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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Getting to Work

When I want to see a movie I go to the cheapie theater, which charges $2.50 for matinees (daytime) and $3.00 in the evening. The movies have finished their initial runs, and are already out on DVD and other whatnots of digital recording. Not all movies end up at the cheapie theater, so the choices are narrower.

The "refreshments" - candy, popcorn, soft drinks - cost more than the movie. I used to sneak a candy bar in with me, then would just eat one beforehand, and now don't eat anything, beforehand or during. I feel pretty refreshed just from breathing these days.

Last week I went to see "The Martian," a film starring Matt Damon, about an astronaut left on Mars by his crewmates, who thought he died in a dust storm. It is not a great movie, but is pretty good. Matt Damon is a good actor, and gives a credible, often funny performance. Not so funny that he should have been in the category of best actor in a comedy, for which he won the Golden Globes award last night. Or the picture, which won the Golden Globe for best comedy. The movie is not a comedy, except in the classic sense that it has a happy ending.

Damon's character, Mark Watney, has to fend for himself on Mars, and uses what materials are left to stay alive and even grow a garden of potatoes. In true Hollywood tradition he eventually is rescued and returns safely to Earth. Predictable, but a pretty good story.

The best lines in the movie are at the very end, when the character Watney is instructing a class of new astronauts, and talks about the danger. He tells them "At some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home."

It resonated with what human civilization is facing. Everything has gone south, at least as far as the prospects for survival of the species. This is it. This is how we end. We have delayed dealing with climate change for too long. We have also delayed admitting that our economic system is unsustainable in its growth imperative, and changing course now is also too late. We of course aren't changing now, so when the day comes that we do admit it is unsustainable it will not only be too late, but worldwide chaos will be so far along that having any economic system at all will be a distant memory.

It may or may not be synchronicity that movies are providing metaphors for the times we are facing. Dystopian films like The Hunger Games series, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the Star Wars franchise are filling a need. There are many more. Brazil is one of my favorites from decades ago.

Some among us are already getting to work. Climate activists in the state of Washington are on trial for blocking an oil train. Oil trains have been derailing at drastically higher levels throughout the country in recent years. Climate activists at last year's Climate Change Conference in Paris were prevented from attending, in a weird ironic twist. 350.org is doing the most. Bill Moyers mentions a few others. Canadian writer Naomi Klein is now the most important author on climate-related topics.

So here we are, stuck on Mars, so to speak. Not alone, but without mooring in a world facing mass extinction. If we solve one problem and then the next one, and then the next, and then solve enough problems, maybe we get to come home. Home is the same place, but living in harmony with nature - sustainably.

R.I.P. David Bowie. Here's a song for getting to work. Here's one for facing the strange changes. This is the kind of person we will have to be, for more than one day. It helps to be a bit of a rebel. It will take more than young Americans to get the job done.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Tribal Identity Crisis

The earliest identity I can remember is with my immediate surroundings - family, home, and the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago where we lived. I identified with the neighborhood so much, apparently, that at age three I wandered off, or as legend has it, ran away. It is one of my favorite childhood memories.

Two Chicago cops found me, and drove me around to see some horses - probably at a police stable - and bought me some ice cream. We were having a grand old time riding around in their squad car, then went to the district police station - most likely the one on South Cottage Grove Avenue - which had a lofty front desk, lofty to three-year-old me at least. My parents arrived shortly afterward and took me home. I still remember my older brother and sister saying to me when I got home, "You're really going to get it!" They were seething with jealousy. I didn't "get it." That time, at least. My parents were likely just happy to have me back alive and safe.

At age five I started Kindergarten, and thus began seventeen years of Catholic education. For the first couple of years it was mostly an adjustment process, getting used to mean women in black outfits telling me what to do, hitting me with rulers, pulling my hair and ears, making me kneel on my hands (in front of a statue of the "virgin" Mary, strangely), hurling insults. It wasn't until about third grade that I started identifying with Catholicism as a faith. At age eight I was cognizant enough of what religion meant, and the daily indoctrination started sinking in. I even aspired to becoming a priest for a short time.

I took Catholicism seriously, but looking back on it, I never liked it. I didn't connect with the liturgy, found it boring and tedious, and thought "Confession" was an exercise in humiliation and creepiness. I didn't like priests (or nuns). I had to manufacture sins to confess: fighting with my brother and sister, disobeying my mother and father, not doing my homework, etc. The idea was to subjugate yourself to some strange guy behind a screen, and give him the power of pronouncing your "penance" and absolution. It is no wonder that many priests got carried away with the power they wielded over the faithful. I was lucky. I flunked out of the altar boys, who were favorite targets of priestly abuse.

Anyone Irish here?When I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967 I also graduated from Catholicism. Everything was in ferment in those days. Priests and nuns were renouncing their vows and getting married, Thomas Merton was meditating with Buddhists, and, most influential for me, the Beatles went to India to meditate with a guru.

During my formative years I also identified with my "Irish" and "Scottish" heritage. These identities took longer to shed, and I still revisit them from time-to-time when circumstances give cause. I don't really identify as being anything, just me. After following an Indian guru for eight years, and pursuing various spiritual practices over the decades, I live with an attitude of deeper reality and practice. My inclination is towards various forms of Buddhism, but don't consider myself a Buddhist.

As well as my own life being partly a series of assuming and shedding identities, I became aware of the identities imposed on others. I still remember the first time I heard African Americans referred to as "The Colored."

It was in Champaign, Illinois (or adjoining Urbana), sometime in the summer of 1953. I spent a couple of summers there with my siblings in a big house (by 1953 standards) with three spinster great aunts from my father's side of the family. Cousins showed up at various times during the summer, along with other relatives. The house had belonged to my grandfather, who died the previous year. One day when we were walking around town one of "the aunts" told me a family of African Americans were "The Colored," and lamented that more of them were moving into the area.

Though "Colored" is an odious ascription, it is less obnoxious than some of the other names that were applied to descendants of our nation's slave past. I still remember one of the barbers at the shop where I got my hair cut at when I was a kid, who said, "When the jigaboos move in, that's when I move out." He was laughing when he said this. In a weird irony, his name was Africano. It was an Italian name, but hinted at something, er, darker. I didn't like the guy, and stopped going there when a barber shop closer to home opened. I didn't like the word jigaboo either, and obviously never forgot hearing it. Various other terms I heard growing up were coon, shinejig (short for jigaboo), burrhead, spade, ape, spook, sambo, and of course the all-encompassing nigger.

The official term for African Americans in those days was negroes, seen as a polite term then, but now is looked at as condescending and embarrassing. In 1966 Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael started using the term "black power," and negroes became a thing of the past. The idea of using the term black was to be more aggressive and proud about one's skin color.

Another aspect of referring to one's skin color was to establish identity as a distinct people. Since "Americans" of European descent are referred to as white, people of African descent, by calling themselves black, asserted their own independent selfhood.

This self-definition served a valid purpose of pride and distinctiveness, but it also served to widen the racial divide. Over time it has become for "whites" an easier term of condescension than colored ever was.

Just to complicate things further, the now official term among "leftists" for "non-whites" is people of color. Under this nomenclature whites are apparently people of no color, people without color, or people not of color.

Ignored in all this color identity is that no one is white or black. Or, more accurately, no one has white skin and no one has black skin. The skin color of people of African descent is of varying degrees of brown. The skin color of people with European ancestry consists of shades of pinkish off-white, peach or ivory, largely due to lack of pigmentation, revealing pale connective tissue beneath the skin. The actual color white is a mixture of all colors of the visible light spectrum.

Even if the color names black and white to describe skin color were accurate, they are not who a person is. No one is white or black as a being, any more than they are fat, skinny, short, tall, "gay," "straight," abled or disabled, young or old. These are descriptions of conditions, not of being. I don't sit around being white, and don't wake up in the morning saying "What a great day to be a heterosexual!"

We can get caught up in identities, and obsess about them, believing they are who we really are. Parallel to this is that we can fall into the trap of identifying others, and believing the assignations we bestow upon them are who they really are. Thus begins the downward spiral of "us" and "them." In its extreme it can lead to fear, loathing, violence and even murder.

"America" is supposed to be the great melting pot, where people of diverse backgrounds are blended together to create a harmonious whole. It hasn't worked out that way, but has worked well enough to create a tolerable level of cohesion of "races," ethnicities, religions, political persuasions, occupations and ways of living that exist nowhere else.

That is now all threatened. For the past several decades there has been an erosion of the tolerable cohesion, and it is reaching a boiling point. Grandstanding politicians are exploiting the divisions, and the worst of them, Donald Trump, has taken scapegoating of defined "others" to a new, more hateful and dangerous level. On Monday he called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Other "Republicans" are trying to distance themselves from Trump, but their grandstanding is only slightly less odious than what he proposes, proposing Christianity tests for Syrian refugees, and calling Muslims "uncorked animals."

Words of hate are of course as "American" as the proverbial apple pie, but as David Masciotra writes in Salon, what enrages Muslims around the world is that we are killing so many of them, and in so many places in recent years - Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen. Some estimates of  Iraqis killed during our invasion and occupation are as high as 1,000,000. In Afghanistan total war-related deaths may be as high as 360,000. As of last January the death toll from Obama's drone strikes was estimated at 2,500. It is likely much higher now. In Yemen civilian deaths from drone strikes for the past year are estimated at 40, which seems relatively low, except that with our blessing Yemen has been turned into one large killing field. It is difficult to say with Syria, but civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes number at least in the hundreds.

So whether it is scapegoating Muslims within the U.S. or killing them around the world, it is safe to say that they are seen as the "other," and therefore their lives don't matter to us. At least to our ruling elite and a large portion of the population.

Tribalism, seeing one's own group as superior, "others" as threatening, the rest of the world as a free-fire zone - this reptilian brain approach to existence is reaching both a crescendo and denouement at the same time. As we approach the critical phase of human civilization facing both climate change and the unsustainability of the infinite-growth mass economic system, "otherness" will not be an option. The only question is how we move beyond the reptilian approach.

It's easy. Just give up identity. Or at least false identity. We aren't "Americans," "white," "Christians," or "us." I gave up identity. The rest of, hmm, us, such as we think we're an us, can do it too. Actually, it isn't so easy, but we have to do it. When you have to do something, a  way is found. Anti-Muslim hysteria is being fueled by "Republican" presidential candidates and "right wing" hate media. It is becoming obvious that this approach to public life is doing great harm, and is inhibiting our survival as a species. It will change. When the choice is change or die, change will be the preferred option.

To make it a little easier, our true identity, should we so choose, is within our own being. In yoga philosophy is is known as the Atman, or inner Self. In Zen Buddhism it is more difficult, no Self. I take that to be semantic - so subtle as to be beyond all conceptions of Self. Also so far down the path as to be practically irrelevant. The important thing is to give up external identity. Human survival depends on it. 

Here's a song. Let's hope this election season we don't get fooled again. One way to give up tribalism is to show a little respect. This tune is about the melting pot. Here's some Irish music. This song is from Scotland. Here's another Scotsman. The Beatles. John Lennon. Here's some music of Illinois. Here's a singer from Champaign. Here's a band from Champaign. In the 1980s there was an R&B group from Champaign named Champaign. They had a hit song.

Here's a band from Chicago. Carl Sandburg's Chicago. This band has some big shoulders. This band, surprisingly, is from Chicago. Here's an invitation to come to Chicago. This song is about a runaway. Here's another song about running away. Sometimes people leave with them old Chicago blues. Chicago bluesman McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) knew how to shake his blues. He was pretty sure of his identity. This Chicago blues band was known from east to west. Jimmy Reed was a sometime Chicago bluesman. This is my favorite song by Chicago country-folk artist John Prine. Even Merle Haggard has a song about Chicago. This song about a Chicago tough guy was popular with many.

This song is about a train that goes through a number of towns and cities that have been part of my life. My grandfather was a conductor on this train, as well as others of the Illinois Central Railroad. Here's another Steve Goodman song, about longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Marvin Gaye. The Rolling Stones. And, of course, this. Here's The Police, though not the Chicago Police. Frank Sinatra. Mel Torme and Tony Bennett. Here's Louis Armstrong.

Ali Akbar Khan, sarod player from India.

We'll all know who we are when the truth finally comes.

In a category by itself is Catholic music.  I have only dim memories of it.

We can't ignore that Chicago, its police force, its mayor, the president and the leading presidential candidate are all deeply enmeshed in a long-running scandal over the treatment of the city's African American population. The Chicago Police have always been corrupt and brutal, likely from the city's very beginning.

The added factor of "race" makes the situation more difficult, freeing the police to be even more corrupt and brutal. The cops who found me when I was three years old were pretty young, likely hadn't yet been dragged down by the system. Maybe they didn't stick around long enough to get corrupted. I've been wishing them well for 67 years.

Champaign is having its own problems with racially overzealous police.

Illinois is in international news for other reasons. A professor at Wheaton College was placed on administrative leave for making statements comparing Islam favorably to Christianity.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recently settled with a professor it hired and then dis-hired, for $875,000, in a case that has cost it $2 million overall. The professor, Steven Salaita, had been offered a tenured position to teach American Indian Studies. His appointment was withdrawn because of statements he made critical of Israel.

R.I.P. Douglas Tompkins.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The United States of Amnesia

It has been four days since the attacks in Paris, and the Internet, TV, radio, newspaper and telephone system are awash in news, expressions of grief, commentary, expertise, threats, posturing and inevitable grandstanding among politicians. Presidential candidate Marco Rubio is calling the situation a "clash of civilizations."  Donald Trump said the people attacked should have had guns. Louisiana governor and former presidential candidate Bobby Jindal is demanding more information about Syrian refugees, and says he will not accept any of them in his state. Twenty-two other governors also say they will refuse to accept refugees. All except one are "Republicans."

Of course our corporate-propaganda news media are fanning the flames of hysteria, doing their usual Lord of the Flies scrambling over one another to hype the story. The danger in all this is that we could enter a new round of fear-based irrationality, described in an article in yesterday's Salon.

In a tacky responses to the tragedy, buildings, landmarks, statues and towers all over the world were lit up in the blue, white and red (not to be confused with red, white and blue) of the French flag. Because Paris is one of the premier cities of the Western industrial world, terrorist attacks that happen there are supposed to be mourned by the whole world.

By contrast, no such worldwide mourning was displayed for recent terror attacks in other countries. In the past few weeks there have been attacks in Baghdad (19 dead), Beirut (43 dead), Ankara (95 dead),  and an attack in Istanbul was foiled on the same day as the Paris attacks. The number of people killed in the bombing of the Russian plane in Egypt was almost twice as many as in the Paris attacks - 224. No tinted buildings for them, no playing of the Russian national anthem.

There were also no tinted buildings around the world for the 30 people killed in the terrorist attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October. It might have something to do with the known perpetrator of the attack: the United States military. Maybe 30 wasn't enough. Maybe Afghanistan doesn't matter so much. Maybe it is because we don't do terrorism, just like we don't torture. If you believe this, I have some swampland in Florida you might be interested in buying. That is, if you have any money left after I sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

It might help to look at what preceded our current state of affairs. In the not-so-distant past the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, met with members of the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, in 1983 at the White House, and called them "freedom fighters." The Mujahideen was a guerrilla force organized by the CIA, and included volunteers from Arab countries, most significantly Osama bin Laden. After the Russians left Afghanistan the organization divided into factions, including the Taliban and al Qaeda.

This story is retold in today's Salon, in an article titled "We created Islamic extremism: Those blaming Islam for ISIS would have supported Osama bin Laden in the ’80s." In the Reagan regime's zeal for crushing the Soviet Union anything was game - El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Nicaragua, Argentina, elsewhere, including the United States. His illegal sale of weapons to the Iranian government, with the proceeds going to provide arms to the "Contras" in Nicaragua was an impeachable offense, but presidents are not held accountable for international crimes.

The history of U.S. and European meddling in the Mideast goes much farther back than the time of Ronald Reagan. Great Britain, France and Italy were colonial powers in the region, with Britain intruding in what is now Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan,  France involved in Syria and Lebanon, Italy in Libya. France has also had colonial relationships with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Britain was a colonial presence in Egypt.

It all changed with the invention of the gasoline powered automobile , the discovery of oil in the Mideast, and the changing power relationships as a result of the two world wars. After World War II the countries in the region became nominally independent, and the U.S. assumed the role of hegemonic power.

Partners in crime. Or is it strange bedfellows? To read about Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, go to this URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/index.htmU.S. influence meant establishing political stability and control over the oil. This was done with the installation of monarchies and dictatorships, overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran and the nationalist government in Iraq. Saddam Hussein gradually emerged in Iraq as the head of the Ba'ath Party as a quasi-socialist dictator.

We sort-of know the rest. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, invaded Iraq in 1991, for reasons not the same as what were promoted. Military bases were established in Saudi Arabia, enraging our former ally Osama bin Laden, inspiring him to form the terrorist organization al Qaeda.

Interrupting the leader of the free worldAl Qaeda engaged in a variety of terrorist attacks, including the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Then, in spite of emphatic and desperate warnings, the second Bush regime looked the other way, and we had the "911" attacks.

Bush II then invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, largely to deflect scrutiny for his active negligence, but also for reasons of empire and control of Iraq's oil.

So now we have blowback on steroids. Thanks to the Mideast turning to chaos, hundreds of thousands of refugees are desperately trying to immigrate to Europe. The previously nonexistent "ISIS" has added to the havoc in Iraq, Syria and now Afghanistan.

This is more perspective than most Americans can handle. We have gotten ourselves into a huge mess, and we don't have either the leadership or the electorate either willing or able to even face what is going on truthfully. Especially leadership. The gaggle of candidates for president is a cast of buffoons, like the asylum inmates of the movie King of Hearts, but mean. The exception is Bernie Sanders, and even he has his challenges. I met him once, right here in Madison in 1997 or so, at a fundraiser for him. He was rude, even though I donated to his congressional campaign, pretty much like the Larry David impression on Saturday Night Live. It's just the way he is, leftover habit from his Brooklyn origins.

Hurricane Sandy from spaceMeanwhile, the Polar ice caps are melting. Weather is getting more extreme. Forest fires are becoming more frequent and covering wider areas. Drought, floods, blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes are common, and getting more severe. Are we ready to face the future yet? First we have to face the present.

Here's a song. Here's another. This Neil Young song fits. Here's some music of Nubia. This song should be the world anthem. Here's a question worth asking. Some instrumental music. A Chuck Mangione-Esther Satterfield classic.

Here's some more background on Ronald Reagan's involvement with radical Islamists. Here's a video of Reagan with the Mujahideen.

It wasn't Reagan who started the organizing, training and promotion of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. Here's a brief description.

Here's some background on U.S. overthrows of foreign governments.

Update, November 21:
For some more history of European colonialism in the Mideast, click here.

Britain's former head of counterterrorism says destroying ISIS will be futile if nothing positive is put in the vacuum it is filling. Duh. This was learned from the invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which no awareness of consequences was in evidence. Just invade. Whoopee! What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stranger Than Fiction

The greatest challenge for any writer is making sense of the universe in which we live. Some do it in fiction, some in science, some in religion and spirituality, some in storytelling, and some with humor. I tend to combine genres, writing a mixture of styles. Except fiction. I wrote my best and only fiction in high school, goofing off to finish assignments. The nun who taught senior English thought I had talent, and encouraged my forays into the realm of imagination. I didn't pursue it any farther, though, and haven't written any fiction since. It doesn't interest me. I can read great fiction written by others.

The apparent world is fiction enough, or as Mark Twain put it, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." Such as in our national scene. Or farce. We found out this week that 90% of Obama's drone strikes hit the wrong target. Target, as in human being, as in innocent civilian. What is Obama's response to this revelation? He announced on Thursday that 9,800 American troops will stay in "Afghanistan" through next year, and likely longer.

This comes on the heels of the attack by U.S. forces October 3 on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. The hospital was attacked again Thursday by a U.S. armored vehicle, likely destroying evidence of the previous attack.

So much for Obama. I gave up on him long ago. He's just another politician, and politicians tend to be sociopaths, especially at the highest levels. I voted for him once, but voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2012. He'll be gone soon enough, and then we'll have someone else. Hillary Clinton seems to be the anointed successor by the punditocracy. A military "hard-liner," she will likely be worse than Obama. We can expect more wars. More corporate and Wall Street impunity.

Of course, we could elect Bernie Sanders, "Socialist." He says he prefers the term "Progressive." He advocates breaking up the big Wall Street banks, regulating powerful corporations and taxing the rich. I wish him luck. The established order will do whatever possible to prevent him from being president. If middle-of-the road "Democratic" candidate Al Gore, who actually won the presidency, could have his victory reversed, Sanders stands little chance.

So a real advocate of democracy - both political and economic - will not be president, no matter how great a majority of the voting public wants him. We'll have a standard "Democrat" or a standard "Republican." The "Republicans" are so awful it will likely be Hillary Clinton.

It is this awfulness of the "Republicans" that is most in the news these days. They have turned Congress into a food fight, and now can't even agree among themselves whom they should choose for Speaker of the House. In order to destroy the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton they have been waging an endless investigation of the 2012 attack on the "U.S." embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Their admitted get-Hillary Benghazi committee interrogated her former assistant for six hours Friday, for nothing.

As if this weren't surreal enough, we have the "Republican" goof fest of candidates for president. Some are calling it a clown car. In the latest of a long series of "right wing" outrages, "Republican" presidential candidate Ben Carson is claiming that the victims in the October 1 mass shooting should have had guns to fight back with. This is consistent with his view that the Holocaust could have been prevented if people were armed to oppose Hitler. He has made himself a more ridiculous candidate than Donald Trump.

The whole presidential campaign has become a joke. It's hard to tell where the joke will end. We have candidates appearing on comedy shows, comedy shows parodying candidates, and Fox News, a running national joke pretending to be serious.

The rave today is about how comedy writer and performer Larry David did a hilarious impression of "Democratic" candidate Bernie Sanders in the opening skit on last night's Saturday Night Live. It was funny, but it confuses entertainment with the real campaign. That wouldn't be such a bad thing if the importance of electing an appropriate, competent, honest and wise human being to be our national leader remained as our top priority. It isn't, though. Entertainment has become supreme, with substance taking a back seat.

When entertainment trumps substance the door becomes wide open for a polished entertainer like Donald Trump. Sure enough, he will be appearing on Saturday Night Live soon, giving two for the price of one - a parody of a candidate and the candidate all rolled into one. The only question remaining is whether Trump doing Trump will be funnier than Larry David doing Bernie Sanders. Whether he is funnier or not, it's all entertainment, and America needs its entertainment more than anything.

We've had joke candidates before. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush. They were president of the United States for eight years apiece. Each in his own way just about wrecked the country. Some joke. Cosmic humor.

Pundits, commentators, comedians and political professionals pretend they are debunking something real when grandstanders like Carson and Trump make outlandish statements. They fail to realize that by so doing they are engaging in an enabling process, a co-dependency.

Supposed "right wing" arguments aren't real. They aren't intended to be serious arguments or proposals. What they do is muddy the waters, create confusion, bring attention, and make opponents argue against them, when what they say isn't worth the time or attention.

The more outraged people get, the better. Just by creating a "side" of an argument they started they create a certain credibility of the ridiculous. It's good enough to win elections.

Arbeit Macht FreiI know this from living in Wisconsin, where the current governor, Scott Walker, is a criminal sociopath, but has won three elections in four years. His ridiculous proposals have become law, over and over. The "Democrats" have no idea of how to oppose him, and just run triangulating, stand for nothing candidates, who lose, repeatedly. Walker tried running for president, but got supplanted by someone even more outlandish - Trump.

Donald Trump has stirred the pot even more, saying that the September 11, 2001 attacks wouldn't have happened if he had been president. He has caused a lot of outrage, but I have this simple response: The actual president at the time of the "911" attacks did indeed enable them with his active negligence. So like it or not, Trump has walked into a vacuum. Anyone can claim to be at least as good as Bush, because Bush, though he has been granted impunity, is responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Also like it or not, when you suppress accountability for a crime it will manifest at a later time, and in surprising and uncomfortable ways. Bush was not held accountable for the 911 attacks through bluster, faking masculinity and determination, and the phony invasions and occupations of two countries - the repercussions of which we are still dealing with to this day. The Mideast is in chaos, with more chaos on the way. Our military is still in Afghanistan, and is doing more harm than good, as it has from the beginning.

Another diversion after the 911 attacks was the "Patriot" act. Needless, oppressive, expensive, it was a way of substituting extreme law enforcement for questioning why these attacks happened in the first place.

So now we have clown candidate Donald Trump plumbing the depths of the American psyche. He of course is a snake oil salesman, but he has tapped into something real. The responsibility of the Bush criminal regime for most of the troubles we face today is lurking under the surface of our conversations about how to face the future. As shameless and unscrupulous as Trump is, he's something of a genius in his recognition of what lurks in people's unconscious.

It's all unreal. It could be maddening, but in pondering all this truth stranger than fiction I remembered something from my study of Vedanta decades ago. It is a Sanskrit verse from the Vivekachudamani of Shankaracharya, written in the eighth century: "Brahma satyam jagan mithya Jivo Brahmaiva na parah," in English "God alone is real.The world is illusory. The individual is none other than God." Or, in short, jagan mithya, the world is false. Don't be attached to its reality, because the true reality is beyond the material universe.

This is hard to understand. Very hard to understand. If you are being tortured in Guantanamo, having your wedding bombed by a drone in Yemen, or  the hospital you are being treated at bombed in Afghanistan, the world can seem very real and painful. If you are without a home on the streets of any city in the U.S., the world can seem very real. If your home has burned down in a forest fire the world can seem very real. If your home has washed away in a flood the world can seem very real.

The challenge in this is to not get fooled by apparent reality, and not let it control you. Madness and criminality can best be overcome with wisdom, compassion, non-attachment and selfless action. It's a tall order, but it can be done. I have been amazed time after time at the power of nonbelieving. These are great times to nonbelieve.

Here's some Van Morrison. More Van Morrison. My favorite Van Morrison song. George Harrison. Bob Dylan. More Dylan. Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. DonovanMore Donovan. The Allman Brothers. YouTube keeps pulling this Jimi Hendrix song, so here's a great cover by the Allman Brothers Band. Joe Cocker. The Allman Brothers. Jefferson Airplane. John Fahey. Michael Hedges. Leo Kottke. Steve Miller. Quicksilver Messenger Service. Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha.

Update, October 21:

If we weren't spending all our time contending with fakery, maybe we could be discussing things we should be discussing. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich was the guest on a Wisconsin Public Radio show today, talking about solving the nation's problems of income and wealth inequality. I had this response:

Good conversation, but partial. Professor Reich spoke from the proscribed perspective of the economy existing as an endogenous entity, within itself, as if all other things are held constant (ceteris paribus in economist parlance). It actually exists within an overall context of planetary resources and ecosystem.

Human activity is depleting those resources, and waste from economic activity is wreaking havoc, melting the Polar ice caps, destroying vital reefs, befouling the air and water, and causing species important in supporting life to go extinct. And, of course, wreaking havoc with the weather, causing droughts, floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, heat waves, Polar vortices, el niños, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

The driving force in this breakdown in our planetary support system is the essential requirement for all industrial economies that they grow over time, lest they fall into recession, then depression and collapse. If the world economy grows at a rate of merely 2% per year it would double in size every 36 years (Rule of 72). If it were to grow at a more robust level of 4% it would double in size every 18 years. Double what we produce now in ANY future is unthinkable, but we're only 18 to 36 years away from that possibility. Or mandate.

In actual physical reality the world economy of course can't double, no matter how long it takes. The planet is saying stop, but human leaders - and citizens - are saying more, more, more. We won't be saying it much longer. We can either choose to change how we are on this planet, or we can go extinct, just like so many other species. This is a conversation about the economy that we won't be hearing on this show.
Here's an update about Donald Trump's statements regarding Bush's negligence prior to "911."

A movie is out related to George W. Bush's military desertion, starring Robert Redford as ousted CBS news anchor Dan Rather. Rather was fired for believing a false piece of evidence was real. Bush was still a deserter, though, as any objective examination of the record would show. I know what desertion is. I used to process the paperwork on desertions when I was in the Army. Bush is a deserter. Read more about it here.

What if we had never invaded "Iraq?"

Here's some more great music: Earl Scruggs and Friends, Grace Slick and the Great Society, Donovan, Donovan's biggest hit, Cat Stevens, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, another Neil Young, one more Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steve Stills, Donovan, The Moody Blues, Country Joe and the Fish, Pat Metheny, Donovan, and, to sum it all up, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The plot thickens on Bush responsibility for the September 11 attacks. Peter Beinart explains in The Atlantic what should have been explained on September 12, 2001. Maybe we could reinvestigate - i.e., investigate. The first "investigation" was a whitewash. Some are saying there has been an FBI coverup. It wouldn't be the first.

Update, October 24: The chorus of voices chronicling the Bush regime's culpability for the "911" attacks is growing. Here's today's offering.

The “Republican thugs” engaging in the “Brooks Brothers Riot”, November 19, 2000, intimidating the ballot recounters in FloridaUpdate, November 3: Here's an analysis of the theft of the 2000 presidential election, focusing on then Florida governor John Ellis "Jeb" Bush, currently a candidate for the U.S. presidency. 

Update, November 18: More information has appeared showing the active criminal negligence of the Bush regime prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Read about it here.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Power of Myth

Today is a football game day for the University of Wisconsin, so there's a lot of red being worn around town, especially around campus. Saturday is also farmers market day at the State Capitol Square, so there was plenty of red there too.

I normally don't pay the sea of red much mind, but allegiance has been prominent in the country this week, with the pope's visit to Washington and the United Nations. Pope Francis met with President Obama at the White House, and most significantly gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. He spoke softly and eloquently about caring for the poor, for immigrants, for the environment, for refugees from war, for ending the death penalty, and about the evils of capitalism. We can hope it didn't fall on deaf ears.

The pope's speech was one of the best I ever heard, touching on the critical issues we are all dealing with. I was very moved by this humble, soft-spoken but formidable man of faith, the faith I grew up with but left decades ago.

This was my First Holy Communion, at Blessed Sacrament School, Lincoln, Nebraska, April, 1953As powerful as his speech was, I felt no inclination to return to Catholicism. After 17 years of Catholic education I have too much experience of the Church as a corrupt institution, its clergy as terribly flawed, its liturgy as boring and tedious, and its theology as unconvincing and enforced by authoritarianism.

Ann Arbor Siddha Yoga group, 1977Years later I became a follower of an Indian guru, Swami Muktananda, and lived in ashrams - semi-monastic dwellings focused on meditation, chanting and study - in Ann Arbor, Houston, the Catskills, Honolulu and India. I felt more connected to the chanting and other rituals, the theology of Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, the Indian music and to the guru than I ever did with Catholicism.

I left that too. After eight years I grew tired of the dysfunction in the organization - "Siddha Yoga" - and convincing reports appeared alleging the guru was molesting a number of women, especially twelve-year-old girls. The allegations were consistent with anomalies I noticed when I was a staff plumber in the SYDA ashram in South Fallsburg, NY from 1981 to 1983.  It was harder to give Siddha Yoga up than Catholicism, but I managed. I wrote about it here and here.

Around the time I left Siddha Yoga I became familiar with the work of legendary scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell, especially through his interviews with Bill Moyers. Campbell explained that throughout human history societies have created mythologies - collections of stories and traditions that provide a basis of identity, origin, cosmology, and transcendence that hold societies together and give them meaning.

I found Campbell to be a fascinating and engaging explorer of the human psyche, and he has been one of the most influential people in my life. It took me a while to fully imbibe what he was saying, but over time I have become adept at recognizing the common mythological basis of not just religious groups, but allegiance to sports teams, political parties and movements, ethnic identities, places of employment, fraternities, the military, patriotic organizations, musical groups, movies, TV shows and really any way that people form into groups.

Such as fan identity with sports teams, most prominently where I live with the University of Wisconsin "Badgers" and the Green Bay "Packers" professional football team - a business. It can get pretty fanatical. All the local news providers devote much attention to the fortunes of the Badgers and Packers, and to a lesser degree to the Milwaukee "Brewers" baseball team. Most annoyingly, they also devote considerable time to the fortunes of stock car driver Matt Kenseth, because he is from nearby Cambridge, Wisconsin. You will reach new depths of boredom when you see an interview with Matt Kenseth. He apparently provides myth for some people.

So we live with competing and complementary myths. Sometimes they are combined. The University of Notre Dame (the "Fighting Irish") has its "Touchdown Jesus," a mural of the mythical son of God on a building behind one of the stadium's end zones.

Sacrilege and disrespect are common in team names, mascots and various creations by fans. A devoted fan of the Green Bay "Packers" dresses up in an imitation Catholic Bishop's vestments, complete with mitre hat that says "Saint Vince," with a picture of legendary "Packer" coach Vince Lombardi.

The Washington pro football team still calls itself "The Redskins," an insult identity with Native American fighters against the onslaught of European invaders in the centuries following "discovery" of the continent. The New Orleans football team is known as "The Saints." The team name for the College of Holy Cross football team is "The Crusaders." Here are some others, including my alma mater, St. Thomas.

People get into fights and sometimes kill each other over identities with various mythologies. A San Francisco "Giants" baseball fan was beaten nearly to death in 2011 by fans of the Los Angeles "Dodgers." Arrests for fighting are common at pro football games. When the "Packers" play the Chicago "Bears" it is a handy excuse for mayhem.

We can see how important myth and identity are in adding meaning to people's lives, and how the most trivial mythic identities can be life and death matters. In mass systems such as we have throughout most of the planet, the search for meaning can reach levels of desperation and fanaticism that are mind-boggling. As a result of the Bush criminal regime's invasions of "Afghanistan" and "Iraq," religious fanaticism has reached new depths throughout the Mideast and elsewhere. Some discredit should go to the Reagan and Bush I criminal regimes for organizing the insurgency in "Afghanistan," and for the first invasion of "Iraq."

The most alarming and dangerous mythological phenomenon on the planet, though, is what is known as "Conservatism." It consists of an unholy mixture of "Christian" religious fanatics, anti-government zealots, racists, xenophobes, gun nuts, climate change deniers, sociopathic capitalists, various media agitators, politicians and opportunists. There is a strong intersect among many of these various extremists, with some identifying with several or even all of the "right wing" opportunities.

The reptilian brain, home of “right-wingers”The one thing they all have in common is reptilian brain predisposition - by the most ancient part of all human brains, related to instinctual behaviors, tribal identity, territoriality, aggression, dominance and ritual displays. When a person is most heavily controlled by the reptilian brain there isn't much difference between wearing a "St. Vince" mitre and a Ku Klux Klan hood. The identity state is the same, the difference being the object of identity.

This should be instructive for "leftists," but almost certainly won't be. They have their own myths and identities to contend with, and getting past the "us versus them" fixation of the reptilian brain is beyond the comprehension and willingness of almost everyone. The human species is stuck in binary identity: the "good guys" versus the "bad guys." Soldiers, police, and of course politicians routinely refer to chosen "others" as the "bad guys," whether they are bad or not.

So here we are in the days before climate change takes off,  obstructed in our efforts to change our ways of being on this planet, particularly in reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. We are impeded by human psychology - subservience to the reptilian brain.

It is supposedly counterproductive to keep showing pictures of threatened polar bears, but for me they serve as the hologram for our future. I could just as easily use the forest fires in California, hurricanes here and there, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, oil spills, befouled air, deteriorating reefs, and any number of other disasters, but the polar bears will do. We reptilians are on a path to ruin, and our likely response, based on past behavior, is to become even more reptilian. Go Badgers!

Here's some mythic music. Here's more. And this. This too. Can't forget this song. One more.

Here's some Indian mythical music from the movie Gandhi. Here's some more. This is a mantra we used to chant almost daily when I was involved with the Siddha Yoga cult.

For more videos of Joseph Campbell click here.

Here's something that might inspire some change. First we need some environmental myth.

 An example of the exact wrong attitude towards the insurgent "right wing" mythology can be seen in today's Salon. If this is the best "leftists" can come up with we really are doomed.

Here are some more Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell.

Update, October 10: PBS aired a special with biologist E.O. Wilson this week, Of Ants and Men. He discusses social organization among ants and other species, including humans, and how the need for cooperation is what makes these societies work. He used the example of the University of Alabama football team as a metaphor for tribal identity.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Clear and Present Danger

It has become almost a chiché that the "Republican" presidential campaign looks like a circus clown car. Yesterday the presumptive nominee Jeb Bush (his full name is John Ellis Bush, hence "Jeb") said if president he wouldn't rule out anything, including torture, which he euphemistically calls "enhanced interrogation." When asked at an event in Iowa if waterboarding is torture Bush said "There’s a difference between enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. Torture’s - America doesn’t do torture." Another Bush sociopath. Is there any other kind?

The clown of clowns, of course, is rich guy Donald Trump. He announced his campaign in June by insulting immigrants from Mexico, saying "When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Trump has done a lot more insulting since then, and his overall rudeness has made him the "front-runner" among "Republican" candidates. Of course, the "Republican" nominating convention isn't until next July, and the "election" isn't until November 8 next year. Many things can and will change between now and then.

Patrick L. Smith, writing in Salon, says the rot in the "Republican" party is so deep that it is a danger to the country. He describes the affect of today's "Republicans" as an extension of the Jacksonian type of "American" that began in the 1820s - "Aggressive, uncompromising, masculine in the traditional manner, suspicious of intellect and sympathy, given to swift action and simple justice."

So be it. The "Republican" party has become desperate and fanatical. I could go on and on with analysis and insight about how sociopathic they are, how absurd their arguments and posturing are. A few pictures tell a better story. I stopped by the annual Block Party at Madison's Catholic Multicultural Center last Saturday and took some pictures of groups doing traditional Mexican dances. These are the people Donald Trump calls drug dealers and rapists.


Los Lobos at the Further Festival in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, 1996Here's a great Los Lobos album to listen to while looking at the pictures. They are best known for this song. Here's the original, with Richard Valenzeula, known to the rock 'n roll world as Ritchie Valens. And here's 60s folk duo Bud and Travis doing the original acoustic version of the song from "Mexico." Here's some more Bud and Travis.

This is Los Lobos's second-most known song.

Here are some songs from the Texas Tornadoes.

Freddy Fender, Mexican-American country-western star.

Los Lonely Boys.

Trini Lopez, from when I was young.

It would be difficult to pick a best performance from the Woodstock Music Festival, but this tune by Santana is the choice of many. This is Santana's best album.

Here's some World Music, with Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Babatunde Olatunji, Hamza el Din, Mickey Hart and  Bobby Vega.

This song fits. The most predominant characteristic of what is known as "right wing" fanaticism in this country is fear.

There are alternatives to the "Republican" clown car. Here's one.

Clear and present danger is a longstanding principle for limiting freedom of speech.  It hasn't been applied to an entire political party yet. At least not in court. We haven't had a major political party that represents a clear and present danger before.

Update, August 16:

Madison has numerous ethnic and international fests throughout the year. I happened across two of them yesterday. One was a celebration of India's 69th anniversary of independence from British rule. It was held downtown. I missed most of it, so only got a few pictures.

Africa Fest was held a mile or so east of the Capitol. Because Madison is a university town there are students and faculty from all over the world, including the entire African continent. Donald Trump would find much to insult here.


Malian musician and current Madison resident Tani Diakite played at Africa Fest.

Bassekou Kouyate, also from Mali, was the headliner of the fest.

R.I.P. Julian Bond.

Update, August 20:

The corporate news media don't tell us about Trump's shady dealings. Democracy Now interviewed investigative reporter David Cay Johnston yesterday, and he had much to reveal. The interview was based on his recent article 21 Questions for Donald Trump.

Update, September 24: Noam Chomsky believes the "Republican" party is now an insurgency rather than a political party. It's another way of saying clear and present danger. I still believe criminal organization is more accurate, based on their obeisance to Wall Street bankers and large corporations, and their money and power interests in doing so.