Monday, August 27, 2007

Being the Boss

Vectors are converging here. I've now finished reading "Demonic Males," and want to continue on from my previous post with a topic on the roots of war, and to elaborate on what else I have learned.

All species exhibit violence in relation to their own and other species (killing, raping) but only chimpanzees and humans regularly kill adults of their own kind and actively go out in party-gangs or self-aggrandizing bands of bonded males in search of enemies to kill. What matters is the opportunity to engage in the compelling drama of belonging to the gang, identifying the enemy, going on the patrol, participating in the attack. The indulgence of this desire for lethal raiding seems to bring a specific gratification: a direct sensuous apprehension of "primitive" power. As one member of a street gang in South Central Los Angeles described it:

"Our war, like most gang wars, was not fought for territory or any specific goal other than the destruction of individuals, of human beings. The idea was to drop enough bodies, cause enough terror and suffering so that they'd come to their senses and realize that we were the wrong set to fuck with. Their goal, I'm sure, was the same." Similarly, the motivation of male chimpanzees on a border patrol is not to gain land or win females, but to beat their victims to a pulp and erode their ability to challenge.

Wars, say Wrangham and Peterson, the authors of "Demonic Males," tend to be rooted in competition for status and perceived threats to dominance. Often wars are a consequence of competition between two prideful nations ruled by prideful men driven by the desire to be on top and concerned about who is the biggest and the best. The miserable truth of these remarks seems plain enough in relation to the current combustible dynamics between Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Unfortunately, with weapons of mass destruction factored into the equation, this competitive compulsion for digging in one's heels and being the boss is a phenomenon that carries with it the potential of our demise. In such a scenario, being on top is more important than maintaining peace, and the demonic players are willing to risk anything to secure the alpha-male position.

Male dominance is a world-wide and history-wide phenomenon (a 1971 survey, cited by the authors, of ninety-three societies around the world found men to hold the bulk of the political power in all of them). However, although peaceful societies are hard to come by, war is NOT, at least according to these authors, inevitable. That said, the pattern is not likely to change unless both men and women invent other strategies for achieving their emotional goals.

If animal behavior in our evolutionary past can indeed be used as a template for thinking about human behavior, there is the intriguing example of peacefulness in a sister-species to the chimpanzees: African bonobos. Bonobos look like chimps but are a little smaller. In their communities there are no reported instances of males battering females or killing infants, no unprovoked aggression with its attendant horrors. The authors conclude that, at least in part, this is because female bonobos cooperate with one another, forming powerful coalitions to defend themselves and keep the males in their place. The power of these female alliances is able to reduce male brute force. Bonobos fight less often, with lower intensity, because male bonobos "just don't seem to care quite so much about being the boss."

In human societies, however, it is often the case that women prefer demonic males and compete with each other for the rewards afforded by their social dominance. In this way, the authors point out, women are active players in maintaining the historical narrative of patriarchy.

For me, all this has provided an interesting porthole through which to view the upcoming presidential elections. It is not hard to single out chimpanzee candidates--like Rudy Giuliani, who will be itching for a fight even before they step up to the plate--from the bonobos like Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. Hillary, of course, provides the most intriguing case, a bonobo dressed up as a chimpanzee. But if Hillary were to really understand the stakes, she is the one who, bathing in torrents of tribute from her female admirers, could most successfully undertake that female bonding component requisite to creating the elegiac balance between the sexes...

My thought is interrupted, as Virgil arrives and puts his head on my shoulder. When it comes to war, Virgil cannot maintain a philosophically respectable depression. "I just want to let you to know that I'm organizing a League of Women Alligators, in order to jump start your enterprise," he tells me in an exhilarated voice. "I do believe that peace exists, and it doesn't particularly embarrass me--no political worrywart can accuse ME of being a chimpanzee. I'm just an old wizard alligator installing new microchips wherever I can."

I intended to end this post here, with Virgil speaking the final words, but then (coincidentally?) I read an essay in this week's Time, calling Rudy Giuliani "Mr. Tough Talk." They say he talks as if he owns terrorism, despite the fact that he has no foreign policy experience and has never set foot in Iraq. But, like Bush, Giuliani thinks the war in Iraq has made us safer!#$&!!. Yeah, mon! He is the ideal replacement for George, if what you want is more of the same.

And it could happen. "The American people are not going to vote for a weakling. They're going to elect someone who will protect them from terrorism for the next four years," Guiuliani stated to the Detroit News recently.

But I'm with Joe Biden who presciently claims that the next president who comes in will be left with "no margin for error." The world can most definitely not afford another hawkish chimp at the helm, who is convinced that "going on offense" is the safest thing we can do. So if you've read this far, be your own Fairy Godmother, put on your best cotton panties, and stay on message.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Demonic Males"

Do humans produce wars the way spiders produce webs? What I'm wondering, picking up from my previous blog, is whether war is inevitable--written into the dynamics of who we are--or is it, as my friend Cliff suggests, merely a bad choice, repeated again and again. And, if it is a choice, can we just decide not to go there by learning to "love our enemies" instead?

According to military documents recently reviewed by the Associated Press, it seems we have no fresh troop units at this point to send to Iraq. After six years of fruitless combat, the army has just about exhausted its fighting force. "The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Army chief of staff General George Casey said last week. "If the demands don't go down over time, it will be increasingly difficult for us to provide the trained and ready forces for other missions."

At the very least, to a rational person, this would seem to suggest the parameters for an obvious choice. However, it seems that Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman are busy hatching out ways to provoke a further war--with Iran. Like I've said, we don't give up our cherished goals lightly. Some obsessions are not harmless. "There is a tendency to make a plan and then worship the plan, that 'memory of the possible future,' " writes Laurence Gonzales in "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." "But there is also a tendency to think that simply putting forth more and more effort, we can overcome friction...And as history shows, the harder we try, the more complex our plan for reducing friction, the worse things get."

Have our leaders, even with all the clear warnings out there, really failed to understand that our invasion of Iraq has brought us nothing except more recruits for the other side? Or is something else driving them?

Writing about war, especially this one, is very, very depressing. As my friend James Hillman, who has done it in spades, having published his book "A Terrible Love of War" in 2005, puts it: "The writer comes out...a casualty, and the reader too, or at least all shook up...To write of war is to reach as close as possible to that which can't be lived." Writing that book, he once told me, nearly killed him. I begin to see why.

So many of us choose avoidance for just that reason. We prefer to ignore what is happening so we can get on with our lives and not enter into those whirlpools of chaotic feeling. But as another friend put it to me recently, "When something bad happens, do you really want your only response to be "Oh shit!"

Somehow I can imagine those very words coming out of Jane Goodall's mouth when, taken completely by surprise, after ten years of observing the peaceful coexistence of her beloved chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Africa-- creatures whom she'd always felt were "by and large rather nicer than us"--she saw them split into two rival factions and engage in horrendous war with each other. The war lasted for four years, until one group had successfully eliminated the other. It was the first recorded instance of lethal raiding among chimpanzees. Until then, most scientists believed that only humans deliberately sought out and killed members of their own species. Until the chimpanzees started killing each other, they had lived harmoniously together, side by side, in the forest.

Rather like those Hindus and Muslims in India, Hutus and Tutsies in Rwanda, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq....

So my friend Cliff wants to know: Why do YOU think people choose violence rather than nonviolence? Trying to answer this both for him and for myself has led me to a book with the intriguing title of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence." I was drawn to it while trawling on Amazon because the blurb said the authors, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peters, attempt to answer the question of why men kill, rape, and wage war, and what we can do about it. I haven't finished the book yet, but I can come up with this much so far.

According to the authors, lethal violence is a species wide pattern characteristic of chimpanzees across Africa. Raiding chimps are marked by a gratuitous cruelty--tearing off pieces of skin, twisting limbs until they break, or drinking victims blood. In Gombe, about 30 percent of adult male chimpanzees die from agression. Humans and chimps, but no other species share a propensity for male-bonded communities and male-drive lethal intergroup raiding. The authors speculate that perhaps humans have retained an old pattern of chimpanzee-like behavior that preceded and paved the way for human war.

"We wanted to know," they write, "if humans are sufficiently consistent in the tendency for male violence to provide a meaningful comparison with chimpanzees. The answer is 'yes.' "--suggesting that human killing may indeed be rooted in our prehuman past. I have to admit, as far as I am concerned, the similarities in patterns of violence are really striking. And the image of Bush and Cheney as chimpanzees engaged in lethal raiding doesn't seem either dead wrong or dangerously misleading to me. Remember "shock and awe?"

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Love Your Enemies"

A second missive about the Iraq war has arrived from my artist-activist friend Cliff McReynolds (see my previous post on his first one, called "Pipe Dreams"), who requests that I air it on my blog. "The more people who get this message and apply it, the sooner it will start happening big time," he wrote me. Cliff has spent years revising and distilling his message, and he feels that now, finally, he has got it right: "Love Your Enemies."

When he first realized in 2002 that Bush was seriously intending to invade Iraq, Cliff says he felt compelled to try to "head off this impending nightmare." (I did, too, only I was able to read the handwriting on the wall, which was that GWB was not open to negotiation of any sort on the matter.) Being a superb painter of images, and convinced that violence only breeds more violence, Cliff imagined creating a gigantic billboard that would knock everybody who saw it senseless with the truth. An image of the World Trade Center at the moment when the second jet slammed into it would be surrounded by this killer circular logo, continuously repeating the phrases "What Goes Around Comes Around" "Love Your Enemies." The plan was to get other activist friends to help out with the financing, but the responses he got forced him to rethink his question about what to do about enemies "who hate our guts for invading and occupying their countries."

"Would seeing "Love Our Enemies" provoke a bomb-thrower to come after me and my family?" he wondered. "Am I taking myself a little too seriously? Do people think loving your enemies means lying down, letting maniacs break into your house, butcher your family? After all, even Gandhi considered that in certain circumstances, taking a life may be a duty."

Thus it was that my peace-driven friend spent the next four years revising and fine-tuning his message, searching for the one definitive statement about how to defeat terrorism. He describes himself during that time as positively bouncing off the walls to get the message just right. "When I finally dumped 'What Goes Around Comes Around' and replaced it with 'We Reap What We Sow,' it felt like I'd stumbled on the cure for cancer."

What followed was a kind of epiphanic insight into the violence of his own frustrated and angry responses, and how much they were in stark relief to the peaceful approach he was promoting. He realized he needed to stop trashing Bush and the others who were responsible for getting us into this war. "I didn't want to do that anymore. Loving your enemies, I realized, means I'm supposed to love not only terrorists, but even Republicans." (Sorry folks, but no, he doesn't provide any tips on how to do this.)

Having given up venting, Cliff turned instead to the nonviolent examples of Martin Luther King, Nelson
Mandela, and Gandhi, all of whom rejected the use of intimidation and violence as a way of seeking retribution. Even though they were ultimately killed or imprisoned for their efforts, their strategy of nonviolence worked. In the case of Gandhi, the result was a withdrawal by the British from their imperialistic ambitions in India. This is proof, according to Cliff, that a peaceful approach really works, it's just that nobody is willing to use it.

Something about a strategy that no one is willing to use demands deeper investigation into the deep structures of human nature, something my friend, for all his dedicated pursuit of the perfectly honed logo, has failed to undertake. Why, for instance, if nonviolence works so well, don't people choose it? (The examples, as he points out, are surely out there.) Why have we, over and over again since forever, refused to bow to its superiority? Is it possible that our warring tendencies are so deeply embedded in our DNA as to be unstoppable?

"Coincidentally," it just so happens that the past week was the 60th anniversary of the British "liberation" of India, and the story of what happened after the British left is being retold and reviewed. Britain's Indian Empire was subsequently divided into the nation-states of India and Pakistan. In case you are imagining the subcontinent rejoicing and celebrating their newly found independence, look again, because that's not the way things played out. India descended into horrible chaos in the months following the British withdrawal, with widespread sectarian riots and brutal enmity between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs--leading to twelve million people being uprooted and a million others murdered. Has anyone heard this song before?

As for Gandhi, he was reduced to despair when he could not prevent Hindus and Muslims from killing each other, until he was finally shot dead in January 1948 by a Hindu extremist.

So, play it again, Sam. Before I invest in any billboards, I need answers to some really sticky questions--like, why have we learned nothing from past experience, and reproduced instead a nearly identical situation all over again in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites? And in the face of our failure there, how is it that the best our government can come up with now is how to generate a similar headlong lunge into Iran? I'm looking for real answers here, and it may mean having to poke much harder into E. O. Wilson's not-so-subtle query: "Is humanity suicidal?"

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Red Suitcase

You may think I am zigzagging around here like a drunken hummingbird, but in detailing my personal awakening to the intricacies of coincidences out in the physical world, I was prompted to share yet another improbable link in this evolving, improvisational collage. (Remember that one of my original questions was: Is the world an infinite series of random possibilities, or does it obey a secret, but meaningful, order of divine knowledge and coherence?)

It turns out that my housemate, Hersha, who occupies the downstairs apartment in my house, actually had a grandfather named Virgil. He died when she was only two, so she never really knew him, but she is mesmerized to this day by the memory of a small red suitcase that he once gave her. She still has a photograph of herself holding it.

My own Virgil, happy to find another namesake, chimes in: “He was keen to have his granddaughter grow up as a beautiful, promenading senorita, whose ornate clothes would give the gods pleasure. That way she would be guided safely through life’s difficulties. It’s the reason he gave her the red suitcase. But now, Hersha is very focused on her duties as a nurse, working in a uniform for long hours at the hospital. So it’s a sacred burden. Sometimes she has to catch vomit and many layers of distress in her small red suitcase.”

To underline this last point, Virgil begins humming “The Way You Move,” by Big Boi, an Atlanta-based musician from the hip-hop duo, Outkast, as he sidles off.

I'd been pondering (after the "Woof! Woof!" episode), whether this particular coincidence of names was worth inserting all by itself into the blog or not--it really needs something else, I thought, in order to work--when I suddenly stumbled into a vivid connection that both satisfied my taste for electric immediacy and put a new spin of meaning into the mix. I happened to read an essay called "The Black Sites" in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer, about the C.I.A.'s controversial interrogation program in secret prisons outside the U.S., known as "black sites"--in part because the prisoners had no exposure to natural light, making it impossible for them to tell if it was night or day. Terrorist suspects were detained in these sites indefinitely, without charges, and subjected to unusually harsh treatment, often in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

One of the detainees, a German car salesman captured by the C.I.A. in 2003 and released in 2004 when Germany confirmed that he had no connections to terrorism, Khaled el-Masri, has since described in interviews what life was like in a black site, where inmates often bashed their heads against the wall in pain and frustration. Once he described the plight of a Tanzanian in a neighboring cell:

"The man seemed psychologically at the end," he said. "I could hear him ramming his head against the wall in despair. I tried to calm him down. I asked the doctor, 'Will you take care of this human being?' But the doctor, whom Masri described as American, refused to help. Masri also said that he was told that guards had 'locked the Tanzanian in a suitcase for long periods of time--a foul-smelling suitcase that made him vomit.' "

And so, courtesy of Dick C. and George W.B., the little suitcase that first caught Virgil's attention has accelerated into a gathering crescendo of rot in real time--leading straight to the idea that life is just rearrangements of the same basic stuff. Only the goals change. "It's what you do with what you got," says Virgil, beginning to break into another song. But I'm not ready to leave it at that. A suitcase full of vomit: this now seems to me a perfect icon for the Bush legacy. Yes, chimes in a friend, it's all those things we couldn't stomach about his presidency.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

"The Doomsday Report"

Ever since I did that interview with Russ Volckmann (see blog post "Two of Three Events" in June), I've been a bit unnerved at finding myself part of a growing cadre of doomsday reporters. I swear to you, this was not who I wanted to be when I grew up: a player in the Endgame sweepstakes of Western civilization. This was not how I expected my life to turn out.

The history of the world contains a litany of doomed civilizations that have destroyed their economic base and disappeared. Nor has there been any scarcity across centuries of prophesies predicting the end of the world--none of which, so far, have ever come true. So why worry now? Maybe because it doesn't seem like just another prophesy anymore. This time it feels like something that is already happening.

I confess, however, that my commitment to this blog and the unpalatable things it is saying sometimes feels like I've got an octopus on my back. The signs and information keep on arriving much faster than I can process and metabolize them. The unexpected gift of synchronicity, when Virgil addressed Colleen by her childhood nickname of "Woof! Woof!" (now you tell ME how Virgil could've known that?) was like some cosmic confirmation in a single stroke to encourage me to keep listening for the simultaneous patterns and messages that are beginning to emerge. I'm becoming more aware of the multiple meanings of each moment and their different registers of significance, on the assumption that something really IS going on here that I need to pay attention to.

As I say, I've been concerned about the effect this blog and its message may have on the intrepid souls brave enough to continue reading it. The polemic here is pretty bare-knuckled, more like a stake in the heart than a day at the spa. So when "The Doomsday Report" arrived in my mailbox sent by a friend--a novel purporting to be about how the human race would react if it learned we had no future--I knew I needed to read it without delay.

The book presents itself as a fictional story, but takes its impetus from an actual report that was delivered in 1992 by some 1,600 world scientists and Nobel Laureates as a "Warning to Humanity." That report announced to the world that human beings and the natural world are on a collision course and that only one or two decades remained before the chance to avert the threats to our survival will be lost. The author, Rock Brynner (son of Yul), begins his story at the point when this so-called "window of opportunity" has closed; it is now too late to prevent an irreversible ecological disintegration.

Not hard to see why the hairs on my neck stood up as I was reading. In the book, this report has been submitted to a publisher who is wondering if he should publish a manuscript claiming that we've missed our chance to save the planet, which is now doomed to collapse within forty years, causing the mass extinction of all living species, including mankind. The publisher reacts by wondering whether all this was inevitable--was this where civilization was heading all along?

"Not at all," says the scientist-author of the report. "As late as the sixties we could have reversed the situation...Remember "The Limits to Growth?" Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful?" We had the means to find solutions, but culturally we were not equipped to face the music."

I read "The Doomsday Report" about a month after having had this exchange with Russ in our telephone interview:

Q: In a way, the diagnosis of the world being already at end is kind of terminal, so it cuts out all possible interventions—we can keep talking until it happens—but the interventions of someone like Riane Eisler to shift to a partnership model, or the use of dialogue or any other human creation, doesn’t it make all that seem rather pointless?

A: These ideas have been out there for a long time now, Russ. Riane’s books, my books, many other peoples’ books, have been out there for some 30 or 40 years. These ideas have taken hold on a certain level in the culture, but in terms of affecting any real transformation and change, what is your view? Do you feel that it’s all happening, that we’re getting closer to where we need to go?
...If I seem to have developed what you might call a bad case of “disheartenment,” it’s because I see that all the information we need is out there—all the philosophies and spiritualities that could guide us through—were we but to espouse them. But make no mistake, we haven’t espoused them, and now our problems may no longer be amenable to amelioration by such means. So the question really is, “What is it about the human race that prevents it from following its own wisdom? We’ve learned so much, but failed to put it to use.

Finally, let me say that, despite it's strong idea for a plot, "The Doomsday Report" doesn't hold a candle to "The Road" in terms of its ability to pin down the precise vision of a world in collapse, and is disappointing in not offering any clear sense of how people will respond to such an event. The book was prescient for its time, however, and seems even more timely now than it was then.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Woof! Woof!

Interesting comments have been coming my way, this one from friend Colleen, who lives in Floyd. She is one of a small band who loyally follows my blog, and she responds with some frequency. This particular comment arrived in relation to my last post about giving up hope.

"A Lao Tzu passage I've been using in meditation says: Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as empty as fear. Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of self."

Colleen says she wants Virgil as her guru. Virgil, overwhelmed with happiness when he heard this, turned and went "Woof! Woof!" not doglike so much as tigerlike--powerful, scary, and utterly suited to the situation. "Would you like to be baptized or would you like a prayer rug?" he wanted to know. "Or maybe you'd just like a cookie?"

Then I heard this song on the radio, called "I Don't Do Sadness." Wow, I thought, there it is: I Don't Do Hope. And I'm getting quite used to the idea. So that's how my work is going, if you care to know. I'm about in the middle of the channel now. Maybe the time will come soon when I won't do fear either. Stay tuned.

I was driving to Roanoke on Saturday morning with my friend Eileen, when she told me about her weekend in New York, attending a days-long yoga workshop with a master who was extraordinarily sweet and unassuming. At the close of the final session, everyone meditated together with their eyes closed. While that was going on, white plastic bowls filled with salad were quietly placed in front of each person. Meditation over, they all ate their salads in silent communion. Then the teacher declared he had something to show them. He held his empty white salad bowl in his hands, lifting it up like a prayer offering. As the students watched, the bowl, as if of its own accord, slowly levitated several inches up into the air and hung there, suspended, for several seconds.

"It's like a magician doing magic tricks," I said. "Pulling a live rabbit out of his hat."
"This wasn't a trick," said Eileen, somewhat tersely. "It was real."

The line-up of magic continues, according to Colleen. I sent her a copy of this blog via email before posting it on line. Hard to believe, but here is what she wrote me back: "Woof Woof is the perfect response. My dad used to call me "woof woof." I know it sounds bizarre but he made up strange nicknames for everyone. Mine was Colly Wolly Wolf, which led to Woof and Woof Woof. I wonder if it was derived from the fact that my older brother called me Colly Dog when he wanted to tease me?"

Things like this defy the element of chance. The only explanation I could find for such extraordinary synchronicity--do you suppose Virgil is in cahoots with Eileen's yogi?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Coming Out of Denial and Giving Up Hope

Trying to face the fact that things aren't going to get better, that our futures are, as (Chickasaw poet) Linda Hogan puts it, "being killed," that we can no longer escape the devastating effects of ecosystem overload, that civilization has indeed entered its endgame, that we are perilously close to complete breakdown whether by natural or human causes and are running out of energy, money, time, land (this week Russia planted its flag on the Arctic Ocean floor!)--these realizations have shaken me to the core. Once the promise of a better tomorrow is removed, how in God's earth do we meet such a moment? How do we go on living?

I like what my eternal spiritual guide, the I Ching (Chinese Book of Oracles) says:
Economize. Simplify. Don't try to continue the pretense of more opulent times.

I like thinking about those small bands of Eskimos so beautifully described by Gretel Ehrlich in one of her books: how, even when starving, they laugh and enjoy life; I like thinking about the way poet Nikki Giovanni once described Rosa Parks, as having "no startle." I like thinking about the Dalai Lama's advice about friendship: If you have many friends, that is wonderful. But if you don't, that is fine too.

The forces at play in these observations put my feelings of alarm in perspective.
When it comes to life, don't expect tenure.

Be not fazed. We don't give up our cherished goals lightly, especially when they are bulwarks against depression. Don't lose heart. Never slide into weakness, resignation, or decline. Never drop the ball. And don't bail out. Swim in the rapids.

We could learn to be happy over long periods of time with almost nothing, instead of striving for something, going somewhere, needing something. We could accept humbly going on because it is the right thing to do, and because humbly going on is its own form of happiness. We could enter, as Michael Ortiz suggests in "Dreaming the End of the World," into the Apocalyptic mysteries and look seriously and hard at the realities of the times, which is a "gift" to the community.

Coming out of denial and taking off the blinders means accepting that things will not be okay, that this is the way it is, beyond all the workshops, books, lectures, arts, therapies--all the palliative constructs--and living instead without hope. But how do we live without hope?
What question lies at the heart of your work? I ask only because this is the one that now lies at the heart of mine.

Derrick Jensen describes in "Endgame" how he is always being exhorted by editors to leave his readers with a sense of hope, because otherwise we open the spigots to despair. But being a full-disclosure sorta guy, Jensen has only imperial disdain for that kind of advice. Despair, he claims, is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation--though not an excuse for inaction. Besides, he says, it's possible to feel many things at the same time: rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness.

"A wonderful thing happens," he writes in "Endgame," "when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn't kill you, nor did it make you less effective."
I've tried it, and it really works.