Saturday, June 29, 2013

Obama Faces the Throne

At first, Obama rushing down to see a stricken Mandela it reeks of political expedience. It's not like he's got much else going on. Stay in Washington and have to talk about secrets and firing Eric Holder? Or get out of the country and have a presidential moment with one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century? 

Seems like an easy choice, but I think we also forget that for most of his life, the US considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Billions of American dollars were made while black South Africans were murdered. And when you think about it, Robben Island is really just the precursor to Guantanamo Bay. So as great as people say Mandela is now, the American mainstream has always been a leery about the man who married Winnie and fought alongside Fidel Castro. If anything, this costs him political points. 

But I think this might be good for the President. In this country, Black people have invested our last bit of hope in this man and that makes us a little less than objective. Obama's very image has become such a cure-all for Black people in America. No matter the ailment, just rub some Obama on it. 
  • Broken leg? Splint your leg with a picture of the President shaking hands with Bo the dog. Your bones will heal themselves, overnight. 
  • Depressed because a classmate got shot? Watch the inauguration again, while rubbing your forehead with a picture of Aretha Franklin's hat. All your cloudy days will become bright. 
  • Caught in a prison industrial complex that grows and grows? Make eleven blindfold one handed free throws. Be filled with a sense of accomplishment to enjoy the rest of your days. 
But not everyone's buying that in South Africa. According to this New York Times report, there are protests planned across Soweto. He's getting an honorary degree at Johannesburg University, but some students will protest outside. Two major political groups have suggested that the President be put in chains when he arrives (oh, the irony) for “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. 
“When President Obama was ushered into the world, there was a promise for change of policy, like the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and how he is going to respond to the dispute between Israel and Palestine,” Phutas Tseki, the regional chairman of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said in announcing his group’s participation in Friday’s protests. “Now he is on his second term, and he continues to be arrogant, and his policies continue to entrench American power to the whole globe without any change.
It's hard to find a lot to argue with there. I think Black people's support of Obama lets us lose sight of the greater diaspora. We have a duty to criticize this man if he's not doing right by us, all of us. If we can't do that, then maybe it would be better to have a white man be president. Maybe we could be more honest with ourselves. At least with a white man we would more clearly see that our president, despite being one of the best presidents this country ever had, is planting the Corporate American flag right in the backs of the people who lifted him high.
“There is now among the students a feeling that Obama has done nothing to the advantage of South Africa, and has only continued the American policies around the world that we thought he was going to end,” Mr. Levy said. “He is a visitor of our government, and we do not object to that, but we do object to his being honored by our university and we want to make sure he hears our calls that he follow through on the promises he made.”
I hope that whenever Mandela makes his transition, he makes it in peace and full comfort. But I also hope that our president has time to sit at this great man's throne and consider his own legacy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Into the Darkness

There's something deeply sentimental about the world of Star Trek. It's a vision of the future that might have been prophetic if not for the exponential curve of technology. If humans weren't already changed so much by technology, we might be able to really believe that a ship as powerful as the star ship Enterprise would be commanded by a person like James T. Kirk, a cool white dude who charms the ladies, kicks butt,  and crashes the ship every movie.

But the technological advance that would make a ship like that possible would need computing power unencumbered by the judgment and sentiment of a slothful human brain. Star Trek: Into Darkness would have been real short if HAL was running the show. Opening scene: Spock is in the volcano. Closing scene: Spock dies in the volcano. The end. Kirk would be nowhere near the controls.

What's the matter, Dave? Are you burning?
We persist in creating these computer-designed worlds where we are still masters of computers, yet many of us can't live now, in 2013, without our phones.

Thought experiment: Think about how painful it was the last time you lost your phone. How traumatic was it? Not having your data backed up feels like losing a close friend. Even if you;re data is retrieved, the experience is bittersweet, clouded by the doubt that maybe there was something lost.

We've transformed so much of our lives into data that a hardware crash feels like a death. The Ponce Deleon's among us cluck their tongues and lecture about flash drives as if they carried the water of eternal life. We're still waiting for that Lazarus device that will raise us from our purgatory of stored data after bodies have gone away. We're tripping. 

We employ a four character code to gauge the intelligence of our children, our most precious source of intellect. The test doesn't test our ability to feel, to empathize, to create--all of the qualities that will ensure our survival. Tripping.

Spoiler alert: We're not going to "win" against the computers, and that might be okay. It all depends on the types of computers that we create and award intelligence. Far too many of the most powerful computers in the world are used to kill or enslave people.

But what if instead of making our computers really good at killing and controlling humans, we used them to increase our capacity for understanding among all forms of life? Not just what's out there in space, but what's in our own hearts? 

And what does that look like? I'm not sure, but I know James T. Kirk is not involved.

What is involved is experiencing more of our lives without pictures or videos or dead screens. Put it down, turn it off, put it away. Take your headphones off and talk to that person who makes you nervous. Say hi and upgrade your emotional technology.