Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finally, it's over for another year...

What is it in human nature that pushes us to buy into the Hallmark card holidays? We invest an inordinate amount of time, effort, and usually far too much money into a single family gathering, thinking that one day of forced togetherness will somehow make up for the other 364 days of squabbling and emotional distance. It doesn’t, of course, even if we manage to get through the day itself with gritted teeth, pasted-on smiles, and carefully avoided conversational topics. Too many people crammed into a too-small living area do not make for a memorable occasion, at least for me. And I don’t know of anyone who can honestly say they do not heave a sigh of relief when the door closes on the last guests, or the car pulls out of the drive, headed for the peace and quiet of home.

I would so much rather see us spend quality time together more frequently, in much smaller groups, when we can actually hear one another talk about something other than the weather and the latest TV reality show. Letters may be passé, but email is a great way to stay in touch quickly and regularly – and I don’t mean the Fwd: Fwd: Fwd messages. Even grandparents have email these days, at least in our family. Phone calls work, too, and hey, guess what? The phone rings at both ends! A quiet meal, a cup of coffee (or tea!), a walk in the park – those are the moments of emotional connection and relationship-building that mean the most to me. I can do without the holiday hoopla with its unrealistic expectations and over-hyped anticipation of…something.

Lunch, anyone?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Now - it's all we have

So – I let my ego self get the best of me today. While waiting ever so patiently (NOT!) for the arrival of my first authored book, all the months and weeks this project has entailed (19 months, so far, since the contract was signed in April 2008) caught up with me and I had a meltdown right in the middle of the kitchen, crying on the floor over spilled puzzle pieces, not milk.

I’ve been doing pretty well with the waiting since the final proof was approved and returned to the publisher in August. They’ve been promising delivery by Christmas, and it’s getting awfully close. I received an email Thursday morning (12/17) saying the publisher’s copies had been received at their offices in Texas and to expect our delivery that same day or the next. It’s now 6 p.m. Saturday and nothing. WHERE’S MY DAMN BOOKS?!

Ok, sorry, thought the meltdown was over.

Rather than addressing the rising tension of the past few days and taking a little extra time in morning meditation to deal with it, I’ve been fiddling with mindless distractions. Baking has been one; yesterday, I cleaned the house top to bottom. Today…I was running out of things to occupy my hands and my mind, so I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle mystery thing that has been collecting dust for several years. After an hour or so sorting pieces and trying to connect all the edges to complete the frame, I realized I needed the kitchen table for dinner (duh!). I scrubbed the filthy card table which had collected two season’s worth of crud on the back porch, found a table cloth, and started moving pieces from one table to the other on the back of a poster board…and dropped a whole tray full. The dogs looked at me rather oddly when I plopped down on the floor in the midst of the scattered bits and cried, but they cuddled in and settled down to wait. Good puppies!

Geo showed up a few minutes later and, bless him, joined us on the floor until I collected myself. I realized then I’d been avoiding the whole issue and letting tensions build for the past two days. I’m better now – a glass of wine helps! – and I’ll wait, semi-patiently, for the arrival of the tangible evidence of my work. Until then, I need to occupy myself with more work, not with avoidance and escape into fantasies of what will happen when the books arrive. Today is what matters.

“Life can be found only in the present moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh

That’s the moment I need to be in. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Practical traditions

Baking is taking up a good portion of my time these days as I enjoy a self-imposed sabbatical from academia before diving into my thesis in January. Bread baking is a regular event, but as the winter holidays approach, I dig out the recipes for sweets. We’ve jettisoned a good number of mindless (and in my opinion, pointless) traditions over the years, but the baked goods give rise to meaning of their own.

Topping that list is my great-aunt Zella’s Friendship Cookies, which are always greeted with raves when they appear on the buffet table. I don’t remember Aunt Zella much, really, but she – and her recipe – is a tangible connection to my grandfather, Chick Little. He was the primary male role model in my early childhood (Sorry, Dad, but it’s ok. We’re good now, and you know I love you!).

Grandma and Grandpa Little offered stability, grounding, and a sense of home that was difficult to grasp as my mother struggled to find her place in the world as a single mom. I don’t remember Grandma baking Aunt Zella’s cookies very often, but she had so many wonderful recipes (Banana Nut Bread – another holiday favorite!) of her own I’m sure she never felt the need to borrow from a sister-in-law. Their home was the center of my existence, even after Mom remarried and we moved twenty-five miles away. Grandma and Grandpa were always there for me.

The Friendship Cookie is a basic sugar cookie, but with a unique twist that makes them extra-special – kind of like Grandma and Grandpa. They were simple, down-to-earth people, not concerned with material goods or social status. Family was the reason for their hard work, from Grandpa’s forty-odd years at the gravel pit followed by another dozen at the township landfill, to Grandma’s gardening, canning, sewing, baking and general mothering of all the grandkids and our assorted friends. But by simple I do not mean unintelligent. While I’m pretty sure neither of them graduated high school (mid-1920s), they were wise in the ways that matter. They knew money was a tool, not an end; they taught us kids to treat others with respect, no matter their social standing or skin color; and they loved each other throughout nearly 53 years of marriage, right up until Grandpa died just five days shy of 85 years.

Baking several batches of Aunt Zella’s cookies every holiday season is a long process, but it gives me time to reflect on those years with Grandma and Grandpa, to converse with them mentally, and to remember the love they shared so willingly.

As traditions go, it’s one I plan to keep.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Early New Year’s resolution

I know it’s a few weeks until 2010, but I’m getting a head start on my self-improvement campaign. As anyone who follows my ramblings knows (and there are a few regular readers), I tend to lean heavily on socially and politically charged commentary, even though I try to remain objective and to avoid personal character attacks – unlike many of my fellow bloggers. However, only so much can be said about the issues which pass for importance in our world today. I remain convinced that my word and actions have little or no effect on the world at large. All my fussing does is raise my already-borderline-high blood pressure, to my own detriment.

So enough! The broken political system, the grievous inequalities in economic resources, the narrow-mindedness of much of organized religion and of dogmatic persons of whatever stripe, the inane celebrity-obsession which passes for real news – all these will have to muddle on without my input. No more adding to the overwhelming negativity swirling in the ether. I’ve said all I care to on these matters…for now. We’ll see how long my resolution remains resolute.

I’ve been reading a number of other blogs recently, while on hiatus from my academic pursuits at Antioch McGregor (watch out, January…I’ll be back!), and I’ve noticed that it is possible to comment on less incendiary topics and still write with relevance. Life in my own backyard, with my family, friends and personal interests, offers a wealth of topics. So here goes –

After years of baking, I find I am still somewhat surprised when the odd assortment of ingredients I throw into my huge stainless steel mixing bowl – yeast, oil, honey, oats, flour and salt – result in an edible and delicious (I’ve been told) loaf of bread. It is rare when a kneading session doesn’t find me fretting over the temperature of the yeast when proofed, on the consistency of the dough, on the relative humidity of the kitchen where I store the bowl as the dough rises. And yet the outcome is almost uniformly good. I can’t remember the last time I ruined a batch (jinx!) and I’ve been baking at least two loaves every-other-week for over a year now, and much more than that sporadically for the past thirty years.

Many people don’t understand when I tell them I refuse to use a machine. I love the process of baking bread by hand, from scratch. I even love that astonishment when the perfectly baked loaf is turned out onto the cooling rack after another successful attempt. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that I can’t fully explain. Control, maybe? The sense that I really can do something right, critical outside opinions to the contrary? I don’t know.

But stop by some morning and we’ll discuss it over a cup of Irish Breakfast tea and a slice of freshly baked bread.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My take on Deception

In a review of Ziyad Marar's book Deception which I wrote recently for the online, I must confess I held back a bit. Deception on my part? No; prudence. It was my first effort for the website and I didn’t want to make it my last. I said nothing false. But I did stop short of opining on its theoretical basis to any great extent. I feel a book review should be just that – a thoughtful summary of the contents, not a personal polemic as to whether the reviewer agrees with the conclusions or would have stated things differently. I do not set out to rewrite others’ work. However, I made copious notes while I read Marar’s latest entry to Acumen's The Art of Living series and, as befits the career student I seem to have become, I feel the need to use those reflections to write a longer, more personal response.

The debates surrounding deception, honesty, lying, truth and Truth have long held a fascination for me. Since my high school philosophy teacher introduced the idea of absolute truth I have searched for that impossible nugget. My studies at Antioch McGregor offered the chance to immerse myself in the evolution of that concept, from Plato and Aristotle through Kant, Hegel, and my personal favorite, Emerson. I don’t claim to be any closer to an answer, to Truth, but I do have more of an awareness of the nuances of truth as it relates to the day-to-day life we call reality. The root of my argument with Marar’s work: his statement that “There is no undeceptive way to live” (148).

Marar opens Deception with a quote from Jerome Bruner which labels mankind Homo Credens, due to a supposedly innate desire to be found credible and to have pat answers to the often torturous questions of life. “We can delude ourselves with great ease, especially when the temptation to console ourselves is high” (17). He adds, “If I am to give you credit, I need to find you credible, while avoiding the risk of seeming credulous in giving credence to your discreditable account” (8). Marar offers studies which claim deception – of others and of our selves – is an evolutionary outcome necessary for survival. A desperate need for security can lead to delusional beliefs that could in many cases be called self-deception, but that route is by choice.

For all his heavily cited and documented text (I stopped counting at 49 references to philosophers, scientists, writers, etc., halfway through this compact 152-page effort), it seems Marar’s struggle is not with deception, but with duality and ambiguity. He stresses the difficulties human beings have in facing both, and it often seems he is speaking of himself. Marar lurches from “Truth-telling, for all its fragility, is valued by society as a whole, and is the foundation of trust” (66) to “Too much self-knowledge and realism are not healthy for good living” (141). He also surprises at times with comments such as: “A tolerance for ambiguity comes at a high price...Yet I believe it is worth the effort…Along the way, we arrive at a somewhat better understanding of what we want and have more hope of tackling our bad habits and compulsions” (61). He admits there is “much to gain” if we avoid the pitfalls of the deceptions which he continues to maintain are inevitable (132). But again, Marar switches tack and ends with a particularly chilling statement: “There are loyal lies and honest betrayals…We can see how the unavoidable fact of our deceptive natures can be used to inform a more subtle, complex but potentially more robust self-image” (151-2, emphasis added).

His ambiguity is showing! And I believe that’s a good thing. If you truly believe a delusion, no matter how false it may be, are you lying when share it with others or base future actions on its merits? From a purely legal standpoint, for culpability (guilt of the accusation of deception) there must be intent (a plan to deceive, self or others). For all Marar’s efforts to reduce fickle human behavior to deception, I think his error is in the definition, not the action. Immaturity, uncertainty and ultimately if we’re fortunate, growth and learning all lead to contradictory manifestations which he (erroneously, I believe) labels deception. “We are many people wanting many things and are forced to live one life in one body, and so struggle to explain the actions we regret but cannot resist” (47). Lack of self-discipline or motivation, certainly, or possibly unacknowledged or feared desires, but deception?

I agree that deception and hypocrisy can also be characteristics of human behavior, but I part ways with Marar at believing they take overwhelming prevalence. I found his book to be disheartening for its pessimism (and this from a confirmed pessimist!), disturbing in its sometimes callousness, and thought-provoking in its occasional flash of insight into human behavior. But for all that, I recommend Deception to anyone seeking truth, even though Marar insists, “We are not designed to seek the truth…but to create meaning.”

Recent studies showing an individual’s tendency to find pattern in chaos support that contention. I think we can do both – without deceiving ourselves.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls…

I just heard some disturbing news – a neighbor of ours died of a heart attack several weeks ago. But his death wasn’t the disturbing part, at least not totally. I hardly knew him, probably never exchanged more than half-a-dozen words in the almost three years we lived across the street from his family in our tiny southwest Ohio town. There was no fuss at the house, no gathering of vehicles to mark an assembly of family mourning his passing. I learned of it fourth hand, from a student of my husband’s who used to live in our village. Even the neighbors we do occasionally chat with, however superficially, never mentioned it.

What is so disturbing is our increased isolation, of our loss of community. I remember when I was growing up in Toledo, a much bigger city than where I live now, and I busted out my front teeth falling on the pavement during a game of tag. The neighbor lady three houses down mopped up the blood with her dish towel and all but carried eight-year-old me home. I doubt if I knew her name, but she knew me and took care of me without hesitation. And again probably twenty-five years later, when my son rode his bike into the chain link fence at the end of our street, the entire block turned out in response to his cries, one neighbor corralling the other kids, another picking up the bike while this time I mopped up blood (what would we do without dishtowels?).

Would that happen today? I’m not so sure. We are so sheltered, so busy with our personal crises that we barely take time to learn our neighbors’ names, much less care for them when they need a hand. We’re paranoid, anxious, fearful of strangers – all fueled by non-stop media assaults blaring the horrors of the world into our homes 24/7. And I think we are all the poorer for the separation. It’s much easier to despise the “others,” to call the police on the neighbor’s barking dog rather than make a personal plea, when those faces we see every day don’t have names.

I’d like to offer my condolences to the family, but it’s a bit late now. And I don’t know their names.

Maybe that’s where I need to start…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong. ~ Richard Armour, American author and poet

When will the intelligent among us wake up and realize the archaic two-party system which runs our country is in a shambles? We can’t even have a civil debate on the issues anymore because as soon as an idea is labeled “Democrat” or “Republican,” half the political-minded population stops listening. This further enables the career politician since they no longer have to actually address the issues with an eye to making the world better for us all. In order to hold office, they are required to simply toe the party line, pay lip service to “change” and pocket the obscene amounts of cash flowing from lobbyists and big business, all seeking to secure their positions of power at the expense of the common good. And a vote for any of the potentially forward-thinking third-party candidates is, as we are regularly reminded by the Big Two, a throw-away vote for the “other” party. Someday, I would like to be able to vote for a candidate who actually has a decent chance of being elected, not against one, and not simply have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

I freely admit I broke down in 2008 and registered as a Democrat – my first party affiliation in more than a dozen years, although I have voted in every election since high school. My turning-point issue was the war in Iraq and I (naively?) believed Obama when he promised to bring the troops home. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the fine print: those troops would then be sent to Afghanistan to further the misguided “war on terror” as we destroy yet another country and its culture.

The economy is in the tank, thanks in large part to Republican tax cuts for their big business cronies, but with more than a little help from the Democrat’s entitlement mandates that, while imposed with the best of intentions, have little basis in fiscal reality. Personal greed has become a virtue and all the hand-wringing over shrinking retirement accounts and Wall Street losses are laughable to those of us who can barely pay the rent and for whom retirement is a fairy tale.

Incessant union demands for ever-higher wages and benefits, never mind the shrinking industrial base, have urged along the collapse of many a business, not just the stuck-in-the-fifties automakers. Too many lax workers are propped up by union protections that encourage their entitlement mentality while corporate greed concentrates on shareholder return, not living wages or quality product that does not decimate the environment.

Healthcare reform, the debate du jour, will never be possible as long as the insurance industry and big pharmaceuticals continue to feed the coffers of both parties. Rumor and fear-mongering from both sides will see to that. But it looks good in the campaign to point out one’s support or opposition to any one of the latest alternative plans tossed into the mix. It shows a candidate cares…about whom is never specified. And as I have noted in earlier posts, universal insurance does not equate to universal healthcare.

Public schools are floundering, trying to be all things to students whose parents have taught them they can do no wrong, and little else. Education – true learning of critical thinking skills, not just how to land a high-paying job – has taken a back seat to nutrition, basic healthcare, sexual mores, character building and college résumé padding as parents abdicate more and more of their duties to a system they refuse to support financially.

Personal responsibility has become anathema as individuals look for someone outside themselves to blame for any inconvenience or harm, be it hair loss, high blood pressure or vanishing jobs. A society that measures its worth in the “stuff” it consumes is not long for this world, as the United States is just now learning, painfully. Self-discipline, moderation and compassion are as out-moded as the Model T.

In ancient Rome, emperors used community food give-aways and gladiator competitions to distract the populous from the corruption which plagued the government. Today, our “cakes and circuses” are the bombardment of celebrity “news,” the latest titillating political sex scandal, never-ending sports seasons by increasingly drug-enhanced teams, and what color the inane terror alert system has reached for today. Fear mongering is the modus operandi of both Republicans and Democrats; a people on edge, filled with ceaseless dread, are more easily swayed to follow someone, anyone, who can relieve such anxiety.

Of course these are all generalizations. There are good people, kind people, those who look to better community first rather than self, but I fear they are becoming fewer and more isolated. We don’t scream loudly enough to be heard above the raucous din which passes for public discourse. And where does that leave those of us who can see the chaos for what it is? Hopeless, in despair, ready to crawl into a cave and pull the boulder over the entrance…I’ve considered it, often, and if I could find a way to escape, I would.

I don’t have any answers. I wish I did.

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. ~Plato

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Universal health care versus universal insurance

It appears that, once again, politicians have caved in to special interests and gotten their highly touted version of reform all wrong. Rather than tossing the greedy insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists out on their respective deaf ears, Washington has creatively developed a new program that will line the pockets of the health care industry even more. The number of uninsured would be reduced, certainly, but will we be any better off? Not even remotely. An insurance policy does nothing to guarantee proper health care.

Any meaningful reform of the misshapen health care system in our country must begin with breaking the stranglehold of insurance companies which stand between patients and doctors. No bureaucrat in a distant office building should be able to determine what treatment plan is right for my health needs; that is my decision to make, with the unfettered advice of a doctor of my choosing.

Insurance companies then must be replaced by a single payer system that covers medical attention, not paper shuffling. The idea that forcing every citizen to carry health insurance will improve the health care of us all is a misnomer, at best, and a shameless scam on its face. My family and I have had employer-subsidized insurance for years, but the premiums and co-pays are prohibitively high enough to keep us from accessing the care we need. And each time we change employment, or an employer looks to save money on premiums, we switch insurance companies and go through the all-too-familiar paperwork ritual which, while I am certain it provides jobs for the clerical staffs, does nothing to improve our health care.

And it goes against the grain to be forced to buy health insurance, not only because it enriches the already rich industry with no visible benefit to the consumer, but because I am an adult, an individual who is responsible for my own life. My husband and I take no prescription drugs and rarely visit a doctor, yet we pay over $500 each month for employer-subsidized health insurance – rather steep for the occasional dental visit and bi-annual eyeglasses. I can’t keep up with what his employer chips in since it changes every year as they jockey to keep costs down while the insurance companies reap ever-greater profits.

I have no problem sharing the economic burden of a universal health care system, a la Medicare, if every resident is guaranteed basic coverage no matter their employment status. Tummy tucks, nose jobs and sex changes, and treatment for self-imposed illness and injury from poor lifestyle choices, should be electives, available only to those with the ego and dollars to afford them. I understand the arguments connecting poverty and poor eating habits, but in a society where information overload is the norm, no longer can anyone rely on the excuse that they didn’t know eating McDonald’s daily is not a good idea. As individuals, we must become more responsible for our own physical and mental condition so the system can truly become health care, not sickness care.

Yes, I voted for President Obama. He promised hope instead of more of the GOP terror, peace instead of senseless war. I am still holding my breath, waiting for the changes we so desperately need as a country. But as long as partisan politics continue to plague Washington and the nation, I doubt that change will become reality.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

During my own long dark tea-time of the soul, I come face-to-face with my own dismal view of reality. The way I see it, there are two choices: to live or to die. Since I would never intentionally inflict pain on those I care about and who ostensibly care about me, the latter is not an option. Coercion through rewards in a mystical afterlife or some kind of divine retribution does not figure into my life, so those are not considerations. Should I ever reach the point where I honestly feel my loved ones would be better off without me, then the question must be revisited. For now, I’ll live.

And since I have been blessed (or cursed) with being born in a ‘civilized’ society, there are certain expectations, like bathing regularly, wearing clothing, a modicum of politeness in daily interactions. I can deal with all those. I have to eat to maintain this physical body. Exercise, while an annoyance, keeps the body healthy and may ward off those debilitating conditions which encourage unwanted dependence on others, so throw exercise and a reasonably decent diet into the daily necessities.

Since our society has regrettably moved away from self-sufficient existence, earning a living is encouraged which, again, leads to two choices (keep it simple for now!): enjoy the work or just bring home a paycheck. If at all possible, the former is highly preferable. To facilitate that option, an appropriate level of education is necessary. Granted, learning is of value unto itself and, given the financial means I would be satisfied as a professional student; for now I’m simply being practical. My much-delayed education is incurring a horrific debt load, but life is a debt that can never be repaid, so I can’t dwell on that burden.

Then there are the people with whom I interact daily. Not family so much; we get along pretty well (the immediate and important ones, that is). Everyone else…well, I claim not to care what people think, but then I find myself tailoring my actions/dress/commentary to fit their expectations. Why is that? And how do I stop? Even with loved ones I need to speak up more, cut the passive-aggressive crap, and let them experience the full me. Only then can we have the genuine relationship I crave.

On Facebook I quoted author Rita Mae Brown: “The reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself.” I need to take those words to heart and live accordingly. Maybe then I would feel better about myself and the realtiy which faces me every day, rather than wondering if it’s really worth getting out of bed in the morning.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I often rail against the modern predilection to claim victim status based on any number of ‘-isms;’ it’s one on my major pet peeves. Whether it be race, gender, age, religion, etc., etc., ad nauseum, we can all find some status on which to claim discrimination, and it’s interesting to see the white male GOP reverse position and express those same fears in the debate over Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor. The newest -ism I have read about makes even less sense to me than most: ecological feminism, or ecofeminism for short. How can the contention be made that one must have a female perspective to be able to see the sense in preserving our natural environment?

Philosophers Karen Warren and Jim Cheney attempt to do so in an article titled "Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology,"
but it is so jargon-laden that the point is difficult to reach. “All ecofeminists endorse the view that an adequate understanding of the nature of the connections between the twin dominations of women and nature requires a feminist theory and practice informed by an ecological perspective and an environmentalism informed by a feminist perspective” (emphasis added). First I would suggest that the possibility of ‘all’ of any group agreeing completely on such a broad stance is highly questionable, but I quibble. More importantly, the statement seems akin to saying one must first be a feminist in order to understand the feminist perspective; all others need not apply.

By virtue of the collection of organs in this physical body I was born with I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being. That, above all else, determines my response to the world in which we live. The assumption that one must be a feminist to properly care about the environment – or any other issue of importance – is short-sighted at best. Statistically, women are the majority of the population. We could stop the war in Iraq, improve public education, establish universal healthcare, and make life better for everyone (ok, except the misogynists) if we had the same vision for the future.

But guess what? We don’t, anymore than all the men have the same vision. Intellect and passion and common sense and humanism are not gender-specific. And until we get past the race/gender/ethnic/religious differences and the pseudo-divisions they create, we deserve the mess we have.

The notion and practice of feminine dependency is a construct of the patriarchal society and tradition which has evolved over time, aided by religious edict. Custom does not make truth, no matter how real the situation may seem. To insist as Simone de Beauvoir does in The Second Sex that women have “no past, no history, no religion of their own” seems a narrow view of humanity. Because the stories of women are not recorded in volumes in the libraries of the world, admittedly controlled for centuries by men, does not mean those stories don’t exist. Our stories are of daily life, not war; of art and nature and culture, not of politics. That does not make them any less real, or pertinent. With the rise of the written word and printing presses, oral transmission of tradition has lost its hold, but it still exists and “old wives’ tales” have their place.

If, in fact, women “avoid(s) the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence,” the consequences of their bad faith are their own. Separate but equal for the sexes should be no more acceptable than for the races, and it’s up to us – male and female – to correct that historical inequality. Men may truly “fail to realize what they have to gain from the woman of tomorrow,” but if we become that woman of tomorrow today, they will learn. As we move into our true existence, out of bad faith and into a new reality, men will have no choice but to join us. They need us as much as we need them. We are first and foremost human beings; let’s start acting like it.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father's House takes the discussion of discrimination to racial issues. I found his careful separation of racialism and racism, followed by extrinsic and intrinsic versions of racism, a bit hard to follow, but if I understood him correctly, there is hope for the extrinsic racist in that one can, possibly with difficulty, be convinced otherwise with appropriate evidence. Appiah identifies a cognitive incapacity which keeps the extrinsic racist from seeing all humanity as equal: “Many of us are unable to give up beliefs that play a part in justifying the special advantages we gain from our positions in the social order.” That is something we are all guilty of at times, whether motivated by race or some other notion of Other. The beliefs of an intrinsic racist are more intractable. They are ideological rather than cognitive, and are just as impossible to argue with as any other divisive ideology.

My contention remains that -ism differences are far over-emphasized in our society. We can all be victims in some form or other if we care to look for a label. Changing this narrow culture will not be easy; I’m not even sure wholesale change is possible. And as with any -ism, all I can do is change myself and my outlook on the world, and maybe have some small influence on my family and close friends; anything else is beyond my control. If those tiny ripples I can affect make a wave downstream, so much the better, but I can’t wait for it, agonize over it, or let my life be determined by it. All I can do is live the best I can, one day and one moment at a time. My life, and the environment, and humanity, deserve no less.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

While relaxing alone on the patio this holiday weekend, waiting in vain for any of our several invited friends to drop by, my dearly beloved husband and I came to an annoying revelation: we’re boring. Vanilla ice cream boring. Okay, hand-churned, organic, whole bean vanilla, but still plain, easily-taken-for-granted boring. Most of the time that’s fine, I guess, but there are days when I long to be mango pineapple sorbet with chilies – exotic, interesting, different.

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like you,” his boss says. We’re ‘nice,’ which reminds me of the Bernadette Peters song from Into the Woods: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice.” Not completely true; I’d like to think we’re good – whatever that is! – but nice. *sigh*

As I’m writing this, reality hits: we’re boring when we try to be nice. We don’t want to offend, to make anyone uncomfortable, so we hold back. We bite our tongues when a controversial subject comes up. We avoid raising issues about which we are passionate because we know that far too often our opinions are not welcome in the narrow circles we frequent. So we’re nice to avoid confrontation, to avoid being rejected by the in-crowd…how sophomoric!

We’re 50 years old, for goodness sake! Okay, he’s got four weeks yet and I’ve been there for eight months, but when do we drop the high school antics and become individuals with the right, maybe even the duty, to speak our minds? And it’s not like we can’t talk about other things. He’s a computer security expert, an “ethical hacker’ with stories to tell. He raises bonsais and crafts wood and is learning to be a luthier. I read, voraciously. I can discuss books, philosophy, ideas. I write, with stories of my own to tell. Boring?! Far from it!

Maybe we just need to allow ourselves to be ourselves. Either that or find new friends…

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We are having a hard time living because we are so bent on outwitting death ~ Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

The Resource Center for Non-Violence published a 2007 reprint of Albert Camus’ Neither Victims Nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder. In it, the new introduction references Auburn Theological Seminary Professor Walter Wink’s “myth of redemptive violence” which is nearly as powerful as Camus’ statement from 1944. He was watching the end of World War II; Professor Wink is witnessing the ongoing “war against terror.” Both men struggle to convince a heedless society that there is a better way.

Why is it mankind in general does not seem able or willing to move past the ancient eye-for-an-eye mentality? History for millennia has shown us that such a perspective does nothing to resolve the underlying issues. It reminds me of our failing health care system which prefers to treat symptoms rather than causes. Kill the person who did me harm to salve my wounded pride, but watch out for his family/friends…they will be after me for their own pointless revenge. And the violence continues ad nauseum.

Camus calls the twentieth century in which he lived the “century of violence.” Sadly, the label has followed us into the twenty-first and there is no end in sight. The escalation of invasion, war, and attacks by isolated terrorist groups leads only to the “world where murder is legitimate…where human life is considered trifling.” Nations use the often government-inspired instability to keep their citizenry in a state of perpetual dread in order to solidify political power. Camus makes the case for a new social contract based on an international code of justice which eliminates further escalation and takes humanity down a different path:
Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to be killed or assaulted? Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to kill or assault? All who say No to both these questions are automatically committed to a series of consequences which must modify their way of posing the problem.

The spectre of violence, of terror, will not fade until humanity steps out of egoistic self-indulgence and into a community of individuals all working for the greater good. There are those who scoff at such notions as utopian; Camus asks us to “choose between different Utopias which are attempting to be born into reality:” a Utopia where those frightening individuals who have all the answers demand that everyone submit to their superiority, using force as a necessary means to that end; or a Utopia where each of us works together to resolve points of contention before they spiral out of control, where peaceful ends are not justified by violent means.

I’ll take the latter, thanks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Your laws, my life

Few things raise more hackles than a debate over morality. Religion is often (wrongly) attributed as the sole source of ethical determination. Ideas of right and wrong vary from culture to culture, nation to nation, and person to person, and philosophers over the centuries have parsed the finer points of ethics until it seems no more need be said. But the debate rages. The latest target is criminalizing teenagers for “sexting,” sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phone to attract attention. The issue here is a misplaced desire to keep our children innocent when in fact they are not; a permissive society and lax parenting assures that. Now government seeks to punish the young for being human.

A reading of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty provides a utilitarian basis for an individual morality from which we could all learn: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Laws of the state have no place in regulating personal conduct unless and until it is a harm to others, not for a person’s own good, “because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right.” He speaks out forcefully against legislation of private acts and its “encroachment” on the individual.

It has often been said that morality cannot be legislated; Mills says it should not be. Society may legislation behavior, outlawing certain actions the majority has deemed inappropriate or unsavory, but that behavior will simply be driven underground, adding a layer of deceit and subterfuge to an act that on its face is often no more than disagreeable to a vocal minority. Punishment will not change inward inclinations, only outward actions, and it will create disgruntled citizens more inclined to ignore the strictures of law when next it conflicts with their desires.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Punish non-support of dependents, not gambling; outlaw slavery and physical assault, not prostitution; prohibit theft and violence of any kind against others, not personal drug or alcohol use.

All of us can recall a school day experience – or even worse, a day at the office – when the whole class was punished for the misbehavior of one or two individuals: loss of recess or playtime, extra homework, a pop quiz. How much more egregious is it to punish large segments of society for the lapses of a few? Because John Doe gambles away his salary and does not feed his family is no reason to keep John Q. Public from the gaming tables. Address the problem where it lies; do not lump all individuals into the category of miscreant because of otherwise benign behavior mishandled by a few.

Mills notes that “Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interest and its feelings of class superiority,” not from any actual notion of right and wrong. Laws designed to “protect” women, to regulate the actions of minorities, to keep the unpropertied from having a say in governance – all these reflect a morality imposed by the “tyranny of the majority.” Mills uses as the basis for his morality the measure of utility, the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” I echo his sentiment. Remove prejudice, passion, and the tenuous hold of custom from the imposition of laws on society. “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.” We will all be the better – and more moral – for it.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Categorical Disagreement

This week’s reading from Immanuel Kant’s The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals provided an interesting dovetail to a home conversation on familial obligations. It seems that if a duty is accomplished grudgingly, in order to avoid negative repercussions, it lacks the good will necessary to meet the standards of Kant’s morality. But he disagrees. Kant says acting “from duty” is good and moral; acting “in accord with duty,” no matter the motivation, “has no moral worth.” To assert that to be moral something must be done “for the sake of the law” seems to take all morality out an action entirely and place it under the realm of compulsion. Act properly or suffer the consequences, not because it’s the right thing to do. It makes no sense to me that someone who behaves in a given manner because it is expected of him – it is his duty – is somehow more moral than one who behaves in the same manner because of “inclination.”

We visit family and attempt to maintain cordial relations, initially because of personal inclination. With the recent negativity such encounters have given rise to, the effort has taken on the mantle of duty while the act remains the same. The sense of good will has definitely lessened, yet Kant seems to say the latter actions are more “moral” than those which were originally motivated by good nature. How can that be? And to take this musing a step further, why should it matter? If the action is correct and the motive is pure (or not), why should stamping a label of “moral” on the behavior serve any purpose? Even Kant admits such a determination of duty versus inclination has never been made and probably will never be possible. He is satisfied to “comprehend…the incomprehensibility” of the moral imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From this universal law all morality arises and is incumbent on each person as a guide to right action. Consequences of such actions are not a consideration, only the rightness of the act itself. So visiting family out of duty with a resulting disharmony is the better course of action than a loving visit from inclination which leads to a better relationship. Such a concept boggles the mind and seems to destroy the very Reason on which it is supposedly based.

I do not claim to understand Kant entirely; that would take a lifetime, if it is even possible. His writing gives rise to interesting debate and a deeper exploration of personal motivations, and a further step away from that unexamined life of no worth. In support of my position, I take refuge in Kant’s own assertion that “ordinary human understanding in its practical concerns…may have as much hope as any philosopher of hitting the mark” even though he goes on to claim man must have science (i.e., philosophy) in which to ground wisdom.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The sad reality of an oxymoron: Just War Theory

Being a peace lover at heart, I’ve never cared for the concept of just war theory. Even the thought of self-defense gives me pause. Who can say my life is more valuable than one which may threaten my physical existence? Not that I am a fan of pain; far from it! But after one too many (another oxymoron!) news stories of a paranoid homeowner killing a burglar to protect his ‘stuff’…well, that slippery slope just gets slipperier. Where do we draw the line?

Hugo Grotius (aka Huig de Groot) laid out one of the first complete definitions of the modern just war theory in his 1625 The Law of War and Peace when he outlined the law of nature versus the law of nations. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ later contention in Leviathan that man is a creature of ‘Warre,’ Grotius preferred the idea of man possessing “an impelling desire for society” rather than battle. He traced the development of modern laws from covenants and pacts which arose naturally in the evolution of communities, noting that humanity needed such agreements – the social contracts – for the “maintenance of social order.” Grotius took this form of “mutual consent” a step further, to the relations between nations, insisting that “the state which transgresses the laws of nature and of nations cuts away also the bulwarks which safeguard its own future peace.” He found the only acceptable cause for a just war was in fact self-defense and then went on to lay out strict guidelines for the conduct of such a war, including the safety of non-combatants, the “moderation of laying waste” of enemy lands, property rights, and the peaceful passage of mediators, among other rules. Grotius’ comment that “I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and that when arms have once been taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human” is an eerie reflection of our world today.

Just war theory has had many proponents over the centuries from Cicero to Aquinas to Kant, as well as other more recent philosophers, but most seem to ignore the possibility that the concept is the oxymoron I feel it to be. Pacifism has acquired a negative connotation, especially in the past eight years and even with Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as notable role models. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a current view of peaceful coexistence that we would do well to emulate and I cling to such examples in an increasingly confrontational and violent world. Until mankind accepts that life is indeed transitory, that we will all die some day, and that ‘stuff’ is never more important than life, there will be those who will continue asserting the validity of just war theory. I guess the rest of us are left to take comfort in what little restraint it offers.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention…

But I am paying attention, and I do get angry. All that does is raise my blood pressure and distract me from more important things which need my attention and which I may be able to affect.

The early stoics had the right idea. In his Enchiridion (Manual), the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others are not.” So much of what the news trumpets in its endless 24-hour loop is beyond my control; why do I let it bother me?

The stoics also point out that “All is as trite as it is transitory.” It makes no sense to ruin the present by fretting about those things which I cannot control and which are less than permanent. “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are” says the Tao Te Ching (#44). Last week’s class discussion wondered if the stoics were familiar with the teachings of Buddha and the Eastern philosophers who came before them. Even a cursory reading would seem to indicate they were indeed guided by the same influences. With the vast amount of reading I have been immersed in for the past three years, it still astounds me when I find common threads of philosophical thought streaming through the centuries and through civilizations. So many similarities! Forfeit control of those things over which we are powerless. Strive for non-attachment to things. Treat others as you would be treated. Live in the moment. Do not judge. No wonder it is called “wisdom literature.”

Unfortunately, that wisdom is too often lost in today’s me-first society. When the strident demands of the world collide, who wins? Or more likely, do we all lose? How much abuse do we, the peacemakers, take before defending ourselves? I’m not content with “the meek shall inherit the earth.” I don’t want the earth. And some mystical reward hereafter does not compensate for hell on that earth. Where do we find that balance the stoics stressed, the harmony which is the source of the good life?

In class, Bill proffered the concept of stoic activists. Keep your head while fighting back, in non-violent ways. “Turn off the juice, boy! Go man, go, But not like a yo-yo schoolboy. Just play it cool, boy.” (West Side Story, “Cool”) Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama – good examples, all.

But that brings me back to my original problem. Even those things which do bother me – remembering the stoics warning that “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things” (Epictetus again) – and accepting that those things are out of my control, what and why do I fight? I have long argued that my actions have no effect on national or global issues. All I can change is myself. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations) and hope that life by example will have a positive influence on those with whom I come in contact. That is the best I can hope for in this life.

Are you paying attention?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

During a recent return to my philosophical roots via a visit to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I was reminded how far we have come from their principles. Both men stressed the ‘good life,’ or eudymonia (εὐδαιμονία), as the goal of a human (we’ll leave aside their inherent sexism for now) and laid out logical paths for its attainment. They assumed all reasonable men understood the term good life, and beyond a bit of fine-tuning and clarification, no argument was necessary to prove that wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the character virtues needed for fulfillment as a person. Material wealth was incidental, and again assumed in large part, but the good life was not dependent on such.

Fast forward 2,400 years and we find a society where the good life is measured in dollar and cents, in the accumulation of stuff, and in the amount of public acclaim one garners as a result. Excellence as a human being in whatever function one’s nature may call for is secondary, if that, and unless celebrities famous for being celebrities are truly fulfilling their role in the greater scheme of the universe, it appears that being known is far more important than knowing anything.

A class discussion on this topic brought forth the question of whether the means used to reach the goal of a good life could in themselves be ‘not good,’ but justifiable – ends-justify-the-means and all. I maintain that question is moot when the good life being justified is poorly defined. When the good life is measured in financial ways and ends are assumed to justify means, Bernie Madoff’s actions in defrauding millions of individuals are entirely acceptable as the wealth he accumulated surrounded him a physical luxury few of us could ever imagine – a crassly distorted vision of the good life. And unfortunately, I have recently participated in discussions where such gains were considered legitimate. Not on Maoff’s scale perhaps, but support was expressed for making money in whatever ways are legally possible, no matter the finer shadings of ‘legal’ or those individuals who may be harmed along the way.

Which brings me to a second divergence noted with the esteemed Greeks: a dependence on ‘legal’ versus reliance on the ethical. It appears that many in society today ignore ethics as an out-moded impediment to success, preferring to rely on legal contortions that support actions which are blatantly unethical in the sense of not serving the polis, or the good of the community, but rather benefitting a select few at the expense of the many. The idea of acting for the greater good is dismissed as a pipe dream, incompatible with the reality of a cut-throat society. Lawrence Selden, in Edith Warton’s The House of Mirth, asked “Why do we call all our grand ideas illusions and the mean ones truth?” In my lifetime, this tendency has never been more prevalent than it is today. Perhaps this is why I return time and again to the wisdom of old.

Pass the hemlock, please.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Where is Aretha when we need her?!

I began this entry in response to yet another drive-by email spewing political drivel from a distant family member who has never made an effort to ask my personal life philosophy, and realized I am addressing a much larger issue – a growing lack of respect for the ideals and sensibilities of others. Society once decreed that politics and religion were off limits for discussion in polite society. No need to cause offense over such personal and possibly inflammatory topics. Save the divisive rhetoric for a gathering of known like-minded individuals.

Not any longer. My email box is full of political rants of every ilk from people I haven’t had a serious discussion with in years – why do they assume I share their often narrow-minded view of the world? Just spew screeds out to the widest audience possible – usually their entire address book – and hurry on to the next rant. No debate, no exchange of ideas, no wondering if maybe they have insulted a recipient or two along the way…or even questioning if the latest politico they quoted even has their facts straight.

And political commentary is second only to the sermons which so many family and friends feel the need to distribute. I realize their version of Jesus called them to proselytize, and I confess to having been guilty of such impositions in my much younger evangelical days, but why does a polite “No, thank you” not suffice to cut off such misguided efforts? I don’t push my beliefs onto others, insisting they follow my ideals. I have learned from my past mistakes; I suppose I am also learning that many others do not. Living by example is far more effective at making a point than lecturing or dispensing propaganda, but it gets harder every day when my own sensibilities are repeatedly trampled by the oblivious or uncaring.

Which brings me back to respect for others. Rather than seeking not to offend, society now seems bent on dividing, on highlighting differences, on supposedly celebrating diversity, yet all the while insisting on some vague ‘right’ to impose what should be personal life choices on others. I don’t expect everyone to share my beliefs or opinions; what a dull world that would be! But calm, rational discussions have become passé. Talk radio and 24-hour sensationalized news cycles thrive on disagreement, not consensus. And that discordant bent has filtered into the offices and living rooms and email boxes of every one of us.

Nearly all wisdom literature in the world contains some version of the Golden Rule, treat others as you expect to be treated, first do no harm, but organized religion almost uniformly, and politics most definitely, seeks first to promote a narrow, often xenophobic agenda before looking to the broader picture of the common good. That’s all I ask from the world at large. From family and friends, I ask that they actually take an interest in my thoughts and life experiences before assuming I share their opinions. It’s how I treat them. I would no more send a political commentary I found insightful to my mother (whose conservative bent clashes severely with my more moderate/liberal stance) than I would share my support for the gay community with others in my life who put religion before compassion.

It would be marvelous to have serious discussions on important topics with people I love and respect, but few in my circle seem open to such possibilities. Those who share my desire for honest, open, respectful debate are cherished – and are far too few.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Empire building, greed, thirst for oil, misplaced media-stoked fear of those who are different, Western superiority complex – whatever the true motivation, one can only look with wonder on an individual, or a nation, which exerts the kind of arrogance displayed by the United States in such historical proportion since the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The country’s collective, “How dare they?!” launched itself against first Afghanistan and then Iraq in a blinding fury that overlooked not only any reasonable justification for such action, but any discernable goal as well. The bogey of terrorism and the oft-trumpeted weapons of mass destruction were effective smokescreens which allowed the U.S. military machine to invade sovereign nations in a supposedly defensive posture. The saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,” variously attributed to people from Samuel Adams to Ronald Reagan, holds true; it all depends on which side of the battle one stands. Rather than admitting that the 9/11 attackers may have reasonable grievances against Western nations, President Bush grouped their alleged homelands in a tenuous “axis of evil” that we needed to destroy. This makes about as much sense as attacking the state of New York after the Oklahoma bombings because Timothy McVeigh was born there, yet such illogical reasoning has served the White House well for eight years.

Now we are mired in Iraq, in a nation devastated economically, structurally and politically by our sadly misguided efforts to save them from themselves, and to impose democracy. Western interests have consistently ignored the lessons of history showing that democracy cannot be asserted from the top down, it must grow from the people up to their chosen form of government. In Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, the reconstruction effort’s senior advisor for higher education, John Agresto, states:
Freedom, democracy and rights are not magic words. The transfer of sovereignty will bring about some form of ‘democracy.’ But a liberal democracy, with real notions of liberty and equality and open opportunity – without strongmen,, or
sectarian or sectional opposition – well, I think that’s doubtful (321)

Saddam Hussein was no better, and no worse, than countless other autocrats throughout the world. Under his rule, Iraqis had food, jobs, education, electricity, and healthcare. In a review of a draft report “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” to be issued by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, New York Times columnists James Glanze and T. Christian Miller note that:
And by the time of the security improvements in 2007 and 2008, electricity output had, at best, a precarious 10 percent lead on its levels under Saddam Hussein; oil production was still below prewar levels; and access to potable
water had increased by about 30 percent, although with Iraq’s ruined piping
system it was unclear how much reached people’s homes uncontaminated. (4)

“How can we care about democracy now when we don’t even have electricity?” an unemployed oil engineer asks Chandrasekaran (174). But as the author points out, sadly and eloquently, in his depressing indictment of the occupation of Iraq, what the people of the country wanted and needed was not the measuring stick of progress. The ruling Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and D.C.-appointed Viceroy L. Paul Bremer were more concerned with sending favorable reports back to the White House, particularly during the campaign years, than with any tangible improvements in the lives of the people they were supposed to help. From the beginning, the rebuilding teams (rebuilding what we bombed and destroyed, in large part), lived in almost total isolation from the neighboring city. Saddam’s Republican Palace and the gated riverfront Green Zone became a “Little America,” where the staff lived in a “bubble” which allowed them to continue to believe their efforts were necessary, accurate and productive while the “real Baghdad,” full of decay and debris and the lingering odor of explosives, was just beyond the Hesco barriers and concrete slabs which protected the conclave.

How could such arrogance prevail in the face of dissonant reality for so long? Political pressure from home was intense. In a statement eerily reminiscent of Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” banner, on June 28, 2004, the CPA announced the end of American occupation of Iraq and theoretically ceded authority to the fledgling Iraqi government. The reconstruction forces held a celebratory wrap-party and departed, confident in their success. They left behind a devastated country in the throes of an unacknowledged (in the West) civil and religious war which is still blamed on an isolated insurgency.

The money spent on the CPA’s less than effective work is staggering. According to Glanze and Miller, “By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in United States taxpayer money” (1). Chandrasekaran and “Hard Lessons” both cite the lack of organized preparation for the vast undertaking needed to complete the reconstruction efforts, as well as continued ignorance – intentional or simply misguided – of the needs of the Iraqi people. The CPA and Western forces repeatedly “missed opportunities” and “neglected the big picture” in favor of glowing reports for the White House and the U.S. media (Chandrasekaran 278, 314; Glanze 2).

The saddest part of that “big picture” is the number of lives, American coalition and Iraqi, which have been ruined by this ill-fated effort at empire building. U.S. headlines are just beginning to report on the long-term issues faced by returning soldiers, from physical challenges due to combat injuries, to mental and emotional trauma. The loss of life on both sides is nearly incalculable, as the numbers depend on who is doing the reporting. CBS News reports the number of U.S. Iraqi war dead surpassed the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks (2,973, with some 6,200 injured) on September 2, 2006, while a Department of Defense count of American casualties in Iraq stands at 4,200 confirmed dead and 30,871 wounded as of December 6, 2008. Documented Iraqi civilian deaths have reached 98,000; the number of wounded does not appear to be available.

As Chandrasekaran points out, many of the Iraqi youth are driven to join the insurgency out of anger at Western occupation, dire economic straits, and fear. It would seem we are adding to the number of “terrorists” as quickly as we are killing them. But the arrogance continues and Washington continues to insist we are winning…something.

Our Western show of superiority and strength in the Middle East has done nothing to quell the stealthy work of terrorists, however they may be defined. We continue to profile airline passengers and strangers on the street; we dutifully take off our shoes to board a plane; we cede more and more civil rights to a Department of Homeland Security that is not even secure in its own operations. As Jean Baudrillard notes in his essay “The Spirit of Terrorism,” the Other must change the rules in order to win against overwhelming military might, and they have done so. In our arrogance, we just refuse to admit it.

It seems the only hope that remains of escaping from Iraq, or any other formless “war on terror,” is as expressed in Daniel Alacón’s Lost City Radio: “What does the end of a war mean if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?” he asks. “When enough of them died, it was finished” (40, 155). If only the arrogance could die with them.

December 15, 2008

Class matters more than society cares to admit

Reading the New York Times publication Class Matters was disturbing, and all too familiar. In it, the correspondents who spent over a year researching class in America offered facts, figures and faces to support my long-held contention that what they term “income inequality” is the overriding class division in a country that denies the existence of such superficial demarcations. Their work reminds me just how trapped I am in my futile efforts to improve financially.

People who have money (enough to pay average living expenses, maybe take a real vacation now and then) have little concept what it is like to have none. Unemployment and a lack of financial savvy can take a lifetime to overcome, if ever – no cash, no credit, no assets, no real possibility of ever reaching even, much less get ahead. The well-off take for granted the ability to buy a new car ("But the interest rates are so low!") or a house ("You don't even need a down payment!"). Ever try buying a car with a lousy credit rating? A used car purchase two years ago came, with difficulty, at 17.73%; prior to that, in 2000 a loan for a 1997 Pontiac came with a usurious 23.95% interest rate. I suppose that is progress. Our income covers usually covers those little things like rent, food, utilities, insurance, and trying to help two good kids finish college so they don't end up financially hopeless like their parents. No cruises, Disney vacations, or designer clothes for this family. And we'll spend our lives working to pay Uncle Sam for the privilege of being Americans, where the only ones who get ahead are the ones who are born with money or who don't play by the rules.

Class Matters reiterates many of my frustrations and fears, and solidifies my belief that such fears are justified and insurmountable. Unlike many others, I don’t strive to be independently wealthy, although that would be nice; I only seek a level of security in knowing my living expenses can be met each month. We live simply, but never earn enough to overcome the limitations inflicted by our economic class. The various vignettes offered in this collection graphically depict how those financial disparities cast a shadow over every aspect of life: community and family structure, educational opportunities, access to health care, and longevity itself. Erik Eckholm refers to these inherent penalties as the “Ghetto Tax” in his 2006 article from the New York Times. It shows that my experiences with higher insurance premiums and exorbitant interest rates are not unique; rather, they are the price we pay for not being financially privileged.

Joan Didion raises some of these issues in “Sentimental Journeys,” noting the overemphasized alarms of crime which are raised to hide the true issues of poverty and injustice. However, she is quick lay the blame for society’s ills at the feet of racism; on this I disagree. In October 2006, I wrote a letter to the editor of Ode Magazine in response to an end piece, “One Last Thing” by sociologist Dalton Conley which called for slavery reparations. I noted my strong belief that “economic inequality and lack of opportunity are not predicated on skin color”:

My five-great-grandfather and his young family traveled by river barge, wagon and on foot from North Carolina (USA) to the newly-opened Northwest Territory in the early 1800s in search of a better life…My grandfather’s parents were sharecroppers in Ohio, the white trash slaves of the early 1900s. When Grandpa died, he left us the family Bible, a Civil War long rifle, and loving memories – not the “passing on of assets” and “lifetime wealth accumulation” Conley asserts as our expected “gifts.” None of my ancestors ever received 40 acres and mule, much less the economic benefits he takes as a given for American whites.

Did blacks suffer under slavery in the early days of this country, while many whites prospered? Of course they did, as did the Native Americans, the Chinese, Irish, Polish and Italians – any immigrant (forced or otherwise) or minority culture which did not fit the image of an emerging national identity. Easily exploited populations will always suffer at the hands of unscrupulous individuals, no matter what their skin color.

Economic disparity is not a matter of race; it is a matter of social class, as ignored a topic as that is in these United States. We do not all have an equal opportunity to succeed when we start from such uneven beginnings, but it is because of the power of the almighty dollar, not skin color.

Conley concludes by noting, “Money is the best predictor of becoming successful in life, getting a good education and a good job.” I will be paying off student loans for myself, and for my children, with whatever Social Security benefits are left in 20 years. That is my legacy. “It takes money to make money,” Conley says. He’s right, and that applies to us all, not just the ancestors of slaves.

The one, over-arching reason for discrimination has always been, and always will be, money. Money equals power. If you don’t have it, you will suffer – however intangibly – at the hands of those who do. Even the well-to-do segregate and discriminate in their own circles, noting “old” money versus new, or the manner in which new money is earned. Yet if one’s bank balance is high enough, no one cares what about religion, skin color or sex – or character.

For those members of society who struggle just to put food on the table and a safe, clean roof over their heads, no other concerns can take precedent. What reviewer Drake Bennett calls “The Sting of Poverty” will keep the have-nots focused on concerns the haves can only vaguely imagine. “Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems” (1).

Following Abraham Maslow’s (admittedly controversial) hierarchy, physiological and basic safety needs must be met before one can turn to social and self-actualization issues. Studying history or reading the classics is a luxury available to those who have a few minutes to call their own. The Schlegel sisters in E.M. Forster’s Howards End learned this painful lesson from their futile efforts to enlighten the Basts. No matter how deeply Leonard wanted to become acquainted with music and literature, “With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?” (37). This is a vicious circle which keeps less-favored classes “in their place,” as one who is focused on staying alive has little energy left for politics or rebellion against the establishment, which means opportunities to change their basic condition will remain out of reach.

Denying the existence of social classes based on money only sustains a false arrogance that enables Americans to belittle the aristocratic ways of Europe. We can all find a reason to claim victimhood, whether it be race, sex, religion or any other characteristic that makes us different, but in the end such superficial labeling is useless as well. Our capitalistic society is designed to reward those who have capital; it’s as simple as that. To believe any other issue truly divides us from opportunity is unjustified. Class Matters details how the “hyper-rich” have the “power to exclude,” not only from strictly financial prospects, but in politics, education and healthcare as well. The gift of “accumulated wealth” showers not only monetary inheritance on the next generation of moneyed families, but a frame of mind that looks at dollars and cents in a much different way than do those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and see those dollars only in terms of which bill to skip paying in order to put food on the table. Until the very real financial disparities in society are addressed rather than ignored, these class divisions will continue to matter.

December 10, 2008

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Think, Therefore I am…Confused!

After a week’s worth of reading Freud, Jung and Joyce for a class at Antioch McGregor in May of 2008, I wrote the following essay which has since gained more attention and interest. I have edited the original slightly to make it more accessible to other readers, but the thoughts are the same.

The study of how the mind works, why we do what we do, has always fascinated me. I constantly assess the actions and apparent thought processes of those around me, trying to ferret out the underlying motivations. More often than not, my reaction is, “I don’t get it! Why on earth did they think/behave/react that way?” but I try.

Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious and Freud’s “harboured residues of the existences of countless egos” (The Ego and the Id 35) makes sense to me. If, as I have come to believe, there is a fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it follows that our inherited mental faculties would share some bit of universal memory. This concept has been used to explain child prodigies, among other anomalies, and it seems reasonable. It would also explain, at least in part, the spontaneous, nearly-concurrent appearance of certain ways of life in different parts of the world from speech to societal organization to religion. Unfortunately, such shared memories don’t seem to bring us together as a species beyond a certain limited framework.

I recall a quote which I read or heard somewhere by someone I can’t remember in the vague distant past that patriotism is the arrogance of assuming one’s native country is somehow superior by virtue of oneself having been born there. That same notion is echoed in religious choice, where one’s family determines the church which often comes to preoccupy belief and possibly derail thought. In The God Delusion, author Richard Dawkins rails against – among many other things! – labeling children by their parent’s belief systems, as in “Christian child” or “Jewish boy.” I would raise the same objection, albeit a bit more mildly, to the concept of nationalism, and both positions serve to separate us from each other and often ourselves.

What Jung calls the “Western man” uses these illusionary divisions and a self-imposed “unaware(ness) of the deep root of all being” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 543) to maintain an “us versus them” mentality. From the apocryphal expulsion of the Jewish nation from Egypt because of religious (and national?) differences, to the current push to “secure” our borders and keep the foreigners out of “our” country, external differences have served to segregate communities, encourage oppression and cause countless wars. Scriptures from the three monotheistic religions foster this division by giving themselves a divine imprint. Rather than exploring and embracing the very real possibility of a collective unconscious, humanity seems to find it more exhilarating to focus on superficial differences, to the detriment of us all.

Joyce puts this divisiveness into sharp relief in the opening chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When I read his Dante Riordan shouting “God and morality and religion come first” to Mr. Casey’s “No God for Ireland!” (29) over the dinner table, I cringe. Anytime religion or nationalism takes precedent over humanitarianism, society is at risk; that was as true in Joyce’s day as in our own. If only humanity had grown to the point of being able to “fly by those nets” (174).

Jung tries to explain such rigid belief systems by noting they are “an excellent defense against an onslaught of immediate experience with its terrible ambiguity” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 631). I suppose that makes sense in a here-and-now-sort of way, but in the larger scheme of things, such narrow-mindedness can only serve to limit potential for growth. Ambiguity is a part of life. No matter how long man searches for explanations and meaning – a worthwhile quest, when approached with an honest curiosity – there likely are things we will never understand with our finite minds. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Like Jung, “I do not enjoy philosophical arguments that amuse by their own complications” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 626); give me a logical, practical debate anytime. Dogmatic beliefs of any nature stifle such debate and discourage the free exchange of ideas necessary to find that meaning we all seem to share the need to seek (back to the collective unconscious!).

I recently received an email from an acquaintance (who should know better) forwarding an article from Free Republic. The author rants against the “Global-Warming cultists” for seeking to destroy religion and the family, ridiculing Malthus’ theories on the effects of over-population, and generally insulting anyone not of his particular mindset. “For the left, the quintessential spiritual experience would be an abortion performed at a same-sex marriage ceremony, while transgendered ushers throw condoms instead of confetti, and bridesmaids confiscate handguns from passersby” ( Now that’s a productive debate method! This acquaintance – and I really would like to say “friend” but can’t bring myself to do so; friends don’t behave in such a manner! – and I have had words prior to this on our widely-different views of the world and I have asked politely not to be included in her more inflammatory threads. Apparently, she still feels the need to convert me or simply likes to rile things, hence being not deserving of “friend.” My response to this email: “What a snide, narrow-minded commentary on some pundit’s single-minded focus! Such pin-hole vision, from either side of the issue, will never solve such a real, multi-faceted problem. But it’s always easier to point fingers and debate ideology than find solutions that may require personal sacrifice for the greater good and a change in mores.” And on it goes, back to my original question, why on earth do people think that way?

Jung returns to the defense mechanism: it’s easier to find outside, particularly divine, causes for the problems we face. “People no longer stop to ask themselves how far it (disaster) is their own doing” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 546) because then they would have to address the issue of how to resolve the situation, or to prevent it from reoccurring. Humanity has searched for cause-and-effect for time immemorial. From the first quake of the earth, the thunderstorm with lightening that burned down the forest, the flood which wiped out a village, people have needed to find an explanation for the disasters – and fortunes – that occur every day. And it is always easier to place that cause outside oneself rather than admit that possibly personal actions had unintended consequences.

Tacking that responsibility onto another human being takes the onus off ourselves. They are the wrong ones who need to change; I and my tribe have the moral high ground. And make sure someone is punished: kill the surplus tailor for the blacksmith’s offense, if necessary, but blame must be placed and the crime absolved. Based on those far too frequent reactions, I see where Freud reached the conclusion that “Normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows” (The Ego and the Id 53), although I’m hesitant on the “more moral” part. I want to believe it, but the evening news makes it difficult.

I end this disjointed ramble with a comforting thought from Jung: “The normal man is a fiction” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 674). I can stop trying to be normal!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Like most everyone with an email account, I get lots of ‘Forward..Forward...Forward’ stuff from friends and relatives. Some I have learned to simply ignore because they want to preach at me or to continue a silly chain letter. But I confess to being addicted to one category: the words of wisdom/humor/motivation/blessing from one celebrity/pundit/mystic or another. Why? Because far too often those quotes are misattributed. And I have a mission in life to correct every one of them!

Silly occupation, in many views, and probably annoying to some, but there is a deeper issue here. I don’t do this to annoy or offend or show off my vast range of useless trivia knowledge. I seek the truth in all aspects of my life, and this is one area that I can – sometimes – confirm the veracity thereof.

Why does it matter? Because truth matters. If we decide that it’s really not important who said what in emails circulated ad nauseum, how do we not transfer such a blasé attitude to other areas of life? I have witnessed numerous preachers, teachers and motivational speakers offer anecdotes as their own experiences, knowing full well they picked up the story from the mists of time – Neale Donald Walsch and his Conversations with God essay the most recently publicized such occurrence (Christmas Essay was not His, Author Admits).

This behavior offends me on two levels. First, as a honest, truth-seeking individual, I am concerned that such actions are becoming the norm. Political spin notwithstanding, honesty does have an important place in society. Second, as a writer, I care about the words I write. Copy them, repeat them, use them as you will, but give credit where credit (or blame) is due.

Author Harry Frankfurt wrote an excellent pair of books on this topic: On Bullshit and On Truth. At barely 100 pages each, they spell out exactly why truth and the defense of same are so important. “No society can afford to despise or to disrespect the truth” (Truth 32). We must be able to discern truth in order to help us determine our reality, the bounds of our personal existence as opposed to all that is outside our selves.
And so I will continue my personal crusade against misattributed quotes, be they emailed words of wisdom or the motivational posters which fill the halls of academia and business. Forwarders, beware!