Archive for December, 2012
I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas. But what is Christmas? The easy answer is that it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s partially true. Early Christians choose this as their holiday in order to co-opt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating. Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-exist the holiday’s Christian identity.
So while Christians are on solid ground proclaiming Jesus is the “reason for the season” in their eyes, we non-Christians don’t have to wash our hands of the holiday, or even phrases like “Merry Christmas.” This time of the year remains a universal holiday, celebrating as days start to grow longer and humans find joy in the depths of winter.
Values of love, peace, joy, and forgiveness are universal. The magic of the season transcends theological dogma. You can believe in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or the Hebrew God, I choose a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.
I’ve long believed that human religions tell more about the cultural state of a society than about God and the meaning of life. Individual beliefs about God usually reflect that person’s temperament Humans create God in their own image, a strict stern man sees a judgmental, harsh God. A loving caring man sees God as being primarily about forgiveness and inclusivity. A woman focused on the material world sees God helping those who help themselves. A woman immersed in charity work sees God as wanting us to care for the least in disregard of material success.
That doesn’t mean religion is meaningless. There are reasons why books like the Koran, the Bible, the sayings of Buddha, and the Upanishads are compelling across time. The same is true for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or great poets such as Petrarch and Dante. In various ways ideas that cut to the core of who and what we are as humans have staying power. They touch something inside our souls and remind us that we are part of a world far more mysterious and meaningful than our senses and minds can comprehend.
As we trudge through our daily routine who cannot help but be inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of the Buddha, and the power of ideas of love, faith and joy? Anyone who has chosen to forgive rather than hold a grudge, or show friendship rather than disdain to an adversary, cannot help but attest to the power of forgiveness. One even pities a person locked in negative, mean spirited behavior. The co-worker that stabbed you in the back becomes less someone whose actions arouse anger and drive you to revenge than a poor pathetic fool whose actions cannot bring satisfaction.
So Happy Christmas! Feel the unity that connects us all, follow it and the world will become a better place, step by step.
The Plan B pill is taken by women the morning after having sexual intercourse in order to avoid getting pregnant. Unfortunately for the Republicans and John Boehner, their plan B could not prevent the birth of a fiasco, meaning the Republicans are screwed.
After weeks of talks it was clear that there was no way Speaker John Boehner could get his party to support the kind of deal that he and President Obama were building to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. The Republican leadership decided they needed a “plan B” to pressure the Democrats to make more concessions.
At first Plan B was simply to pass a higher tax rate on to millionaires, with rates staying the same for everyone else. Boehner’s argument: “I’ve now shown I’m willing to accept a tax rate increase. That’s what the President has wanted from me. Now let’s see what he’ll give me in exchange.” If nothing, Boehner reasoned, the GOP would have some cover -rather than being seen as an intransigent party refusing any tax increase on the wealthy, they could say they had moved and the Democrats need to respond in good faith.
Only thing – Boehner had to get Plan B passed. At first he figured it should be easy. His party has the majority in the House, and back in 2011 many Democrats had suggested that raising rates on millionaires would be enough – Boehner could throw their own words back at them. If it could get through the Senate with Democratic help, it would force Obama to veto the bill and make it look like he was blocking progress. Fearful of that happening, Obama would have to give the Republicans more of what they wanted.
It didn’t work.
First, Democrats were pretty united against it. What was said in 2011 is irrelevant; this is a new political reality. Given that, Boehner needed to have Republican unity to get it to at least pass the House. He failed. Too many conservatives had taken a career stand against EVER raising taxes, even on millionaires.
Boehner appealed to reason – the lower tax rates will expire on everyone on January 1. Then the House will be forced to pass a bill lowering taxes on those under $250,000, meaning rates will go up on a lot more people. “I need this for my negotiations,” Boehner said – for leverage, it’s not actually going to become law!
Nope. The hard right, already angry that some of its members had committee assignments plucked away from them for their disloyalty, dug in. So Boehner added budget cuts to the mix – cuts that meant that any chance that the Democrats could support it withered. He didn’t care, he was desperate. He had to pass something in the House. ANYTHING.
After a tense meeting on the evening of Thursday December 20, the Republicans managed to impale themselves. The far right accepted nothing, the Speaker’s leadership was rejected, and the party was split. Conservatives were gleeful about the separation, believing they had gotten revenge on the Speaker and had stood on principle. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
In the headlines the story is clear: Boehner’s efforts to compromise even a bit were shot down by extremists in his own party. Any effort to shift blame to the Democrats or show that the Republicans were negotiating in good faith fell apart. Any deal that gets passed will be a Democratic agreement — the President and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) will craft a proposal that can pass the Senate and the House, appealing to at least enough Republicans to get it through.
Moreover, this will likely happen after New Year’s, meaning that the Republicans might lose the President’s offer to raise rates only on those earning $400,000 and higher.
Conservatives say fine – make the Democrats own what is passed. Make them responsible for tax increases, make them responsible for any cuts that are made. Rather than governing, which is what legislative bodies are supposed to do, they want to make stands on “principle.” But principles are always simplified rules of thumb, inapplicable across all contexts. Sticking to simple principles is for the simple minded – reality is far more complex.
Governance is about compromise and problem solving. John Boehner understands that; too many in his party do not.
So now what? The Republicans are in disarray, still fighting over the lessons of 2012, even as a recent CNN poll shows that 53% of Americans consider the GOP too extremist while 57% consider the Democrats mainstream. They may hope that 2014 is 2010 redux — another off year election — but the mood of the country is much different.
Simply, they are seeing their “conservative revolution” die. The country is moving slightly center-left, with pragmatism trumping ideology. The Grover Norquist types are 20th century relics, whose politics are poison today. The tea party was the last gasp of this movement, reacting in horror to the election of man they couldn’t imagine as President. But it was an illusion, they won in 2010 because of the economy and the fact the voters thought it would facilitate compromise. It wasn’t a popular conservative rebellion against Obama.
2012 may be seen as the election that solidified a move to the left that started in 2006, and was interrupted by the 2010 elections. If that’s the case, the Republican party is going to have to go through a kind of reconstruction, rethinking how their principles and beliefs apply in the 21st Century. They’ll need to look at other successful conservative parties in Europe, and most of all recognize that the world today is not the same as it was thirty years ago.
Perhaps its fitting that a party that has been fighting against contraception insurance with no co-pays for all women should have its Plan B fail. The party has reached rock bottom, there is no place to go but up. Will it be a Rubio uniting the conservatives with a more moderate message? Perhaps Chris Christie’s gruff style can be a pragmatism conservatives embrace? Right now the Republicans are down and out, but the future is pregnant with possibilities.
With all due respect to those of you out there named Sandy, the destruction of hurricane Sandy and the trauma of the Sandy Hook shootings cause me to think maybe “Sandy” should become a word to embrace. The “spirit of Sandy” should be a call to action in defiance of the odds, a motivation to make fundamental changes to our world to make it a better place.
“Sandy” may seem like a nominal link between two tragedies, best left unnoticed. I disagree, I propose to turn it into a word of change and transformation. For example, the “spirit of Sandy” is seen in the actions of Sandy Hook teacher Vicki Soto, who died while trying to save her students from the crazed killer. She had told friends the day before she loved her 16 “angels.” On the day of the killing she hid them in the closets and told the gunman her kids were having class in the gym. He shot and killed her. Her angels survived.
These tragedies point to two issues that threaten our children’s future: climate change and violence. I’m not ready to make Sandy Hook primarily about guns. Yes, our level of gun violence is so much higher than any other industrialized state that anyone saying guns aren’t a cause can’t be taken seriously. We also have high levels of accidental gun death, recently I read about a three year old shooting himself.
Yet here in Maine we have lots and lots of guns. We are very safe. If I forget to lock the door, I don’t worry. If I see a guy with a rifle walking along the road, chances are he’s clothed in orange and looking for deer or whatever is in season. It’s about the kind of weapons available, and also about mental health, our culture, and our attitudes. To turn this into a question of gun control is to belittle it. We need to look more fully at what kind of society we have become.
We need to embrace the spirit of Sandy. (Hey, Steven Colbert started a word with Truthiness, maybe I can do this with “the spirit of Sandy”!) Ask difficult questions, change course, try to bring our culture to a better place. Compromise on gun control, improve mental health awareness and support, and display the “spirit of Sandy” with acts of kindness.
Hurricane Sandy needs to open our eyes to the real problem of climate change. There is every reason to do something. While the US has dithered, the Europeans have not only met the Kyoto Accord targets, but proved that it not only didn’t hurt their economy to do so, but it gave them a leap forward on green technology.
Climate change is real. Islands in the South Pacific are sinking, some are signing agreements for population transfers in the coming years. Yet in the US big money wants to try to obfuscate, hide the science, raise questions, and stymie political action.
Sandy must mean courage – we need the “spirit of Sandy” to recognize that the world we give our children requires on making wise and courageous judgments today.
The “spirit of Sandy” must entail the courage to confront issues that were deemed too hard or controversial. Not to choose the path of least resistance, but the path of change and transformation.
We’re on the edge of a new century. Technology is changing rapidly, our world is in motion. The problems that confront us can’t be solved with the old thinking of self interest, us vs. them, and fear of difference. The spirit of Sandy is to embrace new thinking: us with them, and an embrace of difference!
The tragedies that came in the latter half of 2012 don’t have to be seen as meaningless. These can awaken us to a better future. Change is difficult. Transformation requires sacrifice. But with the “spirit of Sandy” we can work towards a better future for our children.
The snow is beautiful here in rural Maine. The trees seem magical with a white icing, deer tracks visible on the ground, the dull brown colors of early winter given way to a crystal beauty.
Of course, I have to get the snow blower out and the roads are a bit slick. Cancellations alter the routine and force schedule changes. Some people complain about the snow and its inconveniences. Better to live in Florida or California, away from all this!
Life is like that. Seen from one perspective it’s magical, full of synchronicity, opportunities and beauty. We reach out and we find friends. We cry and are comforted. From another perspective life is a burden. Children are gunned down in schools, corporations run roughshod over common folk, people break hearts, lie and hurt.
I try to focus on the magical, but the mundane drags me down.
I wonder if I’ve lived my life up until now fooling myself. I see the beauty, I understand how perspective shapes our reality, I have a grasp of the underlying spiritual truth of existence. Yet I haven’t lived it. I’ve lived a bit afraid, too addicted to comfort, comfortable even with boredom.
I’ve not lived a life as full as I could because it was easy not to. The path of least resistance is enticing. It may be boring, unsatisfying on many levels, but full of distractions and easy to travel. Moreover, since so many of us enjoy that path, it’s socially acceptable. Take the path of least resistance and others nod and approve. It validates their choice of that same path, we’re all in this together.
There is another path, through the woods, unshoveled and unmarked. The soul tries to lure us to this path, it contains richness that the path of least resistance does not. It leads to a life of meaning, but it is risky. The thorny weeds are all around, the snow is deep. There is uncertainty.
We question our soul. Is this really the path to take? The other is cleared and easy. This one requires risk. The soul says in clear uncertain terms that to achieve true happiness you have to run from safety and be completely true to yourself. The path of least resistance is the path of conformity. It is living small, but living comfortably.
The snow falls, the ice piles up on my jacket. The wind hits my face, a raw wind. The wind is harsher on the path my soul wants me to take, there are shelters on the path of least resistance.
“It’s worth it,” my soul whispers. “You don’t know where it leads, or what’s beyond the next bend, but if you are true to yourself life has more value than it ever could if you simply go with the flow.”
“Come on,” friends yell from the path of least resistance. They’re heading towards a shelter, warm and comfortable. They seem bored, but there are distractions – games, contests, and comfort. Who needs meaning, who needs risk, who needs to listen to the soul? Just go with the flow, relax, unwind, watch the tube, get old and die. Meaning? Who needs it?
Yet the soul beckons. What is life if you live it just to find some comfort and then die? Why exist if it’s just to distract oneself from boredom and be part of the crowd? Death awaits in any event. What’s the point? What if I want more, what if I want to follow my soul, even if it means risk and uncertainty?
Those on the path of least resistance laugh. “There is no meaning,” they insist. “You live, you die. Avoid pain and discomfort, don’t take any risks. If you’re lucky enough to be able to glide through, you’ve won! Why take risks, that would be foolish.”
I stand and look, and realize that I am a fool. And that is good. I turn towards the risky path, wave to my friends and say, “I’ll see you around, but I’ve got to go explore.”
The descriptions are heart wrenching. Young boys and girls taken from their homes, forced to become killers and/or sex slaves. Boys having their skin scrapped so cocaine can be rubbed right into their blood stream before a battle, told that if they have faith they’ll be invincible. Even when rescued, they often find themselves unable to fit into normal life. How can you kill, maim, and brutalize at age 13, feeling powerful and in control, and then suddenly blend into village life?
How can you go from having people cower in fear at the sight of you to begging for food or doing a menial job for people who you know you could terrorize and kill?
I admit, I had tears in my eyes much of Friday as I read about the heinous school shooting in Connecticut. Having two children (ages 9 and 6) I imagined myself in the shoes of their parents. I visualized what it would be like to have my six year old screaming as someone pointed a gun to his head and blew it away. I let myself imagine those images in order to not let my mind abstract the suffering that this act brought about.
Yet, as debate turns to gun control, school security and other such “solutions,” I think about other children. Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I co-teach a course on Children and War. It includes child soldiers, families in war zones, the children of deployed American troops, and children growing up in gang ridden ghettos.
Back when my oldest son was three I got a book called Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was the Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, from 1993 to 1994. Pleading for support and more soldiers he watched the Rwandan genocide unfold as the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Instead of stopping the killing, the UN pulled thousands out of his mission leaving him with just 250 soldiers to protect groups of Tutsis who happened to get to a UN zone.
Dallaire’s ordeal itself is worth learning about – he went from suffering PTSD and attempting suicide to now being a true humanitarian fighting against the use of child soldiers. But I still remember the day I got his book. I had just brought the kids home from day care and the three year old wanted to play in the driveway. His younger brother was still an infant asleep in the car seat. So I took a chair and started reading while my son was playing.
In the introduction Dallaire describes a time when his convoy was stopped and he saw a three year old boy nibbling on a UN biscuit. The boy looked lost. Dallaire had warned his troops not to get emotionally connected to the children they saw – they couldn’t bring them all into the compound. But he broke his own rule. He followed the boy to a hut, where the child stepped over his dead father and went over and snuggled against his dead mom, still trying to eat the biscuit.
Dallaire lost his capacity to close off the pain. He said he decided then and there to adopt the boy. He picked him up and started carrying him back to his vehicle, but before he got there Tutsi boys came and demanded the boy. “He has to be raised by his own people,” they curtly told Dallaire. These boys were 12 or 13 and well armed. They snatched the boy and disappeared.
I put the book down and looked at my son and imagined that happening to him. I sat in the garage with tears running down my cheeks thinking about him in such a situation. I vowed to inject the human side of world politics into my courses — we Americans get used to abstracting the violence and suffering into concepts and terms we can discuss with apparent intelligence but no feeling. But if we lose the sentiment, we lose the humanity.
These things cross my mind in the wake of the shooting. 20 dead children is a tragedy, horrific and vile. Yet these children aren’t more valuable than children being manipulated and brutalized in war zones or young girls being turned into sex slaves.
These things are on going. Every day there are lives in the balance. So I feel a bit put off by the Facebook posts of people sharing a “prayer chain,” listing the names of the children or getting into emotional debates about gun control. I felt the national pain on Friday, I had tears just like the President did as I thought about it. But what do we do next?
We spend a lot of money on weapons systems, corporate welfare, and ways to support huge financial institutions because they drive the economy. With a fraction of that money and a fraction of the energy there could be a global focus on bringing stability to sub-Saharan Africa, creating conditions where communities there could be self-sustaining, and do immense good.
The same groups that hate any kind of gun control here don’t want the US to participate in the UN Small Arms Treaty being negotiated. They claim it will circumvent the constitution. They’re wrong – no treaty can do that, by law any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. What they don’t want anything that might suggest guns are bad. Yet those flows of small arms into these war zones is one reason we have so many child soldiers and war lords operating in areas of anarchy.
So yes, let’s debate gun control and domestic issues. But I wish that we’d expand our vision a bit and think about children suffering violence and despair elsewhere, especially since our weapons and policies helped create conditions where these problems could fester. Wouldn’t it be nice if the emotion people feel after a tragedy could yield long term action on a variety of fronts to protect children rather than either fading away after the media cycle or getting gobbled up by partisan fights over guns and schools?
Because tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen every day. We just don’t notice them.
Today I came across this quote from Sophie Scholl, a woman I greatly admire for being part of the White Rose resistance to Hitler in WWII, executed in 1943 at the age of 21. Especially with all the craziness in the world today, and all the mundane distractions in life, I think this is a very powerful, meaningful and profound quote.
Please read this. Think about it. Live it!
“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.” – Sophie Scholl
Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said that many on the far right are getting rich on “impotent rage,” firing up their listeners to be angry about Obama’s re-election but unable to do anything about it. Well, you might say, that’s Maddow, she always chastises conservatives. Yet conservatives William Kristol and Joe Scarborough have also decried the way some on the right — talk radio, especially — are getting rich off a style that pushes for an uncompromising and unrealistic stand on absolutist “principles.”
The problem in the GOP is that the reasonable people of the party are having to deal with a large, media savvy group of conservatives who have fostered a cult like thinking.
That is not only un-American, it is also un-Conservative and irrational.
It is un-American because our system is based on the idea that no individual or group has an absolute claim on truth. Democracy is a way to get people to debate, learn from each other, and try to figure out the best compromise. We learn as we go based on what works and what does not. The idea that we should focus simply on ideology or principle would be foreign to the founders. Their principles were broad based and open to diverse ideas.
It is un-Conservative because conservatives value tradition, social stability and a sense of community. Conservatives have adopted a strong free market perspective but have always recognized that markets have limits and that the good of the country trumps any ideological stand point. And, given that tradition involves compromise and deliberation, the extremism of Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh is distinctly anti-conservative.
It is irrational because it focuses on pushing a party line with the vehemence of a religious extremist. The “true” conservative values are XY and Z. Those who seek compromise and moderation are “RINOs” (Republicans in name only). This desire for conservative purity has cost them the Senate. Ideology-based thinking leads them to embrace clearly false claims – that there is no human caused climate change, the earth is 9000 years old, women’s vaginas magically shut down the possibility of pregnancy when they are raped and other such non-sense. Truth is not based on science and evidence, but on what would be true if their ideology was infallible.
Here are some questions. Answer yes to any of them, and you just might be a conservative cultist:
1. Do you believe Obama has a secret agenda to push the US towards socialism and away from a market economy?
2. Do you believe that Obama hates America and wants to give our sovereignty to the UN?
3. Do you know who Alinsky is, and do you think somehow Obama is following some kind of plot of his making?
4. Are you convinced that the Democrats simply try to buy votes by giving people stuff?
5. Do you secretly (or even openly) wish women couldn’t vote because they aren’t truly rational?
6. Do you think votes should be weighted by wealth, since the poor have ‘no skin’ in the game?
7. Do you believe that Obama is an incompetent narcissist who has no leadership capacity?
8. Do you believe there is a nefarious “agenda” out there that gays, internationalists, liberals and other types are following, which would stab America in the back and move us away from our core values?
9. Do you think the country is on the road to collapse, and figure the GOP should just let Obama have his way so the Republicans aren’t co-responsible – the “let it burn” argument?
If you said yes to more than one of these, you just might be a member of a cult!
I’ve even read blogs where someone seriously posts that people should keep any pledge they have made (meaning the Norquist pledge) no matter what, because you never break a pledge. However, what if they decide that under current conditions the Norquist pledge would lead them to actions that do harm to the country? Should our elected representatives really be more concerned about keeping a pledge than doing what’s right? Or is Peter Parker aka Spiderman right – sometimes the best promises are those we are willing to break? After all, many German soldiers didn’t turn on Hitler even when they saw what was happening because they took an oath to Hitler. I think its simple minded blindness to keep an oath just because you took it, no matter what.
True conservatives won’t play that game. They recognize that they have something to bring to the table and they can force Obama to compromise (and Obama has shown a willingness to compromise). They don’t demand strict adherence to “principles.” An uncompromising devotion to absolute principles is for the narrow minded. Principles are simplified general ideals, but in the real world those simplification break down. Blind adherence to principle is the mark of someone unwilling to embrace real world complexity – a cultist, in other words.
You see it on blogs and talk radio especially. I’ve been in many debates, sometimes heated, with conservatives. But usually we don’t take it personally, nor do we ridicule each other and say the other person is somehow evil or bad. In fact in most cases we find we agree on core values — Americans are more united than divided. Go to a cultist blog and try going against their party line and they respond with ridicule and personal abuse (and yes there are cultists on the left too). That’s how cultists protect their message, they don’t allow it to be questioned, especially not by people who may have good arguments.
Republicans have tolerated the cultists because they brought energy and a solid voting block to the party. As long as party leaders (whom cultists deride as the hated “Republican establishment”) could control the real policy actions of the party, the cultists were an asset. But in 2010 they crossed that line.
The most recent example – rejection of the UN People with Disabilities treaty even as John McCain gave his support and Bob Dole was on hand to persuade skeptics to vote for it. Senators who recently supported it voted no, fearful that the cultists would put up hard core conservative primary opposition.
Republicans need to purge the cultists from their ranks, or at least render them ineffective. They inspire rage, but a rage that cannot win – you’ll never have a pure Demint style conservative government any more than you’ll ever have a pure Kucinich style liberal government. Or if we do it’ll only be a gradual change reflecting the whole culture. Our system is designed to avoid sudden lurches to such extremes. It’s designed for compromise and loyal opposition.