Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

By Scott London — October 7, 2011

Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

The question is often asked: how political is the Nobel Peace Prize?

I view it as an inherently political award, and I think Alfred Nobel intended it that way. That’s why he left it to the Norwegian parliament to elect the committee that picks the winners each year.

Given that the laureates are chosen by current and former politicians, it stands to reason that it would be a political prize. But if your politics are motivated by a yearning for peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, and the empowerment of women, is that a bad thing?

Here I discuss that question with Larisa Epatko of the PBS Newshour: Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

Who Will Win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize?

By Scott London — October 6, 2011

The winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced tomorrow. Some leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings are favored to win it this year. But based on the way the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been selecting its winners in recent years, I don’t think that will happen. I’m pulling for long-shot Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and still the only woman elected head of state in Africa. Her many remarkable achievements include helping to bring an end to the nation’s long and bloody civil war.

Steve Jobs Has Died

By Scott London — October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs in a suit and tieThe news just broke that Steve Jobs has died. It comes as a bit of a shock. I never met him, but like millions of people the world over I was the beneficiary of his brilliant mind and unique vision.

I’ve been using Apple computers for most of my professional life and rarely has a day gone by that I haven’t felt a sense of gratitude for the technologies he brought into being. I’ve produced radio programs, written books, edited films, retouched photos, and created graphic designs on the Mac. And that’s just the beginning. My story is hardly unique. Countless people will tell you the same thing.

Though I never met Jobs, I photographed him some years ago in Oslo. He was there to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Al Gore. My photo made the rounds. Apparently people were shocked to see Jobs in a suit and tie. They imagined that his closets were full of nothing but black turtlenecks and blue jeans, and I had proved them wrong.

People will be discussing his legacy for years to come. But right now, all I can say is that feels like the sudden end of an era.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you’re going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You’re already naked. There’s no reason not to follow your heart…. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.

Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

By Scott London — September 30, 2011

Wangari Maathai, the environmental and political activist from Kenya, passed away on Sunday. She was one of the most memorable figures I’ve covered as a journalist, a woman of extraordinary courage and dignity. She was also possessed of a disarming humility, a wonderful sense of humor, and a rare luminosity of spirit.

Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 chiefly for her environmental work in Kenya. In 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting campaign aimed at combating soil erosion and deforestation while also providing fuel for cooking in rural villages where women were often forced to walk miles in search of firewood. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over thirty million trees, provided work for tens of thousands of women, and seen its efforts replicated in countries across Africa.

For Wangari, planting trees wasn’t only about protecting the environment. It was a way to promote democracy, empower women, and safeguard human rights in Africa. As she saw it, there was a direct connection between the depletion of natural resources and the failures of Kenya’s authoritarian government. In fact, she had taken on Kenya’s ruling party and its autocratic president, Daniel arap Moi, on numerous occasions during the 1980s and 90s. Though she was vilified by the government, arrested more than a dozen times, and even beaten by police, her methods were surprisingly effective.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Wangari Maathai was the first ever to an environmental activist and still the only award to an African woman in the prize’s 111-year history. She accepted it at an unusually festive award ceremony that included African drumming and performances by a Kenyan dance troupe. Over 1,000 guests filled the auditorium of Oslo City Hall, including a large delegation of Africans, many of them cheering, whistling and waving small hand flags — a welcome departure from what tends to be an overly solemn and formal award ceremony.

Dressed in a bright orange gown with a matching headband, Wangari was radiant that December afternoon. She said she was humbled and uplifted by the award and accepted it “on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa.” In her acceptance speech, she looked back on her work over the course of three decades. The Green Belt Movement, together with other civil society organizations and the Kenyan people as a whole, had much to be proud of, she said — most notably, the peaceful transition to democratic government in 2002. Yet there were still a host of critical challenges.

She concluded her speech with words that are still vivid in my memory. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fears and give hope to each other.” That time, she said, is now.

Wangari Maathai Inscription

Wangari's inscription in my copy of her memoir 'Unbowed'

Burning Man 2011

By Scott London — September 20, 2011

Burning Man 2011 Photos by Scott London I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2011. It was my eighth consecutive year at the event. The gathering felt massive this year, from the huge crowds (nearly 54,000, according to reports) to the sheer size of the “city,” which was scaled up in 2011 and was in fact so big that there were large parts of it I never got to see. There were many impressive art installations, wacky art cars, and mindblowing performances in 2011, but I found myself mostly drawn to the beautiful and creative people of Burning Man. This is reflected in the sizable number of portraits in this year’s batch of images. My 2011 set can be found here. In addition to my usual collection of 100 images, my plan is to launch a new photoblog devoted to the people of Burning Man. Please stay tuned.

See also:

John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System

By Scott London — August 20, 2011

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto’s career as a school teacher began in 1965 when he borrowed his roommate’s teaching license and began working as a per diem substitute in New York City. He went on to become the city’s Teacher of the Year three years in a row and then New York State Teacher of the Year. But Gatto didn’t care for being in the public spotlight, and he ended his teaching career in 1991 with a now famous resignation letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

In the letter, he criticized the public school system for teaching what he called “a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency.”

Since then, Gatto has traveled across the country talking about the need to overhaul America’s public education system. He’s also written numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.

He’s a strong advocate of homeschooling. His books left a profound impression on me and were a key influence in my decision to homeschool my own kids.

On one of his visits to California, I sat down with him to talk about the trouble with America’s schools. We spoke at length about his experiences as a school teacher. I was especially curious to know how his students managed to win New York State’s essay contest year after year. His answer surprised me but also revealed an essential truth about our public education system.

“A girl came to me early on in my teaching career,” Gatto said. “She wanted to enter a congressman’s essay contest. I don’t know if she wanted to win a trip to Washington or a gold star. ‘Why are you wasting your time chasing these prizes?’ I asked her. ‘There are so many worthwhile things to do.’ But she pressed the point. So I said I would help her. I couldn’t promise that she would win, but I could guarantee that she would be in the finals.”

“How could you guarantee that?” I asked. “After all, there were some fifty schools in the running for the prize.”

“Here’s what I told her,” he continued. “‘You have to follow my instructions to the letter, and it’s going to be a lot of work for you. I want you to take a week off from school. I’ll cover for you. I want you to research the congressman’s career from the beginning. I want to know what college he went to, his earliest public speeches, and what he is famous for. He’s going to give this award to somebody who agrees with him. And no one your age will be able to agree with him other than in some generic fashion. But you are going to agree with everything he said at the time when he was class president in 3rd grade. You’re going to research this man and find out what his hot-buttons are.’”

The Trouble With America's Schools

“Isn’t that a rather cynical way to go about it,” I protested.

“If that sounds cynical, Scott, let me tell you that’s as idealistic an enterprise as I can think of,” he shot back. “It’s showing people how to pull the screen back and see for themselves how the system really works.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What happened?”

“Well, she did in fact win the trip to Washington (or whatever it was he was giving away). And a couple of her friends won second and third place. My students did this year after year. My kids were the valedictorians of the school. Our school gives the valedictorian prize not for the highest average but for the best speech.”

“What did you tell your kids about giving good speeches?” I asked.

“I said, first of all, that we would have to practice giving speeches in the auditorium, because they don’t want to pick someone for valedictorian who is going to embarrass them by freezing up on stage. So I got a key from the custodian — he was Irish, so it took three bottles of whiskey — and we made a master so that we could do all our practicing in the auditorium. Then I told them they had to know exactly what the committee believed. The committee was made up of a social studies teacher, a science teacher, and the principal. They had gone on record many times about who they were and what they believed. I said to the kids, “you’re going to say in your speech that who they are is the best of all, that’s how you’re going to be valedictorian.’”

Gatto registered the concerned look on my face. “Well,” he added, “you don’t actually believe that anyone in charge of giving a prize could give it to someone who contradicts their dearest, most cherished beliefs, do you? It would be madness.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with him. And, in fact, what he said opened my eyes to an essential truth about awards and honors — that oftentimes they are given to those who express or exemplify what the award-givers themselves most fervently believe.

What Gatto was telling me — and who can deny the truth of it? — is that awards say more about the people who give honors than it does about those who receive them. This is a subject I want to come back to in future post.

For more on John Taylor Gatto, go to Wikipedia or his official website.

Extraordinary Women

By Scott London — August 1, 2011

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

His question was not easy to answer. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights they lead you to. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they were all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  ”I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

Tweets and Retweets

By Scott London — July 23, 2011

Scott London on Twitter

Here’s a handful of recent Twitter entries on random subjects like kindness, grievances, consensus, and the limits of humility. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter here.

  • The trouble with opinions is that they drive wedges between people. Stories unite, opinions divide.
  • I look forward to the day when journalists, producers and filmmakers describe themselves not as independent but as interdependent.
  • Technological advances have to proceed in step with social advances or they lead to recklessness and misery.
  • I shudder every time I hear someone say that the iPad, and other devices like it, allow us “to consume content.”
  • Sooner or later we come to recognize that most of our problems in life are tied to grievances we simply refuse to let go.
  • The only change that matters in the end is the kind that starts with me.
  • Sometimes a loving act may be perceived as unloving — refusing to commiserate, for example.
  • I think consensus is better to strive for than to attain.
  • I used to say “I don’t know” a lot. Humility is good, right? Then a wise friend told me: “Stop pretending you don’t know and live your truth.”
  • Why do we know more at 25 than we do at 50? Because it takes half a lifetime to fully confront our own ignorance.
  • We don’t need our kindnesses returned, we need them passed on.
  • Gratitude is the highest form of devotion.

Becoming an Adult in Relationships

By Scott London — June 15, 2011

David Richo and Scott London

“New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything,” wrote Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient.

It’s a bittersweet fact of life — and a recurring theme in literature, film and the arts — that we start out reckless and clumsy in matters of the heart. Learning how to love and be loved takes time and the process is often a painstaking one.

For psychotherapist and author David Richo, the process can hold the key to inner healing and transformation. He makes this point in his bestselling book, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

Relationships are a journey, he says. They test us, they prod us, they give us a chance for self-reflection and growth. Approaching them with maturity, patience, and a sense of selflessness creates a new paradigm for embracing the inevitability of their ups and downs.

In the fall of 2010, I sat down with him to explore this idea and what it takes — in the most practical terms — to develop mature and lasting relationships. Filmmaker Russ Spencer has crafted our conversation into a standalone interview now available on DVD through Depth Video.

The interview is described as “a thoughtful and nuanced two-hour discussion rich with clarity and inspiration,” one that “offers couples, or anyone experiencing the difficulties that relationships inevitably bring, a trusted advisor through the turbulence.”

You can order a copy directly from the Depth Video website, or through Amazon.com. Here’s the trailer:

Things Are Not As They Seem

By Scott London — June 7, 2011

Huston SmithSome years ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Huston Smith, the distinguished philosopher of religion. Over a period of two months, we met for a series of interviews covering fascinating subjects like the troubled relationship between science and spirituality, the rise of fundamentalism, the common threads at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions, and some of the surprising insights about human consciousness coming out of psychedelic research. The interviews aired on public radio stations nationwide a while back, and I’m now editing them for print.

Huston Smith has had a profound influence on me. He introduced to me the idea that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He refers to it as the “primordial tradition” or “perennial philosophy.”

I had encountered the idea of the perennial philosophy from Aldous Huxley (his book by that name is one I keep at my bedside), but I never realized the extent to which people of various mystical traditions shared a common vision. I found that deeply thought-provoking, and more than a little inspiring.

This outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, Smith says, with a single notable exception: the modern West. Our contemporary Western worldview differs from what might otherwise be called “the human unanimity,” as he calls it, because of an unfortunate “misreading” of science.

In several of his books, he shows how science presumes to be the authoritative way of establishing truth, yet ultimately reveals only partial truths. Strictly speaking, Smith says, a scientific worldview is a contradiction in terms since the world science deals with is one limited to space, time, matter/energy, and mathematics. “Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen.”

The triumphs of modern science have blinded us to the fact that it is an inherently restricted form of knowing, that what can be measured empirically is not exhaustive of reality, that there are other higher domains that can be apprehended only through contemplation, intuition, and inner experience.

According to Smith, this latter idea stands at the center of all the great wisdom traditions, from Taoism to Vedanta, Zen to Sufism, Neoplatonism to Confucianism. The primordial tradition views reality as hierarchically ordered, consisting of at least three realms: earth, human, and celestial, correlated with body, mind, and spirit.

This suggests, in effect, that 1) things are not as they seem, 2) that the other-than-the-seeing represents infinitely “more,” 3) that this more cannot be known in ordinary ways, 4) that it can, however, be known in ways appropriate to it, 5) that these appropriate ways require cultivation, and 6) that they require tools or practices. (For more on this last point, please see my post on Spiritual Practice.)

Smith has helped me recognize that the best hope for Western culture is not to go back to some idealized past, but to retrieve a more expanded and timeless view of reality, to recover a lost dimension of human understanding. In his words, we need “to reknit the rich coherence of a fully human consciousness which the cramped and aggressive rationality of modernity has bruised so badly.”

For more on Huston Smith, please see my review of his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind

Living Cities

By Scott London — May 16, 2011

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, a city that is often ranked as one of the most pleasant and liveable places in the world. When I moved to the U.S. in my mid-20s, I was surprised to discover that the American city was a place of distress and decay. People seemed desperate to get out of their cities and into suburbs.

One survey I read showed that, given a choice, 9 out of 10 Americans would prefer to live outside the city.

It struck me as odd that in the world’s most powerful nation — a marvel of technological progress, industrial ingenuity, and economic strength — cities had become infested with crime, homelessness, and pollution.

So I began to look at urban areas elsewhere in the world to understand what makes a great living city. I talked with visionary architects and urban planners. And I studied some of the key features of thriving cities and towns.

I share some of what I learned in a recent six-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. I’m one of a number of talking heads on the program discussing the essential characteristics of a “living city.” Here are some highlights from the series: Living Cities.

Stay tuned for more on the subject in the weeks and months ahead.

Burning Man Photography

By Scott London — April 20, 2011

Burning Man 2010

One of my most rewarding creative projects has been photographing the Burning Man festival each year, something I’ve been doing since 2004. Over the years, I’ve built up a rather extensive portfolio of images from the event. Some of them appear in a new book, in several recent magazine spreads, and as part of an upcoming exhibit at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Rachel Bowditch’s book On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man, recently published by the University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books, includes several of my photos from the festival. Bowditch is a theater director, performer, and longtime Burning Man participant who teaches at Arizona State University.

In the book, she makes the case that Burning Man can be seen as a contemporary galaxy of happenings, a revival of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a site for rehearsals of utopia, and a secular pilgrimage. As the festival continues to grow, she says, it’s likely to create new paradigms for performance, installation art, community, and invented rituals that bridge ancient traditions to the twenty-first century.

A recent issue of the French magazine Folie Douce (published in both French and English) features ten of my photographs, along with an essay, on Burning Man. The festival is described as “an artistic utopia that is more than a little out there.” The text is a bit goofy, and not entirely accurate, but I was very happy with the selection and layout of the photos.

I also have two images from Burning Man in a recent issue of Vanity Fair and a double-spread in a forthcoming issue of Marie Claire. Other magazines featuring photos from the event include Elle Décor and Aïshti. In addition, my photos are included in a new 2011 calendar and commemorative photo book, recently published by the Burning Man organization. For more information, visit the Burning Man Marketplace.

You’ll find my image “Lovers” on the cover of the Summer 2010 issue of Common Ground. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with the magazine. The editors featured about a dozen of my photos in a retrospective from Burning Man 2009 last fall, as well as a portrait of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey in the Summer 2009 issue.

I’m excited to have a number of my photographs included in a special exhibition called “Living” opening next month at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. More details on the museum’s website: www.louisiana.dk

Finally, if you haven’t seen Creative Holly’s wonderful color blog, you’re in for a treat. Holly is a graphic designer with a great eye for color. For a recent post, she asked me to pick out five of my favorite shades of Burning Man and to say a few words about each one. I sampled the colors from some of my more popular Burning Man images. It was an honor and a kick to be a part of her project.

Creative Holly Color

Update, July 5, 2011:

My photo of the fabulous Jesster Canucklehead appears on the cover of Common Ground magazine this month. The summer issue features a preview of Burning Man 2011, along with a lovely photoessay from Ales Prikryl.

You can view the complete issue online at: http://www.sopdigitaledition.com/commonground/

More than a dozen of my photos also appear in the current issue of The Outlook Magazine, China’s leading culture and lifestyle publication. You won’t be able to glean much from the article unless you happen to read Chinese, but you can always enjoy the photos. Go to: http://www.theoutlookmagazine.com/3202/