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Archive for January 25th, 2013

Social media and religion: from Benedict via Barney to Vajrayana

Friday, January 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly for the fun of it, though students of social media may want to explore further ]
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Two stories from opposite ends (arguably) of the spectrum:

First, how social media can subvert respect for the “virtue police” in Saudi Arabia (h/t Sana Issa):

A lady in Dammam, the hub of the oil industry on the kingdom’s Gulf coast, tweeted a complaint from a local shopping mall. Agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), she said, were causing an unpleasant scene. The government-salaried vigilantes, a bearded auxiliary police force familiarly known to Saudis as the Hayaa, had marched officiously into an educational exhibit featuring plaster models of dinosaurs, turned off the lights and ordered everyone out, frightening children and alarming their parents.

[ … ]

Within minutes of the incident, a freshly minted Arabic Twitter hashtag, #Dammam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show, was generating scores of theories about their motives.

  • Perhaps, suggested one, there was a danger that citizens might start worshipping dinosaur statues instead of God.
  • Maybe it was just a temporary measure, said another, until the Hayaa can separate male and female dinosaurs and put them in separate rooms.
  • Surely, declared a third, one of the lady dinosaurs had been caught in public without a male guardian.
  • A fourth announced an all-points police alert for Barney the Dinosaur, while
  • another suggested it was too early to judge until it was clear what the dinosaurs were wearing.

  • There’s more, but I’m too prudish to post it…

    **

    Second, and more seriously – but wittily too, hey! — here’s how social media can impact the egos of “so-called” Vajrayana [ Buddhist tantra ] practitioners, together with sage advice from a noted film-maker Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse:

  • Don’t post tantric images: If you think posting provocative tantric images (such as images of deities with multiple arms, animal heads, those in union, and wrathful deities) makes you important, you probably don’t understand their meaning
  • Don’t post mantras and seed syllables: If you think mantras and seed syllables should be posted on Facebook as mood enhancement and self-improvement aids, a makeover or haircut might do a better job.
  • Don’t talk about your empowerments: If you think images from your weekend Vajrayana empowerment are worthy of being posted up next to photos of your cat on Facebook, you should send your cat to Nepal for enthronement.

  • Vajrayana Buddhism? Here’s a quick overview:

    In contrast to the approaches of conventional religion, tantra does not attempt to soothe the turmoil of existence with consoling promises of heaven and salvation. The tantric practitioner chooses to confront the bewildering and chaotic forces of fear, aggression, desire, and pride, and to work with them in such a way that they are channeled into creative expression, loving relationships, and wisely engaged forms of life.

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    And then there’s Benedict XVI, tweeting as @pontifex. His 1,458,557-and-counting followers have thus far received 27 tweets from the Holy Father since December 12th — no “Friday Follows” and no “Retweets”.

    He does, however, follow himself in 8 languages besides English.

    The Controversial CTC Report

    Friday, January 25th, 2013

    The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

    First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

    The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

    ….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

    ….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

    This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

    By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

    As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

    I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.


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