Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Tahrir Square”

Satire Is Part Of Freedom

“Without Bassem Youssef and the journalists who took to Tahrir Square in protest, President Morsi would not be in a position to repress them.”

Jon Stewart – Morsi

I’m not sure that I can add anything to what Jon Stewart said in the above  clip – when he gets serious, it is very powerful (even if still funny). Freedom and democracy is a double-edged sword. Taking power, even through a legitimate vote, doesn’t make you a democratic state. Democracy is a marathon not a sprint.

Do the right thing, President Morsi. Egypt and Islam are strong enough to deal with satire. Are you?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

Lighting A Candle For Freedom

Tonight Jews around the world will light the third candle of Chanukah. For a description of the festival please click on the link. The purpose of this blog is to focus on the theme rather than the ritual. But what I found fascinating is that American Jewry identify and celebrate Chanukah more than any other Jewish festival by a huge margin. The statistics buck the doom-and-gloom fears of assimilation and I believe there is a good reason for this. Chanukah is the Jewish festival of freedom. And freedom, while something the Jewish people have often struggled for, is a universal theme.

This year, I would like to dedicate Chanukah (not that I own any dedicating rights!) to the Egyptian people, who after demonstrating so bravely to overthrow a dictator, find themselves in Tahrir Square again only a year later. Freedom is worth fighting for … and coming back to fight for it again.

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Tahrir Square this past Friday.

The fact that many religions have a festive holiday deep in the winter is another bond that binds us. Here is my offering to kick off the festive season. It is one of a series of cool, hip Jewish songs for different festivals by a great, rising star.

Michelle Citrin has an amazing voice, an amazing personality and deserves so much more success. So please check out her music here.

Happy Chanukah to All People – Let’s all light the way to freedom.
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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Tweeting Freedom of Speech Pt. 2

On Monday we delved into the potential of Twitter as an effective tool for social change and the legal measures that some regimes have taken to curb twitter in their country. Twitter complies with any legal demand that is not restricted to unrest but covers in this country copyright infringement and child pornography.

Twitter does seek to maintain an open trail. It shares all requests for removal though a website called Chilling Effects. This website was created to advocate for freedom on the Internet and, in fact, members of Twitter’s staff are active on the website. In fact, Alexander Macgillivray, a former Google lawyer, and now Twitter’s general counsel, helped create the chillingeffects.org website while at Harvard, as well as crafting Twitter’s censorship policies.

 Twitter stated in a recent post: “One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t.”

Twitter has received praise from a number of free-speech activists who suggest that Twitter’s attempts at transparency have helped them. One such activist, Zeynep Tufekci, who is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was surprised to find herself praising, not condemning, the policies of an Internet company.

“Twitter is setting the bar as high as it can,” Tufekci said. “It does not deserve the reaction it’s getting.”

Jillian York, who is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees with Tufekci. “Once people see how Twitter is implementing this, they will calm down.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland credited Twitter with being transparent about its approach to censorship but said it was too early to tell if policy would harm users.

However, many remain angry with Twitter for what they clearly define as censorship and are demanding that the new policy is dropped.

Twitter’s executive chairman received a letter from Reporters Without Borders who summed up the sentiment on the street: “Twitter is depriving cyber dissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.”

And this is why Twitter’s actions, which curtail instant self-expression and communication, have led to political protests throughout the world.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Tweeting Freedom of Speech Pt 1

I have been getting into Twitter over the past month, thanks to a workshop at a local brewery (always the best kind) by fellow Left Coast Voices blogger, Roger Ingalls. In a few months, I have steadily attracted more than 10,000 twitter followers and stream this blog to them (@alonshalevsf). In addition, I have gathered more than 8,000 followers for my @elfwriter twitter and blog.

I had originally dismissed Twitter as a platform claiming that it lacked depth. How can you have a conversation with 140 characters? I really began to reevaluate Twitter while watching its role and impact  in the Arab Spring. Suddenly this tool, as a focus for freedom of speech,  became particularly inspiring.

Twitter are well aware of this. Chief Executive Officer, Dick Costolo, refers to it as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, even named one of their conference rooms “Tahrir Square” as a point of pride at the role that Twitter played in the Egyptian uprising.

So I became somewhat disillusioned to read that Twitter are considering curbing our freedom. In what many view as an about-face, Twitter now says it has the power to block tweets in a specific country if the government legally requires it to do so, triggering outrage around the world, especially in Arab countries.

Dissidents and activists fear the new policy will stifle free speech and thousands of users are threatening to boycott Twitter.

“Is it safe to say that Twitter is selling us out?” asked Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem.

Twitter isn’t alone in its struggle to find a way of maintaining its economic goals while considering itself the free speech platform. Facebook, Google and Yahoo all tentatively try and work around complex laws and state-imposed restrictions used to suppress dissident voices and spread the party line.

All these companies have taken down material posted through their sites because a regime felt threatened by the content or deemed it illegal.

However, Twitter insists that it remains fully committed to free speech. When Twitter removes a tweet, it no longer vanishes from the Web, like it used to. In other words, when a tweet violates the law in one country, it will  still be on the Internet in other countries.

The company will only remove tweets when there is sound legal standing in the specific country and claim this will happen only after an internal review. They will also post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed.

This creates an interesting dilemma. Tweets have a very short lifetime. They are soon buried under an avalanche of other tweets, whether from the same person or others in their following. This can often happen in under a minute and I am guessing that in a situation such as we saw unfold in Tahrir Square, it is a matter of seconds. How effective and timely can an internal review be?

More on Internet censorship on Wednesday.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

A Chinese Spring?

I am intrigued by Chinaand have blogged about it many times. So I was excited to read an article by in the New York Times on a topic that has crossed my mind. How is the Arab Spring going to impact the world’s largest non democracy?

One of the most lucid social commentators today.

 

Now I am not a China-hater, far from it. There are many things we can learn from them. But my biggest bone of contention lies in the basic right of freedom. As a teenager I came of age politically with the anti-Apartheid movement and the campaign to free Jews from the Soviet Union.

With this in mind, I do wonder whether China, a country with extensive Internet resources can remain unaffected by the Arab Spring. warns that China cannot ignore the lessons of what factors serve as incubators to 21st Century revolutions or how these rebellions are being played out.

“Let’s start with the new. Sometime around the year 2000, the world achieved a very high level of connectivity, virtually flattening the global economic playing field. This web of connectivity was built on the diffusion of personal computers, fiber-optic cable, the Internet and Web servers. What this platform did was to make Boston and Beijing or Detroit and Damascus next-door neighbors. It brought some two billion people into a global conversation.”

The world is connected

The rise of  smarter cellphones, wireless bandwidth and social networks has brought a further two billion people into the conversation and these populations are often living in remote areas.

All this means is that the days when traditional forms of mass communication such as state-run TV and radio could ensure the people hear only the official party lines are over. “The Syrians can’t shut off their cellphone networks now any more than they can shut off their electricity grids.”

illustrates this by  pointing out that although Syria has banned all foreign TV networks, you only need go to YouTube and  search for “Dara’a” in order to see clear up-to-the minute video of the Syrian regime’s crackdown. These videos are all filmed using cellphones or flip-cams by Syrian protesters who upload them to YouTube.

Internet Police cannot be everywhere in this mobile world

  second lesson from the Arab Spring is “a manifestation of “Carlson’s Law,” posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: “In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.” As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.

The regime of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was just too dumb and slow to manage the unrest. The Tahrir revolutionaries were smart but chaotic, and without leadership. Therefore, the role of leaders today — of companies and countries — is to inspire, empower, enable and then edit and meld all that innovation coming from the bottom up. But that requires more freedom for the bottom.”

While reading this, I began to get frustrated that was focusing too much on technology which essentially is a means rather than an end. But he then moves on to quote the Russian historian Leon Aron who drew comparisons between the Arab uprisings and the democratic revolution in Russia twenty years ago. “They were both not so much about freedom or food as about “dignity.” They each grew out of a deep desire by people to run their own lives and to be treated as “citizens” — with both obligations and rights that the state cannot just give and take by whim.”

Aron added that “The spark that lights the fuse is always the quest for dignity. Today’s technology just makes the fire much more difficult to put out.”

In fact the slogan of the Tunisian uprising was “Dignity before bread.”

China has one of  the fastest growing economies and a standard of living that is probably greatly appreciated by Chinese citizens. But there is more to life than just economic factors. If a Chinese Spring is to be avoided, the first step forward is to acknowledge that maybe the Chinese people crave the values that have seen an amazing chain of events in the Arab world.

The first mistake would be to think that you can prevent them from hearing what is happening globally. The days when the Great Wall of China was its first line of defense does not have a place in the 21st Century. Not that it always takes technology…

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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