Breathing for peace and reconciliation in Liberia

A mindfulness breathing technique born of Buddhism and the Vietnam war is helping peace and conflict resolution in Liberia. Harper Karmon, executive director of the Peace Hut Alliance for Conflict Transformation (PHACT), says the simple practice has greatly helped his organisation’s work with ex-combattants, including many child soldiers, and with war widows and children.

“This training has helped us to be very easy in working with people, helping them regaining their self esteem and reuniting families. Also, most especially, this training has also helped us in making great changes to our lives and our families,” he says.

Karmon was interviewed at Plum Village in southwest France, where he is taking part in the monastic centre’s month-long summer retreat.

Liberia’s civil war spanned two periods of fighting between 1989 and 2003. Almost 150,000 people died, mostly civilians, according to United Nations figures. Of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, some 850,000 refugees ended up in neighbouring West African countries. PHACT’s work is intended to help heal the great suffering induced by war.

“We feel very strongly that this mindfulness training can make a great impact on the lives of the Liberian people,” Harper added.

PHACT uses a mindfulness training developed by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to help people live happily in the present moment, using their in and out breaths to sharpen their awareness. The idea is that by developing peace in themselves, people help build peace in the world. Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam in 1973, settling in France.

Contact: peacehutalliance [@] gmail.com – removing the square brackets and spaces to form a complete email address.

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Talking about democracy – an interview from the frontline

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras - is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras – is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

It’s easy to rail about the failures of our governance systems – the unfairness of elections, the unaccountable behaviour of our governments or the grotesque abuse of democracy unfolding with Greece’s fiscal evisceration by fellow eurozone governments, the European Commission and the IMF.

These sorts of failures increasingly bumped up against my conventional understanding of politics when I worked as a salaried reporter up until 2005. To whom our governors are accountable was the question I found myself asking more and more – yet I struggled to find a satisfactory answer beyond the facile.

Fraudcast News was the fruit of my search for a response – writing the book allowed me to debunk my illusion that we live in anything approaching democracies as the term was originally defined – namely government by the people. I concluded the book with a pledge to explore alternatives to our many governance failures, using citizen journalism as a tool and tackling every level from local to global. That process has meant looking out for others who might be doing the same.

One such gem I discovered recently is Adam Cronkright, co-founder of the Bolivia-based Democracy In Practice.  He fell out of love with existing versions of democracy along a route that included Occupy Wall Street. His organisation majors on democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building at high-school scale in Cochabamba. I came across him earlier this year via the website Participedia, hooking up by email and then via internet voice calls to share frustrations about the state of democracy.

Adam and his colleagues are doing some great, real-world work in alternative government systems, which includes junking elections in favour of lottery systems to select student government bodies.

The following interview, which we recorded in early June 2015, gives a great flavour of what the work entails.

Feel free to respond in the comment thread or, if you’re involved with a similar project, get in touch for an interview of your own. There’s a big chance what you’re doing holds greater hope for decent, humane government than our current, mangled models.

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Glints of light in our governance gloom

Attractive young Greek people used to make a politics article more enticing.  Photograph: Orhan Tsolak/Alamy

Attractive young Greek people used to make a politics article more enticing. Photograph: Orhan Tsolak/Alamy

Paul Mason is one of the few regular journalists I make a point of watching out for. He does a neat summary of the state of alternative politics in Greece and elsewhere in a comment piece featured in today’s Guardian edition.

It’s certainly worth a read, and a comment if you’re so inclined.

Good work, as always, from Paul Mason though he doesn’t take the question far enough in IMHO.The last paragraph is the important one:

“…we will know that a real new left has emerged when we begin to see its thinkers prioritise the redesign of institutions inherited from the 20th century, and the invention of new ones centred on the self, identity and structured to survive incessant change.”

I’m not that interested in terms such as “left” or “right”, they’re too exclusive for a planet of human beings.

I do totally agree that thinkers everywhere need to focus on radically redesigning institutions, not just those of the 20th century but all the way back to the 18th – when James Madison and friends emasculated notions of “democracy” to mean something very different from power in the hands of the people.

Funny that we should be coming full circle back to the Greeks, who invented the term and other governance variants such as oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy and kleptocracy.

Their city states were undoubtedly bastions of the elite – women, the poor, the slaves and the foreign were not allowed any part in the governance system.

Nevertheless, those same elites had some cracking ideas about the dangers of elections – doomed to favour the rich, the beautiful and the most educated as opposed to the best governors or governance system – and some remedies in the form of lottery/sortition to choose political representatives at random from the eligible populous.

People are working on these ideas today – experimenting with governance systems that go way beyond elections. Syriza and friends are in the vanguard but they are not alone.

This is an all-too-rare place of hope

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Communicating climate change – both tricky and urgent

Greenland river on ice, courtesy James Balog (https://chasingice.com/)

Greenland river on ice, courtesy James Balog (https://chasingice.com/)

I decided to jump into the comments stream on this Guardian-hosted event on the best ways to communicate climate solutions, as below. The format was somewhat of a shocker, requiring a read-through of multiple comments coming in at all angles, and yet produced various pointers to useful resources on the subject. It’s clear we are still stumbling along with global, real-time, communication events but that doesn’t mean they are worthless, quite the opposite.

So this was my contribution:

My experiences of communicating climate change – both as a journalist and as a university lecturer – is that it’s damn difficult. Just yesterday my students were saying – yeah, yeah, we know all that but what can we do?

I showed them the excellent TED talk by photographer James Balog – its time-lapse shots of melting glaciers are very arresting

I think it’s also important to bring things back to the personal, which in this case meant me, to help people map climate change onto their own lives. That is not for some personal glory trip but to try to make the abstract real.

So with me, I reported for Reuters at Kyoto in 1997, reported as an independent journalist on the personal experience of joining direct-action protests in Copenhagen in 2009 and wrote a book on the failures of journalism to tackle complex global issues such as climate change in Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies. The work represents a trajectory covering 30 years of thinking about climate change and how to tackle it. I also recently turned vegetarian, in part for the sorts of arguments presented in the documentary Cowspiracy. They loved that part, a classroom full of French 100% meat-eaters.

Some of them seemed to get it, many probably thought me plain barking mad, but what the hell, these things take time.

Other people’s responses, which include ridicule, disbelief and also aggressive counter argument and worse, are part of what we all have to deal with as communicators of climate change.

We must factor our capacities to deal with those reactions into our work.

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Scotland doing its own election thing – get used to it

Nicola Sturgeon uses protective glasses to look into the sky at a partial solar eclipse in Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon uses protective glasses to look into the sky at a partial solar eclipse in Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

There’s a lot of talk about Scotland being the critical element of the UK general election 2015, things along the lines of a long analytical piece in today’s Guardian.

Scotland’s election result is the single factor most likely to shape the next government. No combination of parties would have the required numbers without the votes of the SNP

Yeah, maybe, but that sort of misses the point, if you ask me.

You didn’t of course, but here goes nevertheless, my comment in response to the piece.

It’s a good start but nowhere near enough – the way we are governed in 2015 goes way beyond Holyrood versus Westminster to encompass Brussels, Frankfurt (the ECB as a default arm of government, even for non-euro zone countries), the City (non-regulation of banks and financial markets, runaway tax havens and tax avoidance), Geneva (the WTO’s non regulation of corporatised trade rules), Washington (US globalised terror and non-regulation of biggest baddest multi-nationals that are major US corporations), New York (failed UN and non-regulation of Wall Street, as per the City for the latter).

So go SNP, if you can keep yourself above the near-inevitable traps of political incumbency, which I highly doubt. What excites me more is the multitude of experiments worldwide that together could lead to some broader vision of post representative democracy at all levels, local to global.

That would mean more day-to-day accountability of our governors to citizens and a clawing back of political authority from all these other agencies.

Maybe a bit ambitious for a Friday night, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

What do you think?

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Not voting is neither stupid nor disrespectful – it’s a tactic

Danzig shot

Below is my answer Jon Danzig’s challenge to respond to his post suggesting Russell Brand’s electoral advice to not bother voting was dumb and disrespectful to those who fought for our right to the ballot. I’d have posted it in the comments thread of his piece but got chucked off for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

Hi Joe – so here’s an answer that’s slightly longer than Twitter’s 140 characters. I said that I get but reject your logic about voting or abstaining, suggesting that you’d missed Russell Brand’s points in the Paxman interview.

How do I get your logic?

– People all over the world have fought over the centuries for universal suffrage – the right of almost all qualifying adults to choose their leaders from a restricted list of candidates in periodic elections.

– Because those people fought, some died, for our right to vote, a person’s decision to vote disrespects their memory and sacrifice.

I don’t in any way disrespect these people’s efforts – in fact, I both venerate them and am hugely grateful for what they did and some still do. I don’t think that’s an argument for me voting or not voting in UK elections.

So how is it that I reject your logic suggesting that I should exercise my right to vote?

For the record, I happen to be resident in France so am ineligible to vote in UK general elections. I do get to vote in communal, regional and EU elections here but not national ones. That’s not my point though.

If I were a British resident – as I have been in the past – I would almost certainly not exercise my right to vote in UK national elections. For the vast majority of UK constituencies where one of the main parties is the likely winner – Conservative, Labour, LibDem – I don’t think there’s any point in voting. There are marginal differences between the three but when it comes for example to economic policy – the bedrock of all policies – they are all variously but solidly pro-austerity. Throw in the UKIP EU dissidents and there’s still no change on that question. So for the vast majority of UK voters, what’s on offer involves choosing between parties who collectively subscribe to pro-austerity thinking – regardless of the fact that these policies aren’t working, that they heap the costs of the financial crisis on ordinary, poorer people when it was speculative capital and over-extended banks that got us into that crisis (NB we bailed out the banks – the real benefits scroungers/cheats in this debate) and because the reality is that “austerity” is in any case a cover for dismantling the public sphere and the welfare state in favour of private interests. That’s to say nothing of these parties’ failure to question the notion of economic growth as a sensible way to run the planet – it’s a recipe for ruining it more like.

I might be persuaded to vote in constituencies where there was a chance for an upset to pro-austerity thinking – perhaps where there were strong Green candidates and chances of their election or SNP candidates in Scotland (though for the latter, it is highly questionable whether the SNP would veer much from the pro-austerity model).

Choosing not to vote for any of these candidates is a political choice or tactic. It is not at all a suggestion that people disengage politically but rather that they ignore or minimise their engagement with the hulabaloo of elections and concentrate their energies elsewhere. Occasionally it might be tactically astute to vote – I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

We need radical political reform in the UK, at the EU level and globally. Nation-state representative democracy has had its time – a few decades of glory for citizens in Western countries in the aftermath of WW2, I’d suggest, but not any more. Real power has long left national parliaments – witness Syriza’s mauling by the German finance minister in the latest round of debt restructuring talks.

This interview with the Spain’s podemos leader Pablo Iglesias is highly instructive on what the future might possibly look like – though no one can say for sure.
For a UK perspective – the 2004 Power Inquiry was an intelligent stab at the question of why people didn’t vote. Though the inquiry failed to get much traction, it left us with a useful account of the then state of alternative democratic experiments around the world.
The work-in-progress bringing up to date of that report is here.
If you speak French – I interviewed a man called Charlie Bauer a few years back. He makes the case for radical democratic reform very powerfully, as you can see at the bottom of this post.
As a fellow journalist – a huge barrier to radical reform are the conventional expressions of our chosen profession. I tackle this in detail in Fraudcast News, which you more about here.

That’s way more than 140 characters.

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Fraudcast News – lifting lid on media’s “subtle and pervasive bias”

Fraudcast review shotI was delighted to meet Ian Fraser the other day, an award-winning journalist and author of Shredded: Inside RBS, The Bank That Broke Britain. We compared our respective wounds received as journalists kicking outside of the usual confines of our chosen professional activity – an all-too-rare breath of fresh air for me.

We did one another the favour of paying cash for our respective books accompanied with promises to read and review the other’s output.

Ian came good, way ahead of me, doing me the following review on Amazon.

I am delighted by his enthusiasm for the book while also being cheered by his references to the likes of the ex-Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne as proof of the ongoing relevance of its arguments about democracy and journalism.

If I could be so ungrateful, my sole, additional wish would be to encourage anyone who is moved to buy a hard copy to do so via the more independently minded book retailer Hive.co.uk rather than adding to the tax-phobic coffers of Bezos and co.

There’s also the PDF version that you can download for free from here.

Whatever you do, this is the review – many thanks again Ian.

Patrick Chalmers has written an important and timely book. Building on his experience as a Reuters correspondent in London, Brussels and Kuala Lumpur, he lifts the lid on the subtle and pervasive bias of our mainstream media.

He outlines how this bias can include self-censorship, journalists allowing themselves to be “co-opted” by the rich and powerful, the cozying up of media to major advertisers (as we saw with Peter Oborne’s recent revelations that the Daily Telegraph either removed, toned down or failed altogether to cover negative stories about major advertiser HSBC) and the “spiking” of stories that undermine media proprietors’ prevailing pro-globalisation, neo-liberal agenda.

The chapters on the frustrations he felt as a Reuters correspondent trying to provide balanced coverage of the European Union, of dusty corners of the financial markets and of the attempts of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad to resist the “Washington Consensus” are particularly good.

Patrick argues that the mainstream media in the West, as well as global news outfits such as Reuters and Bloomberg (whose journalism is largely funded by the leasing of data terminals to the finance sector), now see their role as being to buttress a failed economic ideology and to pander to an often corrupt elite. As such, he says they have become a pernicious influence that’s obstructing understanding and democracy. The lack of scepticism that most journalists display for international trade treaties like TTIP and unaccountable EU decision-making processes are just two of the areas of media failure covered in the book. Readers, listeners and viewers are being badly let down, writes Chalmers, adding that by amplifying ‘spin’, the media has unleashed a dangerous tide of misinformation that threatens to engulf our democracies.

The media failures outlined in Fraudcast News are also giving rise to a phenomenon that the writer and journalist Tariq Ali has separately described as the rise of the “extreme centre”. Prefiguring his recently published book The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Ali wrote: “What is the point of elections? The result is always the same: a victory for the extreme centre. Since 1989, politics has become a contest to see who can best serve the needs of the market, a competition now fringed by unstable populist movements. The same catastrophe has taken place in the US, Britain, Continental Europe and Australia.”

Chalmers ends on a positive note. In his conclusion, he examines how as a result of, among other things, the rise of social media and the internet, it has never been easier for civil society and public-interest journalists to develop a more ethical, balanced and responsible approach to covering the news. He provides examples of the rise of alternative channels of communication that bypass the mainstream media, arguing that these are much more capable of challenging our dangerously flawed governance structures than the media we grew up with.

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