Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Value of A Life

We are all, at the core, of the same cosmic substance. Should one man be worth 100 times or more than another? The Mayor of New York City is worth many hundreds of times more than most of the citizens who pay his salary with their taxes. Mind you, he's not a bad man, as plutocrats go: he accepted the disappointment of being blocked from handing over New York City property to one of his billionaire friends for a football stadium. Yet still, he did have to be stopped, and in that lies the danger of plutocracies.

We could make a long list of far more malevolent and costly problems that have beset us as a result of allowing plutocrats into Washington. $45 million inauguration parties; a $300 billion war that is being raged straight into Hell; no-bid contracts to the corporations that fund the plutocracy—in Iraq, in post-Katrina New Orleans, at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas, and even in Alaska.

In her book War Talk, Arundhati Roy shows us the extent and the cost of plutocracy with some numbers:

In the last ten years of unbridled corporate globalization, the world's total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of the poor in the world has increased by one hundred million. Of the top hundred biggest economies, fifty-one are corporations, not countries. The top one percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom fifty-seven percent and the disparity is growing.

Yet our government here in America has gotten elected, and re-elected, on the strength of its professed values: we value life, we are compassionate conservatives. So what, I wonder, is the value of a life? What is the value of your life? Is your worth a hundred, or three hundred times less than that of the CEO of Bechtel, Microsoft, or Citibank? Are your needs that much fewer and cheaper? Have the old white men who rule the corporate global economy given so much more to the world than you and I that they have earned this excess that places such a gulf between us and them? Are their actions that much more beneficial, their work that far more efficient, than our own?

Well, if you've ever worked with the windows operating system for computers, or tried to get through to an actual human representative at Citibank, then perhaps you already have an answer to those questions. That answer, which I am guessing is similar to the one I have formed about these corporations and their leadership, suggests another point that I have observed elsewhere with respect to our government in Washington. The problem with wealth is not intrinsically moral as much as it is practical: organizations and people that become drunk on excess tend to become unfathomably incompetent. The $250 operating system is so flawed and defective that it requires near-daily patching to merely keep it running at a borderline level of functionality; the only human presence at the bank is a talking machine that will take you along an infinite loop of phone menu options. The plutocrat hires a horse show judge to supervise the disaster management agency, and ends by exponentially compounding the disasters that come.

My point here is that wealth and plutocracy are only unfair insofar as they are incompetent. They get tangled in their own excess, which they then kick carelessly away to others who are unfit to perform the mandate they have been given by customers, citizens, or taxpayers. Wealth is impractical: it kills the host while feeding a few tiny parasites that are attached to the whole organism. The body may be a person, a family, a city, a company, or a nation: the result is inevitably the same—slow and agonizing death by incompetence.

So it must be our most emergent priority as a people to see wealth rooted out of power in our corporations, our media, and our government. I would suggest that every time you walk into a voting booth; every time you write to your Congressman or your local newspaper; every time you decide where to do your shopping or your banking (or your computing); you think about this overriding priority of our times—the dissolution of the cult of wealth, and the enduring separation of excess and leadership.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Scooter Strikes Out

I like to listen for what the Crawford Coward has to say in response to each new reversal, each fresh indictment of a political ally, each revelation of his government's arrogant incompetence.

So put yourself in his sweaty socks for a moment: how would you publicly react at the end of a week in which the body count from Iraq passed 2,000; where the polls continued to show that two-thirds of Americans had openly noted your tyrannical incompetence; when you were forced by leaders of your own Congressional hegemony to accept the defeat of your Supreme Court nominee, and at the moment you had learned that FBI agents were at your house, the people's house, to deliver an arrest warrant on one of your senior staffers? Here's how our boy did it:

Bush referred to Libby as someone who worked tirelessly for Americans. “He served the vice president and me through extraordinary times in our nation’s history,” Bush said.

When you are this far removed from reality, to lie and to defame others is to serve. When you are thoroughly disconnected from the remotest sense of truth, then falsehood becomes your staff, the only virtue known to you. This is the psychology of President George, Vice President Dick, Secretary Don, and Spinmeister Karl. As destructive as his actions were (remember that 2,000 figure from earlier in the week) the Scooter is a bit player in all this, and that's something we'll all have to remember as this develops further.

Another supporting character in this tale of criminal deceit and murderous manipulation is National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who was the NSA's Deputy at the time all these skeletons were first put into the closet (hey, it's Halloween weekend). The Center for American Progress today notes an interesting coincidence between a Hadley meeting with an Italian spy and the subsequent "revelation"—eventually given in Bush's State of the Union address—about Niger selling yellowcake uranium to Saddam. The problem is that the CIA wasn't fooled for a moment:

Prior to the 2003 State of the Union, Hadley was warned three separate times by the CIA not to push the claim that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Niger.

When the cover began to come off this story, the reaction of Hadley and other Bush moles was to pass the blame, as Progress further notes:

Hadley also headed up the administration effort to pin the blame on the CIA. The Washington Post reported, "Behind the scenes, the White House responded with twin attacks: one on Wilson and the other on the CIA, which it wanted to take the blame for allowing the 16 words to remain in Bush’s speech.

There's more on this sub-plot in The American Prospect, which is well worth reading. For our purposes, I hope it is clear by now that we are witnessing the slow tipping of a massive rock of Neronian decadance, which is revealing such a labyrinthine nest of vermin beneath it as to rival any impossibly corrupt scenario available on reality TV. It is disturbing, and (as Joseph Wilson pointed out again today), tragic. Yesterday, I remarked in detail on this extraordinary man's wisdom, but it bears another look. Here's part of what he had to say today:

Today, however, is not the time to analyze or to debate. And it is certainly not a day to celebrate. Today is a sad day for America. When an indictment is delivered at the front door of the White House, the Office of the President is defiled. No citizen can take pleasure from that.

Yet Duhbya has nothing more to say about it all than to praise his subordinate criminal's loyalty and to assure us that he is back to business as usual. What business, you may ask?

"We’ve got a job to protect the American people, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” the President said.

If this is protection, then maybe I'd rather handle that job on my own, or else I can try this. But if I want to be protected by criminals, I'd opt for the Mafia.

Good News Dept.: Congratulations to New York's The Village Voice on its 50th anniversary, which has been appropriately observed by Nat Hentoff's celebration of personal journalism.

And as we prepare to walk in the Halloween Parade, let's pay a cyber-visit to the man who wrote the song and made so much great music: Lou Reed (the hilarious Lawrence Welk video alone at the top right of Lou's home page is worth the click).

The past keeps knock-knock knocking on my door
And I don't want to hear it anymore

No consolations please for feelin' funky
I got to get my head above my knees
But it makes me mad and mad, makes me sad
and then I start to freeze

In the back of my mind
I was afraid it might be true
In the back of my mind
I was afraid that they meant you

The Halloween Parade
At the Halloween Parade

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Teaching on Humility

Ambassador Joseph Wilson has a lesson to teach us, and I hope many Americans are listening. Wilson, you will probably recall, is the man at the center of the current investigation into possible criminal misdeeds on the part of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, among others (Wilson is the writer who became the target of the Cheney/Rove vendetta that ended with the leaking of his wife's identity as a CIA agent).

Let's hear what Ambassador Wilson has to teach us, because it fits hand in glove with a theme that is visited frequently in this space: humility (for the article that these quotes came from, look here).

Wilson said Wednesday he took little comfort that the men he believes have engaged in a campaign of character assassination against him for the past two years -- Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff -- may soon be facing charges and possible jail time.
"The fact that this may become a crisis of governance should please no one," Wilson said.

Wilson said that by publicly questioning the president's reasoning for the war in Iraq, he was simply acting in the country's best traditions.

"It is called holding your government to account for what it says and does in the name of the American people. We need to put this government on notice that it truly is a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

"When a government takes the country to war on lies and misinformation," he said to rousing applause, "that government ceases to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. "And that government becomes a government that preys on the people."

Wilson said he was withholding judgment regarding the claims about Cheney. "I don't know what to think of that, except to say it saddens me deeply. I get no satisfaction from that."

Notice carefully, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Wilson did not appear before his audience with a "Mission (almost) Accomplished" banner unfurled behind him. He did not crow over his seemingly imminent victory over those who attempted to villify his family. Instead, he offered us a beautiful lesson in humility.

Exultant victory is the mark of the tyrant and the voice of the fool. When you have won a victory in either Justice or in a simple game, the best response is gratitude. I'm sure that, assuming the appropriate people are indicted and made to answer for their crimes, Mr. Wilson will feel a sense of gratitude at the justice he and his wife will have received. But he refuses to gloat over another man's misfortune, no matter what that man might have done (or attempted to do) to him.

This alone tells me a lot about the character of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. It reminds me of a well-known scene from Homer's Odyssey—perhaps you know it. Near the end of the poem, Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, have defeated the suitors who had taken over their home during Odysseus' absence, and had competed with one another to take his wife (Penelope). At the moment that father and son have completed their victorious battle against these thieves, young Telemachus cries out in exultation, gleefully celebrating the triumph. But his father rebukes him sternly: these men have paid the price for their misdeeds, and if we gloat over their fate then we are just as corrupt as were they.

Odysseus and Ambassador Wilson understood something that most of us in this culture entirely miss: when we crow over our victories, we only add power to a vortex of resentment and opposition. The moment when justice is won should be a grateful but solemn one. This is a lesson that every one of us can take into nearly every aspect of our lives: whether it is seeing justice done, winning a war or a debate, or a vindication of any sort, our focus must be upon the rebuilding, the healing yet to be done, and the lessons to be learned from any conflict.

We can always be grateful for success; but success that comes at the expense of another is hollow. We are often taught to be humble before adversity, but never, it seems, after a victory. Joseph Wilson knows better, and for that he deserves both our respect and our thanks. For the sake of this nation, I am hoping that we will need to remind ourselves of his lesson in the days to come.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Hose on First?

I suppose there's no putting too fine a point on it: some folks make a very good living by acting like assholes. Case in point: Mr. Brit Hume of FOX News, whose misanthropic, lazy arrogance we have noted before.

Today I learned about his "somebody needs to hose you down" comment made to Juan Williams, during a discussion of the Libby debacle. The story is at Think Progress, and the video of the exchange is at Crooks and Liars. By the time I got to the TP story online, over 150 people had already posted comments, most of them in revulsion at Hume's behavior.

Now a fellow like me will tend to look for the psychological lesson in such a demonstration of purposive and showmanlike arrogance. Let's be very clear on one point: Brit Hume knows exactly what he is doing. He is an entertainer first, and a newsman...well, somewhere along after that.

So the intriguing question, to me, is not "why did Brit Hume say that?" or "what did he mean by that?"—but rather: "why do people turn on their TV sets to watch such spectacles of meanness and icy rancor?" After all, I suspect that many people who watch Brit Hume mindlessly abuse people spend their days getting similar treatment from their bosses or co-workers. Why would they want to come home to take in more of the same?

Perhaps for the same reason that they watch Donald Trump pile contempt on the contestants in The Apprentice, or the various levels of interpersonal degradation found on reality TV. Perhaps it makes them feel less isolated in their servitude, their subjection to the abuse that they receive in daily life. When you see people on TV being served the same flavor of shit-sandwich that you have to eat at the office each day, you somehow feel less alone; you feel like this is the way things are, after all. And maybe there's some feeling of vicarious superiority: someone is always getting it worse than you are, even if it's a performance put on to sell advertising.

So how can we deal with it—how can we express our revulsion at nationally televised arrogance such as Brit Hume delivers on a regular basis? Sure, we could let our media outlets know that we don't care for such garbage over the airwaves (you can use the FAIR link in the Blogroll at right). But what it really boils down to, the one message that will finally and definitively get through to the networks and their advertisers, is for you to turn it off and not turn it on again, until these people get the message.

You can let others know what you're doing, and encourage them to act (send the link to this post around, for starters). Talk about it with friends, co-workers, and especially your children. In particular, with this case in mind, ask an African-American friend of yours how he or she would feel if they were told, "someone needs to hose you down".

Those 150-plus comments at the TP post told me that we're in the midst of a turning-point moment in American politics and culture, where we've had more than enough of brutish showmen like Brit Hume debasing people for their opinions and delivering borderline racist trash-talk over national airspace. Every single one of us who turns away from this boorish bullshit and lets the mass media know about it is contributing to this transformation in American consciousness.

You're not just a cipher in a voting booth every first Tuesday in November. You can make a difference now.

Singing to the Massless Market

Yesterday, I received a polite and professional rejection note from a literary agent to whom I'd offered my latest project (which is, in fact, based on the past year of Daily Rev). The notice itself, of course, came as no surprise: it was from an excellent agent who had taken an interest in my work before, so to that extent it was disappointing.

But let's face it: Daily Rev is simply not mass market material, and literary agents have to work the mass market in order to put bread on their tables. So it was merely a welcome-to-reality moment for me.

After all, Daily Rev's lack of appeal to the mass market is one of its guiding virtues. I would remind anyone that if the mass market attracts you, either as purveyor, proponent, or follower, then I would suggest that you have a problem to solve. Not a fault, or even a flaw, mind you. Just a problem.

If what everyone is doing, saying, wearing, eating, or buying is repetetively what you're after, then you have reached a moment for a comprehensive life review.

Note the word "repetetively": you can own a cell phone and still not be a slave to that strange cult of solipsistic aggression that it seems to have spawned.

I'm talking about those people who seem to think that they can stagger like drunks through a subway station or the lobby of a building, careless of where they're going, all because they happen to be yakking in a self-important strain on one of those little plastic slabs. I am nearly run over by such characters at least twice a day during the workweek.

It's not the fault of the phones themselves, nor their manufacturers, that people have forgotten how to ambulate (never mind communicate); any more than it is the fault of my iMac here that the blogosphere so often seems replete with shrill hackers who seem to despise the English language.

Technology comes with mechanical instructions in its use; unfortunately, it lacks instructions on its proper social use. Maybe the boxes these devices come packaged in should have warning labels like cigarette packs: unmindful use of this technology could cause you to behave like a reckless boor in public, or forget that the English language is meant to be loved and nurtured for its beauty rather than beaten regularly like the proverbial rented mule.

The problem, it seems, is that the box comes instead with
advertising (that has always mystified me: even after you've taken the product home and opened the package, there is still more advertising, as if to reassure you that you've spent your money wisely). Most advertising is carefully researched and designed to make us think competetively and act impulsively. And they're very, very good at what they do, which is to make us want what everyone has, though a little better, a little newer, a little cooler, than what they have.

We all feel the pulse of created desire. It happened to me today: I saw those brand new Powermacs from Apple and thought, "oh my god...Quad power dual core processors with four video cards on the motherboard...what I couldn't do with that..." (yep, I'm a sick puppy when it comes to geek stuff).

Well, what I would do with that is probably waste all that computing power, since I'm neither a professional filmmaker nor a musician. I know damned well that I have no practical use for anything close to that level of geek muscle. But the presentation was so compelling that I felt the throb of manufactured need.

Advertising works that way: it touches those nerves that are most sensitive to the extremes
, to the longing for the ultimate. Our current government in Washington has done an outstanding job of hitting those nerves, regularly and rigorously. Karl Rove, who may be next in the mugshot line behind Tom DeLay (who got his today), is the Secretary of Advertising for the Bush Administration. He knows how to package fear; how to tweak that security-longing synapse in our brains and thereby activate the patriotism reflex (which in turn sparks a motor impulse to pull the red switch at the voting booth). From plain rhetoric to TV commercials to photo ops in the Rose Garden, Karl's got the game down like no one has before him. For more on that, see Keith Olberman's recent column at MSNBC. Give the man some credit for his talent; then slap the cuffs on him and let the indictments be read to a grateful nation and broadcast to every ROKR and RAZR out there.

Meanwhile, beware the mass market mindset and its ubiquitous cultural symbols. When you see or hear that siren song of object-lust, check in with yourself and ask the question: "is this my need, or someone's projection of a need?" The answer, I have found, is almost always the same.


Quote of the day, from a banner at the recent anti-war protest in Washington:


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Life Lessons in a Time of War

I don't have much to offer this week in the way of news analysis: I guess I'm like everybody else in the blogosphere, waiting for Mr. Fitzgerald to shit or get off the pot. Meanwhile, here's something I heard on the subway this morning:

Don't be a believer; be hard to pin down. Shun predictability; avoid certainty; retreat from the glare of fame—whether it shines toward you or from an alluring box (a television or a photograph in a tabloid magazine).

The sun has an entire galaxy to illuminate; you need only enough light to direct your life on earth. Therefore, let moonglow be your model. Let the nurturing warmth of the feminine become your guiding energy, no matter your gender or sexual orientation.

Ask for help in all your dealings and decisions, and don't worry about where it might come from, or how. Or whether it is there to begin with. Asking will do you no harm, and cost you nothing in time, money, energy, or self-esteem.

Every life is a crucible of Nature—a vessel in which light is made matter. The mixture is heated with the fluid energy of Sex; so whatever you do, don't pour an icy morality onto that precious heat source.

If you lack a human lover, then make love with cosmic forms—you'll know them when you feel them. Let your liquid light pour warm and abundant, back into the fire of the universe from which it and you arose.

Whenever you think you have the Answer, ask another question. When you think you've solved The Big Puzzle, turn within and rearrange the pieces.

The stars in the firmament are not our goal, just our guides. The same is true of teachers and leaders: they are not Masters or Rulers, just passing presences—landmarks along the path. Note where they point, what they say, and then go on by them; looking back occasionally, fleetingly, in love and remembrance.

Squeeze conflict and suffering with all your being, as the winepress does with the grape. Drink the nectar they offer you whole, and allow it to ferment, in silent darkness, within you. Then release them.

Do not allow yourself to be intimidated via threat, accusation, or guilt, by those you love; nor by anyone with a greater title, a higher income, or a grant of institutional power. No matter our differences, we come from the same Source. Cry out, like an injured child, against the ball and chain of servitude—corporate, governmental, or familial. Do not be ashamed to protest any injustice, no matter how small and no matter how isolated you may appear in your feelings. Anger spoken clearly, brightly, will never degenerate into warlike rage.

Be deeply aware of the nearness of death, and then dwell upon Life. Life is still the only adventure we know; all else is speculation. What we know of death is that it is almost certainly not an ending—even from the standpoint of the most mechanistic Science. Death is merely another shore that we touch along the Great Journey. It is therefore no ending, but just a turning point in the movement between dimensions.

Persevere. Feel the temptation to quit, to give up and retreat into solipsistic silence or the apathy of grudging compliance; and then go on. As long as you draw breath—and maybe even after your breath is stilled—you cannot be defeated.

Look within yourself, and kill a demon a day. The more you destroy within, the more will your life be filled with the wisdom of gentleness. The bodies of dead demons rot into the earth and nourish the growth and blossoming of Compassion.

A flower held meekly aloft and recognized with a noiseless exclamation: this is the true self that you already are. Accept this, and open yourself to it. It is your destiny. When the nightflower opens under the breath of the Moon, every war is ended; every tyrant destroyed; every wound healed; every need fulfilled. We are, all of us, only this.

Friday, October 7, 2005

About King George

Comedy lovers of the over-40 set will recall the great Flip Wilson and his "the devil made me do it!" gag. Now we have the same story from a slightly different angle.

Actually, of course, this is very old news: we've known for years that the Sacred Cow of Crawford gets personal orders through the heavenly chain of command, telling him to kill, attack, slaughter, torture, occupy, and oppress. That, after all, is the way God works—you could look it up, it's in all His books.

The only major religion of the Big Four of our world that is at all reticent, ambivalent, or downright negative about the notion of God as an anthropomorphic, boss-in-the-sky Presence is Buddhism. Curiously, it is also by a long stretch the most peaceful and internally consistent of the Big Four, in terms of its adherents living according to the tenets of compassion and humility.

I was reminded of this by a curious coincidence from last weekend. I was taking a walk with my daughter, and we discovered that a lady named Jennifer in Windsor Terrace had put some old books out on the curb—this is the characteristic New York way of saying "whoever wants them before the garbage men get here can have them." Well, I never walk past such a deal, especially when it involves books; and I came away with a small treasure trove from this find. Most notable among these was a copy of Alan Watts' classic, The Way of Zen. Since I hadn't read it since I was in high school, I knew this discovery was a message to me, and I dived in the next day. Here's what I found on page 11:

The West has no recognized institution corresponding to Taoism because our Hebrew-Christian spiritual tradition identifies the Absolute—God—with the moral and logical order of convention. This might almost be called a major cultural catastrophe, because it weights the social order with excessive authority, inviting just those revolutions against religion and tradition which have been so characteristic of Western history. It is one thing to feel onself in conflict with socially sanctioned conventions, but quite another to feel at odds with the very root and ground of life, with the Absolute itself. The latter feeling nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one's own nature or in rejecting God. Because the first of these alternatives is ultimately impossible—like chewing off one's own teeth—the second becomes inevitable, where such palliatives as the confessional are no longer effective. As is the nature of revolutions, the revolution against God gives place to the worse tyranny of the absolutist state—worse because it cannot even forgive, and because it recognizes nothing outside the powers of its jurisdiction. For while the latter was theoretically true of God, his earthly representative the Church was always prepared to admit that though the laws of God were immutable, no one could presume to name the limits of his mercy. When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it and commits the real idolatry, the real indignity against God—the absolutizing of a concept, a conventional abstraction.

Watts goes on to point out that the problem with the cult of tyranny is not that it leaves the throne of the Absolute vacant—that in itself, after all, is the natural thing to do. The reality, of course, is that there is no external Absolute and there certainly is no throne: as my friend Carol Anthony likes to point out, there can be no natural thought of a "higher power," because the cosmos operates neither through hierarchy nor through power. The problem is in a culture that leaves no room for a personal experience of the Absolute.

The early practitioners and teachers of Zen Buddhism (before it too became institutionalized) knew that this direct and unmediated sense of the ineffable, so absent from ideological traditions, was the only spiritual experience properly worth the designation. Their insight was the experience of the universal in the actualization of the personal, the individual. Their path was a continual turning-away from commandment, forced order, and divine intervention in the affairs of men.

Thus, they were led to appear crazy: they carried bowls on their heads; they slapped, hit, and whacked one another with sticks; they ran around naked; they scribbled three-line poems that appeared to say nothing; they would shout amid their monastic silences, "KILL THE BUDDHA!"

Could you imagine sitting in church on Sunday and hearing someone screech "KILL JESUS!" in the midst of Communion? What would be the social and political effect of such a Christian religion? Would it be less likely to breed such characters as Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Tom DeLay, or George Bush?

Perhaps it might. But here at Daily Rev, we see the need for a further step beyond Zen. For the fact is that Zen itself fell under institutional control; it bred its own brand of bookish ideology, its own cast of hall-of-fame kingpins whose very shit was ice cream to the devoted followers of later centuries. It also attracted some political and proto-corporate sponsors who were themselves petty tyrants on the model of George Bush and his cronies.

So as deeply as I value the contributions of Taoism and Zen Buddhism toward an evolved spirituality, I would ask that we each of us look further within and discover there the way clear—unique to everyone who seeks it—of all the marks of institutional detritus. It is here that I would suggest a clarification of Watts' insights.

The guilt that Watts writes about is indeed real, and, as he says, "preposterous." And though it may be "ultimately impossible" to deny one's own nature, it is in fact what the Bushes of our world attempt inveterately to do: they try to "chew off their own teeth." This is the pathology of anxiety disorders and paranoid delusions caught in a single image: gnawing inwardly at oneself until there is only a dead husk remaining—a pool of arid gums and caked blood. It is where tyranny always ends, after first prophesying the rise of a pan-Jihadist state stretching over half the globe ("from Spain to Indonesia"), and killing everything in sight to ultimately make exactly that consummation occur.

I tried to capture this in a small poem the other day; I'm not sure if I succeeded.

Depravity and excess reign
A cold green poison sickens the air.
I and thou are buried, not dead:
Us and them have power but not life.
The bush will burn again
And the past will be clearly foretold.