generating compassion

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

“Strangers in Their Own Land” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

Arlie Hochschild is Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley and one of the most distinguished sociologists of her generation, and her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, has received much acclaim over the past year. Rightly so. I have just finished it and can add my voice to all those who have found it a remarkably fine and illuminating study.

Between the years 2011 and 2016 Hoschshild made ten trips to southwestern Louisiana — an area dominated by the petrochemical industry — in order to try and better understand what she calls the Great Paradox: how is it that the residents of the most polluted, toxic areas of the country tend to be members of the Tea Party movement, which vigorously supports the dismantling of environmental regulations? How have they come to oppose the federal government so comprehensively, to deem it so inherently corrupt, when their own states tend to benefit disproportionately from its expenditures? Why do they continue so unquestioningly to trust the very industries whose chemicals, indeed whose environmental disasters, have made them sick and rendered entire towns and regions uninhabitable?

Going further, Hochschild wanted to see if she could manage to, as she puts it, scale the “empathy wall,” the barrier which keeps coastal liberals like herself from being able to meet her counterparts on “the Right” halfway and see the world through their eyes. To this end she interviewed many dozens of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana and followed them around as they lived their lives. She went to church with them, ate dinner at their homes, accompanied them to political meetings and crawfish festivals, drove around to see their childhood homes and other places important to their life experiences. They became her friends, and Strangers in Their Own Land among other things proves to be a hearteningly successful exercise in sustained empathy and openness.

The book is in four parts. The first of these paints the bleak picture of environmental devastation in the region. Hochschild vividly describes several of the catastrophic accidents (not all of them, in fact, even accidents) which have landed Louisiana at the bottom of most measures of ecological and human health — the section on the Bayou Corne sinkhole is particularly chilling. And we’re introduced to a number of people who have suffered enormously, in any number of ways, from the state of things. Yet it is these very individuals who form the core of support for anti-government, anti-regulatory activist groups like the Tea Party. Thus: the “Great Paradox.”

Part Two examines the sociocultural landscape to see how, respectively, industry, state government, the churches, and the media help shape political attitudes in the region. But it is in Part Three where the book really begins to shine. All along Hochschild knew that her questions could only be better understood if she found a way into the feelings of others, their emotional landscape, their “deep story” (in her words). The chapter bearing that title, and the four profiles which follow it, become the heart of the book. To anyone utterly baffled by the electoral success of Trump, I highly recommend these chapters, which show rather than merely tell of a number of the significant connections leading to his political support.

Finally, Part Four then pans out to look at the South in a broader historical perspective, visits a Trump rally (the book was completed during the primary season), and ends with the author’s most recent visits to the friends she made in the region, the subjects of her book. A valuable section of her appendix counters a dozen beliefs concerning government and the environment accepted as gospel in the region she visited but unsupported by research.

One of the most toxic developments of our time is surely the extent to which political disagreements have become so routinely moralized, so that the other “side” is not only mistaken about one thing or another, but demonized for being so, their motivations assumed as a matter of course to be dark. But manichaeism sucks all the space out of a room, rendering any dialogue impossible. We need to counter this practice determinedly. In Hochschild’s portraits we see extremely hard-working, self-sacrificing, long-enduring, generous human beings grappling with their trials, their suffering, their perplexities, just like everyone else. Apart from in the final appendix, the author almost entirely abstains from adding any of her own political commentary: she lets her subjects speak for themselves, and her readers can also judge for themselves the merits of their conclusions on public policy or the nature of a healthy society. This is a great strength of a very significant, and timely, study.

Vermont galvanized

From the current issue of Seven Days:

“Since the January 20 inauguration, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) office reports that he’s received 50,127 calls, emails and letters on issues ranging from Trump’s cabinet picks to his Supreme Court nominee to his business conflicts.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) office reports an 897 percent increase in call volume from 2016 to 2017 so far, and a 1,808 percent increase in phone calls since 2015.

“‘To offer some perspective on the January 2017 data, we had 1.5 calls every minute for eight consecutive hours for every day we were open,’ writes Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’ deputy communications director, in a recent email. ‘There was not one minute when the phones were silent for the entire month of January.’

“Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) says that his constituent contacts have jumped at least sevenfold since last year.”

thank you sir

The emergence — and horrible persistence — of Trump has been an event so utterly shocking to me, so smothering to the spirit, so genuinely terrifying. I have done my best to maintain a balance, a perspective. To not allow it all to dominate my consciousness.

Yet every morning I am startled at the alacrity with which it all reasserts itself. I climb out of bed and walk towards my kitchen and then it hits me in the gut, every day: this unutterably and continuously foul, juvenile, profoundly ignorant and uncurious, self-celebrating and exceptionally dangerous man is on a shortlist of two for the most powerful job in the world.

I have been trying to avoid writing about it all, too. Somehow there has been a kind of defeatism associated with this possibility, and a corresponding determination not to be forced to acknowledge the fact that we have descended this low. This low.

Yet anyone who has never been able to understand how one of the most supposedly civilized cultures in the world could have descended into utter barbarism in the 1930s has a front-row seat to the process today. They only need to watch carefully and I think they will learn more, and learn it more vividly, than many an astute monograph could teach them.

What can I say? I must confess that all of this has been having such a horrific effect on my state of mind that … I went out the other night, purchased a bottle of 15-year-old Glenfiddich (don’t bother with the 12, there’s no comparison), and while working my way through it this evening was praying that the DNC’s addresses might pick me up. As Michelle Obama’s did last night — splendid, so fine.

And actually, they did! A little. I have yet to watch the earlier ones but … President Obama’s was the finest address of its kind I may have ever heard. Pitch-perfect, and every paragraph reaching to the best of who we are as a country.

So I only wanted to say here, because I haven’t said it enough (and briefly, given my intoxicated state!): I’m so immensely proud of this man. Openness and decisiveness combined, sharp intelligence and grace, strength and tenderness: he’s got it. As fine a president as we’ve had. And what a great blessing we’ve had him for these past eight, terribly anxious years. Much we can argue over (oh for sure, and in any event we are all most imperfect), but my goodness: it’s not something I do all the time, but I have no hesitation in calling him a great and very admirable man.

I think Andrew Sullivan said it well tonight:

“It’s been a long and entirely unexpected journey with this extraordinary figure. I’ve doubted and panicked, I’ve hyper-ventilated and wept, I’ve worried and persevered. We did a lot of that together, you and me. But I have one thing to say: he never let us down. He kept his cool, he kept his eyes on the prize, he never embarrassed and almost always lifted us up. He is a living, walking example of American exceptionalism, of why this amazing country can still keep surprising the world.

“Readers know how I feel about the Clintons. But this is not about them or me. It’s about an idea of America that is under siege and under attack from a foul, divisive, dangerous demagogue. If you backed Obama, there is no choice in this election but Clinton. This is not an election to seek refuge in a third party or to preen in purist disdain from the messy, often unsatisfying duties of politics. It is an election to keep the America that Obama has helped bring into being, and the core democratic values that have defined this experiment from the very beginning: self-government, not rule by a strongman; pluralism and compassion rather than nativism and fear; an open embrace of the world, and not a terrified flight from it.

“But you know what Obama gave us tonight? He gave some of us hope. Again. That’s what he does. And we will never see his like again.”

CobDmS1UsAEMmR0

an unexpectedly respectful interview

Van Jones, walking down the street to his next meeting, is hailed by a group of Trump supporters from InfoWars. He stops and … talks to them for half an hour. Most astonishing of all: he impresses them!

As an intentionally TV-less person, and one who in any event avoids cable news like the plague, I’d never heard Van Jones speak until a year or so ago, when he gave a public talk at a nearby college (introduced by Bill McKibben). His life story was impressive, and his message inspiring.

Heartwarming to see the receptivity here.

“This is very important now: the only way this thing works is if you cry just as much when that black man dies in that police car, and I cry just as much when that horrible bigoted sniper shot down those police. If you’re crying over those funerals and I’m crying over those funerals, and we’re both crying together, we can find a way to get our cops to be better and get our kids to be better. But if we decide we’re gonna pick funerals, that’s the worst thing in America. We’re now picking which funeral we’re gonna cry over…

So listen. When we come together the right way, the Republicans talk about liberty, individual freedom, limited government. Democrats talk about justice … what about the little guys getting run over? Liberty and justice for all: that’s America. So that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But what’s happening now is: if you’re for liberty I call you a racist; if I’m for justice you call me a socialist. And then we never can get along. Well that’s gotta stop. That’s gotta stop.”