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.”

“we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes…”

This is the best thing I’ve read on the appalling events of the past week:

Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?  Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?  And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human….

Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous — (applause) — and the teenager — maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents.  (Applause.)

With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward, look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today, acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.

With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.  (Applause.)  And I understand these protests — I see them, they can be messy.  Sometimes they can be hijacked by an irresponsible few.  Police can get hurt.  Protestors can get hurt.  They can be frustrating.

But even those who dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family.  (Applause.)  We should — when we hear a friend describe him by saying that “Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us, so that we can, yes, insist that his life matters.  Just as we should hear the students and coworkers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul — “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” they called him — and know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can, without putting officers’ lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost.

With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.  (Applause.)  Because the vicious killer of these police officers, they won’t be the last person who tries to make us turn on one other.  The killer in Orlando wasn’t, nor was the killer in Charleston.  We know there is evil in this world.  That’s why we need police departments.  (Applause.)  But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail.  They will not drive us apart.  We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share.

President Obama, July 12, in Dallas

Copyright 2016 WFAA

You can watch the entire address here.

more on Officer Nakia Jones

I’m grateful for the honesty, graciousness, and compassion on display in this meeting with members of the press. And relieved to hear that, contrary to previous reports, it appears that Officer Jones has been neither fired nor suspended. According to Cleveland 19 News, “Mayor Brad Sellers said Jones did not violate the social media policy that is currently in place. She is currently on full duty at the police department and there were no violations of any policies with the City of Warrensville Heights.”

Mercy Mercy Me / What’s Going On (Usher cover)

You don’t need to believe in the efficacy of prayer to be moved by the overdub in Marvin Gaye’s original of “Mercy Mercy Me,” a love song for the Earth, wherein he repeatedly sings “have mercy Father, please have mercy…”

And “What’s Going On” (the song, and the album) remains one of the great testaments of compassion in contemporary music:

mother mother
there’s too many of you crying
brother brother brother
there’s far too many of you dying
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today

father father
we don’t need to escalate
you see, war is not the answer
for only love can conquer hate
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today

picket lines, and picket signs
don’t punish me with brutality
talk to me, so you can see
what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on
yeah what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on…

The originals could never be topped, but this acoustic version was a sweet discovery.

Songs our world desperately needs these days. Send them round —

for the murdered and wounded of Orlando

The end of Derek Jarman’s memoir At Your Own Risk:

I’m alone again. I sit watching the sun go down, peach as my grandmother’s table-cloth behind the nuclear power station. A great orange moon hangs over the sea and the winds die bringing in the night.

LOVE

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun;
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; and the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem was written at the end of the First World War.

I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out.

I am in love.

our culture of shaming

Goodness but I do need to start posting regularly again. I had every intention of doing so earlier in the year but life, as can happen, took over. There are a great many things to write about but let’s simply begin here, with a video I came across earlier in the evening on the culture of shaming (via Twitter). Quite powerful I think, and I’ll let it speak for itself, at least for now:

lashon ha-ra (gossip): a Hasidic parable

“Lashon ha-ra” literally means “bad tongue,” ie gossip. Buddhism views it quite seriously as an infringement of harmful speech, but I especially love this Hasidic story used to illustrate it in Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. Here’s the first part of the entry:

The biblical commandment forbidding gossip is probably the most widely disobeyed of the 613 laws of the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This basic principle forbids saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking or writing has a legitimate need for this information (for example, in submitting a reference for a job applicant).

In the Talmud, the rabbis greatly elaborated on this biblical verse, arguing that destroying another’s name is akin to murder (Arakhin 15b), and like murder, the deed is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing the damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness, and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, and returned to notify the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”

The man protested. “But that’s impossible.”

“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (3rd and last)

I’ve been discussing (here and here) a very destructive syndrome that continues to unfold in our culture. As each decade and perhaps even year goes by, we find ourselves becoming more and more the slave of fear. Of both individual fears – which steadily multiply – and fear itself, fear as a way of life. By now I don’t think we even realize how far down the road we have travelled, but increasingly simply take it all for granted.

Fear has a thoroughly crippling effect upon freedom of thought and activity. It distorts reality by forcing it through its own unacknowledged filters. Of course, when a particular manifestation of fear is sufficiently powerful it achieves the status of taboo. At that point, we can no longer rely on a straightforward rational approach to relating to it. Instead, we find ourselves needing protection from the protection, as it were – ie, since creating any kind of rational protection requires looking into the fear, and we’re unable to do this, we need an additional layer for distance. But sometimes even that isn’t enough, and we end up with a whole construct, each layer distorting the actual nature of things more and more, stifling more and more human autonomy.

The recent revelations about Orwellian NSA activity are one prominent demonstration of this, but the syndrome is endemic now. It can be seen perhaps at its most expansive and fully hysterical in the realm of sex and relationship more generally, but that requires its own series of posts at another time. For now, I decided to focus on a simpler, more compact topic to illustrate the dynamic, namely our laws regarding the purchase and consumption of alcohol (please see previous posts).

Here is the next layer we’ve created – and this is where it gets rather interesting. Again, we’ve already raised the age, nationally, at which we might purchase even so much as a glass of beer, to five years beyond the age at which we are allowed to drive a car. And we are one of the very few countries in the world with a drinking age so high (the vast majority have set 18). One would have thought it sufficient then, with such a high age to begin with, that enforcement involve a straightforward assessment of whether or not a prospective purchaser of alcohol indeed seems to be at least 21.

In other words: a liquor store employee simply has a look at the person who has next approached the counter (while warmly greeting them, it goes without saying…), and if it appears as though they might be under 21, she/he requests proof of age. Easy, right?

Well, it doesn’t appear so. Because we seem to have lost any discretion here whatsoever. Someone who looks 21 might actually be a mere 20, or 19, or at a pinch 18 even! And how dare such a person, who is trusted with driving an extremely dangerous vehicle, trusted to marry and raise children, trusted with the ability to vote for their political representatives, trusted with the option of joining the military of their country where they might have to make genuine life-and-death decisions, and as it happens trusted in virtually every other country of the world to decide what they would like to drink – how dare somebody so terribly young conceive of buying an alcoholic beverage! Now if only they were a mere day over 21, all would be fine. But a day under? Better that all possible danger of mistake be eliminated than that one … single … person under that literally magical number ever succeed in … purchasing a couple of beers.

So here’s what we now do: in virtually every store I’ve been to that sells alcohol, there is a house policy – often posted – of requiring anyone who appears as if they might not be over 30 to prove their age. Now think about what this is really saying for a moment. An employee of a liquor store takes a look at someone and thinks: “ah, that person’s definitely old enough to drink, he looks 30, 32 or something.”

But then they stop and ponder: “although, come to think of it, they might actually be more like 29, or even 27. And in fact, despite their looks, it’s at least conceivable that they might be 24, 23.” So, because the employee’s best guess is 30 or 32, that’s not good enough, because that person might just – one time in 50 or so – be ten or twelve years off.

And if they’re wrong, that one person in however many might just be someone who not only drinks that night but also drinks to impairment and then drives a car. Forget about the inconvenient fact that the next person in line, a completely acceptable 22, might well do the same thing of course. No, all we care about is that absolutely nobody, at no time and in no place, noways and never, who is a single day under the magic Number, ever evades that almighty number and gets to … buy a drink.

Again, I can’t even be sure I’m being understood here because we have gone so far down this particular road. But in any event now let’s continue even further down this path of reductio ad absurdum. I would argue we’ve already reached it with such a policy, but clearly even this isn’t good enough, because in a large number of stores which sell alcohol I have seen signs which state that anyone appearing to be under 40 will be asked to prove their age. Forty! Is there, honestly, a single human being in this country who genuinely appears to be 38 or 39 but is actually 19 or 20? A single one? Well, who knows, just maybe there are one or two, but…

So we can see what has happened. The penalties against having served a “minor” are so crippling to a small business that they have decided all discretion has to go out the window, and we are left with a hysterical policy that has left all common sense behind. Again, remember, the law itself is only indirectly connected to drunk driving in the first place. Drunk driving requires three components: alcohol, enough alcohol to cause impairment, and then the act of driving. The original law was passed to reduce a percentage of a percentage. A certain percentage of all people will combine those three components – and we can’t do anything about it if someone decides to do so. So we simply raise the drinking age as a measure far more politically acceptable than raising the driving age.

Finally, three times now I have come across 50 given as the arbitrary cutoff point – as per my photo in the previous two posts. And you know what? If there actually does exist a single human being in this country who appears to be just barely under 50 but is in fact 19 or 20 … then please give that person a drink! Just do it, on the house, absolutely! Because clearly they’ve been through way, way too much…

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (2)

In the previous post I suggested that the capacity to be at least a little bit curious about an object of fear is essential to maintaining our humanity. Fear has a ravenous nature; if unchecked it simply keeps expanding. Over time multiple layers of protection can solidify around a core fear, like the concentric circles of an onion. We can’t even name the fear itself at that point, can’t even access it. But each of those additional layers cuts us off more and more from reality and creates various kinds of scapegoats we are unable to acknowledge. Each increasingly distorts our perception and diminishes our personal autonomy. It’s not hard to see that this syndrome has now pervaded our entire culture.

America’s current approach to alcohol is a straightforward illustration of this, and I’d like in this post to try and identify the core fear or fears – the center of the onion – lying behind it. In the following post on this subject I will then build up the onion, as it were, showing how we get from the core fear … to this (a photo I took last summer at a convenience store in upstate New York):

sign

So, what is behind our de facto national prohibition of alcohol to those under the age of 21? (Note: with the exception of those Muslim countries in which alcohol is entirely illegal, only a handful of countries in the world have a drinking age above 18. Some have set 16, a number of others don’t legislate on the basis of age at all. So, we are in the draconian bottom 5-10%.) Our first thought is likely to be: the desire to reduce incidences of injury and death resulting from drunk driving. After all, this was the stated aim of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at its founding in 1980 by Candace Lightner, who had lost her young daughter in this way.

With the help of then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, New Jersey), MADD succeeded in getting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, which, through financial pressure on the states, resulted in every state raising their drinking age to 21 by 1988. Since then, having achieved its objective, the organization has gone on to lobby for further toughening of existing laws and additional measures, most controversially the creation of frequent sobriety checkpoints on roads and the raising of excise taxes on beer to match that on spirits. (Candace Lightner herself moved away from the organization in the mid-’80s, stating in a Washington Times article from 2002: “”It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”)

We need to take a step back at this point and look more closely at what is going on. What are the components of the problem as such? There are three, and they are inseparable: alcohol, drinking too much, and driving. If any of these three are absent, we don’t have drunk driving, period. Notice also that age as such is irrelevant here. When a person of whatever age a) drinks alcohol, b) drinks to the point of impairment, and c) gets behind the wheel of a car, then and only then do you have a situation of risk.

(It’s important also to note that what constitutes “too much” does in fact vary from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour, especially at lower levels of consumption. But in a scientistic culture where, more and more, mind is being collapsed into brain, these kinds of empirical truths increasingly can no longer be seen. All that matters is whatever magic number is called into service. It’s also crucial to remember that “impairment” occurs in lots of other ways too, via any form of inattention, whether it be texting, taking too long to change the radio station, turning to stare at a beautiful guy/girl, tiredness, or whatever it might be. Any of these scenarios can and do cause accidents, and most in the long run are simply impervious to legislation.)

So: why not just maintain a law against, well … drunk driving, and leave it at that? This is the entire point, after all.

The argument given is that raising the drinking age can be correlated with fewer incidences of drunk driving, and this can’t help but be true. (Much of the decrease surely also can be correlated with greater public exposure of the problem.) But if this is our logic, then why stop at 21? Raising the drinking age to 25 would save even more lives. Going back to Prohibition – even more. And in fact, of the three necessary components to drunk driving I pointed to above, driving is actually the most proximate cause of all, because it’s the vehicle which directly brings about the harm. So why not simply raise the driving age to 21, which would bring about all sorts of additional benefits?

And it is this last option I think which points to what is going on at a deeper level here. Even though raising the driving age to 21 would be even more effective at reducing car-related deaths than raising the drinking age, no one would dream of seriously suggesting it. And why not? Because despite the fact that car accidents are one of our leading causes of death, and have brought about all kinds of other negative environmental, social, and health effects, greater mobility is seen as a pure, innocent, necessary good. Intoxication of any kind, however, the heightening of ordinary, functional consciousness? Suspicious, always, in this culture. Especially in “the young.”

And let’s go one step further. Why is heightened or altered consciousness suspect? Simply because it moves in the direction of the previously unknown and the less certain. It threatens inertia, the purely habitual. It is a catalyst of new perceptions, can enable new ways of seeing.

Therefore we have a driving age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. And this says it all. At 16 we are deemed responsible enough to operate an extremely powerful and dangerous machine, but not responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine – or, heaven forbid, sometimes several!

I don’t want to diminish the power of alcohol either. As we know it plays a part in a high percentage of instances of violence in our culture, and there will always be a relatively small minority for whom it will become a very destructive problem. But it seems that when it comes to the realms of bodily enjoyment and mental expansiveness we have lost all sense of balance. This feature of our core collective fear is so deeply buried that automatic suspicion has become the norm. We really don’t trust ourselves to navigate our own bodies and minds, so we relinquish responsibility to an abstraction called the law, which removes more and more of our individual discretion.

I’m leaving aside the question of enforceability here, though it’s not insignificant. An 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to enter a university environment where they will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other students their age is going to drink if they want to, regardless of the law. Any college student can testify that such a prohibition is easily, regularly, and almost universally flouted.

Mainly what I’m trying to show at this first level of response is that it is a purely pragmatic measure that has been elevated to moral crisis. Our culture treats this number as a moral principle in itself, as witnessed for example by the portentous – and infantilizing – tones of any number of public service advertisements on the subject over the years. Someone a single day over that magic number of 21 can purchase and drink as much alcohol as they like; someone who is younger by a mere two days is treated as having a “criminal mind” if they attempt to do the same. Many 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly; many who are 26, or 36, or 56 are not.

A number will never make for a moral argument. Our culture worships numbers, however, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to make intelligent discretionary decisions, partly because we have come as a society to value safety and risk-aversion above almost everything else. So: more and more and more laws aiming to create a perfectly safe world which … can never come. Hence – as I’ll touch upon in the third and last post – a process that is hysterically out of control.

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (1)

sign

I took this photo last summer. The sign appears in the window of a service station/convenience store in upstate New York and provides, I think, an especially compact illustration of an entire story that can be told about our collective psyche these days.

Before telling it in my next post, a few words as introduction:

It’s not hard to see that fears have a kind of self-propagating or self-aggrandizing power. They are ravenous, ever-expanding, until we can begin to examine them. This is so because fear designates precisely that which is beyond the pale, unencounterable, for what cannot be faced becomes to that extent inescapable. Ordinarily we see this most clearly in nightmares, when we are at the mercy of our mind’s projections. Within the nightmare we are bodiless and so running away doesn’t – can’t – succeed: we are attempting, impossibly, to flee ourselves.

The Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa taught that becoming a “warrior” (in the sense of a spiritual warrior) does not mean being free of fear or cultivating a tough exterior. Rather, it arises out of a very different quality, which is the capacity to open fully to the world, to allow the world with all its phenomena in, so that we can actually be touched by it. He suggested that when we do so its effect is to soften us, and that out of this “tender heart of sadness,” as he called it, our long-cultivated dualities of Self and Other can begin to soften too. The Berlin Walls in our minds become more permeable.

A glimpse of genuine fearlessness can arise out of this experience because in that moment we are not trying to protect ourselves and our territory in quite the same way. Ultimately, we fear anything which threatens our belief in a separate, independent, unchanging Self. It naturally follows that allowing our habitual defences to soften, “letting the world tickle our raw and beautiful heart,” as Trungpa so wonderfully put it, fosters the birth of true warriorship.

(From this standpoint an American president once said something truly profound – who’d have thought?!: “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”)

Returning to nightmares in this context, I’ve been told by more than one person that if, when confronted by a monster in a dream, we can stay with it, face it, ideally even take a step in its direction, it will lose its power over us, even dissolve or turn into a harmless- or sad-looking cartoon character. Best of all is when the dreamer is able to feel a sense of compassion towards it.

So then, what happens when we do the opposite, when instead of trying to take a step forward, even a tiny one, or at least not running away, we … slowly back up, in rising panic. Or just turn round and run for the hills. Does the fear go away?

Well, how can it? We’ve only shored it up, made it even more solid. From this standpoint “fear itself” is nothing other than the duality we continuously strengthen. It resides in and arises from precisely that ultimately non-existent gap between self and projection. But the more powerful we allow it to become, the more layers of protection we will find ourselves creating. The whole thing becomes tighter and tighter. And more and more demons have to be invented too – scapegoats we sacrifice to keep the nature of reality at bay.

A metaphor that comes to me often in thinking about this is that of an onion. If the core of the onion represents a fear we cannot even look at, we create a layer around it as opaque as possible. But if for various reasons the fear is so strong that one layer isn’t enough, we add a second – we put something in place which protects us from our initial barrier that we realize is not 100% strong enough. And then sometimes we need a third layer if we sense the second itself may be a bit fragile. So that when something becomes so taboo that we are incapable of looking at it at all, incapable of any kind of reasoned response, the end result is hysteria – and loss of humanity.

In the next two posts I try and deconstruct, fairly thoroughly, the quite numerous layers of that onion of fear which are embedded in the photo above. And suggest that in America today this approach has become our routine, automatic, indeed pathological response to insecurity and uncertainty of all kinds.

the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
technology
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

adieu Waterfront Video…

I haven’t been attached to a great many stores in my life but have been realizing over the past couple of weeks how much I will be missing Waterfront Video, which closed its doors on April 30 after nearly 17 years in business – I’d been a customer for the past six of those. (I unthinkingly began to link to their website just now, then remembered that of course it wouldn’t still be up, except that it turns out it is – which is even sadder…)

Waterfront made it far longer than most video stores in the country, in part due to the willingness of its owner to keep it going no matter what, and in part because it was quite special. It had a stock of something like 30,000 videos, a great many of which will never find their way into Netflix: all kinds of foreign, older, obscure, quirky titles that were always a pleasure to browse through no matter how many hundreds of times I’d been in the store. And the staff were the best – always cheerful, always happy to talk about movies.

Its loss has reminded me yet again of how relentless is the internet’s whittling away of physical, ie real, community. Since I happen to live alone, some nights a visit down there served an added function of connecting with the world in a small way, having a chat with the folks behind the counter, seeing what was new.

Netflix just ain’t the same, at all… They do their best and my queues aren’t going to run low anytime soon, but again, there will never be anything close to the selection of less popular films available there, with the streaming catalog being of course even more limited. One of the best things about Waterfront was that if at 9:00 you suddenly remembered a movie you really wanted to see, you could go down there and more often than not pick it up, having it back home ten minutes later. And with their 4-for-3, five-day-rental deal, you could bring back a varied selection in case your first impulse didn’t grab you. But in that situation now, if Netflix hasn’t got it on streaming – and the chances aren’t very good that it will – you’re out of luck. So even at the level of convenience, which is what online commerce is supposed to be all about, it’s a serious loss.

Who knows, maybe one day specialist providers might appear and over time build up eclectic collections of film that might come (somewhat) close to matching Waterfront Video. But even so they can never replace the experience of being in a real-live space, surrounded by real-live people, being able to browse through real-live video covers. My very last batch of four included films by Kieslowski, Jarmusch, Howard Hawks, and Ozu – none of which, and in fact probably none or almost none of whose films at all – are available on Netflix streaming. Sure, having to pay late fees sucked, but mainly because I was just too disorganized to get things back in time…

I was also really saddened to read in the Seven Days article of the loss of George Holoch, who’d worked at Waterfront almost from the beginning. He was an award-winning translator of French, with numerous books to his credit, and a nice man to chat with when I happened to be in there during the day, which was rare. My memory is of him reading The New York Review of Books with a late Beethoven Quartet playing over the speakers.

So another loss to “progress.” It’s going to take probably a few months before the thought stops popping into my head at 9 or 10 at night: hmm, maybe I should pick up Wings of Desire, just in case I feel like putting it on later, or see what’s just come in… Adieu Waterfront.

the Karmapa on gender (2)

Continuing on from the preceding post, two more exhilarating moments from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:

As for myself, I am a Khampa, but I do not like to take an aggressive stance or oppose others at all. People who watch out for my interests sometimes advise me to be less earnest and to go on the offensive more. They caution me against being so open and trusting. They warn me that people can have all sorts of different motivations and ulterior motives, and may be out to deceive me or use my name for their own ends. Even though I have heard this advice clearly, I cannot change. Actually, I don’t want to.

17th-karmapa

In this era of global communication and weapons of mass destruction, rather than impose our will on others by force, we urgently need to find ways to accommodate divergent wills. It has been a long and gradual process, but I believe the world is slowly coming to realize that what we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen. Especially with the unthinkably destructive power of the weapons we have at our disposal, it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.

The times call on us to look at others with the attentive and loving eyes of a mother, rather than with the hostile eyes of a warrior in battle. If we are going to divide up qualities as masculine or feminine, I think we have to say that the qualities we need today are qualities more often described as feminine. We need communication and sensitive listening to others’ needs – qualities that are likelier to be identified as feminine than masculine in most societies.

It is time we truly recognize that the era of the hunter is past. This should be a more “feminine” era…

21st-century lama

I’m very grateful for the new book by the 17th Karmapa, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out.

draft_lens9962341module89685641photo_126849083917Karmapa_Ogyen_Trinley.j

I first became aware of him via his “Aspiration for the World“. Not long after, he issued an edict mandating vegetarianism in all centres within the Kagyu lineage – of which he is the head. (Many people assume buddhism to require vegetarianism of its practitioners, but this isn’t so, particularly within Tibetan buddhism.) These statements appeared when he was twenty or so, around 2006.

The Karmapa lineage is one of the oldest reincarnating lineages within Tibetan buddhism, older than the Dalai Lamas by a couple of centuries, and the current Karmapa’s immediate predecessor – the 16th – was one of the most revered buddhist teachers of modern times.

So, I began to take note of him. However, honestly it had been some time since I’d been able to feel hopeful about institutional Tibetan buddhism. Long story, but suffice it to say, for those lacking experience in this area, that power does seem to corrupt everywhere, and the greater the power, the greater the danger of this. So even a certain amount of despair had set in with me regarding the question. (Cf. even the Karmapa controversy itself, there being two rivals – though all of the lamas whose teachings I’m acquainted with, including the Dalai Lama, recognize this one, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje.)

I must say, though, that this book truly heartens me. I feel that with the 17th Karmapa we have our first fully 21st-century lama. Have a look at some of the chapter titles: “Social Action: Caring for All”; “Environmental Protection: Cultivating New Feelings for the Earth”; “Food Justice: Healing the Cycles of Hunger and Harm”; and, most startlingly from a Tibetan teacher, “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.”

Of course, it’s not a political book, reaching far deeper, but the point is that the Karmapa represents the first Tibetan lineage holder I’ve come across whose mind seems fully at home in the ecological View, who sees our predicament and understands that there is no room anymore for any kind of duality between personal practice and practice for our Earth and for the world.

The talks in this book in fact came out of meetings with American college students. It’s funny to remember too: back in 2006 I participated in a week-long program with the great Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and one of the things he said in one of the question-and-answer sessions was that powerful teachers manifest and develop in particular ways in the world in part due to our aspirations, so that if, for example, we yearn hard enough for “an ecology buddha” (his words), someone who will be of special benefit in this way, we might get one. And it was around this time, in fact, that the 17th Karmapa began to come into his own distinctive voice as it were.

I remember hearing somewhere also that Thrangu Rinpoche, his personal tutor, said of him around this time that he’d thoroughly mastered everything he had to teach him. And within Tibetan buddhism this is an extraordinary thing to say of someone of that age, given the immensity and depth of philosophical learning on the one hand, and actual practices on the other.

My feeling, and that of many others, is that the 17th Karmapa may well become a world leader in the decades to come, comparable to the Dalai Lama today. Judging by this book, which I am about halfway through now, he has much to say that we desperately need to hear and work with.

the humanities make us human

Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.

But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.

Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.

Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.

The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.

History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.

Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.

But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.

In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.

Facebook vs. friends? (2)

More from the same essay:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience.

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one’s emotional generosity, that one’s moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they’ve done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less.