We are the System


Qu’une révolution détruise un gouvernement en laissant intacts les modes de pensée qui lui ont donné naissance, on les retrouvera dans le gouvernement suivant. On parle beaucoup de système, mais on ne sait pas de quoi on parle.
Traité du zen et de l’entretien des motocyclettes de Robert M. Pirsig

We ARE the System - poster artwork by @lissnup

We ARE the System!

If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic
patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact,
then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk
about the system. And so little understanding.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Robert Pirsig

Any given day, much of my time is taken up with systems of one kind or another, their attendant problems, and the struggles that ensue.  Today I found myself dealing with the frustration of a tiny but elusive error preventing a simple computer program from executing. At the same time, my anger was aroused when I learned that Twitter suspended the account of someone who had voiced their opinion without malice or death threats. I felt angry because I knew they had not suspended the account of a hateful bigot who suggested religious genocide against Muslims as an appropriate response to the deaths of 3 innocent people in the Boston explosions, before the actual culprits were even identified. I see parallels in these two events because in both cases there are rules are in place to govern behaviour, yet a repetition of the same behaviour seemingly produced different results.

Rules are the framework of all systems, and the application of those rules is operational governance. The computer code which worked just fine on server a but failed on server b was not at fault, neither were the servers. As a programmer, I was working under an assumption, and a reasonably rational one, that server a = server b. Awareness of that assumption, and modifying the code in a very specific way, resolved the difference, and solved the immediate problem. You should note that in this solution, the systems were not changed, but server a ≠ server b. The reason is that the administrators of the systems had applied subtly different methods of operational governance. The way around it was to make a subtle change in behaviour – specifically, in the way the code was presented: behaviour a ≠ behaviour b.

In the case of the Twitter accounts, the same initial behaviour (sending replies that upset the other party) also yielded two different results:  account x was suspended, account y was not. There is only one set of rules published on Twitter; were the rules applied differently? Such situations are not unusual and they often provoke outrage. This is because insisting on a set of rules but then failing to apply them consistently indicates a issue in the operational governance of the system – as applied by its administrators – the outcome of which is inequality. However, when we realise that account y was able to evade censure by deleting the offensive tweet quite quickly – we can see that the issue can be dismissed because there was a subtle but effective difference, and (ultimately) behaviour x ≠ behaviour y. But honestly, no one likes to see patterns like this. They speak to us of petty, nit-picking, jobs-worthy administrators and belligerent, arrogant self-styled elites. They are the nagging whispers of inequality and injustice.

These are tiny examples of how we create systems which exhaust us – with their imperfections, contradictions and inconsistencies. We find ourselves adapting to different scenarios and trying to formulate corresponding sets of behaviours just to obtain the same outcomes.

The most uncomfortable and painful issues occur where impersonal systems of governance collide with human needs and aspirations, where the impersonal crashes into the personal. Such events cannot be avoided, because it is at this intersection that change happens.

In the process of our trial and error approach, we provide feedback to the system, which might then respond by changing the rules! Very often, the change favours the system, and personal aspirations are crushed, while institutional power is increased. For example, people who start out speaking about freedom of choice but are later transformed by an increasingly restrictive security system into prisoners demanding freedom from oppression.

There’s a lot of debate and discussion about “revolutions” these days, but the truth is, a real revolution is incredibly difficult to accomplish. Indeed, so much of everyone’s time and attention is constantly being diverted just dealing with the existing system and its ever-changing rules, there is rarely any opportunity to indulge in critical thinking or to devise solid plans to change the status quo. Higher level goals are pushed further from our grasp as we get caught up in the details of conflict.

This, I think, could be our greatest challenge: to mentally step outside the system, distance ourselves from events at the border, reclaim our ability to think for ourselves, acknowledge our role in creating and sustaining systems – in driving their changes with our feedback, understand what forces are at work, and the ways we surrender our personal power to the impersonal systems we inhabit and nurture.


#Mauritania anti-regime artwork

الجنرال محمد ولد عبد العزيز

My personal collection of Mauritanian dissident artwork. If you’re wondering what the slogans say, they’re more or less dozens of ways to say “Leave”.

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#CHINA: URGENT APPEAL: Investigate Activist Li Wangyang’s Death


Urgent Appeal for Credible Investigation into the Truth of Li Wangyang(李旺阳)’s Death

Click HERE to sign

Hunan labor movement leader Mr.Li Wangyang (李旺阳, see below for bio and video) was found dead in the morning of June 6th, 2012, in Daxiang Hospital, Shaoyang municipality, Hunan province (湖南邵阳市), China. Mr. Li’s brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu (赵宝珠) told media that he received a call from the hospital, around 6am on the 6th, announcing Li Wangyang’s death. At 6:50am, Zhao found Li Wangyang in his hospital room hanging on the window frame. Media quotes Li Zanmin (李赞民), friend of Li Wangyang, as saying that Li’s body was erect in front of the window with a ribbon around his neck. Around 9am, friends and relatives of the dead received words from the police that Li Wangyang “committed suicide by hanging himself.”

From all the media information available thus far, there are a lot of questions about the “suicide” claim the police has made:

1. Mr. Li Wangyang doesn’t seem to have a motivation to commit suicide. Relatives and friends have all confirmed that Mr. Li is optimistic and resilient, his health has been steadily improving, friends have been raising money for his medical needs, and they are not aware of any suicidal tendency on Mr. Li’s part. His close friend Zhu Chengzhi (朱承志), who had a long conversation with Mr. Li on June 4th, told media that “Wangyang is a tough man. Even with unbearable pains, he would never choose suicide to end his life.” Mr. Li’s brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu said that, in the evening before, Li told his sister to bring a radio to him so that he could listen and stimulate the faint hearing of his left ear. When interviewed just days before the 23rd anniversary of June 4th Tian’anmen Square Massacre by iCable, Hong Kong, Mr. Li Wangyang encouraged Ding Zilin (丁子霖), leader of the group called Tian’anmen Mothers, that she has to continue to persevere. He said in the same interview that he had never regretted what he had done 23 years ago. “Each ordinary man has a responsibility for democracy, for the wellbeing of the nation. For China to enter a democratic society sooner, for China to realize a multi-party political system sooner, I will not look back even if I have to risk my head.”

2. On-the-scene evidence is insufficient to support the “suicide” claim. A picture of the scene shows that one end of a white bandage strip looped somewhat loosely around Li Wangyang’s neck while the other end apparently tied on the window frame. The bandage loop is loose, and Mr. Li’s face shows no signs of distortion. His feet touch the floor with his slippers still on. All in all, he shows no traces of struggle often seen in death by hanging. Furthermore, from the video of the iCable interview, we can see that Mr. Li, blind and deaf, needed help to just walk, and it is also a question where and how he obtained the bandage strip with which he “hanged” himself.

3. The police prevented relatives and friends from taking pictures of the body and took the body away. Zhao Baozhu and Zhu Chengzhi confirmed to the media that relatives and friends of the dead asked the police to allow them to take detailed pictures, but the police rejected their request and took the body away around 10am, even though several dozens of friends attempted to block the police. Local police also thwarted rights defenders from visit Mr. Li’s home to send their condolences and to learn more about his death. Police’s actions, all in all, raise the question whether the authorities have something to hide. Mr. Li Wangyang has been watched 24 hours a day by several security police since prior to June 4th and they were still at the scene when the event occurred. It is puzzling then why Mr. Li could possibly have committed suicide.

As citizens who are deeply concerned with the state of human rights and the democratic development in China, we hereby solemnly make the following appeals:

1. Designate an authorized forensic science institution outside Shaoyang municipality to look into, and identify, the true cause of Mr. Li Wangyang’s death, accompanied throughout by representatives of family and friends. The findings shall be presented to the public;

2. For humanitarian reasons, allow Mr. Li Wangyang’s friends to visit his home, send their condolences, and help with the funeral and other affairs;

3. Hold local police accountable for their criminal and civil responsibilities for Mr. Li’s death, and pay necessary reparations;

4. UN’s relevant treaty offices, world governments and international organizations shall monitor the case, and pressure the Chinese government, to ensure that Mr. Li’s death will be dealt with fairly, judiciously and transparently.

Li Wangyang’s Biography:

Li Wangyang, male, was born in 1950 and resided in Shaoyang, Hunan province, China. Influenced by the famed “Democracy Wall” in Beijing and, later, by the Solidarity movement in Poland, Li Wangyang organized “Shaoyang Workers Cooperative” in 1983. He was arrested because of it but was spared of criminal charges. During the June 4th movement in 1989, Li and others established “Shaoyang Workers’ Autonomy League”, with Li as the Chairman, that mobilized workers to demonstrate and protest in support of the democracy movement raging on in Beijing. He was arrested on June 9th the same year and later sentenced to 13 years in prison for “anti-revolutionary advocacy” and “inciting to subvert state power.” In prison, Li Wangyang was beaten and tortured for being “unyielding”. When he staged hunger strikes to protest against torture, guards forced him to eat by prying open his mouth and, in the process, broke several of his teeth. Over his lengthy imprisonment, he suffered from debilitating illnesses that resulted in him losing both sight and hearing. In June 8, 2000, he was freed with reduced prison time. To defend his legitimate rights as a citizen, Li Wangyang soon sought reparations from the government for persecution that resulted in him completely losing the ability to work. In May 30, 2001, he was again thrown in prison with a 10-year sentence, this time baselessly charged with “assaulting state organs”. He was freed on May 29, 2011. The 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released recently in May 2012 by the US State Department , listed Li Wangyang as one of 128 Chinese dissidents and rights defenders to be concerned with. In its commemoration of June 4th just days ago, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars (IFCSS) awarded Li Wangyang the 2012 “Spirit of Freedom Award”.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTQmvSkx7fg]

Initiated by: Bei Feng (北风), journalist, Hong Kong

Xia Yeliang (夏业良), economist, Peking,China

Wu Renhua (吴仁华), scholar of historic documentation, the US

Drafted by: Bei Feng (北风)

Signed by: (click to see table) https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AsKDF8_HXe4IdGVsTXdUNTBKRFRFekJDREZtak9ZRGc&output=html (Refreshed every 5 minutes)

Click HERE to sign

#Iran (allegedly) issues fatwa against rapper


The Iranian regime’s penchant for fatwa has not changed in the twenty-three years since Ayatollah Khomeini called for the death of Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses. Now, it is the turn of another Iranian Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, to issue the famous religious edict for apostasy, according to Al Arabiya Farsi website (an organisation which finds no favor with me). This time, the victim is not a writer, but a rapper: Shahin Najafi, from the thriving underground network of Iranian rap. Censured because his music is considered “vulgar” and a symbol of “Western decadence”, the 31-year-old artist left Iran for Germany in 2005, to the delight of authorities.

via LePoint.

Banned Valentines

Iran's Valentine Ban

Iran's Valentine Ban

My son asked me if I was planning anything special for Valentine’s Day … ! Not for the reasons you or I might expect: I was definitely relieved after he explained, had been searching background information on Iran, and saw that they outlawed this day as one of many decadent Western traditions to be avoided at all costs. I told him about Mousavi and Karoubi, their wives and families, and the stifled attempt to call for a protest on 25 Bahman, which was Valentine’s Day last year. And I shared my resigned expectation that the only crowds on Iran’s streets this February 14, will be crowds of security forces.

I told him that I wondered if  some of them might be strategically positioned to obscure opposition graffiti – now in the form of symbolic flowers – from the public gaze, lest any citizen be confronted by such impassioned artistic expression and shaken out of the regime’s enforced Islamic Revolutionary reverie. (Thanks for the graffiti bouquet, guys!)

He said,

“Never mind, Mum, even if the entire population of Iran came out onto the street, overthrew the regime, and installed a communist state, it would still be completely ignored and overshadowed by Whitney Houston’s death!”

He’s learned, as I have, that there are two constants in the freedom equation: the relentless perfidy with which repressive regimes seek to crush even the tiniest bud of hope, of joy, of creativity, of resistance: “X”; and the transitory nature of the media’s lens: “Y” (or more aptly, “why?”).

The same is true in its different and yet achingly similar ways for Syria, where everything must be painted black and white, either or, despite a rainbow of alternative arguments and positions. For Bahrain, and I would also say for Saudi Arabia, where protests, police brutality, and a host of violations are blanketed in ignorant silence more suffocating than the clouds of tear gas in Bahrain, so large I always imagine they can be seen from space. For Tibet, so tired of being either ignored or patronised, I assume because major political powers are clearly terrified of getting on the wrong side of China, the world’s major creditor. For Yemen, for Mali, for Western Sahara, and for Mauritania, where it’s simply not in the Western powers’ interests to be paying attention to opposition movements, not when there are fascinating stories about terrorism or a food crisis to report, even if the opposition is real and the terrorists are fabricated. Frankly, the food crisis in Africa is so over-hyped, it’s making me feel queasy. And don’t even get me started on the tens of thousands of freshly-minted refugees. For Kashmir, Senegal, West Papua, and for all of you everywhere*, struggling to make your voices heard, I send you my love and respect, for Valentine’s Day and always.

*I realise I left a LOT of names out of this list but it would be like reading a world atlas if I mentioned every country by name. Apologies; you’re still in my heart.