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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.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Altered states

Back in the mid-90s I went on a few firewalks, walking on hot coals in bare feet. The ritual has been around for a long time, and has been practiced all over the world. It’s not something you do willy-nilly. You have to do some preparation, and if you aren’t ready, you can get seriously burned. The woman who conducted the firewalks told us that your body will tell you when you are ready to walk.

She was right. I was good for about three steps, and then my mind would take over, saying "Hey! You’re walking on hot coals!" Then I would get burned, though not badly, just a mild blister or two. Eventually I was able to walk the length of the fire pit, about 10 to 12 feet, without losing focus.

The benefits of firewalking are that you develop your power of concentration, and you go into an altered state of consciousness where great healing can take place. It was always a great experience.

Firewalking was great preparation for a job I had later installing television cable. I’m afraid of heights, and climbing utility poles was a challenge I had to master. One false move and you could be on the ground quicker than a wink. I was able to do it by being entirely focused on climbing, to the degree that nothing else in the entire universe was happening except for me and the pole. I also went into a bit of an altered state.

It turned out that pole climbing became the only thing I liked about the job, and looked forward to it as the high part of the day. The ownership and management of the cable company hated its employees and customers, and they put out a crappy product: TV. But climbing poles was pure fun, and the risk made it a good practice of being in the present moment.

There have been many other experiences of altered states in my life, most intended, but some great surprises. Early in my yogic practices I did several hours of tantric chanting of the "Jap Ji," under the direction of Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Yogi Singh Khalsa, the Mahan Tantric, also known as Yogi Bhajan. It was a long chant with men and women chanting in pairs, doing "mudras," or hand postures that channel energy in specific ways. I wasn’t very good at it, but I didn’t have to be, since I was with about 1,000 other people doing the same thing. It was very uplifting.

In 1976 at a Yogi Bhajan "ashram" (the name for a residential meditation center) right here in Madison I had an intense experience of universal unconditional love that lasted about twelve hours, and the after effects lasted several days. I had been doing some difficult "Kundalini Yoga" exercises that morning, especially one known as "Sat Kriya." It is a very hard exercise involving pulling in the "bandhas," or energy knots in the subtle body. I felt that day as though I had done it pretty well. Not mastery, but good enough.

That day was one of the best in my life, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I spent most of the day sitting on the front porch, and strangers from the neighborhood came by all day to hang out. I remember at one point being a little concerned that I would be this way for the rest of my life, and decided that if that were the case, it would be a pretty good thing.

Ann Arbor Siddha Yoga group, 1977Not long after that I moved into one of the ashrams of Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, and experienced a number of intense meditative states over the span of eight years, living in ashrams in several states and in India. Muktananda was known for transmitting energy through "Shaktipat Diksha," or awakening of the Kündalini energy within a person. I stayed in his ashram in India for several months, and had a variety of experiences of altered states. The most intense was at the spot where his guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, died, or as they say in India, took Mahasamadhi.

It is worth mentioning that meditation and following a guru are not practices designed for the weak and timid, though it is O.K. to be weak and timid and still do these practices. One of the people I got to know in those days was former pro football bad boy Joe Don Looney. I can't say we were friends, because he was as remote a person as I have ever known, but he would express his kinship in his own inimitable way. I got knocked in the eye in a touch football game we had one day, and ended up on the ground bleeding. Joe Don broke through the crowd, and had one question. "Who did it?" He played opposite the offending player for the rest of the game, and gave him a pummeling he would never forget.

For a while in the 1990s I studied shamanic journeying, and went into a number of shamanic states over the course of a couple of years. Journeying is done for healing, power, and soul retrieval. My interest was primarily for healing, but I also just plain liked being in those states.

This is the cemetary at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. In 1890 three hundred members of the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux were promised safe passage to a reservation in Nebraska if they gave up their weapons. They were rounded up and shot. Read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wounded_Knee_Massacre Photo credit: John HamiltonWhile on a long camping trip in 1997 I visited the Rosebud Lakota reservation in South Dakota, and participated in a few sweat lodge ceremonies. In a sweat lodge a group of people sits together in a small hut covered with canvas or deerskin, and water is poured on very hot rocks. The heat becomes very intense, and if the ceremony is properly conducted by a "medicine man" or Native shaman, great healing can take place.

I used to do a bit of Sufi dancing with a group here in Madison. It was always an experience of upliftment, again an altered state. I will get back to the practice one of these days.

A free drum jam with Arthur Hull at the Omega Institute, 1993. Photo credit: John HamiltonIn the early 90s I worked at a holistic studies center in upstate New York, and experienced a number of altered states from the practices there. Various teachers of holistic healing practices, meditation, dance, art, African drumming, and numerous other forms of spirituality and group ritual. One of my favorite times was when the drumming teacher Arthur Hull held a drumming session that included about 20 drummers, of which I was one. The session lasted a couple of hours, and put me in a trance.

Another time that summer, I participated in a Native pipe ceremony conducted by Nicki Scully, the former wife of the manager of the Grateful Dead. She was given a pipe by a Lakota elder, and was told to do the ceremonies. It was an experience of transcendence and unity at once.

Thich Nhat HanhThe Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was there for a week, and I sat in on a few of his lectures. He was very different from what I was used to in a meditation teacher, very quiet, gentle, soft-spoken. I found being in his presence to be very quieting, and again, a mind-altering experience. He emphasized practice, and was an embodiment of his teachings.

When I lived in Hawaii I participated in a Medicine Wheel ceremony with Sun Bear, a Native healer who was told in a dream to do the ceremonies all over the world to heal the planet. It was a powerful experience, and I felt a presence there of an energy beyond the material.

While in Hawaii I heard that going inside the Haleakala crater on Maui is an experience worthy of pilgrimage. Actually, it was Muktananda who supposedly said this. I took a quick flight there one day on a Waikiki handbill inspired tour. I only went down a few feet into the crater, but felt a great presence there, and a strong sense of well-being. The pilgrimage was well worth it.

The Dalai Lama came to Madison in 1998, and conducted a three day retreat, which I attended. He performed a ceremony on the last day that for me was a mixture of uplift, emotion, and cleansing. The reason the Dala Lama comes to Madison is that one of his former teachers, the Venerable Geshe Lhundub Sopa established a monastary nearby, and was the Abbot until his recent retirement. I often visit the monastary, and consider Geshe Sopa a living Buddha. To be in his presence, called Darshan in the East, is a great blessing.

Another great teacher I visited was Amritanandamayi Ma, also known as Ammachi. She came to Madison in 1988, and I also went to see her in one of the Chicago suburbs in 1996. She goes into a state of identity with the Divine, called Krishna bhava or Devi bhava, depending on the occasion. She receives everyone who comes to see her, and bestows a blessing of Divine love. The uplift I experienced was one of temporary ego-loss, a great relief.

Nowadays I practice Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese martial art that involves a series of movements that harmonize the energies of the body and spirit. Whenever I do it I reach a state of harmony and uplift.

From time to time I also meditate at the local Zen center, where the discipline is to not move at all while "sitting," and to keep your eyes partly open, focusing on your breathing, or nothing at all, the goal being a thoughtless state. I'm no master of this practice by any means, but always come out of it in a state of upliftment.

In addition to these experiences of altered states, transcendence, and uplift, I have been in a number of altered states through listening to music, both recorded and live.

When I was still practicing Catholicism, I would occasionally experience a deep sense of uplift when singing Gregorian chants. But my most vivid memory of uplifting experience was in singing "Holy God we praise thy name," in a choir, which if I remember right, was during Easter. Another, "Tantum ergo sacramentum," was also an uplift. (For a view of the lyrics in Latin, along with the music, click here.).

During my guru-following days, chanting was done for hours a day, and could be very intoxicating. God-intoxication, it is called. Sometimes, to observe Indian holidays, the chanting would go on for several days. The energy field became very thick at those times.

One of the earliest epiphanies I had listening to music was when I was about 20, hearing Bob Dylan’s "It’s all right, Ma (I’m only bleeding)." Muddy Waters made an album called "After the Rain" in the late 60s. It was one of the things that got me through the Army. "Screamin' and cryin'" is a song everyone should hear at least once in their lives. Not enough could ever be said about sitar virtuoso "Ravi Shankar". He and his accompanists "Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, and "Ustad Alla Rakha on tablas, have created some of the most serene and awe inspiring music on the planet for decades. If I hear a live Grateful Dead recording that I haven’t heard before, it can be a transcendent experience.

Program for the Madison concert appearance of Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain, March 20, 1986Then there are the concerts. The most memorable were the free ones. I experienced transcendence at concerts given by the German violinist Michael Urbaniak, the bluesman Hound Dog Taylor, the Indian Tabla player Zakir Hussain, Indian sitar player Imrat Khan, jazz flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione and his group, Canadian folk singer Garnet Rogers, and numerous others.

Los Lobos at the Further Festival in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, 1996The ones I paid to see that resulted in altered states were the Earl Scruggs Review, Joan Baez, Los Lobos, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Paul Simon, Henry Mancini, John Prine, and the German techno group Kraftwerk. Paul Simon was a pleasant surprise. I expected a hokey concert, but his connection with the audience and his music was immediate and direct. I went to see Merle Haggard a few years ago, and even though he was having an off night and was in pain, a couple of songs like "Mama tried," and "Ramblin' fever" put me in sync with higher energies.

The Grateful Dead at Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois, July 23, 1994. Photo credit: John HamiltonThe Grateful Dead deserve special mention. "There is nothing like a Grateful Dead show" has become a cliche, but a true one. I saw them six times, hardly qualifying me as a "Deadhead," but they were all journeys to deeper realms. It took a few shows for me to "get" the "space jam" portion of the shows, but once I did, it became the highlight experience. One of my favorite things was to pick out a theme for the evening, and once one manifested, the experience was enhanced greatly. I am forever grateful.

What all these experiences have in common is that they were varieties of altered states, and none of them were drug-induced. They were all legal, and available to anyone who accesses them.

Since our various governmental bodies are spending billions of dollars in what is known as the "Drug war," it is worth asking just what the war is all about.

Using chemicals and plants to reach an altered state is illegal, in violation of municipal, state, and Federal laws. The penalties for consumption, sale, and distribution of illegal drugs can range from fines to long prison sentences, and has resulted in millions of people being incarcerated, and in what is known as the "Prison industrial complex."

Since the various things I experienced were perfectly legal, but would result in criminal penalties if induced by drugs, the illegality can’t be the state of consciousness. The illegality is in the possession, consumption, and distribution of physical substances that induce altered states of consciousness.

In other words, the criminality is based on convention, on community standards of right and wrong. It is wrong to get high if it is done with assistance of a mind altering substance.

Any functioning society has an interest in the well-being and growth of its citizens. If a nation, state, or municipality is going to limit the ability of people to alter their consciousness, then there must be valid reasons. The commonly expressed reasons for making drugs illegal are that they cause people to use other drugs, they make people lethargic and they lose their motivation to work and improve themselves. They resort to other crimes as they slide down the slippery slope of drug addiction. An additional reason is that of public safety. We can’t have people driving around high on drugs endangering other drivers.

This is where the issue stands at the present time. A stalemate, it would seem, between the community at large, expressed through the various branches of government, and the recreational drug users.

Ignored in this stalemated situation is that getting "high," whether through drug use of otherwise, has been around for millennia. Plants like theAyahuasca plant used by Amazon tribes, Peyote and Mescaline, by Southwest U.S. and Mexican Indians, Marijuana, or Ganja, as it is known in various places around the world, and Coca leaves by the Inca Indians of South America.

What perhaps causes the greatest confusion is that traditionally the goal of using drugs to go into an altered state of consciousness has not been to get "high," but to gain the benefits of the altered state. If all one gains through the drug experience is a "kick," or "buzz," then it is just another cheap thrill. Mystics and sages the world over have warned about getting seduced by spiritual experiences. Whether the experiences are the result of meditative practices or ingestion of psychotropic drugs, they are only glimpses of the Divine, and should be seen as signposts on a long journey.

Looked at in this context, the seemingly opposite poles of drug users and law enforcement are merely two sides of a coin, and there are other forms of currency to spend. In a secular mass industrial system everything is seen as objects for human exploitation. Nature is separate from Man, Spirit is nonexistent, and transcendence is a leisure activity.

In this paradigm, or model, of reality, there is no resolution to the quandary of drug usage and control. Work and survival in the mass system will always be an alienating experience, and drugs will be the natural "escape." Something you can "consume."

If we actually intend to "solve" the drug problem, we have to change our model of reality. Since our model of reality is the industrial model, it must go. And go it will, the drug issue among the least of the reasons. Thanks to the unending greed of the high priests of industrialism, the corporate elite, we will not lift a finger to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The other forms of environmental destruction will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. Our economic system will continue to pursue infinite growth at full speed ahead.

It is no accident that the Bush crime family is presiding over the final phase of the industrial era. As can easily be seen in the Terry Schiavo case, the ruling elite of this country is hell bent on reducing our public discourse to the preposterous, the ridiculous, the irrational, the false, the hysterical, the emotional, and the distracting. The Bush/Rove juggernaut is nothing if not bold. Of course they will fail, but it is an indication of the fear and desperation of the corporate backers of the Bush gang that they are willing to bank the present madness. It also should be a source of optimism for all who wish and work for a livable world that change is near. Just don’t think it will be easy, or that you won’t have to give anything up. A different world is a different world. Vive le difference!

Here's some Hamza el Din music.

This video of Ali Akbar Khan is a good example of his work. Here's one of Ravi Shankar.

Here is Zakir Hussain with his father Allah Rakha.

Click here for a version of Muddy Waters doing "Screamin' and Cryin'."

Kraftwerk had an international hit with Autobahn.

Here's the Grateful Dead doing my favorite song, Ripple. This is pretty much my second favorite Dead song, seen live at Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 10, 1979), acoustic version (set list can be seen here).

This is a nice Henry Mancini tune.

Here's a sample of Chuck Mangione. My favorite Chuck Mangione tune, The Land of Make Believe, was done with his small group when I saw him, and much, much better. This big band style is what you hear done at college football halftime shows. I wish I could get the version with the singer, Esther Satterfield. You can get one free listen here. Here's another place to get a free listen.And still another.

This is the only Michael Urbaniak I could find.

This Grateful Dead song is better live, but the studio version is plenty good. That's Jerry Garcia on the pedal steel guitar. He can be heard on the same instrument on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Teach your children.

Mama tried. Ramblin' fever.

This song, along with The Boxer, is my favorite Paul Simon song. When I saw him, he was backed up by a group called Urubamba, and the Jesse Dixon Singers.

Here's a bit of Hound Dog Taylor.

This Garnet Rogers song is worth a listen.

Can't leave Dylan out.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown is one of Earl Scruggs's best known tunes.

Muddy Waters is hard to find.

John Prine is always a heartwarmer.

Just for a little extra, some Brudda Iz and Gabby. And this.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Odyssey

Cibolo Creek Ranch, Shafter, Texas (http://www.cibolocreekranch.com/)A few years ago I went to a wedding at a ranch in the southwest corner of Texas. The event took place over four days, with roping, riding, bow and trap shooting, tours of historic sights in the area, a Texas barbecue, and a country dance. I learned "The national dance of Texas," the Cotton-eyed Joe.

The music included a Western Swing band, a Mariachi band, a Mexican folk duo, a cowboy singer, and a Soul group from Houston. The place even had a family of camels, and the sweetest mule west of the Pecos. The guests, including family members of a well-known "right wing" pundit, were from all over the U.S. and several other continents, and some paid as much as $500 a night for their rooms. I was the low-budget guest, staying in my own tent(s). Invite me and I will come.

Big Bend National ParkI had a great time, though the drive down there was something akin to Homer’s Odyssey. Texas is a very big state. As well as the events surrounding the wedding, I got to see some beautiful country, visited the Big Bend National Park, and spent a bit of time in the great city of Austin on the way back.

Cowboy singer at Texas barbecue, Cibolo Ranch, Texas, May, 2002The reason I was invited was that one of the brides is my cousin. That’s right. One of the brides. It was a lesbian wedding. In Texas. Macho country. On a big ranch, with cowboys, cowgirls, horses, cattle, mesquite, buzzards, javelinas, rattlesnakes, and scorpions.

The newlywedsI mention this wedding because the subject of gay and lesbian marriage is such a hot-button issue these days. According to the conventional wisdom of the evangelical "right," and the political hacks and "clergy" that feed on their fear, anger, and prejudice, same-gender marriage is a threat to our stability and order, and will corrupt our youth.

I can understand their fear and anger. I don’t like homosexuality either. I find the acts revolting. But I also find heterosexual acts revolting if they don’t involve me. And therein lies the rub, so to speak. Sex, as Carl Reiner once observed, is an ungraceful act. It’s not particularly appealing if you’re not in the thick of it.

Hmm. I guess watching other people in the sex act is appealing to a lot of people, or we wouldn’t have such a big porn industry.

So maybe I’m a little bit prudish, but I trust my sense of propriety. I also believe that sex without love, or at least strong affection, tends to be a degrading experience. This attitude, sad to say, is more than mere opinion. I also believe the Buddhist precept of limiting sex to a long-term commitment is a worthy practice.

That should be enough to please a "conservative" or two. It pretty much stops there. I may not like what other people do in bed or otherwise, but it’s mostly none of my business. If someone is being harmed, that is my business, because a functioning civilization looks out for the well-being of its inhabitants.

Consensual sex between adults, same gender or otherwise, is not worthy of my concern. If disease is being spread, then my concern is for promotion of public health through education, prevention, and treatment. Beyond that, it is for each individual to find his or her own way to what is true for him or her self. Ultimately, that is what life is for: to find out what brings you to a higher ground.

When the issue advances to the subject of marriage, it enters the realm of the absurd. People get married because they love each other. They marry to bring their commitment to a deeper level, to make a promise to each other before the Absolute. And of course to avail themselves of the legal benefits of marriage, though these benefits are generally not available to same-gendered couples.

There are three reasons some people are so incensed at the idea of same-gender marriage. One is that they are not used to it. Another is that they think they know what other people experience, based on their projections of what the experience would be like for them. And the third reason is that they think it is their privilege to control what other people do. The "Biblical" arbledy-garbledy we hear is for justification of these neuroses. Religious "authorities" can excuse anything: abortion clinic murders, the Iraq war, American sponsorship of the Israeli state, stealing the presidential election (twice), invading other countries, and, let’s not forget, slavery, lynching, and segregation. But they can easily condemn into Hell for eternity those who do things they don't like. Such moral inversion generates bad luck. They are in for a spell of comeuppance themselves.

I have written before on this blog about the Kansas preacher Fred Phelps, the man who risks eternity on the bet that "God hates fags." He and his followers don’t present their thesis as a gamble, though, insisting that God speaks through their hatred. In gambling that is known as a sucker bet. "Got no chance of losin’ this time," as the Grateful Dead song "Loser" goes.

This is beyond none of one’s business. It is rabble rousing, inciting mob violence. Fomenting hatred. All for the sake of expanding one’s power and influence. Fred Phelps is but a hyperbole of how low our level of public discourse has become.

God doesn’t hate anyone. Hate is a human emotion. It is based on the delusion that one or more other persons are responsible for one’s unhappiness. Unhappiness is not consistent with the level of being of the Absolute, which in the Indian philosophies is called Satchitananda. Sat stands for existence absolute, chit for consciousness absolute, and ananda for bliss absolute. In no religion on Earth is there a precept, save evangelical Christianity, that "God hates fags."

I like homosexuals. At least the ones I know who are decent people. Some aren’t, just like heterosexuals. Indeed, the vast majority of downright evil people I have dealt with in this life have been heterosexuals. People who take advantage of other people. People who try to dominate other people. People who steal from other people. People who deceive other people. People who intend harm for other people.

Then there are the corporate criminals who swindle millions of people and befoul the environment. Arms merchants who manufacture the depleted uranium that is poisoning Afghanistan and Iraq. Soulless politicians who are sending so many of our military men and women to their deaths. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Heterosexuals, by and large.

Since I prefer to end my writings on an upbeat note, I emphasize that change is on the way. Civilization is here to advance. We are now experiencing what it is like to sink to the depths of human degradation. War, hatred, environmental destruction, social division, and criminality are all being fomented by the elites of American society. It will not last. The hypnotic trance that grips the nation will end as if by the snapping of fingers. Mankind is not doomed. It is the nature of potential to seek realization. The force of the universe is far greater than the puny Bush crime family, and most certainly far greater than the hatred of Fred Phelps and his ilk.

We fear sexuality. It is a mysterious realm, with urges and desires that can overwhelm. But it is also a beautiful mystery. Like all of life, it can be approached with courage, respect, wonder, and joy. To do so is to be in tune with the true purpose of human existence: to return to our true nature, the Divine. Have a great Odyssey. And as they say in Texas, cowboy up!

Here's a few tunes that fit the story: Click, click, click and click.  Here's another. And, of course, this.

Some songs about Texas enhance the experience. Deep in the Heart of Texas. The Yellow Rose of Texas. El Paso. An alternate version of El Paso. That's Right, You're Not From Texas. Streets of Laredo. San Antonio Rose. Dallas. Fort Worth and Dallas. Abiline. Houston. Galveston. Amarillo by Morning. Beautiful Texas. Luckenbach Texas. Waltz Across Texas. Texas Rangers. Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos. Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind. The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You. Miles and Miles of TexasTexas in My Rear View Mirror. Boogie Back to TexasAnother Stupid Texas Song.

Here's some Mariachi music.This video shows a Mariachi festival.

Update, February 15, 2016: Cibolo Creek Ranch, where the wedding took place, is where U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died on Saturday, February 13.

Update, February 18: Here's a perspective on the legacy of Antonin Scalia.

February 21: Here's another update about Scalia.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The fascists are coming

The heady thing to do these days is lament that the country is headed towards fascism, or already is there. When it is said, it is without much of a sense of personal context except for victimhood. The Bush regime is a bunch of fascists, and they’re coming to get us. What are we going to do?

I responded to one of these laments yesterday by saying that I don’t look at the Bush administration as fascists, but as criminals. This was met with what I call "the litany." They’re doing this, that, and the other: changing the bankruptcy laws, killing Social Security, fomenting new wars, gutting the environment, cracking down on civil liberties, making the rich richer, the poor poorer, etc., etc., etc.

My response was that yes, all these things are true, but the essential nature of the Bush regime is criminal, and fascism may be the effect, but not the core nature. When you call them fascists, you give them power, and I choose not to give them any power.

This was met with more litany. I responded by singing a bit of the Blood, Sweat and Tears song "Spinning Wheel" (What goes up must come down), and explained further that it doesn’t do any good to think of the Bush crime family as being this great fascist monolith that is bearing down on us all. They are just weak, mortal men, and they are going to fail.

To no avail. The fascists are coming!! The fascists are coming!!

This kind of talk is happening almost everywhere I go, and in the things that I read, emails I receive. Fascism is either coming, or it is here already. End of story. No plan of action, no suggestion for response. They’re coming to get us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

In psychology this state of being is called learned helplessness. By talking it up for the existence of fascism, the fear mongerers are attempting to reinforce their own powerlessness, victimhood, and hopelessness. By expanding the sphere of impotence, misery gains the company it loves. It also generates the energy that makes the fascism they so much fear come into being and gain power and influence.

I choose not to play this game. As I write this the well-known self help guru Wayne Dyer is talking on the public television station. I’m not a big fan of Wayne Dyer, but he said something very important and apropos to the question at hand. He said "If you change the way you look at things, you change the things themselves."

Decades ago I got into the paranoia about fascism, and it was a near-death experience. Literally. It also did nothing to make things better. I decided to find a better way of being.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that attempting to fit my perceptions into preconceived notions, and especially into official "truths" of some group identity, creates disharmony, and takes away my ability to respond in an appropriate and effective way. It is not a proper way to live, and is an essentially unhappy way to live. I prefer to perceive things intuitively, to connect to my own self, to my own feelings and inner sense. There is a price to pay for perceiving independently, but it is well worth it. People do not like it when you say things that are outside the limits of their group cohesion, and you become "other." I accept this "otherness."

When I see George W. Bush on TV, I don’t see a fascist. I see a psychopathic criminal. A fascist is someone with a belief system, a philosophy, however demented. George W. Bush has not ever exhibited that he has had a thought beyond the crude narcissism that has marked his entire life. Why anoint him with an "ism?" He has said that a dictatorship would be a good idea, as long as he is the dictator. That pretty much sums it up for all authoritarians. They believe in an authoritarian state, as long as they are the authority.

Much lamentation is going on now about the appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He’s a fascist, he’s a neo-con, no, he’s a nationalist, a jingoist, a unilateralist, no, he’s ultra-conservative, he’s a reactionary, etc. He has said that the U.N. building could lose 10 floors and no one would notice. He believes we should use nuclear weapons to attack preemptively.

My response is that he’s a member of the Bush crime family. Crime organizations eventually fail, and that they fail because the things they do are criminal. John Bolton, by being the U.N. ambassador, actually has to go to the U.N. and pretend to represent the United States of America, though he really will represent the Bush crime family. He has to present the case for a criminal regime that the whole world knows is a criminal regime. To the degree that the ruling regimes of the entire planet are also criminal, and see their success as being connected to the success of the Bush crime family, they will cooperate with the Bush crime family. It matters not what "ism" John Bolton subscribes to or does not subscribe to. His essential function is to represent an organized crime syndicate.

Looking at the situation this way can free us of the paranoia and learned helplessness of ideological victimhood. We can perceive more accurately, act more effectively, and live more peacefully. The bogeyman is not under the bed. If the question is whether mankind is going to sink into the sea of criminality, then maybe people will wake up. The Bush crime family cannot succeed without the support of a critical mass of the American people. The two elections may have been stolen, but that does not mean there is no support for this regime. The Bush gang may be liars and manipulators, and the news media may indeed be fawning yes-men, stenographers for the Bush death machine, but it means nothing if people don’t go along with it.

So the solution is obvious. Take away their support system. Communicate with the people in the supposed "red states." The supposed "red state" phenomenon is about as real as the imaginary spectrum of "left" to "right." If assumed to be real, then it is a given, and is an insurmountable obstacle.

In reality, in actual fact, in the existing real world, there are no "red states." There are people living in places. They breathe, eat, sleep, defecate, urinate, copulate, cough up phlegm, hack, wheeze, sneeze, ache, are born, and die the same as people everywhere else. If you look at them as fundamentalists, fascists, right-wingers, as backward, homophobes, rubes, or whatever inferior status you can conjure up, then they become things, devoid of humanity. And you can’t communicate with them.

If you have a better answer about anything, then it is good enough to explain to anyone. If not, then maybe your answer isn’t so great. If you are going around saying "The fascists are coming, the fascists are coming," then you are talking to yourself and yourselves, an internal feedback loop that goes nowhere but deeper into the hole of paranoia and helplessness. Thanks for nothing. You are guaranteeing that fascism will indeed arrive, and its purveyors will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Travel adventures, past and future

In 1976 I went to a meditation retreat in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It was a great experience, but my ride back got me only as far as Oklahoma City. So I hitchhiked the rest of the way. The earliest part of the journey was the most difficult. I spent hours at the edge of Interstate 44 in Tulsa, stranded, it seemed.

About the time my prospects for a ride seemed hopeless, I got a ride from a guy in a suped-up Trans Am, complete with CB radio and "Fuzzbuster" radar detector. I knew I was in for an adventure.

My new ride spent a lot of time talking to truckers on his CB, emphasizing his "handle," or nickname, "Night Hawk." It was classic "Breaker one-nine" jabber, but the truckers weren’t much interested in talking to someone in a car. To keep some interest going he asked one of the truckers if he knew the meaning of the term "Night Hawk." The trucker said "No, don’t believe I do." So "Night Hawk" replied "Well, we have an organization that takes care of things in some of the Southern states, and meets out in the country late at night. The man who serves as the night hawk guards the meetings, and keeps outsiders away." The trucker said, "Oh, I think I know what you mean," and quickly started talking to other truckers. Night Hawk’s attempt at acceptance was rejected.

But he still had me, a captive audience, so to speak. He explained to me the importance of guarding Ku Klux Klan meetings, and showed me his belt buckle with the Klan symbol on it, a drop of blood in the middle. He was very proud of his belt buckle.

I asked him how he got started in the Klan, and he said "In prison." Then I asked what he was in prison for, and he said "Burglary. But I didn’t do it." Of course.

I asked Night Hawk what kinds of things the Klan did these days, and he said he was in Tulsa because a white woman was living with a black man. He quickly explained that if that’s what she wanted to do, that was her business, but she was trying to get away, and the black guy wasn’t letting her go. He then said "That’s where we come in."

There wasn’t much conversation after that, and he suddenly let me out when we reached Joplin, Missouri. I continued my hitch home, and had a number of interesting and weird rides, material for other stories. I was lucky to get home alive. But I never felt threatened by the Klansman, and he actually was a pretty nice guy.

I’m reminded of this story because of the killing of the Federal judge’s husband and mother in Chicago. The likeliest suspects are "white supremacists," angered by the sentence the judge imposed on their leader. You don’t hear much in the news media about who these people are, what the roots of their beliefs are, what attracts them to "racist" organizations, and what motivates them to commit acts of violence.

It’s safe to assume that the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan and other "white supremacy" organization are not made up of the elites of this country: the rich, the well-educated, the talented, the powerful, the beautiful, and the handsome. Instead, they are more likely to be similar to Night Hawk: not very well-off, lesser-educated, powerless, ne’er-do-wells. Losers, in the truest sense of the word, not the pejorative. People in search of some self-esteem, some self-worth, some sense of positive identity. Prisoners are especially vulnerable to the influence of hate groups, being at the lowest rung of social status. Not much higher in status are prison guards, and they are a major factor in the recruitment of inmates. For a person at the lowest end of the social spectrum, it is an attractive argument that the responsibility for their troubles lies outside themselves, in one or more ethnic groups, particularly groups with darker skin.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a social scientist to figure out that hate groups pose a danger to the society at large, and to particular individuals and groups more ominously. In order to minimize their threat, it would help to look at what causes such groups to gain influence and popularity.

One sure-fire way to cause hate groups to flourish is to become a more violent nation. Start wars, increase police violence, make prisons more brutal, increase the number of prisoners, lengthen prison sentences, and widen the use of the death penalty. Make the justice system regressive, so that the higher one rises in wealth and power, the more insulated one becomes from responsibility for one's behavior. Make violence an integral part of the culture through entertainment, technology, the way we travel, and the kinds of recreation we pursue.

And to tie it all together, keep the level of dialogue promoted in our mass media at the lowest, crudest, most disrespectful, threatening, bellicose, dishonest level possible. It isn’t just Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and their many imitators. They are only the worst, and are very much to blame for the violence that is now so acceptable. The supposed "conventional" interpreters of our culture, Jay Leno and David Letterman, have not exactly raised the level of national discourse to Socratic levels. But they are just the town criers, the mouthpieces for the power structure that sponsors them.

Something needs to be made perfectly clear. The President of the United States, military deserter, is the most violent and threatening person on Earth. He lied us into a vicious and completely unjustifiable war. He gleefully approved the executions of the largest number of prisoners in the history of the state of Texas, with 9 of them likely innocent. In his youth he tortured animals. He did insider trading when he ran an oil company. He is now presiding over the destruction of our economic system (For those who think we are in a "recovery," wait six months.). He promotes hatred of anyone who disagrees with him. He has approved of the institution of torture here and abroad. He is flirting with the idea of attacking Syria and Iran. North Korea is also in his sights. Because he is the "leader" of the nation, his words and actions hold great sway over the temper and tone of our interactions with each other and the rest of the planet.

Other ways that membership in hate groups can be increased are to make sure that the population is less educated, and that it is less well-off. The Bush plans to wreck Social Security, keep the minimum wage low, export jobs, and further regress the tax system all guarantee a poorer society. His gutting of education funding, and his phony "No child left behind" program guarantee a less literate country.

One way of looking at all these factors is by looking at society in terms of a normal curve. The largest portion of the the citizenry converges around the center, or mean of the distribution of the population. At the extremes of the distribution, or "tails," the most deviant behavior is found, both good and bad. Albert Einstein was out in the tails, but so was Al Capone.

When the mean, or the cultural norm is moved in a more violent direction, the entire distribution moves the same way. People in the tails of the distribution move to further extremes of behavior, and voila, we have more "hate crimes." (I’ve always found this term a bit curious. Is there such a thing as "love crime?" But I digress.)

If you support the regime of George W. Bush, if you support hate entertainment (A real, meaningful description) and their sponsors, if you support violent social policies, then you are complicit in violent crimes. If you have any sense of spirituality at all, then you know intuitively that all that is sown is reaped. You can lie to yourself and others all you want, but this fact is irrefutable. Bob Dylan put it another way: "There’s a slow train comin’." You already have your ticket. Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

That's entertainment

When I was a kid we had some Baptist neighbors, and a few times they asked us if they could come over and watch the Billy Graham Crusade on our TV, since they didn’t have one. We obliged, and watched the show with them.

It was a hoot. Being Catholics, we were used to the subdued, scholarly sermons on Sunday that tended to induce sleep. Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans are about all I can remember of them, and nothing of the content. But Billy Graham shook the rafters. I thought he was crazy, yelling "Jeezus!" in every sentence, it seemed, and exhorting the crowd to be "saved." From the Catholic viewpoint he was a blasphemer, using the Lord’s name disrespectfully, and misrepresenting His message.

I still see Billy Graham pretty much the same way, except worse. The fact that he started out as a Fuller Brush man told the whole story for me. Even as a 12 year-old I sensed that he was manipulating the crowd, using intense emotion and melodramatic language to guide them to his message. I didn’t trust the message of being "saved," being secure within the certitude of Catholicism. His friendship with Richard Nixon deepened my suspicion, and the subsequent revelations of prejudicial remarks to Tricky Dick about Jews closed the book on Billy Graham, as far as I was concerned.

Why pick on Billy Graham? Because he’s the best of the lot. "Fundamentalist" evangelical preachers are a sordid bunch, using near-hysteria to rally the faithful and soon-to-be-faithful. They promote a form of spirituality that relies on guilt, shame, intense emotion, and a duality between those who have been "saved" and those who have not. Their reliance on the authority of "the Bible" as edict is juvenile at best, and fosters a heavy-handed manner of propagating the faith. In their followers they promote a docility and learned helplessness that makes them susceptible to con artists and demagogues.

Like the Bush crime family. I just watched "Farenheit 9/11" for the first time, and seeing the Gestalt of the Bush phenomenon packaged together tightly induced a revulsion that is rivaled only by the human dung field I was compelled to use one time in India. Yow! It is still hard to believe the country has been so taken in by this third-rate scam operation. Not one of them – Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rice, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, Wolfowitz, Feith, Cambone, or the newcomers to the gang - are very formidable or impressive people. Yet the corporate elite, the news media, to a large degree the academic community, and almost half the American people are in lockstep with this criminal operation.

That is about to change. Criminal enterprises are always hard things to hold together, and real-world phenomena eventually intervene. A criminal gang that takes over an entire country, and uses religion to garner support, is on especially shaky ground. I have listed before several times the worldwide factors that play against the schemes of the Bush crime family. But what will seal their fate is when the fooled, especially the evangelical Christians, finally see the light, and realize what a criminal folly they have been sucked into.

No one, or at least almost no one, likes to think of him or herself as a criminal or a supporter of criminals. When supporters of the Bush crime family are challenged about their support, they should be challenged on religious grounds. They should be reminded that there is no attainment in supporting murder, maiming, theft, poisoning, torture, destruction, and deceit. All the talk about "End Times," is pretend, no more real than a small child’s imaginary tea party. It is made up, from the ethers, as it were. "Heaven" does not follow "Armageddon." Men, by nature imperfect, wrote the Bible, and it has been translated ever since by other men, all with their own agendas.

But the situation is not binary. "Leftists" tend to see the situation as "either-or," one side or the other, "us versus them," winners and losers, the "good people" against the "others." Shirts versus skins. It's the same with the fundamentalists.

Case in point. Television. I don’t get cable, having worked in that industry, but there is plenty of crude, tasteless, boring, violent, and prurient fare to be had over the air. I watch public television almost exclusively, except for an occasional Simpson’s episode, and even less occasional King of the Hill. I flick on Leno and Letterman from time-to-time for a check-in with mainstream America, but can only take a few minutes of either. I don't like them.

From the "Progressive," "Liberal," "Leftist" point of view, sexual prurience, violence, and crudeness on TV are matters of "free speech," versus "censorship," as if that closes the subject.

As societies have evolved all over the planet they have developed cultures that include drama, dancing, music, story-telling, and ritual, all integrated into the cultures, and providing feedback loops that reinforce and validate them.

Today we have "entertainment." And therein lies the rub. "Entertainment" does not provide a positive feedback loop, does not weave itself into the culture in a mutually reinforcing way, and does not respect the values of different segments of the society.

The reason for this is that "entertainment" is a commercial enterprise. It is done for money. Sexual prurience is used to titillate, and to sell products. Religious fundamentalists do not look at the nature of the prurience because they are as tied to the commercial system as anyone else. They have the added benefit of a constant threat from "others" to rail against. It makes for a negative feedback loop, and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

This is another example of how we need a new form of dialogue, a new way of looking at things while we still have the opportunity. I gave up playing "cops and robbers" and "cowboys and Indians" when I was small. Is it too much to ask that we, as a civilization, do the same?