Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Life Is Dear To All -- As Long As It's "My Life"

One who, while himself seeking happiness,

Oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness,

Will not attain happiness hereafter.

--Dhammapada 131

How is it that we continue to treat lunacy and murder as if they made sense?

How is it that we continue to behave as if mass murder were a legitimate solution to human problems?

It is that way because we tend to empathize with one side and not the other. Maybe we like Israel, and we identify with them because there are people shooting rockets at them and they are surrounded by hostile governments who exercise horrific rhetoric about them. Barack Obama himself said that if there were people shooting rockets at places where his own daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to stop them, and so should the Israeli people.

This is understandable. I can feel the emotional appeal of that argument myself. Touch one hair of my Gabriel's head, and I would be inclined to tear you limb from limb. There is, however, a problem with this argument, as with most arguments that rest on passion. This is the same justification used by terrorists. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

As long as we are using passions to examine human problems, put yourself in the position of a parent in a land occupied by a foreign power for two generations. You live quarantined, unable to move about freely to obtain work, and your children have trouble getting access to the nutrition and sanitation they need to live and thrive. Is there a possibility you would do something desperate?

The only sensible side to take in this stupid Gordian conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the side of humanity. If both sides truly wanted that, they would each make painful concessions at the negotiation table and put the life of their children before everything else. The sides should be pledging to help each other succeed rather than pledging each other's destruction. Hezbollah and Hamas are motivated by hatred, yes, and yes, there is a lack of honest negotiating partners -- I get that. Yet bombing innocent people does not root out hatred. Come, friends. It hasn't worked thus far. Are we going to give it a few more wars just in case?

The lunatic ideologies that move terrorists are bred in oppression and futility. And violence, of course.

It is typical, sadly, for human beings to raise their children to be soldiers in a glorious cause. The right cause, that being our side. We do not seek peace unless it is on our terms alone. Thus, we seek to win, above everything else, even when it is our own sons and daughters in harm's way. Our mythology must triumph against all other mythologies, and if this means I must bury my child's broken body, then this is -- this is -- further proof that my mythology must prevail!!

Our political leaders become a single party with their side-taking in this conflict, siding wholly with Israel and completely ignoring George Washington's warning to us: "The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave." (From his Farewell Address of 1796)

George Washington was not only talking sense about foreign policy - he was speaking wisdom to individuals as well. Habitual side-taking, positive or negative, is how people convert themselves into slaves who believe they are free. His words echo the wisdom of the buddhadharma, which remind us that we become slaves to our delusions. Our politics get infected with and then transmit this disease.

No more side-taking in this middle-east war, please. Both sides deserve a chance to live in peace, both sides need help in order to do that, starting with a right to live without fear of obliteration. This is not easy to do but it must start with an end to side-taking and, though I ask the improbable, an end to profiteering from death (as when we expedite sales and shipments of bombs to one side in the conflict). The only side to take here, I repeat, is the side of humanity -- if we want peace.

But you know what? I don't think many people actually want that. God as my witness, I think the truth is, human beings prefer this.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What Are We Truly Made Of?

Comment I left on Barack Obama's website today:

Several officials in the Bush Administration have admitted, or come very close to admitting, of their involvement in actions which are unambiguously war crimes.

While I do not generally recommend that an incoming President hunt down representatives of a previous administration and punish them, we are talking about something very different here. It is not enough to wait for these men (and woman, if we count the current Secretary of State) to go away. If we are a nation based on morals, there has to be a response to what has taken place in our name and carried out with our resources.

I refer to our policies on torture, a subject of anguish and shame for our republic. I am aghast to see the Vice-President admit to approving illegal torture as an interrogation tactic on national television, aghast to see the excuse offered that these things were done with "good intentions."

There should be a sober and orderly process to bring these actions to light for the historical record, and if proof exists of crimes, the culprits should be tried in a fair legal proceeding. That is the kind of country we are and this, of all times, is a moment when we must demonstrate that to the world.

Citizens, Not Subjects

Question: Who was the first President of the United States since Thomas Jefferson to quote Thomas Paine in a speech?

Answer: Ronald Reagan, as a presidential candidate in 1980.

Everyone wants to claim Thomas Paine. Why is that?

Here is an interesting interview between Bill Moyers and historian Harvey Kaye (a Paine fanatic)...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Unambiguously A War Crime

And I'm not yawning, though my mouth is hanging open.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who Says I'm A Grumpy Santa?

Hey, I wore the Santa hat on the last day of school and played ukulele with two mariachi guys -- Mr. A, a second grade teacher, on guitar and one of the janitors on electric bass - on stage with the second graders singing "Feliz Navidad." Mind you, I was prepared, if invited to sing solo, to raise my voice with "Fleas on my dad! Fleas on my dad!"

I am so Christmassy, I smell like pine.

I am so Christmassy, Bill O'Reilly defends my honor on his show.

I am so Christmassy, there are coupons to help you buy me in your newspaper today.

I twinkle like little colored lights and fall off the spool like your last bit of festive glossy wrapping paper. I crunch like early morning snow under your feet when you're on your way to go sledding down that hill that lays a little too close to the street for your parents' comfort.

I'm even thinking of suggesting that my county get involved in a Christmas tree recycling program next year, like the one they've got in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ho ho mufuggin' ho!

I wear the floppy little hat and Gabriel laughs like it is the funniest thing he has ever seen. Don't get more Santa than that. The anti-Scrooge, that be me. Sometime tonight my parents arrive to stay with us for the week. Blogging will be irregular like always. If you don't hear from the Grumpy Santa before then, happy ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oy, Bama!

Theriomorph, a blogger I read and respect, is upset that Pastor Rick Warren is going to give the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration.

It is all over the news, as well, although the media have chosen to portray it as a "gay" issue. I suppose they are referring to the fact that Pastor Warren, who recently told Beliefnet in an interview that he does not see himself as a politician, was a leader in the California Proposition 8 campaign, and he routinely equates gay marriage with incest and bestiality.

I'm not a fan or a hater of Pastor Warren. Sarah gave me a copy of his best-selling Purpose-Driven Life as a present years ago, and I read it. In an interesting way, I regard Pastor Warren with a similar feeling as when I regard Obama. It's pretty clear what they are both up to, they're clever at it, they give a good performance and a surprising number of people fail to see through it.

Pastor Warren has said some very good, sensible things about poverty and the necessity of doing more to help the underserved. He has poked conservatives about their charity, and has put his money where his mouth is by reverse-tithing, keeping 10% of the royalties from his books and giving away 90%. He done an exemplary job as the 21st Century, affable, Hawaiian shirt-wearing version of the celebrity right-wing evangelist, who happens to think, by the way, shucks, that letting people make their own moral decisions regarding abortion is equivalent to being a Holocaust denier; and, again, that ridiculous equation of gay marriage with sodomizing animals. Pastor Warren can say things like this and yet fool some people into thinking he is a moderate, or non-political. That requires careful effort and skill. He has been dubbed "America's Pastor" in the press, and his star has not risen by accident.

Senator Obama, similarly, has an astonishing number of people convinced he is something other than what he is. What is he? An exceedingly good politician. As with porn stars, we always want a pro who makes us believe they aren't a pro. Obama is a policy wonk and a Chicago machine politician who combines youthful stateliness and confidence with an eloquence we have not seen in politics in a long time, and sang a song of national unity and optimism that was always right on key. He even quoted Sam Cooke in his first address as the president-elect, from a hit pop song about social change. It was the right message for our time, and Obama made people believe it.

He and Pastor Warren are friends: best-selling authors and self-made celebrities. They have used one another to show their constituents that they are open-minded and courageous. Warren invited Obama to speak at his Saddleback Church knowing it would anger some in the pews; Obama knew his choice of Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration would anger a lot of people who vote Democratic.

Obama wants this choice to demonstrate his inclusiveness. This makes some people tear their hair because Pastor Warren takes divisive political positions and has made some insensitive statements. For you, the riddle becomes, do you send a message of unity by including the voices of prejudice?

You can work on that one if you wish, but for me there is no riddle. What's the surprise? Obama and Warren are professionals who have an opportunity to burnish certain credentials for each other. Warren solidifies his "America's Pastor" brand by doing an inaugural invocation, Obama adds to his "post-partisan" routine.

(But! But! Obama is supposed to be DIFFERENT than all those people! Algernon, you are so MEAN MEAN MEAN!)

Obama partisans, it is time for your reality check. This is politics. Choose your battles: get active and be prepared to fight on the level of policy and legislation. Don't worry about the spectacle.

Change hasn't shown up to rescue us; change has come in the form of an intelligent and talented politician who might listen to reason. That may not be what we fantasized about, but it's what we've got -- and it isn't bad.

Christmas Is Coming, Where Is The Tylenol?

Christmas is a-coming. The dead tree sits in our living room with colorful balls hanging on it, and Sarah feeds it ice cubes. I constantly measure its proximity to the heating unit and wonder at this bizarre custom of dragging shrubbery in the house, decorating it, and then flinging it into the trash. I have learned to keep these comments to myself now, as otherwise people stare at me in horror. A Grinch in the flesh, I am.

In school, I've set the students to playing Christmas-themed improvisational games, trying to sneak a little bit theatre-related content into their holiday ruminations. I told a few of my classes this week they had better hope Santa wasn't watching. Indeed, a call to Santa is a more serious threat than a call to the parents. Santa has rank, but only for a few weeks out of the year.

There are a few gifts under the tree, festively wrapped and waiting for the day. The best gift of all, however, is the prospect of some extra time in that bed. The bedspread even resembles gift-wrapping.

The other day, Sarah asked me, "What is your favorite holiday?"

As I associate holidays with stress, peculiar activities, and demands on time and money, this question is a bit like asking me, "What is your favorite symptom of hypertension? Do you enjoy the headaches most, or the swollen eyes, the sleeplessness, the ringing in the ears?"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Heck Of A Job

There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

Suppose I commit a murder, the police arrest me for the crime, and in my defense I say to them, "Don't be so divisive. Let's look to the future and try to forget the past." Would you not refer me for a psychological evaluation?

We are not supposed to remember Abu Ghraib.

It is supposed to be old news -- done. We are supposed to move on. Look to the future, that's they say. Stop ranting about holding our leaders accountable for what happened. Don't call for investigations, let's just move on. Punishing our leaders for war crimes only divides the country (the rationale used by Democrats to justify doing nothing).

You are not likely, then, to have read about this report in the news. The Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senators Levin and McCain (you know him), released a report last week officially tying former Defense Secretary Robert Rumsfeld to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Here's the executive summary.

Doesn't this seem like a bit of a news story? There is now a bipartisan government report tying top Bush Administration officials to war crimes, to the abuse and homicide of prisoners held by our nation.

I take no satisfaction knowing that a little bit of the money deducted from your and my paycheck was spent building illegal secret dungeons such as the one outside Kabul known as "the Salt Pit." I take no satisfaction hearing that a CIA supervisor at this facility -- someone paid with public money, our money -- ordered a human being to be stripped naked and chained to the floor overnight. The prisoner froze to death, one of many prisoners to die in our custody after being tortured. The CIA supervisor was never reprimanded and has, according to some leaks, been promoted. That person was rewarded for what he did, and yet another government employee (also in our employ, yours and mine) who blew the whistle on our government for illegally spying on us has had his life ruined.

I take no satisfaction knowing that Donald Rumsfeld flies around giving talks on national security and global politics and will not have to answer for what he has done. We punished a couple of low-level soldiers and Army officials who carried out these dark directives, but not the men at the top who set the stage and put them up to it.

Nor can I really rejoice in the coming change of administrations, knowing that this President will fly home decked like some kind of honored statesman, and will never have to answer for the torture and death of detainees (something that continues to this day), for the illegal spying, or his other crimes against the United States.

The vision of those who fought the American revolution was of a land where leaders are elected, subject to laws and limits on their power, and held accountable if they do wrong. When this man became president, I rooted for him as an American citizen who wants his country to prosper. This president went wrong. Really wrong. His error is far more serious than Nixon's or Clinton's -- if you know what I mean. He has much to answer for, but our republic -- born of the American revolution -- has lost its own identity. We have not the character or the will to call our leader to account, or even his cabinet officials.

A lot of people are feeling very ecstatic about the new president, but as I am not certain anymore what country he is president of, my own feeling is less jubilant.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Week of More Sitting, Less Blogging

This time of year is when Zen Buddhists remember and observe the occasion of Buddha's enlightenment (rohatsu, in Japanese). Dates vary from one community to another, but in December is when you will see many Zen temples host a ceremony and, perhaps, a special meditation retreat or a week of intensified practice.

In that spirit, I've been blogging a bit less and sitting more. It's too cold in the morning to sit on the porch, so I use the living room, listening to the heater roar like a jet engine while baby and mama sleep soundly.

Yesterday, I was engaged in conversation in the teacher's lounge with one of the fifth grade teachers. She was in the middle of telling me something interesting about her class when another teacher walked in, interrupted us, and immediately engaged the other teacher in a completely different conversation about losing weight. The woman I was talking to forgot about me all together and went into a very graphic conversation about the liposuction surgery she had undergone -- in so much detail, I was quite embarrassed.

How people will talk! Attentive silence can be such a gift.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Seaside Woman

Remember this? Enjoy...

Friday, December 05, 2008

I Didn't Vote For Him, But He's My President...

"I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job."

John Wayne, a conservative, said this upon hearing that John F. Kennedy had been elected president.

Not everyone is on board with that sentiment. Justice Clarence Thomas is trying to get two of his colleagues to hear a silly legal challenge to Obama's eligibility for the presidency.

Mother Jones paid a visit to some of the activists waiting outside the Supreme Court.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remember Silas Deane

Tomorrow will be the 230th anniversary of the public controversy over Silas Deane, a war profiteering scandal that took place during a tough chapter of the Revolutionary War, and a scandal in which Paine denounced private arms deals but in the process leaked negotiations with France that were to have been secret, and was forced to resign his government post. He was the first whistleblower on American government, and for this his very loyalty to the American cause was called into public question. He was literally beaten up on the streets on more than one occasion.

I happened to come across John Keane's description of this event yesterday, as I make my way through his biography of Paine, and it struck me how some of the political dilemmas we deal with today were already present in our colonial era.

In this case, for instance, Paine became embroiled because, in his view, public accountability trumped secrecy. In a democratic republic, what is the right balance between the secrecy and loyalty required in military matters, and the overriding need for public accountability, to hold government leaders and appointees to the rule of law?

Also, there is no basis for assuming that an American political leader supports the idea of the public being the authority, then or now. Is Congress in charge, or the President, or the people? We do not all agree on this. Paine foresaw people actively involved in watching their government and holding them accountable. The likes of John Jay and James Madison were aghast at this notion. Government is in charge, not people. Moreover, not all people should have the same political clout. John Jay said outright that people who own lots of property should get to decide how the country is run. So what if Silas Deane enriched himself with shady arms deals while the American army suffered on wintery battlefields with scarce food and clothing? So what if he paid inflated prices for supplies, accepting a nice commission for himself in the bargain?

It all sounds familiar. Men who think like Richard Cheney have always been part of our history, and indeed were among our Founding Fathers.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Buying Books From O'Keefe

Desert Exposure has an entertaining profile of Dennis O'Keefe's book shop in downtown Silver City.

The last time I was in there, I found an old edition of Mark Twain stories and essays dating from the 1920's. It's a compact book PACKED with Twain. There are Tom Sawyer stories in there I had never heard about, the entire text of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and other, lesser-known works. Four dollars.

It's a tight little shop with newspaper articles taped up in the windows. The Desert Exposure article doesn't mention it, but Dennis pays close attention to politics and is easy to engage in conversation on the subject, from the local to the national. He knows his regular customers well and on Saturday mornings I always find him chatting with people. One time, I heard him give a lengthy discourse on the stupidity of daylight savings time.

(For the record, the web link in the previous sentence is simply an interesting website -- I don't know whether the website represents all of Dennis's views.)

It's a slow news week here at Casa D'Ammassa, where school is back in session until Christmas, Gabriel is very close to crawling, Sarah is teaching music at home and playing piano for the neighborhood Methodist church. Sarah and her sisters decorated the place with tinkly lights and wreathy things in observance of some holiday or other.

Christmas shopping, right. Goodie, another reason to visit O'Keefe's!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Buy Nothing

"Why do they call it Black Friday?" somebody asked after a dharma talk at Silver City Zen Center this Saturday. Jeff said it had something to do with putting merchants in the black, as in black ink; the reason for the season being economic activity. I added another possible meaning: "it causes a Great Depression in your wallet!" Mike added, "Only if you participate."

The topic of Paul's dharma talk was the horrible incident at a Wal-Mart in Long Island. An employee there was trampled to death on Friday by shoppers who broke through the door at 5 AM, stomped over his body, and went on with their shopping. Also trampled was a pregnant woman, who is okay. When police shut down the store to investigate the crime, shoppers reacted with anger and continued to shop.

Human beings acting like starving, rooting hogs; and a man dead for no reason. Ho ho ho. Were they shopping for themselves, or shopping for others, fulfilling the implied duty to show your love and respect by purchasing merchandise? Were they using credit cards, overspending themselves into expensive debt and, financially, cutting into themselves? It is easy to put this down as a story about extreme human greed, but what about the anxieties and pressures that lay beneath the greed?

This happened the day after Thanksgiving, when some Americans observe an annual "Buy Nothing Day," a consumer protest against the commercialization of Christmas. This year, the context is one of economic malaise. We have only recently stopped whispering that another Great Depression may be afoot, with people around dinner tables remembering their grandparents who grew up in the Depression and thinking about a possible new season of prolonged hardship. Would we have to reconsider our lives, as the Depression generation did, and consider ways of living that involve sharing and cooperation, cutting back waste and unessential spending? Maybe, maybe not. I observe "Buy Nothing" day by keeping a skeptical frame of mind, not buying into any notion right away.

I am thankful for family, thankful that my son is growing up in a safe place surrounded by people who love him. My parents are driving across the country to spend Christmas with me and my family. To be present together, to drink coffee and rag on the politicians and say grace and tell stories together, is more significant than what's inside the gaily-wrapped boxes. If we had to skip the boxes altogether, we would still have the day.

Let us be chastened. Here is a heretical suggestion: I think that one Wal-Mart, just that one, should stay closed. Put a sign on the door explaining what happened. Maybe serve food to the poor from that location. Pay one employee to stand there with the Wal-Mart vest and greet shoppers with an unusual message: "Go home! Hug your kid!" Or just let shoppers go there, park, and find a locked door with a reminder about human priorities.