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.