Tuesday, June 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism

My Country ‘Tis of Thee
Sweet Land of Liberty
Land where the food is fried
And where the poor have cried
When those in war have died
Let us drink and sing
And have our I-phones ring
As we remember days
When monarchies blazed
Feudalism was the thing
And all hailed the king

I have forgotten exactly which event I was recently watching on TV, although it was probably a sporting event, but I became annoyed as some female performer sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” I do not know exactly when this song first raised my dander, but I was in my teens. The song has no place in our republic, no matter what the words say. The music is a note-for-note copy of Britain’s “God Save the King/Queen.” Whatever words we add or delete, it subtly promotes the principle of personal sovereignty in our republic where the best defining difference of America is that we have no personal sovereign. We have no king or queen. We need no musical vestige of kings and queens. We are exceptional in that regard. We swear no personal oath of loyalty; our oath is only to support and defend the constitution.

I have chosen to deal with “American Exceptionalism” mainly because it has been so badly distorted. Even neocons have used the concept to justify the most oppressive and undemocratic behaviors of government. Loosely linked to “Manifest Destiny,” it excuses wars of choice as a divine right. It pardons military expansionism as an expression of “exceptionalism.” Neocons saw this as justification enough to invade Iraq. One major reason that our nation was formed was specifically to be unburdened of royal wars where the nobility used the people to build up personal wealth and power. Fealty to the king, a personal sovereign, was paramount in that setting. Subjects literally owed their lives to the king and by his whim might die. License to kill is not in the original concept of American exceptionalism by Alexis de Tocqueville who described it in the 1700s. Crowds screaming “We’re Number One” do not promote our exceptionalism. Nor is it enhanced by blithe and ignorant statements that indicate that if it is American, whether healthcare, automobiles or restaurants, it is better than any other in the world. By most objective measures, we are high in the grand ordering of nations, but we are not first in everything and that is not how we are exceptional. We are exceptional in that we are fortunate to live in a nation where social class is an outcome and not a birthright. Most recently, that aspect is being strained and we have fallen to 20th in the world in social mobility. American social mobility is largely determined by personal economic success. While wages for most Americans have declined over the past decade, income for senior executives has increased dramatically and the middleclass has shrunk. The mechanism for mobility is still there, but weakened by shipping jobs overseas and a new emphasis on corporations as people instead of the more traditional American support of individual rights and freedoms of real breathing people. That diminishes another value: Fair Play. If fair play can be re-incorporated into our workplace, the economics might follow. Until then, individuals, unlike major corporations will not be bailed out.

Our brief but rich history is branded by a stark line of demarcation between our ideals of a “shining city on a hill,” and our use of raw power to get our way in the world. While both elements have been present from the beginning, we must not fool ourselves into believing that because we have high ideals that having them is, in itself, a balance for sometimes despicable behavior. The balance can only come if we systematically review our history with clear eyes. Only then will our efforts to right our wrongs succeed by promoting truth rather than revising our history. Even the plucky Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony moved quickly from accepting food from Native Americans to avoid starvation to a bloody massacre of the Pequots within months. And no, Paul Revere did not, some 150 years later warn the British by ringing bells and telling them not to take our guns. I mention Sarah Palin’s hysterical account of history only to remind the reader that revisionism can take many forms, but regardless of the precise revision or the motivation, we must begin with the facts if we are ever going to make the changes and adjustments we need as a nation. Revisions retard progress. Whitewash needs removal before we can fix our imperfections.

Let me sample times when we have not lived up to our ideals: Beginning with the callous disregard of Native Americans, then Slavery and the Civil War itself, we departed from our ideals as we did more recently through 1942 Executive Order 9066 that sent Japanese and Italian Americans to concentration camps that we called “relocation camps,” while we confiscated their real estate and personal property. We departed from our ideals by launching an unprovoked attack on Iraq; then Abu Ghraib and the cover-up. Most recently, we have attacked labor unions and torn their right to represent labor from their hands and denied them the same economic and political rights that corporations enjoy. This has caused us to depart from our ideals of fair play and has resulted in scapegoating instead of problem solving. It is threatening the very essence of who we are when dignity and basic needs like food and healthcare become economic weapons of political warfare. Thirty percent of our children are below the poverty line and are underfed and under educated. The religious freedom we cherish has sometimes become a club or litmus test against non-believers or practitioners of different faiths. Mormons were shunned and harassed and yet later, they themselves conducted the Mountain Meadows massacre. A nation founded upon a model melting pot has sometimes blamed immigrants for economic ills. Even today, Georgia has instituted draconian measures so severe that migrant workers are fearful to work in Georgia and attempts to get field hands from parolees have failed despite unemployment rates exceeding 25% for those on probation from jail.

Is America “Exceptional?” Yes, but with egregious examples of failing to live up to our ideals. We are a nation with both high ideals and high energy and our strength comes from both. Lofty ideals with no desire to achieve them would be meaningless, or worse. Reckless application of energy without ideals is tyranny and chaos. Only we can change the outcome. We need no benevolent king. We need to seek out the truth so that we can pursue our ideals and eliminate the fear that divides us. It is that fear that becomes “weaponized” to make enemies of Mexicans or gays or Muslims or whatever the next target will be. Responsible high profile people like John McCain who essentially accused Mexican migrants of starting the horrific wildfires in Arizona add to the problem. Revision of history or willful distortion of current events strips us of our exceptionalism and makes us ordinary indeed. Even worse, it makes us look the wrong way to solve a problem. Allow me to put this into another context. Let’s say that your car is getting poor mileage and that you take it to be fixed claiming that somebody was stealing fuel from your tank because you are suspicious of your new neighbor. The quick solution would be to install a locking gas-cap, but what if the real problem was fouled spark plugs. The gas-cap might give you temporary comfort, but your mileage would not improve. Or you build a wall on your southern border, but you still can’t get US labor to take your low paying jobs no matter how much you blame immigrants for taking jobs that nobody else wants. Successful problem solving requires an accurate definition of the problem. If you alter history, you may feel better, but you still will not solve the problem.

Maybe we should consider the notion promoted in the 1960s to challenge authority; the media and politicians who use hatred and our human weaknesses for expedient gains. Let us use our energy to both pursue our ideals and to change our future by knowing and understanding our history. We are not feudal vassals of some distant king. We are free and can exercise that freedom on our own to pursue truth and truly become exceptional. Fear stirs emotions, but solves no problems. Ignorance of history may provide fairy tales to tell our children of the honor and glory of our ideals, but it whitewashes the problems that need to be solved. Knowledge and hard work can solve problems and help us reach our ideals. I recently received an email from a friend that purported to be a shameful account of presidential behavior. I quickly referred to “Fact-Check.” It was a despicable fraud as are so many including the recent viral video of Janice Hahn. Be free and skeptical.

George Giacoppe
25 June 2011

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Her name was Charlotte Beck, she was trained at Oberlin as a pianist, she came to Zen practice in her forties, and after she was authorized to teach she set out in her own, uniquely American direction. Mainly, she eschewed most formalities and titles (she stopped shaving her head and wore plain skirts and tops rather than robes, though she kept her Dharma name, “Joko”) and emphasized not “enlightenment experiences” but coming to grips with daily life and its problems. If a student told her about an ‘experience,’ she would say, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?”

I started to study with her in the 80s and sat several “sesshins” with her, one at her zendo in San Diego, most in Oakland. Though she eschewed formality (her second book is titled Nothing Special), she was nevertheless a formidable figure: big-boned, plainspoken, imposing, authoritative. Too, she urged one to be “meticulous” in everything concerned with practice: meticulous attention to one’s thoughts and emotions (she grouped them together as “emotion/thoughts”), meticulous attention to the physical care of one’s sitting space, to whatever job one was given. She never sugar-coated what we were doing or what life was about, often saying without ornament that it was hopeless, or simply, a mess. Once she compared our condition to someone falling from a tall building: ‘Are you going to focus on what the scenery is like or what your real situation is?’ In a recent interview, she said that the important thing in Zen practice is “Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.” In one of her books she wrote, “Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.” She also told me once, after a betrayal, that there is no one we can truly trust (in this she was following Huang-Po, one of the great Zen masters, who told his students, “There is nothing on which you can rely.”)

She knew this first hand. Her own life included disappointments and betrayals, not least her discovery that her own teacher, Maezumi Roshi of Los Angeles, could not control his drinking or his sexual attraction to her daughter. Her break with the traditional style of zen teaching came partly as a result of this. She determined that her style of zen would not sweep such ‘mundane’ concerns under the rug, but would place them at the center of practice. What resulted was one of the most influential modes of teaching and expression (her genius for making Buddhism accessible and comprehensible to westerners was uparalleled) in American Zen. For Joko, Zen was not some mystical, baffling presentation of esoteric stories or doctrines aimed at transcendence. It focused on the problems of everyday life—but as meditated upon in the very particular, silent environment of zen training—and with the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Of the many brilliant phrases I heard her utter, one sticks in my mind. I’m not sure what her subject was—perhaps something about being judgmental, or our penchant for putting ourselves above others—but at some point she said this:

“Everyone is trying their best.”

It’s as simple yet profound a sentence as one can imagine, the insight that, in essence, we are all always trying to do the best we can. This includes those who shine in a task, as well as those who fail miserably. It includes those who have endless talent as well as those who are hopelessly inept. It includes those who work hard and honestly as well as those who slough off and cheat; those who sacrifice themselves on behalf of others, and those who scheme to secure their own advantage; those who push through to victory and those who give up too early. It does not leave out the lame, the halt, the criminal, the saintly, the deluded and the visionary, the luminary and the suicide. It is, really, the ultimate expression of compassion and, typical of Joko Beck, without a shred of fake optimism or sugary solace in a divine plan. It is simply a profound insight into the fact that everyone is different, everyone is differently endowed, and that everyone is conditioned by whatever set of circumstances prevail at a given moment. In such a world view, the outcome of any situation is simply what conditions make it, with no grounds for anyone taking credit over anyone else. Taking credit, or assigning blame are the functions of that “personal, egotistic self” one has to study and know, and see for the self-coddling illusions they are. By contrast, comprehending that everyone, without exception, is trying their best is to see with the eye of compassion upon which Buddhism, or any spiritual tradition is founded. It is, I would suggest, the arrow pointing towards true wisdom.

Lest anyone think that because she spoke such words, Joko Beck was proof against the frailties of the egotistic self, it should also be noted that her retirement led to a public conflict with those she left in charge of her Zen Center, and a formal break with them. The letter she wrote on that occasion is living proof that she was not exempt from the mess of “emotion/thought.” But of course, she never claimed to be. She was “nothing special,” a frail and courageous human being who was, like all the rest of us, simply “trying her best.”

Joke Beck died, at age 94, on June 15. Though she would have scorned any notion of the ‘special’ place she occupied in American Zen, the truth is, she did. She will be missed.

Lawrence DiStasi

Should Government be Run as a Business?

Some people think that if government were run more like a business that would be a good thing. One strong advocate of that idea was Ross Perot, who despite having no political experience, became a serious contender in the 1992 presidential race. In fact, he had a slight lead in the polls over Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush before withdrawing from the race. Although Perot reentered the race, that temperamental blunder and his dubious choice of a running mate, doomed his chances. Even so he took 20% of the vote as a candidate on the short lived Reform Party.

Perot’s popularity was fueled by a discontent with the two parties on the part of many Americans who held a low opinion of politicians and politics as usual. This feeling was further fueled by Ralph Nader who made the absurd claim that there was little real difference between Republicans and Democrats, even though the two parties were miles apart on most issues. There was this idea that someone like Perot who was highly successful in the business world and independent of both parties could roll up his sleeves and fix the ills of government the way a mechanic could fix a car. That you could simply apply the same methods used in the company board room and use them in cabinet meetings and dealings with foreign countries. It was an appealing notion that difficult problems could be solved by resolutely attacking them head on.

Donald Trump briefly used this same appeal to tap into the anger of Tea Party voters who know little of history and have a distorted view of what the real political problems are. Arnold Schwartzenegger also had this aura of the successful outsider who could come in and make government work because he had great success both as a body builder and as an actor. Did voters think that if you have a record of success that running a government is somehow not all that different?

More recently, in California you had Ebay CEO, Meg Whitman trying to convince voters that her corporate experience was more valuable than Jerry Brown’s long record in politics; including having prior success in the office he was running for. And there was Carly Fiorino who had less than a sparking resume as CEO of Hewlett-Packard trying to convince voters that despite outsourcing thousands of American jobs to other countries she knew just how to create all sorts of good jobs here in California.
Maybe if we look into the past at all of the great American Presidents who were also successful businessmen we could get a better appreciation of how these business world skills can transfer over into good government. So, I did a little research on Wikipedia and this is what I found. Out of the 44 American Presidents 26 were listed as lawyers, 10 had served in the military, 5 were farmers and 5 were teachers and 4 had prior business experience. Some were lawyers who had also served in the military and Thomas Jefferson was listed as writer, inventor, lawyer, architect, farmer and plantation owner. The only two presidents who are listed primarily as businessmen are George Bush senior and George W. Bush, who were both in the oil business. Both were born into wealth and neither built a successful business from the ground up. The other two are Harry Truman who was a farmer and modestly successful haberdasher. Calvin Coolidge was a lawyer who was also a bank president. Coolidge took the position that the government would run just fine by itself if he went off to his farm. This may explain why his successor, Herbert Hoover, an engineer and investor, inherited a disaster called the Great Depression. One major advantage Franklin D. Roosevelt had over Barack Obama in a similar position was that he didn’t have a Republican minority blocking every attempt at improving the economy by excessive use of the filibuster.

Now I’m not saying that someone who has been a big success in the business world couldn’t be a good President, but it hasn’t happened yet. My main argument here is that government should not be run like a business. It should be run efficiently and effectively, and cut waste and fraud, but the goal is not to make as much money as possible. It is not to grow the company and sell a service or product. Government should be run for the purpose of providing a better life for all its citizens, to provide opportunity and justice for all. It should protect its people from foreign threats and be a democratic example for others to follow. None of these things have anything inherently to do with running a business for profit.

Here is where I believe the philosophical difference stands. Ever since Ronald Reagan, the NeoCons, who have now become the mainstream of the Republican Party, have acted as though the government should be run for the benefit of business. That means outsourcing jobs, salaried positions where employees work 65 hours a week and get paid for 40, breaking unions, eliminating regulations for big business, maintaining a military far beyond our means and rigging the tax code in favor of the very rich and the corporations and privatizing schools, prisons, health care, social security and everything else they can take control of and make a dollar on.

it’s the Democrat’s job to expose their true agenda and stop them.

David Silva

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wieners, State Murder and Morality

It’s hard to ignore these days: sex scandals by the powerful (Congressman Anthony Wiener, Presidential candidate John Edwards, French Director of the IMF Dominque Strauss-Kahn, ex-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, and dozens of lesser lights) provide us with one amusing spectacle of self-immolation after another (isn’t it always amusing to see the fall of a narcissist?) Less amusing and more ominous are the increasing episodes of powerful leaders turning their military might on their own people: the government-directed thugs in Egypt’s Tahrir Square now seem like choirboys compared to the savagery unleashed on protestors by “leaders” in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and nearly everywhere else these days, where those in power seem quite willing to murder their own people to keep it. Indeed, it seems that the major use of the military these days is to exterminate internal dissent: it happens no less frequently in Israel (murderous attacks on the Palestinians whom Israel, as an occupying power, is by law bound to protect) than in Iran; with the related threat clear in every so-called “advanced democracy” to spy on and cripple any form of even consideration about dissent that may raise its head (“domestic terrorist” is the appellation given in the U.S.).

What this leads me to (aside from dreaming about actual revolution) is speculation about what drives apparently sane men (and sometimes women) to the kind of immorality, or amorality, that is so conspicuous these days: sexual misconduct suitable to teenagers, or the casual murder of the innocent. The two seem related, if only to the extent that, as the old saw goes, Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Indeed, a recent piece on the corruption inherent in sexual misadventures by politicians puts it this way: politics “selects for people with risk-taking behavior and a high degree of self-regard” (Katherine Zernike, NY Times, 6/12/11). So you get people in power who are narcissistic juveniles deluded into thinking they’re gods. Some might even call them psychopaths.

Is this the answer, then? That the people who, as leaders, commit stupid and terrible acts, are self-selected psychos?

Probably many would like to believe that; because what it implies is that we, the normal ones, the moral ones, aren’t prone to such behavior. We would never do such things. It was to test this thesis that Philip Zimbardo, in 1975, embarked on a now-famous study known as The Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo has written about this in a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House: 2007). The conclusions are stunning and quite discomfiting. What the study (graduate students were told they were to engage in an experiment about prisons; some were chosen as “guards” while others were chosen as “prisoners”) found was that it was startlingly easy to elicit violent and aggressive behavior by the “guards,” even though they had been selected for stability and told they were engaged in an experiment with fellow students. Once they were put in the role of “guards,” that is, the students began to act like authoritarian and even sadistic controllers of those subject to their whims. The “prisoners,” by contrast, in the role of the controlled, began to break down with crying, depression and disorganized thinking, to the point that by the fifth day of the experiment all asked to be released from the game and the experiment had to be stopped ahead of time.

What this indicates is that even playing roles for which they had no previous experience led apparently decent people to become torturers and bullies. As one summary of the study put it:

The Zimbardo prison study, like the Milgram study, was valuable in showing how easily ordinary people could slip into a brutal and aggressive pattern of behavior, especially if it was approved by an authority. (from Psychology: An Introduction, by Russsell A. Dewey, PhD, (http://www.intropsych.com/ch15_social/zimbardos_prison_study.html ). (NB: the earlier Milgram study demonstrated that normal subjects could be easily persuaded to punish “learners” with what they thought were powerful electric shocks, if they were urged to by authorities).
This study (and previous studies, including Hannah Arendt’s examination of the Nazis who committed horrifying acts in the guise of “just doing my job,” which led her to coin the term, “the banality of evil”) thus means that, to a degree yet to be determined, most humans are quite capable of immoral or amoral behavior. More, it means that, to some extent, humans conform to the role they are given to play. The role itself—be it prison guard or U.S. Congressman or head of state—determines how those in that role behave. Those who manage to get themselves into a position of power, that is, often find that the immunity from punishment the position confers leads them to behaviors that they might otherwise contemplate with disgust or condemnation. We can see this on a smaller scale in our own lives: if we think we can get away with it, we might run a red light or cheat on our taxes. If we are authorized to exercise power over others, even over students (as teachers) or our own children (as parents), we might become authoritarian and punitive to a degree that shocks us in retrospect. Of course, this is always justified as being “for your own good.”

If we agree, then, that humans are capable of brutal or evil actions, the question becomes why? Are we as humans naturally inclined to behave badly and simply await the right opportunity? Or are we naturally inclined to be good and moral, and get drawn to brutal behavior by circumstances—either the role we are given, or the deprivation we are desperate to move out of? And more deeply, do we have a choice, i.e. are we equipped with free will to choose one or the other? Or are we driven like automatons by forces deeper than we know? Did Anthony Wiener, to get specific, have control over his computer finger in sending out his silly photograph? Or was he compelled to take that idiotic risk (what could possibly be the payoff for such a risk?) by internal or external forces beyond his conscious control? And what about the monsters like Syrian President Assad, who has killed thousands of his own people? Or the King of Bahrain who brought in Saudi forces to kill his own people for seeking a better life? Or any of a million others we could name?

Clearly, conservatives, especially religious ones in the Christian tradition, believe (or claim to believe) in strict personal responsibility. If you commit any act that “breaks the law,” you are guilty and deserve punishment. Behind this view lurks the doctrine of “original sin,” first promoted by St. Augustine, that humans are tainted at birth because of the original sin of Adam in disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Hence, humans are born depraved and require strict laws and punishments to back up God-dispensed or government-created laws in order to be “good.” Jews, while rejecting this original-sin doctrine, subscribe to a somewhat related concept: that humans in this world are imperfect, and therefore prone to commit sins for which they must atone. The important point about both these views, and about most social/religious views in general, is that humans have free will and can choose either good or evil. Humans are inclined, by nature (or Satan), to sin, and it is through the appeal to Christ or God or the moral law (Torah, Ten Commandments, Koran etc.) that these inclinations can be controlled and turned to good.

By contrast, there are more recent traditions (starting with Jean Jacques Rosseau, who specifically rejected the doctrine of innate human depravity) which see humans as basically good, with the evils of society forcing them to behave badly. Most progressive or reformist political theories begin with this general idea, and therefore seek to compensate for societal inequality by instituting laws and programs that give the poor and oppressed a better chance at advancement. Social security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and progressive tax policies are all designed to this end. The root idea is that all people can thrive if the “unfair” advantages of birth are mitigated and all are given a level playing field on which to operate.

Aside from the rightness or wrongness of such policies, the issue here is whether or not the root ideas are sound. Do humans actually have control over their own destinies? Does free will actually exist? Because if not, if humans are in fact driven by forces beyond or beneath their conscious control (the “conscious self”), then the recent questioning of the very idea of free will and the social/legal system resulting from it (and morality itself), becomes a serious issue. Thomas Metzinger, in The Ego Tunnel (Basic Books: 2009), has framed this question quite clearly:

Free will does not exist in our minds alone—it is also a social institution. The assumption that something like free agency exists, and the fact that we treat one another as autonomous agents, are concepts fundamental to our legal system and the rules governing our societies—rules built on the notions of responsibility, accountability, and guilt…If one day we must tell an entirely different story about what human will is or is not, this will affect our societies in an unprecedented way. For instance, if accountability and responsibility do not really exist, it is meaningless to punish people (as opposed to rehabilitating them) for something they ultimately could not have avoided doing. (Metzinger, p. 127)
What Metzinger is referring to is a host of neuroscientific discoveries that have begun to cast serious doubt (as the Buddha did two millennia ago) on the reality of what we feel and call “the conscious self.” We feel ourselves, that is, as autonomous beings with control of our actions; we feel ourselves (and everyone else) to be the conscious agents of our own actions. But what neuroscience has increasingly found is that we feel this only because the subconscious or unconscious precursors to our actions in the brain are invisible to us. This is why we have the absolutely certain feeling that our minds initiate actions that our bodies carry out. Since we are blind, that is, to the model we have created of ourselves and our bodies, we are correspondingly blind to the workings of our own brains. This is proved in countless experiments which show that injuries to certain parts of the brain (often via stroke) impel people to do things which surprise their conscious selves, and importantly, cause that “self” to make up preposterous stories to account for those baffling actions or perceptions. It is also proved in research into what are called “canonical neurons,” which demonstrate that our perception is not objective in the sense that we simply see an apple or a cup; we actually perceive such objects as “what I could do with (them).” Perception and action are not separate, that is; perception automatically includes a program or inclination for a possible interaction with the object perceived: A desire or intention to grasp or eat it is already included in seeing an apple. Metzinger then concludes:

When modern neuroscience discovers the sufficient neural correlates for our willing, desiring, deliberating, and executing an action…it will become clear that the actual causes of our actions, desires and intentions often have very little to do with what the conscious self tells us. From a scientific, third person perspective, our inner experience of strong autonomy may look increasingly like what it has been all along: an appearance only…(p. 131)

What will we do then? Will we still condemn the Wieners in the same way? Will we continue to lock people up for their “willful” actions? Continue to declare opposing leaders monstrous aberrations of humanity? Continue to set ourselves off as separate and different (and, of course, superior) from such ‘sinners’? No doubt many will. For others, though, it will appear critical that the moral arbiters of society be shaken from their long hallucination that some supreme being has handed down fixed laws for all to follow, and that those laws equate with something called “justice.” We will all have to either accept the fact that life or evolution or whatever power we name is no respecter of human imaginings about its meaning, or the fact that our laws and strictures and goals are little more than vain desires for humans (especially other humans) to be far more, and far better than they apparently are. Either one of which might deliver more of what we pretend to want (justice, tolerance, compassion) than what we have now.

Lawrence DiStasi