-ass cracker”).

Then, medical examiner Dr. Shiping Bao saw the body and could have explained the wounds in clear terms if his English had been better. As it was, he was hard to listen to. Small wonder that the jury obviously switched off. See the summary of this case in the New York Times.

Here are parts of the two testimonies that prove, once again, how essential it is to learn how to speak well before an audience.

Improve your English, folks, or you won’t be able to get done what you want done!

I remember when “Neighborhood Watch” was introduced in my neighborhood on Capitol Hill in 1972. I was almost 10, and my dad was involved. This was certainly not the sort of outcome that his generation envisioned. Back then, people on neighborhood watch didn’t bear arms at all. It was their duty to call the police if they noticed anyone suspicious. In fact, to judge from the guidelines available online, at least in DC that is still valid:

Patrol members should be trained by law enforcement. It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles.

I simply don’t understand why the prosecution didn’t try the defendant on these grounds. Today, it seems that taking law and order into your own hands is being condoned more globally. Is that any way to teach young people that we have a rule of law?

Self-defense is a very strange angle to take with Zimmerman. If a neighbor had pulled a gun out of the kitchen drawer on hearing the fight outside, and had fired as someone came in the door, that might be considered self-defense. But Zimmerman provoking a fight and then shooting the person he provoked? That’s profiling and then hunting down.

These are the phrases you hear the family of the victim say in their attempt to contain their disappointment at the outcome:

  • God will prevail
  • Justice will be served

And this is the chant in the streets:

  • No justice, no peace.

Michael Wesch on…

I keep going back to Michael Wesch when I want to understand media, and have posted his work of 2009/10 here before. Here the first part of a very short talk from the same period is very engaging (especially min. 3:45-7:15).

He summarizes here how in the pre-media (no-books) Papua New Guinea culture he had been studying, when disputes needed resolution, “the relationship was put on trial”. This changed when individuals became literate, and state laws were instituted, and suddenly in disputes the individuals themselves were being held to the letter of the law. Wesch relates how unhappy the members of the culture were with these changes, how they were struggling with what they had become.

Wesch generalizes this experience of (new) media clash, saying:

  • Even when we try to use media, the media actually uses us.
  • These changes affect everybody. There’s no opting out.
  • Media are not just tools, not just means of communication, they mediate relationships.

He foresees battles about privacy, security, who will and won’t have a voice, and what we will and won’t know, but doesn’t leave it at that. In a leap of faith, he energizes himself and his students to engage with the mediated world and make it their own.

I’m just thinking through, going back to his Papua New Guinea culture, how aspects of the cultures we have lost can be brought back in a new way. Recognizing that relationships going on trial was a fundamental principle in their old culture suggests to me that they will need to integrate that knowledge into the books in some way.

Likewise, reflecting on my disenchantment with Facebook, and having deleted my account though I’m fully aware that this has made me become disconnected to some extent from the mainstream of my professional connections, I’m pondering: In our new media age, we need to find new ways to protect our right to privacy, which to me is – still! –  as much an element of our right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as connectivity is.

I’d like to try to find ways to – once again – engage with mass new media, but on my own terms.

Losing face in English

I woke up this morning thinking about the debate on this blog on Westerwelle. It seems to me that this is an interesting case of a person losing face in public because he is being forced to speak English. BTW, I think the discussion has showed that both sides lost face: Westerwelle was most obviously on the spot. But as in most issues of saving face, the person who puts the other one on the spot is also implicated in a communicative situation gone wrong.

Do any of you have stories or insights to share about the issue of a foreign speaker losing face in English, or because of English?

JFK: We choose to go to the Moon

In the fall of 1962, when the USA was far behind the Soviet Union in its space program, JFK held his rivetting “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, proclaiming space to be the new frontier. I’d like to highlight two excerpts, with the minutes in the video indicated so you can read along as you watch.

See min. 4:35-6:20 and min. 8:40-9:17, text experpts below

4:35-6:20: “If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space to the moon and to the planets beyond. And we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We avow that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we and this nation are first, and therefore we intend to be first.”

8:40-9:17: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon… (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Trivia: Kennedy said that the year’s space budget stood at five billion four hundred million dollars, calling that “a staggering sum” (!) but saying that the American people were spending more than that on cigarettes and cigars (!!)

Full text

Question: Which thinker taught you to think?

Out on the streets of Tehran the opposition is protesting, disputing the June 12 election. The brutality being used against them by the riot police is just horrible. I’ve read that this election and the US election of 2000 are both being discussed as “stolen elections” and being compared, as if they were shades of the same kind of thing. Now, that’s very misguided. Come on. If Americans had taken to the streets in 2000, they would not have been shot down. The stolen US election of 2000 was very, very unfortunate! But the stolen Iranian election of 2009 is a crime against civil society. It’s a real pity when people start comparing apples and oranges.

I don’t pretend to be a great thinker. Going to college didn’t go to my head, but the experience did teach me to use it. So I’d like to ask you: Which thinker taught you to think? For me, one of the most important thinkers was Jürgen Habermas, who turned 80 last Thursday. His belief in our communicative competence and his theory of communicative reason influenced the way I think and live. Let me tell you about him in this week’s podcast.

I’d love to read what you have to say about a person who taught you how to think, and why that person is important to you.

Think! Use your head!
If something goes to your head (in den Kopf steigen) you become arrogant.
A heady experience is one that leaves you excited and high (berauschend). College was a heady experience for me.

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Helmut took out the trash a few days ago and said that a little old lady with a flashlight came round to the trash can and started poking through the trash he had just dumped. Man, this is Munich, one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. I was just reading the New York Times and found an article/ video about a community in Florida that was booming, with nearly everyone employed, until about six months to a year ago. Now the construction industry is in ruins. And people are hungry: One in four people is on food stamps, the soup kitchens are overflowing, people are are flocking to public pantries. And they have been foreclosed on and evicted from their homes. “People are very humble. They’ve never had to ask for help before.” It’s heartbreaking.

My generation of dummies

I’m an early Generation Xer, born 1961. Like Obama. Neil Howe compares us very unfavorably to the Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s). He calls us “The Dumbest Generation: The Kids are Alright. But Their Parents….” According to Howe, we

“have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. (…) prefer sound bites over seminars, video clips over articles, street smarts over lofty diplomas.

Early Xers … arrived too late to enter the most lucrative professions, by now glutted with boomer yuppies. Their only alternative was to pioneer the pragmatic, free-agent, low-credential lifestyle for which Generation X has since become famous…

Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those “For Dummies” books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around…

Early Xers have certain strengths that many more learned people lack: They’re practical and resilient, they handle risk well, and they know how to improvise when even the experts don’t know the answer. As the global economy craters, they won’t keep leafing through a textbook. They may be a little rough around the edges, but their style usually gets the job done.”