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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, August 29, 2005

Get the Money

Bush doing the perp walk. Visualization leads to actualization. Read the article where this picture was found at http://www.uruknet.info/?p=14599.
Not so long ago I decided I needed a bicycle. Riding a bike is a handy and cheap way to get around, and keeps you in reasonably good physical condition. I checked the bike shops in town, but they wanted more than I was willing to pay. So I tried the discount stores. K-Mart didn’t have anything I was interested in, but Wal-Mart was having a sale, so I headed out to their "big box" to see what they had. As it turned out, they had a display of bicycles at the store entrance, and one that perfectly suited my needs for $129.00.

I was elated at my good fortune, and went to the bicycle department to find one my size. Curiously, there weren’t any to be found, in my size or any other. I managed to find a store clerk, and asked him about the sale bikes in the front of the store. I said I had one picked out, but couldn’t find any in the bicycle department.

We went to the front of the store together, and I showed the clerk the bicycle I wanted. He said that they didn’t have any of that particular bike. I was incredulous, and asked him how they could have a bike on display for a sale, but not actually have any. He answered that the bike was just for display to show that that would be the sale price if they actually had any, and that the bicycle was available at other stores. I asked if there were any stores in the area that had the bike, and that I would drive over and get one, but he said no, that they were only available in other states. Even the display model was not for sale.

I was tempted to sue, and to call the state’s consumer protection agency, but was pretty busy at the time, and had too many other things to do. I would have had to get a camera and go into the store and take a picture of the display bike, and go through a lot of documentation that I didn’t feel like doing. If I had had the time, I would have done it, but settled for cursing Wal-Mart, and vowing to never shop there again (unless there was something I needed that I couldn’t get somewhere else). It’s what I call practical idealism.

This story is a pretty good allegory of what ails us as a nation. The brazenness of Wal-Mart and their phony sale is pretty typical of corporate behavior in general. There is nothing unique about Wal-Mart. They work on the same principal as almost every other corporation: get the money. The provision of quality goods and services is secondary. The main thing is to get the money. Bring people in, make them feel they are getting quality at bargain rates, get their money, and send them on their way.

The more interesting aspect of this incident was the store clerk. He was only 18 or 19 years old, but was all-too-ready to say and do anything that Wal-Mart wanted of him. He was an energetic fast-talker, and in spite of this, was a bit unskilled at moving beyond his lame defense of Wal-Mart’s phony sale. With age and experience he would easily be able to steer most customers to another bicycle.

This country is brimming full of this kind of person. That is because this is the kind of person who is rewarded by the system. In a mass commercial system, the sale is the measure of worth. The better one is at getting people to buy whatever one has to sell, the greater the reward. You can move all the way to the top of any corporation on the basis of generating more sales.
Thus, we have Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Arthur Anderson, Merck, HealthSouth, Tyco, and many more. Then of course there are the shameless war profiteers: Halliburton, Bechtel, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Anteon International, A.P. Moeller-Maersk, Global Risk Strategies, Raytheon and Olive Security. All these companies have been involved in massive corrupt business practices, and in the case of the war profiteers, in other crimes such as the abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners, and bilking the U.S. Government by false billing for services rendered, and by overcharging.

It is fair to say that we have a corrupt system. Our last two presidential elections were stolen (For a little perspective on the crimes of the Bush regime, click here). We have an infinite growth economy that by its very nature cannot protect the environment when the first priority is the profit level of corporations. We have increasing poverty, hunger, illness, and misery that we cannot address in a climate of corporate supremacy. We have religious crackpots like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell trying to create a fear and damnation theocracy, based on their Elmer Gantry style hypocritical fulminations. We have a corporate-controlled news media that spins propaganda for both the Bush crime family and its corporate backers, gleefully cheering Bush on in his various schemes. The Iraq war is only the most obvious of these schemes. The Social Security privatization hoax is a little less obvious, but for some reason the country hasn’t been fooled this time around.

The two questions that this predicament raises are where this dynamic is leading, and what we can do about it. The first part is easy. To disaster. Plain and simple. If we continue with our corrupt way of being on this planet, we are doomed. If life on this planet survives the GET THE MONEY system, it may not include humans. If it does include humans, they probably won’t be from the industrialized nations. Even though other "advanced" countries may not be as corrupt as the United States, they are active members of the worldwide infinite growth, full speed ahead, convert the planet into finished products brotherhood.

The answer to the second question is not so easy. There are any number of activities one can engage in – join a non-profit group advocating change, work with a fair-trade organization, shop at a food co-op, study, write letters to newspapers, congresspersons, even corporations, live a simple life, use public transportation, vote, wear buttons, paste bumper stickers on your car, engage in public debate, etc., etc.

I have done almost all of these things. I haven’t worked with a fair-trade organization. It takes a lot of energy and effort. You have to contend with all kinds of silliness, the most frustrating being what I call the "Life of Brian" syndrome – the tendency of people in groups advocating change to engage in petty, ego-aggrandizing bickering and jockeying for position. It is as if these people get themselves on a mental tape-loop that goes out of control, and they are incapable of doing anything to slow the tape down or turn it off.

The thing I routinely suggest is that you can always do something. It doesn’t have to be a group involvement or any kind of yielding to conventional wisdom. You can meditate. I believe it was Thomas Merton in his great narrative "The Seven Storey Mountain" where he talked about the superiority of meditative practices in healing the world. In my own experience I have found this to be true. We cannot establish the empirical relationship between spiritual practices and the betterment of humankind and the planet, but the intuitive connection is clear. It is not something that can be dismissed as merely "post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this)." Intuition is an experience that cannot be measured on the material level.

By always doing something we can at least maintain a baseline of alternatives for when the system of corruption finally collapses, which it most certainly will. By engaging in activities advocating the advancement of harmony, mutuality, moderation, humility, and synergy with nature, we can generate examples of the change we would like to see happen.

The Bush crime family will fail, and it will happen sooner if we not only expose its criminality, but also show how the proliferation of such criminality is fostered by the corruption system, which guaranteed that someone would rise to such a level of fiendery. What we must do, though, is make sure that we construct a system that does not have a reward structure solely based on getting more. Otherwise, we will be back where we started, and the planet will not support another round of degraded humanity.

By the way, I bought a used Trek at an upstart bicycle shop, and got cheated. The bicycle shop is no longer in business, but I still have the bike, and it suits my needs. I at least attained my goal: get a bicycle. All the rest falls into that great cauldron of sowing and reaping, sometimes known as Samsara, sometimes as Karma.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The great dunk tank

Santa Fe Railroad Fred Harvey menuWhen I was in my early teens I spent two summers in Dallas. Big D, as they called it, and probably still do. My brother and sister were also part of the plan, giving my parents a needed break from the three of us. One of my uncles was sent there in a job transfer, and there was room for us in their attic. In Texas. In the summer.

We rode down on the Santa Fe Texas Chief, a great, luxurious railroad line. It was air-conditioned, a new thing in those days, had a fancy Fred Harvey dining car, and stopped in places like Emporia, Wichita, Ponca City, and Denton. I can still remember the red soil of Oklahoma and the oil derricks around Oklahoma City.

We liked Dallas. It was big, clean, new, and there were a lot of things to do and see. Also a lot of things to learn. We had not been to the South before, and were unaware of the customs. One time we went downtown with our cousins to see a movie, and rode the bus. As we piled in, we headed for the back of the bus. Back home, that was the kids’ section, where you could goof off without being seen by the driver. Our cousins sat in the front, and wouldn’t turn around when we yelled at them to come to the back. They pretended not to know us, unconvincingly. As I remember it, there was no one else on the bus. My cousins weren't "racists." They just knew that in Texas you violate the social norms at your peril.

While we were in Dallas a friend of one of our cousins got sick and was in the hospital, and we all went to visit her one night. One the way out, I held the door open for an elderly black man. I was just being a boy scout, but as I walked ahead I heard the man say, "Did you see what that white boy did?" He couldn’t believe it.

Entrance to the MidwayOur naivete also had a negative side. Next to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas was "The world’s largest fairgrounds," the "Midway." It was our favorite place to go. It had rides, games of chance, and cotton candy, and really was the biggest amusement park I had ever seen. One of the attractions was a dunk tank, where you threw a baseball at a small metal target, and if your aim was true, the person in the tank fell in the water. It was not easy to hit the target, and to keep people paying for more chances, the men in the tanks were always black. They taunted people as they walked by, and while they were throwing, with pretty innocent remarks, they being black and the customers white. I didn’t realize at the time how well the taunting worked. One after another white Texas stud would try his luck, would get mad at the taunts, and fail.

I tried my luck, and plunked down a quarter for three throws. That’s about $2.50 - $3.00 in today’s money. The crowd was still gathered around, waiting until I finished. The man in the tank taunted me too, which surprised me, being a kid. He called me "Glasses" because I was wearing glasses, not much of an insult. I had nothing to lose, and actually became more focused. On the third throw, I hit the target, and into the tank he went. The men around me cheered, and patted me on the back. I felt like a hero, but looked at the black man climbing out of the tank. He looked hurt. I can still remember the way he looked at me. It wasn’t anger, but humiliation. It was a strange experience, because I felt bad and good at the same time.

A couple of years later I went on a duck hunting trip to Arkansas with my dad. After a couple of days in the woods we "went to town," to get some staple items. As I was wandering around town by myself, a black man was approaching from the opposite direction. As we drew closer, he not only stepped aside, but stepped out into the street. It wasn’t just his stepping aside, but the way he did it. The deference, the acknowledgement of inferiority shocked me. It also made me feel good, and that shocked me too.

These, as well as many others, are experiences that I still learn from. Whenever I see or hear about the good or bad things that anyone does, I have the sense that "There but for the grace of God go I." Or goeth I. Our circumstances play a huge role in what we do, and the decisions we make. I wasn’t raised to get enjoyment out of humiliating anyone, but if I had grown up where that kind of behavior is rewarded, things might have been different.

When I hear about suicide bombers, torturers, criminals in the Bush administration, or almost any kind of evil perpetrated anywhere, I don’t feel hatred, because I know that it is a fellow human being doing the evil. In the case of Bush, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Bush crime family, I feel great revulsion, but not hatred. These people have had every advantage in life - wealth, power, fame, privilege - and look what they’ve done with it. They are as low as a human being can sink, fomenting wars solely to feed their diseased egos and all-too-fat wallets. I’m glad I’m not them, but I still know it could have been me.

I’m lucky to never have been powerful, rich, famous, or privileged. In the few times in my life when I approached these things, something in me was repelled, and I settled back into my more humble circumstances. I have seen people time and again grab for power, get soiled in the process, and fall from grace. I have yet to see anyone learn from the experience. The intoxication of power is more addictive than any drug. It can make people willing to kill all life on Earth in order to get it.

Because I can see myself in the sociopaths who run this country, I don’t fall into the "leftist" trap of seeing them as the "other," the enemy monolith of "right-wingers," or "neo-cons," "fascists," or "racists." They are fallible and fallen human beings, and that is their weakness, their Achilles heel.

When "leftists" talk about the Bush gang they create a straw man of great power and strength, so powerful that it can’t be overcome. So much of the "left" media laments this power, and fills up much newsprint, radio, TV and Web space with resentment and defeatism. The methods to overcome the Bush crime family tend to be limited to moral suasion - demonstrations, letters to the editor, petitions, writing to congresspersons, vigils, etc.

These methods are useful for internal purposes of solidarity, but don’t have any effective influence on the Bush crime family. This gang must be removed from office, prosecuted, and sent to prison at hard labor for the rest of their lives.

The first step in this process is to recognize that these are not formidable men and women of power, but weak people - morally, ethically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and intestinal fortitudinally - they are cowards, thieves, murderers, liars, and true idiots, not knowing right from wrong. Actually they are worse, knowing right from wrong, but choosing wrong anyway.

Bush likely went to the Midway in Dallas a few times when he was young, and may have even tried to dunk the same black man that I did. The difference, I suspect, is that he would likely have gotten furious at being taunted, throwing wide of the mark every time. In front of his father. It’s the kind of thing he would never get over.

Whatever happened in Bush’s youth, he didn’t learn anything from it. Anti-learning would be closer to the truth. The frog torturing was a portent of things to come. We can all feel lucky for not being him, or at least most of us can. We all get a deal in life, and we all play the hand we are dealt. How well you play determines what your next assignment will be. I don’t know what my next deal will be, but I’m sure glad I didn’t aspire to wealth and power, fame and privilege. In the dunk tank in the Great Beyond you have to have some place from which to fall.