Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fighting the Darkness

This seems to me such a dark time in America, with a darkness that is only growing. At every turn, the forces of conservatism, inequality and oligarchy are racking up victories, with little or no or only the most pale and weak-kneed opposition from the more "liberal" or socially progressive voices in our political structure. Though some see rays of hope in such accomplishments as the increasing acceptance of the right of homosexuals to enter into marriage, I see this as only a very small drop in the bucket when we consider the larger problems of stagnant wages for the many and ever-expanding fortunes for the few, the increasing dominance of the wealthy elite and large corporations in many areas of our life. Even the supposedly ultra-liberal cable news network MSNBC runs the self-congratulatory and pro-fracking advertisements of the carbon fuel industry, and the supposedly liberal New York Times increasingly caters to the Wall Street-financial services crowd that now dominates New York City as well as the American economy.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest international body of climate scientists in the world, released a new report on March 31st detailing how the climate is already changing with catastrophic effect, and how the dangers and crises now occurring will only be magnified if the world is unwilling to take action. As an educator, I see the trend toward increasingly standardized and regulated education only gaining strength, as influential figures from the President on down seem to be abandoning the ideals of liberal arts education in favor of increasingly vocational, job skills oriented education. When people are no longer allowed to think freely and openly, to freely explore the riches of cultural heritage and to freely experiment with ideas and activities that are freed from the stifling grip of monetary evaluation, but when the education system only trains the bulk of people to perform the tasks and functions deemed valuable by the high priests of the high-tech companies and the corporate economy, an economy organized around the maximization of corporate profits and stock market dividends, not the fulfillment of human needs, I shudder to think of the cold, heartless, fearful, high-tech prison of a society that we are building for ourselves, digital brick by dividend brick. Profits will increase but human freedom and happiness? I doubt it.

I am starting to reach the conclusion that others before me have, a conclusion that I have always resisted; the feeling that there may be no hope for saving America from its drift and decline. I actually sympathize to some extent with the right-wingers and Tea Partiers who range and rant about our country going wrong; I agree that our society is sick, but I disagree with them about the nature of the malady and the treatment to be administered. Many on the right seem to think that the root of the problem is Big Bad Government; I disagree completely. I would grant that our government can do stupid things, that some policies, regulations and programs may be misguided and counterproductive, but that calls for fixing and improving the policies, regulations and programs, not abolishing them all in favor of an unregulated libertarian utopia. I think that vision, if ever achieved, would only result in a dog-eat-dog, every-gun-for-himself, zero compassion dystopia. I see the problem lying in the power of large corporate business interests to manipulate everything to their advantage, without caring enough about the suffering of the poor or the desecration of the planet. If corporations were able to function as good public citizens and be effective stewards of society and the environment, I would be all in favor of total free market capitalism, but I do not see that being the case at all.

Without pressure from the government with its pesky rules, regulations, policies and taxation, many companies and wealthy individuals would do nothing for the benefit of others or of the world in general, but only seek to further enrich themselves and increase their plunder and power. That's what happened in such periods of economic "freedom" as the "robber baron" era of the late 1800s, in the Roaring Twenties, and in our recent period of financial deregulation and financial collapse. You may have noticed that since the bleakest days of the 2008 downturn, the stock market has recovered, big banks and financial companies are running up great profits, but many people are now working for lower wages than before the crash, many others cannot find work at all, and many people have lost their homes and had their lives ruined. In this case, the government functioned effectively to rescue the financial elite, but not the rest of us. What I conclude from that is not that we need to abolish the government, but need to radically reform it to make it more responsive to human needs. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling in the McCutcheon case this week will only make our politicians more dependent on big-money, fat-cat donors, so the situation is not likely to improve anytime soon.

I do see a ray of hope in my little corner of the Pagan world. Recent communications with a number of Norse Pagans in America have again demonstrated that I am not alone in wishing to develop a new form of American Asatru that would be politically progressive, environmentally concerned, anti-racist, anti-military, and pro-social justice. I think there are enough of us to do it. So, please do get in touch with me if you are on this wavelength. Send me a message to this blog including your email address, and note that you do NOT want this published on the blog. I will contact you off-blog and we can start networking, sharing ideas and planning. This may be a dark time, but we can do our best to be a source of light and vision, love for the earth and caring for humanity--ALL humanity and ALL the earth. A universal Paganism based in Norse traditions but not limited to them. If this resonates with you, please communicate with me.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We Are All West Virginians Now

The January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia that has deprived some 300,000 people of safe drinking water for the last week is a horrible tragedy. What is even worse is the larger problem of corporate irresponsibility and disregard for mankind and and nature alike that this catastrophe brings into focus. Many large corporations can cause massive damage to the natural environment, to local communities, and/or to ordinary people's lives, health and jobs and get away with it. Oh, they may be slapped with a small or even a very large fine here and there, as recently happened with Goldman Sachs when it was punished for trading irregularities with a $550m penalty, or be required to pay some kind of compensation to victims of corporate malfeasance, as with BP (British Petroleum) and the 2010 oil spill that wreaked havoc with the Gulf of Mexico, killed or sickened marine life, downgraded the health of Gulf waters, and wrecked the lives of local fishermen and others whose livelihood depended on the Gulf of Mexico being a healthy ecosystem and not a toxic cesspool. None of these fines or penalties are ever large or severe enough to actually pose a serious threat to the continued survival of the corporations in question; they are more like additional business expenses that may reduce profits for a time, but can gradually be absorbed and forgotten, without the companies involved having to make any fundamental changes in how they do business. It was calculated that the seemingly huge fine imposed on Goldman Sachs would only cost the financial behemoth about 24 minutes worth of its usual profits. Most of us suffer more financial hardship from traffic fines or parking tickets than do these monstrous companies from billion dollar penalties.

Furthermore, corporations are often able to greatly reduce their fines or wriggle out of paying anything at all through fancy legal maneuvering. When it's big government versus big business in the courtroom, large corporations can often afford more and better lawyers than can the government, and they can also opt to run out the clock, keeping the matter spinning in legal limbo for so long that the government either agrees to a settlement far less costly than the original proposed penalty, or simply gives up. Beyond that, when the government tries to create new regulations or even new government agencies to fight back against corporate greed and malfeasance, corporations are able to bribe, threaten and otherwise influence many legislators and regulators into either halting the new legislation or agency in its tracks or watering it down with loopholes, exclusions and exceptions that essentially thwart the original intent of the legislation or agency. In addition, corporations and their legal teams are able to recruit former politicians and regulators to work for them to circumvent laws and regulations, creating a revolving door situation in which government officials take corporate jobs working against the very laws and agencies that these officials once were in charge of. Another strategy is to leave the laws in place but cut the funding so that the regulatory agencies involved will not be able to enforce or implement the policies they are charged with. Conservatives love to claim that big government regulations are strangling our economy, but I think the truth is more that powerful corporations are strangling our government and leaving the American people with little protection from the depredations and abuses of the corporate elite.

On the night of January 14th, the late-night comedians and political commentators Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made the trenchant point that if the poisoning of public drinking water in West Virginia had been caused by Islamic terrorists, Americans would be up in arms and screaming for our military forces to attack, invade and obliterate the "bad guy" terrorist in retribution. However, since the toxic spill was perpetrated by American corporations rather than foreign militants, there are only muted and muffled calls for investigations of what went wrong and aid to those affected. This double-standard says volumes about the privileged position occupied by business and corporations in our culture, society, system of government and sense of morality. Business is sacred and given deferential treatment, even when it causes terrible harm to us.

It hasn't always been this bad. The environmental movement was able to gain traction in our political culture in the 1960s and 1970s and scored some notable successes such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cleaning up many polluted sites, such as the Ohio River, which used to be flammable, so thick was it with pollutants. In recent years, though anti-government conservatives have been waging a tireless campaign to reduce what they cynically label "job-killing" environmental regulations and to reduce the funding for the EPA.which some have pronounced Public Enemy #1.

Well, capitalism, corporations and big business may be sacred to anti-government conservatives and Free Market Fundamentalists, but what does all this mean to Pagans?

I know there are a fair number of American Pagans, including Heathens and/or Asatru members among others, who consider themselves conservatives and/or libertarians. They take a very negative view of government authority, which they see as infringing on individual liberty. However, the sacredness of nature is usually considered to be a core component of Pagan beliefs and worldview. I would think it pretty obvious that this puts Pagans on the side of protecting nature, not defending its despoilers. To put it another way, I would think that a true conservative should try to conserve nature, not ally him or herself with "conservatives" who care more for corporate profits than environmental purity. In mythology, there are gods like Thor that protect the earth, but such gods were nowhere in sight when industrial pollution struck the Gulf or West Virginia. In our reality of the present day, it is the government--yes, the big, bad liberal government--that strives to protect nature from corruption and degradation through such agencies as the EPA and by passing and enforcing laws that restrict and punish industrial and corporate pollution. It therefore seems to me that you CANNOT be a self-respecting Pagan of any sort and be in favor of letting businesses and corporations freely pollute our world and destroy our natural environment and be opposed to the government protecting what is supposed to be sacred to you. You should support the government in being the caretaker of our environment, and pray for more and better laws, regulations, policies and agencies to protect nature, NOT less and fewer.

Pagans, stand up for nature! And let's welcome people of other faiths and traditions who also care about the future health of this planet that we all share.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Multi-Culti Santa and the Dilemmas of Representation



Ho ho ho!

Santa Claus is a fascinating and often contentious figure. He is claimed by Christians as the mythologized version of Saint Nikolaos/Nicholas, an ethnic Greek citizen of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire who lived from 270-343 and grew up to become Bishop of Myra in the region known today as Turkey. As a leader of the Byzantine Christian community, Nikolaos participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nikolaos was later canonized as a saint of the Byzantine Church, and was particularly popular with sailors and fisherman, becoming a patron saint of such seagoing professions. He was also remembered for a practice of giving gifts to needy persons. This formed one of the kernels of the legend that gradually developed around him, transforming him from a leader of the fourth century Church to a mysterious, supernatural benefactor who provides gifts to the good in the season of Christmas each year. In many accounts of the genesis of Santa, this is where the story stops, with a gift-giving Christian Saint Nicholas who is eventually transformed into today's Saint Nick or Santa Claus.

However, there is much about our modern Santa that is hard to explain as deriving exclusively from the life of this Byzantine Greek Saint. What does the life of a fourth century Byzantine bishop in Turkey have to do with a portly old fellow dressed in red, one who is totally lacking in any Christian accoutrements, nary a crucifix nor a baby Jesus in sight, flying around the world, at night, in a magic sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer? Why is he associated with elves and the North Pole? Why are Christmas presents left around a gorgeously decorated evergreen tree? To answer these questions, we have to move beyond a strictly Christian framework to consider Pagan elements that were woven into the many-faceted legend of Saint Nick. It is not in Christian hagiography, but in Germanic Pagan mythology that we find a coherent explanation of these aspects of the Santa Claus legend. The god Odin emerges as something of a Pagan alter ego of the supposedly Christian Santa. Odin, like Santa, watches over all the world and observes the deeds of all mankind. Like Santa flying all around the world in the winter night, Odin wanders far and wide. Though Odin is not associated with a flying sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, he has an eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, who bears him through the sky,and Norse myth tells of a number of deities who have conveyances drawn by animals, most notably Thor's chariot drawn by goats, and Freyja's wagon drawn by cats. The ornately-decorated Christmas tree is prefigured by the World Tree of Norse mythology as well as the practice among the Pagan Scandinavians, as documented by the Christian author Adam of Bremen, of a massive sacrifice of animals and humans who would be hung on evergreen trees near the Pagan temple at Uppsala, in Sweden. The North Pole and reindeer associations clearly associate Santa with Scandinavia, homeland of Norse myth and of Odin. The elves too are drawn from Norse-Germanic mythology. Finally, we know that the Northern Pagans had a cherished tradition of feasting and celebrating in the depths of winter, in the time of Jól or Yule.

Putting together the Christian legend of the gift-giving Nikolaos of Myra with the Scandinavian lore of Odin and other myths and traditions of the Norse-Germanic Pagans, with just the teeniest little dash of twentieth-to-twenty-first century capitalist consumerism sprinkled on top, we arrive at today's Santa Claus. I take delight in this mixing and mashing of diverse and contradictory elements, all the more when I hear Christians complain about the un-Christian-ness of the materialism and the non-Biblical-ness of Santa's appearance and trappings, and Pagans bemoaning the Christian gloss on (or theft of) Germanic folklore. Relax, folks; this is how human culture works. Everything is regurgitated and recombined over time, with the loose ends still showing that you can trace back to find the roots tapping into much older traditions. I don't think this glorious recombinant confusion is something that started in our so-called "post-modern" age; I think this has always been going on across the ages. Humans are hoarders, tinkerers and cobblers by nature. We hoard little pieces of the past, tinker around with them, adding and subtracting new-old meanings and stories, and cobble together new creations out of the remnants of the old that answer to no one's ideal of purity.

I salute my cheesy little plastic Santa, perched on my window, with a low-wattage bulb lighting up his innards. I see Odin playing tricks on the Bishop of Myra, all the way to Walmart, and the Bishop having a good laugh too.

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On a more serious note, I am saddened but not surprised by the tempest in the cable news media teapot sparked by the Dec. 11 comment of Megyn Kelly, hostess of the FOX news program The Kelly File that "Santa Claus just IS white...so you know, kids." Many have criticized Ms. Kelly for offering a racist perspective on Christmas and Santa Claus. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's news parody program The Daily Show noted on Dec. 12 that Christmas was supposed to be for EVERYONE, implying that Megyn Kelly was wading into racist waters with her insistence on Santa's whiteness. In defense of Megyn Kelly, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of visual representations of Santa Claus DO portray him as, well, an old white man: a rotund, elderly Caucasian male with rosy red cheeks and a flowing white beard. Ms. Kelly's comments came in response to a Dec. 10 blog essay on the Slate web site by Aisha Harris that proposed that since the usual representation of Santa Claus as white was out of keeping with our modern, multi-cultural, inter-racial, poly-ethnic world culture, it might be a nice idea to replace the image of Santa as a jovial old white guy with a penguin, since everyone loves penguins and there would be no possibility of a racial agenda or interpretation being imposed upon such a creature. See http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2013/12/santa_claus_an_old_white_man_not_anymore_meet_santa_the_penguin_a_new_christmas.html

I have some sympathy for all of the viewpoints noted above. Kelly is right that, in reality, Santa Claus is most often portrayed as white; Stewart is correct that Christmas is nowadays meant to be a universal holiday without racial overtones; and Harris makes a valid point that a cute animal icon might be a way out of the racial dilemma posed by the traditional image of the old white Santa. Where Kelly went a little off the rails, in my view, was in her further statement that if people felt uncomfortable with Santa's white image, it was their obligation to get over their discomfort and accept the traditional image rather than expect the tradition to change to suit their sensitivities. Stewart acutely observed, "that is the definition of oppression."

This dilemma of how to take a tradition or image rooted in an earlier, less ethnically diverse place and time and render it suitable for today's multi-ethnic world, in societies such as ours that have struggled so mightily and even heroically to overcome racism and other kinds of prejudice and oppression, is indeed very delicate and complicated. It has direct bearing on modern Pagan religious movements. Pagans living in the twenty-first century must ask themselves how their Pagan gods and goddesses, primarily derived from European cultural traditions, are to be perceived and represented in a time when people of non-white, non-European background may be interested in taking these gods as their personal deities, icons and symbols. The same dilemma holds for non-European based religious revival movements with a strong ethnic component as well. For example, persons of non-African background may well wish to become involved in African or Afro-Caribbean religious traditions such as Santeria, Ife or Voudoun. In each case, should the deities continue to be imagined in the form of the people among whom the religion first developed, or should worshippers or participants with different racial or ethnic origins be allowed to re-interpret the images of the gods in keeping with their own identities?

This is not just a superficial, cosmetic matter of slapping on a few ethnic attributes, such as skin, eye or hair color, to accommodate people of varied ethnic origins and identities. This issue also calls upon us to ask ourselves if the gods are essentially ethnic or racial in nature, or whether ethnic trappings and characteristics are not essential attributes of Pagan divinity. As Odin is the god who I most often relate to in my religious thinking and ritual life, I ask myself, is Odin essentially white, Caucasian, European, or something beyond all of that, something/someone ineffable and transcendent, that happened to find expression in Norse myth and religion? Is Odin a person, with a face, with a certain kind of hair and skin color, or a spiritual essence beyond all of that? In this matter, I think Paganism can learn from the monotheistic traditions which grappled so extensively with the issue of whether their God has any particular form or physicality, or is beyond all such things. Hinduism provides another useful perspective, with the idea that gods are beyond physical form but may temporarily inhabit physical forms, such as statues or temples, to provide darśan to their human devotees. It is likewise in Shinto, where the kami gods are summoned to inhabit particular images on particular occasions, such as rice-gods called down from the mountains to dwell in temples near the rice field for the time of planting and growth, only to be dismissed back to the mountain when the harvest is complete. I also see value in the Jungian perspective, that what we think of as gods may be just our personalized or culturally-determined forms of deeper psychological or spiritual realities.

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I went to see the second Thor film, Thor: The Dark World a few nights ago. I didn't expect much, knowing it was mainly a mass-market, special effects-laden, big-bang action-film, and I left the theatre a bit tired from all the repetitive fight sequences that seemed to me more Star Wars than Snorri Sturluson, more Hollywood than Hávamál. One small element in the film does relate to the previous discussion, however. The god Heimdall is portrayed by Idris Elba, a great British actor of African descent, best known for his performance as erudite drug dealer Stringer Bell in the acclaimed American TV series The Wire, and more recently, for his much-praised portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the just-released Mandela film biography Long Walk to Freedom. Mr. Elba's version of Heimdall seemed to work fine in the film, and his brown-skinned appearance had no special import for the sequence of events, one way or another. I did not see the first Thor film and do not know how modern Norse-Germanic Pagans responded to Heimdall's Africanized appearance. Anyone out there want to comment on this?

Another interesting aspect of the film to me was how the Hollywood version of Thor has completely dispensed with the human alter ego that the Marvel comic book Thor once had. This makes Thor all-god, all-the-time. The Don Blake, alter-ego version added more complexity to his character, which the Hollywood Thor could have badly used, in my opinion. He was really rather stiff and uninteresting, all noble virtue and manly courage, quite boring in comparison to the film's clever, cunning and humorous Loki, who was the only character who seemed to possess any notable complexity or depth. However, who is to say how these figures should be portrayed? I take solace in the view that whatever ultimate meaning or reality these gods have, it is beyond any particular representation, but always open to reinterpretation, reinvention and reimagination.

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Plastic, six-inch Santa, I once again salute you! May thy plasticity and elusiveness long endure to delight further generations of children and provoke further generations of adults to reflection, befuddlement, and argument!

Hmm, maybe it is Loki having the last word here....


Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Season of Silence, and Why

My my my...How the time flies. I can't believe it has been more than two months since I have written in this blog. This autumnal season of silence came about partly for the reasons one might expect: work life very busy, leading to exhaustion capped by a touch of illness. Tra-la-la! There was also a more pleasant reason for my inability to find the time or energy to write here. I had a trip to Lithuania to participate in a project aiming at promoting inter-religious tourism in Lithuania and Latvia, both of which are lands blessed with amazingly rich histories of religious diversity, from their Pagan heritage to their long histories of Jewish and Muslim communities along with varied Christan contributions. This was a great pleasure but also quite exhausting.

There is however, another reason for my persistent silence. I am finding the current state of American society and politics so depressing, so frustrating, that I feel a growing sense of hopelessness for this country of my birth. The forces of obstruction and ignorance are so many and so immense in our declining, divided, self-destructive nation. I can only compare our situation to scenarios imagined in mythology and religious prophecy, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that usher in devastation and destruction in the Biblical Book of Revelations, or the ten plagues that descend upon Egypt in Exodus, or the dark forces that take down the world in flames and flood in Norse Ragnarok, or the dread dance of Shiva that beats out its world-crushing rhythm when humanity has become so stupid, so cruel, so lost, so impervious to guidance or wisdom that the gods decide that the world must be put out of its misery and cleared away to make space for a new world yet to come.

We today in America are facing a really sinister and powerful combination of retrograde forces. These range from carbon-based energy industries that do not want to see any movement toward a greener, healthier planet and economy, to the gun lobby that refuses to even consider very modest measures to reduce the danger of guns and gun-related materials falling into the possession of mentally imbalanced individuals who go on shooting rampages or into the hands of immature youths who are eager to settle scores with bullets. The list goes on to include the greedy, self-important minority of super-wealthy plutocrats who do not wish to see higher wages for people at lower strata of our highly unequal and unfair economy, to the Tea Partiers and libertarians who do not want the government to do anything besides putting people in prison and maintaining a grossly oversized military whose continued existence and immense expenditures can only be justified by continual conflict and crisis and propaganda inflaming our fear and hatred against whichever foreign country is now top of our enemy-of-the year list. I fear that our interlinked military-intelligence-industrial-political sectors will keep pushing us to either use or threaten to use force overseas as often as possible, even though this may only inflames others against us. Then we have the disheartening spectacle of the Supreme Court that is gutting and discarding decades of Civil Rights progress and returning us to a time when state and local politicians could enact all kinds of barriers to prevent African-Americans or other disfavored social groups from having any voice in our supposed "democracy," which the Court has also damaged terribly by allowing more freedom for wealthy individuals and corporations to dominate the political process through unlimited political advertising and financial contributions to the causes that perpetuate their interest and privilege.

In the embattled world of academia, which I know from the inside, the forces of misguided "reform" seem to be pushing us in the direction of a standardized, bureaucratized, heavily managed and number-driven form of education in which teachers will have little autonomy or job security, and in which liberal arts education, which can waken people to higher visions of life and a desire to create a more equal and less cruel society, will be pushed aside by an obsession with job-training out of a mistaken belief that training young people with the right technical skills will somehow overcome the problems of corporations seeking to send jobs overseas to lower-paid workers, or to bring lower-paid workers to America to replace highly skilled workers here, so that the majority of college graduates, even if highly trained and skilled will have to compete for low-paying jobs in corporations that refuse to share their profits with their workers. If we do not change the rules of the economic game, simply training people will solve nothing. Since the 1970s, American workers have become more and more productive, but rarely been allowed to enjoy a fair share of the profits generated by their productivity, and unless we have a revived labor movement or some other mechanism to force companies to pay better, there seems little hope for the American worker.

And as for the media's favorite pipe dream that high-tech millionaires and billionaires will show us the way, let's not forget that it was great geniuses like Steve Jobs who sent so much high-tech manufacturing to countries like China and India. Entrepreneurs will never lead the way to a more equal economy. They often make their millions and billions from the hard labor of workers who are paid as little as possible. It will require some kind of external pressure to force the high-tech folks to share much with the common man and woman. The popular adulation of high-tech entrepreneurs as economic saviors is a joke. They are in it for themselves, not for us. And since our government is increasingly at the beck and call of consummately greedy and self-interested companies and corporations, not only the high-tech toy-makers but also the oil companies, the multinational banks, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street financial firms and so on, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that we are entering a new Middle Ages, in which a small class of ruling elite will live in splendor, in beautiful mansions, surrounded by servants and flatterers, like kings and barons living in castles of olden times--and aren't our modern gated communities just an updated form of castle fortresses?--while the rest of us will eke out an insecure living through hard labor, deeply in debt, but unable to challenge our social superiors.

I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. That is why I am not writing much these days. I look for rays of hope, but see so very few. The advent of the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare, a modest attempt to re-structure our primarily corporate health care system to provide better care to more people, has only unleashed new ferocity among the various groups who oppose any kind of government activity apart from military action, and see any kind of social reform or even the slightest effort to provide assistance to the growing ranks of poor and needy persons in our society as a foul betrayal of freedom and liberty. I see anti-government zealots ready to cut food benefits to the hungry and who smile when 800,00 government workers are cut off from their salaries for weeks on end, and who don't even care if their actions push the international economy to the brink of financial disaster. I see the President mocked when he tries to negotiate peace with Iran.

The only comfort to me right now is the election of Bill DiBlasio to the office of the mayor of New York City. At last, a leader who speak about income inequality and rising poverty as problems that all society, and especially government, must address. His election is an answer to those who dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly two years ago as a silly, leaderless, rudderless social fad that would have no effect. It was the Occupy movement elevating the issues of financial institution greed and wealth inequality in New York that lit the spark that became the bright light of the DiBlasio candidacy. No doubt DiBlasio will not be able to satisfy all the hopes and ambitions of those who supported him, but I think he will at least try to push back against the trend toward plutocracy that is at the heart of so many of our ills. I am glad to see someone, somewhere, making some kind of stand and articulating an alternative vision.

But sadly...anyone who knows America knows that New York City is an anomaly in this country. I live some distance from NYC, and I know that many of my fellow citizens here believe the old Reaganite narrative constantly reiterated by right-wing media like FOX, but increasingly in evidence across the culture, that "government is the problem" and that cutting taxes, shrinking government, and "unleashing" business and entrepreneurship are the solutions, that the military is sacred and that we must "support the troops" and never question what the troops are called upon to do and why, nor the effects of those actions, and that if you are not a "success" in America--something measured primarily, if not exclusively in materialistic, money-making terms--that you only have yourself to blame. The alternate, liberal narrative of "we are all in this together," and that we could use government as a vehicle to share out resources to create a better life for everyone, not just the elite few, is not convincing to most people.

I am facing the reality that the things I really believe in may no longer have any place,or at the very best, only a very marginal,vestigial place in this sad, misguided, self-delusional and self-destructive country, this very dis-United States of America. The pendulum may someday swing back to more equality and compassion in this country, but I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

It is these thoughts that crush me into silence. Perhaps this will spark a renewal of my spirituality; I hope so. Maybe it is time to turn inward, and to seek refuge with other spiritual refugees in this very hard and fearful time, while no longer expecting the larger society to improve or change very much, at least not in any foreseeable future. The Buddha taught that the fundamental truth of life is suffering, and that this is the starting point of spiritual insight. Perhaps that is the crossroads that I am facing. I don't know. All I know is that it seems very dark outside indeed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dear President O-bomb-a...

Dear President O-bomb-a,

I was a supporter of you in your first Presidential campaign and took great pride in the election of an African-American person to the presidency of the United States. However, I now reflect that in many ways, that achievement, that breakthrough, was the true high point of your Presidency, and that it has been just a downhill journey of one disappointment, compromise and betrayal after another ever since. A brief list would include:

(1) A response to the financial crisis of 2007-08 that did much to help large banks and financial institutions but little to help the huge number of ordinary people who were losing their houses due to mortgage chicanery on the part of the very banks and financial institutions that you saw fit to provide a lifeline to. Years later now, still little has been to help the common homeowner, and Wall Street is swimming in cash. After years when your administration let Wall Street get off the hook for its past malfeasance and fraud by merely paying fines that though large, were minor business expenses for companies with multi-billion dollar global operations, your team has begun to more aggressively prosecute Wall Street criminals, but this is too little, too late.

(2) An Economic Stimulus program that was too small and too watered-down to do much good. You made it one-third tax cuts, to sweeten the deal for anti-tax Republicans, and hopefully attract their support, but this failed on two levels. It did not attract the Republicans, and it meant less money for public works programs and other such things that could have done much good. To give credit where due, the Stimulus program did help save us going off the cliff altogether in 2009, but our crumbling infrastructure and continuing high rate of unemployment testify to the inadequacy of this program and what has come since. Of course, you are not completely to blame for the incredible level of Republican obstructionism, but I do fault you for how you have responded, or failed to respond to this; see below.

(3) Pro-corporate Health Care Reform. When it came to putting forward a new health care reform, you gave up very quickly on the reform that many Democrats and progressives wanted, a truly national, single-payer plan, on the order of health care systems in Canada or the UK. Showing your tendency to cater to corporate interests, which also was no doubt a factor in your failure to take strong action against Wall Street as noted in item #1 above, you instead put your stamp of approval on a health care reform plan that strongly caters to the needs and wishes of for-profit health care and insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. More people will now have access to health care insurance, which is a good thing, but leaving health care in the hands of profit-driven health care companies may mean that we will still not be able to achieve any reduction in the soaring costs of health care, because ever-increasing costs also mean soaring profits for these companies. Even if it was truly politically impossible to advance such a program all the way through the process, I wish you had at least started out making a strong case for the benefits of a single-payer program. Then, if you had to cave in to the many and moneyed interests calling for something more pro-corporate and less pro-public, you would have at least helped advance a more comprehensive, more truly public program in the national political conversation, setting a standard that could be a reference point for future conversations and policy discussions. But no. As usual, you demonstrated either a lack of guts or a lack of vision, or perhaps you were just showing us that deep down, you are not really a progressive, a liberal or a Democrat: you are really just a moderate Republican, pro-corporate as much as possible, though with some sensitivity to certain liberal issues such as minority rights, gay marriage, etc.


(4) Failure to educate the public. This to me is perhaps your biggest failing. Nearly every initiative you have advanced has been blocked if not crushed by vehement Republican obstructionism, yet you have failed to explain this to the public, resulting in the public tending to think that the problem is "too much partisanship" and "Washington gridlock" rather than putting the blame where it truly belongs, the ideologically-driven, anti-government extremism of the Republican Party, particularly its Tea Party wing. When you make statements, as you have many times, such as "Washington is broken....we can do better," you make it sound like the Democrats are equally to blame as are Republicans for the current state of affairs in which so little positive is being accomplished. No doubt there is opposition between Democrats and Republicans such that a superficial glance at the situation may cause one to ask, "Why can't both sides compromise? Why can't they get along?" That is however a terrible inadequate analysis of the situation. The Democrats of today are not pushing for anything extreme or radical. They are only standing up for the same kinds of programs that have existed for decades: Food Stamps, unemployment insurance, voting rights, Head Start, public works programs, supports for arts and science. It is the Republicans who are pushing a radical, extreme agenda. They want to either greatly reduce or do away with that same list of programs just mentioned above. This is NEW.

In the pre- Tea Party era, most Republicans accepted the value of at least SOME of those programs, and often worked with Democrats to modify such programs or introduce new ones, like the CHIP (Children's Health Care Initiative Program) that Dems and Repubs worked together on not many years back. But now.... oh my god. The current crop of Republicans are the most wild, extreme, truly RADICAL anti-government Republicans this country has ever seen. This needs to be discussed. This needs to be known. This is not just "Washington Gridlock." This is one side of the table not wanting to negotiate or achieve anything positive, but simply over turn the table and set it on fire. In this respect, the current crop of Tea Party-dominated Republicans are arsonists, willing to burn down every public-oriented program, any and every thing done by the government for the people, in search of their
anti-government utopia. You, Obama, should have educated people about this, but instead, you took the cowardly, mushy approach of declaring Washington "broken" without saying enough about who had done the breaking. In this, as with your refusal to fight for a truly PUBLIC health care system, I see you being more devoted to your own political survival and reputation as Mr. Reasonable, Mr. Above the Fray, than to actually advancing progressive, liberal or democratic causes.


(5) Education reform that is just the Bush policy warmed over with some fresh cheese on top. As an educator, I was very hopeful that with your election, we would have seen a turning away from the Bush era of "No Child Left Behind" so-called "education reform" and its focus on endless testing of students, micro-mananagement of teachers, classrooms and curricula, "accountability" systems which mean huge and expensive growth in bureaucracy rather than more support for low-income school districts. Instead, what you and your Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have given us is NCLB ("No Child Left Behind") on steroids. You fail to grasp the basic point that social, economic and income inequality in our society are the main factors in why students in poor districts perform more poorly on tests. If you really want to improve education and close the achievement gap between rich and poor, white and non-white, for god's sake, look at the many types of inequality that separate these groups and look for ways to lessen that inequality. Anyone with half a brain should not be surprised that kids from poor families, in underprivileged, crime-ridden, poverty-wracked neighborhoods achieve less in school than kids in lily-white, upper-income suburban Shangri-Las. One group of kids grow up in poverty, have little access to books and culture, and suffer malnutrition to boot while other kids get private tutors and therapists, and culturally enriching summer trips to Europe. Who will do better? Hmm..... Is that really so hard to figure out? If you want to equalize the education, equalize the resources and the social circumstances. Ask any fifteen-year old who they would expect to do better in school, rich kids with lots of resources, or poor kids with little, and they can see this.

Oh, but you and Arne and your team of profit-driven, corporate-oriented education experts know better. Your approach is to subject students and teachers to ever more testing, ever more assessment, ever more collection of data, with all of that data then being used to punish teachers, schools and students by closing down schools, laying off teachers, and depriving students of continuity and stability when they do not know from year to year if their schools will be open or closed and if their favorite teachers will still be around. Your and Arne's signature education policy of "Race to the Top" is just "data-driven" bullshit! It only sounds good to those who have swallowed whole the anti-teacher, anti-teachers' union, anti-public education propaganda of groups like the Gates Foundation, the Walmart-based Walton Foundation and the Broad Foundation. Your good pal Arne has ties to these groups, and I guess you must like them too, Mr. President. I guess that is why you show so little support for public education and see so much good in dismantling, privatizing, standardizing and corporatizing it. Oh yes, and kudos too for your great solution to the student debt problem. Letting interest rates fluctuate on the market will really make Wall Street happy and give some nasty surprises down the road to students and their families when they find their loan interest rates changing radically from one year to the next. The Market always knows best, right?

(6) War, Security and Syria. I have previously expressed my regret and anger over your rising use of drones as a supposedly risk-free way of attacking other countries and killing people our National Security people decide deserve to die. I will not rehash all the ways in which that policy is in my view totally misguided. Now, though, we face the prospect of major military action against Syria, in response to the apparent use of sarin gas or other chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. I have no love for Assad, and I also feel great sympathy for the suffering people of Syria, but I find it extremely sickening that you are putting so much energy into advancing this very questionable rush to war, whose effects are so unpredictable and potentially calamitous, when so many other issues right at home in the USA need attending to. You seem much more concerned with this than the steadily mounting damage being done to our own most vulnerable citizens by things like food assistance to the poor and education assistance for children being cut off by mean-spirited Republicans in Congress. President Obama,you seem to be morphing into President Bush before our eyes.

Beyond the myriad possibilities for very bad things coming out of this so-called "surgical strike," from the deaths of hundreds or thousands more Syrians sure to be caused by our bombing, to possible retaliation attacks by Syrian-sponsored terrorist groups, to greater Russian involvement in order to support their side in the conflict, I come to the inescapable conclusion that you have been totally co-opted by the National Security State--the mind-boggling, multi-billion dollar hugeness of our military forces, defense contractors, national security and surveillance organizations and the many private companies who suck at the teat of national security, and militaristic-minded people and organizations who always see military action as the best, if not only solution to ANY international problem. I fear that our militaristic tendencies have become so entrenched, so financially lucrative and so politically self-sustaining, that any President from now on into the foreseeable future will behave just like you, who I now dub President O-bomb-a the I, but probably not the last. America makes so little effort at real diplomacy, that I am afraid it is really just window-dressing for our military operations. I don;t think we have really tried very hard to bring together the different parties in Syria. Even in the Vietnam War period, there were the Paris Peace Talks. Any equivalent effort today? I am not aware of it.

It is a very sad state of affairs, which leaves me doubtful that America will play any truly positive or creative role in world affairs in coming years. In the last ten or so years, we have seen America provide zero leadership on the most important issue for the survival of the planet, this being Global Warming, which some prefer to call Climate Change. Instead, America seems capable only of pushing for more war, more strikes, more surveillance, more drones... We are like one of our bad "boom--boom--boom blow up the bad guys!" action movies translated into international policy. I just wish I could leave the theatre...

This will be your most lasting legacy, President O-bomb-a. I voted for you in 2008, but I voted for the Green Party in 2012, and if you were running for a third term, which thankfully you cannot, I would vote Green again. America and the world deserve better than a leader who only shows a spine when it comes to attacking other countries and raining down death and destruction.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

National Security Through the Looking Glass


There are several events in recent weeks that I see as connected by a common thread, from the acquittal of George Zimmerman to our continued use of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan to the closing of embassies in Arab and Muslim-majority nations in anticipation of possible terrorist strikes against US targets. In all of these cases, the use of violence is justified by the fear of violence and the belief that the best way to achieve safety and security is by pre-emptively attacking and killing others before they can kill you. Why not just kill everyone in (a) any country we don't like, (b) any religion we don't like (c) any racial or ethnic group we don't like, or (d) all of the above? Wouldn't that be the logical extension of the pre-emptive, stop-the threat-by-any-means necessary, shoot-first-and-ask-questions later philosophy that seems to be increasingly popular in American life? I would prefer (e) none of the above, and in this essay I will attempt to explain why.

George Zimmerman, carrying a gun, followed Trayvon Martin through a gated-community housing complex in Florida and eventually shot and killed him because he perceived the seventeen-year old black teenager to be a dangerous person who had to be confronted and if necessary, subdued with deadly force. The nefarious activity that Mr. Martin was engaged in was walking back to the home of his father's girlfriend after purchasing some candy and a drink at a local convenience store. Mr. Zimmerman clearly had a distorted view of Mr. Martin, who was just a teenaged kid coming back from a store carrying junk food, not a dangerous person in any way. George Zimmerman claimed that he was driven to using his gun when Trayvon Martin over-reacted to Mr. Zimmerman's pursuit and confrontation of Mr. Martin by lunging at him and slamming his head against the pavement. In the course of the trial, the jury reached the conclusion that Mr. Zimmerman was justified in killing Mr. Martin.

The fact that Trayvon Martin was not engaged in any kind of criminal or antisocial activity when George Zimmerman decided to pursue him and confront him, that George Zimmerman was the person carrying a truly dangerous, indeed lethal weapon, not Trayvon Martin, and that Mr. Martin, seeing a strange man following him and possibly also seeing Mr. Zimmerman's gun, had just as much justification in feeling threatened and using force against George Zimmerman as Zimmerman did against Trayvon Martin, and that all that ensued was a result of George Zimmerman's decision to pursue and confront Trayvon, did not apparently factor into the jury's decision. They seemed to accept as persuasive the Zimmerman defense's argument that Mr. Zimmerman, feeling threatened by the presence of a black teenager in his community, had the right to hunt him down, confront him and kill him. Mr. Zimmerman received no penalty or punishment for killing a young man who was simply on his way home with a drink and a snack when a stranger with a gun decided he was a threat that had to be dealt with. Bottom line: fear is sufficient grounds for killing.

In what I see as a parallel case, on October 14, 2011, a drone missile strike launched by the U.S. military in the Arab country of Yemen ended the life of Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, a sixteen year old boy visiting relatives. This teenager was under suspicion of nefarious activity not because of anything he was actually doing, but simply because he was the son of the militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who had been previously assassinated in a drone attack two weeks earlier on September 30, 2011. Abdul Rahman was killed along with six other suspected militants. The grandfather of this slain teenager wrote a poignant essay reflecting on his grandson's death in the New York Times on July 18,2013.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/opinion/the-drone-that-killed-my-grandson.html

I did not agree with the killing of the boy's father, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was slain for inciting violence against the USA through the internet and other means, but I can see that in that instance, there was at least some kind of understandable rationale, that the man was viewed as dangerous to US interests because he was actively provoking others to undertake attacks against American forces and citizens. I do worry, though, that this sets a precedent that anyone anywhere who says something at all anti-American or even criticizing America could be seen as a threat and made a target for long-distance assassination. But why kill his sixteen year old son? The reasoning seems to be, the more we kill, the better; the more they die, the safer we will be. This is a very short-sighted, myopic and entirely inhumane view of the situation, with terrible and extremely dangerous implications, it seems to me, as I will explain further below.

The link I see between the killing of the seventeen year old black boy in Florida and the sixteen year old Arab boy in Yemen is that in both cases, a judgment was made that because these boys might be threats to safety and security, they were legitimate targets for pursuit and killing. Neither Trayvon Martin nor Abdul Rahman had committed any crime. Neither was charged with any crime or afforded a trial in which their guilt and innocence could be proven in a court of law. No. There was no judge, no jury, no juridical process, which is to say, no justice. Only execution, "extra-judicial killing," justified by fear of potential threats, not actual actions.

It disturbs me greatly to see this same trigger-happy logic applied both here at home in America and in our actions overseas. George Zimmerman reserves the right to kill people who he sees as potential threats to the security of his gated community. The American government reserves the right to kill people who we think might be potential threats to national security. The really twisted part is the assertion of the right to kill people who have not necessarily done any actual action that causes harm, but who merely look suspicious (Trayvon Martin) or who are related to or who are in the physical proximity of others who are deemed threats (Abdul Rahman). This gives both the private citizen, the aspiring vigilante, and our military, police and other such security forces quite a lot of lassitude to kill quite a wide range of people on the basis of extremely sketchy information or even just vague suspicion.

This is all justified by fear. Fear of criminals, fear of black people, fear of terrorists, fear of Muslims, fear of Arabs, with perhaps a little hate and bigotry thrown in for good measure, too. But does following such policies actually make us any safer? Does it actually reduce the threats that are so feared? I would argue that at least in some ways, such policies can make things worse. If young African-American men have to live in constant fear of being hunted down and targeted like Trayvon Martin, never knowing when they might run across a George Zimmerman-like vigilante, it is only going to make African-Americans more angry and stressed and increase tension between racial groups, leading to more, not less potentially violent confrontations, and increase the odds that people of all racial and ethnic profiles will be packing guns and following the shoot first, ask questions later philosophy, expecting that if they do end up shooting and killing someone, that they might be able to escape any punishment the same way that George Zimmerman did.

In our government's foreign relations, I also do not see the never-ending drone attacks making us safer. We may be killing some people who are actually dangerous terrorists, I don't doubt, but there is a lot of evidence that we are killing lots of other people too. What we might dismiss as "collateral damage" is not going to be forgotten, let alone forgiven, by the friends, relatives, fellow tribal members and countrymen of those we kill. They will be angry. They will hate us. They will seek revenge. This should not be a surprise to anyone. When we suffered the 9/11 attacks, Americans were angry. They hated the perpetrators. They wanted revenge. This is universal human psychology. I shook my head in disbelief when I saw some so-called intelligence experts testifying in front of Congress several months ago, claiming that our drone attacks were not causing any major reaction among the population in Yemen or Pakistan or elsewhere. Fast forward to the last few days, and suddenly America is closing all its embassies in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East because we are scared shitless of the possibility of some unspecified attacks. This would seem to be the very kind of blowback that our experts told us was not an issue. Any person with a higher-than-moronic level of intelligence could have seen this coming.

And even as we close down our embassies in fear of terrorist attacks, we are launching new drone attacks in Yemen and elsewhere. I wonder if we might not be creating the very enemies that we fear. Is it because we want to have people we can kill with impunity, even as we accuse them of wanting to do the same to us? Have we gone through the looking glass and reached full-fledged insanity?

There is no such thing as total safety and security, but we keep being told that if we take certain measures, such as drone killings and total surveillance of all our telephone and digital communications, that we will be safer, things will be better. That is a dangerous myth peddled by those who gain advantage by increasing our fear and anxiety levels. I am in fact very suspicious of our national security state, because I think that in the end, what it is most interested in protecting is its own security. I note an interesting sequence of events. First, Edward Snowden releases documents that reveal the full extent of our national security surveillance operations. A major explosion in the media and in the Congress ensues,and there is a genuine public outcry, on both the right and the left. Though a lot of the media discussion remains on the idiotic level of "Where is Snowden now?," members of Congress start talking about the need for legislation to cut back this extremely broad and possibly out of control surveillance program. The President and his national security team protest that any cutback would be dangerous to our national security, that they are doing what they do to "keep us safe," and that we must not back down one inch or one dollar from our massive, and also massively secretive, national security operations. Still, some politicians keep talking about taking action, and one bill putting some brakes on the national security crowd almost gets passed through the House of Representatives.

Then, a very short time later, the very national security state that had been threatened with possibly cuts and restrictions now tells us that there is a very big, very real threat of massive attacks in the Middle East, and so embassies must be closed and American cautioned not to travel. Could it be that this is simply a ploy to make Americans cower in fear and back off from any discussion of cutting back our massive national security apparatus? Is there really a clear and present danger, or is this public relations to ensure the security and safety of the national security state?

I worry that by spending so much of our government money on national security, we are starving our country of resources that could be deployed for other purposes, such as jobs programs to help the unemployed, rebuilding of rotting infrastructure, cleanup of polluted areas, development of clean energies to help us turn back the specter of global warming and climate disaster, investing in poor communities that are breeding grounds for crime,addiction and hopelessness, and so on and so forth. If we sacrifice everything for national security, and it doesn't even really make us safer, but only agitates our current enemies and creates new ones as well, what kind of fools are we? If we seriously believe that encouraging more people to carry guns and shoot at anyone who makes them feel nervous or threatened is a wise policy, what kind of hellish society are we building for ourselves and our descendants?

A basic principle of morality in many religious traditions is a simple sense of reciprocity. We should not be doing to others what we do want done to ourselves, whether in the street, in our cities, or in other countries. We have to learn to trust and communicate and seek common ground with others, not always assume that we are in the right, others in the wrong, and that we are justified in using force.

But we Americans just love Love LOVE our guns and explosions, don't we? Sigh...


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