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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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I love a parade, part 2

Tammy Baldwin at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, July 2, 2003, announcing proposed legislation to expand health care for wounded veterans. Photo credit: John HamiltonMemorial Day is one of the holidays I try to avoid, except for relaxing or getting something done that I don't have time to do otherwise. This one was different. I got invited (yes - me - invited) to walk with Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in the City of Monona Memorial Day parade. Actually, I handed out candy to kids, wearing a Tammy Baldwin T-shirt, falling hopelessly behind Tammy's vehicle and the other candy hander-outers. I left no child behind, to coin a phrase. It reminded me of my high school track career, running to catch up.

Kids with candy bags hoping for a handoutHanding out candy was great fun, but the best part was getting to know Tammy Baldwin. She's actually better than her public image, which is a very good one. You would not believe her to be a politician if you didn't already know. She is very relaxed, warm and friendly, and actually listens to people. She might think twice about listening to me next time.

Actually, it went pretty well. I mentioned to her about the call I got from one of Barack Obama's campaign workers, and how decent and respectful the guy was, even after I told him I am supporting Kucinich (so far). Another elected official came by, and a conversation ensued about the Iraq occupation funding. I was struck by how knowledgeable Tammy Baldwin is, and how easy she is about it. Unlike the typically aggressive male, she makes her point almost casually, with a subtle strength that I find refreshing.

I asked the congresswoman if it is difficult campaigning in the rural communities west of Madison, and her response showed great insight and directness: "Well, they have different concerns. But now they know me, and they know where I stand." No lofty, blustering harangue about how all voters are equal or how you tailor the message. Just a simple understanding and approach. Contrast that with what we have representing the "United States" to the rest of the world.

Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey, near Crawford, Texas, August, 2005Another contrast worth mentioning is with the announcement by peace activist Cindy Sheehan that she is retiring from her public involvement with antiwar activities. Most telling was her disgust with the peace movement: "I have also tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life. This group won’t work with that group; he won’t attend an event if she is going to be there; and why does Cindy Sheehan get all the attention anyway? It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions."

I wrote this response to something she wrote in Smirking Chimp: "As for Cindy Sheehan, she has taken on a very difficult task. I find it amazing that she can be so articulate and insightful after all she has been through. If there is one piece of advice I would offer to her, it is to be careful of the "peace movement." It is fraught with hangers-on, grandstanders, opportunists, and pretenders. They will try to use you and to get you to speak their lingo. Fortunately, they have not had much success."

My experience with the "peace movement" has covered decades, but most acutely when I was a member of the local chapter of a veterans group advocating the abolishment of war. I even designed and edited the group's website. Most of the problem with this group was that the membership was predominantly male, and that the thing they had in common was military service. Add in peace advocacy and Madison, Wisconsin, and, voila, let the games begin!

The one thing I tried to emphasize in my time with this group was that communication with the general public should be the number one priority. I dared using the term "preaching to the choir," and one of them actually bragged about convincing the already convinced, and on the radio to boot. There can be only one reason for a bias towards preaching to the choir: relative position among one's peers. Or, as I prefer to call it, scrambling to be lord of the flies. If Tammy Baldwin only preached to the choir, she would today be practicing law in Madison.

Another contrast is that Cindy Sheehan made her campaign personal, focusing on George W. Bush. It was a turn-off for many "Americans," and cost her a lot of valuable influence. Whereas Tammy Baldwin persistently, determinedly, eloquently and effectively advocates for not just peace, but for a number of matters of vital concern in an issue-oriented manner, Cindy Sheehan has let her animosity towards George Bush dominate her effort. It's understandable, given that the criminal Bush is the cause of her son's death, but it made her less effective. I wish her well in her future endeavors. I hope her efforts will be with a broader perspective.

As for me, I have a new experience of Memorial Day. I almost forgot how much I love a parade.

This story calls for an encore.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Interchangeable parts

The joy of blunderPBS aired a documentary last Wednesday entitled "The Blair Decade." In seemingly detached and objective fashion, the program covered Blair's tenure as British prime minister, from 1997 to the present. Blair has announced his resignation as of June 27.

In a nutshell, Tony Blair's time in office has been marked by three events: the death of Princess Diana, the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and his complicity in the "Iraq" war. There have been other events, like his collusion with Bill Clinton in "Neoliberalism," "globalization," and the NATO incursion in Kosovo/Serbia. For the people of "Great Britain," there are also the terrrorist bombings of July 7, 2005, the infighting with rival Gordon Brown, and Blair's role in the creation of "New Labour," but his term as prime minister will be identified worldwide for his facilitation of the "Iraq" war.

For whatever the incarnate being known as "Tony Blair" is remembered, I have this simple question: Who cares? The PBS show had only one concern - the "legacy" of Tony Blair. How "History" will "remember" him. The man more than the people he may have helped or harmed. A side question I have is who is this all-remembering being, "History?" Is the memory of "History" worth the selling of one's soul?" History, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder.

What told the whole story for me was a brief clip that showed Tony Blair entering a building with his entourage of men in suits, one of them talking importantly on a cell phone. They were interchangeable parts. It could have been anyone in suits, with any one of them talking importantly on a cell phone. Like in "America," someone runs for "leader," someone gets "elected," and whatever someone "wins" gets to walk into buildings with an entourage of sub-someones in suits, with one of them talking importantly on a cell phone. The medium is the message.

This, I believe, is closer to the essence of the problem we face as a species than any study of "legacy." It was inevitable that someone would start a war like the debacle in "Iraq." Some guy in a suit would inevitably join forces with some other guy in a suit to bomb the bejesus out of some little country somewhere in order to engage in a crime spree, and to concoct a "legacy."

What the "Republican" party did in 2000 was to pick a guy in a suit over other guys in suits as the most likely candidate to make life better for themselves. The whole operation was a criminal endeavor from start to finish, with the "election" rigged beforehand. Not that the "Democrats" are any great presence on planet "Earth," being other guys in suits, but they at least had and have some sense of caring about the common good and the health of the planet.

So as the future of the world is concerned, is it feasible to have a system of groups of guys in suits deciding the course of mankind? More specifically, is the construct known as "representative democracy," in the form in which is has evolved, a help or a hindrance to the survival and progress of mankind? The "legacies" of George W. Bush and Tony Blair might give us a hint.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A study in contrast

April 14, 2005 - College Republican LaVonne Derksen pushes anti-war protester Bob Veith in a confrontation at University Square (Media Credit: Nathaniel Greenbaum/The Daily Cardinal)When I found out about the death last month of longtime Madison civil rights and peace activist Bob Veith, I was reminded of an incident on April 14, 2005, in which he was assaulted by a leader of the College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin. A campus newspaper report of the protest where the attack occurred can be read here.

Bob Veith was a veteran of the Korean war, serving in the Navy. I wasn't aware of his courageous work during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but it's a pretty amazing story. A synopsis of his life is available here.

The contrast between his life and that of the College Republican who was pushing him is stark. He was 74 at the time, the student presumably about 19 or 20 years old. As a budding Republican, she was violently supportive of the criminal activities of the Bush regime. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

This incident is symbolic of the slow decline in public civility that has been an integral part of the "Republican revolution." Now that the "revolution" is in its downfall phase, we can take a step back and look at what it hath wrought. We can ask ourselves if this is the kind of society we want to have, or whether we would like to have a society of mutuality, of social contract, and of distributive justice. Thankfully, the criminality of the Bush regime is now laid bare. As can be easily seen from the picture, the example set at the top easily filters to the bottom. The Republican party is now a criminal organization, and we need to be relentless in bringing to justice all of its wrongdoers (Read more here). Then will we be able to advance as a civilization.

Bob Veith made many contributions to American society. May his legacy live on in the picture of him being attacked. A true peacemaker, he didn't push back.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Dalai Lama visits Madison

His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking at the Kohl Center, University of Wisconsin, May 4, 2007The Dalai Lama visited Madison this week. He has been here several times, because he asked one of his former teachers, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, to establish a monastery nearby. It began in 1975. The monastery's new temple has been completed, and is ready for the Dalai Lama's inspection and blessing. The last time he was here, in 1998, I went to the three days of teachings he gave. This year I kept procrastinating, and ended up attending only the last day of teachings, yesterday.

I got what I needed. The talk he gave was about generating the awakened mind, part of a longer discourse on ancient Buddhist writings. Some of the gems of wisdom I wrote down were the following: "Adversities become conditioning for creating a basis for true happiness," "Embrace the wisdom of no self," "(In) Self-embracing, self-cherishing, we repeat the cycle of suffering," "One should ride the horse of awakening mind - Bodhichitta," "Giving is the wish granting tree," "Forbearance is the supreme ornament," "He who grabs at the highest - this is unnecessary bravado," and my favorite, "Any notion of inherent existence has no basis."

What the Dalai Lama was emphasizing was that by understanding the emptiness of temporal existence one can cultivate the awakening mind. It is not an understanding that comes about easily, and the pursuit of awakening involves a path, a method of practices like meditation, good works, study, ritual, and the company of fellow practitioners, in Buddhism known as the Sangha.

An example of the error of mistaking the empty for the real is the blind "patriotism" of the zealots for "American" empire. Pursuit of empire is an intrinsically neurotic and criminal endeavor, as the "country" is slowly finding out. It is also futile, especially in today's world of high-tech, instant worldwide communication, and multiple international interdependencies.

The Dalai Lama talked about the Buddhist attitude of impermanence as inherent in the empty nature of all apparent reality. I felt an immediate connection with my use of quotation marks around the names of "countries," because I have felt intuitively that giving obsessive reality to man-created impositions on the land is one of the principal causes of international (and domestic) conflict and war. The most effective method used by the Bush criminal organization for generating war hysteria against "Iraq" was the paranoid brand of "patriotism" and xenophobia of "others," especially "Muslims" and "Arabs."

In his public lecture at the University of Wisconsin the Dalai Lama spoke about world peace: "Compassion as a method of inner disarmament is the key to happiness and tranquility in the 21st century. With compassion for others resolving emotions such as anger, people can go step by step to external disarmament." He also said that problems have been created by humans and so can be solved by them.

The Tibetan flagHis visit was not without controversy. The Chicago consulate of the "Peoples Republic of China" protested the display of the "Tibetan" flag at the City and County Building, as did the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Read more here. Madison's mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, refused to meet with the "Chinese" consul.

I have a simple approach to the issue of separation of church and state. Don't have a state. Don't have a religion either. I don't look at Buddhism as a religion, but more as a method of practices for daily living and attainment of an enlightened level of being. I go to Deer Park every so often, but don't consider myself a "Buddhist" or anything else. I'm just me, and even that is largely a matter of conditioning. As the Dalai Lama says, true existence is understanding that there is no self, and that temporary existence is empty. "Any notion of inherent existence has no basis," he spoke.

If church and state have no inherent existence, then separating or joining them are exercises in futility. The controversy is moot. On the practical level, it should be kept in mind that the church-state issue is specific to the kind of mass-industrial society in which we live. It is an ad-hoc issue, not a struggle between absolute principles. In the context of a private enterprise, "capitalistic," "democratic," technological mass system, with a diversity of religious belief systems or lack of same, separation of church and state is a necessary principle for the society to function in a fair and "free" manner. In other kinds of societies, it might not be so crucial or necessary.

So for now, separation is fine. Poor Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Fred Phelps. They'd all like to be running the show, as would their many imitators. For me, I'm glad I have the freedom to follow a guru or not (of which I have done both), to practice several forms of Buddhism, Yoga, Christianity, Sufism (a form of Islam), Native American spirituality, shamanism, Taoism, Paganism, "African" drumming and dance, and anything else that I find interesting and useful. I'm also glad to see the "Tibetan" flag flying over the City of Madison. Here's the flag that currently flies over "Tibet:"