Sunday, October 27, 2019

On Freedom - In Loving Memory of Moe

I did not have any pets at home growing up. I rescued a pup in Iraq during one of our missions clearing a house of explosives, but was later told to surrender him to Civil Affairs as pets and infantry did not mix well. When I left the Army, I had the urge to get a puppy and we rescued one. He was an amazing friend and kept me busy for more than 10 years. We first attempted to train him as a search and rescue dog, but his laziness quickly quashed that dream. Instead, he became a therapy dog and led my wife and me to many hospitals and nursing homes. He even came to my law school finals to help ease the anxiety for me and many of my peers. Through the years, he taught me the value of patience and unconditional love. He was there when our son was born but he passed away a few months ago.

It is often said that humanity’s true moral test is how we treat those at our mercy: our pets and animals (Milan Kundera, and I think Gandhi said similar things). But what I have learned from our dog Moe was much more: about the ideas of freedom and civility.

In training our dog Moe to become a therapy dog, I learned to let go of control of his roam; he would be off-leash but his freedom came with a discovery of his curiosity and intelligence. By giving him the range to explore, he learned rules and boundaries. He learned to maneuver around wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, first out of fear but later out of his desire to comfort those bionic-human beings needing his attention. He learned to participate and respect because he was not bound to arbitrary chains; and his presence was a warmth that everyone felt. When he passed away, we received condolences from all over; but the most tearful thing came from my son who said “daddy, I grow up learn magic and bring Moe back.” To which my wife kindly reminded us that "Necromancing is nothing to f*** with ..." ;-D

As I reflect on Moe's life lived, and the increasing presences of authoritarianism around us (from China to Turkey), I am reminded why freedom is so important as Moe had taught me: when we let go and enable freedom, amazing things will transpire from those who are bestowed the privilege; it is when we chain them that they become uncontrolled and uncivilized.

"To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild 
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air
Comes a still voice"

We love you Moe.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

In a world of chaos, what divides us?

The world is now in a sustainability crisis: not just from the environmental brink of irreversible changes, but more pressingly from social and economic pressures and direct assaults to liberal democracy from the likes of Cambridge Analytica reinforcing misinformation campaigns undermining the value of free choice—for you see, without a freedom to choose we cannot correct the environmentally degrading courses made by autocrats, greedy corporate executives, and willing politicians.

Without freedom, we are all doomed.

While liberal democracy takes a shadowy left-hook on the chin from social media for profits’ sake, a few authoritarian regimes are mounting direct right uppercuts: killing journalists, censoring dissidents, committing cultural internment and genocide, and intimidating anyone dare to stand and speak against the monotonous power-based voices: obey, as resistance will be futile. The exercise of this power-based voice has made martyrs out of Jamal Khashoggi and unwilling fictitious characters such as Winnie the Pooh and the whole South Park universe—I only wish our humanity is so fictitious that I can laugh it off.

On the surface, the left-hook and right uppercuts combo on liberal democracy seem wholly unrelated: most would point fingers at Putin or Zuckerberg for being behind those Facebook breaches of misinformation; of course, Xi and bin Salman alone sit atop of those blames for censorship, forced/political incarcerations, economic intimidation and worse yet organ harvesting. To connect these individual “powers-that-be” in the same context against liberal democracy almost seems a conspiratorial sacrilege—one that would surly mark me as being ridiculous to imagine a world in which Putin, Zuckerberg, Xi, and Mohammed bin Salman, among others, all walked into a bar … and left agreeing to work in unison attacking our American values in freedom and pursuit of happiness. 

But we ARE mistaken to blame Zuckerberg, Putin or Xi, or Mohammed bin Salman, personally for failures of our liberal democracy. Such personal criticisms invariably lend support for these larger-than-life power-idols because humans are capable of sympathy on a fundamental level for anyone being merely/imperfectly HUMAN—yes, we instinctively have sympathy even for dictators. Still, placing such pointed blame on those power-idols implies an innocence of the accuser and spontaneously dividing the world into “us” versus “them.” Conveniently, we are giving them, and the power-based worships around the world, ammunition to fight back against liberal democracy with our own propaganda on how cruel and intolerant we can be in the name of “freedom.” Trust me, many around the world are more than happy to trade a lifetime of hard-earned freedom for an ounce of temporary peace and permitted prosperity. And they are all too happy to be entertained by observing how the American democratic experiment has failed.

The American democratic experiment is failing but not because of Zuckerberg, Putin or Xi, or Mohammed bin Salman, or any other power-idol we care to put on a pedestal (*ahem* Trump). The American democratic experiment is failing because we have forgotten what the experiment is all about—defiance in freedom by the people and progress in due process for all.

Defiance in Freedom.

Freedom is a responsibility. The Founding Fathers of this country saw the wisdom in that and drafted our Constitution protecting free speech, free association, and psychologically guaranteed our rights with the second amendment for the right to bear arms. In doing so, the founding of this great nation and its experiment in self-determination are rooted in defiance; “standing with others similarly inclined is paying forward the debt we owe those who paved our way.”

There is no such thing as defiance in freedom in places like China, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia. Defiance in those places can cost you your life and liberty; consequently, the privilege to pursuit happiness in those bad lands are limited to the select few and are based on patronage without due process or fairness.

Progress in Due Process. 

Freedom unchecked and without responsibility can be dangerous. Left unrefined, freedom drives deeper our affinity for stereotypes and fundamentalism, and creates a need for patronage for some sense of predictability. It is hard work to cross the waters and learn to appreciate differences; freedom thus uncivilized is a state of nature from which we have contracted out by our consent to live under our Constitution—a document guiding us to seek out differences and embrace them for the common good.

But there are many different constitutions around the world; some are process based (like ours) and some are patronage-based drafted around cult of personalities (e.g., China). When a constitution of a people is process based, due process and transparency allow a sense of fairness and equity from which defiance is possible and progress can be made. When a people’s constitution is patronage/personality/idol based, as seen in China and many other places, secrecy and mistrust breed unrests, protests, and direct confrontations—if not contained, could possibly result in horrendous consequences. Defiance is dangerous and progress is controlled. We see this manifests in China during the Cultural Revolution, at Tiananmen in the Summer of 1989, and currently ongoing in Hong Kong.

It would be remiss of me to support the Hong Kong protesters without pointing out the xenophobic undercurrents of these protests by both sides of the confrontation. The emboldened responses of pro-mainland-China voices against Hong Kong hate crimes ought to be welcomed by a people who value free speech, but some caution is warranted. There is an underlying systemic threat to due process long in the making with its origin traceable in modern Chinese memory to the Cultural Revolution—the mass hysteria campaigns albeit officially resolved by the Chinese Communist Party, continues to affect the Chinese national psyche that to this date refuses to confront its own failings; (China in 1981 passed a resolution declaring the Cultural Revolution no longer relevant for discussion as Mao’s contributions and mistakes cannot surpass his idol status and legacy).

The Cultural Revolution is the epitome of controlling outcome sacrificing the due process—the Chinese would soon forget their own self-transgressions than to confront them. In doing so, the Chinese people have put freedom aside in favor of their pride and prejudices. And here we are, blaming Xi, Trump, Zuckerberg, Putin or Mohammed bin Salman for our own mass hysteria on media blitzes all for the sake to be entertained. We are not so far from a Cultural Revolution of our own.

Yet without freedom, we are all doomed.

Liberal democracy is a condition we strive for all to exist in hopes for fairness and human progress. Blaming someone else for our follies demonstrates a laziness to embrace liberal democracy ourselves to reflect on events like the Cultural Revolution, which are immensely informative of what divides us today. Let’s not forget that our responsibility in freedom is to keep history alive and embrace our own mistakes. No one else is to blame for the failing of our liberal democracy—at least not those without such privilege to begin with.