Religion in the News: The Olympics Opening Ceremonies and the World’s Arrival in China

As most of you probably know and as many of you likely watched, last night the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games took place in the Beijing stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. I don’t know if you watched it, but I must say that from the bottom of my heart it was truly a spectacular event.

I cut it off shortly after the U.S. team marched (I was tired), and so I didn’t see the official opening words of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao or the words of the head of the IOC. Honestly, I would have liked to, but oh well. What I cared most about was the presentation by Zhang Yimou, an unbelievable display of Chinese history. It was one of the most sensational performances I have ever seen.

Symbolism and Performance

As many of my loyal readers will know, I love history and religion, and this performance was a masterpiece encapsulating both of those elements. Plus, the symbolism was fantastic. Many may not know the importance of the number 8 to the Chinese but the word 8 is ba, and an incredibly similar word means prosper and wealth. The Chinese pay more money to live on the 8th floor of buildings and in apartments with 8 in the number. Two 8s together (88) means double joy and happiness. The telephone number 888-8888 was sold for $270,723 in China, if that gives you any idea. What’s my point? That 8-8-08 being the opening ceremonies of the Olympics is no laughing matter or accident. Moreover, 2008 performers were in each different piece of the ceremony.

Chinese Religion and History

Westerners often fetishize eastern religions, particularly Buddhism but also Taoism. Though I’m guilty as well, I’m also slightly troubled by the fact, and thought that these ceremonies were an excellent way of the Chinese demonstrating that their religions, history and traditions have more depth than we tend to understand. Of course, it doesn’t help these ideas to try to sum up Chinese history in a few hours of performance pieces, but it was nonetheless truly a sight to behold.

Chinese characters of harmony were displayed in the most fabulous ways, calligraphy and painting were done by dancing men on an enormous moving canvas, and Tai Chi, the ancient art of body movement to enhance the flow of the chi was performed for the entire world in amazing ways. 2008 dancers in green outfits that lit up created an enormous flying dove with their bodies.

My description, as I look back, is a smack in the face of this amazing performance. Truly, you should go watch it online. The incorporation of Taoist and Buddhist thought and symbolism into multiple performance pieces designed to display China’s proud history was remarkable and makes me excited for what’s to come.

Idealistic Hopes for the Future

Those who know me may think I’m an idealist, and so might you after this next paragraph. I hope that these Olympic Games are a new beginning for China. Much of the symbolism of the performance was about opening China up to the world and welcoming it with harmony. The Great Wall was created and then replaced with flowers that symbolize this transformation.

It is my hope that this is the beginning of China relaxing its strict policies about protest, becoming more democratic, and doing the right things internationally (Taiwan, Tibet, etc.). I’m not suggesting that the day the Olympics is over all will change and be well, but I do hope that when we look back in 20 or 30 years, we look at this event – this opening of China to the world for the Olympics – just as we look at ping pong diplomacy and Nixon’s visit today. Well, even better than that.

Yes, it’s idealistic, but China is a growing powerhouse and one to be reckoned with, and I only hope that this event marks a visible turning point in its history when it realizes the value of being a part of the world order and some of the democratic values that go along with that.

What do you think? Did you see the ceremonies? What was your favorite part? What do you think about China and the future in light of these Olympic games?

Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for Zen Talk. To check out last week’s Zen Talk, click HERE. To check out last week’s Religion in the News article, click HERE.

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Robert Mugabe is a Worthless Asshole

As some of you may know, Robert Mugabe, former and unfortunately-now president of Zimbabwe, has been reelected (although using this word here is the equivalent of shitting all over the concept of elections) by a landslide after a run-off in which he ran unopposed. Why unopposed? Because his opponent who won the original election (Mugabe refused to stand down), a proponent of democratic change and running on that principle, stepped out of the election after 90 of his supporters were murdered by Mugabe’s forces and boycotted it generally because it was wrong and unfair.

Mugabe will be president of Zimbabwe for nearly three decades, and he is a giant piece of undemocratic shit. Look, democracy may not be the greatest or most viable system out there – some of the greatest Greek philosophers insisted that it was an enlightened monarch (that is to say, a Philosopher King) – but in a country that has elections, you should abide by the results, not be a giant piece of crap and a big baby when you lose and then use the military to force decent voter turnout in a sham rerun against no one because you murdered his supporters.

The world is shaking its puny, polio-ridden, malformed wrists in a less than menacing fashion. The African Union opposes this. Ooooo. Ban Kee Moon is not happy. Ahhhh. President George W. Bush has threatened sanctions and UN action. Yikes. Desmond Tutu, archbishop of Cape Town, wants international forces to restore order and the new rightful leader of Zimbabwe, officially ending Mugabe’s 28 year reign. I doubt that will happen, but it raises fascinating questions.

On the one hand, I think that the world should intervene because if a just and democratic world (though you could hardly call it that) doesn’t stick up for the oppressed everywhere then what good is it pretending like we do. On the other hand, should we respect states’ rights and not interfere in internal matters that aren’t bordering on genicide or genicidal (not that we even do that when we should). Frankly, I don’t think there’s any consistency to the action based on principle. Only on interest. That is to say that we would only be interfering physically in Zimbabwe if we had some serious reason to oust a government that didn’t support our endeavors. But this isn’t Cold War geopolitics anymore so even those interest-principles are harder to come by. In short, it’s a complicated series of events and interests that would lead to interference in Zimbabwe and though the world may shake its fists at Mugabe’s unjust and undemocratic treatment of the populace, it probably won’t do anything.

Do you think the world should interfere? How should it do so? If not, why? Are principles reason enough to invade or just kick Mugabe out? What if the U.S. had to act unilaterally? Is this the U.N.’s job?

Status Update: We’re no longer moving in where we thought we were – realized it wasn’t such a good decision. We’re now staying in a Kimpton hotel in downtown San Fran while we continue searching. Cyrus is here and we will search about, having left Sunnyvale because our friend came back home. Any suggestions on where to look or live? We’d love some help.

Topical Tuesdays: E-books, Kindle and Books Not on Paper

As many of you know, on Tuesdays, Chandler and I each take on an issue relevant to the writing and publishing world and discuss it. You are invited to comment on both of our blogs with your own thoughts and to blog about the topic and send us links to what you wrote.

This week’s topic is, as the subject line would indicate, e-books, Amazon’s Kindle and basically, the fact that many books and publishing are moving to formats that are not ink on paper. How do I feel about this? Well, it’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

On the one hand, reading is reading and whether it is facts or fiction, stats or imagined tales, history or futuristic sci-fi, it’s valuable for the information contained in those words to be in our heads (unless it’s, say, Nazi propaganda or something, though even that has its place in a history class). They work our brains and imaginations no matter how they get in there: visually, orally, through Braille, sign language or ESP. Stories are good, facts are great and both are fantastic. Should it really matter if we’re holding a book open in our hands and running our eyes across ink blots on pulp? No, probably not. Running our eyes across zeros and ones on liquid gel or iPhone screens or Kindles from Amazon (a handheld device into which full length books are purchased and downloaded) probably ends up with about the same results. But there are two issues to consider (actually plenty more but two that I will raise): the wonder of discovering something in a book and the effects on the publishing industry.

In my experience, it is exhilarating to discover something in the actual pages of an original book. Allow me to elaborate. When I wrote my thesis, which can be read online at http://repository.upenn.edu/curej/10/, I had two options for doing research on eighteenth century Unitarian writings: 1. I could read the scanned versions of the books online at a repository for like books or 2. Fly to England and look at original copies of these texts in the British Library. Well, after a scholarship that allowed me to pursue the research, the decision became obvious. I went to England and read these books for information that no one had before and wrote my thesis, partially inspired by my experiences reading the original published texts of these eighteenth century brilliants. I even opened the handwritten sermons of eighteenth century Unitarian ministers and saw the words they crossed out and what they chose to say instead. Of course, that could suck for many, but for me it was a great experience, and I think that in the world of research, the experience of sitting in the archives and pouring over old texts is very important.

On the other hand, that anyone has the ability to research what I did because the material is available online is incredible! Many (i.e. enough) of these amazing books were online and anyone could have done what I did. It would have been less enjoyable looking at them on a screen and because of a variety of other factors I probably found more relevant materials but people could still enjoy these books because they’re online. More importantly, the information will not be lost as quickly: though a fire or time could destroy the original texts, they are now online forever (presumably). That’s a great thing.

The second issue is the effects on the publishing world. More people, through online publishing, have the ability to get their books out there because the publishing industry – which is picky, slow, cumbersome and elitist – is kept out of it. So, while we as readers may have more crap to filter through, potentially, everyone gets a chance, which means that more people can be discovered.

This also coincides nicely with the Long Tail theory of Chris Anderson, who explains that 1/3 or more of the market today, in books, music and movies, due to the democratization of instruments and the low/no-cost availability of them because of digitizing everything, is in the long tail of products – that is, those things that aren’t mainstream hits. That is, if there are 10,000 books worth publishing and they sell 6 million copies, and another 90,000 not worth publishers’ time but that get out there online, 3 million copies of those 90,000 books will still get sold, and even though it’s way more books our there, if it doesn’t cost anything because they’re digital, that’s still a third of the books sold getting rejected by traditional publishers and making up 90% of the available material (numbers are invented though they scale). That’s incredible and ebooks and Kindle are playing their parts in this expanding marketplace and the democratization of instruments and access. I think this is wonderful and if it happens to force the publishing world (as well as Hollywood and the music industry) to rethink its approach to who gets made then great. Sure, it could shake things up for a while but ultimately, just because things have been done one way forever doesn’t mean it’s right. Tradition is not sacred – especially not in business. Innovation is king, and if ebooks are changing things, rock on.

How do you feel about ebooks’ effects on the publishing industry? Do you disagree with me? Why? How about the democratization of instruments? Pro or con? Do you like books in your hand or do you mind reading from a screen? Love to hear what you think!

And don’t forget to check out Chandler’s thoughts at chandlermariecraig.wordpress.com.

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