Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Opinions Are Balloons: Social Media Manifesto for Conversation

A question I've heard asked more than once this week is, "How is Thanksgiving going to be? What if people bring up politics?" There seems to be a higher-than-usual degree of anxiety about this, although who knows. 
What I suggested to one person is that it is not so much what we talk about as how we talk about it. If politics is too painful or contentious, something else might be best, but I would actually recommend finding a topic where other views or opinions are present and practice the art of conversing and comparing differences. 
Coincidentally, I recently felt the need to make a statement about a culture of conversation for my Facebook page. Perhaps there is a thought here that might be of use:
Welcome to “my” page on Facebook. I put “my” in quotes because obviously none of this is mine: I don’t own this platform or how it is designed. As Facebook users, it is important to remember that we are not the customers - we are the product. Facebook is a business that caters to advertisers, who pay for the opportunity to advertise at us. 
Nonetheless, many of us find Facebook useful for staying in touch with friends and family; networking; sharing items of interest; or some combinations of these things. I use Facebook for all of these purposes. I use my page to post articles on a range of topics of interest to me, and that I think some people who see my Facebook page would also find of interest. Sometimes I state my opinions. Most of what I post is set to universal access, meaning anyone can see it. I don’t post secrets on the internet. If I don’t want it published, I don’t publish it. Some of my personal life comes through in funny stories about my kids or statements about my feelings on personal topics, but for the most part this is for people who like to read and write. 
It is also a place for people who like to converse, discuss, and even argue a little bit. And here is where I feel a need to state some ground rules. In doing so, I realize I am also proposing a bit of a manifesto for the art of conversation on social media. So be it. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or share this note if you think it is worthy. 
I grew up in a household where it was assumed that people can compare different points of view, disagree, and even question each other a little bit (not too much, but a little bit), in the spirit of conversation. This works really well when participants buy into it, and think of conversation as a way to build something no one could have experienced on their own, and a way to test ideas or propositions with people who can be trusted not to attack you personally. 
So please know that I am not trying to convert anyone to my point of view, anger anyone, or engage in combat. I may say that an argument is weak or foolish, but if you are a human being, you matter in my book. I exhibit human failings, misunderstand things, sometimes let my sarcastic thoughts grab the mike - but generally I try not to be a jerk. People are free to disagree with me, and I actually appreciate it when it is done in the spirit of discussion instead of trying to win me over to something, belittle me, or accuse me. What a gift it is when someone says, “I follow that. I arrived at a different conclusion. Here is where I am coming from.” There is nothing offensive or defensive about this, it’s just people comparing notes on what they’ve seen and how they think. We need more of this, I would suggest. 
In fact, that was once considered to be a function of conversation and written letters. (Yes, written letters - the original “text message” - and an art I still practice.) Social media is a tool that can be used for these purposes and that is one way I attempt to use it. When we lament social media’s impact on culture, we rarely point out that people are engaging in written arguments. Look at this, we’re writing! If half of this activity were in written letters, the USPS would be loaded. (And the arguments would probably be better.) However, a general lack of experience at this art is frequently evident.

The community of people who frequently read and comment on this page include people from various social classes, gender and racial identities, occupations, philosophical outlooks, and political orientations. You are all human beings I value, and I ask that people engaging here try to engage in a similar, humane spirit. Compare different opinions by all means. No attacking one another, please; no personal insults please; if you feel the spirit of this ground rule has been breached, state your case and let us give it due consideration. I will delete as needed; I am happy to say I rarely need to wield my zapper.
Occasionally, I am asked about my Buddhist practice, since I am unafraid to disclose my positions about some issues, and I state them with confidence. Is this incompatible with Zen practice? That’s a really good question and something I have taken time to reflect upon. I think this question reflects an assumption that argument must be contentious: a fight to assert ego rather than a way to communicate and explore. 
First of all, beware of cliches about Buddhists. People who practice Buddhism have a range of opinions and they can discuss them just like anybody else. I've met Buddhists with liberal opinions, conservative opinions, and socialist opinions. Some Buddhists are comfortable discussing personal opinions, some prefer not. Some go as far as to participate in activist politics, whereas some refrain even from voting. The content of a person's opinions has nothing to do with being a "good" Buddhist. Zen, in particular, is about paying radical attention to why you do the things you do. Why discuss opinions? How is it beneficial to the project of awakening with all sentient being(s)? Is it about puffing up yourself, or contributing something to a communal good, or what?
As my friend Jason, who is now a zen teacher himself, sometimes asks: do you use your opinions or do your opinions use you? 
One thing practice has helped me see is that my opinions are not part of my identity or my skin, that there is nothing to be defensive about if someone disagrees with you or questions you. Opinions cause suffering when we feel a need to defend them as if we were defending our body. Clinging to opinions is suffering. If you're not clinging to opinions and being defensive, you can play with your opinions, turn them upside down, go at them with an axe. 
Thinking clearly and well allows us to nurture principle and act on it courageously. That’s good for me and I hope good for you. Yes, social media easily lends itself to insulating ourselves into like-minded groups and living in a bubble; but it can also be used for engaging and exploring the world in ways I can’t with just my books. And if a defensive reaction does appear, aha! An opportunity to examine something! On a daily basis - I emphasize daily - I observe tiny defensive reactions in myself about the funniest things. Generally, they have to do with personal interactions rather than written arguments. 
If you ever have the opportunity to work with a zen master, defensiveness will be the big obstacle. Zen masters pop every one of our precious balloons; it's what they do. Clinging to the balloons is suffering. If you're not attached to the balloons you can play with them or not as you choose.
I'm not a zen master or playing that role, but I enjoy conversation and I use my space on Facebook for that activity. No one is required to participate. I don't ask that people agree with me. I like learning more about the person and perhaps the issue we are discussing.

On the other hand, a lot of people have defensive reactions about their opinions: “Don't bop my balloon!!” They will take disagreement personally. Their instinct is to fight, to use argument as a way to hit at the person instead of explore the topic. That's when it is time to step back. This would happen in my household growing up. Occasionally a conversation would become contentious; a friendly argument would not feel friendly anymore. That’s when it’s time to make tea, pour wine, switch to something else, step back. If you do not trust my intentions or my honesty, if you are not willing to read slowly and process before reacting, if you are interested in "winning" something, if you are making false statements about what I wrote, then we are not engaging in the same activity, and besides wasting our time it can damage our personal relationship. That would be sad and pointless.
So let’s review:
  • Opinions are balloons, and balloons are for bopping, flicking, deflating, and popping.
  • Opinions are not who we are but we can use them to express relationships, aspirations, and value.
  • Differences are not a threat to you and actually exist to help you explore who you think you are.
If these statements seem strange, it is because our culture is on a very different track. The logic of market relations and exchange value has contaminated the way we conceive of social relations. Our culture emphasizes individual achievement over collaboration and commonwealth; personal heroics over collective action; top-down authority over ground-level solidarity. Utility and profit dominate humanistic values. It is a condition that has paved our slide into an increasingly authoritarian society.
But I’m a guy who still writes letters by hand, reads, meditates, engages in art and politics, and I use this space as an extension of that project. Conversation is a key value here. If you are entertained by trolling and verbal combat, excellent - there are places for that elsewhere. 
Now that (I hope) we understand each other, I hope you will write me a note. Ask questions, comment, tell me a story. 
Oh, and if you want to give written letters a try, fire away and I promise to write back to you (this includes international letters): Algernon D’Ammassa, P.O. Box 84, Deming, NM 88031 USA.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mike Pence's Evening at the Theatre - and Authoritarian Culture

Vice President elect Mike Pence scored tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, and good for him. I hope he enjoyed the show.

As you may have heard, his presence was noticed and much of the audience booed him. It was enough of a distraction that the cast of the show decided to address it rather than ignore it, and they addressed the Vice President in-waiting with a respectfully worded, earnest, and humane statement about the concerns that led to the boos.

Before we proceed further with this case, here is a link to where the statement can be read and viewed. It is important to be aware of what they said, because a lot of the kibbitzing suggests to me that some people are formulating their conclusions without regard to what was said - just the fact that they had the audacity to speak to the Leader.

This was certainly the reaction of President-elect Donald Trump, who immediately demanded that the cast apologize to Pence for this, despite the fact that the performers actually stopped the booing and channeled the energy into more constructive words. For his part, Pence - who was never in physical danger - smiled and seemed unphased. He's been in this business for a while.

It has been interesting to see journalists (like Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times) and artists, including some who identify as liberals, falling into an authoritarian trap here. For instance, musician Steven Van Zandt typifies the line of argument in this article. Since Van Zandt enfolds the basic shape of the argument, I'm going to respond directly to him.

Van Zandt's case is basically logical, but as a theatre artist I take issue with his two central premises:

* Feeling comfortable and safe from real world issues is not part of the contract when you go to the theatre. This idea that theatre is an intellectual "safe space" is news to me and generations of actors, playwrights, directors, designers, and choreographers who came before me.

* Since Van Zandt is addressing the cast of Hamilton, I assume what he is describing as a "bullying tactic" is the curtain speech that was addressed to Pence - which, again, was respectful and humane and called for the audience to stop booing. What Steve calls "bullying" was actually a polite address to a person in a position of considerable power, and which we once were taught to believe is an inalienable right.

There have been suggestions that Pence should have been allowed to enjoy a private evening of entertainment. Oh no, sorry, no no. The theatre is not your living room at home: that's a private space. The theatre is a public space. And Presidents and Vice-Presidents don't get to go out in public and not be President or Vice-President. Out in the world, you are always "on." It is part of holding office.

We really must resist the conflation of a respectful, humane statement of concern addressed to a person of considerable power (the second highest office in the republic), at a time where there is well-founded public fear about the incoming government, as somehow being "bullying." The right to address our office holders in such terms is a self-evident right that supersedes deference to authority.

It is especially disquieting to observe an artist yield that distinction so readily. I suppose he thinks he is being fair and balanced; but he is actually being too deferential to authority, and this is a symptom of our creeping authoritarian culture: when bias towards authority, protecting them from criticism, begins to feel "neutral." 

If Mike Pence has the mettle to stand in legislatures and seek laws forcing women to organize funerals for aborted pregnancies and allowing shopkeepers to refuse service to gays, and defend Donald Trump's categorical threats against entire religious groups and nationalities, he can jolly well handle an articulate statement of concern proffered by an artist who is every ounce as much a citizen as Mike Pence.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

His Majesty the President

A couple of my friends have written thoughtful posts recently about the way we treat Presidents - not just the formal protocols of address, but what we think we mean when we speak of "respecting the office." How much personal adulation is a President entitled to in a republic? To what extent is he (soon she, I think) entitled to a pass from criticism, under what circumstances?

So this morning I'm reading this book about the very first Congress, in March of 1789, when the whole circus was brand new and nobody was happy about it, and the first order of business for the United States Senate was how to address the President.

"After calling the Senate to order, [John] Adams immediately threw off conventional procedural restraints as presiding officer and pressed the Senate to consider as its first order of business of how to address the President. Infatuated by the pomp of European courts he had visited as an American minister during the Revolutionary War, he suggested 'Your Highness' or 'Your Most Benign Highness' as appropriate titles for the President. In a scene that would have delighted Lemuel Gulliver in Lilliput, twenty-two of America's most learned and powerful statesmen responded with complex arguments supporting 'His Exalted Highness,' 'His Elective Highness,' 'Most Illustrious and Excellent President,' and even 'His Majesty the President.' When one senator proposed calling the President 'George,' another snapped in response, 'Why not George IV?'
"A few senators protested Adams's intrusion in the debate as a blatant violation of customary procedures, with one protestor ridiculing the Vice President as 'His Rotundity.' Others were less oblique, stating that the President was neither a king nor an emperor and entitled to no title but 'George' - certainly not 'George I.'"

[From Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office, by Harlow Giles Unger.]
Personally, I lean toward the austere republican view. I do not require the “First Lady” to wear beautiful clothes nor the house to plated in gold and clink with rare china. While visiting heads of state should be treated with comfort and style, I would prefer state dinners to be modest and humble - at least until such time as all Americans are fed. With room and board and other services and privileges provided to Presidents and their families, the salary should also be modest - at least until such time as all Americans receive living wages and decent treatment in their workplace (indeed, they should be part owners in their own workplaces and participate in self-management).

Washington settled for “Mr. President,” which is regal enough. The sometimes quasi-monarchical affection for a President has its opposite in the kind of fanatical opposition we also see - something Washington himself thought about as he struggled to get from Mount Vernon to New York, stopping at every point for celebrations with cannon fire, fireworks, and speeches that elevated him to Olympus. He wrote in letters and his own diary that these energies were not only embarrassing but unsettling. He understood the other side to that kind of mass affection for leaders.

Of one friend of mine who proclaimed a civic virtue of displaying deference to the President, I asked this question: While we can surely understand an elected President is entitled to some decorum whether we are pleased with their service or not, is there a boundary? Can a President lose their title to our personal esteem? For me, this is actually not a hypothetical question. There was a point in 2005 where I stopped using the word “President” in front of George W. Bush’s name, and in his presence I would not have stood (except to turn my back on him, as he had turned his back on us). In light of the Iraq invasion and the stunningly incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the official sanction for torture and mass surveillance, I no longer felt I owed him any deference. I am no monarchist; I do not hold to any notion of “my President right or wrong.” It is his good fortune that Congress did not have the conscience and political will to impeach him - the grounds were there. He deserves a trial in the Hague. Instead, he now receives a pension, continued Secret Service protection, high speaking fees, and more than enough ceremonial pomp when he makes appearances. He will die in more comfort than far worthier men. He doesn’t need my ceremonial respect. He was an officer of the republic, and not a very distinguished one at that.

It is, rather, for Presidents to pay honor to people, to lift their hats to the worker, and advocate for people’s welfare in proportion to their oppression rather than their access to wealth and influence. I understand this goes against our actual history: we have from the start been a republic that believes in a ruling class out of democratic reach, where plutocratic sentiments (that wealth has better standing to govern) were once openly expressed.

Yet I cannot shake the notion that Thomas Paine helped instilled in us, that we have standing to steer history otherwise. It is because of this standing that we can look a President in the eye, assess the person, and call that person by their personal name.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

A Play To Kick Our Asses

Photo by Erica Krauel

Not as eloquent as Aeschylus, perhaps, but one of the most seasoned members of the cast of Agamemnon uttered the unanimous sentiment: "This play is kicking all our asses!"

She meant it in a positive sense. A 40+ year professional actor who has done his share of classics says he found this more demanding of study time and his own technique than anything he's done, including many works by Shakespeare. Indeed, directing the piece, I have felt myself balled up in the Furies' tangled robes.

In retrospect, starting rehearsals at the beginning of August was too late. If we go on to produce The Libation Bearers, the next play in the Oresteia, I want to begin four months in advance. It's a big ask for volunteer actors but as the ensemble finds their footing during tech week, they seem up for a longer process next time around.

It will depend on the community's response to the play. By all reports, it has been decades since any of these ancient Greek plays have been performed here. There have been more modern plays inspired by Greek mythology but no performances of the translated plays of Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, or Aeschylus. My performances of An Iliad - a modern play adapted from the Fagles translation of Homer - have gone over quite well in Las Cruces, and we have cautiously optimistic hopes for this production.

I was already feeling rather exhausted when the actor playing Aegisthus had to withdraw during tech week (due to a sequence of personal mishaps, not his fault), and I found myself taking over the role myself.

with Michelle Tomlinson, who plays Clytemnestra

But here we are. Tonight is our final dress and tomorrow night we open.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Acting, Paid and Unpaid

Your correspondent, center, directing a rehearsal of AGAMEMNON in Las Cruces, NM.

In my frequent crossovers between professional and amateur theatre, when I hear disparaging talk about the latter, it has been hard for me to remain in the room.

Professional theatre buys a luxurious amount of time. You can pay people for a full-time commitment. You can accomplish a lot when people are available for eight-hour rehearsal days and don't need to work other jobs. Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy rehearsal time. In that sense, professional theatre has privileges the amateur theatre does not.

In non-paying theatre, the actors are squeezing the same preparation into what leisure time they have around jobs, school, families, and so on.

In professional theatre, you may also benefit from actors who have more training and experience, but I've worked with some highly trained and experienced people in non-paying theatre, and of course salaries and Equity contracts don't guarantee quality work.

I love working in professional theatre. I like being paid to do this work, and I like the assurances of a professional environment: hours of rehearsal time, a knowledgeable crew, actors who are expected to be prepared and focused. This summer, I directed a show under an Equity agreement in Albuquerque and it was a delight.

In non-paying theatre, we can keep ticket prices low enough that most people can afford to see our shows. This only works because there are people willing to work hard for little or no compensation. They trust the theatre not to exploit them for profit. They donate their time and creative labor to a cause and, I would hope, because they enjoy themselves while doing it.

My expectations in a non-paying environment are not "lower," but there are different constraints and pressures. I can't work with Equity actors but I frequently work with experienced and well-prepared non-Equity actors who care strongly about the work. I also work with less-experienced performers who are eager to learn and not defensive about it. We need to be creative, working within very slim budgets. And those performers must find time for a good deal of homework and study amid their other obligations. God, I love these people.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why Are We So Magnanimous About War Crimes?

Images of First Lady Michelle Obama snuggling with George W. Bush at this weekend's opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture  are being widely shared on various social media. The image is, to be fair, somewhat misleading: the encounter, seen on video, is very brief and not as warm as the still image suggests; it is, however, the still image that has defined the encounter.

Comments on these images praise this convergence of political actors as showing "class" (true, but not in the sense they mean). Even the Reverend Ed Bacon, with whom I worked on the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace following 9/11 and in resistance to Bush's criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, called the image "magnanimous."

And Ed isn't wrong. It is highly magnanimous for the First Lady of the United States to embrace George W. Bush, and not place him under arrest so that he can answer to war crimes. This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. As President, he authorized a policy that explicitly ignored international laws of war and established torture as policy, and this was on top of the invasion of Iraq itself, a violation of Nuremberg as an aggressive invasion based on falsified evidence, with disastrous international consequences continuing to unfold.

It was inexplicably magnanimous for newly inaugurated President Barack Obama to push the Justice Department to avoid formal investigation or any prosecution for war crimes by the Bush government. The Convention Against Torture requires us to prosecute war crimes committed by our own officials. Obama simply ignored the treaty and hardly anyone protested.

Obama has participated in war crimes himself. Again, this is not hyperbole. Americans are simply accustomed to ignoring our government's war crimes. There is very little public uproar about the drone strike program and the high number of civilians it has killed in a broadly defined "war on terrorism" inherited from the Bush administration. Public opinion was barely phased when the President unilaterally targeted and ordered the assassination of an American living abroad who was involved with al-Qaeda, and there was mostly silence when, two weeks later, Obama ordered the man's 16 year old son killed. Targeting family members like that is a war crime. Under Obama's command, American forces have been involved in the bombing of hospitals, schools, and civilian factories in Afghanistan and Yemen. Despite the evidence that Saudi Arabian forces are involved in war crimes, President Obama has authorized extensive sales of military equipment to the regime. There is no indication the President will ever be called to account for these things - not by the Department of Justice, not by any international body, and not in the mainstream press. My friends who identify as liberal generally express admiration and personal affection for Obama, and regard objection to his human rights record as distasteful.

After eight years of Bush and nearly eight years of Obama, war crimes have been normalized as U.S. policy. We have seen one administration pre-emptively exonerate its predecessor, across party lines. We are not even feinting at compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

But that's not all. Culturally, we have this peculiar affection for war criminals.

Exhibit A, Michelle Obama's public physical affection for the older, avuncular George W. Bush, a man who limits his public appearances and presents himself as a cheerful, retired statesman devoted to painting.

Exhibit B, a marble bust of Vice-President Richard Cheney, architect and staunch defender of Bush-era torture programs, unveiled in the House of Representatives last year to bi-partisan acclaim. Press accounts celebrated the jovial tone of the gathering, the jokes and bipartisan unity. Why intrude matters of international law and human decency on a happy gathering? This was portrayed as classy and magnanimous in the press.

One might say, "Okay, but that's how politicians are. Popular culture and everyday folks don't love war criminals." I give you Exhibit C: comedian Stephen Colbert, a liberal-aligned satirist, yokking it up with triumphant and unrepentant war criminal Henry Kissinger in a 2014 video that invites us to laugh along as Colbert dances around Kissinger's office while the bemused Kissinger himself mugs for the camera.

I don't recall any uproar about that. Colbert came close enough to a man implicated in numerous illegal coups and mass slaughter of non-combatants - and made no attempt to place him under citizen's arrest. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration bestowed upon Kissinger a "Distinguished Public Service" medal, one of many public honors he has received.

And the Bush administration war criminals are invited on to television programs and to speak to universities as if they were honorable public officials, where it is considered distasteful to bring up the apparent war crimes (and admitted war crimes) or suggest they should be questioned about them - much less, tried in a formal proceeding. Sometimes there are student protests, but by and large these figures travel untroubled throughout the country.

What's our deal? Why are we so forgiving of war crimes? For starters, the public does not pay close attention to our wars - they take place far away, are funded without debate, and there is no draft. Popular media doesn't have a narrative about war crimes - it likes to rehabilitate and humanize controversial figures, but it is rather indifferent to the idea that some actions are not okay even in wartime, that you don't target civilians or pillage, you don't rape and/or torture prisoners, you don't send children into battle, you don't inflict unnecessary suffering. These are peculiar distinctions to make if one thinks war itself is a crime, but in a world where warfare is accepted as normal, we have at least some international conventions drawing some limits to what states may do to human beings.

The United States does not consider itself bound to any of these limits.

There is little evidence suggesting this bothers the American people.

So yes, the photo of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush is making the rounds, and it is consistent with our national character that we smile, applaud, and speak of such moments as hallmarks of reconciliation - rather than a tacit agreement to cover up our leaders' crimes.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Cant of "Can't"

One needn't live in Seattle to enjoy Charles Mudede's writing at The Stranger.

Nonetheless, a post dated September 22 was a bit disappointing, not merely for stating something imprecise, but because the lack of precision matters so much.

The statement appears in his response to Kshama Sawant's endorsement of the Green Party's Jill Stein in the upcoming presidential election. Sawant is a member of Seattle's city council who has won office twice as an avowed socialist, a rarity in American politics post-Cold War. Follow the link in this paragraph to read Sawant's argument in The Nation.

Mudede wrote:

Sawant recommends that progressive Americans vote for a person, Jill Stein, who has no chance of winning instead of one, Hillary Clinton, who does.

He goes on to argue that progressives will be better positioned under a Hillary Clinton presidency than a Trump presidency. He also insists "there can be no doubt about this" with the peculiar certainty that characterizes anti-Trump hysteria, a way of pre-empting further discussion or thought.

Herewith, my stubborn insistence on thinking.

First, the statement that Jill Stein has no chance of winning is not actually correct. She can win: she is on enough ballots to win the 270 electoral votes required to be elected president. What we can predict with reasonable certainty is that she won't win. She would have to run the table, winning nearly all of the states where she is an option. There are a few reasons we can predict this will not happen, and some of these reasons have to do with her campaign, her own flaws as a candidate, and the electorate's receptivity to a Green Party platform. There are also institutional reasons. The system is set up to prevent her from competing effectively for those electoral votes. As a candidate outside the two dominant parties, it is more difficult for her campaign to gain ballot access, harder to raise money, and even after surmounting these obstacles she is prevented from inclusion in presidential debates despite having a numerical possibility of winning the election. These factors serve to portray her as not "real" and tilt the playing field against her, such that she is not even likely to win enough of the popular vote to qualify for federal matching  funds, lowering some of the financial barriers to her participation.

Thus it is more accurate to say she won't win. When we state that she can't, and leave it at that, we are not only being imprecise: we are concealing a reality about "democratic" elections in the United States. The system is set up to protect the traditional parties from competition.

This is why I am dubious about Mudede's argument that the American left will fare any better under a Hillary Clinton presidency. A Hillary Clinton presidency is more appealing than a Trump presidency for a number of valid reasons, but this particular idea is dubious to me because I have yet to see a compelling case for left politics faring better under a President Clinton. It is stated as a self-evident fact. Yet the American left's challenges stand independently of whom we elect President. The American left's challenge is to organize resistance movements, articulate a liberation movement (from, I would hope, capitalist organization and culture), and carry the struggle in electoral and non-electoral work. Not just the ballot box, not just in legislatures, but in the workplace and the marketplace, at our dinner tables and front yards.

We know what we can anticipate from a Democratic administration: support for the TPP, fracking (which intensifies the ecological catastrophe already underway), further privatization, continued surveillance and over-policing in the name of "terrorism," and war, war, war. To say this is preferable to a Trump presidency is not really saying much. It also conceals another important truth: this isn't getting any better as long as we protect the Democratic Party from competition from the left.

So, under the current system, where we still don't have proportional representation, where electoral votes are mostly "winner take all," a system arranged to protect the dominant two parties from competition, we can vote strategically. In votes that are securely "blue" or "red," one can and should vote for Jill Stein if one supports competition from the left. If Stein achieves an impressive share of the popular vote, it can open up matching funds as well as make a compelling case for the Green Party's inclusion in future debates. In "swing" states where the outcome is less certain, where one is worried about Trump carrying the state and winning those electoral votes, by all means think strategically. It is the best we can do in an American election, until we change the system.

Whichever way we cast that vote, our work is not done. The system must be changed and it's not going to happen by wishing or asking politely or posting things on social media. And it's still less likely to happen if we refuse to make clear, truthful statements about the way power is distributed - and protected.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Statement on Performing "Killing Buddha" on September 11

It is September 11 and I will perform my play Killing Buddha with Randy Granger in a special, very low-priced matinee in Hillsboro, New Mexico. This is a statement I made from my home in Deming about why we are offering this ancient story on this day in particular.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Exagium of Seneca, Stoicism, and Zen Practice

That Seneca the man did not always behave according to his own philosophy can be rejected as hypocrisy ("a steersman who is seasick in a storm"), but it would be a loss to disregard his letters to young Lucilius on those grounds. The selection of his letters translated by Robin Campbell - reportedly while he was serving in Africa with the Gordon Highlanders! - is rich with humane philosophy. This is not philosophy of the intellect but philosophy as guidance for character. In the first century A.D. Seneca lamented the specialization of philosophy into an intellectual discipline rather than an examination of how to live. I conversed and occasionally argued with these letters throughout the book, just as it should be.

(Although I have recently returned to Latin, which I studied in high school, I am not diving into the classics in Latin unless I have a good side-by-side translation.)

There are tempting parallels between daily Stoic philosophy and daily Zen philosophy, in that both propose that our suffering at the challenges of life are caused by our view of those challenges as much as the challenges themselves. Both acknowledge what Buddhism calls anicca - transience, impermanence - and stress an open-handed acceptance of phenomena as they appear. (Zen Master Dae Kwang, who taught for many years at Providence Zen Center, burst the balloon on calling this "detachment" because it humors the illusion that we can be attached to anything!) To be open-handed, however, can also lead to confusion and suffering unless there is a sustained practice of paying attention to our direction. As Zen Master Seung Sahn put it, "I always go with the flow - but I watch where the flow is going."

There is a crucial distinction, however, in what Stoicism (with Seneca for a spokesman) and Zen teach us about how to "hold" our minds, if you will. 

Seung Sahn practically trademarked the phrase "don't know" to describe a lively clarity, an unhindered readiness to act, letting opinions and discursive thoughts come and go, without becoming identified with them in an egotistical way. "Don't know" actually goes "deeper" than this. Even the idea of ego ("I") can be let go. "Don't know" is a metaphor for consciousness before it gets organized into nominative thoughts, "before thinking." Click here for a brief excerpt from a talk by Zen Master Bon Soeng of the Empty Gate Zen Center about "don't know mind." 

At conservatory, my acting teachers would warn me about the "stupor" of meditation. I challenged them to spend one week waking up with me to do prostrations and sit before breakfast. They did not take me up on it. 
A normal human tendency is to identify with our thoughts ("I like this, I hate that") which leads us to defend our opinions and tastes as if they were our skin, and this makes non-contentious conversation with other people, therapeutic investigation, or casual reflection very difficult - even painful. A relaxed or "detached" attitude about our own thoughts helps with these things, especially those matters that challenge us to forgive ourselves and other people. ("Put it all down," as the Korean master said.) In fact, this is why daily meditation is prescribed - and why I have done some sitting (in very simple, non-guided, zen meditation) almost every day for 22 years. This actually requires repeated physical practice.

This is not a Stoic idea at all. Although Seneca, intriguingly, refers to some youthful experimentation with esoteric cults, and there were some encounters between Buddhism and the Roman world around Seneca's lifetime, I have not seen any evidence of an exposure to Buddhism and in any case this was "pre-Zen."

If "don't know" is the idea of holding our conscious mind loosely if at all, Seneca advises thinking everything through so nothing can take us by surprise:

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person's grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. [From Letter XCI]

In practice, this is really a difference in metaphor more than practice. What is mind? Is it really something you can "hold" or "let go of" or "use?" These are all metaphors for how we direct our  attention with respect to our thoughts and observations. Zen is radical in the sense that it questions the substance of self; the Stoics took no interest in this project. For the latter, the important matter was to transform a selfish "I" into an altruistic "I," but not to debunk the illusion of "I" itself. 

It will be interesting to read Marcus Aurelius again, as his writings indicate more attention to habits of perception, not just the content of our thoughts, and a daily practice perhaps akin to samatha.  For Seneca this seems to have been primarily a matter of receiving and implementing good teaching. The notion in Zen is that if we clear unhelpful habits of thinking away, and refer to the Buddhist precepts for guidance, a spontaneously humane nature ("true self") expresses itself. It may or may not conform to changeable and conditioned ideas about good and bad,but it is authentic and essentially humane. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

Of Thomas Paine and Iron Bridges (Book Review)

This brief review first appeared in the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, Vol. 17 No. 2, Summer 2016. Click this link to learn more about Thomas Paine Friends.

Florida State University historian Edward G. Gray tells a seldom-told story about Tom Paine, whom so many know - when they read or hear of him at all - as the early American revolutionist who tried to incite a similar revolution in Britain, and fewer still know he became a citizen of the first French republic and was jailed under Robespierre; they know him as the author of Common Sense  and some may have heard about (but seldom read) The Rights of Man,  The Age of Reason, and hardly ever Agrarian Justice even though we still debate its ideas. Many inherit the impression of Paine that John Adams conveyed in a letter to Abigail Adams in 1776, that he had "a better hand at pulling down than building."

Gray tells us a story of Paine the builder, a creative problem solver who pondered the dangerous Schuylkill River, and saw - perhaps as early as the Revolutionary War, witnessing the role rivers played in key battles around Philadelphia - the importance of infrastructure to a new nation's economy and social fabric.  A footnote in other biographies, Gray's book focuses on Paine's interest in architecture and bridges in particular.

America was covered with old-growth forests and ample timber for building bridges, but wooden bridges were notoriously vulnerable, covered or not.  Paine conceived of a permanent single-arch bridge constructed of iron, and as he traveled to Britain and France and back to America again, he sought the input of trained builders and potential investors wherever he went. His designs earned the admiration of many before his reputation sank, and several important bridges seem to have been inspired by his model of a pre-fabricated design that could be shipped and assembled on site, making architecture and engineering exportable commodities.

This is a pertinent story coming at a time when the United States is learning painful lessons about the importance of infrastructure to domestic economy - or, if investment in maintenance and replacement is the measure, perhaps we aren't learning from our bad roads, crumbling tunnels, collapsing bridges, corroded plumbing, and ramshackle ports of entry. When Philadelphia was still the major port city, but seeing competition from Baltimore and New York, Paine looked to the dangerous riverine barriers around them and saw permanent bridges as essential to a United States, economically and politically.

In architecture as with his writings, Paine was tragically loath to monetize his efforts. He held a patent for his bridge design and sought compensation when others built bridges based on his concept, but Gray shows him repeatedly pulling his focus from bridges to politics, losing political support and networks of friends after the French Revolution and The Age of Reason (falsely portrayed in his time and even today as an atheist treatise), plus a harsh attack on George Washington that backfired on Paine.

Gray ends with an intriguing epilogue about corporations and public-private partnerships in the early United States, including some earnest debate about whether "perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the nature of a republican government," showing once more that the United States is still engaged in some of the same fundamental arguments from our early years.

TITLE: Tom Paine's Iron Bridge: Building a United States
Author: Edward G. Gray
Pub Date: April 25th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-393-24178-5
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Green Party Has a "Woo" Problem


Belatedly, I am prompted to respond to new scrutiny of Jill Stein as a competing candidate and possible alternative for voters mobilized by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Stein is the presumptive nominee to be the Green Party's candidate for President a second time.

Unsurprisingly, with the enhanced attention making it harder to simply ignore the Green Party, there is a lot of negative stuff. Some prominent Democratic supporters, including Dan Savage, have stooped to misrepresenting and smearing the Green Party and its candidate.(As he has done in the past, being a rather hawkish partisan.)

Yet the scrutiny is important, and the party and its candidate have both been around long enough to understand their role in helping the electorate envision alternatives to the traditional parties and feel comfortable supporting them. They do this in the context of the bourgeois spectacle of presidential politics, and they work against the deliberate effort by the parties, media organizations, and the Commission on Presidential Debates to make us believe there are no other "real" parties.

Today I have to acknowledge that the Green Party has a bit of a "woo" problem. It's not insurmountable, and it's also not new; and they must confront it. This is the week of their nominating convention, maybe this is a good time.

Last week while I was busy at a festival, I began seeing posts alleging that Jill Stein was "anti-vaccine." I have enough background with the Green Party to remember that it has flirted with some fringey positions about food and medicine in the past (and not very long ago), so I felt concerned and immediately began examining this for myself. I also know that Jill Stein (for whom I voted in 2012)  is a physician so the rumor that she is part of the "anti-vax" fringe raised my eyebrows.

To begin with the anti-vax allegations: these are false, but there is a memo here for the candidate. The longest statement I could find by Dr. Stein about vaccines was from an "Ask Me Anything" session she did on Reddit (Direct link here.) This statement was also cited by Snopes in its article debunking the anti-vax claim. The statement makes a clear distinction: she does not question the value of vaccinations per se, and does not air non-scientific allegations about vaccinations; her argument about vaccinations addresses the economics, and the role of profit-seeking in vaccinations as well as medicine generally. She speaks of the regulation and promotion of vaccines by people with a financial interest. That's a valid political argument and to portray this as "anti-vax" is a smear that misrepresents the argument she actually makes. She has also tweeted, in response to these allegations, her support for immunization. I'm inclined to agree with Snopes that this charge is false; but there is some language here that is a little bit hedgy, as if trying not to alienate potential supporters who hold onto anti-vaccine views. This would be pandering to pseudo-science and she would deserve criticism for that.  I would have addressed this question differently, and made a repeated and unambiguous statement separating the science from the political economy of supply and distribution. For instance, let us now move into the issue of GMOs.

A widely shared blog post by Dan Arel takes her to task (and withdraws his own endorsement of Stein) on the issue of genetically modified foods and his point is valid. Stein is calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods and pesticides. Arel quotes a recent fundraising email, which I also received, asserting without any documentary links that "evidence is now showing that once these foods reach our digestive tract, they can affect our very DNA." Arel presents the problem in very simple and stark terms: either this is an indulgence in scary prose for the purposes of raising money, which would be dishonest; or Stein is earnestly standing in opposition to scientific findings about GMOs, which is no easier to defend than those who deny climate change.

If we are debating whether the alternative candidate for the left is fear-mongering or actually subscribing to "woo" theories about science, we have a problem. 

Mishandling the issue not only kookifies the candidate - sssssh, kookify is a legitimate verb - it also pivots away from a legitimate issue that should be raised. We don't have to be scared about the science, but should we not be discussing the role of large corporations like Monsanto in patenting genetic material and using patent laws to extend its control and profit-taking over even the smallest farms?

Jill Stein should be staking her position as the candidate who wants to debate the political economy of GMO research. By playing to fears about GMO, she blows that issue and exposes herself to being portrayed as a kook. Considering her status as an alternative candidate in a country strongly entrenched in viewing the two-party system as legitimate, this is a very expensive mistake. To make any mark in this election, the Greens have to play to a national audience.

Another expensive mistake, also cited by Arel and getting circulation of its own, is a recent video of an appearance by Stein where she says strange things about wireless internet service in schools. I have watched the video myself. (Here is a link to the video.) She starts by saying some sensible things about education, how we shouldn't depend too much on screens or dump kids in front of computers too long, but then someone throws in a comment about wireless internet and inexplicably Stein keeps talking off the cuff: "We should not be subjecting kid’s brains especially to that…we make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die. And this is the paradigm for how public health works in this country.”

Oh brother. This is not a thing. I located some articles about medical research into radiation exposure in home and school environments. Yes, the wifi router emits radiation, and radiation is a scary word for a lot of people, but the kind of radiation it emits and the amount are not harmful. This has been investigated and the answer is no, wifi is not poisoning anyone. Wireless internet use in schools is not a public health hazard. This is kooky talk and constitutes an unforced error on the part of the candidate.

2016 is an important year for alternative parties. This year we have a major opportunity to make a case for considering alternatives to the two traditional parties. The Republican Party cannot govern and has nominated someone for president who is obviously a kook with a serious personality disorder and glaringly unprepared to hold office. The Democratic Party is in a different kind of trouble, as large numbers of voters (and millennials especially) are rejecting its center-right ideology. Confidence in these two parties as a legitimate duopoly is at an unusual low.  This could be a year when a Libertarian or Green candidate could make the case for being allowed to debate on the same stage. Interest in these new voices can also energize a movement for some important electoral reforms that would open up our politics, empower voters and make some of our institutions more representative of popular consent.

This puts a burden on the alternative candidates. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have more eyes on them now, more is being written about them, and they are on television more than they have been previously. They cannot afford to look like kooks. If they do, we lose the opportunity to change strongly-held prejudices about "real" political parties. As kooky as Donald Trump is, he is also frighteningly close to being elected President, and there is a lot of fear-mongering, scolding, and shaming going on among liberals directed at those of us who would dare consider a competing alternative to Hillary Clinton. Even in states that are securely blue or red, where voting for an alternative candidate won't change the state's electoral vote, some report simply being too scared to do anything except vote for Hillary Clinton.

Speaking for myself, I think what is likely going to happen is that Hillary Clinton will be elected President in November. With months to go before election day, Trump's campaign is in disarray and falling behind in fundraising, elected Republicans and prominent fundraisers are beginning to withdraw their endorsements. He could still win, especially if the Clinton campaign falters, but today things appear to be moving in her direction while Trump melts down and rejects the counsel of political professionals.

I will be asked if this is enough to make me change my vote. That's not a snap decision for me. How do I weigh kooky utterances about science and missed political opportunities against a Clinton presidency I feel certain will result in more endless warfare, further destabilization and humanitarian crises, escalation of fracking, further postponing of radical changes in energy production and consumption, and the eventual approval of the TPP and its human consequences?

Jill Stein is on enough state ballots that she has a numerical path to winning the electoral vote. That said, she would need to run the table in a landslide without precedent. Jill Stein is certainly not going to be elected President in 2016. There is a great deal that her candidacy could achieve, however. That depends on whether she can present herself as a credible leader, a citizen of strong principle and humane ideology, who could take that oath of office and then recruit and manage the executive branch of the federal government.

This means that everything she says counts. The way a candidate for President talks about science matters. If Jill Stein says kooky things about science, we lose the opportunity to advance this alternative to the Democratic Party in the mind of the electorate.