Swans Commentary: Letters to the Editor - letter225



Letters to the Editor

(September 26, 2011)


[Please include your first and last names, and your city and state of residence. Thank you.]

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The Other Side of the Coin: Femi Akomolafe's Nigeria: End Of African-Centered Foreign Policy

To the Editor:

I like Femi Akomolafe's piece on Swans.com and I wish many Nigerians would be as deep. The only thing that troubled me is that his post is one-sided; he did not highlight the other side of the divide. The rebels demand was just and practical as I also would not want a family to rule my country for 40+ years as if it were a monarchy. Gaddafi, despite all that he did for his country did not know when to call it quits, which is why he is being ousted. The fact that he was grooming his sons to take over means he never wanted to relinquish power. Why would a leader rule a country for that long and still not want to leave? He did not want his atrocities exposed, period. Akomolafe's claim that the rebels are killing people with black skin cannot be substantiated as a major network did carry such news. And if you recall, there was a black American student that went to Libya to assist the rebels and this can be confirmed: see this dispatch from globalpost.com.

Adekoya Bolaji
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA - September 14, 2011


"In The Crossfire" at the Bureau of Public Secrets Web site

To the Editor:

Translated by Ken Knabb, Hélène Fleury, Naomi Sager & Hilary Horrocks
Published by AK Press
296 pages, 70 illustrations. $19.95

Although the Vietnam War is still well known, few people are aware of the decades of struggles against the French colonial regime that preceded it, many of which had no connection with the Stalinists (Ho Chi Minh's Communist Party). The Stalinists were ultimately victorious, but only after they systematically destroyed all the other oppositional currents.

IN THE CROSSFIRE is the story of those other movements and revolts, caught in the crossfire between the French and the Stalinists, told by one of the few survivors.

The complete book (minus the illustrations) is now online at

Ken Knabb
"Making petrified conditions dance by singing them their own tune."
Berkeley, California, USA - September 14, 2011


Long Comments: Michael Doliner's What is Authority? (Nov. 2008)

To the Editor:

I offer these comments, the first of which may be only editorial questioning:

1: Since the only date indicating publication of the article is 2008, it is puzzling to read "end this century with..." though the author may have been reading his William Carlos Williams and realize that re-creating a legitimate public authority will "take a hundred years, perhaps, or two" because "we must rebrick up the words."

Also, if there is a comments string on this article, it would be nice to find that so as to avoid repeating points earlier made. We certainly need more public deliberation on authority!

2. I love the idea of a public gadfly, so much so that I long ago anointed myself the public gadfly of every political institution in the U.S. and most of its states. Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way what any national gadfly would likely learn in the first generation or so: one is far from enough. Spread far too thin to even get noticed for the most heroic gadfly achievements. Besides, who wants to know what they cannot imagine might be relevant?

Perhaps one in every community of 5,000 (Aristotle's ideal limit for a decent local polity) citizens would be enormously helpful. Indeed, this scale also deals with many of the problems Arendt began exploring in works subsequent to Between Past and Future, but especially in The Human Condition: it invites variation, numerous "pilot" projects, and comparative analyses galore, all of these to see what works best for which publicly stated priorities, priorities that, of course, will also vary enormously from one community to another.

This small scale of the public gadfly's initiation as a public institution will also invite the opening of that famous Athenian democratic (demos plus kratia = community volcano in Greek) culture; it thus opens the way for radicalizing all those wonderful roots about which the ancient Greeks had many verbs, nouns, adjectives, and, of course, all their other ways of showing nuance, ways revealing the origins of what Arendt found first flowering in Rome: public character reveals all the virtues and vices of democratic practices from one citizen to another, and public authority must be solidly rooted in what the citizens value in common.

Of course, though she never mentions de Tocqueville by name as I recall, Arendt closely followed the Frenchman's Democracy in America in that she also saw in the US founding a powerful reincarnation of the best (and much else) the Athenians offered and the Romans put together into public authority.

3. I find today that working with secular spiritual training and education and teaching is enormously helpful for creating the mission common ground public authority requires provided it all sustains the commitment to leaving every individual as the ultimate authority in every single move, thought, word, whatever they do, say, practice, and so on. Leaving the individual as the ultimate authority dramatically facilitates the teaching of the more difficult things like meditation, prayerfulness, and contemplation. It also helps reveal the benefits and needs for creating and having and enjoying common ground where seriousness matters and humor can thrive without insult.

Keeping it secular precludes all the doctrinal wars that cloud the mightiest of traditional prophetic teachings. Perhaps the most compelling thing it accomplishes is what Plato had Socrates teaching at the end of the Republic: The most important question in life is how shall we prepare for our death. For if we are not prepared to die when the moment comes, (and who knows when this is in advance except for the terminally ill?) why bother thinking about that instead of following just any distraction that comes along, like money-grubbing, commodity fetishes galore, conspicuous consumption, or any of a million variations on cynical hedonism?

This is to say, that while it is true that, except for a few animal trainers, like Vicki Hearne and others, and for a few extraordinary teachers, like Michael Walzer and Karen Armstrong and John Gray and Cornel West and Jane Jacobs and Wendell Berry and Michael Murphy (author of The Furure of the Body) and George Leonard ( author of Mastery, The Silent Pulse, and Education and Ecstacy), we today do not know what authority is; it is also true that when we teach every citizen that they are their own ultimate authority, we implicitly if not explicitly encourage them to "read" the other self-annointed gadflies on offer around the nation and world. Consider the audience Chris Hedges enjoys at truthdig.com. I share discussion with folks nearly a thousand miles away on that writer's prophetic gadfly work there. Hedges is but one of many. Of course, each one has his or her own style of presenting their gifts, and most choose comedy, for that is most "marketable." So be it.

Marketability is the survival test of the day.

But so is prophetic ability. That also makes teaching others they are their own authority very important: it demands we each and every one of us seek out and study today's more prophetic thinkers and comics and critics.

We may not be fond of Jon Stewart or The Simpsons or any of the more political comedies. But they point the way toward finding public support for official gadflies: they must be entertaining and also tell the hardest truths; but, of course, we can say, no exaggerations or you lose your public position, and have a special court elected, with no salary or any other compensation, one each year, with seven year appointments on good behavior, and with the court required to have at least six votes to remove any member from its own body for ill behavior.

We may not like Obama's former pastor, Reverend Wright, but he is unafraid of speaking truth to power, no matter how much it makes him unpopular. We may not like Osama bin Laden, but he was exceptionally honest about why he organized attacks on America; our distaste for such critics only proves our inability to deal with our own shortcomings.

Of course, only the very most committed of individuals will bother to make the commitments to secular spiritual training; my chosen discipline requires upwards of an hour a day, not counting the contemplation and/or prayerfulness, both practices I take on in a flash, depending upon what the moment presents. Yet, the practice has been so enriching, clarifying, and promising for my life, I would not stop for anything less serious than emergencies; for it also makes handling emergencies much more manageable as well as great learning experiences. And even here, few of these practitioners will be willing to take on the awesome challenge of digging into the nitty gritty of what is right now corrupting our entire public life and culture.

However, our present arrangements are so dysfunctional that only wishful thinking and supposed convenience holds them together. Imagine what happens when the comedians discover how true this really is; yet, until the comedians discover the power of prophecy, they will inherently limit their own powers and marketability. So the gadfly really does stand a chance, provided we can develop the thought and learn how to present it honestly and compellingly in this market worshiping society.

Indeed, it is encouraging to see the nascent gadfly movement emerging across the nation; with just a brief visit to google, with the terms, "public gadfly," one finds plenty to explore and study. Perhaps you've begun a growing public movement already and what it most needs is professional, prophetic coaching.

So please, keep the Arendtian political theory alive and growing ever more healthy. She certainly took on the devil and hell in far more than Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem and all the essays in Between Past and Future.

Thank you for the article, and good luck to author and editors of Swans commentary for hosting your writing.


Walter J, Smith, Ph.D.
Enterprise, Oregon, USA - September 20, 2011


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Published September 26, 2011
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