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.

 

 

 

 

MOTHER TERESA, POLITICS, VALUES AND WHAT IS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE

By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.

PLEASE HEAD TOWARD THE EXIT IN AN ORDERLY FASHION

By Paul M. Lewis

The Brexit vote this past week was a great shock to almost everybody, even to those who supported Britain leaving the European Union. And the fact that the decision to exit won by more than a million votes was perhaps even more surprising. The British bookies, too, lost their shirts, since they had placed odds on the UK remaining part of the EU. What happened? Why would so many people want the United Kingdom to part company from the union of European states it had, if slowly and somewhat reluctantly, joined over forty years ago?

There are many answers to that question, as pundits have been reporting on for some time now. Top among them is that many British voters, especially the English (as opposed to the Scots, the Northern Irish, and some of the Welsh) felt as though they were somehow losing their country to immigration. Within that context, many feared specifically for their jobs, in particular those that newcomers might qualify for if they did not come with a great deal of education or experience. Additionally, there has long simmered a feeling among many that the Englishness of England was becoming a thing of the past. That may in fact be true, if things are viewed in the short term. For the past several hundred years now, England has been more or less white, Christian, and of course Anglo-Saxon. It’s worth remembering, though, that those early Germanic settlers were not always there. According to most accounts, the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in the late 5th century. They did not come all at once, instead arriving incrementally for two hundred years or so, while slowly intermingling with the original Celtic inhabitants and the remnants of the Romans who had settled there.

The Celtic language had previously been used for centuries, with Latin coming to replace it as the language of business and culture around the middle of the first century of the Common Era (CE). Later, the Germanic languages of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—grouped together and coming to be known as Early English—began to meld with, and finally replace, both Celtic and Latin; the only exception being that Latin continued on for many hundreds of years as the language of the church and of education. French, too, could be added as an influence, after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The point here is not to attempt, in so short a space, a history of the English people, but merely to point out the multicultural and multilinguistic heritage of England. It wasn’t until the 8th century, for example, that the famous historian, Bede, wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), a time when one could say that England was just becoming English, and so needed a history of its own to explain itself. Bede finished his great work in 731 CE, some 1285 years ago. On a planet that is four and a half billion years old, and within the context of modern humans evolving some one hundred and fifty thousand years ago, it’s not unreasonable to think that this is a relatively short period of time. Indeed, humans have been living and interbreeding among tribes and races ever since the beginning.

Given this longer historical framework, it’s a fair question to ask: What exactly is meant when people say that they want to keep England English? Or keep America American, for that matter? No one needs a lesson on the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic heritage of the United States. Even the Native Peoples of this continent have been here for only probably 10,000 to 20,000 years, depending on which archeologist you believe. A long time in terms of human memory, to be sure, but not so long from other perspectives. Who, therefore, owns a country and its heritage? And what is a country even, but an arbitrary enough system of geopolitical borders? Granted, within those borders there is a shared history (for however long, or short, it may be), often a shared language, and to an extent anyway, shared religio-cultural values. But there is nothing to say that these borders, or these shared elements of human culture, are forever immutable. That’s not meant to imply that people can’t also have a kind pride in their shared history, but at the same time remember that the narrative chronicle of any country is always a relatively brief one. Countries, whole empires, that once considered themselves solid and unchanging have come and gone, and today we dig up artifacts from out of the dust that once belonged to glorious nations now no longer in existence. Nor should we forget that, not so far back, we all came from the same roots

Britain has made its choice to leave the EU, as much as there are those who are calling for a re-vote, a new referendum, now that the sober light of day is just starting to reveal the magnitude of what has been done. I do not believe that this will happen. The die has been cast, and the United Kingdom—or some form of it, if Scotland and Northern Ireland eventually choose to opt out—will have to make the best of things. Indeed, there is chaos enough already attempting to make sense of the consequences of the vote and to figure out how to disengage from the European Union without too much more damage being done. Further uncertainty and chaos, in the form of a new campaign for and against another vote on the Brexit, is not needed. What is best now is to move toward the exit in an orderly fashion, while preserving as much economic, political, and social stability as possible.

But neither does this mean that the enormity of the decision shouldn’t be studied in depth. It should, in fact, be dissected as cleanly and as clearly as possible, so as to understand both how and why it came about, and what it means in terms of how the British people now think of themselves. Other countries too ought to investigate the whys and wherefores of the vote, in order to understand how similar trends, feelings, and beliefs play out among them, and what that may portend.

Surely, the European Union itself, as a political entity, is not without some culpability. It is all too easy to find fault with the so-called ignorant (as some think) in Britain, who voted out of the union. But there is little doubt that the bureaucracy of the EU is itself partially to blame, as it has become an unresponsive and inflexible monolith. As such, many people—not just the British—believe they have had no real representation in Brussels. Americans in particular ought to remember what happens when a group suffers under the onerous and unfeeling mandate of a government that levies taxation without at the same time providing for equal and fair representation.

That said, I continue to believe that the Brexit was a grave mistake. The flaws of a system can surely be overcome, if there is enough political will to do so. The ideal of a common union of nations is a grand one, especially on a continent that has been the genesis of two utterly devastating world wars. What is needed now is not the resurgence of more and more nationalism, not walls, literal or metaphorical, but a wider, a more inclusive, a more open and welcoming embrace of humanity. In that sense, we can all learn from this serious mistake made so recently by the United Kingdom. And in the process, with luck and a good deal of work, perhaps we can also help our British cousins mitigate, or even begin to reverse, some of the more deleterious effects of so short-sighted a decision.

 

 

SANTO TORIBIO, YANOMAMI SHAMANS, AND THE IMMINENCE OF TRANSCENDENCE

By Paul

The Los Angeles Times Sunday edition, July 13, 2014, carried a front page article about the “visit” to Southern California of the holy statue of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez from Mexico. Santo Toribio was a Catholic priest who was killed, martyred as it is said, during the so-called Cristero War in Mexico. The usual dates given for this conflict are 1926-1929, but some fighting and killing continued on during the 1930’s, and even into the early 1940’s, a time of land redistribution, anti-clericalism, and civil disturbance, pitching an educated, socialist, governmental elite against an uneducated, but devoutly religious peasantry. Toribio Romo was shot in 1928 by federal soldiers because he continued to conduct Catholic religious ceremonials, which were at the time against the law. He was canonized in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

Curiously, although Santo Toribio had nothing to do with immigration northward during his lifetime, in recent times he has been venerated and celebrated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans, desperate to make the border crossing into the United States. He is even said to have appeared numerous times to some who are attempting to make the perilous and uncertain journey across the border, dressed in the same cowboy hat and boots worn by many of the migrants. The four-foot tall statue of the saint displays in a glass case in the center of the chest a part of Santo Toribio’s ankle bone, and thousands have lined up to reverently touch the glass casement, in hopes of securing special favors from the saint, either for themselves, or for loved ones contemplating making the dangerous crossing.

Modern people, even many Catholics, dismiss such acts of devotion as nothing less than the superstition of the uneducated. How can the ankle bone of a priest, who died over 85 years ago, be of any use to living, breathing human beings, facing extreme hardship and challenge? Better to rely on your own wits and resources, and to spend your money getting practical legal help, rather than chipping in, as many Southern California Latinos have done, to buy a first-class seat on an airplane from Mexico for a wooden statue and its keeper. What contemporary person can argue with this kind of reasoning? How can help of any kind, spiritual or temporal, be somehow transmitted to and bestowed on people by a dried piece of bone, no matter how holy the body of the saint it was taken from?

But here’s another question that can be asked: is it possible that the world is more mysterious than even modern, educated people can ever fully understand, using only the evidence of our senses and of the logical mind? Another way to phrase it might be: does Spirit exist, and if so, does it infuse, permeate, and manifest itself in physical form?

These are questions that have been repeatedly asked over the ages and answered in different ways by various cultures. Here is another example of how people understand and explain the manifestation of Spirit in nature, what I call the “imminence of transcendence.” The Yanomami are a loose cultural and linguistic configuration of indigenous peoples who inhabit the remote rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. There has been a great deal of destruction over the years, not only of the Yanomami culture by Christian missionaries, but later on of the rainforest itself, once gold was discovered in the region. Many Indians of the Americas have known for centuries that both religion and gold make Western peoples crazy. They will do anything for gold, including bribing, threatening, stealing, despoiling the natural environment, and even killing those who stand in their way. The Yanomami have, in fact, experienced all of these tactics, and more. Yet, large segments of their culture and of the rainforest (the two are intimately intertwined) still remain intact, in part through the assistance of some not-so-crazed Westerners (Brazilians and others), who have become their allies. But what has helped most of all is the knowledge and the “dreaming” of Yanomami shamans.

As is true with many other indigenous peoples, the Yanomami believe that the forest is alive. And not just the forest as a kind of abstraction, as Westerners might think, but each segment thereof, including every rock, tree, stream, and river. Overseeing all of these are a spirit-people called the “xapiri” (pronounced “sha-PEE-ree”).   Yanomami shamans go through a long and arduous apprenticeship. Partly using this tradition and training, and partly through the aid of powerful hallucinatory drugs, they contact these “xapiri, who appear in the form of tiny humanoids wearing very bright, feather-covered garments. And not only do shamans contact these spirits, they become them. It is in this spirit-form that shamans then defend and protect the forest from evil, both foreign and indigenous.

Here we see another level of belief in a spirit world. Not only do devotees of a religion get to touch the glass that covers the bone of a man believed to have attained spiritual knowledge and, in so doing, contact and attain some of his power, but through the process of chanting, and “dreaming,” and of entering into an altered state of mind, they become the very spirits they see and interact with.

The Yanomami, in fact, have a ready explanation as to why many Westerners are so crazed, so cruelly acquisitive, avaricious, and destructive. White people, according to Yanomami myth, are the offspring of Yoasi, the evil brother of Omama, their Creator God. It is believed that Yoasi gave birth to white people, who come from “the back of the sky,” and who are associated with the evil spirits of the forest. According to the myth, if not controlled, these evil spirits will bring about the end of the world through the “falling sky.” By this, the Yanomami mean the toxic invasion of the deadly smoke of metal and fuels. As Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who has co-authored a book entitled “Falling Sky,” says: “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the White people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest we say that ‘xawara’ (epidemic fumes) have seized it and it becomes ghost.”

What do Santo Toribio and Yanomami shamans have in common? Some might say only the ignorance of the uneducated, and an attempt to achieve some level of control on the part of those who otherwise feel disenfranchised and powerless. And there may be some truth in this. However, others may also point to a less logical, more innate, unconscious, chthonic, or even deeply spiritual way of seeing and understanding a world that even modern science does not claim to fully understand.

What I mean by the phrase “imminence of transcendence” is the inherent, essential, deep-born, fundamentally ingrained presence of the Great Mystery of the Universe intertwined with and imbedded in nature. Can it equally be felt in the ankle bone of a saint, or in the tree that grows in your backyard, in the great forests that still, here and there, cover parts of the earth, or in the vast oceans that struggle today with the poisons humans have dumped into them? I will leave that for you to decide for yourself.

In the end, whether we think of all this as some kind of manifested spiritual essence, or merely the ordinary, everyday ebullient effervescence of nature itself, it is our job as human beings to respect the planet. Otherwise, it may not be too far fetched a myth to think that the sky will, in a sense, someday come falling down upon our heads, and that we and our children will no longer be able to breath the very air that surrounds us. Who knows? Maybe with the help of Santo Toribio and the Yanomami shamans, and a bit of our own native wisdom, we, too, may someday learn our lessons and mend our ways. There is, at least, always that hope.

HOW DID I GET IN BED WITH THEM?

By Paul

It is not very often that I find myself amazingly in agreement about anything with the likes of Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Rand Paul, and – as they say – the citizens of Teabagistan.  In fact, I must admit that such bedfellows make me extremely uncomfortable, and the very idea of being in any sense in political company with them leads me to question yet again my decision to come out against US military intervention in Syria, as I did on this blog last week.  Normally, my comfort zone is on the side of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Minority Leader Pelosi, Senator Boxer, and many other liberals, who now favor such military strikes.  If I had to put it in terms of friendship, I would say I think of this latter group as my compatriots and fellow countrymen, while the former gaggle would represent to me those who live on a distant and alien planet, far removed from my own.   And yet, here I am in agreement with them on this topic.  How has that come about?

Well, it has not been an easy journey, and I continue to examine myself each day to see if I still feel as though I must hold myself apart from my usual political alliances, my philosophical friends of the heart.  Let me, then, briefly explain how it is I feel I’ve come to where I’m at, and you be the judge as to whether or not my thinking is faulty.  I will not burden any reader with a verbatim reiteration of everything I said in my Aug. 29 “Bombs Away” posting, but for those who may not have read it, the main argument centers around the fact that military action against a country such as Syria can have untold, unforeseen, far-reaching, and frightening consequences, no matter how noble the motivation, and no matter how restricted the intended scope of the action.  That was the heart of the argument.  Tangentially, I also believe that, as heinous and despicable as chemical weapons truly are, in the end, death is death.   You cannot be more dead from a chemical attack than you can be from an artillery attack, or from a mortar shell, or a bullet.  And while at least a thousand people were killed in the chemical weapons attack (the numbers vary, depending on whose statistics you read), including women and children, no one also disagrees that well over one hundred thousand Syrians – one hundred times as many – also including women and children, have died as a result of conventional weapons in this terrible civil war.   Why then is the Obama Administration, and seemingly not many other countries thus far, hell bent on punishing Syria now, when earlier we were content to allow events to unfold with little outside input from us?

The answer seems to be that a “red line” has been crossed, namely, the use of chemical weapons.   And while there is no doubt that this argument carries with it a degree of weight, is it strong enough for us to risk the other consequences that may well result from a military attack on Syria?  These include the possibility of sucking the United States, willy-nilly, into yet another Middle Eastern conflagration, a quagmire out of which we will not know how to extricate ourselves, and even of the widening of the current civil war itself to include other nations of the region and of the globe.  These are not mere fantasies of a frightened mind.  They are very real possibilities, which we must face in any decision-making process.

The other argument for “doing what we said” in regard to the “red line” has to do with the notion of credibility.  Pres. Obama said just a day or two ago in Sweden that his credibility was not on the line, but rather that of the world community.  By this, we must assume that he is saying he’s willing to do what he said he would do, but that others (the US Congress? the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Ban?  any right-thinking person or country?) might not be willing to do so.  The Chemical Weapons Ban itself stipulates that parties pledge to provide “assistance and protection,” and to swiftly dispatch “expertise” when needed, but it does not specify that military action must be taken against any rogue state that makes use of such weapons. Furthermore, speaking of agreements we have signed, the United Nations Charter does demand that no country attack another, for any reason, without the prior agreement of the Security Council.  Additionally, we might recall that Saddam Hussein, our ersatz alley at the time, used chemical weapons against thousands of Kurds, and the US government, for geopolitical reasons of its own, said and did nothing.  So, it would seem that, in the end, red lines come in many different varieties of value and intensity.

Indeed, what the credibility issue may really come down to might only in small part have anything to do with Syria.  Instead, it may have to do with Iran, and whether or not it is working on the creation of a nuclear weapon, and with our pledge to Israel in regard to this particular line in the sand.  The argument in a nutshell goes something like this: if we back down in the face of Syria, a much smaller fish in the region, what will we ever do in regard to Iran, the biggest fish swimming in the Middle Eastern sea?  And, therefore, would we in essence be pre-abandoning Israel, as it were, if we were somehow not to stand up to Syria now?

I am not asserting that these questions ought not to be asked.  I am simply saying, let us be fully upfront about them.  My own take on the answer to the red line question as it pertains to Iran and Israel is that we are comparing giants and midgets.  The overwhelming opinion of the American public, and of French and British public opinion too by the way, is against military action in Syria.  The same, however, is not the case in regard to how we feel about Israel, and its struggle to survive in a region where so many seem to want it to disappear.  In other words, let Iran beware, and be wary.  The Ayatollah should not mistake a robust debate about the wisdom of attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons, or even – if it were to come to that – a decision not to attack, with an unwillingness to protect America’s long-standing alley and co-democracy partner in the region.  Nor, I think, would the US Congress balk, the way the House of Representatives (if not the Senate) currently seems poised to do concerning Syria, were it to consider a resolution for the defense and protection of Israel.

Thus, credibility, like a red line, must be viewed in its proper context.  In the end, I fear I remain still in the same unlikely and very uncomfortable bed I found myself in at the beginning.  I’ll say it again:  I don’t like it, but here I am.  So it goes with politics sometimes, and with world affairs.  You’ve got to follow your heart, and afterwards, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll work out in your head some reasons as to why you also think this should be the case.  So, move over Mr. Putin, your Holiness, and Mr. Paul.  I’m here, it would seem, with you this time.  Just, please, don’t get used to it. And don’t worry, either.  I fully expect this to be the first, and surely the last, time you will ever see me ensconced in this horribly cramped, unbearably uncomfortable, and highly disagreeable bed with you.

SECESSION AND OTHER POLITICAL CRAZINESS

By Paul

If it weren’t for what it brings to mind in regard to one of the bloodiest and most inhuman conflicts the country has ever had the misfortune of going through, namely the Civil War, it would almost actually be funny.  Imagine that more than 100,000 people in – where else? – the great state of Texas, and thousands of others in all of the other states, even places like California and New York, have petitioned the White House to secede from the Union.  Not to worry, of course, because it obviously is not going to happen; still, who even knew anyone was thinking about such a thing? 

It does, though, go to show the depth of anger, bitterness, and sense of betrayal engendered in many by the recent presidential race, leading up to the second-term election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.  It has always amazed, puzzled, and frankly sometimes terrified me to see the depth of hatred – and I think that is not too strong a word – that many people in this country feel toward Pres. Obama.  Sadly, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of it is based on plain old bigotry, that is, racial animus and bias, exacerbated by what I would call the mildly liberal agenda of our current president. 

The difference is that I heard liberals say that, if Romney were to win, they would be the ones to move, probably to Canada.  Now, to be honest, that too is very likely as much of a load of malarkey as is all this secessionist talk.  In fact, I’ve heard the same thing from liberal friends about pretty much every conservative president from Reagan on down the line, and frankly I’ve yet to have the opportunity to go visit anyone who’s actually moved on to become a refugee, comfortably ensconced by the fire up in Toronto, or trying to stay out of the rain in Vancouver.  The difference, though subtle, is that progressives talk about moving, while the conservative strategy, apparently, would be to stay and keep their holdings.  Take Joseph Farah, as just one example of the many far right crazies out there, who recently said on his ultra-conservative website “World Net Daily”:  “I am convinced we’ve got to begin forming new communities of the faithful and declare our separation and independence once again, just as our courageous forefathers did 236 years ago.  We need to be prepared to defend ourselves, our families, our fortunes and our sacred honor.  Barack Obama was right about one thing:  America is no longer a Christian nation.  Our cultural institutions have been taken over by worshippers of other gods.  More than half of the population has turned its back on God’s Commandments.” 

You definitely do not hear the words “move on” or “leave” or “let’s get the hell out of this place” from archconservatives.  No!  Instead, it’s more like “declare separation,” “form new communities (where they currently are),” and “defend ourselves, our families, and (of course) our sacred honor.”  It fits right in with the conspiracy theorists, who are building bunkers and stockpiling canned goods, along with caches of ammunition and semi-automatic weapons, in preparation for the cultural Armageddon that is sure to come.  It’s kulturkamph, some would say, all over again, that attack in the 1870’s by Otto von Bismarck on the Catholic Church in which hundreds of priests and bishops, along with their faithful followers, were expelled from Prussia.  In fact, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia even references kulturkamph, or its direct translation, “culture war,” in more than one of his written opinions. 

All this brings to mind another opinion, this one stated just yesterday by none other than the losing candidate, himself, Mitt Romney.  In a talk to his disappointed major donors, he is quoted as saying that “the Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that he hoped could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls.”  He goes on to specify who he’s talking about, namely, African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people.  I suppose he might have mentioned women, too, and maybe even gay people, if they even counted in his mind, which I very much doubt that they do.  But doesn’t this sound an awful lot like those moochers, those freeloaders, that 47% of the American population (according to his tally, anyway), who basically want to live off of the back-braking hard work of the God-fearing, money-making, tax-paying, overburdened straight white males, who do all the work in this damn country anyway? 

But what actually are these “gifts” that we’re talking about?  It can’t be anything other than the right to be educated, to find a job, to work to better yourself and your family, to be able to afford health care, such that if you’re sick you don’t have to go into bankruptcy, to say nothing of someday being able to buy a house, or at very least afford a rental apartment to live in.  Romney was pulling no punches.  Apparently he felt that there was no longer any need for him to dissimulate, sneak behind anybody’s back and say this only in the privacy of an exclusive banquet room.  No more need to try to make the public believe that he was some kind of compassionate conservative.  He went on to say that these were the people who made between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, but who want healthcare.  Can you imagine?  Poor people (or at least struggling lower middle class people), who actually have the temerity to think that they should get medical attention in the event of an accident or an illness.  Why, it’s unheard of!  And he specifies Blacks and Hispanics as those who are particularly pushy in this regard.  Black and brown people who want the same care he and his white family have always been able to afford – imagine!

He goes on at some length to list other such “gifts” that Obama supporters were essentially bought of by, things like “amnesty for the children of illegals,” and the extension of healthcare on their parents’ policies for people 26 and under, which supposedly brought many college aged women into Obama’s camp.  These are the “gifts” Romney is talking about.  But it’s funny, to me they just seem an awful lot like the things that a majority of the American people actually want and deserve.   You know, the things that a certain segment of the population has always had, and which they want to hold on to: education, jobs, health care, ability to afford a home etc.  And who wouldn’t?  That’s exactly the point, in fact.  These things are not gifts at all, they are basic human needs and desires that everyone wants and requires for themselves and their families.  And to have the audacity to refer to them as “gifts” merely shows how out of touch Mitt Romney is from so much of the experience of everyday Americans. 

So, if there were any possibility, I guess I would say that maybe we actually ought to let this minuscule portion of the population secede that seems to want to do so.  We could give them a couple of counties, maybe, someplace where the rest of us don’t want to live anyway, and see how well they fare.  But since even that isn’t going to happen, for now all we can say is let’s stop getting distracted by this secessionist craziness and get on with the business of attempting to deal with the innumerable problems that actually face this country.  Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, the nuns always told me in grammar school.  There’s no need to manufacture more. 

I only hope the Joseph Farah’s of the world hear that, and work with the rest of us, rather than trying to do everything in their power to bring about greater disharmony.  And let’s let poor Mitt Romney, too, slink off to one of his mansions, where he can pay for all the medical help he needs to lick his wounds and recover from the political pummeling he so richly deserved.

LET’S GET ON WITH THE BUSINESS OF GOVERNING, AND OF SAVING THE PLANET

By Paul

Now that election 2012 is over, and the results are so promising, it’s time to get on with the business of exactly why we elect people in the first place, namely, to govern. 

Not so much governing has taken place for quite some time in this interminable run up to November 6th.   It seems as though that run up by itself has lasted for at least a couple of years.  So, it’s definitely time to get back in the saddle again.  It’s obvious that the first order of business has to be the so-called Fiscal Cliff, those automatic spending cuts and tax hikes which will go into effect in January of 2013.  In my view, it would be a complete disaster if they happen, as it would probably trigger at least a “mild recession,” according to any number of economists.   But even a mild recession, in the wake of the Major Recession we have just gone through, could be devastating.  In fact, it brings to mind the latest nor’easter to hit New York and New Jersey on the heels of Hurricane Sandy.  Ask the folks there, who were without power and literally under water, and who are again going through a similar ordeal, if another blow is an easy thing to take.  I think you’ll get an earful.  It would be the same thing if the President and Congress are unable to work out some sort of compromise to prevent us from heading over this fiscal precipice.

But that’s just the beginning.  There is a whole host of things on everybody’s plate that needs to be attended to.  It’s almost as if things have been on hold for two years, and now finally it’s time to get a move on.  The President has already said that Immigration Reform will be high on his list, and that is surely a good thing.  This country has actually always had a love-hate relationship with its immigrants, in spite of the comforting old myth of the melting pot.  Very few of the established Anglos wanted those damned Irish, or the Italians either for that matter, back at the end of the nineteenth century, just as many don’t want the Mexicans, or other Latinos, today.  And just as with the Europeans, so too with Hispanics, epithets such as “lazy” and “free loaders” are thrown around with nothing to back them up.  We won’t get to a truly fair and comprehensive immigration reform package, I believe, until we come to terms with how we really want to perceive, and therefore how we treat, new arrivals to this country.

Another major problem that has to be fixed is the economic one.  I am nothing if not a liberal, and I hope a progressive, but I do agree with conservatives that something has to be done about balancing the fiscal books.  We cannot go on spending so much more than we take in, and we most definitely cannot go on simply borrowing money from China and elsewhere in order to cover the gap between spending and income.  Toward that end, we have to be upfront and transparent about how we spend the money we do have.  One of the most despicable things about the administration of George W. Bush was how they hid the cost of two wars.  These military incursions were utterly unfunded; they never even made it to the budget talks.  And this is aside from the fact that, in my view anyway, they were both totally unnecessary in the first place.  But that’s another question entirely.

The only way to balance the books is some combination of reasonable spending cuts and equally reasonable tax hikes.  It also assumes that we will come up with a way to handle so-called entitlements, although personally I hate that word.  It always comes off to my ear as sounding as though people are getting something for nothing, something they don’t really deserve.  That is not the case in regard to Social Security, which those of us who receive it (myself included) have paid into for upwards of forty years, or however long a person has worked.  The same is true for Medicare, although in regard to medical costs in general the country has also got to have a very serious conversation about what is actually appropriate, and in the end, what we can afford.  This will not be an easy discussion, inasmuch as it concerns both ourselves and the lives of those whom we love, and just how much care is enough care.  But the topic has to be on the table.  These are things that adults talk about, and that we need to talk about.

Beyond these things, education looms high on the list, too.  For far too long we have been putting off decisions about comprehensive funding that will get our children – all of our children – ready for the highly competitive world of the 21st century.  It will have to be a discussion that takes place at the national, the state, and the local levels, since funding for education and decisions regarding how kids are educated happen at all three levels.  But when a baseball player (nothing against baseball, as much as I find it one of the most boring sports on the planet), or a football player, or a movie actor, or a CEO of a company that rapes the planet, earns millions of dollars, and educators are paid a pittance, it seems to me that there is something seriously wrong with our value system as a society.  And remember that politicians are really only reflections of ourselves.  We hire political leaders in the first place by voting them into office, and by keeping them in office (or not) once we’ve seen how they perform.  So, if we continue to elect people who do not value the things we say we value, then in the end we have to examine ourselves, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. 

 I could go on with a long list of things that have to be dealt with, and no doubt anyone who reads this could add others, equally as important.  Clearly, the economy and jobs go hand in hand, and you do not fix one without the other.  And this includes jobs for everyone, including people who have been traditionally shunted out of the good life of the American middle class, people of color in particular who have suffered more profoundly than anyone else during the years of the Great Recession.  Other things come to mind, as well, things like the infrastructure of the country, which is crumbling, care for the sick and the indigent and those who cannot care for themselves, always a bell weather in terms of what a society considers important, and so-called energy independence, a silly pipe dream in itself unless and until we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.  Which leads me to the final point that is on my mind in regard to the new administration, and the Republicans in Congress as well, because the latter can block almost anything they want with the majority they have in the House of Representatives.  And that topic is the eighteen thousand pound gorilla in the room, namely, climate change. 

Now here is a topic for the ages!  And not many more ages, in fact, if we do not somehow come to grips with its disastrous implications.  I have to say that I was appalled at both candidates during the presidential campaign that the words climate change or global warming almost never passed their lips.  It is, though, a topic that in the final analysis trumps all others.  And I do mean all.  Because we can do whatever we want to fix the economy, to create wonderful jobs for people, to educate our children, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, to grant equal rights to minorities, pay down the debt, and on and on, but if the planet rebels – in ways that I think we have only begun to see – then none of these other things matter.  If we do not have a hospitable planet on which to live and to raise our children, and even, God help us, to play baseball on, then everything else is for naught.

The old Republican adage of “drill, baby, drill” sounds almost like a hateful curse to my ears.  It is at very least the cry, and maybe the last cry, of the utterly deluded.  There are surely things that all of us can, and must, do in order to help play our part.  We can and should conserve and not be wasteful, find alternate sources of energy, recycle, and we absolutely have got to stop having so many children. At seven billion people and counting, the world already has far too great of a population for the planet to sustain.  And we must find a way to satisfy our need for power that does not, as a byproduct, pollute the air, the water, and the earth itself.       

All of this is necessary, and some of it can be done on the personal and the local level.  Even so, that will not be enough.  Governments, and whole associations of governments, absolutely must take this on as a priority – no, as THE major priority – because the ravages of catastrophic global climate change will not respect race or ethnicity, wealth or poverty, one economic system over another, or anyone’s arbitrarily drawn political boundaries.  It will get us all, if we do not take steps now to make a difference. 

So, I admire and appreciate President Barack Obama very much.  I also feel for him, and hope and pray that he will have the strength and the wisdom and the determination to take on these problems we are all faced with.  If we do not assist him in this task, then we are all to blame.  It is time now to act and to stop playing politics.  And if we do not, there is no doubt in my mind that we will all suffer the most dire of consequences.

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES? AND WHY DO YOU HOLD THEM?

By Paul

Can’t we all just get along?  These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days.  The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not. 

Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided.  Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter.  Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split. 

But let’s not stop there.  The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself.  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off.  Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance?  The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death. 

The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism.  God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts.  Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb!  Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us. 

So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together.  And the stakes, by the way, are not small.  Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet.  ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies.  Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out.  Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.

All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values.  Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does.  You do not have to be religious to have values.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system.  Even criminals have values.  They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values. 

What are values, after all?  You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question.  Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper.  Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own.  Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system.  And I damn well don’t like it! 

That’s the thing about values, in fact.  They really mean something to us.  We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level.  One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness.  This is not a game or a mere academic exercise.  These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules.  At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values.  They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them.  At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.”  All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong

What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself.  In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space.  But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap.  There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs.  That may come off as sounding too abstract.  What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay.  Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are.  Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else! 

And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong?  This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again.  As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into.  Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be. 

Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are.  Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place!  Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along.  Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have?  We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine.  That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way.  That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal.  That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law. 

And maybe it is.  Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live.  Except this too comes down to a statement of values.  What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space.  After all, I have my rights, don’t I?  If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives.  It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  Anyway, I think so.  And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!

CAUGHT IN THE TAR SANDS QUAGMIRE

By Paul

I’m not claiming to be highly schooled in such things, but doesn’t it seem maybe a little too obvious that Pres. Obama was photographed not just once, but repeatedly, in front of stacks of ground-ready oil pipes in Cushing, Oklahoma  this past week?  The message was clear, even before he said his first word:  we are with you in your need and your desire for oil.  Oh, and of course let’s not forget that we’ve got to have people to lay those pipes too, which translates into jobs, jobs, jobs! 

 I kept wondering what the president could have been thinking as he stood  there talking about ordering the expedited construction of the southern portion of the XL pipeline down to the Gulf.  I hate to say this because I’m a great fan of Pres. Obama, but my fear is that he was thinking: how many votes will this get me come the fall?  

To be fair, let’s posit that the trip to Cushing was not about grandstanding, or at least not solely, and instead that it was part of the president’s “all of the above” strategy, which is itself inherently flawed.  In case you’re unfamiliar with that strategy, what it references is the notion that we need to use all possible energy sources, clean or not, in order to power our country. 

I suppose that for many people this approach has a certain immediate, almost intuitive appeal to it.  I mean, what’s wrong with saying that we cannot expect to power our houses or our factories, to say nothing of our cars, solely by clean energy in anything like the immediate future, and so in the meantime we’ve got to use all sources of fuel at our disposal, or risk ruining our country economically and falling farther behind competitors like China and India?   

But I believe that this is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either-or proposition.  Of course there is no doubt that we will continue to rely on oil for the foreseeable future.  We may not like it; I may not like it, but it’s the case.  However, it doesn’t follow from this that we have to continue on with a proposition like the XL pipeline, or with drilling in the tar sands of northern Canada.

Claiming that the oil that comes from these tar sands would remain in the US, or that the price of gasoline in the country would come down as a result of drilling in Canada, are both inaccurate and misleading statements.  The selling of oil takes place on the world market, and the price reflects that market.  No amount of drilling in Canada is going to substantially change either its availability to US buyers, or lower its cost to them. 

If we take a closer look at how the price of world oil is set, we see that it reflects and is ultimately determined by its perceived future availability.  That availability in turn fluctuates wildly due to political circumstances.  Markets are notoriously spooked first and foremost by anything that can be conceived of as instability.  Will Israel attack Iran?  Will Iran retaliate? Will Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz?  If so, what will the US do? What will happen in Syria?  Will its current unrest and the atrocities inflicted upon its population by the Assad regime turn into a full-blown civil war, and will the chaos that ensues then spill over into the rest of the Middle East?  All this, along with the other side of the equation, namely demand, are the things that are making a difference in the price of gasoline at the pump, not whether or not Pres. Obama gives the green light to the expedited construction of a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Republican candidates all know this.  And if they do not, they ought to get out of the race immediately, as they pose an even graver danger to the political and economic well-being of the United States than I currently dare believe.  But it’s politically expedient for them to blame Pres. Obama for “the rise in the cost of oil,” even when they fully understand that he has virtually no control over either its cost or its availability.  Just as none of them would, if they were to become president.  And on top of that, the healthier the US economy gets, the greater the demand for oil. 

But even in discussing these details, I have to think I’m wandering too far from the main point that I began with.  It might even appear that I am buying into the hype that more and more gasoline is needed.  No! What is needed is an energy policy that phases out gasoline, and indeed all bio-fuels, as quickly as possible.  We currently give enormous tax breaks to huge multinational oil companies, which already make profits that register in the billions of dollars every quarter, but by comparison almost nothing is given to those companies, few as they may be, that labor to bring about clean energy usage.  Does that make good sense – or, dare I say, good policy – at a time when the results of global climate change are becoming more and more obvious, and more ominous, every day? 

So, I get it that Pres. Obama has to work in order to be reelected.  And that’s a good thing.  God help us if he is not!  But I have to really hope that, given a second term, he will redouble and even triple his efforts to decrease our dependence on bio-fuels of all kinds.  It’s not just about saving the incalculable beauty of the northern Canadian landscape from the predations of dirty oil drilling in the tar sands there, although that itself is a laudable goal.  But what is much more vital – and I don’t believe this to be too overblown a statement to make – is that we need an energy policy that will ultimately save the planet.  Or to put it another way, as the planet will no doubt go on one way or another in spite of all that humans can do to ruin it, in the end we need a policy that will save the life forms on the planet.  This includes you and me, and your daughters and your sons. 

President Obama’s words last week notwithstanding, producing more oil and gas won’t help with this.  What will help is a plan that gets us off a dependency on oil and gas, and gets us onto a track that promotes a healthy and sustainable future for all of us.