LIVE LONG IN THE BODY, BUT NOT TOO LONG

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s an interesting article in the April 3, 2017 edition of The New Yorker entitled “The God Pill” by Tad Friend. It discusses the money invested, and the lengths people are going to, for the purpose of coming up with a medically or technologically assisted prolongation of life. In some instances even, there is talk of living forever, whatever that may actually mean for a body. The impetus, and the money behind the energy to engage in this kind of research, comes mainly from Silicon Valley billionaires. A number of different options are being looked at, but they fall mostly into two categories. One has to do with fixing genes that are thought to cause aging, turning them off, or tweaking them in certain ways, so as to slow down or even reverse the effects of the passage of time. The other more or less gives up on that approach and looks instead to a science that will find ways of creating replacement parts, ones that can be slotted in and take over from badly damaged or non-functioning ones (like putting a new carburetor into an engine). There’s even talk of a third possibility, a kind of wholesale transferring of one’s consciousness into “the cloud.” Apparently, or so the thinking goes, if you live in the cloud, you live forever.

Although enthusiasts like to claim otherwise, most of this is likely only to be a possibility that might take place, if it does so at all, in the distant future. Still, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see that things are already beginning, if slowly. Current medical science regularly puts new hearts, livers, kidneys etc. into people’s bodies. Still, such replacement parts come from other human beings, not off the shelf.

Unless you are someone with access to the almost unimaginable (for most of us, anyway) disposable wealth of the superrich, much of the above might just as well be science fiction. The majority of us are happy enough if we’re able to get regular medical coverage, the kind that takes care of ordinary illnesses that plague human beings. We’re delighted that doctors have antibiotics that can cure bacterial infections, which in the past might have brought a slow and painful death, or that medical knowledge has advanced to give us actual–if mechanical–replacement parts, like new knees or hips, or stents to open up clogged coronary arteries. In fact, these days we breathe a sigh of relief when we get to keep medical coverage at all, given the recent politics of wrath that would take coverage away from millions.

So, Silicon Valley billionaires don’t want to die? What a surprise! If you were to ask most of us, would the answer be so different? Obviously, the knee-jerk reaction of most living beings is to want to go on and on. And this is so whether you believe in an afterlife or not. Of course, there are exceptions here and there, like brainwashed suicide bombers, or poor souls so despondent they decide they no longer wish to live. But these are outliers. The tendency for almost everyone is to say they’d like to keep on living, even if we may not have thought through very well what that would exactly entail.

What would it really mean for us to live on endlessly? It’s not even easy to envision, this notion of going on decade after decade, century after century, in the same body we know and love. All of our experience as a species predisposes us to look for an ending in whatever we undertake. And this is true in all of nature; plants, animals, and insects all die. A few live long lives, like the Arctic Sea Sponge that can go on for 1500 years, and the Methuselah of them all, the California Bristlecone Pine that is reported to be 4,765 years old. But even these ancient ones come to an end. Suns, planets, whole galaxies die eventually, so why should we be an exception? Even practically speaking, there are difficulties and challenges. Where would we be, for example, if large numbers of people never passed on? Would they also stop having children? Because, if not, projections related to the overpopulation of the globe—as dire as they currently are—would quickly angle up entirely off the charts, in the most devastating of ways.

But practical issues aside (as important as they are), the real question may be: Why would we wish to live forever? Here we pass on from medicine and technology to matters more in the philosophical or even spiritual realm. How would it feel to live on and on, if friends and loved ones did not as well? Of course, a billionaire could pay for a few selected people to also be given the same treatment he or she got, though most of us could not do so. But even if we could, would that be enough? How many of us would really want to keep on going long enough to witness the horrors of what the future is very likely to offer? If there were appalling and shockingly devastating wars, and horrific, cataclysmic natural events in the past surely there will be others—and even worse ones—in the years to come. Given the already out of control population increases, dire new technologies of war, and the likelihood of massive destruction due to the ever-increasing warming of the globe, is this something we really wish to go out of our way to stay around and witness? Isn’t it bad enough that we condemn our own children and grandchildren to have to endure what is likely to come, due in part at least to our lack of foresight and unwillingness to act?

In centuries past, eternal life was thought of exclusively as the business of churches. Christians and many others cringed at the thought of dying unshriven, outside of God’s good grace, and winding up in hell forever. But is the traditional notion of heaven any better, sitting around in some idealized space somewhere, whatever it may look like, and doing, well, what exactly? Yet, whether or not one believes in such a scenario, is it reasonable to think that endless life in the body, or in “the cloud” somewhere, would be so much better?

Personally, my choice is to opt out of this endless life-in-the-body thing, or some super-cyber connectivity (who knows how one’s personality, or even one’s thoughts, would survive there; and who maintains the system, how does it keep itself going?). Better, far better, to concentrate on living each moment of one’s normal everyday life purposefully, conscientiously and compassionately; to care for one’s fellow beings (and not just one’s fellow human beings); and to honor and celebrate the earth as a living entity, rather than chase after some will-o-the-wisp concoction of everlasting life on earth. As if the earth itself would last forever, anyway. Far more appealing, to my mind, is the Hindu notion of God referred to as “Sat, Chit, Ananda.” It means “ever existing, ever new bliss.” A life not in a never-ending body, or tethered to some mega-web, but living instead in the constant awareness of a continually new and joy-filled consciousness.

So, live in the body? Yes, absolutely, and to the fullest extent, for whatever our time may be. But what has a beginning also has to have an end. If whole galaxies and star systems can die, so probably can we. Billionaires might do better to spend their money helping the poor and the dispossessed make a better life in the moment, rather than searching for some would-be Fountain of Youth they’ll never find.

In the meantime, I’ll keep on trying to attain a consciousness that transcends the body and anything material. Or, better, one that includes the body and all of matter. That’s not a quest limited only to the super-wealthy; it’s open to everybody. A consciousness that lives with the body or without it, now and later, here and there, in ever-new happiness, forever and forever more—now, there’s a “God pill” I can go for.

ORIGINALISM AND THE SUPREME COURT: HOW DOES JUDGE GORSUCH MEASURE UP?

By Paul M. Lewis

As Judge Neil Gorsuch faces Senate confirmation hearings this week, we would do well to think what is meant by the concept of originalism. Gorsuch is a well-documented proponent of that legal theory, and it is one that can profoundly affect many of the cases that routinely appear before the Supreme Court.

Originalism is the belief that judges should accept the words of the Constitution, as they were understood at the time when it was written. It therefore touches upon the most basic questions that comes before a judge, namely, how to interpret a law in a given case, and if that law comports with the Constitution. Decisions using originalism as their founding argument usually align quite well with conservative principles. For example, gay marriage was not legal (it was never even considered) in the late 18th century, and no reference was ever made to it in the Constitution. Therefore, originalists say, that document cannot be used to make it legal today.

Justice Antonin Scalia, a well-known originalist, voted against the claimant in Obergefel v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. In his descent, Scalia even went on to call the ruling a “threat against American democracy,” although he adds that the ruling was “of no personal importance to me.” And while we can legitimately question the veracity of that claim, given the conservatism of his Catholic faith, as well as what Scalia has said elsewhere about gay people and their rights, what is at issue here is the stated legal reasoning behind his decision. He goes on to say that what is of overwhelming importance to him is this: “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court,” adding that the courts have created liberties never intended in the Constitution.

In theory, originalists claim that they have no right to interpret laws, including, indeed especially, the Constitution itself, unless by interpretation we mean the parsing out of exactly what the writers of the Constitution meant at the time when they wrote it. This raises a number of obvious questions. First, how are we to know exactly what was in the minds of men (and there were, of course, no women framers), and white privileged elite men at that, who lived and thrived and thought as men did in the 18th century? It is difficult enough to get into the heads of people living today, in such a way as to discern exactly what is meant by what they have written. And yet we know, or can know, the recent history and the surrounding culture in a most immediate way. Which suggests yet another question, one that goes to this very issue of history and culture. The writers of the Constitution were men who lived high above others of their time in terms of wealth and power; some of them owned slaves and considered them to be property (e.g. Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among others); they looked upon women as less than full citizens; they believed that only white male property owners should be able to vote and hold office; and they were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians. If these are the things the founding fathers embodied and believed in, do they really represent what we in today’s world ought to be attempting to understand and to emulate? Should this be the major contextual basis for interpreting the Constitution?

Originalists consider the Constitution to be a “dead document.” It is not a “living document” because it is not open to the interpretation of the present day. What it says is what it meant, nothing more, and any finagling with its meaning is, and ought to be, anathema. But nowhere does the Constitution itself make this claim. And while it may be argued that there was no need to say it, no need to make it explicit as this was simply understood, is that not an argument against itself? If the words of the document do not make it clear and unambiguous, then who are we to “interpret” the document to mean something it does not literally say?

The main dessenting argument against originalism in essence comes down to this: We cannot, and should not, attempt to literally apply a document, signed 228 years ago by a group consisting of all white men who believed in the very limited freedoms of that era, to the highly varied and extremely different world of the 21st century. Indeed, belief in originalism, as applied to the US Constitution, is very closely allied to a fundamentalist approach to the scripture of any religion you may care to name. Like originalists, religious fundamentalists hang on every word of the sacred text. They believe it says what it means in a literal way, and is not to be interpreted by humans so as to comply with current historical or cultural norms. The idea behind the notion is that God spoke to his people in this scripture, and because God does not make errors, nothing he said in the book can be wrong. According to this theory, our job is simple: to read, understand, apply verbatim, and obey. Those who do so, however, all too often encounter strange notions of what to eat, how to dress, and what we can and cannot say or do, according to rules that were put in place perhaps thousands of years ago, as if the world had not changed an iota in the intervening centuries.

If the Senate confirms Judge Gorsuch, just how strict an originalist he proves himself to be remains to be seen. The Heritage Foundation, a highly conservative political think tank, has written a lot about originalism by way of explaining and defending it. In “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution,” they discuss how it is possible to ascertain the original meaning of the founding document. Among other things, they suggest the obvious, such as discerning the “evident meaning of the words” according to the lexicon of the times; in addition, they recommend studying the surrounding debates of the time on the Constitution, looking at the words in the context of the political philosophy of the framers, reading contemporaneous interpreters, and examining the “evidence of long-standing traditions that demonstrates the people’s understanding of the words.”

But just as with religious fundamentalism, so with political originalism, one really cannot completely get away from interpretation. Too many things in sacred texts contradict one another, or are simply considered utterly outlandish in the modern world. The most obvious of these in the Bible is no doubt its support of slavery, but there are many others, as well. So then, is it all right to pick and choose what we think ought to be followed literally, leaving out the ones we choose not to acknowledge? Even the religious argument against abortion relies on interpretation. Abortion per se is nowhere condemned in the Bible. Instead, Christians rely on the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment to support their position. Yet, it must be conceded that exactly when the life of a human being begins is a matter of opinion, of interpretation. The same can be said, covering the same issue, when it comes to originalism. The exact time when one can be identified as being alive as a human person is not clear. Is it at inception, or at birth? And yet, originalists claim that abortion is not supported by the Constitution. Why? Where does it say that life begins at the moment of conception? And if it does not say so, how can a law against it be considered anything other than an interpretation. Yet, originalists do not interpret. Or so they say.

Are originalists, and conservatives generally, the real upholders of the law and tradition, stalwarts who want to keep America on the straight and narrow, who fear a loss of self-identity, of “soul,” if we are not careful? Or are they merely proponents of small government, of upholding the rights of those who are already powerful and privileged, and of applying laws strictly, even harshly, because otherwise how are we to keep ourselves safe in a dangerous world? These notions of power and self-protection and aggrandizement of our country at the expense of all others have become binding principles among conservatives today, even more so with the advent of the Trump administration. And again, it’s worth remembering that originalist interpretations of the Constitution align very closely with these conservative beliefs.

It is therefore incumbent on senators, Democrats in particular, to question Judge Gorsuch very closely on his political philosophy. Not on the specifics of how he would rule in this or that hypothetical case. No judge can be expected to respond to the hypothetical, when details are unknown. But judges can well be held accountable for past decisions, and questioned closely on them. In legal terminology, this notion is referred to as stare decisis, a term that means to stand by things decided. Stare decisis can tell us a good deal about Judge Gorsuch, and it a valuable tool in helping us to understand just how he thinks judicially. Can words be understood in the context of the modern world? Are we constrained to live by notions espoused hundreds of years ago, in a different era with a very different cultural and historical context? Or can we live in the present, applying our knowledge, our intelligence, and our experience to the principles laid down by those who came before us?

This is what I would like to know about Judge Gorsuch. And depending on what his answers to these questions may be, I would like to see him confirmed or rejected. At this point, my guess is that, given the judge’s past rulings and his writings, we ought to hold out for a better and more open-minded new justice of the Supreme Court.

 

 

WHERE YOU LIVE IS WHERE YOU BREATHE

By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT TO DO WHEN CHAOS REIGNS?

By Paul M. Lewis

I’ve asked myself a number of times why I haven’t written much of late, given the unprecedented and disastrous advent of the Trump Administration. Surely, I thought, there has been plenty happening, and I must have something to say about it. There are innumerable topics about which I have deep feelings, opinions that diverge sharply from the reprehensible actions of the president and his staff. These actions have to do with everything from immigration and deportation, to foreign policy, to civil rights, to climate change and environmental policy generally, to healthcare, to international trade, and on and on. In one sense, this itself may have been the problem for me. I’ve felt stymied, sometimes almost paralyzed, by the avalanche of deplorable and reprehensible actions that come willy-nilly from the Trump administration on almost a daily basis.

In the end, however, silence is not a tenable position. While the feeling of being submerged by the events of the day is understandable, what isn’t all right is to sit back and do nothing. Not that it’s my intention to tell anyone else how they should act. Each person will take on what she or he feels is possible to do. But even the smallest thing may contribute in ways that we may not always be aware of. And an accumulation of small actions, bound together in solidarity and common interest and common passion, can often do more than a single large action.

I suppose it could be because of these thoughts I’ve been mulling over lately, but I had a dream the other night in which I saw a poster on which was written in bold letters: “Write Your Blog and Do Your Part.” So, I’ve decided it’s time to stop feeling hobbled and constrained by people and events. After all, I am a believer in the notion that every word spoken has a wide-ranging and resonant effect in the world, and words uttered from the heart, as well as from the head, are all the more powerful.

What then do I think about the Trump Administration? My very first reaction was that it might bring fascism down upon our country. And I should add I’m still concerned that it could. But what strikes me more so these days is not so much its execrable authoritarian bent, as terrible as that is, but instead the disordered, almost anarchical chaos of its dealings with the world. Trump is someone incapable of long-term planning, so very unlike his measured and highly intellectual predecessor. The new president is clearly uncomfortable with logic, forethought and groundwork, anything that hints of a cool, cerebral projection of ideas and policies. By his own admission, he prefers to keep us guessing, so as to keep people off balance and, in so doing, gain the advantage over them. And while such a strategy may work in business, although I have my doubts that it does even there—at least not in the long run—it is a disastrous way to run a government.

Of course, chaos and turmoil are hardly new; neither were they introduced into the world by Donald Trump. He is merely the latest iteration. With very little effort, anyone who studies history can come up with multiple examples of it. To name general categories, rather than specific instances of each (as the list would otherwise be almost endless), we might include the following: wars, slavery and forced labor, massacres, purges, internment camps, human-induced mass starvation, killing in the name of religion or political ideology, forced conversion, human sacrifice, cultural genocide, and on and on. This is what people have done to each other over the millennia, and it continues today.

The Principle of Chaos is seldom far removed from our lives, as much as we may think of ourselves as civilized. Before Hitler, many Germans surely thought of themselves as—and were—refined and enlightened, good solid citizens of the state, well mannered, and compassionate. But in the end, great fear, as well as a certain human willingness to overlook what is happening around one, took over and blinded people as to what they were allowing themselves to become.

The tendency toward chaos appears to be a thing deeply embedded in the human psyche, though most of the time we rouse ourselves to combat and counteract it. Some are more successful at it than others. We see it in our deepest mythic stories. And what are mythologies, but tales we tell ourselves and others in order to help us understand the frightening underlying power of the unconscious mind? Here again, there are countless examples: the coyote trickster in many American Indian traditions; fear of the dark wood in European fairytales; Loki in old Norse stories; the fallen angels—to say nothing of Satan—in Christian thought; and the Fomorians, a group of anti-gods in Irish myth, who fought against the gods of the upper world. Some of the Fomorians wound up marrying the gods (the Tuatha De Danann) and having offspring, a not too unsubtle nod to the idea that we are all mixtures of good and bad.

Along with great uncertainty and tremendous disruption in people’s lives, chaos also brings with it fear and panic. Where there had once been a calm certitude about life, a sort of ordinariness, even a boring routine, though one that induced assurance and confidence that life would go on as it always has, now instead ensues tumult and confusion, mayhem and disarray. We see this in the millions of immigrants—legal and illegal—who are wary of going to work in the morning and to school, or to the market to buy food. They are frightened even to go out into the street, lest an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official stop and arrest them. We see it with Muslims, too, and among transgender students, leery of going to school anymore, with the millions who now fear whether or not they will get to keep their health insurance, and even in the scientific community, where people are justifiably guarded and watchful of government agencies disrupting studies they disapprove of.

Chaos is not just something that appears in myth. It is a real thing that takes place in the world we live in. We see it in mythological stories precisely because it happens in everyday life, because it is part of how humans sometimes act. None of this is meant to say that we must accept it. It is inevitable only to the extent that we acquiesce to it, that we allow it to happen.

Donald Trump may thrive on chaos. He may have chosen his closest advisers, people like Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, exactly because they feed his need for it. But there still remain elements of our government and our society that can fight and counteract the hubbub of despair that comes with chaotic and authoritarian governmental action. So far, at least, the judiciary has stood solid, the press has remained vigilant, and most of all the people themselves have made their voices heard.

That is why I am writing today, and why it is important for all of us to do whatever we can to protest loudly and forcefully, whenever it’s required that we do so. Otherwise, chaos continues to reign; otherwise, the forces of disorder and confusion sap our energies and lay us low. With will and determination, we can counteract at least some of the upheaval of a newly topsy-turvy world. And we can, as well—come 2018—effect dramatic changes of our own making.

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE TRUMP HAS WON–NOW WHAT?

By Paul M. Lewis

We will see what the election of Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States brings with it. So far, there seems little doubt that it does not bode well for the environment, for the battle against global climate change, for the physical health of millions of Americans, especially the country’s poorest, for international affairs, or for transnational trade. In the end, it might even presage bad news for the working class, those very individuals whose support—due to the eccentricities of the Electoral College—propelled him into the White House in the first place.

Trump claims to have been elected by an overwhelming vote of the people, but the latest count shows that he lost the popular election by 2.8 million. He consistently lost in almost every major urban center in the country, while eking out Electoral College wins in several states. In Michigan, for example, he won by only about 10,000 votes; in Wisconsin the number was approximately 22,000; and in Pennsylvania it was by some 40,000. If we add in two other Trump victories, namely Florida and South Carolina, where he won by 120,00 and 177,000 votes respectively, we come to a total of 370,000. That number cinched for him the 84 electoral votes that come with these states. Compare that to the number of electoral votes Hillary Clinton won by taking California and New York—also 84. In other words, Trump received 84 electoral votes with only 370,000 popular votes, while Clinton got them by winning 4.9 million popular votes (the combined number she received in California and New York). Is it fair, or even democratic, to allot the same number of electoral votes to both candidates, when one took the popular vote in the states mentioned by more than 4 million? Ultimately, the question of the viability of the Electoral College has to be left up to the American people as a whole to consider. But one thing is for sure: in no way can Trump’s win be considered a landslide.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole issue of how, or by how much, he won, what has to be faced now is what will he do with his newly found power? Since he has not even been inaugurated yet, we are mostly left to speculate. We do know that he has already nominated a conglomeration of billionaires for his cabinet. Overall, these individuals represent a group that promises to stymie federal regulations that protect the environment and people’s health and wellbeing, and instead will lobby for the rich and powerful, and who—if confirmed by Congress—would in some cases work to undo the very agencies they were sworn in to protect. Beyond that, his actions, and even his demeanor, so far are not promising. He has already managed to deeply offend the Chinese, cherry pick a company that was going to move its operations to Mexico and prevent—or bribe or bully—them from doing so (whether or not such a policy is sustainable is an open question), cozy up to dictators like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and now he claims to openly doubt the combined intelligence gathering prowess of the country. We can only presume this is because he fears that Russia’s meddling in our presidential election for the purposes of promoting a Trump win will cast doubt on his legitimacy as the winner. And beyond even this, he continues not only to question, but to deny outright any human part in the warming of the globe, and to name like-minded people to positions that oversee the country’s efforts to do its part in battling climate change.

Given all this, when Trump becomes president of this country on January 20, 2017, what are we going to do about him? For one thing, everyone who believes in American democracy must work through their elected representatives—of both parties—in order to rein in Trump’s excesses. Democrats and Progressives may not agree with much that Republicans stand for, but already senators like John McCain (R-Arizona), and even Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), have expressed concern and are speaking out about Trump’s dangerous dismissal of the CIA’s findings related to Russia’s interference in our electoral process. Unfortunately, the GOP Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has not yet found the courage to do so, but political pressure has worked on him in the past, and he may yet come round to standing up for a full and fair examination into Russia’s role in Trump’s win. The country deserves such an inquiry, and we all ought to be concerned about the president-elect’s blithe and offhand dismissal of such astounding findings. Trump tells us he is an intelligent man and does not even need the daily security briefings that are part and parcel of any learning curve for a new chief executive. But this is not about how smart any individual may be. It’s about knowledge and information; it’s about keeping abreast of what is happening in a changing world. In a word, it’s about what is called intelligence, which Trump clearly needs.

More and more, it will be incumbent upon all Americans to keep themselves informed and to stand up and be counted when, as seems all too likely, Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style and his more than questionable ideas and theories go against the good of the American people. It’s not inconceivable that his bizarre notions and his authoritarian impulses may pose a threat to the country, or even to the world.

If there ever was an expectation that Trump might show himself, after the election, to be more mature, less impulsive, more willing to accommodate the desires of all the American people, the time for it would be now. We can certainly hope that those who voted for Donald Trump were able to see something in him that many of us who didn’t cannot. If he succeeds in renewing the tattered infrastructure of the county, or in legitimately and sustainably bringing jobs back to those who have lost them and who have felt left out by the processes of the automatizing of industry and of globalization, we ought to be glad. But even then, at what cost might such benefits come, if indeed they come at all? What price are we willing to pay for such hoped-for benefits?

In the end, the country is stronger than any one individual, however misguided, or even malign, we may think his intentions to be. While awaiting the answers to the many questions about Donald Trump and the kind of president he will prove himself to be, we should remember and trust in the strengths of the checks and balances built into the Constitution. We would also do well to believe in the patriotism and love of country we see in many, of both parties, in Congress; and as individuals we must live our lives with as much watchfulness, dignity, and integrity as we can muster. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This is a quote often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Thomas Jefferson. Whether or not it was he who said it is hardly the point. These days, and always, it is a thing we would all do well to remember.

 

 

 

 

WHAT WE WANT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Paul M. Lewis

I have always felt that the holidays tend to amplify and magnify both what is good and what is bad in life. The good things seem that much nicer: spending time with family and friends, eating wonderful food, or just enjoying the warmth of a season when people, sometimes at least, really do try to treat each other a little better. And the bad things are that much more hurtful: the continued wars in the world, the violence and killing, all the horrors that people perpetrate on each other, from casual caustic remarks to curses to racial or ethnic slurs. All this when what we’re most longing for is some basic human respect, and maybe even a little bit of kindness.

I have, for a long time now, particularly had mixed feelings about the month of November. That’s because both of my parents died during this month, and now my partner’s father and his sister have, as well. In addition, his mother and brother passed away, one in late October just this year, and the other in mid-December a few years ago. Even so, we make the best effort we can to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with an open heart and mind.

What exactly is it about the holidays that makes us all the more long for those feelings of warmth and closeness or, to put it more simply, the desire to be loved? Because isn’t it a truism that, always and forever, what everyone wants is to be loved? Even the gruffest among us, those who do not make a habit of freely giving their own love to others, nonetheless somehow want love in return. We may do our utmost sometimes to make that wish sound more adult, more mature, more grown up. We call it things like acceptance, or a kind of welcoming or even, minimally, a tolerance of who and what we are. But dig down deep enough, and we see that what’s really meant is simply that we want to be loved.

The other day, my partner and I were going into our local grocery store to do the weekly shopping, and there, next to the door, sat a beggar. There is no other word to use, no other term to soften, mollify or sugarcoat it. He was dressed in the filthiest of rags, his hair was unwashed, and he had a long beard that hung down in tatters. I looked at him and smiled, if for no other reason than that most people were quickly turning away. It was clear that he was about to ask for money (another reason why people were probably avoiding his gaze), even though he had not quite gotten around to it with me yet. So, I walked over to him.

It’s a strange experience to encounter a total stranger who, in a sense, stands naked before you. I don’t mean he was without clothing, of course. His nakedness was psychic, psychological, if you prefer. He sat there with no pretense whatsoever, no attempt to hide who and what he was. Through his unkempt hair and his rumpled and disheveled appearance, he looked up at me and smiled, and he said to me in, I swear to you, the sweetest and most loving way: “I’m an alcoholic.” That’s it, no other words, just a simple declaration of how he thought of himself. Now, I am no stranger to alcoholics. My father was one, as was my brother, and several of my uncles. In a way, I guess, it’s kind of a family trait. My partner’s mother was also, albeit one who was able to achieve a wonderful twenty-eight years of sobriety, and we have other close friends who are recovering alcoholics. I answered him and said, “Yes, I know you are,” and I gave him a dollar. Then, mostly for my own comfort, not his—I do get that—I added, “I hope you spend it on food, not on booze.” We both knew what he would probably do, but by now there was a sense whereby that no longer mattered as much. What felt more important to me was that we’d had at least a moment’s worth of honest human interaction. In that instant, he became no longer just another bum by the market door, not just a piece of human flotsam, washed up on so-called civilized shores to be seen for an instant and avoided by upright and respectable citizens. Instead, he had showed himself in the fullness of his humanity, to be sure, with glaring flaws that were uncomfortable to look at, but still, a magnificent child of the Universe.

Walt Whitman has something interesting to say about how the good people of the polis ought to act toward those who do not follow paths accepted and acceptable to society. In the prelude to his great work, “Leaves Of Grass,” he exhorts us with these words: “Give alms to every one that asks, (and) stand up for the stupid and crazy.”

What does any of this have to do with the holiday season? I wondered about that, mulling over both the unbearable sadnesses I’ve come to associate with the time of year, as well as the multiplicity of its astonishing, sometimes even its staggering sense of happiness, joy and fulfillment. Then, I recalled that the man by the door of the market that day was also singing. As my partner and I walked up to the building, we could hear him intoning some kind of a song, maybe—or so, at least, it was my wish—from a happier time in his life, from a youth perhaps when he had greater hope and, who knows, a plan for his life, someone to love and for whom he longed, whom he wanted more than anything always to be with.

Isn’t that what each of us wants? Doesn’t that get us back to the desire, the need, the awful (awe-filled) longing to be loved, not for our position in life, or what we can give, but just for who we are? Just for being children of the Divine Spirit, who deserve all the love and consideration, and yes, respect, that each of us can muster to give to the other? Here was a man with a song on his lips, who was smiling at people, at passersby who ignored and probably even feared him. What kind of a man can sing his song, all the while being snubbed and disregarded by everyone around him?

If he was crazy, as Whitman says, so what? Maybe it’s a craziness we all should long for: the ability to sing a song, while the world ignores and passes us by. Which one of us has not been hurt, terribly damaged, by the lack of love we see all around us, whether in the form of an angry, selfish, or distracted parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, or friend—someone whom we think, or hope, should know better—or merely from some passerby, a stranger we rub shoulders with for an instant and who’s gone in the flash of a moment?

Whitman goes on to say, in that same prelude: “Here is what you shall do, love the earth and sun and all the animals.” More good advice and, I think, a good way to end one year and begin another. Because even the earth and the sun and the animals want to be loved. Because that’s part of what it means to be in the physical world. Because it’s what makes us human, and also divine. And what greater joy can any of us have than to be a part of all that?

It could be we’re prone to thinking about such things at the holidays because, for whatever reason, we hope for love more now than at other times of the year. If that’s so, then this longing—and especially this giving—is maybe what they call the holiday spirit, whether we celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the magnificence of the Winter Solstice. It’s a time when we light candles, so as to epitomize life and hope in the darkness. It’s a time when we should all sing a song, wherever we may be and whatever is in our hearts, as we sit in the warmth of our comfortable homes, or alone, in the cold, by the doorway of the corner market.

OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.