What Do You Believe? How Do You Know? Want a Free Book?

She Who Is, by @claireinmidair

For as long as I’ve been interested in the search for proofs about the existence of God, I’ve been interested in drawing them. Words and equations just didn’t seem like enough; to wrap my head around what these constructs were expressing, and to try to communicate them to others, I had to make pictures. As I wrote my new book, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, I was drawing every step of the way — and my publisher, University of California Press, let me stick some of my pictures in the text.

In doing, I soon discovered, I was retracing the history of proof itself. Long before the mathematical symbols and notation we generally use today, ancient proofs were drawn in diagrams and images.

#GodInProof picture contest Now that the book is finished, I want to share the fun I’ve been having by making these drawings with you. The press has agreed to pony up some free books for a drawing contest, and here’s how to win one: Draw a proof of something, divine or otherwise, and tweet a scan or photo of it to #GodInProof, along with any explanation you’d like to add. (You can also email them to proofs@godinproof.com.) Selected proofs will appear here, where they’ll be entered for a chance to win a free book. Entries with the highest number of social media shares win. Multiple submissions are allowed, but only one book is allowed per winning author.

Download the PDF version of the contest postcard here.

Hacking the World

Gabriella Coleman

My profile of anthropologist Gabriella Coleman in The Chronicle of Higher Education opens with a scene from the New York City memorial service for Aaron Swartz in January:

The forces that seem to have hastened Swartz’s death were very much haunting the room. In the audience was a mischievous, greasy-haired hacker known as “weev,” who faces as much as a decade in prison for embarrassing AT&T by publicizing a flaw in its system that compromised users’ privacy. A member of Occupy Wall Street’s press team handed out slips of paper about the case of Jeremy Hammond, an anarchist and Anonymous member who was in prison awaiting trial for breaking into the servers of the security company Stratfor. There was Stanley Cohen, a civil-rights lawyer representing some of Hammond’s fellow Anons, and there was a T-shirt with the face of Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with passing classified material to WikiLeaks.

Just behind weev sat Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist, occasionally jotting notes in a notepad. She teaches at McGill University. Coleman first met Aaron Swartz when he was just 14, and over the years she had come to know many others in the room as well. Even more of them were among her 17,500-strong Twitter following or had seen her TED talk about Anonymous. Part participant and part observer, she began fieldwork on a curious computer subculture while still in graduate school. Now, more than a decade later, her work has made her the leading interpreter of a digital insurgency.

Read the article at The Chronicle. And download Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, for free at her website.

The Pope Is Not the Church

Pope Francis II like the new pope—more than I expected, at least. But even so let’s remember:

The pope is not the church.

It’s going to be very tempting to forget this fact over the next few days. The pundits, Catholic and otherwise, have been rapt in the suspense of awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. We heard a lot of impossible hopes for who the next pope would be, along with the less thrilling reality of the actual candidates. But Catholics, along with the masses who have been suddenly and momentarily interested in Catholic affairs, should remember that the papacy is not to be confused with the church itself. At no time should this have been more clear than those strange and special few days when the Catholic Church was a people—an assembly, a community, a mystical body—without a pope.

Read the rest at Religion Dispatches.

What I Learned about Empire in the West Bank

At the edge of the West Bank village of Faqqua, an Israeli soldier watches from the other side of the Green Line. Photo by Bryan MacCormack of Left in Focus.

At the edge of the West Bank village of Faqqua, an Israeli soldier watches from the other side of the Green Line. Photo by Bryan MacCormack of Left in Focus.

The Holy Land is supposed to be a far-away place. So it has been ever since Peter and Paul journeyed there from Rome, since “next year in Jerusalem” became exilic Jews’ sigh of resolve or resignation, since the prize of that city excused crusades, since London redrew the map of Palestine as a solution to the Jewish Problem, since Birthright trips have taken suburban twenty-somethings to sip tea in Bedouin tents. Thus the place can appear especially distant even after you go there, and meet the people for whom it is, simply, home. In some sense you’ve been there all along and can never leave.

I went to the West Bank last September with little eagerness or preparation of my own, but on the urging of a colleague who once wrote a book about the First Intifada. The place had always seemed, to my head, comfortably remote—a notorious source of trouble I preferred not to assume for myself. I went only because my colleague made doing so seem easier than the alternative. She arranged for me to join the Freedom Theatre, based in the West Bank town of Jenin, for a ten-day tour of performances throughout the region. After the arrangements were all settled, I mentioned them to friends familiar with Israeli-Palestinian affairs and was told, “Woah. Be careful.”

Because traveling to the West Bank makes one immediately suspect in the eyes of Israeli security, I prepared ahead of time a story about being a religious tourist in the process of finishing a book—technically true—about proofs for the existence of God. I rehearsed the fictitious details over and over in my head. With every word I wrote in my notebook, there was the superego of the Israeli intelligence officer watching over my shoulder. A fellow journalist told me about the time when a film he’d made in Palestine was erased from his hard drive as he was interrogated at Ben Gurion Airport. Another had just been banned from the country. These are some of the techniques of presenting distances as greater than they actually are, and of giving words meanings other than the reality to which they refer.

Read about the trip in a new essay published at Killing the Buddha called “The Hourglass.” It also appears in slightly different form at Waging Nonviolence.

When You Need Your Notebook to Lie Flat

Most of my writer friends are used to me extolling the virtues of Midori MD notebooks, these fabulous little buggers from Japan: tough signature-bound pages, bendability for comfy back-pocket storage (unlike your average Moleskine), and the ability to lie flat, on any page, at a moment’s notice.

The toughness was especially useful when I took my first Midori on a reporting trip in Costa Rica, where the moisture in the air makes short work of flimsy books. Back-pocket storage was often necessary while reporting on Occupy Wall Street, when at a moment’s notice I’d have to take off my reporters’ hat and help out on something with both hands. Lying flat, then, came especially in handy on my recent trip to Israel/Palestine when, for fear of the notorious security at Ben Gurion Airport and Israel’s anxiety about anyone seeing its occupation up close, I decided to photograph my entire notebook, upload it, and leave the book itself behind.

Thanks to the Midori’s marvelous ability to lie down on a dime, photographing the whole 176 page notebook took only a few minutes, with no need for fingers in the way to hold the pages to the table.

So get your Midori MD today; the more of us in the United States who do, the more likely they’ll continue being available here. I buy them from the good folks at MyMaido.com, based in California, who’ve given me great service and the best prices I can find on this side of the Pacific.

And if you want to read about about I saw and did in the Holy Land, start with my first dispatch at Waging Nonviolence. More to come.

What the _ Did Occupy Do? Where the _ Is Occupy?

For my report that appears in this week’s issue of The Nation, I had the chance to call Occupy movement organizers around the country and check in. The thing I heard, more than anything, was something like this: “I now know who I’m going to organize with for the rest of my life.” But this organizing is taking a lot of different forms—ones that I think may be even more important than the occupations themselves.

Distance and time—as well as involvement in ongoing local struggles—have lessened many people’s attachment to the Occupy label. “I’ve been working with all the same people I worked with in Occupy,” said Kate Savage, who specialized in facilitating assemblies at Occupy Nashville, “only it’s not called ‘Occupy’ for a variety of reasons.” For many issues and on many fronts, onetime Occupiers are finding that the Occupy brand—and all the associations that come with it—can sometimes hurt more than it helps.

Thus, the internally splintering movement shows signs of morphing into a productively subdivided movement of movements. One example of this has been this summer’s escalating wave of direct actions against the worst culprits of the environmental crisis. For the first time, a fracking well was blockaded and shut down in Pennsylvania, and a mountaintop-removal coal mine in West Virginia, at the request of local residents, received similar treatment. The Keystone XL oil pipeline, which inspired protests at the White House last year, now has locals and out-of-towners putting their bodies in the way of construction in Texas. In New York State, the fight is against the Spectra pipeline, which would funnel explosive fracked natural gas into parts of Manhattan.

At each of these protests, Occupy veterans have brought their bravado, their experience and their networks with them. “Lots of folks are going from eco-action to eco-action,” said Longenecker. “They’re building their skill sets.”

The environmental campaigns are only one such beneficiary of the movement. Some Occupiers are serving as hired guns for big unions, helping to agitate in unusually militant campaigns against corporations and austerity budgets. Others are working to draw attention to the massive influx of corporate cash into the electoral system post–Citizens United, while still more are fighting the National Defense Authorization Act and have successfully challenged its most troubling provisions in federal court. Home liberation efforts are taking place around the country—from Occupiers’ support of a high-profile rent strike led by Latino women in Brooklyn to under-the-radar house reclamations in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side. Partly thanks to the light that Occupy Wall Street has shined on it, the NYPD’s use of a discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy has declined dramatically. Meanwhile, the Strike Debt campaign being mounted by Occupiers in New York is developing online memes and public assemblies meant to mobilize those suffering from predatory lending into a mass movement.

Read the rest at The Nation.

Will Templeton Money Crown Philosophy Queen Again?

Along with this most illustrative of illustrations, The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Chronicle Review this week includes a feature story of mine, “The Templeton Effect.” It’s something of a sequel to an article I did a couple of years ago in The Nation about the John Templeton Foundation—a sizable and eccentric funder whose interests include shaping the academic discourse about religion and science.

This latest piece picks up a thread that was in the back of my head while working on the earlier one, but for which at the time there wasn’t quite enough evidence: that Templeton is strategically pouring unprecedented sums of money into analytic philosophy. And while much of the money goes to non-religious scholars, there actually appears to be a distinctly apologetic aim:

Templeton’s recent projects—even those led by people outside the Christian-philosophy fold—seem to follow a certain apologetic logic. Free will, for instance, is a critical feature of Plantinga’s celebrated defense against the problem of evil; although Al Mele does not partake in religious speculation himself, he is a respected opponent of the brazen neuroscientists, like Michael S. Gazzaniga, who announce free will’s nonexistence. Cosmology, too, is considered one of the most promising avenues lately in arguments for God’s existence, particularly thanks to evidence that basic features of the universe may be “fine-tuned” to provide for the possibility of life. Barry Loewer isn’t particularly interested in arguing for a divine fine-tuner, but his efforts might indirectly lend aid to someone who is. The recent $5-million grant to study immortality went to a philosopher who doesn’t believe in the afterlife, but the very fact that so much money is going to study it might give more credence to those who do.

Academic philosophy represents a distinctly Templetonian opportunity. Grants of a few million dollars are a drop in the bucket for the sciences, awash as they are with tax dollars and corporate contracts; but in philosophy, where such sums are unheard of, they have the potential to transform the whole field. The only question is whether philosophy is a worthwhile prize anymore—whether the discipline can still change how we think about science, what we think it means, and how we do it. The foundation is putting its money on yes.

Read the rest at The Chronicle.

On Strike Against Myself

Can you spot the author? Photo by The Eyes of New York, via Flickr.

I tried to go on strike for May Day, following the Occupy movement’s calls for a general strike, and it was harder than I thought. My decision was made official—that is, public—by Malcolm Harris’ inclusion of me in his piece, “How Does a Writer Strike?” The trouble is, of course, that I’m self-employed, and my only steady income comes from Waging Nonviolence, which I both co-run and love. My work for the past seven months has almost exclusively been about, and generally regarded as being in support of, the Occupy movement itself. One Occupier even asked me not to strike on Twitter.

The best I could figure was that I’d tell an editor she’d have to wait until the next day for my report, and that I’d keep myself from tweeting. Rather than observing at my usual slight-but-noticeable remove, I would be in; I would be of. Correspondence with fellow Occupy writer Natasha Lennard was helpful in thinking this through, and I resonate a lot with what she wrote at Salon:

The May Day general strike is an experiment and one I look forward to taking part in wholeheartedly. I find the distinction between observer and participant a problematic one to uphold. A distinction I prefer, although equally imperfect, is one drawn by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1938 novel “Nausea” — the distinction between “living” and “recounting.” The protagonist notes, “a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.” Just imagine what Sartre would have made of Twitter and Facebook timelines.

But, as with most projects of upbuilding self-denial, I failed, again and again. In Union Square I sat and consulted with Ingrid Burrington, May Day’s one-woman Cartography Department, whom I’d profiled in a little piece on the Harper’s website the day before, and as we did, we were being filmed as b-roll of me “reporting” for the 99% Film. Before that, I broke ranks with my fellow Occupy Catholics (discussed in a recent polemic for n+1‘s Occupy! Gazette #4 and Killing the Buddha) in order to run ahead and catch sight of the march taking the street. A reporter’s duty! And, after that, as night fell, an Occupy organizer up and told me a bunch of neat secrets from the tactical end of the planning process, so I got out my notebook to jot some of them down. At that moment two fellow Occupy journos—who had witnessed my agonizing over striking in an email list—noticed me and started shouting, “Scab! Scab!” They had both opted to work that day.

As 10 p.m. approached, the temptation to report got harder and harder to fight. There was just so much. Like a tourist with 10 seconds in front of a world-famous landmark, I couldn’t resist taking a picture. The scenes were too powerful, and passing too quickly. I later wrote in my subsequent report for YES! Magazine (and Waging Nonviolence):

As dark came, Occupiers’ plans to hold an after-party in Battery Park were foiled by police blockades. Text-message alerts guided those who wished to stay to a Vietnam veterans’ memorial tucked along the East River waterfront between buildings that house Morgan Stanley and Standard & Poor’s. The memorial includes a space that served as a perfect amphitheater for a thousand-strong “people’s assembly”—so named because OWS’ General Assembly is currently defunct—and it became one of those moments of collective effervescence and speaking-in-one-voice that won so many discursively-inclined hearts to the movement in the fall. People of other inclinations danced to the familiar sound of the drum circle on the far side of the park.

The topic of the assembly was whether to stay, to try and occupy.

So, before the clock tolled midnight, I scribbled. I wrote. May the god of the strike have mercy on my soul.

Paint the Other Cheek

When The Nation assigned me to do a story about questions of violence and nonviolence at Occupy Wall Street early last month, I had no idea how much the subject would explode. Occupy Oakland’s “Move-In Day” on January 28 and a subsequent article by Chris Hedges (as well as some heated discussions on my articles at Waging Nonviolence in between) triggered a national identity crisis in the movement. I followed the controversy as it played out in the OWS Direct Action Working Group, one of the movement’s most active and radical corners during the relatively quiet winter. Over the course of the month, I found yet another example of what “diversity of tactics” really means for Occupy Wall Street — the overcoming of challenges through raw creativity. In particular, I wrote about the birth of a new undertaking called the + Brigades:

The urge for this first came from a frustration with the same old tactics that Natasha Singh had been feeling for a while. “The marches were pointless,” she says. Then, just after the incident in Oakland, her friend and artistic collaborator Amin Husain returned from a World Social Forum meeting in Brazil, where he learned about the Chilean student movement’s creative tactics. He wanted to bring some of that home. The two of them recruited others and settled on a name: “+ Brigades.” They scoured photographs of movements through history at the New York Public Library. The goal, says Husain, is “addition and supplement rather than negation, opposition and subtraction.” Thus their answer to all the worry about black blocs: create blocs of your own.

Husain, who with Singh was one of the earliest OWS organizers, took part in the first intifada as a teenager in the West Bank. But he identifies neither with principled nonviolence nor, for instance, anarchism. The movement’s problem, he and Singh thought, wasn’t a matter of violence or not; it was a lack of imagination. There was too small a repertoire.

“Don’t negate the things you don’t like,” said Austin Guest at that inaugural + Brigades meeting in the church basement. “Add the things you do, so we can get a real diversity of tactics.”

Read the rest of the article at The Nation.

Some Great Cause, God’s New Messiah

Early this past summer, I came across a certain quotation opening an essay by Mary Elizabeth King—now a columnist for Waging Nonviolence and a friend. This was right about the time I first got the idea in my head that I needed to learn how to tell the stories of how great resistance movements are planned, during a conference where I was meeting revolutionaries from around the world. The quotation was from “The Present Crisis,” penned by nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell, and which became a hymn popular during the civil rights era:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

Those words seemed to capture what any revolution must be, especially when it remains just an idea: “Some great cause, God’s new Messiah.” It’s unimaginably gigantic, impossibly messianic. Yet somehow, there comes “the moment to decide,” despite “the bloom or blight” that might arise in the course of a movement, and its inevitable, incarnate shortcomings. One has no choice but to choose, for inaction also is a choice.

These were the lines I kept in my head while I attended the early planning meetings of what would become Occupy Wall Street—“Some great cause, God’s new Messiah” if there ever was one. What I experienced in those meetings is now the subject of my article in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Some Assembly Required” (subscription necessary, or get it at your local newsstand). It follows the incipient movement from the third planning meeting until September 16, the night before the occupation began. Where it leaves off, my articles at Waging Nonviolence and The Nation pick up. (There was also one snippet about the planning at Killing the Buddha.) The chance to do this Harper’s story, though, was the opportunity I was really hoping for; something with the space and support to delve more deeply than I elsewhere could into “that darkness and that light” of a movement that has changed and is changing the world.

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