Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When Does Partisanship Morph into Treason?

It may be just an amateur's opinion, but treason is when Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia meets independently with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express his sympathies and allegiance to Israel, stating that he stands with Israel's leader against his own President--and that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration in defending the interests of Israel.

Treason is when Republican Senator Jon Kyle of Arizona risks the President's (and America's) international credibility by sabotaging passage of the START treaty, designed to reduce the proliferation of nuclear warheads and set up a mutual system of inspections, as a means of deliberately damaging Obama's "reset" of America's ties with Russia for crass political opportunism.

Treason is when Republican state governors band together to pass a "repeal amendment" that would allow a super-majority of state legislatures to overturn federal laws and sabotage the entire federal system of government. It's when the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Darrell Issa from California, declares his intention to hold one or two hearings a day--hopefully maybe even "seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks"--to investigate Democratic policies like the stimulus, the health care bill, and the bank bailouts.

Treason is when the co-chair of the President's fiscal commission on deficit reduction, Republican Alan Simpson, gleefully predicts that the new freshman class of congressional Republicans will do their best to shut down the government, if the national debt limit is not capped. (The debt limit now is at $14.3 trillion, and it will probably be reached in early 2011, so that if Congress doesn't pass legislation to raise it, the government will no longer be able to borrow money, whether or nor not the economy is in recovery.) Simpson has called those who would force the government into default "sharp cookies," claiming that closing down the government is exactly what they came here for.

Treason is a bunch of white Republicans in Congress who have decided it is politically smart to show disrespect for the first black American president, and who treat him, in Maureen Dowd's inimitable phrase, "like a dirt sandwich." This is a dishonor to the office of the presidency in full view of the whole world. By definition, if you Google it, treason is a crime that undermines the offender's government. It is disloyalty by virtue of inviting mutiny towards one's country or sovereign, or aiding its enemies by attempting to overthrow the government through subversive behavior.

"The fact is, Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times, "that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it's doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party's cooperation--cooperation that won't be forthcoming."

I think even Google would have to concur that what is happening in America today is more than just shameful and distressing. This isn't your garden-variety partisanship. By definition, it has to count as nothing less than treason.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Have a Wonderful Day, and God Bless!

I've been wondering what to write about today for this holiday weekend? Maybe how North Korea is doing a scary war dance on an island military base a few miles off of South Korea? Maybe about those dastardly Republicans who refused to find time to accept an invitation to the White House this week, thereby snubbing the President? They are the same guys threatening to undermine his nuclear START treaty with Russia, a big issue for me. Meanwhile, I'm off soon to Thanksgiving dinner with my longtime "holiday family," to which I am taking my favored stringbean dish, laced with yellow peppers, gouda cheese, fresh dill and tarragon, olives, and pine nuts--added to make the humdrum beans more alluring.

But then, what actually lit up my day today was getting a personal note from the President:

Suzi --

When Michelle and I sit down with our family to give thanks today, I want you to know that we'll be especially grateful for folks like you.

Everything we have been able to accomplish in the last two years was possible because you have been willing to work for it and organize for it.

And every time we face a setback, or when progress doesn't happen as quickly as we would like, we know that you'll be right there with us, ready to fight another day.

So I want to thank you -- for everything.

I also hope you'll join me in taking a moment to remember that the freedoms and security we enjoy as Americans are protected by the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces. These patriots are willing to lay down their lives in our defense, and each of us owes them and their families a debt of gratitude.

Have a wonderful day, and God bless.


Call me a cornball, if you must, but something about this brought tears to my eyes. I think it was the Suzi/Barack thing that hit a nerve. I just couldn't think of a single other national leader who might have written me like this. I was moved enough to send a reply:

"And right back at you, Barack. Enjoy the respite of the day. You've earned it. We are so lucky to have you in our midst! Hidden among the hate-mongers are many who love your sweetness and your willingness to struggle tirelessly under the most horrible conditions on our behalf. Thanks for your wishes. Suzi"

Recently I read that Cleopatra wrote her love letters on tablets of black onyx. Getting this note on my email today was a bit like getting a love letter from Cleopatra. Despite being a mass-mailing, it felt just so tender, heartfelt, intimate. And such a wonderful way of saying a very Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

As President Obama doubles down on civility and extends post-election olive branches to the GOP, leading Republicans have sent warnings to the administration to prepare for constant investigations and ideological stand-offs. A cartoon entitled "Reaching Out" in my local paper pictures Obama, with his long arm outstretched to shake hands, standing opposite an unpleasant, big, snarling dog, whose teeth are bared. The collar around the dog's neck bears the name of Mitch McConnell.
"Welcome to the Great American Cleaving," NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote this week--where talking across the table has been reduced to yelling across the chasm and where, instead of moving toward the middle, we are drifting toward the extremes. Republicans are not looking for compromise. The new Republican majority comes to power with a sour intention to make no deals and take no prisoners. They are not consensus-builders, Blow says. "That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation."

Welcome to the world of once overlapping bipartisanship, transformed now into the sound of one hand clapping.

What is the sound of one hand clapping anyway? It's the most famous example of a Zen koan, i.e., a kind of paradoxical riddle that resists being solved by rational thought. When meditated on, koans are meant to help the mind transcend ordinary thought patterns and arrive at a more enlightened place. But can the mind, which is always bound by dualities, ever transcend the law of opposites? Definitely not these days, it seems. The American public is hardly in a meditative frame of mind. Instead, it is bloodthirsty. And the result, according to Hendrick Hertzberg,, "is a kind of political cognitive dissonance." For Obama and for the country, he claims, the next two years look awfully bleak. There will be no more transformative legislation.

A friend sends me a quote by Epictetus. "You can be happy if you know the secret: some things are within your power to control and some things are not." Obama may be unable to control the Republicans--who may, or may not, be able to control the Tea Party (we don't know the final story on that yet). But at the deepest level, he obviously has an inner conviction that the presidency carries with it certain responsibilities and obligations with respect to the office, one of them being the supreme importance of bipartisanship. It is, after all (and always has been), the very bedrock of American constitutional democracy. Bipartisanship is an institutional fact, meaning, there is good reason to respect those powers even if we don't feel like it--and to find, as Obama so eloquently puts it himself, "the sweet spot that works for both."

But what happens to the presidential ethos when one half of the government "goes rogue?" What happens when absolutely nobody wants to buy what your selling? When even your erstwhile supporters criticize you for continuing to dance long after the music has stopped? What happens when you intend to still keep these principles in mind, even while your critics accuse you of "endless placation?"

Obama's critics feel he is sounding more and more like a broken record, given that the time when Republicans would consider compromise with a Democratic president is long gone. What the White House seems to have forgotten, according to one commentator, Trey Ellis, on the Huffington Post, is that "we elected a commander-in-chief, not [a] mediator-in-chief. A mediator rarely offers his own opinions but steers both sides toward civility." Ellis goes on to offer the telling example of Obama's response to the new Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, when Boehner declared that the recently enacted health-care bill "will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt the country." Obama's response was that "There are going to be examples where, I think, we can tweak and make improvements on the progress that we made." He meant to show his willingness to improve on the bill, but not to repeal it.

Really? Ellis is appalled. '"The president and I are both writers," he states. "He should know better. Does he really think he can battle active verbs like, 'kill,' "ruin,' and 'bankrupt' with, what, 'tweak'?"

"Therein lies the tragedy of Barack Obama," in the opinion of one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Degan. "He has tried to maintain the appearance of being 'above it all.' He has tried to be too much of an amiable gentleman--when he should have been fighting these plutocratic thugs with all the rhetorical thunder he could muster...The last thing in the world [Obama] wants to do at this stage in the game is to even think about 'working with' these reactionary assholes. As history tells us, that's impossible. He must realize this by now. Or does he?"

This is, indeed, the historic Zen koan of our day. "Mr. President," Degan further exhorts, "you cannot--you will not-- be able to 'meet them halfway.' Don't be an idiot. By now it should be obvious to you that they want to destroy you. And they will destroy you--if you allow them to."

"To fight or not to fight?" Obama must be asking himself the Hamlet question even as I write. This is a man who, when he ceremoniously took the political podium, dug in his heels as the very embodiment of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state America. This is a man who believes, above all, in the value of finding common ground, points of agreement, and "overlap." When it doesn't work, as someone pointed out, he keeps on doing it. Meanwhile, a post-election CBS news poll determined that Americans are clamoring for compromise--more than 70% of those polled want Obama and congressional Republicans to make concessions and work together. Such is the nature of political koans at a time when many people would rather torment the president than actually accomplish the business of governing.

Last week, my friend Jane Vance sent me this detail (see above) of two overlapping goblets from one of her new paintings. It was just after I'd visited her, and she served me wine in the most extravagantly beautiful ruby-red glass I had ever seen. In truth, I couldn't get over how beautiful they were. Jane told me the glasses were a recent present from a friend. Then, on my email a few days later, this image arrived, and my first thought was, what a perfect metaphor for bipartisanship. I wrote her back, saying, "You'll just have to endure your glasses becoming politicized, because that's the lens through which I see everything these days."

Jane wrote back, "My goblets can handle politicization. The intoxication of proximity and the exhilaration of contact: these are the venerable political and personal arts we would do well, with our best goblets, to celebrate."

Ah yes, I thought, of course. If only it were, but it's so absolutely not, what is happening over there on Vinegar Hill.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Obliterating Arc of Hope and Optimism in Suicidal Times (2)

I am still very much in process with Desmond Tutu's assertion that "there is no question at all that good and laughter and justice will prevail," and that "the perpetrators of oppression or injustice will bite the dust"--trying to decide whether or not it is valid assumption to make. On the issue of how to remain optimistic when realistically everything is sliding towards collapse, hearing what my friends have to say has been both enlightening and rewarding. It's not that I don't know the reasons for optimism being the better path, I do. But I also struggle with the power of emotional truth, in terms of what I see happening wherever I look. For me, the struggle is between an optimism I mostly don't feel, and a pessimism I can't intellectually support. It's like riding a bus that is likely to leave its passengers lying dead by the side of the road, and hoping to figure out a way to be positive and philosophical about it.

"In truth, everybody’s is right and nobody knows anything. Derrick Jensen is right that we’re fucked, Tutu is right that goodness will prevail. You are right to worry. And I am right to see things in the context of very vast pictures. For instance, at this very second people are being tortured somewhere, and elsewhere people are having fantastic orgasms looking into each other's eyes...planets are being born and stars are blowing apart... some people have behaved in magnificent ways to one another, and at the same time...[others] have been cold, punitive, destructive to one another. Tears of sorrow and tears of joy flowing, flowing all of the time...This world, the big-picture world, is forever in states of flux of dark and light, forever turning itself inside out through both creation and destruction. Sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of the destruction: it’s in the nature of things. Why shouldn’t we? Who are we to escape that part of the universe forever? Every polarity we can think of love-hate, light-darkness, good-evil, miraculous-impossible, is always simultaneous in the whole. It’s all flickering and flowing and moving as one and we are part of that. It’s all congruent and necessary. Nobody really knows what’s what and that reality is our common ground—it crosses all lines. Here we are in the great mystery together, laugh or cry." [From my friend Jari Chevalier, who lives in New York. To read the entirety of Jari's response, visit Jari Chevalier, host: Living Hero podcast, NYC]

"I do think it’s important from a philosophical perspective to remain as compassionate as possible towards those with different beliefs or perspectives. I’ll take the two competing rallies that have occurred during this election cycle as proof. I think generally Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity had it right, and is pushing for a return to civility and open-minded discourse; I think generally Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor had it wrong, pushing for an awakening of the worst reactionary impulses in our citizenry. I certainly think that the leaders of these rallies can be categorized that easily: Stewart seems to me to be responsible and fair, whereas Beck does come across as a irrational fear monger... So while I think that a Jon Stewart or an Obama is mostly good and that a Glenn Beck or a John Boehner is mostly not good, I also think that there is a little bit more Jim Crow in some Democrats and, much more importantly, a little bit more Desmond Tutu in some Republicans than it might seem. I know from my time at Pepperdine that many people with archconservative positions on certain political issues and a very evangelical Christian perspective can be the nicest people in the world...I think that people have both Jim Crow and Desmond Tutu. Politics is an ugly business, and maybe not the best place to hope to see the better angels of our nature, though we do have people working hard in that arena to make that more the case. But I think that we see it best on a smaller scale, when organized greed and such doesn’t have the ability to put up a smokescreen. You and I can say that we prefer the Desmond Tutu part of humanity and work towards it, and I think that the vast majority of people would say the same. There is a fundamental decency in the world, and even if there are ideological or irrational barriers that prohibit that from being expressed all the time, that just makes cultivating that decency on a grassroots level all the more important." [From Emerson Siegle, my friend Jane Vance's son, now in his first year of graduate law school at UVA in Charlottesville, VA]

"I tell myself the story that what goes around, comes around...all things considered, the cosmos seeks balance. This helps me roll out of bed in the morning... Balance may really exist everywhere, even in politics and in acts of inhumane behavior, but we simply do not have the visual or mental capacity to see it at once...perhaps over time if we live long enough? Finally, I take comfort in the thought that, even in the midst of the most dire straits, our capacity to 'create' or 'imagine' (in the sense that Jacob Bronowski meant) sets us apart, not just from other species, but from our own despair." [From Mitzi Vernon, a friend living in Blacksburg]

There is an old Chinese maxim, which states that "people in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe." Soliciting the opinions and thoughts of my wonderful friends has certainly helped me defray some of the cynicism I feel about human nature, and it has somewhat alleviated my resentment toward the spoilers.

The lesson I take away from all this is that optimism in dark times doesn't necessarily mean not seeing what is right before your eyes. It doesn't have to mean a denial of what is going on. Keeping your inner Tinker Bell alive, even when things are as difficult and disappointing as they are now, is worthwhile if only because "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine." And that certainly beats out "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you get stabbed, poisoned, or thrown off the edge of a cliff." (This last comment is stolen from a New Yorker review by Anthony Lane, of Claude Chabrol's movies and how they instruct us.)

I could stop here, but I am going to leave the last words for my friend Elizabeth Indianos, who lives in FLA. She also sent me the photo above, which she took at Jon Stewart's rally:

"I can do more to solve the problems in the world by refusing to add low-energy thoughts of hate or disgust to the circumstances around us...In my own mind at least, good and evil are cyclical, not either/or. They compete, are fluctuating iotas, variables that ebb and flow--so do your Mother Teresa best. Pick a side. Stick to it and steer in the direction of the infinite power of the universe, no matter what."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Obliterating Arc of Hope and Optimism in Suicidal Tiimes

"Tell me about despair, yours. I will tell you about mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on." [Mary Oliver, from "Wild Geese"]

It was a strange weekend of ghoulish, pre-election mayhem, Halloween weirdness (those Tea Partiers, for instance, who seem to like wearing costumes all year round), and Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity." "We are in hard times," Stewart told the huge crowd, "not end times."

Instead of trick-or-treating with my neighbors up the road on Sunday, I stayed home and watched 60 Minutes, which turned out to be a program about American towns in which people have tragically lost businesses and jobs. It was very painful to witness. I have already seen quite a bit of this kind of media coverage across the country, where people can't stop crying, including the men. Parents, who can't afford to put food on the table or send their kids to college. So many folks in tears, while three billion dollars were being lavished, nay, squandered, on election attack ads. I found myself sitting alone and wondering, has the human race always been this way? Is this just how things are--and meanwhile the world goes on?

Thinking, too, about my last blog, I wondered if, way down deep, we are more Jim Crow than Desmond Tutu? How do Tutu and the Dalai Lama manage to chuckle over human foibles and frailty? Personally I have always shied away from eternal optimism, as if it were less a sign of enlightenment than some sort of protective sheen. It grates on me--which is why I decided to ask some friends what they thought in an email. I asked them about Desmond Tutu's statement, quoted in my last blog, that "the texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail...[and that] the perpetrators of injustice or oppression... will bite the dust." I asked point-blank: Has Desmond Tutu discovered the culminating secret of the universe? Or is he just singin' in the rain? Do you think the human spirit will ultimately prevail? Or are we, as Derrick Jensen says, fucked? I definitely got answers, many more than I expected, as follows:

I like [Tutu's] frame of mind. It’s a good meme to live by. Do I think it’s true? Well, Evolution works in strange ways, so it is hard, if not impossible, to know the outcome of the Evolutionary process. But Tutu’s optimism is undoubtedly grounded in his belief in God, and a God that will ultimately prevail in seeing to it that “the meek will inherit the Earth”. I don’t believe in such a God, but I do concur, with Tutu, in that I think those that live by greed, war, etc., will self-destruct; but I also believe they will take a lot of the “innocent” with them, as they are already doing. Still, I wish to believe that living a life of compassion and wisdom will ultimately assure our survival, over the oppression/violence/exploitation option. And of course, a giant meteor hitting the Earth could make all of this irrelevant. [Kirk Ballin, a friend in Roanoke, VA]

About Tutu...today I am starting out as an optimist. In an email to some last night, I was not...I said, “Unfortunately my Halloween costume is not that of an optimist!” Today I think just maybe he could be right...and how else to make it a true prophecy than to join in as many people in such a proclamation. Seeing Dachau recently oddly filled me with a strange pairing of disbelief/horror and hope. [Hank Foreman, a friend in Boone, NC]

Hmmmm, I wonder which direction I’ll go with this. Maybe singing in the rain is the secret of the universe? Yeah, I like that. I have some issues with “faith” as I perceive it to be espoused by mainstream religions but I do have faith “that good and laughter and justice will prevail”. I have to believe this at my core because if I can’t see the world this way then it might not exist, if nobody sees the world this way then I’m sure it won’t exist. Well said Mister Tutu. [Paul Zenner, a friend in Blacksburg]

I think what Desmond Tutu means is no one gets to leave alive. We are all heading in the same direction no matter what our plans are or how we live. Does he know more of what the next chapter will be? I do not know. When you step back and see how we repeat the same patterns over and over again from the beginings of civilization to the present, it starts to make us look pretty silly: what, another war, more stealing and cheating, more bad behavior? Ego and control out of hand again. I believe that there are enough of us who are aware so that we can make a shift and change. [Fern Shaffer, a friend in Chicago]

I don't know that the human race "has always been this way." We have created violence toward each other in every century of our known history: most agree that the 20th century was the most violent! As our human population doubles and quadruples in the 21st century, as oceans rise, polar ice and glaciers melt, forests diminish, fossil fuel runs out, clean water becomes increasingly polluted, arable land is covered in highways and cities, it seems inevitable that the competition for food and shelter can only intensify. The human spirit will prevail as hope is our only option. Whether our species does is another question. I think as long as we are in the limbic ancient parts of our brain arguing about whose God is the only God; denying the science of Gaia, we are ultimately doomed. The last 60 years have been about trying to "wake up" and we are no less ignorant, perhaps more ignorant due to fear now, than we were then. [Ciel Bergman, a friend in Santa Fe]

I went to the rally in Washington. It all went well and there certainly was a good vibe. Some ladies from New York felt that it should have had more political clout and that there should have been more Sarah-bashing. I think that it did show up the liberals as not aggressive.
I do hate all the money being spent on negative campaign ads. I try not to feel too deeply about all the injustices happening in the world and set little time aside to think about it, it is selfish but that is the only way I can prevail. I try to invite as much joy into my life as I can because I have to get thru it.
I did not buy any candy this year, did not want any corn syrup candy in the house because I knew I would be tempted to eat it. As I usually get a lot of really cute trick-or-treaters here, I decided to go see The Social Network. Did not feel like hiding in my own house. So, went off to the movies by myself and ended up being the only one in the theatre. Which is ok, except that three quarters thru the movie a commotion. Some of the employees thought that somebody had put this fake person in the seat, which happened to be me, and they came to investigate and when I moved, every one got a fright. [Renet Schuld, a friend in Roanoke]

The times are uneasy and there is the stench of hunters approaching, but I will not be quiet any more than you, and perhaps, at last, the proverb about pearls before swine is a lesson not in beauty but in force. Pearls, besides being beautiful, are too small. We need big heavy insulting baseball-hard BLOWS of truth with which to wallop the brutes on the temple, to scare them away. So I propose we keep blogging, keep painting, and keep loving each other...So I say, glory in our difference from these brutes. Show no fear, sally forth with swishes and fangs, and scare the hell out of the hunters until they run back to their same old retreats. Now may not be the time for dialogue but only for some distance between the two irreconcilable species. [Jane Vance, a friend in Blacksburg]

A wise teacher once said to me “one of the secrets to a happy and good life is to ”forgive yourself and everyone else immediately.” I have kept on believing that putting out into the world visions of love and compassion is vital, and I must stay with this vision of the sacredness of all humans. Due to the suffering all around us and the inequities we see every day, keeping to Tutu’s vision is much more important now then ever before. Every act of generosity and love helps. [Beth Swartz, a friend in Scottsdale, AZ]

The history of civilization is the history of crime.—P. D. Ouspensky. Laughter makes the world bearable, so I’m with the archbishop on this point. His belief that justice triumphs after a long struggle is an assertion of faith, not fact. Gurdjieff would call this “self-calming.” Good and evil are qualities we attribute to the world based upon our entirely subjective impressions of it. The world simply is. The responsible life is in the struggle to act toward the world and toward others with charity and compassion and understanding, without the expectation of reward or of an outcome to our liking. Life is in the living and not in the goal. [Bob Walker, a friend in Blacksburg]

We're fucked. [Bill Rutherfoord, a friend in Roanoke. This comment arrived on my computer early this morning, after last night's election.]

There are more comments, which will be in the next blog. Feel free, meanwhile, if you haven't already, to send me your thoughts. The sculpture in the illustration is by Meredith Bergmann.