Sunday, October 20, 2013

Essentials for Our Republic

Our republic is a democracy
Afloat on a sea of hypocrisy
With holes through the beam
That cause us to scream
While the listing to starboard worsens
A hostile crew debates our fate
We passengers vocally curse them
As we feel the lies and the hate
Swirling around to drown us
No matter how much we fuss
These rebels care not for our health
And surely not for our wealth
So join and set our nation free
From the tyranny of their tea

We have again witnessed the smallness of humanity in the name of protecting freedom.  The Tea Party RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) who are anarchists at best and possibly deliberate destroyers of democracy have modernized sedition.  Yes, the GOP must shed this cancer or die, but we will all be hurt by the continuing tactics of people organized to overthrow our form of government.  Republicans seem to be at a loss to deal with usurpers who have cowed their leadership.  You may see this as a good thing as a Democrat and are simply tired of trickle down economics and stigmatizing the disenfranchised among us, but think more deeply on this travail.  This, by any other name, is an overt attempt to overthrow our democracy and our capitalistic economic system.  The sick irony of all this is that the Tea Party is claiming to fight for your freedom not to be covered by healthcare or job protection or the safety net that keeps you and your children from starvation or homelessness.  They want to cut the nation’s deficit. The same deficit that VP Cheney famously was quoted saying “Deficits don’t matter.”  Senator Cruz:  Please tell me how starving enhances our freedom.  Could you show me instead?  Please Senator Cruz.

Modest estimates are that the recent shutdown of our government by the House of Representatives cost us $24 Billion that will never be recovered.  Others say that the cost is far higher because we are no longer a trusted nation and that our industry, commerce and international good will is permanently damaged.  Few peer into the damage done to the small entrepreneurs and the poor among us who live from paycheck to paycheck or depend upon meager handouts from government or churches or myriad charities.  This points to some nettlesome symptoms of the disease, but the fundamental problems go much deeper.  Democracies, and especially this democratic republic, depend upon two fundamental elements to survive. Representative democracies require compromise as an integral part of our political process to work, otherwise a small minority can bring the business of state to a grinding halt.  If the democracy were absolute with all citizens voting on all issues, then we could be calmed by knowing that the majority would prevail.  Unfortunately, but obviously, the logistics of having about 250 million votes counted on national issues is unworkable.  We are facing well financed sedition by a minority of citizens who understand the mechanics of politics but whose motives are suspect.  Sedition is essentially defined as inciting resistance to authority without overt acts of violence.  This definition and the recent threats by the Tea Party call us to question how we can endure as a nation.  We cannot become like them and yet we need to protect our political process.  The second essential item is that we depend upon a modified capitalistic economic system that works based upon the good name and faith the entire world places in our ability to make good on our debts.  Our monetary system is the primary monetary system of the world and without full faith in our promises, the system collapses into a wild crap shoot of speculation that will drive up interest rates for everybody and reduce the consumption that drives our American economy as well as dry up labor that secures a portion of the largess for each of us.

Let us glance at the tactics of the Tea Party.  As an organized force, they have been well financed by conservatives such as the Koch brothers and the Heritage Foundation (that originally designed Romneycare that they liked until they disliked it and called it Obamacare).  Their stated goal is to promote conservative issues with an $80 million budget straight out of Washington.  That sounds innocuous enough until you learn that they have challenged and defeated conservative Republicans whom they felt were simply not radical enough.  They defeat Republicans in primaries that might compromise on legislation.  This has increasingly radicalized Congress to where willingness to compromise is now equated with defeat at the polls, especially the primaries where Republicans have traditionally held seats.  Given that our political process demands compromise in order to function, there is no wonder why gridlock has increased and that there appears that personal hatred has replaced professional political poise.  Ironically, if you do not review Tea Party practices in any depth, you may accept their mantra that they cannot compromise their principles and that any compromise attacks their principles.  Why would any group that truly supports the good of the nation as a whole take the Confederate flag as their standard?  Why would any group eschew compromise and punish GOP elected officials who may use it to advance legislation?  Why would any group that supports our nation actively destroy the good faith of our economic system by demanding default on our debts and shutting down government to obtain its political goals?  Success means destruction of our government.

I have discussed two essentials of our fabric of democracy:  1) Compromise as a political practice and 2) consistent support of our economic system.  Neither can be diminished without harm to our republic.  Grievous breaches cause grievous harm.  There is a corollary issue equally important to our success as a nation and that lies in the concept of commonwealth; that whatever we do should be done for the good of the people as a whole and not merely a few of the rich and powerful.  While that has sometimes been diminished, it is unconscionable that any lawmaker deliberately hurt the majority of the people for selfish goals of a person or group as we recently witnessed in the Tea Party shutdown of our government. 

Using rigid no-compromise tactics combined with threats to harm our economic system amount to sedition when combined with hyperbolic rhetoric, use of hate symbols such as the Confederate flag and falsely blaming the Executive Branch for closing the government and physically going to sites such as national monuments to stir up hate against our government such as Senator Cruz did after he led the effort to close the government and its offices including its parks.  We have even seen calls for extreme measures such as secession to extort concessions and the hypocrisy simply astounds.  As an example, Greg Collett, a Tea Party two time candidate for state office in Idaho is quoted: “I don’t think the government should be involved in my healthcare or health insurance.”  He has ten children on Medicaid and defends his position as consistent.  Rhetoric aside; What are these crazies thinking?  Governor Perry of Texas has mentioned secession from the union as an option as though that state was being abused.  This is not ordinary talk or criticism, but clearly seditious when he does it before crowds of rabid conservatives who are clearly looking to force their will on the rest of the nation.

I have waited for the government to reopen and for cooler heads to prevail to write on this topic, but we will face this condition again in a matter of only a few months.  Has America given up on majority rule?  Does gerrymandering bring a new legitimacy to elimination to the concept of 1 man/woman = 1 vote?  Does force and the threat to use it bring legitimacy to internal tyrants?  We cannot continue to say that we need to compromise when rules for compromise have been destroyed by one small minority.  There are parallels in history.  Each is ugly and ends badly.  Let us hope that Boehner or his replacement can muster the courage to control the uprising before it destroys the fabric of our system for the coming decades.   Let us hope that Cruz learns that hunger hurts and hurts children most.  Speak out and finance Tea Party opponents in coming elections.  Remember, money is free speech despite costs.

George Giacoppe
20 Oct 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

Are You Ready for Some Brain Damage

I have to be honest: I watch football on TV—a sport made for the screen. I watch the NFL games, especially if the San Francisco 49ers are playing, often watch Sunday Night Football (the successor to Monday Night Football and the allusion in my title) and I sometimes even watch college games. And when I was young and agile, I used to play a lot of sandlot football in our neighborhood. We played tackle without helmets or shoulder pads, and no one I knew ever got hurt because we were careful and friends and mostly not very fast or powerful. In high school, Friday night football games were the highlight: they were played in the cool, sometimes cold fall weather and all the girls I liked would huddle together with us in the stands and sometimes, after cherry cokes and fries in the local malt shoppe, let me drive them home with a stop at the park. So I’ve always liked the game. I like the skill displayed by the pros, the almost unbelievably balletic catches of today’s receivers and the stunning accuracy of today’s passers. I even like the bone-crunching hits on runners or wide receivers, when they’re clean.

            After watching “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline two nights ago, though, I’m ready to swear off the whole thing. Actually, I and most people I knew swore off pro football once before—during the Vietnam War protests—when football was so tightly allied with the flag wavers that it became nauseating to watch. And in truth, that connection still reigns today, because the ethic of dominating your opponent stands as a perfect symbol of the imperial attitude America imposes on the rest of the world. We are the one superpower, what we say goes, we are the USA and are trained from cradle to grave in the indomitable will to win, to persevere through injuries and pain, to gut it out, whatever the cost.

            What League of Denial showed was just what the cost really is, and has always been. Based on the book of the same name by brothers Steve and Mark Fainaru, the documentary focuses on the growing body of evidence proving that it is not just exceptional injuries that damage players’ brains; it is the routine slamming of heads together, in every game, and in practice, thousands of times in a season, with a force of 20 Gs (like hitting a wall at 35 mph), that eventually leads to CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a disease that was once thought to plague mainly professional boxers, the vivid case being Muhammad Ali in his later, painful-to-watch years. But as League of Denial demonstrates, it is football players who are being affected more and more. Part of this stems, ironically, from the helmets players use to protect their heads from injury. The problem is—and when we played without helmets, we knew this instinctively, and so were careful—the helmet provides not only a false sense of security; it also gives defensive players a weapon. And so, the ideal for a lineman—these guys carry 350 pounds, these days, on 6’5” to 6’8” frames—or a linebacker or even a defensive back is to drive with full speed and power into whoever is carrying or trying to catch the ball. The aim is to rock the ball-carrier’s world to the extent that he won’t be able to concentrate on the ball so much next time. Players call the resultant disorientation from one of these head hits “getting your bell rung.” If a player like a quarterback gets blindsided, his spine can be crumpled by the blow. Both Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 49ers sustained such hits, the one on Young portrayed in the documentary giving him his 7th concussion, his last. Despite his love of the game, Young never played again.

            The type case in League of Denial, though, is Mike Webster, the all-star defensive center for the great Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s. Watching it is enough to make you wretch. This giant of a man, with a will of steel, died at age 50, looking like a 70-year-old. He had seventy herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs, and teeth he maintained in his head with super-glue. His marriage fell apart when he could no longer remember what he was saying from one minute to the next and had outbursts of unexplainable rage. In 1997, broke and living in his car, Webster tried to get disability compensation from the NFL Retirement Board. The NFL fought Webster’s claim with everything it had—knowing that to admit that football causes brain damage could cost them millions—but finally granted Webster disability payments in 2000. Sadly, the great center had only two more years to live. That might have been the end of it, but a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennett Omalu, asked to examine Webster’s brain. Being Nigerian-born, Omalu didn’t quite understand what a hornet’s nest he would be opening. Long story short, Omalu found unmistakable signs of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain.

            Even this, though, was no match for the public relations power of the National Football League—an industry worth billions. Omalu’s results were ridiculed, his background was belittled, and the medical “doctors” running the league’s so-called investigations into concussions produced their own “studies” proving that no linkage between football and CTE could be established. It should be said that even today—with all the pretend precautions that are now taken: penalties established for “head hits” and players forced to rest after anything resembling a head hit, and including funds for retired players to help them in their disabilities—the National Football League still refuses to accept the direct connection between football and severe brain injury, CTE. The really sad part is that some of the major researchers now working on the problem—Dr. Ann McKee, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher at Boston University medical center who was asked if she’d like to examine the brains of football players; and Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard player and author of Head Games, now a leading advocate finding the brains of dead players for Dr. McKee to examine—are convinced that it is not just professional football players who are at risk. Literally all football players are at risk. McKee herself has examined 46 ex-players and found 45 with CTE! Two high-school players were among them. And what Nowinski says is that even kids in the little leagues that dot America are risking brain damage in later life if they continue to play the game as it is now played.

            This gets to the real point for me. Football can be played as a game. But in the United States these days, football has become a killer sport. Coaches teach players to “hit” their opponents with maximum force. To knock them out of the game. Which is to say, to cripple them. They belittle those who don’t like to do this. They reward those who do. Recently, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for tolerating his defensive coach’s offering his players a “bounty”—extra money—for knocking key opponents out of the game. This kind of vicious attitude filters all the way down to the pee wee leagues. And when players wear these helmets that serve as weapons, as battering rams, and delight in and are made heroes for blindsiding an opponent, the inevitable result is constant blows to the head, and eventual brain damage. For many, this is just the price to be paid for playing a “contact” sport. I profoundly disagree, and I’m hoping lots of people watch the Frontline documentary (, and lots of parents get horrified enough to keep their kids from playing the game in any organized fashion.

            I also hope that some, at least, begin to see that there is a dangerous connection here to our culture at large. The emphasis on winning at all costs, the insanity of encouraging young men to hit and cripple their opponents in that effort to win, reminds me of both the same attitude drilled into our military—the language of football is decidedly military: “blitzing” a quarterback, for example, harks back to the Nazis—and into the masters of corporate America. The trouble is, crippling opponents is accompanied by the inevitable “blowback.” Those who spend years using their heads as battering rams end up with brain damage. Those who spend their lives abiding by the ethic of anything goes in order to make a profit end up crippling the very planet that makes their blind quest to be “number one” possible. Sometimes, in fact, I think our entire culture, including the yahoos now holding our government ransom, is suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, October 07, 2013

Why Government is Essential to Prosperity

For the past eighty years the Republicans have opposed nearly every significant effort to help people in poverty and establish a social safety net.  And while I don’t want to be too heavy on statistics they are often what you need to prove the case. I use Wikipedia whenever possible so I‘m consistent and am not picking and choosing my facts.  Poverty is often a reflection of the economic system you are using.
   Let’s start with a little background on economic systems.   Many tribal societies didn’t even use money.  Everyone shared or everyone fell on hard times.  When the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire in 1533 they brought something the empire had not know in over a hundred years, permanent poverty to a whole class of people.  Poverty was common in feudal societies and income inequality was high when we were a British colony since they were more concerned with their welfare than yours.  Laissez faire capitalism was an improvement in that it built a middle class and improved living conditions through technology, but still levels of income inequality and poverty were very high. Laissez Faire capitalism means a minimum amount of government intervention in the economy and that is what we had to a large degree until 1933.  There was some progress with labor demanding decent wages and working conditions in the 1880‘s with the Knights of labor and the American Federation of Labor.  Still, there was little in the way of legal remedies to protect workers from being fired, beaten or killed.  Until the Income Tax Amendment in 1913 the government had little money to spend on social programs.  Lincoln passed a temporary income tax to fund the Civil War.  However, there was little government did to alleviate poverty.  There was no minimum wage, no 40 hour work week, no overtime pay and child labor laws were late in coming.  Remarkably Republicans are continually trying to move our economy backward to the gilded age and the world of the robber barons.  The whole tea party and libertarian concept of  small government with a minimum of government restriction on what people could do is what we had until 1933.  They say that the definition of insanity is you keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  Republicans say if we shrink government everything will be fine, but the problem is that for the first 140 years of our government 55 of those years produced economic recession or depression.  So, we tried that for a very long time and it finally took the Great Depression of 1929 for people to realize we had to try something different that would work for everyone not just the wealth few.
     The result was a new system of socialistic capitalism that established the modern social safety net that grew the middle class and lifted families out of poverty.  As much as Republicans railed against creeping socialism it also worked to create more wealthy people at the top.
   The reason I picked 80 years ago is because Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression, when it seemed like the country was falling apart.  I remember my mother telling me that everything was dirt cheap, but when you have no money you can‘t buy anything no matter how cheap it is.  Roosevelt transformed the Democratic Party and built the social safety net that Americans depend on today.  Roosevelt and the Democrats were responsible for Social Security, the minimum wage, the 40hour work week, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, unemployment compensation and protections for workers right to collective bargaining.  He used government to put over three million Americans back to work.  My father was one of them.  Harry Truman carried on those policies with the Fair Deal  and Lyndon Johnson solidified those policies with his Great Society programs that included Medicare.
   I have studied the patterns of  recession and prosperity that our country has gone through over the past 224 years since Washington took office in 1779.  Before 1929 there were long periods of economic recession.  The year after Washington took office there was a recession from 1790 -1794 and a six year recession from 1815 -1821.  U. S. Grant, the first Republican to follow Lincoln, had a recession of 5 years six months and was reelected.  Chester Arthur, another Republican, had one 3years and 7 months.  The federal government back then didn’t feel poverty was their problem to solve, despite the Constitution stating that the government should provide for the general welfare.  In this regard Democrats weren’t that much better than Republicans.  But all that changed with the election of Roosevelt.
   Republicans say they are the pro business and prosperity party, but the facts show that simply isn’t true.  After Roosevelt, if you add up all the time this country has been in recession under Democratic and Republican presidents you find that during the past 68 years the economy has been in recession under Democratic presidents one year and 11 months and under Republican presidents seven years and 6 months.  During the eight years of dynamic economic growth when Clinton was president his economic plan passed without one single Republican vote. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson didn’t have recessions and the six month recession under Carter was a result of the OPEC oil embargo.  Reagan was the one Republican not to have a recession although his deregulating the Savings and Loan industry caused a $50 billion government bailout.
    Ever since the early 1970s the gap between the very rich and the poor has grown dramatically. While inequality has grown in most developed countries in the United States it has grown the most.  Inequality is highest in Chile, Mexico, Turkey and the US.  Much of this is due to individual tax rates falling dramatically from 91% in 1950 to 35% in 2008,
   The federal poverty line is $15,510 a year for a full time minimum wage worker with one dependant.  46 million Americans live in poverty and over 1,500,000 are homeless.  Recently the Republican House voted 217 to 210 along party lines to cut $4 billion a year from food stamps for each of the next ten years.
   Other countries have lower rates of poverty than us.  In Canada it is 12.6%, Britain 9.7% , Germany 5.6% and Norway 5.2 because government works.  Republicans seem offended if you point out the fact that we have some very serious problems in this country related to income inequality.  Its not unpatriotic to admit that we are not the shining light of the world in every respect and that we might learn something valuable from other countries.
    We could not exist as an affluent society without government jobs and government programs.  Government should have a moral obligation to provide opportunity and security to its citizens.  That’s what they have done in other countries and lately we have failed to do here.  Private industry, which the Republicans call the engine of job growth, has no such obligation to our citizens.  As before 1933 their concern was to make as much money while paying workers as little as possible.  The only reason this has changed is because government has forced them to treat their workers more fairly and to be more responsible.  The magical hand of the free market is, like most magic; largely an illusion.  Historically it has proved to be inconsistent and unreliable without government intervention.

David Silva

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Temple Veil

Anyone who’s been following the world scene in recent years knows that a great deal of attention is being paid to “the system” and what might be done to heal or supersede it. Capitalism has had free rein since the dissolution of communism in the late 1980s, but with its recurrent crises, especially the financial collapse that struck in 2007, growing numbers of economists and thinkers have been questioning whether the capitalist system that brought such a disaster to so many is viable any longer; and if it isn’t, what can replace it and by what means. These questions are of course reinforced by the increasing fears about global warming, ecological disasters, the depletion and acidification of the oceans, overpopulation, and other seemingly inevitable products of an out-of-control system which considers disasters like pesticide poisoning “externalities,” of no account to those who profit by it.

These questions have been amplified for me by two books I’ve read recently—Zealot, by Reza Aslan, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy—and by the pronouncements of Pope Francis about the need for the Roman Catholic Church to not only focus on the poor, but also take on a global system that has made money its god. Though not obviously related, the convergence of Aslan’s conclusions about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Tolstoy’s late life obsessions about how to change a system in Russia that cruelly exploited the masses, and Francis’ concern about the dominance of Mammon all speak to a single issue: the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of changing the world, reality, life as it usually is, i.e. skewed to the immense advantage of a few at the expense of the many. How is this to be done? And is it worth trying to do, given the continual failure of all historical attempts at it; and, crucially, without adopting the very practices of those in control—violence and murder and vicious repression that always lead to the replacement of an existing hierarchy with even more repressive hierarchies?

In truth, I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the appeal of just such violence: fantasizing about some assassin or group of assassins who can be dispatched to pick off heads of corporations, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs or Chase or Monsanto, Tea Party frauds fronting for the Koch brothers to cripple government, and so on. It often seems the only way to deliver some sort of justice to the pigs and murderers who always manage to slip away.

Thankfully, these thoughts, though they recur often, don’t last very long. Because I am mostly a pacifist to begin with; and because such violence rarely accomplishes anything but repression more savage than what pertained before. So what then? Is one to simply tend to one’s own garden, take up practices that ease the pain and/or insulate one from daily outrages, and let the world go on its merry way? In short, the options for revolutionaries—and Reza Aslan insists that Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, a revolutionary, an adherent of the sect called “zealots” whose constant aim was to rid Jerusalem of Roman occupation and the Temple of mercenary high priests in order to literally restore the Kingdom of the Jewish God in the Holy Land—have always been basically twofold: either take up arms and fight the oppressors with the same weapons they use, i.e. revolutionary violence; or, provide the masses with both insulation against this basically corrupt and insignificant life, and a consolation prize in the next, i.e. the kingdom of heaven in which justice will finally be done and the blessed will reign in peaceful, perpetual joy.

According to Aslan, the followers of Jesus, most specifically St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), chose the second option. Along with the evangelists who wrote the four accepted gospels years after Jesus’s death without ever seeing him, Paul (who never saw him either) changed the mission of Jesus to one aimed not at fellow Jews but at gentiles, at Romans—the very imperialists who occupied and then destroyed Jerusalem—who were to become the core followers of Christ. And the message became one that imaged Jesus as the literal Son of God (he always referred to himself as the Son of Man) who had come to save all people and provide them with direct access to God, and the promise of eternal life to come. One way or the other, the message of Jesus the revolutionary who strove to overturn the existing political and religious order became the message of Jesus the Christ whose defeat of death pronounced the Kingdom of God not on earth, but in heaven. One of the major symbols of this transformation, according to Aslan and the New Testament itself, was the tearing of the veil in the Jerusalem Temple at the very moment that Christ died on the cross. This veil, in the Holy of Holies, traditionally separated God from his people, and could only be breached by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, when he would sacrifice specific animals as a way of atoning for the sins of humanity. Pauline Christianity claimed that this separation of humans from God had been bridged by Christ’s death, by his sacrifice. Through him, all humanity now had direct access to God through the regular re-enactment of his sacrifice. That enactment, in the Catholic mass, is called “communion.” The word is critical, for in my opinion, it speaks to a central problem of humanity and this essay: how to heal the rift, that all of us feel, between our normally functioning selves, and what we might call godhead, or Mind, or Nature, or the Cosmos. Revolution is really about this. So is art. So is the act of love. So are such mundane delights as singing in a choir, going crazy in a crowded stadium over a sports contest, or demonstrating en masse for peace and justice. All are attempts to find a way to heal the conditions in the world so that human reality is not so focused on looking out for number one, so divorced from compassion for others, so apparently separate and alienated from all existence (the veil, or parochet, in the Temple of Jerusalem was “a constant reminder that sin separated people from the presence of God.”) And though it does not seem so at first, the healing of the separation felt by individuals is roughly equivalent to healing the economic and political crisis in the world. For if the inequalities in the world could be healed, it would bring about the same “kingdom” as would healing the separation each of us feels from that world.

Count Leo Tolstoy was obsessed with this problem. In a Russia that was seething with the unrest of recently-liberated serfs who still lived lives of absolute misery and subjection as peasants, Tolstoy tried to find a way to transform the injustices perpetrated by his own class—whose lives of obscene luxury were based on the slavery of the masses. Though he was the world-renowned author of two of the greatest novels ever penned—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy could not accept his inherited privilege while so many lived in misery. He wrote Resurrection to address this issue, and in it—the story of a Russian prince who, serving on a jury, recognizes one of the accused, who turns out to have been the servant whom he seduced as a youth and abandoned, thus turning her into a prostitute—he writes savage critiques of the members of his own class who collude in a system of punishment and exploitation that violates every principle of the Christianity they purport to live by. He has Prince Nekhlyudov try to amend his life and compensate for his youthful sin by accompanying the woman, Maslova, to her hard labor in Siberia where he vows to marry her. But in the end, she refuses him, and marries another, and he is left deprived of his ‘noble’ sacrifice and condemned to return to his not-so-noble life, chastened mainly in the realization that no one has the right to condemn others. In sum, Tolstoy doesn’t provide any easy answers to the problem of class exploitation or the suffering of the world. He didn’t find easy answers in real life either, for although he renounced his rights to his books, and renounced violence and organized government as well—inspiring Gandhi himself—he never could really solve the problem noted above: without using violence, how overturn a corrupt system? How find one’s true self when that self is indelibly shaped by and thus alienated by selfish concern? The imminent Russian revolution, of course, did use violence and did overturn the corrupt system Tolstoy hated; but for many, the system it substituted for the ancien regime was more corrupt, violent and self-destroying than what it replaced.

This brings us to the question at hand. How do we heal the gulf between what we feel we truly are and the separation and objectification of all else that daily life seems to demand? This is really what the word ‘religion’ tries to get at: it derives from the Latin religare, meaning to tie back, or re-bind, thus making ‘religion’ the re-linking or re-connecting of humans with God, with all else, and ultimately with what we are. This is the task of Christianity, though as anyone who has ever taken communion knows, the alleged re-connection it provides rarely works and never lasts—as attested to by how quickly I and everyone I knew, right after imbibing the holy host, relapsed right back into the same sins we had just confessed. Buddhism takes on this same task, and though it is not a religion that commands belief in a god (the standard definition of religion), nor with the idea that humans exist in a fallen state due to some original sin that requires a re-uniting, its prescription for this problem still involves the idea of separation. That is, according to Buddhism, our felt separation from the world is not the fault of the world, or even of sin, but of our misperception. All of us. It is a delusion; a product of ignorance, of our small, self-absorbed brains taking the world for an object outside us, to be controlled or conquered in our short-term interest, rather than as the ground of our being from which we are not separate at all, or ever have been. What Buddhism offers are practices designed to help us realize that we are not truly separate, never have been, never could be. Though our brains are geared to create this sense of separation to enhance our survival, it is not the whole story or even the most important one. This realization itself, when it comes, or rather when it is yielded to, constitutes the re-connection.

Of course, some would argue that this is nothing more than the same old promise of a future state—realization or enlightenment—which solves the problem by ignoring the world and its trials and tribulations. And for some, it no doubt is: an attempt to escape from the problems of the world rather than confront them; a solution for the wealthy, high-minded few, leaving the rest of humanity to itself, praying for it, perhaps, sending it good vibes, but in truth placing the hope for a solution in the gradual and necessarily distant transformation of all, one by one, into a future, more compassionate world. For others, though, it could mean that the realization of non-separation leads not to quietism but to militant, non-violent resistance—the determination to alleviate the mass objectification of others, but without resorting to violence or putting it off till the millenium. Still, the record of such resistance is not encouraging and, particularly in our time, where governments have less hesitation than ever about murdering or jailing protesters no matter how peaceful, not likely to provide much solace.

In short, there seems no effective, much less lasting solution to the problem of the world. Which, in the end, may be a solution in itself. The world, that is, if seen aright, is not something to be solved; human nature is not something to be solved; cruelty and injustice and death are not aberrations to be corrected. They are the conditions that we know and accept as living beings. So long as we living beings are alive, we will be driven by the conditions of life—the fears, deeply embedded by evolution in our brains, of being consumed or absorbed or defeated or getting the short end of life’s stick. And all we can do is become ever more aware of these drives, and try to avoid both poles of the apparent solution: killing or eliminating those with whom we disagree; or withdrawing our commitment to the living and putting our hopes in some future, more pleasant state. Neither will do. Both are ultimately fantasies. So is the idea that something, somewhere back in prehistory or some imagined garden, went wrong, and thus can be put right. The chan master Huang Po had a great metaphor for this search for what went wrong, what is wrong, and what we can do to right it. ‘You are like a man,’ he said to his students once, ‘who has a precious jewel on his forehead, and who exhausts his life searching for it, longing for it, fighting for it, none of which does a bit of good. For all along, this precious jewel has been there for all to see, for you to enjoy, only you didn’t know it.’ Huang Po’s apparently lost jewel is like our feeling of alienation from the world, of separation: we think we are separate, we feel the discomfort of being so, and so use all our powers to find its cause and divert it or bridge it, and it has been nothing but our illusion all along. We are not separate; the world is not fallen; we are not sinful beings separate from a fallen world. We are precisely that world and it is us. Which means that it is only in this world, with all its apparent flaws, that we find ourselves. Not by trying to destroy it or those who screw it up; or by ignoring it for some pie-in-the-sky to come; but by coming to see it as it is in all its fullness—sometimes glorious and sometimes wretched, sometimes needing our neglect and sometimes needing our help—but never distant, never separate at all; rather as identical to who and what we are.

This is not easy. Nor is it necessarily lasting, or proof against despair. Criminals and charlatans always arise; banksters always get away with murder because their money buys them influence and immunity; and because the public swallows their diversions eagerly. But sooner or later, the world produces a reaction, the whole corrupt charade is exposed to view, the system begins to fail, the empire begins to disintegrate. Something like that seems to be happening now, and it is that unpredictable natural reaction, the response of the world—as for a brief moment, the Occupy Wall Street movement responded—to unsustainable excess and over-reaching that we can count on. Take part or not take part, the reaction will sooner or later do its work. And though it may not be comfortable, even for those who have predicted it, wished for it, the destruction too will have to be accepted as part and parcel of the whole. Of that continually changing process that we all, individually and collectively, are.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Syria and the Next Crusade

Syria is a bloody mess
Set up by the French and the Brits
Who will never confess
Being the source for all of its fits
A colony fit for a king
A king with guns and some moxie
Far away from Damascus
Who then can rule it by proxy
With knaves and lackeys who ask us
Is this for a pound to be made
Or the eighth and final Crusade?
The nation is odd and complex
And yet will certainly vex
Saints and sinners alike
As they painfully battle the hex
While their armies go south for a hike

There have been seven Christian Crusades to retake the Holy Land from the infidels…no, not those infidels, but the Seljuk Turks and other Muslims who felt oppressed by still other Muslims.  Keep your infidels straight, please.  Centuries after the seventh Crusade that ended in 1250, we reentered the bazaar only to enter the bizarre.  In the mid nineteenth century much of Europe began modern conquests in Africa.  The British and French, at the height of their imperial watermarks in the late1800s and early 20th century created colonial governments in what we now call Iraq and Syria.  They both  forced out the Ottomans and went headlong into creating loyal governments.  The French, without much effort against the Ottomans, became settled in Syria and Lebanon just prior to WW I.  Think carefully now, the Crusades started in approximately 1190 and ended in 1250, but the colonial nightmare of the middle east began in about 1850 and did not end until the 1920s when Europeans established weak governments that were based on the local social elite but owed loyalty to a European country.  We think of the Crusades as an era in history, but European occupation of the Middle East as a transitory event.  The latter actually took more time.  Italians and Belgians and Germans joined in the party along with the French and British.

The creation of weak governments also continued relationships with Europeans that brought trade and profits to the European creators.  Markets and even some cheap labor rewarded the European efforts handsomely.  If you define slavery as humans being involuntarily exploited, and include economic slavery, then emancipation came slowly, if at all. Social slavery as a political policy is still legal in parts of the world, but economic slavery is growing around the world and it may have roots in the notion of colonialism. This de facto slavery is equally onerous and yet it has become so common that we have become inured.  Given the relentless threat of disclosure and deportation, when men and women in the US can only work “under the table” where they are usually paid less than minimum wage, they are afraid to complain or to notify authorities.  That essentially describes economic slavery in other parts of the world. Under the guise of “economic freedom,” legislators are loathe to interfere, so the practice continues.  Unfortunately, the economic freedom they espouse is only for the employers and not the workers.  Protection is boldly absent in immigration legislation, for example.  Note that recently, our House of Representatives agreed to only spend more money for privatizing border security not for providing safeguards for workers.  In the Middle East, the monied gentry and  the connected were granted control by their departing European masters.  This left the local politics to control the economics. The entire Middle East is still teaming with haves and have-nots created in the vacuum of European departure.  The Saudis (one nation allowing social slavery) were blessed with oil under their soil.  This hastened the economic development of the princes, yet did little for the poor and encouraged slavery by the wealthy.  In 1960, Saudi Arabia had about 300,000 slaves.  In other Islamic nations such as Mauritania and Senegal, the numbers are still astronomic.  Given that slavery is permitted by law and encouraged by economic conditions, rescuing slaves by purchase seems to be a fool’s errand that is also a bottomless economic pit.  The money holders are the slaveholders.  You need to outbid the slave masters to free a slave.  Property rights trump human rights and money rules.

Why bring up all that history?  Well, the have-nots are angry and they are organized and they are just as religiously fanatic as their economic masters.  The past couple of years of “Arab Spring” activity illustrates the problem.  Unfortunately, you can’t tell the players with or without a scorecard.  The number of social, religious and economic factions in Syria are legion.  Nobody has the latest social map of the nation.  The Assads have ruled the nation for decades and have made and broken alliances continuously over their period of control.  History books blithely call this “government by patronage.”  It is that, but the patrons and protégés are constantly changing.  Add to this mix, the lethal sectarian hatred and the strong racial components like Arabs versus non-Arabs and language differences and finally the political proxy system and we have uncontrollable chaos.  The Saudis have their proxies in Syria as do the Russians, the Iranians, the Europeans and the Israelis and even Americans to a lesser degree.  Proxies provide arms and transportation to fanatics as well as money and information and technology.  The lower social standing of Shiites compared to the more entrepreneurial Sunni is a constant source of friction, but it is far from the only one.  Even the most minor sectarian differences can provoke a bloody conflict.  Assad and his secret agents are exclusively Alawite (Alawi).  Alawites are followers of Ali and trace their lineage back to the 8th century. This minority represents about 12% of the Syrian population and yet they were “chosen” by the French to serve in their Army to support French interests.  Surprise!  By being trained in the French military, this hated minority was able to rule Syria when the French departed.  They were trained in the military and probably learned to drink French wine that is anathema in most Islamic sects where alcohol is forbidden.  Alawites are unique in the sense that their sect is secretive and their rituals and practices are not shared even with uninitiated Alawites.  We tend to oversimplify Muslim sects and Syria is far more complex than the newspapers or cable TV pretends.  We see Christians as endangered due to their current decline, but in history, Maronite Christians were guaranteed the number two spot in ruling Lebanon that has been a vassal state of Syria at least since its creation in the twenties.  The French created that governing precedent before they left.

Hezbollah is a Shia military and humanitarian organization operating in Syria and supported by Iran, yet Assad has provided them sophisticated equipment including tanks to help protect its regime. The Syrian revolution is not made up of a single political force but a coalition of several political and military groups, some of which are foreign.  It is impossible to separate pro-Assad and anti-Assad components in any assessment of Syria.  Alliances are very temporary and even al Qaeda is operating in Syria with probable assistance from both Saudi Arabia and Iran thus mixing Arab and non-Arab groups which confuses westerners trying to depose Assad.  The chemical weapons used by Syria were probably created with the assistance of Russia and hundreds if not thousands of Russians are stationed as advisors in Syria, but the secrecy of the weapons is maintained by pro-Assad Alawite security forces.  This helps explain why the Russians were anxious to stop other outside intervention beyond their own.  It does nothing to improve the Assad record for killing Syrians.  The disunity of left and right within the opposition forces, does nothing to defeat Assad.

The current conditions in Syria and neighboring Lebanon can be described as a civil war, but that implies a defined opposition group.  There is none.  This lack of unified opposition helps guarantee the continuation of power by Assad for months if not years and should one group become pre-eminent, it will ensure continued strife as new alignments are created.   Millions of Syrians are already displaced and surely more than 100,000 Syrians have already been killed.

At this juncture, no one of the European nations that once played for the Crusaders wants to venture in as a peace-keeping force and for good reason since no score card identifies the teams to be separated.  Obama wisely has avoided boots on the ground and was fortunate to have Russia broker a deal on chemical weapons to keep our planes from Syrian airspace.

All we can do, and, at last, this is my recommendation, is to protect the civilians who are doing their best to flee the continuing and worsening conflict.  We need to get with neighboring Turkey and through the UN, and any nation interested in humanitarian causes, finance and manage the protection of civilians a little further into Turkey where they will no longer be in range of Syrian artillery fire and will have shelter, food and medical care in the numbers needed to sustain life until the bloody and evil opportunism that is Syria is ended.  It matters not who wins.  Right now, all the people are losing…everything from property to life.  At some point, the temporary political and military alignments will solidify and chaos will be reduced enough to support changes.  It will never be smooth. It will never satisfy all the factions.

Winter is coming.  Chemical winter is no better than nuclear winter.  Clothe the naked; feed the hungry; bind the wounds of the injured and stay the hell out of Syria.  That is really what the original Crusaders could have been instead of marauders in the Holy Land who copied the tactics of the Muslim invaders of Europe.  Let us make the 8th Crusade one that does no harm and might save a few souls in the process.

George Giacoppe
30 Sep 2013