Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beyond Belief: Henry David Thoreau

If you read yesterday's post from Terry McKenna, perhaps you came away thinking that people like C.S. Lewis, who truly practiced their faith, offer us an example for a fresh model of leadership. What if we had such a true devout in the White House—one who consulted his heart of hearts, WWJD style, before going into a cabinet meeting with the likes of Dick, Condi, Hadley, Rove, and Rummy?

Well, first of all I'm not sure that's what Terry's message was about; and second, I have to point out that faith is spiritual chemotherapy: it accomplishes what it is designed to do, but only by sickening and compromising its host. Faith arises not from the conviction drawn on experience, but from the power born of fear. Thus does the way of belief inevitably lead us: it is so easy to slide into the morass of sloth, accumulation, and arrogance under the glossy shield of faith. We see it happening all the time, yet how often and how many of us can truly question it, and ask further what the alternatives to faith and belief might be? More of us, I trust, than Bush and his friends might suspect.

One guy who did is the author of a small body of work which is celebrated around the world, though least of all here in America. I have often wondered why Henry David Thoreau should be so neglected in the country of his birth, to which he gave so much (Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, among others, have cited Thoreau as a primary influence for their own work). How come Walden is not in every kid's schoolbag? Why aren't there young men and women going out into the woods to live as he did, in a spirit of self-examination and discovery?

Well, one clue to Thoreau's marginalization in his home country comes when you really start reading his work. It is simply too head-on, too challenging for a society bred in the worship of the human tools of violence (this goes for the so-called left as well as the neocon right). Try this reflection on the military mindset, which appears in the first essay of Civil Disobedience:

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

Now this was written around 150 years ago, yet it could have been written yesterday. So let me submit to you that this strong and gentle man, who went to jail rather than support an unjust war of occupation (in his case, the Mexican War) is a greater voice and a surer guide for our times than Lewis.

But was Thoreau a man of faith? It's not an entirely simple question to answer, so you may need to read him and decide for yourself. I suggest the opening of Chapter 5 of Walden, which is a night-hymn of worship to the storm in the woods, the creatures of the night, and the sacred, bodily sense of union with Nature. After this, the writer adds wryly, "I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced."

So would this man Henry David Thoreau have shouldered arms and marched dutifully off to Iraq, like a good and true conservative, if his nation called him to do so? Or would he at least have stood firm on the sidelines, using his rhetorical gifts to mouth platitudes about service and sacrifice and freedom and heroism, while encouraging the youth around him to go forth and die? Well, let's hear what he had to tell us about the way of service and sacrifice:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.


Tomorrow: The Destruction of the Middle Class...


Game Room: Here are two new and topical diversions for our time and mind that I've found on the Web recently (note that I did indeed pass the 8th grade Math Test, though I was a little nervous about the result).

Quail Hunting School: shoot the birdies and avoid the old guy's face.

Take the 8th Grade Math Test:
You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 9/10 correct!

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Dialogue on the Government of the Self

Terry McKenna returns to the blog for his usual Monday morning appearance, with some thoughts on faith, government, and the vile concoction we've had these past five years from the admixture of these ingredients. In the process, Terry recalls the voice of a fellow whose work has been fattening the wallets of Disney shareholders recently, and wonders what that man of Christ might have said about this most un-Christian world and nation of ours today.

Tomorrow, I'll be providing a commentary on the same theme, with the help of another old voice of spiritual insight and perspective. But now, Mr. McKenna:

I am not a man of faith, but I was raised by devout parents who took us kids to mass every Sunday and for whom prayer was an important part of their daily life. While I no longer share their faith, I respect what it meant to them. Their humility and simplicity was at one with their religiosity.

In contrast to their humble faith stands the arrogant and triumphant faith of George Bush. Yet I wonder what he thinks now, as his plans are being blasted apart. You would hope that the facts are taking a toll on him. Perhaps he has even pondered that the god he prays to is no longer listening.

In any case, maybe it is time to revisit Christianity – and to ponder how it happened that Christ’s simple message of poverty, charity and mercy was turned into a weapon — a bizarre brand of warmongering and merciless conservatism, shoved down our throats.

Our last truly pious president was Jimmy Carter (to those who think that Bill Clinton was a man of faith, I beg to differ. He talked the talk, but very much did not walk the walk). Carter’s White House, however inept, was one of openness and had a tone of simplicity that was in concert with the piety of the president’s private life. In fact, Carter kept religion out of his government, but the fact of his religion was not at odds with his policies.

The Bush government is something else. To a man, his administration is closed-mouthed and brutish. They exert power, not influence. And their acts (for we should look as closely at their acts as their faith) - their acts are evidence of almost the inverse of the Christian message. Where Christ elevated the poor, Bush elevates the rich. Where Christ wanted us to turn the other cheek, Bush has implemented a policy of pre-emptive war. Where Christ loved all of god’s creation (we are supposed to be stewards of creation) this White House would like us to pave over every last bit of the remains of paradise.

It was not supposed to be this way. American conservatives had thought that once they found their way to power, that they could turn back the calendar on 6 decades of progressivism. And they thought we’d be all the better for their efforts. Well, they may have started to turn back the clock, but look at the results. And yet, genuine conservatism should never have turned out like this.

My model conservative is C S Lewis, a beloved British teacher, brilliant writer and a stalwart for Western Christian values. And by the way, I am not a believer, but I admire his overt humility and his adamant defense of what he knew everyone else scorned. He had the courage of his convictions. He was also apolitical.

He believed in learning from life and history. Here is an apt quotation: “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” At the end of a rough week, surely even George Bush must have learnt something.

Then a second quote: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” Certainly apt for today’s faith mongers.

Then finally: “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

To cultural conservatives like C S Lewis, the current American brand of conservatism would be a shocker. They would have shuddered at the notion that war could change middle-eastern culture. But if war had commenced anyway, they would have expected all to share. A tax cut during war time would have been anathema. And their sons and daughters would have served in the armed services. And then, when it all started coming apart, an earnest conservative would have leveled with the American people.

—T. McKenna

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dogs of War, Dogma of Sport

Has anyone else gotten the sense that the Olympics have gone on too long? Are curling and bobsledding that important that they have to dominate the front pages for weeks while war rages unabated and the world continues its slide into a cesspool of toxicity and corruption?

I also wonder about the messages coming out of Turin, which aren't that different in spirit from those we get from the chickenhawks leading our nation. The girl who finished second in skating described herself as "disappointed" and "painful".

For winning a silver medal, she is grousing. That is, if you're not first; if you don't get 100% of the fame, glory, and money, life has no meaning. Sound familiar? It arises from the same cult of competition that pushes us to cut off the car in front of us on the freeway, that makes a corporation descend into corruption to keep its competitive edge, or that leads a nation's leaders to attack a sovereign nation on thoroughly false pretences (see the Paul Krugman quote below).

This all reminded me of a story from one of my favorite books, Mitch Albom's modern classic, Tuesdays With Morrie. If you haven't read it, I would heartily recommend you get a copy and spend some time and inward-turning thought with it; it is truly one of the great books of our time. The story I am recalling is from the past of the gentle professor whose life and death are celebrated in the book. Albom tells how Morrie was once at a basketball game at his college, when a student hometown chant of "we're number one!" got going. Morrie stood up, faced the chanting students, and cried, "what's wrong with being number two?" There was a self-conscious silence in response.

I talk about the cult of competition in my book, Drinking From the Darkness:

Competition is one of the most prominent props of Western societal belief, especially here in America. It is said to define our economic system: without competition, there would be no free market capitalism. Athletes competing at the highest levels of professional sport are paid salaries under guaranteed, long term contracts in sums that most of us cannot even comprehend for their enormity. Our media, especially among advertisers, continually demand that we compare ourselves and our possessions against others, with the implicit accompanying demand that we make virtually any sacrifice—of reason, financial commonsense, loyalty, community, friendship, even sanity—in order to beat or outpace our neighbors. This cult of competition has recently been ratcheted to a breaking-point of madness in one of the more dissociative entertainments ever concocted, reality TV. Whether it’s a spelling bee or the Super Bowl, a trip to the mall or to an island in the Survivor kingdom, we are obsessed with victory: Americans want to win.

Unfortunately, the delusion of competition is so deeply ingrained in us that we only recognize its pathological features when we lose—that is, when we fail repeatedly and so catastrophically that we are brought to a bottoming-out point. This is where the icy breath of Death—either as an internal crisis that manifests the approach of inner death, or as a depression marked by suicidal thoughts—grips the soul and stills the ego. This is where the quiet voice of the true self, the treasure that we have always had within us, is allowed to speak and be heard.

The fuel that drives this engine of competition is fear: the more fear, the better—that is, the fiercer—the competition. People will lose their minds and sacrifice their lives if fear and competition are ratcheted up to an institutionally-desirable extreme within them. This is what Paul Krugman was referring to in his recent column in the Times:

When terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration immediately looked for ways it could exploit the atrocity to pursue unrelated goals — especially, but not exclusively, a war with Iraq.

But to exploit the atrocity, President Bush had to do two things. First, he had to create a climate of fear: Al Qaeda, a real but limited threat, metamorphosed into a vast, imaginary axis of evil threatening America. Second, he had to blur the distinctions between nasty people who actually attacked us and nasty people who didn't.

In my book, I attempt to point a way free of this competitive, fear-driven obsession that is drilled into us by our culture. A quote from that is copied below; but I'm always open to better ideas—send a comment if you have any.

If you have been driven to such a point amid the cult of competition, then I would suggest that you review once more the four-point syllogism discussed earlier. Once again, its main premises are as follows:

1. “I am insufficient”
2. “I must therefore go outside myself to obtain what I lack”
3. “The world cannot provide for everyone—the proof is in all the Want that we see around us. Therefore, I must struggle against others to obtain what I lack”
4. “Therefore, I am in competition with others—this is the reality of life in Nature, and so it is with us: that’s why it’s called the ‘law of the jungle’”

In a meditation along the same lines of practice that we have followed throughout this book, ask for help from the hidden world in identifying the phrases and ideas that are most deeply inhibiting your growth and forward movement in life. Then, go over those four premises in your mind—simply let them float freely through awareness as you are also noting your breath, your physical and environmental sensations, and any other thoughts that are scudding like clouds across your inner sky. If any of the four main tenets of the competition syllogism strike an inner chord of emotion, feeling, imagery, or resonance within you, then stay with them and see whether any related ideas or beliefs come to mind. It is also possible that a different set of notions, or a variation in the language from what you’ve found here, will present itself and provide you with a visceral reaction, ringing a note of discord so loud that it may cause you to cry out in distress. If that’s what you feel and hear, then go with that: write down the phrases exactly as they appear. If a memory—for example, of something that a parent, teacher, or a similar authority figure or influential other once told you about the necessity of competition—should appear to you in your meditation, then let its voice carry through you, and write it down as well as you can recall it, for both its expression and your feeling-response to it.

After one or two such meditation sessions, you will have some ideas, beliefs, and expressions related to the cult of competition written down. I think by now you can guess the next step: ask for help in dissolving these beliefs from your consciousness, in ridding them from your body and psyche; then perform the inner No practice upon these phrases, following the steps outlined in the exercise at the end of Chapter 3. To ensure success and prevent the ego from reinstalling these ideas, it is best to repeat the inner No practice to the same set of phrases for three consecutive days, in a daily meditation.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Into the Writer's Laboratory

Since I started blogging back in September, 2004, I have used blogs in all kinds of different venues (LiveJournal, Blogger, iBlog, .Mac, and plain old web pages) as a kind of writer's laboratory—a place where I can experiment and occasionally receive the benefit of feedback from readers.

So now I'm working on a new book, tentatively titled, "Neo-transcendentalism: Messages for a Divided World"; and it's time to bring it into the writer's lab here at Daily Rev. If you'd be kind enough to post a comment with criticisms, ideas, suggestions, or complaints, I'd love to hear anything you have to offer. It has been my experience that every reader's input helps make my work better.

"Neo-transcendentalism" will be organized after my "Life Lessons in a Time of War" series. A piece from the series will appear before a brief essay that expounds a little on the theme in the prose-poem before it. To view the piece that the section below follows, just look here.

The core message of this book is, in a word, independence. That is, the recovery of the uniqueness of your self, and thereby, of your natural connection with all that is. For if we are to learn a single thing from the experience of philosophers, seers, and poets of ages gone by, it is that the clearest path to the universal is through the individual. This was the message imparted to us by people as culturally and biographically diverse as Lao Tzu, Sappho, Pythagoras, Galileo, the Buddha, Socrates, Da Vinci, Basho, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Rumi, Wordsworth, Rilke, and Gandhi.

Here in America, this message was crystallized in the writings of three men whose teachings came to be known as "transcendentalism"—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Their clear, uncluttered insight into nature and the human place within the fabric of the universe was so revolutionary in both its depth and its expression that it is still being discovered today. There has perhaps never been a time in human history when the essential teaching of transcendentalism is more critical to understanding, more crucial to the survival of our species and our planet, than the very moment we are in, right now. This is why, for want of a better term (and perhaps as a foil to the "neo-conservatism" that dominates our political landscape today), I have been calling for a holistic revival of sorts, that I refer to as "neo-transcendentalism."

Emerson set the tone of transcendentalism in the first lines of his classic essay, "Self-Reliance":

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius…A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.

Then he contrasts this sensitivity to the natural inner light with the societal commandments and limitations that are imposed upon us from the cradle onwards:

Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Transcendentalism was a teaching centered on the erasure of divisions; therefore it is no coincidence that it arose at a time when America was split, geographically and ideologically, with such a violence as would destroy the lives of half a millions of its youth in a period of five bloody years. Thus, the spiritually-guided lessons of the Unitarian minister, Emerson, were given fresh life amid a new context in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who extended them into the realm of political action.

Emerson's essays appeared in the decade of 1840-1849, and Thoreau's most significant works arrived in 1849 (the three essays collectively titled Civil Disobedience) and 1854 (his classic guide to the transcendental life, Walden). That is to say, during the 20 years period in which the malignant divisions culminating in the Civil War fomented, these transcendentalists were teaching Americans—not just from a pulpit or a magazine masthead, but from lived experience in the field of social action—that there is no natural division between a life in tune with the cosmic song of god and the voice of a free citizen calling for justice amid the halls of power. When Thoreau wrote about the conscience of a free citizen of a nation, he was making the same point as Emerson made on the spiritual will of an individual who frees himself from the trap of group-belief:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.

It is no accident, then, that Walden opens with a chapter called "Economy." Thoreau taught that "conscience" and "the right" exist and act in those very fields of human life where we are conditioned to believe they are not. Thus I say that every life is a crucible of nature—not of belief. We divide the body and its generational organs from the life of spirit at our great peril, as has been demonstrated for us through the sunken sexual decadence of priests and the insane fundamentalist violence of mobs poisoned by the madness of theocracy. To separate money from meaning, and economy from inner truth, is to awaken similar demons: for then we are trapped in economic warfare, in which the haves further oppress the have-nots, and thereby invite their often murderous resentment. This, I suspect, is the violent core of every insurgency, every so-called revolution.

These demons of belief, prejudice, and adherence must be killed within ourselves before we can the more pointedly discover them amid the institutions around us. This is why Thoreau needed to retreat into the woods beside Walden pond for a time; it is why an old Chinese poet named Lao Tzu had to exile himself at the end of a long career in government; it is why a prince named Gautama, afterward known as the Buddha, had to live in hermetic isolation before he could emerge and hold aloft the flower of transmission that was recognized in a wordless instant by a single individual.

These people killed their demons and thus discovered themselves. Then they pointed out the way of self-discovery and showed us that it is open and unforbidding, to everyone. It is now time for each of us to claim his and her path back to uniqueness, to the independence with which we were born, and which is the link in the universal web that connects us all in the community of Nature.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Any Port, And A Storm

Well, as Terry McKenna sort of predicted here on Monday, the choice of corporate steward for our nation's major ports seems to have caused more turbulence in the already shifting tides of state for our friends in the Bush Administration. The headline to this story says it all: "Bush Faces Open Rebellion on Dubai Ports Deal".

For me, this is just another in the series of great moments in the stupidity of tyranny. It has happened often throughout history: someone in the tyrant's inner circle makes a decision of state based on a private liaison with a well-heeled corporate friend, and soon all hell breaks loose among the tyrant's own supporters. But first the tyrant is forced into the position of defending the decision made by his crony; then looks doubly stupid when it is revealed (or admitted) that he had nothing to do with the call in the first place.

Another analogy, perhaps more in line with the developmental level of our President and his friends: is this scenario familiar to you parents? There's a crash in the next room; you run in and find the kid scooting away from an upturned lamp or a broken vase. On investigation, the kid claims that he had nothing to do with the accident and didn't even see what had happened, even though he was in the vicinity at the time. He may even defend the pet or imaginary friend who he swears was truly responsible for the mishap.

Ah, the leaders of the free world: no wonder Jon Stewart and every other living comedian blesses god for bringing them among us.


Smoking gun of the day: this is a story that will deserve some attention in follow-up, and which has gotten very little so far. The two leading editors of a major medical journal are precipitously fired, apparently after complaints had been received about their coverage of an inflammatory issue involving medical ethics. No explanation—and barely any public notice, for that matter—is given by the journal's sponsoring organization. We'll try to keep an eye on this one—let me know if you hear anything about further developments in this.

*Thanks to RC for passing along the graphic of the Rangel quote.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The New York Truth Squad

These two fellows were at it again on Monday, and they deserve our attention. That's Bob Herbert, above, and Paul Krugman, below; two of the finer op-ed writers anywhere. They work here in New York.

Sure, the rest of the New York Times' stable of columnists includes some worthies, too: Maureen Dowd is occasionally as funny as Jon Stewart, and just as incisive; Frank Rich has produced some gems of insight here and there; and Nicholas Kristof is an often clarion voice for geopolitical sanity and accountability (curiously, I find their bestselling superstar, Thomas Friedman, to be cold, clumsy, and frequently flat wrong about things—his popularity remains a mystery to me).

But Herbert and Krugman are the jewels of the Times' editorial pages. Consistently and unflinchingly, these two nail the target square, with writing that is trenchant, clear, and often eloquent. Bob Herbert focuses on the moral implications of the Bushies' lazy and errant policies and their outrageous, secretive arrogance; often he finds a particular thread of the story at hand, involving a person, a family, or a community that has suffered as a result of said arrogance; as he did Monday with the tale of Maher Arar's extreme rendition in Syria ("The Torturers Win"). Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton, lays bare the truth behind the neocon right's agenda of wiping out the middle class in America and creating a bipolar class system of the ultra-wealthy and the low income/poor. In doing so, he names names and provides evidence, as he did Monday in "The Mensch Gap".

So even if you don't read the news regularly (I would agree that it's neither necessary nor desirable to do so), being able to rely on two consistently insightful, crystalline writers who also happen to be human truth-seeking missiles is, to my mind, well worth the $50 a year that the NYT will charge you for joining the "Times Select" subscription. It's roughly the price of two newly-released hard cover books, and these two fellows each give you two columns per week of quality work. All things considered, a pretty solid bargain.

Oh, and you get David Brooks, too. He's the Times' token right-wing apologist, and I assure you, he may be the lamest, most incompetent writer in the mainstream media today—reading Coulter and Malkin, as vile as they are, is more entertaining than slogging through a Brooks column. But if you suffer from insomnia, he may have something for you.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence

Terry McKenna returns to the blog today, with more vitriol for the Bushies and a call to action for the rest of us. I've spent the weekend working on yet another book, which is tentatively titled "Neo-transcendentalism: Messages for a Divided World". Today, I had a quick look around the news websites, which also appeared to be relaxing for the long weekend. One of MSNBC's prominent stories was from their science editor, Alan Boyle (who actually responded to an email of mine—very rare among the media, in my experience at least). Dr. Boyle had a story about the SETI Institute—that is, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. This movement, apparently, is no longer a marginal pastime of New Age fruitcakes who've watched too many episodes of The X Files. It is an active scientific pursuit with government funding, NASA sponsorship, Congressional lobbyists, and prestigious scientists in the forefront. Check out their website—it's quite an experience. It gave me the idea of starting my own organization—STI, the Search for Terrestrial Intelligence. I'm not putting myself into competition with SETI, however; and anyway, I'm sure they'll find intelligence where they're looking for it sooner than I will down here. Now let's see whether my colleague Mr. McKenna can point us toward some terrestrial intelligence.

Now that we’ve had a week of Dick Cheney’s fat ass, let’s get back to business. Yes, he’s a joke, but he’s still very much in command. It will take a lot more than mere embarrassment to pull him down. For now, the Bush presidency remains in power and adamantly out of synch with everyone else. They don’t listen to the American people, nor to world opinion (an opinion they scorn) nor to Kofi Annan in his capacity as Secretary General of the United Nations. The Administration is refusing to shut down its prison/torture chamber in Guantanamo Bay. And it remains steadfast in affirming that the Abu Ghraib matter is closed. If there is any outrage among the Bushies it is at those who continue to remind us of the truth.

With the war having bogged down, and with middle eastern democracy having a bitter taste, our president has moved on to irrelevancies. For example, GW would like NATO (or someone) to place more troops in Darfur. But who would these poor souls be? Certainly not Americans, since our military is already far flung and exhausted.

Iran looms as a bigger and bigger boogie man – though not necessarily a bigger threat. Yes, they want to develop nuclear weapons. But why do we save our ire for them - ignoring the Pakistanis who already built their bomb and said to hell with the West (and by the way, what of India)? As if to rub salt in the wound, Pakistan sold technology to both North Korea and Iran … by the way, a lot of the shipping apparently went through Dubai! In fact, the president seems bogged down about Iran as well. But Iran is not likely to go away. It is also likely that they will build a bomb – or at least get awfully close. And all we can do is watch with a mix of impotence and irritation.

And now there is Dubai. They own a business that operates ports around the world. They just received permission to purchase a business that operates shipping facilities in, among other places, New York City and Port Elizabeth (NJ). The facility in NYC is just a show piece – a dock for cruise ships. The real prize is in New Jersey. The bulk of goods shipped to the New York region come via container ships that dock in Newark and Elizabeth. So now, the Arab world will have their own container port. Even without the bomb, they can place a container loaded with high explosives and have it loaded on a container trailer – maybe set to explode when under the Hudson in the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel.

Yet until enough of us rise up to take back the power we gave Bush and Cheney when we elected them (if we did!) we remain stuck with Bush, a pretend rancher and Cheney, a pretend gunslinger.

We will know more later on this year. Maybe the left will earn a big win in this fall’s congressional election. And maybe someone will come forward to lead the democrats to a thrilling victory in 2008. But in the meantime, those who can, must continue to cry out.

—T. McKenna

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Quail is Peppered, Now Back to Reality

Quote of the day, from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert ($$—trial subscription required):

"A vice president who insists on writing his own rules, who shudders at the very idea of transparency in government, whose judgment on crucial policy issues has been as wildly off the mark (and infinitely more tragic) as his actions in Texas over the weekend, and who has now become an object of relentless ridicule, cannot by any reasonable measure be thought of as an asset to the nation or to the president he serves."

Isn't it faintly ironic that the man whose picture you see in the dictionary when you look up the word "chickenhawk"—he of the five military deferments and that snarling brand of arrogant cowardice that so typifies this Bush administration—nearly blows a man's head off while firing at a bird whose name is also synonymous with the physical expression of fear and avoidance (the verb quail)?

But Bob Herbert's point is well taken: sure, it was funny stuff; but that can't distract us from the reality of the geopolitical murder, estrangement, and robbery for which this man, this Vice President of ours, is responsible. As I have said before, he is—far beyond his so-called boss—one of the most dangerous and destructive leaders on our planet.

Let's also recall that the war Dick Cheney is largely responsible for starting so mindlessly and perpetuating so disastrously continues apace, still flowing deeper into the quicksand of loss. Months and months after the first documented reports of Iraqi death squads appeared, a reluctant investigation is finally taking shape. Years after Guantanamo's ignominious beginnings, the U.N. is joining Amnesty International and many other governments and organizations in calling for the closure of Gitmo.

Meanwhile, as our troops and innocent Iraqi civilians continue to die, the oil supply from that country—the real raison d'etre for this war—is being lost, its flow obstructed at unprecedented rates. At the same time, Iran continues to nuke up while Hamas snuggles with Russia.

Is all this mayhem a mere coincidence—some geopolitical gum sticking to the Bushies' shoes? I would submit that it's all as much a coincidence as the fact that Uncle Dick will be facing no inquiry and no criminal charges for nearly blowing a man's head off. I wonder what kind of treatment we'd get if it had been you or I with the rifle...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Breakfast at the Asylum

So here's your food news of the day, and I think I'm only making up a little bit of it:

1. Iranians have renamed a favorite breakfast pastry "rosey cheeks of Mohammed" or some such nonsense. Shove aside, Freedom Fries.
2. The President (of the United States, that is) went to Wendy's today to promote his harebrained health care initiative (note the staff of Asklepius wallpaper behind Dr. Bush). Tomorrow, he travels to Phillip Morris headquarters to promote his anti-smoking initiative.
3. Someone in the blogosphere has started an anti-Semitic cartoon contest, with the condition that all the cartoons are to be authored by Jews. The grand prize to be awarded is, in the words of the blog, "the famous Matzo-bread baked with the blood of Christian children."
4. Dick Cheney was heard stalking the halls of the Capitol muttering, "I'll never eat another quail as long as I live..."

And so we leave you to digest it all, with a simple reminder: as my blogging partner, Terry McKenna, reminded me this morning, guns are merely the tools of destruction, not the cause. The true causes of violence are incompetence, arrogance, fundamentalist beliefs, and plain ignorance. Long before he aimed that rifle at Mr. Whittington's face, Uncle Dick had the blood of thousands on his hands; and today, we got further confirmation of the murders that were effectively perpetrated in the Gulf Coast by the wanton ignorance of Michael Chertoff and his minions.

Granted, these folks sure can be funny sometimes, when their tyrannical incompetence crosses over into the territory of the absurd; but I'd just as well prefer to get my yuks from other, less deadly sources. So keep hitting that link in the upper left corner, and let impeachment ring.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Meaning of Success

If you are new to this blog, you may not be familiar with the "Life Lessons in a Time of War" posts that appear here and there. I offer them occasionally as pauses in the rush of news and events and debate; as simple reflections that may contain a sporadic hint on how we may live independently and peacefully amid conflict and injustice. The one that follows is a small meditation on the definition of success.

The dictionary says that "success" is "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose; the attainment of popularity or profit."

Well, is that what it is? Money, fame, achievement? Is that a successful life? If so, then why are the wealthy so often miserable, and the famous, decrepit? Does money prevent illness? Does fame attract happiness?

Perhaps you have, in your own life, felt the black, panic-stricken emptiness of separation or divorce. If not, then you are in the blessed minority amongst adults in our culture. Or perhaps you have suffered from a mental illness, and agonized under the leaden shroud of depression or the needle edges of anxiety or obsession. If not, you have escaped a darkness that befalls nearly a third of Americans.

It is even more likely, though, that you have sometime felt lonely and desolate, as if dropped by Fortune onto the cold rock of Time. If you have never experienced this, then your life is the rarest of beauties, no matter its outward form or appearance. You have known such success as Hollywood icons and oil magnates can only dream about.

Yet we have been trained to believe that a successful life is that and not this; that it must include wealth, fame, power over others, and perhaps a manifest measure of institutional control or entitlement, in order for there to be success.

These things are all, of course, lies. They show us what we might have, not what we can be, nor even what we already are.

The truly successful life stands on its own; needs no props of glory or accumulation. Its roots reach deep into the earth; it stands tall but not stiff; it flexes but does not waver; it yields but is ever firm.

If you have suffered, then perhaps this is all clear to you already. Divorce does not arise from a lack of money, but a poverty of communication. We do not become ill from a want of fame or power, but from obstructions within the physical and psychic self. We are not made lonely by anonymity or material loss, but by fear and suspicion. We do not lose in life because we lose our possessions; but because we lose love.

Tear away the shroud of belief that obscures it, and the love you were born with will be returned to you from within, as clear and light and warm as an infant's breath or a lover's smile. Then you will know—in whatever form it may arrive for you—the meaning of success.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Boys Just Wanna Have Gun

I think Jon Stewart spoke for every comedian alive when he raised his eyes upward and muttered, "Thank you, Jesus." Then, of course, he went on to do a convulsively funny five minutes on Dick's Missed Shot. Leno and Letterman added to the merriment, and David Gregory continued to show us what a free press looks and sounds like.

But this is a serious matter, really: finding good, clean quail is a sophisticated and difficult art—kind of like seeking a true Democrat. So today, Terry McKenna rejoins us with his gun properly locked and loaded, and he's got shrapnel to spare for both of our power-drunk and morally debilitated political parties. And if you think Terry is a voice crying out in the wilderness, check this out—none other than Moveon.org is exploring the idea of flushing out some right-leaning Dems. The covey is open, Mr. McKenna:

I assume most of our readers are Democrats and leftists. So please take this as an earnest warning and not just spin.

Do you really believe that the era of Republican domination has begun to end? True, the troops are restless – but so what. The Republican Congressional majorities will probably be trimmed in this year’s “off year” election. But over the long term, the Democrats have nowhere to go but down.

And why is that? Because the Democrats are a party of minority interests wrapped up into a single brand; and a brand that has aged badly. Look at them. Civil service workers, unionized laborers (some overlap there); racial minorities; environmentalists and the remains of the old left (you know, Noam Chomsky, and the like). The Democrats remind me of a trip to a grocery store. Go up the aisle where the cleaning supplies are kept – you get matches, candles, copper cleanser, even mousetraps. Some of the brand names are 100 years old. The items are still useful, but none of them will be a featured ad in the Super Bowl. (The Republicans are probably represented by the aisle with Health and Beauty Aids – lots of new products, but they really don’t do what the ads claim.)

The problem for Democrats is how they deal with real issues in real places. Let’s look at just two current issues.

Just this past week the Senate agreed to debate legislation to cap asbestos litigation. Republicans are proposing a “no fault” solution. The Democrats (supported by trial lawyers) are against it. In favor, Republicans point out how little real good has come out of decades of litigation. We have bankruptcies and massive attorney fees. The distribution of gains is skewed not in favor of damage, but by the dynamics of jurisdiction. Thus, if you can sue in a more favorable state, you can win more money.

The real issues in this matter are clear. Hundreds of thousands of victims have been identified. Businesses that are currently viable are targeted as much for their cash as for anything else. The major asbestos users have long ago been sued. Some (like Johns Manville) no longer exist in their original form. Others continue to fight. But more and more, the newly targeted companies were marginal users of asbestos in the long past era when asbestos was a viable commodity.

A no-fault system seems a reasonable solution, one attached to a victims' compensation trust fund. Yet Democrats refuse to do more than obfuscate on this issue. They raise a legitimate concern about how a trust fund might contain too little to pay off victims (while saying nothing about what happens when a targeted company goes bankrupt). Then they raise the cherished right for a day in court. But the generation of asbestos workers are already dying away (mostly from old age). The new claims come as often from folks (like myself) who worked in construction maybe 30 years ago and who now have minor pulmonary damage of unknown etiology. The damage is often trivial and the link to asbestos flimsy, but if you wrap enough of these cases together, you can get a windfall…at least for the attorneys. (By the way, if any of you have ever removed an old vinyl floor tile, there is a good chance that it contained asbestos – and that the floor glue also contained asbestos… did you wear a mask? Are you now middle aged – if you get periodic bouts of bronchitis you may be able to sign on to a class action suit. And yes, it’s that easy.)

We need some kind of genuine reform of the tort system – whether by no fault management or maybe via new ideas yet to be thought. But the Democrats refuse to think of any.

Let’s look at another issue. The cost of paying for benefits for public employees (including teachers). Though it is not a federal matter, it is a national issue.

I’m talking about costs, not performance. Using my home state of New Jersey, and taking a look at the suburban counties like my own, we have well funded local governments that seem to deliver the goods. The schools seem to do well. The police and fire services are well run. And people live safe, decent lives. But the costs are getting quite large. We have double dippers, pensions inflated by overtime pay in the final years. A mentality that favors retirement at age 55 (in an era when people live to 85!). But to the politician who mentions class size, or reducing pension benefits, woe to your chances at election time.

Genuine compromise and reform is needed. But in states like mine where the Democrats are in power the only solution is more taxes.

There needs to be a new uniting idea. And maybe the Democrats will find the will for renewal. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

—T. McKenna

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Last Year's Art: Going Back Through The Gates

(Click graphic to view slide show, 4MB, Quicktime required)

It has been a year since this curious and elaborate collection of saffron-colored robes fluttered through the winding footpaths of Central Park here in New York City. The project was conceived, designed, and installed by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and was dubbed The Gates.

Several media critics and some of the local aristocracy found the entire thing to be an ugly sham; but the one time I went to see it, I saw beauty and life in the curling trails of orange cloth suspended through the park. And every child I saw there seemed to love the look and the experience of this environmental art. I have learned from my own experience to trust the judgment of children over that of art critics and wealthy penthouse dwellers.

So, for those who were there and remember The Gates, and for those who couldn't see it, here is a brief movie (Quicktime required, click on the graphic above—it's a 4 MB download). For those of you who have never lived here, let me tell you something about life in New York: it's nowhere near as interesting or glamorous as it's cracked up to be (unless you happen to be wealthy). For those of us who work long hours to get by here, there is little glamour and a lot of routine. For most of us, The Gates provided a refreshing and inspiring break from the grind. And did I mention that it was free?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Peace Be Upon You, Baby

Well, it's been 24 hours since I posted The Cartoons, and my head's still attached. It would appear that my chance at becoming the Gryffindor house ghost is slipping away.

Quote of the day, from Bob Herbert of the New York Times:

This was the attorney general of the United States speaking, yet another straight man for an administration that has raised governing to new heights of witlessness. Watching the Bush administration in action would be hilarious, if its ineptitude and brutally misguided policies didn't end so often in needless suffering and sorrow.

In any event, my tank's empty tonight, or maybe I'm getting my cosmic comeupance for posting those offensive cartoons. I have been further populating the archives lately, transferring stuff from the old site to this forum; and I've run across a few from last year that may be worth a second look (or a first, if you've recently started checking out Daily Rev). Sometimes, a quick review of what has gone before can open our eyes to what's happening in the moment. So try one or two of these:

The Case of Runaway Arrogance
Death, Lies, and Shredder Tape: The Bush Legacy
A Picture of Arrogance

Thursday, February 9, 2006

What Would Lenny Do?

Yep, there they are—the evil cartoons, the ones that started it all (okay, they were first published nearly six months ago, but let's face it, fundamentalists are a little slower on the uptake than us infidels—remember, President Chavez had been back in office for nearly three years in Venezuela when Pat Robertson finally got around to issuing his fatwa). I found them here, an attachment to a piece by MSNBC's Dan Abrams. Now while I had to admire Dan's courage in actually posting the images (albeit with a "potentially offensive" warning), I found his reference to the "usually unwavering" American mass media rather curiously modest, perhaps even naive. So I wrote him the following note:

Well Dan, you deserve vast credit for having the gumption to actually publish the supposedly offensive cartoons, especially since I don't see the rest of your colleagues in the MSM as "usually unwavering." In fact, the American MSM have recently proven themselves a most trembling lot of cowards. (The NYT sits on the domestic spying story for a year and then credits itself for bravery when they finally publish it—your MSNBC blogging partner Mr. Alterman is dead-on about them, they're a bunch of self-serving, snivelling yahoos).

Anyway, I've been writing about the Mohammed madness for a week now, and I had sort of predicted that this would blow up into something bigger than the Newsweek Koran-in-the-toilet debacle or anything involving Salman Rushdie.

What's the solution? I don't know, but I sure wish Lenny Bruce were still around. He was a comedian in the 60's, maybe before your time, who broke the ground for the stage that Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and others have stood upon. Lenny once did a rant on the word "nigger" that I can recall: he just stood there and repeated it, maybe fifty times in different inflections. Then, for anybody who didn't get the idea of it, he explained that if we just made it as dull and meaningless as possible through mere repetition, maybe some kid wouldn't be running home crying to the ghetto from school today.

So what would Lenny do now? He'd have us drawing billboards, subway graffiti, coloring books, Pixar films, corporate whiteboards, and yes, more editorial cartoons with the prophet, until the murderous maniacs got so addled with it all...that their heads would explode—metaphorically, that is. I'm sure the Bush administration would be generous with funding for the necessary psychiatric clinics for Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Teheran.

Peace be upon you, man.

I did a little rooting around on the Internet later, and found a segment of text from Bruce's "nigger" speech:

The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, 'Tonight I'd like to introduce the niggers in my cabinet,' and he yelled 'niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger' at every nigger he saw, 'boogeyboogeyboogeyboogeyboogey, niggerniggerniggernigger' till nigger didn't mean anything any more, till nigger lost its meaning -- you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school. (from The Essential Lenny Bruce)

Finally, I found this footnote to CNN's coverage of the cartoon furor. Read it, and then let me know whether you, too, can smell the shit in Ted Turner's pants:

CNN is not showing the negative caricatures of the likeness of the Prophet Mohammed because the network believes its role is to cover the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons while not unnecessarily adding fuel to the controversy itself.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Economics, Because People Matter

Some of you might recognize the paraphrasing in today's title—it's a reference to the subtitle of E.F. Schumacher's classic, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. I was reminded of the book by this interview with Jim Buckmaster (open the link at the graphic to see the video). If you're a corporate worker or manager, you'll be glad you spent ten minutes watching this man and listening to his refreshing focus on business and competition.

Buckmaster is, of course, the CEO of Craigslist, the incredibly successful online shopping, employment, and personal connections community that just keeps piling up traffic, revenue, and notoriety, through a simple set of core values that, by and large, quiety defy all the granite rules of the modern marketplace. These include:

Non-competition: they don't look over their shoulder, they don't struggle to be on top, they retreat from display, leverage, and the big grab. They put 90% of their energy into learning what their customers need from them, and providing it.
Simplicity and Utility: these guys avoid flash and glare; they prefer to go with what's inexpensive but useful. Open source software, a simple look-and-feel, ease of use, and again, responsiveness to the needs of the community they serve.
No advertising, no self-promotion: it's ironic that a product like Craigslist, which has obviously become successful as an advertising forum, works so well without advertising itself. There is an underlying modesty to their approach to business that virtually every American company could learn from. I was reminded of this in reading about Apple's stock tumble yesterday: their stock price fell by nearly $10 a share in a day, just after Steve Jobs had thumbed his nose at Dell Computer, after Apple's price had finally eked ahead of the tech behemoth's. Arrogance has a way of backfiring upon itself: we've seen it in government, and we see it in business. There is not a trace of arrogance in Buckmaster and Craigslist.
More is not always more: Note how Buckmaster talks about growth. He recognizes that not all growth is positive. Indeed, in medicine, rampant growth at the cellular level is known as cancer. But in business, growth is the holy grail, the big brass ring that everyone strives after, no matter the cost in human or economic terms. Buckmaster knows better: as he says, if his company's 2005 growth rate of 200% is suddenly cut in half, "big deal—nobody's going to lose sleep over it." Perhaps it is this very detachment that frees the energy that furthers true growth.
Even when you're big, act small: Lao Tzu said this about 2,600 years ago, and Buckmaster puts the principle into practice. Obviously, Craigslist is pretty damned big—best estimates are that they're worth somewhere around $300 million. But they could be raking in two to three times that, if they wanted to charge for more of their services or leverage the trust and popularity they've earned. But they don't: they act small, continuing to work on getting the basics right and delivering a service that's consistently valuable to ordinary people, but not expensive or difficult to use. Therefore, their success continually, and effortlessly, widens.

What's really funny about that video, though, is the calm, poised presence of this quiet, centered kid CEO in a roomful of suits who have been drilled in the rat race, the law of the jungle, the fight-to-the-top mentality of American enterprise. Do you think anyone ever told Jim Buckmaster (now there's an ironic name) that business is supposed to be a dog-eat-dog war of survival? If so, do you think he listened to that crap?

In an era where business has become a me-first-and-fuck-everybody-else obsessive compulsive disorder, Mr. Jim Buckmaster is truly a breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The Iliad and the Maddensy

Yeah, MSNBC was all over the news of the day Monday morning, weren't they? If you'd checked the fine print there, you would have seen the other, lesser stories of the day—you know, the boring stuff—the burning of the Danish embassy, Iranian nukes, the Cole terrorist's prison escape...

But wait a minute...I was watching the Super Bowl too! Well, I was working on my Sunday post with a Word window open as I listened for juicy Maddenese. I got plenty of it—and BOOM, I copied out of lot of what I heard into a poem. Here's the first half:

1st Quarter

In today's quick-throw football that's very difficult
They're going to change the ball
On every play in the first half.

And you know, that's where it all starts—
If this guy catches you off balance
He just launches you.

He gets that right arm around his neck
And puts the old choke hold on 'im.

The bad news is throwin' into
A lot of white jerseys.
They love to sneak out
And get that guy that's not lookin'

Both these teams look a little tight
Right in front of the official—
He pushed off with his right hand.

The tough thing about going outside
Is how they cut back on you.

2nd Quarter

You could see that one comin' up here Al
The old picket fence.
It was still a good-lookin' wall.

They were cool on Wednesday and Thursday
As we all are—special anyway.
One comin' in, one goin' out
One short one medium one deep.

Momentum's goin' the other way
Everything's goin' the other way
You need a change.

First of all there's a helmet to helmet contact
It could be his ankle.
He has become very good
At these types of things.

They don't look like they have a plan
You can't see where they're goin'
Boy did he get hit.

Just hit the seam
Before you get to the safety.
Try and get that safety out of there.

When that end gets up the field
Escape to that side
Take that window
And throw out of it.

Did you hear that slap? Whap!
You spar, you spar, you spar
And then you put a plan together.

He only had one foot in on that play
You always want to have a cushion
Between yourself and that sideline.

They got discombobbled, got confused
And I don't understand, it doesn't make any sense.
That will make a coach scratch his head.

Monday, February 6, 2006

The American War: All Cost, No Benefit

Terry McKenna is back today, with a cost/benefit analysis on the Iraq War. Meanwhile, as we sort of predicted last week, fundamentalist idiocy has reached new depths in the reaction to the notorious Danish cartoon (which has been out for nearly six months now, mind you).

Are we going to blame the cartoonist, or the newspapers that published his work, for fanning the flames that now burn in Lebanon, and are likely to break out elsewhere? I submit that if we do, we are in effect joining that gang of mindless yahoos in their violent sport (just watch the video at the link above—it's a mostly young, male crowd featuring the usual flag-waving dolts who are catching maximum camera time for their raging egos).

Let's put it into perspective: no one was attacked by this cartoon. Zero deaths, zero injuries, as a result of its publication. The only thing injured was a dead idea—a group belief and its swollen, festering ideology. If you imagine that you can't live without your group attachment and its binding system of belief, then I would suggest that you have far greater problems than any cartoonist can create. You have to start walking that wide-open path toward the rediscovery of your individuality. For some of us, it's not always easy or convenient, but for all of us it's the most direct route toward personal growth and world peace.

And now, Mr. McKenna:

Is the War on Terror worth the cost?

Let’s think big picture. And before you raise the specter of September 11, let me state that I remember the morning of 9/11. From a 20th floor office in Mid-town, we could hear the rumble of the first aircraft as it careened its way toward the North Tower (though we did not know what the noise meant). Upon hearing the news of an air crash, a number of us went down to the street to see for ourselves. By the time I reached the ground, the South Tower was also on fire.

September 11 was a horrible day. But war is horrible too. The question remains, it this “war” worth it? Is it worth some 2,500 “coalition” deaths (and over 16,000 wounded), plus tens of thousands of Iraqi dead? Is it worth the monthly expense of approximately $6 billion per month? Then there is the cost of enhanced security at all sorts of transit points from airports to rail stations. Then we have the potential loss of freedom—the undermining of the Bill of Rights itself—via the Patriot Act and the domestic surveillance program.

There is another cost that is largely overlooked: I call it the opportunity cost. That’s right, the opportunity cost. In the aftermath of the SOTU speech, the big news is what we can longer afford because of a toxic combination of tax cuts and war spending. For example, we can’t afford to maintain the student loan program (so even if NCLB brings us improvements to public schools in poor districts, which seems highly unlikely, we won’t have enough money to send those better-performing kids on to college). We also can’t afford the expense of research into alternative energy, at a time when we need such research more than ever. And we can’t afford genuine reform of either Social Security or Medicare. All we can afford is to leave the one just as it is (after wasting uncounted time and money in the struggle between Congress and the Bushies' advertising campaigns).

And for what have we made these human and economic sacrifices? If it's to defeat the terrorists, our Iraq war seems rather to have energized them (and, as we can see from the Yemeni prison break, even organized them). As Rep. Murtha reminded us (see Friday's post), nearly half of Iraqis polled now think it's OK to kill American troops in order to more quickly expel our forces from their land.

More importantly, we may be overstating the threat. Sure, they hit us hard on 9/11; and again in Spain, London, and sporadically throughout Asia. But terrorist attacks have been few and far between – and likely to remain so. No matter how hard they hit, they can’t launch organized follow up attacks or equal or greater strength. They just don’t have the manpower and infrastructure. And even the worst attack (the attack on September 11) did not bring western society to its knees. New York was up and running within 2 days. I know this for a fact: I was there, heading back to work.

Real wars are bigger. Many more people fight, and whole societies are involved. Peoples are displaced; economies are depleted or completely destroyed; an entire generation can be robbed of opportunity. Vietnam has spent the last 30 years recovering from the devastation inflicted on it during the American holocaust there. You cannot put a smiley face on war: there is no such thing as a good outcome, only a grim reality—at best, a victory riddled with grief.

During WW2, major cities like London, Berlin and Tokyo were devastated by nightly bombing. Yet even then, most citizens adjusted. And many more of us fought. In WW2, 12% of the US population went to war, and nearly 300,000 died in combat.

By purely numerical standards, the War on Terror has been a comparative breeze. Three thousand Americans died on September 11, 2001, another 2,249 so far in Iraq. Overall, a few hundred in Britain and Spain. Horrible, yes. But we have withstood it so far. With no end in sight, the best thing to do now would be to pare the whole enterprise down to a livable minimum — especially since we now know what we should have known before this started (and what Dubya's father knew) — that we can’t win this thing through direct combat anyway.

What I propose is the opposite of visionary — but it is time to replace dreams with reality.

So here we go:

 Korea – few options, keep talking.
 Iran – time to get over the hostage crisis – it will soon be 30 years old. Iran has good reasons to be suspicious of us. Let’s leave it at that. And yes, Iran hates Israel and it’s special hold over US policy. But we can’t invade them. And that’s that.
 Israel – we should do what we can to prevent harm to them…but Israel is not the US. If we can keep Iran from getting the bomb, that may be the best service we can do for the Israelis. The endless stream of US aid dollars has so far done little except to allow Israel to engage in expansionist dreams in Palestinian territory. Although the expansion seems over, the damage to US – Middle East relations is irreparable.
 Terrorism — We should continue to enhance airport and border security. And we must continue to remain vigilant. So internal police work is important. So is cooperation with European police. We should also continue our experiment with nation building in Afghanistan. But as far as Iraq is concerned, let’s find a way out of there. The sooner, the better.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Life Lessons in a Time of War, 11

The call to prayer rang out just a few moments after kickoff (I live in a Muslim neighborhood, and the boys let you know when it's time to hit the deck, say hello to Mecca, and pray for the painful deaths of Danish cartoonists). So I figured that while everyone is watching the beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts bang heads on the gridiron for a few hours, I could slip in another in my Life Lessons in a Time of War series, and go completely unnoticed. This one is about living outside the box.

Look within and around your body for just a moment: do you see or feel any boxes, any cubicles of reality? I would challenge anyone to find a single such structure in all of nature.

What you are more likely to see and sense when you look at your body are tubes. Outside, you can see the shapes of limbs, fingers, toes, and even (perhaps with the aid of a microscope), hair. To look or sense within yourself is to feel this even more plainly: the breathing tubes within the nose and going down to the lungs; the veins and arteries surrounding the heart and extending to every organ and area of the body; the esophagus, bowels, and even the reproductive organs—the penis in the male and the fallopian tubes in the female. We are born through a tube, the birth canal; and our final breaths of life are exhaled through another tube, the trachea. The box and its sharp angles of power have no place in this circle of life and death.

But Ego lives by, for, and in the Box. It blasts its way through obstructions—it will kill or else die trying. It sees no other way, because it is blinded by the gleaming stones set into its eyes. You cannot see with rubies, and not even with gold or jade.

Thus it is the unadorned body—that second class citizen of the self—that is our true and only treasure on earth. Yet we typically treat it like a slave—a servant whose very presence and necessity are cause for annoyance—a vague embarrassment or a punishing sense of guilt.

But the body, as Science is beginning to perceive, has a wisdom of its own. It has recently been demonstrated, for example, how the heart carries on a conversation in the language of neurochemistry with the brain, sending and receiving signals, evoking and responding to pain and the oceanic variety of emotional experience. This is also true of the organs of digestion, and the other family members within the living body. To anyone who has looked, even sporadically, within himself, this should come as no great surprise.

What alone is perhaps astonishing is that we should despoil, entrap, and poison our bodies with the projections of belief and repression, jamming its living substance into the boxes of ideological imprisonment. Is there anything so constrictive to the heart, so destructive of natural growth, as the shape of belief—the box and its forced, angular geometry?

The tube is the shape of life; the box is the shape of survival. Which will you choose? Don't just think outside the box—live outside it.

Friday, February 3, 2006

"Hard to Help"

Quote of the day, from Congressman John Murtha, who is emerging as a sterling, plain-speaking symbol of the progressive national awakening (it's from his interview on MSNBC, video and text here):

So what we‘re into is nation building. You cannot nation build inside an insurgency. So we‘re not only not winning, we‘re spreading hatred towards the United States. Eighty percent of the people in Iraq want us out of there. Forty-seven percent of the people in Iraq say it‘s justified to kill Americans. Eighty percent of the people in the periphery of Iraq say that we‘ll be better off. Once we get out of there, it will be more stable in Iraq. And that‘s what all of us—we want to help this president, but he‘s hard to help.

Looking for a practical demonstration of what Rep. Murtha is talking about? Just look at the economics of it, and keep in mind that you (if you're reasonably young) or your children will be paying—paying grievously—for all this.

$ $440 billion for war and the military in 2007, to top the $400B spent for FY 2006. The grim news is here.
$ Note that costs for the War in Iraq are separate—that is, additional. Estimates run at around $120 billion for 2006.
$ Another $20 billion for Katrina reconstruction costs. I don't think anyone would begrudge the Bushies this expense (even considering that their ignorance and sloth caused most of the needless destruction). That is, as long as it wasn't funnelled into FEMA, which it is.
$ Who's paying for this? You and me, buddy—not Mr. Park Avenue and his 8 figure bank account. Who else is paying for it? Medicare recipients, folks on welfare, and kids hoping to get student loans for college. In short, the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the young. Don't worry, kids—there's burgers to be flipped out there in the big world.

Which brings us to our number 2 quote of the day, from Paul Krugman(from Times Select, which will require a trial subscription):

But what did you expect? After five years in power, the Bush administration is still — perhaps more than ever — run by Mayberry Machiavellis, who don't take the business of governing seriously.


Geek Corner

I downloaded Internet Explorer 7 (public beta, available here) onto my Wintel box, and had a look around.

The good news is that it seems to work, and that it includes features that Firefox and Opera have had for months, if not years: tabbed browsing, customizable toolbars, full-featured search boxes, a phishing filter, more intuitive controls, and some added versatility to display and print functions.

The bad news is that it is electronic plagiarism, and like most plagiarism, is clumsily done. Just check out the picture below (click on it for an enlarged view): the Firefox toolbar is above, and the new IE 7 screen is below. Note the neat nesting and organization of the FF bars, the clean layout, and full-featured Google toolbar. Then note the cluttered placement of screen and toolbar items in the IE window. At least it did capture Google as my default engine, rather than saddling me with MSN Search. At this point, those menus and toolbars can't be moved around, though one would expect MS to make that an active feature in the final product, which is supposed to be released by autumn.

I hit a few secure sites and lots of others, and I have to say that for a beta it's running quite reliably. Microsoft has just got to get some designers that can think and create for themselves, rather than lamely stealing from the likes of Firefox and Opera. For my money, Opera remains the best and most versatile browser for the Windows realm, while Safari's amazing speed and recent functional improvements keep it barely ahead of Firefox and Opera for the Mac. For Linux fans, it seems Firefox is King, and no matter your platform, FF is a great choice for its extensions, themes, security, and overall usability. The designers of IE 7 still have a long, long way to go before they can stand side-by-side with the Mozilla geeks and stop the market share drain.

One final prediction, on that game they're playing in Detroit this weekend. The media will fawn and drool, the players will be thrown out of their natural rhythms by the maddening abundance of commercial time, and the game will generally suck. Look for plenty of turnovers and a Seattle victory in a fairly sloppy contest.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

It Takes A Potemkin Village

Our final thoughts on the SOTU tonight come from Terry McKenna, who raises a most original metaphor for this speech. First, however, an interesting and synchronistic follow-up on yesterday's post about the European cartoon that has Muslim fanatics enraged and too many people boycotting their morning Danish. For it seems we have our own lightning in a bottle tale here in the U.S. of a cartoonist inciting fundamentalist rage. This time, the fundamentalists are of that religion known as the military—none other than the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the holy priesthood of the American war-cult.

The Joints protested the Washington Post's publication of the cartoon pictured here, by Tom Toles. Unable to catch the drift of the "US Army" label on the bed and the "stretched thin" metaphor in the caption, they apparently thought it was a slur on wounded troops. Perhaps John Aravosis of America Blog had the best comment on this tempest when he quipped that perhaps the Joints might be more useful spending their time delivering proper body armor to the real troops than whining about a cartoon presenting an obvious metaphor on the wasted state of our military (which is, of course, based on a scientific analysis done by actual military experts).

But maybe the Bushies needed some smoke in the media air to cover the little gaffe that occurred just before the Crawford Clown stepped onstage. They arrested Cindy Sheehan—dragged her out of the building in cuffs. For wearing a t-shirt. She wasn't making noise, yelling, or otherwise visibly protesting. She was sitting in her seat with a t-shirt on that had the current body count for American soldiers in Iraq. Mind you, they didn't just remove her—they arrested her; took her to jail. The police have since apologized, but now Cindy's got lawyers, and she's thinking about putting them to work. I hope she burns a hole in Dubya's corrupt ass big enough to drive a Hummer through.

I now turn the daily vent over to Mr. McKenna:

Here's what I think about the President’s State of the Union Addres: it’s a Potemkin Village. A what? A Potemkin village. See the definition below, from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Potemkin village

NOUN: Something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance: “the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity” (Lewis H. Lapham).

ETYMOLOGY: After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.

The president’s speech was a similarly showy edifice. Lots of front doors and windows, but no foundation, no bedrooms and no attic storage. The sole purpose was to convince the already dispirited American people that the Republicans can still govern. But they can’t and they won’t.

They certainly won’t govern in the Middle East. For example, they can do nothing with Iran.True, Iran is our enemy and may soon have the bomb, but they are also, quite possibly, an emerging democracy. A flawed democracy, to be sure – but so were we for our first 175 years (until the passage of the Civil Rights Bill). Yet we must deal with them. We don’t have the power to do anything else.

Our attitude toward the Middle East is generally flawed. In the past, when faced with an implacable enemy (let’s say, the China of some 30 some years ago) we were not afraid to engage them - even though they had been as brutal to their people as a dozen Saddam Hussein’s. And what can Iran do to us anyway? Iran is surrounded by hostile neighbors – several with the bomb. They have no navy, no air force – and a population of youngsters who actually admire us.

Then there is Hamas. Yes, they also are an enemy, but (like Iran) an enemy who we must deal with somehow. Sure we can let them starve (western cash supports the Palestinians) but if they starve – watch out!

So the Middle East is a mess, and the American government is managing it no better than it managed Katrina.

Nor can the Republicans manage the economy. Yes, we have ample growth for the well-off (boy am I glad I'm one of them); but for industrial workers, the handwriting is on the wall. The poor are even worse off. With no skills, if they want to work, they compete for jobs with Mexican peasants willing to work 60 hours a week for $300 or less – peasants who are unable to complain if they get screwed.

And of course the Republicans don’t want to manage the environment. They have their heads in the sand about issues ranging from mercury pollution to global warming. And by the way, it is remotely possible that global warming is over-stated, but I’d stay away from beach front property if I were you.

How about the future? When I was 7 years old, the Russians started the Space Race when they launched Sputnik. In reaction, the US reformed aspects of our educational system. For example, in high school, my chemistry and physics tests were both designed by a government agency: the Physical Sciences Studies Commission. The point was to develop scientists. And although I did not become a scientist, I earned a college scholarship. I and most of my peers far exceeded the educational aspirations of our parents (most were just factory workers).

Contrast that with today’s real world. In the Potemkin Village of his State of the Union Address, George Bush trumpeted science and math education – but outside of the village, Congress has just cut $12.7 billion from federal student-loan programs. (Congress narrowly passed a deficit-reduction package that calls for $12.7 billion to be cut from federal student-loan programs over five years.)

The same is true with energy. We’d like to develop clean technology to burn coal. We’d also like to find a safe way to nuclear power. But we don’t have the money. We’ve spent it all on tax cuts for the wealthy.

No, the state of the union is none too pretty. We are governed by a single party government that has lost touch with the world and its people. Sadly, the opposition has been castrated. And our free press is too afraid to clearly speak the truth.

So it’s up to the bloggers. Hope somebody is out there reading.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The Anality of Evil

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Mr. Green Jeans of Crawford, TX dropped a megaton revelation upon us all last night when he declared that America is addicted to oil. Right behind the President, Dealer Dick was heard to mutter, "and we're all out of methadone, heh, heh..." Elsewhere in the same room, Justice Alito was heard to affirm that Congress is too right-wing these days. The American mass media has been studiously analyzing these remarks all day long, wondering whether this is a new strain of environmentalism in Bushland or a return to "the familiar and the modest" (the New York Times).

The President also warned us of the dangers of isolationism. This is akin to those warnings you see on the side of a pack of Marlboros: I and my policies have created nothing except isolation and division, and continue to do so; therefore, be warned. Oh, and let me give you a light...

But as the American mass media continue to parse the deep meaning of the latest SOTU, the media in Europe are dealing with a somewhat different problem: bomb threats and fatwas. This is a story that's getting virtually no coverage here, but it's headline news across the EU. That's because, last September, a Danish newspaper had published a mildly satirical cartoon featuring a picture of the prophet Mohammed; then, after its editor and publisher received death threats, a few more papers in France and Germany re-published the cartoon as a show of journalistic solidarity. So now we have an international storm brewing that may exceed the Newsweek Koran-in-the-toilet-at-Gitmo drama or even the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and his 1989 novel, Satanic Verses.

Well, as George and his Dick have shown us on this side of the pond, there is nothing like fear to make people kick dirt on the body of democracy. That's exactly what the war-talk from the Muslim maniacs has done to the publisher of France Soir—one of the papers that had published the Mohammed cartoons. He fired his editor.

But the Germans, who have had enough experience of their own with intolerance and ideologically-driven violence, stood firm. The editor of Die Welt spoke for all who prize democracy over dogma when he wrote, "The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical."

The American media have been silent on the issue, and with good reason: they, who are frightened by a half-wit from Texas and a snarling corporate bully from Wyoming, are understandably afraid. What if one of these stupid cartoons is published and some lunatic Ahmed decides to blow himself up on the Number 6 train at Grand Central Terminal as retribution? The Newsweek debacle was enough of a close call for these guys. Admittedly, such an argument appears sobering: aside from the waste of human life to result from a terrorist attack incited by a cartoon, what about the future of the free press in America (or what remains of it)? Wouldn't the public backlash to such a hypothetical event completely destroy the press as we have known it?

The problem with that argument, of course, is that it's hypothetical. If I were to publish those cartoons in my newspaper, and a terrorist attack occurred in my city the very next day, there would still be no causal link proven between the two events. And what is the cost of the media's continued weak-kneed silence in the face of power and violence? Well, we get more power, more oppression, and more tragic and destructive violence.

So am I advocating for the publication here of a cartoon about the prophet Mohammed? Nope; but I sure wouldn't mind reading more about the global and domestic dangers of fundamentalism. But fear breeds silence: fearful people tend to forget that they have a job to do. Fear can make a man settle for mediocrity; it can make a person who is paid to seek and to tell the truth settle for a neutered and watered-down ambiguity, which is the essence of fundamentalism, wherever it is practiced, and from whatever holy book it is preached.

Incidentally, the God-figure in the cartoon above is saying, "don't worry, Mohammed, it's all a cartoon here..."