Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Saddam-ized Again (Revised)

Good morning, and Kwan Seum Bosal for all human being. That is not a typo, I speak of human being in the broad sense -- today, of its violent side, and the importance of looking deeply into how we engage human violence, whether it is happening in our household or in a nation far away.

It is not quite 2003 all over again. President Obama is doing a much better job of selling "Operation Odyssey Dawn" in Libya than his predecessor did over Iraq. It helps that Obama is not knowingly making false and terrifying claims that our target has nuclear and biological weapons. There is nonetheless some dishonesty going on.

As persuasive as Obama's address to the nation was last night, promising that the United States will play only a supporting role in a NATO-lead operation, and linking our own national security to the outcome of the Libyan civil war, I am struck by two broad dissonances.

The first is the flagrant mission creep, which not even Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow were willing to acknowledge in their reports last night. We ostensibly were participating in a clearly-defined United Nations resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya and other non-military measures. That was all we were going to do, remember? We were watching a civil war in which one side had fighter jets, and felt a human need to neutralize that advantage so as to avert an outright massacre of civilians.

This broadened immediately to bombing other military targets, not related to air power or anti-aircraft defenses. Instead of a no-fly zone, the mission clearly became regime change, outside the parameters of the U.N. resolution. This is no longer a humanitarian intervention: it is an intervention in a civil war with an interest in the outcome.

Thus, there is some dishonesty on the part of the President in selling this war as a limited humanitarian intervention defined by the United Nations.

The second dissonance is the false choice with which I am presented. The rhetoric suggests that if we do not support this war effort, we are -- at best -- not being sufficiently sensitive to the suffering of the Libyan rebellion and are perhaps even taking the side of the tyrant Ghaddafi. Never mind the strategic risks of what we are doing, which include getting sucked into a ground war in spite of Obama's promises. For all the talk of freedom last night, there is no guarantee that Ghaddafi will fall soon or at all without a major intervention on the ground. Where would a wounded yet entrenched Ghaddafi leave the Libyan people, the region, and the broader "Arab spring" around the world?

Forgive me, but I am not sold, and it is no slight on the Libyan rebellion (led by whom, I know not) or the suffering of civilians there to acknowledge the problems with what we are doing.

Never mind the cost to our nation as we deal with an economic depression and face damaging cuts to education and vital human services because we are told our country is broke. Yet again, perennially, there is money to wage war but no money to educate our young people, stimulate economic demand, or care for our elderly. This skewed priority is itself an act of violence, albeit a slower and quieter one, directed at we ourselves. Will we ever take up the question of why we consistently use our resources to destroy human life instead of nurturing it? There is so much clever-sounding speech about "national interests" and "security," yet I look around inside my own country and see it rotting. Our true national interests and security would appear to lie somewhere other than the war room, but our president and congress are not awake.

May we nourish the hope that our delusions become vivid awakening, our anger turns to great determination, and our greed may be converted into love for our country and a recognition of human being and its gifts. A nation that underwent a quiet revolution of this kind would be the most powerful beacon of all.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reader's Reponse: Taking Refuge in the Path

Here is an anonymous reader's response to this recent post, which consisted of an excerpt from an essay by Slavoj Zizek (whose name is frequently appearing here lately). The excerpt asked questioned the use of the "noble lie" in politics.

A longtime Zen friend writes:

You've raised a big question. It's too early in the morning for me to write really coherently about it, but I would point you first to the article "Noble Lie" in Wikipedia. Next, to the writings of Leo Strauss, a great interpreter of Plato and political philosophy in general (I know that Strauss is often called the father of the neocons but I think that is a big mistake—for my part, reading him led me to look for someone like Dae Soen Sa Nim).

In the Republic, Plato's Socrates, to be very brief, makes a distinction between dialectic, the search for truth (we might call this Dharma); and rhetoric, which is what he says rules in politics. Politics is the realm of opinion, not of truth, because that is the realm that most people live in.

Well, I see that this could be easily misinterpreted. Also I should say at this point that Strauss stressed that Plato's dialogues were like plays, not treatises—Socrates is only one character, he says different things to different people at different times. Just as you can't say that Shakespeare himself necessarily believed that "life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,"—something said by a particular character who had committed certain bad actions—you can't ascribe to Plato the statements of any one character in the dialogues. Instead, the dialogues are like kong-ans—one could say they pose questions in order to get us to practice. But they do raise a big question: what is the relationship of philosophy (which I see as very close to if not the same as Dharma) to politics.

I know you've taken a view on this in your writings. Your view seems to be rooted in the problems we are having at present. In Dae Soen Sa Nim's view, stated more fully at the beginning of the Compass of Zen, the world is like a fruit which not so long ago was ripe (very good taste, you could get anything) but now is becoming very very rotten. Dae Soen Sa Nim's response to this was—inside the fruit there are seeds, "don't-know" seeds. I don't profess to understand exactly what he meant, but I know he did say that in the future many bad things would happen but if we practice and find these seeds we can help ourselves, we can help many people. He did not say we could reverse the awful karma of the whole world which is presently appearing.

Well I'm just raising some lines of investigation here—I don't pretend to have any answers. I am suggesting the the questions you raise are not so easily answered.

Hope this makes some sense.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Buddhism Is, Like, Sooooooo Bourgeois!

In fitting with some of the subject matter addressed on this blog, we must acknowledge -- if belatedly -- a piece on the subject of Buddhism by Mark Vernon for The Guardian. The piece raises good questions even though it suggests that Mr. Vernon has a bit more homework to do on this subject.

Vernon argues that "Buddhism is the new opium of the people." Picking up on Zizek's critique of western Buddhism as fetishism, he argues that Buddhism "allows adherents to decouple from the stress, whilst leaving the causes of the stress intact: consumptive forces continue unhindered along their creatively destructive path."

Completely ignored are those who see the ethical challenge implicit in awareness practice, and seek to engage it in authentic rather than doctrinal ways. Books have been written on the subject, but Vernon's investigation of the matter seems limited to a play date with Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock.

I'm not even sure he listened well to those two men. He claims John Peacock told him "there is no word for meditation in the early Buddhist lexicon, though it is often taken to be the defining Buddhist practice." Errr, excluding the Pali canon perhaps, with its description of various jhana, or meditative practices and their various uses, including personal anecdotes attributed to the Buddha? Excluding, I suppose, Theravada literature that followed the death of the Buddha, and the Mahayana in its entirety as it is not "early" Buddhism? I wonder what Peacock really said to Vernon. I suspect something has gotten lost in the reporting.

Really, this line of critique is old stuff. In the early twentieth century, the rap on Buddhism was that it was nihilist; Vernon quotes Zizek, whose analytical skills are compelling (I read him myself) but whose information does not appear to be any more timely than the earliest English translations of Pali sutras. Presto, in the 21st century, the same misconceptions about Buddhist teaching are still in circulation, now with a political critique: Buddhism is bourgeois quietism!

This is not to dismiss Vernon entirely, especially regarding an individual's enagement with the world (even when appearance is regarded as non-appearance) versus the error of acquiescing to mara, in ourselves and in our social structures. As Vernon puts it: "A meditation class on a Friday evening that makes no impact upon your work on a Monday morning is an exercise in Žižek's decoupling." Well, yes. That's not exactly a scoop. Indeed, social conditioning is strong; yes, images of Buddhism have been commodified and distorted for the marketplace; yes, some converts (and more than a few dabblers) adapt Buddhism, in the Procrustean manner, to make it fit a desired lifestyle and accommodate consumerism. All true. All concerns discussed among convert Buddhists themselves.

Meditation can be used to bury one's head in the ground. Warnings about this behavior go back to when people wrote sutras out on banana leaves. Meditation can also be used to facilitate fearless attention, to clarify one's direction, and to speak and act freely from there. Good teachers call on us to do this, demand it of us. That might include stepping in front of a tank, and it might not, depending on an individual's situation. Has Mark Vernon somehow not noticed that this is a subject of much discussion and debate among convert Buddhists? Has he seen or heard no hint of elder practitioners warning younger ones to see very clearly their own defilements, such as greed, anger, and clinging to self-serving opinions, before they go out and try to "make the world a better place" or whatever? That is not really quietism.

This is not only an unfortunate article for its unsupported conclusion, it does an additional disservice by perpetuating an ignorant stereotype that meditation is necessarily about non-engagement, withdrawing from community, and quietism. The field is much broader than Vernon understands.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Lies, Jokers, and Julian Assange

A brief excerpt from Tact in the Age of Wikileaks, an essay by Slavoj Zizek that appears in the April issue of Harper's.

In one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev are compared to Batman and Robin. It's a useful analogy: isn't Julian Assange, WikiLeaks's organizer, a real-life counterpart to the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight? In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an upstanding prosecutor who becomes deranged and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend James Gordon, the police commissioner, realize that the city's morale would suffer if the incorruptible Dent's murders were made public, so they plot to preserve his image by blaming Batman for the killings. The film's message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale. No wonder the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain. He makes clear that his attacks on Gotham City will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman -- another lie. In order to trap the Joker, Gordon fakes his own death -- yet another lie.

The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilize the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilization, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is: Why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Knots In Trees

This evening, with a baby asleep in my arms, I watched Erik Nelson's 2008 documentary about Harlan Ellison, Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

The movie is okay. Lots of time on Harlan's famous personality -- confronting the man is like skinny-dipping in an active volcano -- but also some footage of him reading from his own works (which he does very, very well) and reflecting on his childhood. We learn much more from this than from footage of Harlan yelling at drivers on the street.

Among his memories of childhood in Ohio, he shared a specific event that grabbed me by the heart and squeezed comets from my eyes, just weeping quietly holding the sleeping baby. (This baby sleeps through everything.) I don't care to share which memory that was; let's say it was a painful formative experience we have in common, and I never suspected we had such a thing in common but it makes sense. It found a natural place in Harlan's inimitable pose, and it found its place in my own personality, like knots in trees.

Damn, this world is hard. Thanks for sharing, Harlan.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ssssssh. Kayagum!

The baby is sleeping. It's a quiet week on this blog. Enjoy some kayagum -- that's the name of this Korean instrument. And watch this master's hands while he plays.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How We Treat the Room

Today, moving the Zen Group back into the dharma room above the garage was completed with a small ceremony: putting on the robes and doing some Sogamuni Bul chanting followed by sitting.

There is nothing magical or "woo-woo" about this. You could call it an act of theatre and I would not object in the slightest. Acts of theatre are powerful, and this is what ceremonies are for.

The formalities associated with the meditation room -- bowing when you enter or leave, bowing before you take your seat, bowing if you approach the altar, walking behind people seated in meditation, not entering or leaving during meditation, keeping the room clean, using the proper robes if your temple uses them, all creates a certain ambiance that you could describe as a theatrical effect. Yet theatre is quite meaningful, and by treating the room a certain way we are encouraging ourselves to pay attention to how we treat our own practice, and that of other people in the room. People worry about getting the details right, but that's not the most important thing -- forms can be learned and practiced, mistakes are not important.

What makes this useful is the promotion of caring as well as enjoyment and appreciation of the space where formal practice is done.

Yoshi Oida opens his famous book about acting and teaching, The Invisible Actor, with a description of his students' routine of cleaning the studio before class or rehearsal that itself constitutes a warm-up in concentration and discipline.

Don't rush, get distracted, or think about other things. Don't chat to other people. All of this is quite difficult, but it is very good training for the concentration an actor needs.

The way you treat the room has to do with how you treat yourself; and how you treat yourself has to do with how you treat others.

The NPR Bill Doesn't Save Taxpayers One Dime

It is not always easy to use right speech when communicating with politicians, especially when they are unresponsive, and most especially when they are involved in dealings that are foolish, greedy, or just plain mad. Occasionally I reprint my attempts and today I took a moment to write my Congressman about the House vote to defund NPR, which is unlikely to become law. It is significant, however, in that it shows that the majority party in the House, while claiming to be all about cutting spending and creating private-sector jobs, is actually proceeding on a cultural agenda.

There are different kinds of letters one writes to politicians. This is in the category of "You're Not Fooling Us."

Rep. Steve Pearce
570 N. Telshor Blvd.
Las Cruces, NM 88011

RE: H.R. 1076, Defunding NPR

Dear Congressman,

Last week, H.R. 1076 passed your with 'aye' vote. The bill would direct the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to allocate none of its funds for programming by National Public Radio.

This bill was presented as a bill that reduces federal spending. To quote one Congressman, it would reduce "job-killing federal spending." Any informed citizen, however, can look at this bill and notice that it does not save one single dime of federal spending. The bill does not adjust the CPB's budget, it merely directs the CPB not to allocate any of its budget for NPR.

Forgive me for suspecting that the bill's supporters have other reasons for promoting this legislation, as NPR appears to be an iconic institution in the fabled "cultural war" which some of our politicians are dedicated to waging.

My question for you, sir, is for what reason you supported this bill. Were you under the impression this reduced the federal budget? Or was this, so to speak, a cultural battle?

You and your staff are very busy, but I am genuinely interested to learn your thinking on this matter. Thank you for your time and service.

Most Sincerely,

[Note: Pearce is part of a Congressional study group that has recommended eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting altogether.]

Friday, March 18, 2011

Back to the Dharma Room (Under Renovation)

Deming Zen Group is moving back into the dharma-room-under-construction. As you can see, there are exposed rafters waiting for insulation, which will come after the electrician updates the room with new outlets and lighting. (If the group ever leaves this room and finds a space of its own off our property, the room will become an office.)

Yesterday, despite a brutal sinus infection, I got up there to do some cleaning up and begin setting up the altar again while my son played outside. (Gabriel enjoys our buddhas very much, saying hello to them and announcing, "Booodah! Boooodah!")

In May, our guiding teacher visits from Lawrence, Kansas, and we are all looking forward to that. Ahead of that I am putting a little more effort into reminding folks that we are here, friendly, and easy to approach.

Spring is arriving with some lovely days lately. If you're around on Sunday, come on over and sit.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Nuclear Power

The low activity on this blog for the past week comes as little surprise, we trust, owing to the arrival of baby Lucca in the world on Friday.

Friday, the 11th of March, will be known to the world not for Lucca's birthday but for other events that took place that day: a sequence of natural disasters in Japan whose destruction defies belief. An earthquake initially reported as an 8.9 and later revised to a 9.0; tsunamis that literally washed entire towns away; a volanic eruption; and of course the slowly, horribly unfolding catastrophe involving its nuclear power plants (a good explanation here).

Nuclear energy is frequently championed as an alternative to coal. Burning coal to generate electricity is too costly to the environment and must be phased out, much more quickly than human societies are willing to do. Scientists I follow regarding climate change, such as James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute, advocate nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to coal, since a nuclear plant does not produce carbon dioxide once it is operational -- and therefore does not contribute to global warming. President Obama also embraced nuclear energy in his most recent "state of the union" address when he described his priorities in energy policy.

In this advocacy, the dangers have been downplayed. Radioactive waste that lasts hundreds or even thousands of years. The plants take ten years to build and are extremely expensive. A new generation of nuclear plants in the U.S. would not appreciably affect global temperature for twenty years and there simply is not time. The plants are also water guzzlers, creating another environmental problem for some areas. And, finally, the risks of catastrophe, as in a seismic event similar to what took place on March 11 in Japan. We have two active nuclear power plants in southern California, near the San Andreas Fault. It can happen here. In fact, it is likely. What interests prevailed on us to build nuclear plants there? What is the matter with us?

By all means, nuclear research should continue, in case solutions to the disposal problem and security concerns can be found. Lobbying on behalf of building nuclear power plants as if this were some sort of panacea for our environmental predicament (which we spend most of our time ignoring anyway, even though rising sea levels are already affecting populated areas) should be turned back. The money would be better spent developing an infrastructure for renewable energy, reaching fair deals with landowners about transmission lines, and educating the public about power use to help us live well using less juice.

Japan may have dealt a blow to the nuclear industry this month, but it will be back. It came back after Chernobyl, after all. The lesson here is that nuclear energy is a large and risky investment, too large and too risky for its benefits. There are other areas where we could invest and reap greater benefits for human health and welfare; we just don't. It's really that simple: we don't.

Here is an interesting account of a business conference on renewable energy investment in the Americas. Read it carefully and you'll notice the "make or break" is whether business men get excited about potential profits, not about the benefit to humanity. In Cyprus, it is not uncommon for houses to have solar water heaters on the roof; why not in Florida? Because no one is making money off that yet. In some American nations, it is just easier to continue living on imported oil, rather than spend money to help wind farms supply power to the grid. There is little incentive to change habits and consume less, and in the U.S. those incentives are derided as socialism and tyranny (always synonymous). (The gummint wants to force us to use squiggly light bulbs!)

Meanwhile, communities drown. The New York Times began reporting about the effects of rising sea levels on Tuvalu back in 2007, but we still give ourselves the luxury of pretending this might not really be a problem.

Human beings are profoundly bad at confronting their most serious challenges. A viable and safe nuclear energy program is beyond our reach and susceptible to our greedy and dishonest tendencies. We do not wield power responsibly. It is time, then, to move away from nuclear power (while maintaining research) industries and to build industries that improve and proliferate the technology of renewable energy.

And it is high time we took down the nuclear plants near the San Andreas Fault. The expense of that will be appalling, but when the next major event on that fault line takes place, do we really want to deal with exposed and melting nuclear rods as well?

[Photo: Nuclear plant at San Onofre, California, built to withstand an earthquake significantly smaller than what scientists predict for the next quake on the San Andreas Fault. And we're just fine with that.]

Friday, March 11, 2011

Welcome Back to This World

Lucca James D'Ammassa arrived on 11 March 2011 at 2:51 AM at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces.
6 pounds and 3 oz., 17 3/4 inches long.
After a wait of several hours, it was a very easy birth (two pushes and he was out -- and yelling).
Sarah and Lucca are nursing and napping quite easily.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Greed, Anger, and Delusion Deserve More Credit

From one perspective, yesterday was a rather dramatic day in Wisconsin; something new. From another perspective, it was nothing new.

Last weekend I attended a dharma talk at Silver City Zen Center. The temple priest gave a talk and made passing mention of recent events around the world. During the discussion period following his talk, someone mentioned the intoxication of following media stories as they jerk us from one story to the next. Here's Arizona. Now we're in Tunisia. Cairo. Madison. Tripoli! She said the way the stories are selected and shaped for commercial purposes (and political purposes, too) might actually be leaving human beings less connected rather than more.

There were more wise reflections and someone asked what is behind all the stories -- the story of "I," the story of groups of people, the story of nations, all of that. And I'm the one who wondered out loud that there seems to be no place -- even in the opinionated media where people are paid to blurt out whatever is in their minds -- for naming greed, anger, and delusion as actors in human events. Why this taboo?

Greed, Anger, and Delusion. The Three Poisons named by the Buddha yet familiar to anyone who doesn't give a ding about Buddhism. We ignore these elemental forces in human behavior, and unwisely personalize them. Political rivals accuse each other of being greedy, but there is no frank talk about the nature of Greed. That's taboo. Greed is still socially okay if you are advancing your own interest -- and this is, after all, how the privileged classes perceive their own actions.

The crushing of the rights of one sector of organized workers in Wisconsin was accomplished by some novel maneuvers. It could make the cynical observer gasp, the way they got this done. How refreshing! We really can let go of the idea that our institutions are so good they virtually assure outcomes that are fair and just. No, these institutions are instruments and they are used by people who do not always aim for outcomes that are fair and just. Their objectives may be entirely indifferent to those beautiful ideas. We've known that but for some reason we feel we have to pretend -- for the kids, or something. Well, stop. This ain't about justice, any more than erasing labor rights had to do with balancing a budget.

There is also a lot of hot speech being directed at the person of the Governor of Wisconsin, as well as the members of his political party in that state. But Scott Walker is a soldier in a very old political struggle; so, even, are his wealthy supporters. There is a view of the world that holds the poor and the laborer in disdain; that revolts at the sight of such people banding together in their own interest; of organizing themselves and working together without the guidance of a beautiful aristocrat or landowner.

We're talking about conditioned points of view. We're talking about coalitions of personality "types" and shared dreams that coalesce into political factions. This is how it goes in a society mired in a samsara. Now there is even greater anger in the streets of Madison and people will have to make even harder choices to take care of themselves and also struggle for their necessary rights. Chants for everyone's safety and wise choices while demonstrating, may this social action lead to a stronger connection and to a peaceful campaign.

No union is perfect, and there is no reason to assume unions are always right or just (remember what we said above about institutions), but they are useful tools and there are very clear reasons why some folks want to take those tools away.

But before those people were doing it, there were others doing it to our ancestors, and generations before them. This is the long dream of human history, fired in Greed, Anger, and Delusion.

These three poisons also have positive counterparts. Aspiration, Determination, and Imagination might be their names.

It would be an exciting moment for us if we found ourselves neither (1) trusting our institutions too much or (2) dismissing them altogether. It parallels Buddha's warning (and Huang Po's and many others in the Zen tradition) not to attach ourselves to pieties and ritual forms. Indeed, those very things can become poisons if our mind's eye is not open. The very same can be said about legislatures, judiciaries, labor unions, financial institutions, and more.

Life is spoken of as a dream -- some argue about how literally that is true, but to some degree it is very dreamlike. Yet it is a lucid dream, one we are creating and taking part in. And thus I have dispassionate question for whoever has read this far:

How's the dream turning out? Do you like it? What's another choice? I'll dream with you.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

An Appreciation of Glenn Beck

This is not a post where I bash Glenn Beck. As a matter of fact, I have a healthy professional respect for Glenn Beck. That is because I have always viewed him as a performance artist, and an especially cunning and profitable one.

Steve Benen has a post today examining the fading phenomenon of Glenn Beck's books and broadcasts on radio and television. There are many sensible theories tossed around there, but my own theory is downplayed. I really do think it's an act.

Glenn Beck may hold conservative political views; he might not. I don't know. But I think the stuff at the chalkboard, the labyrinthine conspiracy theories, the appeals to his viewers to stock up on canned goods, selling gold, the studiously timed outrages, the famous photo shoot where he was seen having drops put in his eyes to stimulate tears, and the gargantuan persona of a man as fearlessly tasteless as Andy Kaufman on his darkest day -- yes, I think it is a show.

During Beck's days at CNN, I am guessing, he saw a niche market: a need for a certain kind of media personality in the talking head marketplace. He began playing that person while at CNN and moved over to the Fox partisan political network, where he exploded. There was an appetite for an entertaining anti-government, larger-than-life right wing reactionary.

The books sold, bolstered by studiously timed stunts and controversies. Who could not notice that when Beck had been out of the headlines for a while, kersplat!, he would be calling the President of the United States a racist, or staging a right-wing political rally on the date and location of MLK's "I Have A Dream Speech," or saying something perfectly designed to set off the liberal media in a new frenzy of Glenn-Beck-is-Icky-ness.

It has been a very successful show. But like any good show, it has a shelf life. It gets written out, repetitive. (A quarter of the way into 2011, Beck is still talking about Van Jones.) The public moves on to other spectacles. Advertisers dwindle, ratings droop, book sales recede.

And if I am right about Glenn Beck, and he is as smart as I believe he is, he has been putting away the money and will coast into a luxurious future with all options open to him. Maybe he'll kick back. Maybe he'll wait a while and then start milking the public speaker circuit.

My tongue is not in my cheek here. I really do think Glenn Beck has surpassed Stephen Colbert and punked the audience. One could not plan a more perfect exploitation of the media circus or more accurately have tapped into the sentiment of the public during the first decade of the 21st century.

Well played, Mr. Beck.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Enemy of My Enemy is no Bolivar

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

That statement is a fallacy.

The events in Libya are heartbreaking and ought to be a sobering reminder to policy-makers throughout the world of the awful human cost of supporting "stable partners" who are violent dictators.

As Ghaddafi has ordered his military to fire upon civilians demonstrating against his rule, there have been a range of reactions from the U.S. and other world powers, including some loose talk by American and British lawmakers about establishing a "no fly" zone in Libya (which necessitates military action in Libya to take out her assets).

And in the midst of this, we see a strange gamble by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez has floated the possibility of brokering negotiations of some kind between Ghaddafi and the people -- presumably, the living ones, not the ones massacred under Ghaddafi's orders. Dead people are famously reticent.

It is neither surprising nor sinister to see Venezuela attempt to involve itself in an intervention that circumvents the United States. Venezuela has been working very hard to establish alternative avenues for international relations, regional development, and even a regional currency, that are independent of U.S.-dominated neoliberal capitalism. There is something of a tradition in Latin America of multi-state conflict resolution, and if Chavez can make an opportunity to raise Venezuela's profile -- his own, in fact -- as a peacemaker by exporting such diplomacy, it's no surprise he would give it a shot. And no one else has proposed putting the civil war on pause and negotiating some sort of exit for Colonel Ghaddafi.

It's a strange sideshow -- at least, I suspect it is just a sideshow -- because if there is one thing Hugo Chavez has in common with the United States ruling class, it is an affection for authoritarian regimes. Chavez has eagerly sought diplomatic ties with states like Libya, Iran, Belarus, and the Russian Federation. This has something to do with opposing U.S. dominance, but for what alternative? What do these characters have to offer to the goals of Chavez's "21st century socialism" or his project for a people's political economy?

In particular, Hugo Chavez has this curious friendship with Ghaddafi. I'm not sure what specific strategic benefits exist between them, though they are both oil nations. Ghaddafi has claimed to be an Islamic socialist of some sort, who defined his nation as a "government by the masses." At any rate, the two men are close enough that there were rumors Ghaddafi had fled to Caracas, which Ghaddafi debunked in an eccentric 40-second television broadcast.

How does someone like Chavez, a strong critic of authoritarian communism and other distortions of socialism, get fooled by a Ghaddafi? Such was Chavez's admiration for this guy that in 2009 he publicly said: "What Simon Bolivar is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people."

Simon Bolivar does not strike me as a person who would order an Air Force to open fire on his own people in order to preserve his own power. And one has to question the idea that Ghaddafi liberated his people after seizing power -- from one kind of king to another. A strange liberator it is who declares, as Ghaddafi did in 1973, that the nation he seized in a military coup would be subject to the law of a monotheistic religion; who claims to rule a jamahiriya, a government by the masses, yet assassinates critics and executes dissidents. There are reports this month that soldiers who refused to open fire on their civilian countrymen were executed as well.

The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily a friend -- and it definitely does not make him another Simon Bolivar.

Knowing this, how would the Libyan opposition trust Hugo Chavez -- who received a human rights award from Ghaddafi -- as a neutral party?

If Chavez was risking his credibility as a true "leftist" with his cultivation of Russia and Iran, getting into bed with Ghaddafi ups the stakes considerably.

Domestically, Venezuela has undertaken some interesting transformative changes that are worth considering, if only U.S. media would cover it. Venezuela has also scored some impressive achievements in foreign policy. On the other hand, Chavez has a dictator problem -- whereas the U.S. has cultivated dictators who will facilitate U.S. business interests, Chavez seems to be cultivating dictators who will block U.S. dominance.

Cui bono? Who benefits from these shenanigans? Dictators. Guys who kill their critics and withhold resources from their people.

Embedded below is the Venezuelan response to Libya's expulsion from the Human Rights Council. I give some credit to the concerns it raises about western military intervention in Libya, and what the true aims might be. On the other hand, if anyone can halt the bloodshed and broker a transition of power, I don't see Venezuela playing that role.

Venezuela on Libya

Thursday, March 03, 2011

No Baby Yet

Debby comments:

I am taking note of the fact that you have not had a blog post since February 28th, and hope that this does not mean anything.

We had another rushed trip to Las Cruces, but unfortunately Sarah is experiencing intense pre-term contractions, as she did with Gabriel. We are probably going to be at this for another week, and it could even be longer although it feels convincingly like it could be any day.

Stay tuned!

A Postscript to the Squiggly Tail

Coincidentally, the CFL light bulbs mentioned in the previous post, and their 19th century incandescent forebears, are the concern of new legislature prepared in the United States Congress.

One bill is a repeal of a section of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which regulated manufacture and sale of the energy-efficient light bulbs. Its requirements for energy efficiency effectively phase out the incandescent bulbs by 2020.

What is the objection to this? Is it just nostalgia for the older bulbs? Revulsion for the oft-mentioned squiggly tail? Enter the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, a new bill that seeks to block that repeal.

In a good piece of reporting by the Washington Independent, we get a clue as to why.

The real answer as to why the bill’s sponsors are itching to extend the shelf life of incandescent bulbs may not be so ideological. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that in one year, replacing just one 60-watt incandescent bulb with an equivalent CFL results in $7 in energy savings (Microsoft Excel file). Other Department of Energy figures (PDF) state that the average U.S. household has 45 light bulbs across 30 separate fixtures and that there are 116,900,000 households in the country. This means there are 5.26 billion light bulbs across the United States. At present, CFLs hover at a market share just under 30 percent. If that were to go up to 100 percent as a result of the EISA mandate, power companies would stand to lose almost $26 billion in revenue every single year.

It's not mysterious or eccentric at all, really. This is simply the Republican Party, one of only two dominant political parties permitted to govern in the United States -- so, half of our duopoly -- working for its traditional constituency: large business sectors, in this case the energy industry.