It is a dark, dark day, for Stephen Sondheim is no more.
Seeing Sunday in the Park with George at the Huntington Theatre in Boston some years ago was the most awe-inspiringly beautiful and moving theatrical experience I can ever imagine experiencing.
I’m feeling hugely grateful and fairly inconsolable today.
Merely two from the greatest at what he did who will ever be.
I just finished Jonathan Rauch’s superb new book, just out. It delineates the set of principles via which we have managed, at our best, to rise above the “state of nature” in which power, selfish interest, dominates rather than empirical reality, clarity, reasonableness, balance.
The second half of the book takes up, in successive chapters, the poisons of our social media era: disinformation, trolling, and canceling/bullying. It all sounds very depressing, but the book aims to be optimistic, emphasizing positive developments occurring as more and more people understand exactly what is going on, and the stakes involved. The final chapter is in fact a pep talk designed to inspire and motivate.
An interview in The Atlantic with the author just appeared which provides a good introduction to the book. There’s a portion of it where he states the dynamics of “canceling” quite well:
The right has latched on to disinformation, conspiracism, and trolling because they have the power to do those things. And they’re really good at them. The left has latched on to canceling because the left has the power to do those things and is really good at them. But they could swap tomorrow, and they probably will. So we mustn’t think of canceling as a left-wing phenomenon. It’s a weapon; it’s an information-warfare phenomenon. And if one side gets it, you can be sure [that] eventually the other side will get it too.
Having made that distinction, I said the second big point of my book is: You’re being manipulated. People tend to think of cancel culture as this bad thing that goes on online or it’s because of repressive ideologies. I want them to say, “No, actually this belongs in the same bucket as the stuff Trump is doing.” Maybe the ideological goals of the people using it are different, but they are also waging information warfare. By information warfare, I mean organizing and manipulating the social and media environment for political advantage in order to divide, dominate, disorient, and ultimately demoralize the people on the other side.
One way to do that is to flood the zone with falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and to cause mass disorientation. Another way is trolling: using outrage to hijack people’s brains. But another way to do that is use social pressure to silence, demoralize, isolate, and shame those who are your targets. And anyone can be the target. It turns out probably the most frequent victims of canceling are progressives who are canceled by other progressives. This is about dominating the information space by shutting down, chilling a whole sector of that space.
So how do they do that? Well, you say something they don’t like, or say anything at all. This really can be quite random. And almost instantly, a campaign of outrage is stirred up. They’re usually organized as swarms. They frequently go after employers so that people’s jobs are endangered. They frequently go after friends and professional associates of those targeted, saying, “If you agree with this person, you’re in trouble too.” They certainly go after the self-esteem of the people who are targeted by saying that they’re just horrible, awful people. They use out-and-out lies; they strip context; they reduce entire careers and reputations to a single word and a single tweet; they organize secondary boycotts; they seek to punish and silence—all of these things are completely hostile to the constitution of knowledge, which is about forcing us to debate other people’s arguments instead of trashing them as people and demolishing their careers. And canceling is effective because no one wants to get on the wrong side of this, and so people are widely chilled.
Surveys now find that 62 percent of Americans and 68 percent of students are reluctant to share their true political views for fear of negative social consequences, and a third of Americans say that they’re worried about losing a job or job opportunities if they express their true political views. Very significantly, that third is about the same across the entire political spectrum. Progressives are just as worried and frightened as conservatives. That’s a really bad information environment. That’s like a town that’s so polluted with smog that you can barely breathe.
from A Political Obituary for Donald Trump, by George Packer: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/01/the-legacy-of-donald-trump/617255/
Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public. He was stunningly forthright about things that other presidents would have gone to great lengths to keep secret: his true feelings about Senator John McCain and other war heroes; his eagerness to get rid of disloyal underlings; his desire for law enforcement to protect his friends and hurt his enemies; his effort to extort a foreign leader for dirt on a political adversary; his affection for Kim Jong Un and admiration for Vladimir Putin; his positive view of white nationalists; his hostility toward racial and religious minorities; and his contempt for women.
The most mendacious of Trump’s predecessors would have been careful to limit these thoughts to private recording systems. Trump spoke them openly, not because he couldn’t control his impulses, but intentionally, even systematically, in order to demolish the norms that would otherwise have constrained his power. To his supporters, his shamelessness became a badge of honesty and strength. They grasped the message that they, too, could say whatever they wanted without apology. To his opponents, fighting by the rules—even in as small a way as calling him “President Trump”—seemed like a sucker’s game. So the level of American political language was everywhere dragged down, leaving a gaping shame deficit. …
So a stab-in-the-back narrative was buried in the minds of millions of Americans, where it burns away, as imperishable as a carbon isotope, consuming whatever is left of their trust in democratic institutions and values. This narrative will widen the gap between Trump believers and their compatriots who might live in the same town, but a different universe. And that was Trump’s purpose—to keep us locked in a mental prison where reality was unknowable so that he could go on wielding power, whether in or out of office, including the power to destroy.
For his opponents, the lies were intended to be profoundly demoralizing. Neither counting them nor checking facts nor debunking conspiracies made any difference. Trump demonstrated again and again that the truth doesn’t matter. In rational people this provoked incredulity, outrage, exhaustion, and finally an impulse to crawl away and abandon the field of politics to the fantasists.
For believers, the consequences were worse. They surrendered the ability to make basic judgments about facts, exiling themselves from the common framework of self-government. They became litter swirling in the wind of any preposterous claim that blew from @realDonaldTrump. Truth was whatever made the world whole again by hurting their enemies—the more far-fetched, the more potent and thrilling. After the election, as charges of voter fraud began to pile up, Matthew Sheffield, a reformed right-wing media activist, tweeted: “Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms ‘the left.’ It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.” …
Trump’s legacy includes an extremist Republican Party that tries to hold on to power by flagrantly undemocratic means, and an opposition pushed toward its own version of extremism. He leaves behind a society in which the bonds of trust are degraded, in which his example licenses everyone to cheat on taxes and mock affliction. Many of his policies can be reversed or mitigated. It will be much harder to clear our minds of his lies and restore the shared understanding of reality—the agreement, however inconvenient, that A is A and not B—on which a democracy depends.
… that Nancy Pelosi tearing up the SOTU speech is the best thing I’ve seen all year. And then that perfect response when asked why: “It was the courteous thing to do — considering the alternative.” — oh yes. She speaks for millions around the world in this gesture which will reverberate down through the ages. I bow.
Any chance at all you might consider buying Vermont? Just wondering. I think you’d like us a lot, and you’d gain mountains! As for us, sanity levels would rise by several orders of magnitude. Win-win! Please prioritize. På forhånd mange tak.
(from Embracing Each Moment: A Guide to the Awakened Life, by Anam Thubten)
There are many theories on how to achieve happiness. As you know, people are constantly developing techniques and theories about how to achieve it. The truth is the only way you can achieve unconditional happiness is by knowing how to tune in to this truth, this subtle and pervasive truth, the sacredness of everything. Then your relationship with people becomes alive and filled with reverence and love, and you no longer objectify people. Finally you know how to feel unconditional love. Then you may feel that this world is your home, even though it sometimes has a lot of imperfections. It is still your home. You may feel that this world is heaven. Not heaven as you thought, but heaven with lots of imperfections. Then you may feel this spirit everywhere in the world of nature, in the trees and animals. You may feel a deep reverence and heart connection with everything that exists. You’ll find that you are a modern mystic. You’ll be a mystic whose heart is drunk with love. In the end, the emptiness you felt as a terrifying condition and tried to get rid of by all kinds of creative means turned out to be sacred, a doorway to your aloneness that was always perfect and lacked nothing.
Everybody knows, or should know, that music is one of the most powerful ways of generating compassion, of remembering it. I’ve been singing to myself the song embedded below a lot lately, as I think of this unspeakably precious suffering world, as I think of the Buddhist community I used to be a part of — now imploding (deservedly) in scandal — and as I work with (or try to) my own pain.
Ordinary compassion in Tibetan (vajrayana) Buddhist circles seems to be too easily forgotten in the climbing of ladders, the hope of being seen as an “advanced” practitioner. It’s an endlessly sobering thought to me that virtually all of the most heartless people I have known have been Buddhists. Something so deeply wrong there.
Well, I’m still a Buddhist, at least at the core. But it’s clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming systems which were transplanted more or less wholesale from one culture to another, extremely different one. The extent and depth of the scandals we are witnessing are going to require a lot of wisdom and diligence to properly understand, and heal.
One thing always needed: the experience of ordinary old compassion. Nothing tricky there, no cleverness or “advanced” practices required. Just that automatic human ache in the face of suffering. That almost unbearable longing to remove something so intolerable. This is where we start, and it’s our middle, and it’s our end.
Sade’s “Pearls” is such a beautiful and pure expression of compassion. On a deeper level, it is about the truth that any of us could have been, could be, anyone else. “She lives a life she didn’t choose…”
there is a woman in Somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it’s gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl
For the past year or so I’ve been absorbing the scandals which have been rocking the worlds of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga. A great many people have had to rethink their allegiances to one organization or another. Many feel deeply betrayed. Too many have been harmed.
I’ve been thinking about our relationship to spiritual communities for a long time, but more recently I’ve been pondering the question: what, specifically, do we tend to bring to them of our own? If the teacher is mature, genuine, they will not encourage students to treat them as a spiritual dictator. Their purpose is to uplift the student, after all, not to dwell above them. But at the same time why should we expect — in the spiritual supermarket which extraordinary economic prosperity and the free flow of all the world’s information inevitably has brought us — that spiritual communities would not inhabit the same full spectrum of integrity as everything else? In other words, banally, power corrupts. Safeguards are always needed.
I think two areas of work must be engaged with. The first is to call out genuine abusiveness where it has been shown to exist, and help all who have been afflicted by it. The further educational need here is this: Asian religious traditions retain an aura of exoticism and unfathomable depth in the West, while at the same time very few people actually know anything about them. This means: a very human situation, in which insufficiently critical seekers long for meaningful spiritual community, and certain others come along to exploit them. The latter group seems to fall into two different categories: those who know what they’re doing all along, and those who become corrupted by power. But the point is that it’s an interdependent situation: without naivety/uncritical thinking, the exploitative teacher doesn’t succeed. So I think we need to focus on both sides.
The larger point is a truism which is nonetheless true: we’re all just human beings in the big human soup together. Our mistake lies in thinking that anyone teaching something “spiritual” dwells above or outside of that soup. Of course, some might profess some kind of enlightenment (personally, my own reaction whenever I hear this is the opposite of what might be intended), and straightforwardly build a power structure from the beginning. But more usually abusive communities hold together as a result of a number of other people silencing in good faith some nagging doubt in their minds — again out of the very human fear of losing their world, their friends, the warmth, the certainty.
Serendipitously, I just thought of a late poem of Allen Ginsberg’s called “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” It begins by referencing all the religious scandals of his time, then continues:
… And New Left carried psychedelic pictures of Mao, Che Guevara &
Castro up and down Empire State’s stairways
A scandal of the sixties! …
What US president hasn’t sponsored war, Lumumba’s assassination, an
Scandal hundreds homeless under Brooklyn Bridge freezing Xmas &
New Year’s Eve! Millions homeless in America!
Who’ll gotta pay for 500,000 U.S. boys & girls visiting Arabian Deserts!
Who’ll cough up billions for Iraq War to save a President’s face?
Twelve Billion dollars mickeymouse the year’s drug wars?
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
Laurent Salvation Army blazers …
Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s letter to South Bend’s Muslim community yesterday manifests such grace and compassion. I’m really pleased to see this.
Another one from the radio show — do songs get any more “classic” than this? Ray Davies had lost his old bandmate Pete Quaife only days or weeks before, so these songs, dedicated to him, hit so hard.
those sacred days you gave me
Discovered this one last night and can’t stop listening to it… The sax player on Bowie’s last, stupendous LP, formerly mostly a jazz guy, recently — as you see — exploring different directions.
As unbearable as it is to think about the man who currently dwells in the White House, fouling the office he holds to a degree no one could have begun to imagine, and every single day, it’s good also to remember another time. Here was one: Usher getting “Mercy Mercy Me” so very, very right that Marvin couldn’t have been more touched. In the presence of the Obamas and their guests: this is who we are.
Two Novembers ago we definitively left what now seems like a quaint old world where Democrats and Republicans shaped our governance. I refer to a time where a certain percentage of the populace psychologically tilted towards broadly “progressive” values, and another group psychologically tilted towards broadly “conservative” values, but they could have respectful conversations about their respective affinities. They could touch common ground — quite a lot, in fact, if the listening was really attentive — beneath the different choices they made.
That country has been fraying at the seams for some time. But two years ago a guy unambiguously, not to mention ferociously, declared war on it, and hasn’t let up for one day since. It took me a little while to come up with a single word which comes close to encapsulating the governing “ideology” (if that is the proper term) of our current rulers. The so-called president’s behavior is so uniquely nauseating in so many ways — the delusions and continuous lying, the viciousness, the proud abysmal ignorance, the self-adoration: how to get a handle on it all? But I suggest that we do, it turns out, have a term that gathers together all of these qualities, and it is nihilism.
What we are seeing today emanating from the White House and all its abject apologists in Congress, from the media sector which is driving us over the cliff and all those who swallow that agenda entirely uncritically, is a rejection of values themselves. Which makes it, of course, the precise opposite of conservatism, because it is purely destructive — destructive even for its own sake. It is the pursuit of pure naked power, at virtually any cost. All of the genuine conservatives saw through it from the very start (and they have been amongst the most eloquent and impassioned dissecters of this madness).
There truly does appear to be no decency at all in Trump’s mind, no connection whatsoever to the notion of truth, no sense of constraint to speak of. He is only for himself, and in the crudest, most vulgar way at that. He is precisely the sort of person who should never be given any power over others. And yet he managed to con about 28% of the voting-age population sufficiently to acquire as much power as anyone on the planet has. And they continue to believe the continuous lies he tells on a daily basis — a full 80 in one day a week or so ago. They believed him when he told them they would get a tax cut before election day, despite Congress not even being in session. They believe him when he tells them his wall is being built. They believe him when he tells them that a group of poor, unarmed men, women, and children seeking to apply for asylum in this country entirely legally, coming here on foot, and still 800 miles away, constitutes an “invasion” of disease-ridden Middle Eastern terrorists.
They believe literally everything he tells them. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and his media minions would call it a fake story, and they would believe it.
I’m so exhausted having to inhabit a culture which has become untethered from reality itself. I have not wished to fill this website with daily testaments to just how exhausted I am by it all. How utterly disgusted. And heartbroken. There is something truly poisonous here which needs to be thoroughly defeated. I’m not talking about the triumph of progressivism over conservatism. Again, what we are facing is the antithesis of conservatism. True conservatives and true liberals really do have a lot more in common than many in each grouping often realize, and they can speak to each other, respect each other, and find areas of shared understanding. I’ve had many such conversations online. We need to be under no illusions about the fact that the choice on our plates at this point is between a (certainly flawed) republic, and the triumph of nihilism, with an accelerating cascade of horrors to come if it is not stopped in its tracks, and reversed. It’s that stark.
When (for my own mental health I have to think “when” and not “if”) the delirium breaks and we can return to some kind of basic sanity, then lesser differences can, and should, resurface. At that point Democrats can continue the full range of debates on how they conceive of their party. But now … there is only one party which even recognizes climate change, for heaven’s sake! There is only one party that appears to believe in press freedom! An independent judiciary! An unequivocal right to vote! The full humanity of immigrants! I could go on, but I don’t need to. Vote for the survival of this country — and the greater health of the world. It’s certainly imperfect, but it will get massively, unrecognizably worse if we don’t counter all the poison that has been released into the body politic in recent years.
Simply retaking the House is only a first step, but it would restore at least some measure of divided government. We would still be in a very perilous state, but it’s where we have to start.
I’m not an uncritical fan of Bill Maher, but I do occasionally catch a clip and find that he is capable of saying certain kinds of things well. As he does here. We don’t have the luxury at this point, unfortunately, of insisting upon pure voting choices. The fate of voting itself — among so much else — is on the line. The Republican Party has become a fascism-enabling party, and it seems clear that unless it is repeatedly pummelled in elections it will not edge away from the abyss. So on Tuesday we must pummel them.
Awhile back I attended a week-long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche in upstate New York, and the guy I ended up sharing a room with turned out to be this brilliant painter, writer, and creator of theatrical events called Douglass Truth. He has a new show coming up, with performances so far only out west, but with any luck there will be some East Coast dates at some point, because the trailer is so much fun. Check out his artwork here.
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
“Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring,” by Wu-Men (tr. Stephen Mitchell)
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry
Harper Perennial, 1993
children will want them
mothers supply them
as long as your killers are heroes
A few nights ago I saw the film “Call Me by Your Name” and am still entirely lost in its spell. A film I’ve kind of been waiting my whole life for, which, miraculously, did not disappoint but was even better than I could have hoped. Review coming soon, but for now, this song — featured towards the end of the film — captures its purity and great beauty. This film shimmers with goodness and I bow to all who made it possible.
what happened here?
the butterly has lost its wings
the air’s too thick to breathe
and there’s something in the drinking water
the sun comes up
the sun comes up and you’re alone
your sense of purpose come undone
the traffic tails back to the maze on 101
and the news from the sky
is looking better for today
in every single way but not for you
Earlier today I had a conversation, with an apologist, about our so-called president’s recent remarks on Haiti and Africa. The depth of sophistry, the mindless shuffling around of words, the unthinking pure reactivity and inability to acknowledge straightforward facts, left me actually shaking in despair. It really has felt like the very death of civilization over the past year and a half. Without at least some level of good faith and commitment to truth, nothing works, nothing is possible. There only remains a bottomless fall into barbarism.
More specifically, this subject can render me a bit ballistic. I keep trying to imagine what it must be like arriving in an alien country with, typically, very minimal proficiency in the native language to start with, where every day contains all kinds of logistical, communicative struggles someone like me never has to think about for a moment. Doing many of the hardest, most unpleasant, most poorly-paid jobs, generally working exceptionally hard, navigating frequent subtle and unsubtle slights — and worse.
These are simply heroes in my book, and this is supposed to be the country that recognizes and welcomes them more than any other on earth. It breaks my heart to see this moronic, astoundingly uneducated, surreally self-obsessed, endlessly foul, utterly lawless man who has never had to materially struggle a day in his life say such things — and be defended, always, by virtually the entire congressional delegation of his party. Really beyond the pale disgusting.
Listening to Sade’s “Immigrant” is helping restore some sanity:
Isn’t it just enough
How hard it is to live
Isn’t it hard enough
Just to make it through a day
The secret of their fear and their suspicion —
Standing there looking like an angel
In his brown shoes
His short suit
His white shirt
And his cuffs a little frayed
Coming from where he did
He was such a dignified child
To even the toughest among us
Don’t you know that would be too much …
He didn’t know what it was to be black
‘Til they gave him his change, but didn’t want to touch his hand
To even the toughest among us
That would be too much
Happy 2018 (gulp) to everyone and to our deeply ailing, unspeakably precious world. May we do much better this year. May we really, really do much better!
My tiny blip of a contribution to world peace this 31 December is to pass along a rediscovery. Was traipsing through YouTube last night trying to cheer myself up and came across a band I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they were the best of the “acid jazz” scene in Britain and I got to see one of their joyous romping gigs once, just before they broke up I think — was it in Leeds? Sheffield? alas those were days when I had THC for blood… (cf. song number three: “skunk funk, in my bo-o-ones…”) I do remember, as here, that at the end there were as many people on stage as in the crowd!
Honestly, if everyone could go to a gig like this even once a month or so, I do believe we might have world peace. Music gets there. Music cuts through all the confusion and nonsense and division and hatred and stupidity. More music!
As the old Tibetan chant goes: “May all beings without exception on this earth enjoy peace, happiness, and complete prosperity.” Cheers!