Thursday, July 23, 2009

L'enfer, C'est les Autres

The line comes from Sartre's 1944 play Huis Clos (best known in English as No Exit): "L'enfer, c'est les autres." Hell is other people; in any language, it is one of the best-known quotes of the twentieth century.

The other day a pamphlet fell out of my wife's Bible: Overcoming Offenses: God's provision for victory - no longer a prisoner of hurt (1995). It had been given to my wife by someone at a Bible study class. The author is a pastor named David G. Huskey. What intrigued me most was the reference to "victory." Lately, I have been reading about Christian nationalism and wondered if this was a dominionist manifesto or something more personal and reflective. As it turns out, there is a bit of both here.

Huskey begins by presenting a Biblical definition of "offense" as "anything that arouses prejudice or becomes a hindrance to others or causes them to fall by the way." It also shares a definition of "offense" as the part of a trap where the bait is placed. This might have led to an exploration of anger and pride, the habits that compel us to reach for the bait time after time.

There is some good inspirational material here about working with difficult emotions such as anger and vanity. This is not, however, a pamphlet that encourages deep self-reflection. Instead, culpability for our confusion is assigned to a single outside actor. A well-known figure, as a matter of fact. A character known for his horns and pitchfork. Yeah, him. Literally.

Allowing offenses into your life causes many things to happen. Satan brings these hurts upon you to distract you from your destiny...The devil will use anyone as the bait in the snare. It may be your wife, husband, friend, enemy or stranger. This is his way of trying to break up relationships. In using these people, he is mainly striking at killing your fellowship and joy with God and others.

Oh my! What about breaking up relationships by telling vulnerable people that their spouse or friend may be possessed by Satan? Anything someone says or does that differs from the preferred doctrine must be the work of the Satan, specifically designed to trip you up. This parallels one of the crucial steps cults follow in gathering vulnerable people: isolating them from the community outside the cult.

The devil will set a plan against you because you are important to God and a detriment to him. Satan has studied you and knows you, though his knowledge is not as intimate or complete as God's.

This guy doesn't go to many interfaith clergy breakfasts. The meme that "people who are different are touched by evil and dangerous" is nothing new, of course. Yet Huskey actually takes the step of de-humanizing people at the point they say or do anything that might cause you to consider your own beliefs. It also places you at the center of a scary universe: it is all about you, and it is all about Satan's efforts to GET you.

Huskey brings up the passage from Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, be killed, and then rise from His grave. Peter was understandably a bit troubled to hear these things and had some questions -- perhaps skeptical questions. That's when Jesus hands Peter the smackdown: "Get thee behind me, Satan! Thou art an offense unto me; for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."

Huskey points out that Jesus addresses Peter as Satan, because this was Satan talking, not Peter. Anything other than uncritical, non-introspective fidelity to this belief system is worldly and bad. Therefore, if your professor at school asks you to entertain an idea outside the particular doctrine you have adopted, he has been momentarily possessed by the devil. Love and forgive your professor, says the pastor, but disregard any question he asks or any idea he expresses. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Sartre's play is about purgatory, the French title a legal term for when a court is adjourned. Three people are trapped in a room together and feel compelled to examine and convict one another. (Thus the quip is made, "Hell is other people.") Something the decedents all have in common is bad behavior in relationships, suggesting that their purpose in this little room might be to learn how to care for one another.

To find that intimacy, you have to be able to talk and understand the other, to honor the integrity of the story that is moving them while making yourself understood to them. Huskey pushes the reader in the opposite direction: insulate yourself from otherness as much as possible, because otherness is an illusion woven by the devil solely for the purpose of destroying you. This is no basis for a human relationship.

In Zen, we sometimes say that anybody who offends you is Buddha, showing you your angry mind. We do not believe this as literally as Huskey's vision of Satan. The point is: if you make hell, then other people are hell. On the other hand, otherness can also teach you about the world and other people. If compassion and forbearance become your habits, if you accept some education instead of hiding in some personal dark age, your hell disappears and the whole world becomes church. What a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Self-Hating City On The Hill

This week I have been reading the news with a dreadful feeling that health care reform, long overdue, is going to fail. Again. The death of health reform will be a bipartisan accomplishment, another tragic consequence of our inane two-party system.

The minority party wants the majority party to fail, and has been working hard to derail any action at all. A prominent conservative columnist advised his party that this is the week to "go for the kill." What an apt phrase.

We have some excellent hospitals and highly-trained doctors in the United States, but a great number of Americans cannot access them. This is unjust. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, maintains that emergency rooms are a sufficient safety net for the poor. That is the minority party's view of justice, and also the view of some conservative Democrats; and their hatred of the poor blinds them to the fact that this the most expensive and inefficient safety net, setting aside abstract concerns like justice or dignity.

The President, who once claimed to be an advocate of single-payer universal health care, crafted a compromise that would maintain private insurance, but ask the for-profit health providers to compete with a public plan. An interesting idea, daring the profiteers to compete with a plan that is funded by and accountable to the public.

This is not to say that private insurance providers are evil. I don't regard any business corporation as evil. Corporations are, however, legally required to secure profits for their shareholders. They are not accountable to the people as a whole, but to their shareholders. The notion that a social conscience obligates a corporation to do the right thing, even if it costs money, is a fantasy. A private business is obligated to make money for its shareholders, that's it.

Reform will be shot down for the sake of political sport, in hopes of bagging Obama and winning seats in 2010, and to preserve the status quo, which works well enough for those who can buy power.

Moreover, the death of health reform will not arouse public outrage because, as a people, we buy into certain myths. We are eager to believe the myth that poverty is a moral disorder, that every poor person is likely getting what they deserve. We are also eager to believe the free-market religion, the benevolent "invisible hand" that will solve all social problems cheaply and fairly.

So health reform will die, and in the second year of my contract with the Deming Public Schools I am paying more for health insurance that provides less coverage for my own family.

On this issue, the United States as a nation is unjust. We cling to deluded ideas that allow the greedy to prevail over the lives and dignity of the poor. More people are willing to show up and take over town hall meetings to exercise lunatic conspiracy theories about the President, than to protest a health care system that kills Americans.

What a sick, deluded, self-hating country. What is the matter with us?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Really? I'm Dead?

How can Twitter and an Australian newscast both be wrong? Jeff Goldblum finally admits that he must really be dead, and takes a crack at eulogizing himself.

Goldblum and Colbert having some fun with our stupid media world.

Jeff Goldblum Will Be Missed
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

Friday, July 17, 2009

White Is Neutral, Nu?

Satirist Stephen Colbert, one of our finest, addresses a salient point behind the strange spectacle of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. Enjoy.

The Word - Neutral Man's Burden
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Am I Missing Here?

When I lived in Rhode Island, many of my neighbors were employed building submarines for our armed forces. A great many people depended on those production lines for employment, and our Congressmen worked hard to keep those lines open even when the Pentagon was cutting its budget.

It is not surprising, then, to know that Senators Kennedy and Kerry of Massachusetts are lobbying hard (alongside Lockheed Martin of course) to make the Pentagon buy more F-22 war planes. Never mind the fact that the Air Force does not want them (waaaay high maintenance), the Secretary of Defense does not want them (wants to spend that $1.75 billion elsewhere), and the Commander-in-Chief does not want them.

Jobs! The Senators want to keep jobs in their district. You can't blame them for that. It's their job.

It occurs to me, however, that Senator Kerry has been out there as a defender of the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- the far-reaching energy policy bill that, among other things, invests heavily in the "clean energy" manufacturing sector.

In other words, Kerry has been a supporter of legislation that saves factories slated for closure, and converts them into production lines for renewable energy technology.

So instead of lobbying for a war plane the military does not want, why doesn't Kerry simply lobby to make Massachusetts a major producer of energy technology?

Seems to be a good fit.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You Don't Say!

With your help, Sean. With your help.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Perpetuum Jazzile

A million thanks to Dick for bringing this wonderful performance to my attention.

It's More Like Driving

[cross-post from the Deming Zen Group website]

Last night, I was chatting with Tim, our neighbor across the street. Among other things, he was curious about the meditation group. At one point he narrowed his eyes and asked me in a voice wrought with suspicion, "What kind of meditation do you do?"

He did not need to hear much about the nuts and bolts of sitting meditation before he waved his hand and said, "Heck, I do that in front of the television every single night." He was all done with the subject.

It is a popular assumption that meditation is about going into a trance of some kind. If you watch someone doing formal meditation, that's what it looks like: they sit on a cushion or in a chair with their eyes closed or partly open, not asleep yet not doing anything. I once heard a story about some children who crept up and looked in the window of a Zen center and saw people meditating. The children yelled, "Zombies!!" and ran off. Adults sometimes carry this notion as well.

How can we sit there and not do anything? How does that help us or the world?

The meditation we practice is about waking up, rather than going into some kind of trance. Watching television is more conducive to being in a trance. Indeed, many of us go about our daily lives in a kind of trance, doing things all the time yet not feeling any happier at the end of the day. Television grabs our mind and pulls us around, selling us products and distracting us from our life.

The direction our meditation practice is headed is more like, to use another analogy, our mind when we are driving a car. Or rather, when are driving a car well. A very good way to drive is to put our eyes a distance in front of the car where we can see things in our peripheral vision, and easily check our mirrors. We sit up straight in a comfortable position where we can easily reach the levers and gearshift. If another driver behaves badly, we compensate and let the "bad behavior" go. We are calm, paying attention, driving efficiently and safely. With this kind of mind, driving can actually be rather enjoyable -- and the road is much safer for everyone.

To practice that kind of attention, we do sitting meditation. When we practice something, we get good at it. What do you think? Does the world benefit when there are more "good drivers" who pay attention, let negative stuff go, and find a way to be efficient and joyful in what they do?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Stupidity Shall Leave Us All Behind

In 2005 the Dalai Lama wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, about his view of science and religion. He related a story from his childhood that set the tone:

One night while looking at the moon [through a telescope] I realized that there were shadows on its surface. I corralled my two main tutors to show them, because this was contrary to the ancient version of cosmology I had been taught, which held that the moon was a heavenly body that emitted its own light.

But through my telescope the moon was clearly just a barren rock, pocked with craters. If the author of that fourth-century treatise were writing today, I'm sure he would write the chapter on cosmology differently.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

This week, a legislator from our neighboring state of Arizona made the news for arguing, in a hearing about uranium mining in her state, that we did not need environmental laws and, at any rate, the world is 6,000 years old. She repeated this twice, casually, as one repeats a universally accepted truth.

The problem is, the earth is not 6,000 years old. When a reporter asked her about this later she said, "I think people are welcome to believe whatever they want about how old the Earth is." Fair enough, but should they be in a position to legislate environmental policy if they believe the world is flat? A person has a right to believe that the moon is a divine sphere that emits light, but that doesn't mean the person is entitled to be head of NASA.

There are some religious people, like the Buddhist monk above, who feel that when an ancient claim made by religion is debunked by proven scientific data, the religious claim should be revised or junked. In their view, this does not diminish religion but enriches it, because what is most important is the search for truth.

Religion and science are not natural enemies, and to put them in conflict is childish. Indeed they are necessary partners. Much damage has been to the world by the application of knowledge with no reference to morality or the organizing myths by which human beings understand themselves and their place in the world.

It does not help that we elevate people to positions of power who believe that facts are in opposition to religion, and on that basis reject facts. This is delusional behavior.

Denial of material facts may, indeed, be a factor in our destruction. Some think it will be the Rapture, but it might instead be the Stupidity, as God shakes his head in dismay.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Gift From The Buddhist Antique Dealer

Tim runs an antique shop on Hemlock Street, by the corner of Silver. He's a kindly man with a short white beard, always wearing a kufi-style cap, or perhaps the Mongolian version of it. Tim lived in China for a while and is something of a scholar, has taught Chinese studies, and has been making noises about retiring to China once and for all.

Gabriel and I paid a visit to him last week and noticed that his prices, generally out of my reach, have been reduced. "Getting rid of everything," he confirmed. "I've been accepted at a monastery in China, I just have to clear out my inventory and raise money."

Tim's a Buddhist, so we had much to talk about as we crept softly around his tightly-packed little store, hung with old thangkas and chests with exquisite old clasps, statues of various Chinese figures and buddhas.

A moment after we left, while I gave Gabriel a sip of his pear-juice and water and congratulated him on being so wonderful in the store, Tim came out in pursuit of me. He pressed a gift into my hand. Here is what he gave me:

click on it for a larger view

This small buddha statue is hundreds of years old, and was once sheathed in silver -- there are some remains of it. The head was chopped off during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard decapitated every buddha image they could find.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Wishing Our Country Failure

"It appears that the Republican Party leadership in the Congress has made a decision that they want to deny President Obama success, which means, in my mind, they are rooting against the country, as well."

Rep. Henry Waxman

This is correct, and we really should be tired of it.

Anyone reading this blog knows we are no fans of the Democratic party here in the Burning House, and that we have been critical of Barack Obama since he was a candidate for President.

Winning is not everything, especially when it comes to the politics and the public's business. Yet for years I have watched the "win at any cost" mentality distort the public record, justice, and natural science all for the sake of winning elections. Meanwhile, innocent people die in unnecessary wars, sea levels rise, and even measures that enjoy public favor are not enacted because politicians are more nervous about their competition than the prospect of letting the public down.

You and I are to blame for putting up with this.

The failing of our anti-democratic two-party system is that now we have a majority party that fights with itself and waters down its best ideas, and a minority party that strategizes for the government to fail just so to gain an advantage in future elections.

Solutions, not victories, ladies and gentlemen. Thomas Paine was leery of political parties, especially national ones, for just this reason. As about many things, he was right.

I will give the Democrats this much: when they were the minority party, even during the presidency of Bush Jr,. they did not openly root for the United States to fail. The Republican Party, in this mode, does not deserve to govern an ice-cream truck.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Lesson From Honduras

We have followed the peculiar events in Honduras here and here.

Since then, the world of officialdom has chosen to side with the ousted President. The United Nations, the Organization of American States, the U.S. Department of State and our own President have all condemned the Honduran government for staging a "military coup" when President Zelaya was arrested and booted out of the country.

Since then, he has gone from Costa Rica to the United States to address the U.N. and has attempted to return to Honduras, only for his plane to be turned back. If Zelaya does return to Honduras, he is subject to arrest and prosecution.

It is not accurately described as a "military coup," since the army never controlled the government. Their Constitution's line of succession was followed, and the interim president, notably, is a member of Zelaya's own political party.

What I do not understand, and an answer has not presented itself, is why such a response was necessary. If the President is found to have breached the nation's laws, is there no procedure for impeaching him and or otherwise reigning him in? For instance, when he fired the head of the army, the government overruled him and reinstated General Vasquez Valesquez. If the referendum is indeed illegal, there would be no need to honor the result. Better still, why not allow the people to vote on the referendum? Since all it would do is pave the way for a constitutional convention, why not permit the vote? If the result is, indeed, the end of term limits for a President, why not permit that and rule that it takes effect with the next President rather than Zelaya?

The lesson I am taking from this is that one can have a Constitution and branches of government and separation of powers, but these alone do not mean the people are being represented. Are the interests of the Honduran people being protected when the chief executive, an elected officer, is summarily booted from office and sent into exile without any process? Is democracy being protected when the government shuts down the media and cracks down on demonstrators? Honduras has now seen the death of its first protester.

It is no surprise, given these events, that officialdom would turn against the government and treat this like a coup, referring to the Constitutional government as a "military junta" and demanding Zelaya's return. Even the Council on Hemispheric Affairs took the unusual step of retracting an early report on the Honduran crisis, a report that was critical of Zelaya's initial actions (intended to extend his Presidency in a manner similar to Hugo Chavez), and replacing it with a report heavily critical of the government instead.

Who, I wonder, is siding with the people? What serves their nation best, it would seem, is a full hearing about Zelaya's referendum, what laws were broken if any, and the most orderly way to redress the situation and restore a legitimate government in line with its own Constitution. Let Zelaya come back and return to his elected job while the incident is assessed.

Zelaya may have been in the wrong, but the response has been so over the top and destructive that few even remember that.

Hey Veronica, we hope you're okay!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Lizard Dreaming of Birds (Review)

First, the disclosure: I am acquainted with the author. In fact, he is my neighbor, living right around the corner. Inevitably, my experience of the novel combines with my experience of him as a person.

This is a unique spirit quest novel, vision quest as horror story, with an unreliable narrator in one of its characters. There is an omniscient storyteller among the various characters who take hold of the narrative - or is the storyteller impersonating them?

Gist is on to something very powerful: exploring human darkness without lapsing into nihilistic gloom. The story rambles across the American west, from Alaska to urban Seattle to Wyoming, down through Colorado into the desert of southwestern New Mexico. In every location, the sense of place is a central theme of the novel, and they are all portrayed with authenticity.

Amazon link here.

Happy 4th! (Don't Be An Idiot, Okay?)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Freeing The Women

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is thinking of banning the burqa in France because it oppresses women.


So it is BAD BAD BAD to allow women to wear this, even if they want to...

But there is nothing at all wrong or weird with women feeling like they have to wear these.

And thus, Nicolas Sarkozy is going to come to the defense of women by refusing them any CHOICE in the matter.

Interesting question. Which of the following women is more free than the other?

This one?

Or this one?

It's not such an easy question.

Who Is Capable?

The fourth of July approaches and today my favorite local columnist, an Anglican bishop, has a column about patriotism, working with the question of what makes us feel "patriotic" and what, therefore, are we celebrating on the fourth?

It coincides with me picking up, for the first time in years, Nikki Keddie's modern history of Iran, Roots of Revolution. Professor Keddie has updated her book under the new title Modern Iran even though the older volume, which appeared shortly after the 1978-9 revolution itself, holds up pretty well.

In any case, one of the interesting developments Keddie traces in Iran's history is the evolving role of the ulama, the Islamic clerical leadership, alongside state power. A certain question arose implicitly and sometimes explicitly: who is fit to govern?

When the 13 American colonies declared their independence in 1776, ours was a world of monarchies and ruling elites. The concept of a people governing themselves, electing representatives to conduct public affairs, accountable to their constituents, and routine peaceful transitions of executive power, were all radical concepts. This is something Win Mott addresses in the column mentioned above. "[The revolution] put in place a democratic republic in a world of despotic monarchs at a time when the ruling classes believed they alone were capable of governing. The thought that people were created equal was beyond their imagining."

Mott acknowledges that the concept of equality was not fully implemented during the revolution. It has never been fully implemented. The equality of humankind under God is still a challenging concept for us and the world, and at times we struggle against it as if this concept were not part of our nation's identity.

We restrict meaningful participation in politics to two political parties, creating a derivative and unsatisfactory politics. Citizens express anger at the system but do little to open it up, and the parties enjoy a stranglehold on power.

We have permitted unaccountable corporate power to rule over our natural resources, the disposition of our land, and popular culture. Many citizens are too bored, distracted, or "busy" to bother complaining about this, much less to resist.

We have not been challenged to extend this concept of equality to citizens who are different than us, evolving very slowly on the issues of slavery, civil rights, full political and professional equality for women, and a right of civil marriage for homosexuals. Here, at least, is a tendency toward progress, even if it is slow and grudging.

Just last month, I had a piece in the paper rebutting a Christian nationalist who had argued that only Christians "
had a better understanding of what was right and what was wrong in the affairs of mankind."

Which reminded me, unsettlingly, of the rise of the ulama in Iran, culminating in the religious republic. There is a parallel in Iran to the kind of revolution Christian nationalists envision. Ayatollah Khomeini was, and still is, a very popular figure there, viewed as a positive embodiment of an Iranian person of faith and character. His charisma and righteousness made him fit to rule, in the eyes of his people. The idea of a theocratic republic is still popular: the people who took to the streets last month were not demanding a secular republic.

Would not a Christian state resemble theirs in some aspects? The Bible would officially become the basis of our law, as the hadith and sharia are used in Islamic states. Would not a class of Christian pastors and scholars, a body of religious experts, rise in prominence and perhaps cross over into executive power, officially commingling religion and state? We would participate in elections and be permitted a degree of political choice somewhat more limited than the limited choice we already are left with. The concept of equality would fall before the intrinsic superiority of Christians. Anything viewed as contradicting or questioning the true faith would eventually be contained or suppressed, for the good of the people. This would extend to limiting participating in politics to those who would not challenge the Christian state (similar to Iran's system of approving candidates for election). Executive power would be removed from accountability to the public, and answer to a religious elite beyond our touch.

Iran's history is unique, and so is ours. These parallels only go so far. Even so, as we struggle with the character of our own nation, there are lessons for us in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is a movement that strongly favors a Christian Republic of America and all it lacks is a very prominent, charismatic figure.


Related reading: a talk by Michelle Goldberg on the rise of Christian nationalism.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

My One and Only Post About Al Franken

The long delayed certification of Al Franken as the new Senator-elect from Minnesota has sent some right-wing commentators and elected officials into fits of dudgeon.

Let me get this straight. Being a professional comedian means you cannot later be taken seriously as a politician. On the other hand, acting in a B-movie opposite a chimpanzee does not disqualify you from being President.

Let The Sun Kill You

It's hot. Not just hot, but humid. Yuck.

Yesterday, the swamp cooler that keeps our home comfortable broke down for a few hours. Our landlord was out there on a hot night struggling with belts and gears getting it up and running again for us. He was out there until 10:00 PM.

Intense heat is a mind-altering drug, among other things. It changes personalities. My wife has been having a very hard time with it. I have been uncomfortable, too, drinking lots of water and soaking my head as needed. Sometimes just sitting is good.

These are far from life-threatening conditions, and in a funny way a life-threatening condition is easier to focus on. Being uncomfortable, on the other hand -- that lures us straight towards hell, doesn't it?

The Buddha made a list of kinds of suffering and one of the pernicious ones is "not getting what I want." When it's hot, I want to be cool, so being hot is miserable. When I'm cold, I can't remember ever despising the heat. And so the condition yanks us around, making our sense of happiness dependent on things we can't control.

A joy that is forced to chase our desires is a rigid and unstable thing, a fleeting dream. If the sun would only burn hot enough to burn up liking and disliking, would that be happiness?

What do you do when the sun is so hot your mind evaporates?

Turn on the swamp cooler. Have a glass of water.