Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Brave New Future of 2006

Barely two days before the new year the future that looms seems ever ominous.

FORBIDDEN IDEAS -- With more than 100 million users, the Internet is booming in China. The American Web giants Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have all grabbed a piece of the lucrative Chinese market - but only after agreeing to help the government censor speech on the Web.

So goes an item in a New York Times op-ed retrospective. One woman on a list hilariously commented: "Next thing we know, the Vatican will be after us for daring to even consider the ordination of women."

Growing up Catholic, I always found it fascinating as a teenager to observe the similarities between the methods of control of the Catholic Church and those of the modern totalitarian state. Vatican tampering of the historical record, silence and purge dissenting thought, its invention of propaganda fidei, and so forth have their parallels -- and may well have been the models for -- book burning and censorship, the periodic purging of party faithful (see the night of the long knives in Germany or the Kirov purges in the USSR, in the same fateful 1934), and the incessant blaring propaganda of the National Socialist and Communist Parties, respectively.

If the Church has abandoned the more physically coercive methods of the past, it's because they don't work. You don't get assent by torture, you merely get outward submission with inward mental reservation -- a technique developed by the Jesuits under persecution in England that gave rise to the pejorative adjective "jesuitical."

Instead, the Church now prefers to cleverly train its members in double-think from childhood. For those who grow up to think for themselves, the Curia uses economic punishments and incentives -- ask any theology professor after Ex Corde Ecclesia, John Paul II's decree that bishops must periodically certify theologians to teach.

The modern totalitarian state has followed suit. China, for example, now uses mostly economic and passive forms of control -- such as curbing the Web in its corner of cyberspace.

Indeed, that's the form of the future and why Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" is a more likely prophecy than George Orwell's "1984," which was really a depiction of postwar Stalinism and McCarthyism with a little science fiction thrown in.

Why bully people into doing something half-heartedly when you can turn their minds so that they'll beg to do what you want? Madison Avenue refined that approach into an art.

Remember all those people fighting each other at stores to part with their money in exchange for gadgets and trinkets to put under their Christmas trees or Hanukkah bushes or whatever? Yep, that's it.

This is part of why it should be no surprise that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google are falling over each other to make money acting as proxies for the totalitarian-minded Chinese political leadership. Business here acts as proxies for the U.S. government, doesn't it? Isn't the Iraq War a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton?

Indeed, here in the "democracies" is where totalitarianism thrives unchecked and even unnoticed. You don't thinks so? Take a small check of where power lies and how it is structured.

The government is, in theory, elected and representative. But, then, what about the elections of 2000, in which a majority of Americans got a president they didn't vote for, and the squeaker of 2004 that suggests that very close to half the population really don't approve of the Bush regime? So, not so elected.

As to representative, Congress just passed cuts in medical services and aid to the 15 percent poorest people to give huge tax cuts to the 2 percent richest! Robin Hood in reverse rules the land. It's the best Congress money can buy, as advocates put it. See for yourself, right here.

In any case, the government is not the most powerful entity in the land, laws to the contrary. No, the real power resides in corporate boards. Who are these white, male (almost exclusively, except for token show) faceless corporate directors who really run the country with bland-sounding resolutions in finely appointed plush rooms? Who elected them? What is their agenda?

They're the folks who own Congress -- and the presidency and the legal system. That's the American totalitarian system of control.

Its methods are more subtle than the Gulag. Corporate totalitarianism sells gleaming products that cost less to make than you pay for ("profit") and last for a shorter period than you would really like ("planned obsolescence"). If you complain, you get "customer service" which is designed to drive you crazy so that you never get back what was yours. If something really goes wrong, they deny, deny, deny.

Ever notice what happens when there's an air crash, an accident, a defect in manufacturing? Regiments of lawyers trot out to gag everyone.

Freedom of the press? Oh, when it comes to government, more or less. But when it comes to corporations? You've got to be kidding.

Companies disclose the bare minimum in required papers they must file for investor information. Try filing a freedom of information act request with a corporation to find out whether they really fouled up a river or gouged consumers or advertised falsely. When did you last see a newspaper or television news program aggressively investigate any of its adverstisers' business practices?

We are already slouching toward the brave, brave new world in 2006.

Like Catholicism and the old, industrial forms of totalitarianism, the American Way of totalitarianism has its own rosy version of the truth-telling George Washington and honest Abe, its shunting off critics to the boring dull sidelines, and its blaring, glaring stream of advertising, always repeating the same lies over and over again, until the biggest of all lies are believed.

The American totalitarian system -- which flourishes in every First World nation in the world and has other nations panting to get in -- is so good at its persuasion that it even finances, free, the expression of criticism such as this one. Looks good doesn't it? Freedom of expression in action, right?

Except when you turn on the television and the radio, and read the newspaper, you won't see any of this reflected there. Instead, everything written and said will assume the infallible theology of the great American Way.

I hand you now back to your regular programming.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Riddle Solved

Here, as a last-minute addition to the boxes under the Christmas tree, is this blog's gift: the puzzle of prejudice has been solved!

Why were there so many people, in comments here, or in e-mails private and public, seemingly unable to admit even the existence of prejudice -- racism, sexism and class elitism and its expression in the form of discrimination -- let alone that we all participate in this social problem to varying degrees? It seemed to me baffling that in 2005, three decades after Martin Luther King's campaigns, apparently educated Americans would seem unable to see what's in front of their eyes.

Like Anne's comment, many wanted to point somewhere else, even though I hadn't singled out the United States, but merely provided an American example. Of course racism, sexism and class elitism exist everywhere! I just started from our own commonplace.

The answer came on one list in which I participate: "It's hard for someone to admit he's benefited from prejudice since we all think we deserve what we have."

We're both Americans and I think he was writing about our common American experience, so I'll venture to say that this refers to the American response of denial and changing the topic. Prejudice in its American version is a uniquely Calvinist sin of pride: we think we're more powerful and richer because we're one of God's elect.

It's what's meant when people say "I am proud to be an American." (And it's what they used to say out loud about being white, Gentile, male and so forth.)

You're proud, really? Did you choose where you were born? I don't remember getting to choose between New York City and New Dehli, Forest Hills or Harlem, educated and healthy parents or poor drug-addicted dropouts.

Yet by the sheer chance of the social and economic accidents of birth I was, in my crib, a potentate next to a contemporary born the same instant in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. How can I explain this? What do I do with it? You mean I didn't earn all I have and all my accomplishments?

As Stan said, I can decide that I'm really entitled to the benefits of being born to be of the class, income level and education and even sex that I was, or I can accept that I have benefitted all along by the fact that I didn't have to compete on a level playing field with millions others who weren't. And that's just the beginning.

Yet if I admit that prejudice benefits me ... hmm. That feels uncomfortable.

It's like finding out -- when I was a Christian -- that among the words of Jesus in the gospel is the following moral challenge: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me." (Matthew 19:21)

Gulp! Sell all I have and give it to the poor? The notion has dogged me for years.

Oh, yes, we can find a million ways to say it doesn't really mean anything and it applies to someone else. We're all geniuses at rationalizing. When I taught Sunday School, the children were always asking me for a loophole in the Sunday Mass obligation. I once pointed to a crucifix and said: "If some Sunday morning you wake up pretty much like the guy on that cross, you're excused from Mass." So I know that we adults can all tell ourselves racism exists somewhere else, so why bother, or why beat ourselves up since we're really pretty much like everyone else

But, wait! If we're pretty much regular folk like Iraqis, Kenyans and Bolivians, to name a few, how come we have all these privileges and they don't?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Naked Paradise

Declare that America is not quite the ethnic paradise the prophets of assimilation claim, and from the responses in various quarters of cyberspace, will come obvious expressions of discomfort and an inability to face facts. Not a pretty picture for this alleged season of peace.

First come the unasked-for declarations of ethnic pedigree --- what's that about?

"All I gotta say is I'm an Irishman.. yes.. Irish and a Male.. Oh my what a sin that is." "I was born here, so am potentially dual nationality. Currently with a EU (British) passport." "My name is Steve and I am a WASP. Ok it's out there. I feel good..."

Second come the defenses --- denial, denial, denial.

"I am hispanic and furthermore I have dialogued with X for the better part of 3 years now and have not in my experiences with him found him to be racist." "while i will disagree with X on the topic of racism, i do not now, or ever, see X as a racist."

Finally tumbles the blowback --- the targets of prejudice are to blame.

"All one has to do is read through lenses that are hypersensitive to any racial or gender assumptions." "The Human Resouces Dept. that was by the way all 'African American and Female' came down and issued rule books to us all ... what a bunch of Politicall Correct BS."

Only one person had the good sense to ask the question, "Why?"

My first guess is that, deep down, discrimination and ethnic prejudice has to do with a combination of inferiority complexes, fear, and falsehoods transmitted as tribal myths or stereotypes.

The man who sarcastically voiced his sense that being Irish and male was a "sin" was obviously feeling put upon. He almost seemed to be saying he was left out of the great bonanza of being a target of discrimination and one can imagine his prayerful plea to Martin Luther King next January 15, "Martin, why didn't you talk about the woes of the white Irish male?"

Funny as it may seem, this man is in pain. He feels cheated and threatened, he feels somehow secondary and inferior for not sharing the spotlight of the discriminated. Perhaps he feels he was passed over for a promotion because they chose someone darker than the foam of the Irish Sea.

One man I know experienced fear in his adolescence, when open housing laws made his neighborhood accessible to middle class blacks. Some time ago I made a bet with him. I would attend one of his pro-birth rallies (he called them "pro-life") if he could go for three weeks without saying a word that begins with N; I have never attended a rally of that kind, call it pro-life, pro-birth or pro-breakfast.

Everyone denies fear of the seemingly inexplicable Other. Especially men. Yet you can see fear in prejudice, especially in positive prejudice. For example, it's common to assume that all Asian-Americans are smart and hardworking techies, to the point that, as some Asian-descent people have confessed, they feel they have to meet impossibly high expectations. Why does this prejudice exist? Because fear of the "inscrutable yellow peril" can be assuaged by convincing oneself that they're all really harmless ubergeeks.

Finally, there's the unfounded myth or stereotype. One group is shiftless, another is greedy, yet another is cruel and violent; and they're all out to wipe out those of our kind, who were so much gentler, more civilized.

In the United States, the prevailing positive myth is that Britain is a civilizing nation, that Anglo-Saxon culture accounts at least in part for American wealth and that all who have assimilated and subsumed their culture, language and traditions to ape the Anglo-Saxon are better off. The negative side of the coin is that all others are somehow flawed.

History tells a different story. But that's a whole other post. Until then, we can muse on why we are all prejudiced in some measure. Me, too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Race, Ethnicity and the Internet

When Lapwing posted and blogged, men berated the author and demanded to know Lapwing's marital status and whether Lapwing had children. Now that Cecilieaux has taken Lapwing's place, the same men throw ethnic sneers.

Hard an act as it may be to follow one's Galatea, especially when one's blushing maiden turned her eyes away, she has made clear an ugly truth about U.S. society: there are in it too many puny who derive their self-esteem from seizing on traditional social prejudices against for the most part immutable characteristics of others.

When they were upstaged by Lapwing she was an uppity woman to put down; now Cecilieaux is the Spic too big for his breeches. They don't really know who the author of these posts and blogs are. They act on their base impulses and spew their venom.

This is what was once meant by the term "White trash." There's just too much of it, emboldened by the nods and winks of the those with power.

Racism, misogynism and homophobia are back. The puny white men who feel inadequate unless they use the stick of prejudice to keep another down are running amok.

The Christians are not calling them on it. The Republican Party, the organization of Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, which thrived on Southern resentment at the enactment and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is winking and nodding its approval so fiercely it seems to have developed a tic.

But Race in America is solved, isn't? That's the motto of every non-Hispanic white. "Me, racist? ...America is diverse now." But the white Protestant men of northwest European background are still the CEOs, the gated-community dwellers and the white, White House.

More ... they're working hard to turn back the clock.

They're defunding child care and instead want to spend money on getting fathers back into the workforce, so the little women can go back to the kitchen. (Never mind that no family can afford to live on one income any more.) They destroyed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Civil Rights Commission 20 years ago and they've gone after "affirmative action" with gusto.

Oh, they're very equal opportunity about one thing: sending African-Americans, Hispanics and women to die in Iraq so that one day ... (wait for it) ... Dick Cheney can get a monster thank-you check from Halliburton.

Friday, December 16, 2005

And, And, And

Such a wonder the circling ride of the Great Mandala!

You go round and round and you think you're coming to the same spot. You think you're stuck, just as in the song from which I take this space's new title.

Everyone I knew who heard "The House Song" always seemed to break out into a nostalgic sigh the minute Paul Stookey called out the first two lines:

This house goes on sale ev'ry Wednesday morning
And taken off the market in the afternoon.

What was so great about that? They couldn't make up their minds? Or break out of their pasts? The house was rickety? Yes, yes, yes and more. One definition of insanity is to repeat the same old thing, over and over again, expecting different results. We get seemingly stuck in the Mandala's circling motion.

Then we figure it out ... it's really a spiral, like the slinkies with which we used to play long ago. Each turn takes us to another level. Each return goes to a similar place. But we're really on a different plane.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Goodbye, Lapwing

Nothing quite ever heals the wound of abandonment by a parent, by a lover or spouse, by people thought of at some point as the closest human beings alive.

To be abandoned is a bit more than to be left, although that notion, too, is included. To be abandoned is to have support withdrawn despite duty, allegiance, or responsibility. To be deserted. To be given up on. To be seen as a sinking ship from whose danger or impending threat the other has chose to flee. To watch the other's interest decline to the point that it ceases to continue, leaving one wondering whether it ever was there.

To abandon is to relinquish ties, to yield oneself completely to other interests. The abandoner has better things to do, more intriguing people to use.

Lapwing is being abandoned, having been abandoned, and is curling up to muse alone.

Lapwing was, it is true, the play name of someone with whom I fell in love; it was self-deceptive to hang on to the moniker simply because the email address existed, because it sounded so much better, so much more acceptable than my own or the play names of my own devising.

I was abandoned by a parent, by a lover and spouse, by people thought of at some point as the closest human beings alive. People stink. Even I, when I take a good look (and a deep breath) ... I stink.

Before bidding Lapwing goodbye, a last word, because the original Lapwing never quite died or ever left the game. The Lapwing was a way for the one I fell in love with to cheat one's way out of a game of War.

You remember War? The children's game whose aim is to win all the cards by playing the highest card, one card at time. You divvied up the pack into two piles, face down and put them on the table. Whoever turned the higher card, won the hand, adding the two cards to the bottom of his or her pack. Remember how, if the turned up cards were equal, you said "I declare war" and laid down three cards face-down and then one face-up (and your opponent did the same)? Wasn't it such an incredible booty to win the whole lot?

Lapwing was a variation in which the low cards were set aside as a "reserve" for the loser. So the Lapwing would arise and fly at the end of a long summer game, especially if supper was not yet ready, to prolong the fun endlessly.

But now this game is over. So goodbye, Lapwing, goodbye.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Merry Christmas, heathen!

Google the news for controversy about Christmas and you get thousands of hits, from the story of the Jewish town supervisor in Manhasset, N.Y., who protested a Catholic priest's invocation of Jesus Christ at the blessing of a tree, to the Christian Right's ire at George W. Bush that the White House holiday cards are too secular.

Setting aside for another blog the reality that the Christian Right is neither, perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and examine the holiday a little closer.

Let's all consider the facts.

The original quintessentially Christian feast was Easter. In Mediterranean cultures Holy Week and Easter. These remained the most important religious feasts until their cocacolanization after 1945. Now, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires you find Christmas trees with cotton "snow" and a diminished attendance for the processions of Holy Week.

Christmas, which comes from the ecclesiastical, or linguisticallty corrupt, Latin christes masse (the Mass festival of Christ), came later. Some ancient Christian Fathers believed Jesus had been born in the summer.

In the West, Christmas began to be observed as a feast around the end of the 3rd century of our era. In the East, it was observed a century later, but on January 6th, the Epiphany, rather than on December 25th. According to Christian theology, Easter celebrates redemption from the consequences of wrongdoing, while Christmas recalls the incarnation, a word that expresses the specifically Christian notion that God chose to become human to bridge in one person the distance with the divine.

The specifically Christian Christmas artifact is the crêche, or Nativity scene, which includes a representation of the stable with a few animals, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a manger, angels, the three kings, and so forth. This was created in the 13th century by the very artistic St. Francis of Assisi, who also influenced church architecture to make places of worship more joyful.

Santa Claus is a modern version of St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop in Asia Minor (now Turkey), martyred in the persecution of Diocletian in the 4th century. Nicholas, heir to wealth, had become a bishop and gained renown for his generosity. He was revered in the Eastern churches as a protector of children. In the West, what reverence of the saint existed was stamped out by the Reformation. St. Nick as a Christmas figure traces back to German colonists in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, who may have brought over the Eastern custom from the provinces Germany acquired in the partition of Poland.

From its beginnings, however, the Christmas feast had non-Christian elements.

There is ample evidence that in Rome the original December Christian feast was designed to coincide and blot out a particularly riotous pagan feast, the Saturnalia. The solstice also was then the occasion for various forms of pagan merrymaking in pre-Christian Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic pagan focus on solstice merrymaking and fertility was presumably designed to offset the darkest, gloomiest days of the year in northwest Europe. The Tannenbaum as well as and the holly and ivy are Teutonic and Druid, respectively -- not Christian.

What has happened with Christmas in the United States and its cultural satellites is akin to the evolution of Jewish feast of Chanukah. Surrounded by supposedly Christian merrymaking and gift-giving of late December, some Jewish families decided to upgrade the commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple to a major feast. Among Ashkhenazic Jews, chanukah gelt and dreidls around the "chanukah bush" often make up for Jewish children the presents under the Christmas tree their Gentile peers receive.

How Jewish is that? The Judaism 101 site says: "It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar."

A similar point might be made about the Christian culture warriors who insist on fighting for the Christianity of Christmas. Is the strife consonant with the words of the Galilean woodworker who taught about turning the other cheek and loving enemies and persecutors? Didn't the Baby Jesus grow up to submit to torture and crucifixion?

For the rest of us, I have to wonder whether Christmas makes sense as a national holiday -- as anything other than a boon to retailers and credit card companies. Indeed, as Congress and the White House vie to cut aid to the poor to finance tax cuts for the rich, I do not find a celebration of the horn of plenty for the few a cause worthy of anything but shame.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Ordinary Special Friends

A conversation with a woman who is a therapist (but not my therapist) bids me to revisit my notion of the "special friend."

Last time I posted on this subject, I complained that the perfect special friend could not be found. A "special friend" -- a term whose coining I neglected to credit to my friend Lucy -- is that other person, usually of the opposite sex, in whom one's heart places fond hopes for enduring companionship and intimacy.

Nobody liked my complaint. I was picky, narcissistic, immature, the comments said. Maybe so. Maybe the perfect special friend, like the perfect person, does not exist. (Or, maybe, as one commenter suggested, true love is on its way by the solstice ... hmm.)

"But why can't I dream?" I asked myself.

My Self got an answer from my therafriend -- I'm coining this one right now myself -- who argued that, according to the theory underlining a psychological treatment called "dialectical behavior therapy," every aspect of personality has a positive and negative value at the same time.

For example, it's been argued that I am a highly emotional person (a drama monarch, some say). The resulting behavior can be positive or negative: the same emotionalism that makes me charming and charismatic, also turns me petulant and imperious when a different stimulus is applied.

Intriguing theory. Here are my two thoughts on it.

First, I have since learned that DBT was developed by Marsha Linehan as a way to treat what psychologists call "borderline personality disorder."

Between you, me and the fencepost, BPD is simply a way shrinks have of saying "we don't know what's wrong with this person, but he or she is willing to pay hundreds of bucks for thousands of hours of sitting in our office blabbering away, so let's not let on that we don't know." Linehan, indeed, has a brisk business selling books and tapes on the subject.

In brief, all of us with the hangnail equivalent of craziness -- and aren't we all a little crazy? -- have "bordeline personality disorder" and could benefit from the idea behind the "dialectical" therapy. However, once you boil it down, it's essentially common sense, like everything else in the social sciences. Common sense writ large, in multisyllabic words, by people with fancy degrees, charging $200 an hour.

Secondly, however, it begs the question to what happens to ethics and morals. Under Linehan's dialectics -- is she a Hegelian of the Left or the Right, I wonder? -- the positive or negative value seems to be determined by the functionality of the behavior. If it works for you and for others, it's positive.

I'm charming, you're charmed. Positive. I stamp my feet or raise my voice, you're annoyed. Negative. Purely utilitarian: the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

But is that how we should live?

I don't know and your 55 minutes are up.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Clouds of Unknowing

Upon giving a friend the Joni Mitchell CD Dreamland, one of her recent retrospectives, I happened upon three new gems: three old songs re-recorded in her now gravelly voice, with a full orchestra behind her.

I was particularly touched by the new version of "Both Sides Now." You know the song ... particularly the refrain

"I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all"

Behind it, this time, her voice seems more hesitant, as if she's really, really, really looked at things from various angles and concluded, as we all eventually do when wisdom begins, that she knows nothing at all.

Before, in her young and haunting voice, or in the orchestral arrangement once sung by Judy Collins in her young voice, the refrain was the fatuous claim of a youth. Yes, at 20-something, or even 10 or 20 years later, we think we've seen it all and we think we know it all.

Most of all, we think we're immortal and accordingly live hard.

But to really know requires being able to sing from experience as Joni now does: "So many things I would have done ..." To have regrets and should-have-beens -- in Joni's life perhaps it is the child she regretfully gave away for adoption in a turbulent time of her life. Even though the story had a happy ending, it takes living through it to realize that life is what happens when you had other plans.

That's more or less when it hit me: the retired musician Joni Mitchell ("I'm a painter now") now knows she is going to die.

Wouldn't it be something if, a few years before singing no more, each of us got a chance to sing one of our old compositions -- even a wordless, soundless song, in a medium other than music -- with a retrospective flair? What if we, too, had an orchestra backing us up, with a soulful clarinet wailing the lament that all the life's learning was only to arrive at not knowing life -- hit it, Joni -- "at all."

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Friend Indeed

A friend in need is a friend indeed, the saying goes, and this weekend I learned how true this is.

Saturday morning I experienced severe chest pains and was briefly hospitalized for what seemed to be a cardiac problem but turned out, thankfully, to be something quite different and treatable at home with medication. The interesting thing was the reaction of people close to me.

Not realizing quite what the pain was, and insistent on doing what others wanted me to do that day, I drove a young relative to his noon train out of town, a friend to a manicure and picked up another friend at one of our airports.

As I drove in pain, occasionally wincing and sighing, the first spoke of downpayments to buy real estate. I attribute his response to his 20-something youth. It takes age to respond with empathy to another's needs.

Still driving in pain, the second, manicure-bound friend, who had expressed concern about the youth missing the train when I called her about my pain, lamented that she wished she knew what to do.

The third friend, at last, began to tell the usual story of her flight and stopped in mid-sentence at my first wince ... "what's the matter?" From then on she lavished concern, empathy, and helped me navigate through the medical system.

If this were a parable, the storyteller might then ask, who was the friend indeed. Most readers won't need to think much about this.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

All things counter, original, spare

When Gerard Manley Hopkins thought of things to be thankful for, he composed an odd list:

"For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

"All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim ..."

I won't dare match him. Here's a more mundane, less pastoral list. I am thankful for:

the people who wake up earlier than me
to turn on running water and electricity and city buses and taxis
and traffic lights and traffic,
all so I can commute to work;

the privilege of being able to complain
about commuting to work
in one of the world's most
comfortable, green, designed cities;

novels (LeCarre, Crichton, Asis, Kazanzakis) and
The New Yorker and America and the nights
whiled away
absorbed in them;

Ludwig, my teenage Benz,
in whom the aesthetics of form and function
express the beauty of human minds;

Earl, may his karma keep on growing,
and Ephram and Amy, may they find true love,
and Luka and Abby, who may have found it,
and Bree and Susan, who will desperately keep searching;

those people important to me, you know who you are,
even if you've walked out on me,
or I've pushed you away,
or we haven't yet figured out
how to love and be loved.

That's it. Pass the pumpkin pie.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lapwing vs. Christians

The sheer mean spirit in which some responses to my last blog were written reinforces my point: Jesus may have been a nice guy, but you can keep his followers.

And no, the same is not true of all other religions.

Ariel Sharon and Meyer Lansky aside, most people will be hard put to find Jewish authors of murder.

Muslim caliphs were more tolerant of the "People of the Book" than the Christian kings of medieval England and renaissance Spain, both of whom expelled Jews, to the point that for 500 years under Muslim rule in the Balkans and the Mediterranean both Christians and Jews flourished.

Hindus are by teaching syncretistic. They have been more apt to absorb from other religions than to persecute. Granted, the British taught them a lot about ethnic hatred.

And where is the Buddhist massacre or slum or child-raping monk?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jesus vs. Christianity

What are we to make of the differences between the Jesus of the gospels, setting aside the historical questions, and the Christian religion?

Jesus presents himself as a charismatic rabbi who gives ambiguous signals concerning his own identity; Christianity asserts Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.

Jesus preaches a divine order that upturns the human order, particularly as regards socioeconomic privilege; Christianity feebly affirms almsgiving and sets up specialists of charitable doing, but entreats the bulk of its adherents to submit to the existing, unjust human order.

According to Jesus, religious ritual is almost invariably of secondary moral significance in a follower's way of life outside worship, in particular in relation to human needs; Christianity has developed elaborate rituals, rubrics and sacramental theologies and even sets apart its ritual leaders, creating a Sunday religion of empty gestures.

Jesus asserts that peacemakers are blessed and that if someone strikes your cheek, you should offer the other cheek to be stricken as well; Christianity blesses armies and the right to wage wars called "just."

Jesus tells his followers to rejoice in persecution; Christianity has persecuted those who do not adhere to its beliefs or its ecclesiastical rules and regulations.

Jesus in the gospels comes across as an impressive charismatic figure who nonetheless leaves the observer stunned, puzzled and thinking. Christianity comes across as a religion that provides some an entertainment to distract masses from the struggles of reality.

This fellow Jesus seems at least worth considering. Christianity, on the other hand, leaves a great deal to be desired.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In Memoriam

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange:
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
ding-dong!
Hark! Now I hear them,
Ding-dong, bell!

-- William Shakespeare

In memory of my father (1921-1980), who died Nov. 15.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Don't Cry For Me, Mar del Plata

Mar del Plata, known to Argentines as "La Ciudad Feliz" (The Happy City), became an unhappy place last week. The middle class resort of choice for roughly a century hosted a summit conference on trade and a popular stadium rally to decry the globalization of greed for the few and poverty for the many. The metropolis also became the site for the overshadowing violent acts of a few who seem unconnected to either peaceful assembly.

Who were these rowdies and why were they there?

My Argentine sources tell me this is part and parcel of what has been going on for several years at least. The party or candidate most likely to benefit from the appearance of disorder hires a bunch of thugs to go smash things while political events are going on. Citizens engaged in the peaceful expression of grievances get branded as "violent," when in fact the violence comes from the established order.

Agents provocateurs.

The French is not incidental. The use of agents paid to provoke violence, to "force" the hand of the law to come down with its full complement of counterviolence, was first documented in the 19th century uprisings in France, in which the government sent spies to falsely radicalize action and create an excuse for repression.

If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, it is because Argentina has long been influenced by the styles of France, in politics as in fashion. Peronists, in particular, with a history leading back to the radical right of the 1930s, have always employed thugs; and their example has been emulated by other segments of the political spectrum.

In this case, however, the Peronists had nothing to gain. President Kirchner, a left-of-center Peronist, was not impressed with the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Nor are his colleagues in Brazil, Uruguay or Venezuela, to name a few.) A peaceful protest was enough to provide the symbolic popular sentiment against FTAA to justify his opposition.

Someone else stood to gain from violent disruptions.

A U.S. president who knows nothing about policy, except what his svengalis whisper to him, had sat in on the deliberations of 33 heads of state looking bored and annoyed that everyone was not praising and applauding him. The FTAA, his proposal, fell so flat that it failed resoundingly, despite diplomatic efforts to paper over that fact. Indeed, the conference was such a disaster that President Bush hastily and rudely departed before the summit had ended.

How difficult can it have been for the CIA chief of station in Buenos Aires to make a few calls and get a truckload of rowdies in the streets of Mar del Plata?

What a convenient smokescreen for yet another Bush foreign policy failure! The violence created at last the pretext for repression. A city that was already under siege (schools were closed and half the city was walled off from the summit proceedings) witnessed a violent police response and the predictable deaths.

The violence, not the lawful protest nor the trade summit failure, became the leading item in the news cycle. The 30-second attention span of the public was distracted from the truth. No one will ever know.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dan Quayle eyes

Hitting a deer's rump with a car makes such a loud noise. A thump that's more than a thump, but just short of an explosion.

You wonder what's broken. You're amazed that the animal gets up and walks away.

Then you stop. Later on. Where you can stop safely.

You'd swerved. You almost missed the animal. A few inches more and it would have been a clean getaway for both of you.

The headlight on the side that nicked the deer is smashed to smithereens. How did the deer do that and walk away?

You think of the deer's eyes ... Dan Quayle eyes ... eyes caught in a headlight. You'd honked. You swerved, you braked. You almost killed yourself.

Damned car! Should've walked.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Disconnected

"The number you have dialed has been disconnected," the recording said. Can't be. That number worked for 40 years.

Roofers called to say they were on their way. A bolt of shivers -- the dreaded aunt! -- struck every diner's spine when the phone rang Sundays, the roast beef served. Canvassers called for Jimmy Carter. Aimless hours of murmurings caressed lovers' ears.

All these ran through the lines that reach the black bakelite telephones. Do they still belong to the telephone company? Probably. Who knows!

The roofers never came. The aunt is dead. Jimmy's gone on from the White House to build your house, especially if you're poor. The lovers, well ...

More things change, the French say, the more they stay the same: Plus ça change, plus la même chose. It's not true.

She died. The house has been emptied out. The phone's been disconnected.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Clown and Thunder

Sunday approaches and brings its thoughts of church.

Not long ago, bells would toll and villagers would gather and mumble the ritual words of which they knew little and clerics would spout words even less understood and the village would then rest for another week of the same. Today we've said God is dead, we've entered the post-Christian era; some think that a strike of lightning, divine or clerical, is what we need to fuel a new fire in us.

Indeed, in Joseph Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity," he opens by telling the state of the Christian story in the manner of a fable.

"Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with [the] ecclesiastical," Ratzinger writes, finds himself in the position of a traveling clown who, as he approaches a new village, sees a fire breaking out in the countryside not far from it.

The clown is a stranger in this country and does not speak the language, but he is concerned that, given the lush vegetation, the fire will spread rapidly and overwhelm the village. He arrives in a state of agitation and tries to gesture to the villagers that they are in danger, but the villagers laugh at him, thinking his anxious mime is part of his act.

A priest with whom I spoke about this Ratzingerian fable added that it's worse. He said that in the contemporary age there aren't traveling clowns any more and that, if one appeared, no one would pay attention even to laugh. Then he sighed sadly and shook his head at the folly of our contemporaries.

But there's another take.

There was once a clown whose entire troupe had been laid off, as no one came to the circus any more, preferring to go to film theaters, watch television or play games on a computer or handheld device. The clown was articulate, he knew the art of costume, he understood mime, he was a fine actor. He could have made at least a decent living working in a Hollywood studio or on Broadway or in a school or college teaching his arts.

Yet he preferred to travel from village to village, complaining to himself that no one valued his ancient and venerable craft any more.

He lived poor as a church mouse and called it a sign of his virtuous dedication to his calling as a clown. Truth be told, he felt otherwise: he had no boss, if he did something wrong he could go to another village where they wouldn't know about his misdeeds, and he didn't need much since he didn't have the burden of a nagging wife and greedy children.

One day, tramping through fields in a foreign country, the sky turned dark and full of thunder. Hail pelted him. As he ran for shelter, he saw and heard the flash and crack of lightning striking a tree not six feet from him. In an instant, the tree was a smoldering cinder, hissing as rain and hail soaked it wet and cold.

But what if it had caught fire? What if he alone were to see a fire start in the fields? What if he were to run to the village and warn the hamlet's dwellers? Wouldn't he then cease to be an ignored clown and be a hero instead, crowned with laurel, dressed in purple robes, hailed as lord of the realm and savior of his people?

In a flash, he decided he would rush to convince the village that there was a fire.

But, of course, there was no fire. He was still just a clown. A few children who looked up from their handheld game consoles laughed at the oddly dressed foreigner. The village as a whole ignored him.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Miers Sideshow

Allow me, a seasoned observer working two blocks from the White House, to advance admittedly paranoid analyses of the Miers nomination.

In brief, the entire spectacle struck me as entirely bogus.

Why would the Bushies nominate an insider's insider whom they knew perfectly well to be so underqualified and so likely to raise right-wing ideological hackles as to make cofirmation a wildly unlikely prospect? How is it that seconds after the Miers nomination was out the gate the right-wing megaphone wielders began to chant -- in perfect unison -- their Roe incantation? There are no right-wingers in the White House any more who are perfectly able to discern the response? White House staffers can't count Senate votes any more?

Odd, because the Bushies are still perfectly able to ram through a $50 billion Katrina package that gets Halliburton yet another humongous no-bid deal, get Attilla the Hun as chief justice, even manage to rig the ratification of the Iraqi constitution (albeit in the translated version), and orchestrate the implementation of two new tax cuts on the backs of the poor.

But with Miers they became all thumbs and "accidentally" hung their buddy out to dry? Think again. Something else is going on. Here come three possibilities.

Door No. 1: The nomination was an exercise to bait the base into action.

Conservatives own both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and a substantial number of governorships and legislatures. Rove, Card & Co., feeling that the base lacked a clear-cut battle, decided purposely to goad the base out of complacency and back into fighting stance. The crowd-leading captains were in on the wink-wink, nod-nod deal.

Door No. 2: Miers was put up in an effort to push the reversal of Roe farther out into the future.

Without Roe v Wade the GOP's single most potent and emotional issue, the non-negotiable "moral" issue without peer, would vanish. Absent federally legal abortion, the pro-birth movement has nothing to do; certainly nothing that wins national elections. The right-wing doesn't really care about children (see this week's cuts into child care), the elderly (see same about Medicare). "Pro-life"? Most "pro-lifers" actually favor frying every criminal and starting as many wars as possible (so long as someone else's kid dies -- preferably some poor minority youth without an economic alternative).

Door No. 3: Miers was the smokescreen for Conan the Barbarian.

Miers was set up to fail so an energized base could then insist on some irredentist pro-birth Torquemada, whoever the White House decides fits such a bill, even to the point of a "nuclear" option in the Senate. Liberals will be off their guard, thinking the White House has gone nuts and is really frightened of whatever slap in the wrist may arise out of the inquiry into presidential staffers' outing of a CIA operative. Bush is down in the polls and there's a sense that things are going the liberal way at long last. Beware such thoughts!

Choose one (or propose another). Just remember: merely because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after me ... um ... who's that knocking at the door?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Western Spirit

We are out of truly useful Western empirical facts, the building blocks of science and technology, when confronted with pain, death and the need to change.

A common recourse is to seek out the East.

Life, the Vedas say, is a spiritual existence that undergoes a series of birth and death cycles until reaching a high consciousness and salvation. To live means to suffer, stemming from craving and clinging; freedom from want is Nirvana, says Buddha, and it can be achieved though an eightfold path. Everything exists within a grand cosmic harmony, Lao Tsu tells us, the Great Tao. We must conform to "Li," or honesty in relationships, Confucius teaches.

We fall into a new Manichean error in thinking everything Eastern is spiritual and everything Western material.

In 1832, John Henry Newman was crossing a tempest-tossed English channel and from his fear, in the distance he saw a light:

"Lead, Kindly Light,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me."

And around the year 500 an anonymous Carthusian monk in England who chose the pen name Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote in his Cloud of Unknowing that "in the time of this word all the creatures that ever have been, be now, or ever shall be, and all the works of those same creatures, should be hid under the cloud of forgetting."

Yet if our own William Butler Yeats fretted in his 20th century poem that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," from long ago Julian of Norwich in her calming voice reassures us: "All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."

We may be out of useful facts, but not of hopeful wisdom.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Perfect Special Friend

Take the looks of one person, the work habits of another, the intellect of a third, the romantic artistry of yet another, and the soul of a fifth. Slice, dice, mix, and stir. Serving for one: special friend.

A "special friend," of course, is my current best term for people far enough past being teens or twentysomethings that "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" seems silly. ("He was old enough to be a boy's father around the first Gulf War, wasn't he?")

The problem is that we can't change other people. We can experience with them sunsets of contentment and peace or nights of mattress gymnastics. Then we wake up to coffee and headlines and reality.

Wrinkles, a penchant for getting out to work too slowly, a need to have everything explained and every g-spot mapped, and the profundity of Willy Loman. What was I drinking, smoking, thinking? More plausibly and less cinematic ... this is a solitary bird who will never pair well. Or ... I've lost the mental hike shoes for this climb.

If only we could combine the favorite bits of each potential special friend into the Perfect One ... !

Monday, October 24, 2005

Chain or char?

Interesting what people will fasten onto when they read a blog.
  • My doubt of my doubt.
  • My use of "Christian agnostic."
  • The color of the type.
I'm not sure I can explain these, or that I should. Certain ideas are recursive and paradoxical and explaining is akin to cutting the Gordian Knot.

As to color, I like it and, for the moment, I'll keep it.

One last thought: I went to the National Cathedral (aka Washington's Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul) and in the sermon I heard that love involves mundane things, like washing, ironing, preparing meals and all sorts of unpleasant chores. I thought love involved dancing in the streets to music. Not sure I'm ready for this chore-bound love.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Strange Warming

Like Charles Wesley, who spoke of his conversion as "I felt my heart strangely warmed," a friend's piercing declaration that I believe has left me in doubt of my doubting.

She was in pain from a prolongued double mourning and from searching and from finding prayer inadequate to the task. Out of nowhere I said that she might want to consider varying her prayers with adoration and thanksgiving and contrition, in addition to supplication.

"You do believe!" she exclaimed.

Out of nowhere I proclaim to another friend that she is godly. Out of nowhere I reassure yet another a believer that what some preacher's wife is trying to do, convince her that her particular take on Christianity is wrong, need not trouble her.

Yet I am an agnostic. A Christian agnostic with too much theology in my head. It all comes tumbling out without thinking. It all comforts. I can't help myself.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Dulce et Decorum Est?

Nothing calls into question the meaning of "patriotism" so much as the false pride asserted by American war veterans who demand that all criticism of U.S. combatants be stifled lest their feelings be hurt.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" wrote Horatio in his advice to youth: how sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland! Military recruitment has become such a permanent fixture in the United States, which has yet to spare even one generation from war, that the poet's axiom rarely is examined.

Frequently enough, the notion is sprinkled with holy water as clerics bless troops and carnage is turned into virtue, as if war were what Jesus intended in his call for ultimate self-sacrifice, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Mottos such as "God and Country," or in some Catholic countries "God, Country, Home," merge cross and sword into a term recently used ill-advisedly by President Bush: crusade.

Bush has forgotten, or more likely never knew, that the Christian West lost the Crusades to the Muslim Middle East -- much as his own misadventures in Iraq have ceded the initiative of war to the present-day fanatical Muslim insurrection we know as al Qaeda.

Similarly, we in the American republic risk repeating the blighted history of the Roman virtue of patriotism if we close our eyes to the perils of adopting this questionable ethical imperative as a dogmatic truism above criticism.

To understand this we need recall how Roman patriotism, which was similar to the traditional nationalism of the last century and a half, hung its rhetorical hat on the notion of "patria," Latin for "father's land." The term "patria" originally meant the estate or homestead under the sway of the "pater familias" or male head of household, usually the patriarch of an extended family.

Beginning in monarchical Rome, and running through the republic and empire, the pater familias held power of life and death over wife, children, slaves, cattle and crops, all of whom were sustained by the wealth and bounty of his land. Young Patricians, the male sons or grandsons of the pater, gave evidence of their worthiness by risking life and limb to defend the patrimony, or inheritance.

Rich, young imperial Romans gave their lives to debauchery and violent sport. They left soldiering to the sons of Romans so poor that they could pay no taxes -- their only contribution they could make to the commonwealth was children (in Latin, "proles"). These proletarians were sent to serve in Rome's Legions.

Horatio's words at the dawning of the imperium served as consolation for those who died in battle, since those who served and survived now received the spoils of conquest -- which made up for the patrimony they lacked.

Here's where the moral tale comes to haunt us.

In similar terms, the sons of the landed gentry of the original Thirteen States fought the King of England to defend their patrimony in a war in which neither slaves nor indentured servants, much less Indians, were expected to fight. The few who did were regarded as exceptional.

Such patriotism, as in Rome, was short lived: dead men cannot inherit wealth.

Indeed, our War of Independence was so widely regarded as a struggle to the benefit of large landholders, that many poorer farmers refused to pay the taxes to defray the debt contracted to pay the military costs, in a movement known as the Whiskey Rebellion. By the Civil War, social privilege became enshrined in law: a U.S. wealthy young man could buy his way out of conscription by paying for someone to serve in his stead. U.S. soldiers through the end of World War I received meager postwar compensation, as witnessed eloquently by the popular song "Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?"

It was only after World War II, when the spoils were so gargantuan that the even the wealthy could not sop up the bounty, that a semblance of a new social contract -- albeit only with veterans, and mostly to the benefit of whites -- was crafted. An entire college-educated middle class arose out of GI Bill funds and the prosperity to employ the new graduates.

When predominantly non-white veterans returned from Vietnam -- the two white Vietnam-vintage presidents so far did not serve in that war -- no similar reward was offered: the Greenback of free enterprise was willing to fight the Reds to the last impoverished, Black recruit. After that, they were on their own; today Black Vietnam veterans are homeless by the thousands, thrown out of halfway houses by that great "patriot," Ronald Reagan -- another flagwaver who did not see a second of battle.

The Bush Administration has developed empty flagwaving and hollow patriotic-sounding rhetoric to a fine art. Not long after September 11, it proposed legislation disguised as "economic stimulus" that actually reimburses millions in taxes from previous years to the nation's top corporations, precisely as they lay off hundreds of thousands of Americans from work.

Where can the unemployed go? To fight in Iraq, of course!

As the Abu-Ghraib torture scandal shows, the fighting men and women in Iraq come from the families least educated, least to benefit from Bush's tax cuts.

The wealthy, meanwhile, are laughing at those suckered into becoming cannon fodder. If each member of society, emulating the greedy few at the top, merely scrambles to the hills to protect the blood-related nuclear tribe, do we have a civilization worth saving?

Clearly a broader, more modern sense of what patriotism means is needed. As human beings we are all citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, as we are of the United States or England or New Zealand.

Being called to lay down one's life for another need not mean martyrdom nor pointless death. To lay down my life and allow my earthly body to be killed in a relatively finite period of time, while painful, is ultimately easier than handing over my life in service to another over decades.

We are patriots? Let us pay our taxes cheerfully and press our leaders to use them for the general welfare, not merely to bolster privilege and inequity or to repay bribery.

We are patriots? Let us strive to make sure the least in our society have food, clothing, shelter, schooling and the change to earn a living.

We are patriots? Let us do some of the considerate small things that glue a society together: respecting traffic lights, turning off appliances that use up energy when they are not needed, accepting minor inconveniences for the good of the community, be it local, state, or national.

We are patriots? Let us realize that our "fatherland" is really the world.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Approaching Twilight

Fall approaching in the northern hemisphere, along with a recent personal experience, bring to mind the proximity of death and the human struggle with the end of life, particularly our own or that of members of our own species.

Leaves will fall to the ground dead. Various crops will be harvested, that is, fruits of various plants will be killed. The temperature will drop and a vast array of insects and microscopic creatures will die.

In this season of reaping, the Grim Reaper reaps most. In nursing homes and hospices, fall chills are known to bring on the illnesses that finish off the dying.

People of all opinions, persuasions and scientific theories can agree that the cessation of human life as we know it has at least several common characteristics. Death is irreversible, unavoidable and it renders null and void all ideas, states of being, relationships, possibilities, fears and joys connected with the life of the person who has died.

In vain religious people argue that life continues. Whatever life there is, if there is one, is idealized: heavens and hells are clearly quite unlike life as we know it. When we die, we are all dead as door nails to this life.

No one comes back from death to life as we know it to tell its tale. We don't hear that even Jesus or Odin or any other allegedly resurrected figure went on living as those who knew them lived, anchored to this earth and its limitations.

It is understandable, however, that there should be religious complaints against death. The mind rebels against the notion.

Elizabeth Kübler Ross made famous the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- all of which show how hard death is. Indeed, the mind can hardly define what death is and when it happens.

Historically, we said that someone was dead when the heartbeat and breathing stopped. The Victorians put bells on coffins, however, due to the common fear of mistakenly burying people who were cold, motionless, and unresponsive for some period of time due to a medical condition. Today, the definition of death hinges around brain death, or cessation of electrical activity in the brain.

Then there's the matter of death being unavoidable -- along with taxes, quipped Ben Franklin.

In the United States, the federal government lists the following as the top ten causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents, diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease, nephritis and nephrosis, septicemia.

Some amount of healthy eating and exercise may prevent heart disease. Not smoking may prevent cancer, although non-smokers do get it. There are also possible preventions for strike, respiratory disease and diabetes -- although many of these are genetic.

The flu is not a killer, it's just like the wind in the fall, it pulls off those who hold on the tree of life is loose, almost dead.

The others are not killers, they are simply conditions of degeneration. The body, like all machines, breaks down and ceases working until it can work no more.

While we're at it with killers, there's sudden accidental death, brought on by human killers, which evokes revulsion in all sane people. Too much of it is allowed to happen.

Watching death, mostly from a distance, my observation is that the process of death is very much like the process of birth and infancy -- just in reverse.

A baby begins to recognize people and its environs, begins to communicate, eventually to walk, talk, feed itself and take care of it excretions. A dying person loses control of the bowels and the ability to eat unaided, to walk or talk, to communicate, to recognize and eventually stops breathing and the electric waves in the brain cease.

Do not mourn for them, we are all dying.

As rendering things null and void, I'd like to end with my favorite quote from Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled":

"... let me simply list, roughly in order of their occurrence, some of the major conditions, desires and attitudes that must be given up in the course of a wholly successful evolving lifetime:

"The state of infancy, in which no external demands need be responded to

"The fantasy of omnipotence

"The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one's parent(s)

"The dependency of childhood

"Distorted images of one's parents

"The omnipotentiality of adolescence

"The 'freedom' of uncommitment

"The agility of youth

"The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth

"The fantasy of immortality

"Authority over one's children

"Various forms of temporal power

"The independence of physical health

"And, ultimately, the self and life itself."

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Pope's Halo

Between flags at half mast, omnipresence on television and paeans in the press, Karol Wojtyla's halo must be glowing almost as strong as Princess Diana's, although perhaps not as brightly as Saint Ronald's.

Pope, president and princess have in common their pharaonic wakes and funerals, soaked in myth and bathos. Millions of ordinary people who never knew them, except through photos in glossy magazines, gave way to tears that came from ... where precisely?

Diana was a wealthy socialite of few talents beyond knowing how to present herself in public. Ronald Reagan play acted the gestures of his presidential role flawlessly, but he was a lightweight when it came to the policies that he approved, which impoverished millions.

And the pope? At least he was worthy, no? Someone I know recently echoed to me the widespread sentiment that "the Holy Father had an impact on billions of lives." Is that true?

To begin with, there is no evidence that John Paul II was particularly holy in the moral sense or, at any rate, holier than anyone reading this essay. He was holy in the sense of being dedicated to religion; that was his job: one could just as easily say an attorney is lawyerly.

And the Vatican better pray there is no evidence he was anyone's biological father. Was he fatherly? Not to the nun who asked him to consider ordaining women priests, nor to a Nicaraguan priest who believed the gospel meant joining the Sandinistas, nor to the millions pushed into destitution by the collapse of Soviet-era social programs.

Karol Wojtyla might have been considerably less than fatherly to children raped by priests in Krakow -- we just don't know because thugs intimidated local reporters halting their investigations into charges of pedophile priests while the dead pope was archbishop.

In sum, "Holy Father" is a mythical title, like the queen of England's claim to be the monarch of France (and "defender of the faith").

As to the "impact on billions of lives," what impact and what evidence is there of it? Before he was pope, Karol Wojtyla was known to several thousand people, at most and very superficially -- and that's on a sunny day, feeling generous about it. Only when he was given the right to wear a triple tiara as the sole remaining absolute monarch of Europe did he come to the attention of billions -- or they within hailing distance of his impact.

Is the world better now than it was in 1978, when he was elected pope? In a word, no.

In the USA workers today earn, in real terms, 22% less than they did then. In Western Europe, social benefits are being curtailed. In the former Soviet bloc, as noted, millions have been pushed into destitution. In Africa AIDS is almost as common as the flu and -- thanks to Wojtyla -- charitable organizations of Catholic affiliation refuse to provide the means to prevent infection. In Latin America, the same pauperization has come about.

The richest most armed nation in the world marched into Iraq, on pretenses about as false as Germany used to march into Wojtyla's native country, and the pope's feeble protest was no longer credible in terms of internationl politics, given his documented collaboration with the CIA. In any case, the protestations were undercut by "clarifications" by his press secretary, a member of the secretive, ultra-conservative Opus Dei.

So, in the aggregate, if Wojtyla had an impact on billions of people in the world, it was negative. There's no evidence otherwise.

We're left with vague claims that he prayed for other people. Even these are weak. Among the hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns and millions of other devout Christians, there are plenty of people who pray just as intensely -- and for other people. Wojtyla did not get 36 hours to the day to pray; he had the same 24 hours as the millions of devout people, the same human strength, the same human ability to pray for one at a time.

Yet no one else who prays a lot is on TV and in the newspapers and gets called fancy names after having lived in palaces paid for by the contributions of widows. Oh, yes, and the sale of John Paul II kitsch. He was the most commercialized pope in history. In that, he was notable. The only pope who sold recordings of himself praying the rosary.

Everything else, his encyclicals, his grand gestures, the travel (which he did at the expense of locals) -- all of that is attributable to being employed to work as the figurehead of an organization with the oldest PR apparatus. The Catholic Church, after all, coined the word "propaganda."

A monkey could have done it just as well.

Even the stories of his kindness to Jews during the Holocaust fall far short of heroic. If they are exceptional, it must be because the moral behavior of most Gentile Poles was abominable, which appears to be the case.

Karol Wojtyla, Ronald Reagan and Princes Diana did nothing for anyone that any ordinary human being wouldn't have done. There's absolutely no reason to idolize them, to revere them, to call them "great."

Those who do, have a political or ecclesiastical agenda -- or they have handed control over their emotions to the media.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Who Will Sit in Peter's Chair?

With my prediction of the pope's death on April 8 coming closer and closer to being on the mark, perhaps I ought venture forward to the matter of a successor. I'd like to cover the situation the basic responses, the candidates, and finally, my prediction of who will be the next pope.

THE SITUATION

There is little doubt to anyone observing the Catholic Church that, as an ecclesiastical organization, it is in a very deep state of decomposition. It's not just this papacy, although that hasn't helped, nor just this generation or two, nor this precise moment, nor one particular issue.

When Andrew Greeley wrote a book about his attempt to handicap the conclaves in 1978 via computer, one of the observations that stuck in my mind was how the Church, meaning the ecclesiastical structure, was wobbly from the relatively long period in which Paul VI was ill and powerless. It's been clear to me that the same could be said of the last decade or so in this papacy, in which heads of Vatican congregations, or ministries, have disagreed in public, clearly because no one was in charge.

It was certainly so in the last years of PiusXII, and Pius XI's illness prevented the anti-Nazi encyclical his successor scotched. John XXIII, hale and hearty almost to the end, is the exception. This attempt to look back some 70-80 years back is to note that this state of things is not new.

The ecclesiastical church lost its footing as a public moral authority sometime shortly after the French Revolution and it never recovered.

The American memory of immigrants fiercely loyal to the Church is part of American exceptionalism: the immigrants were persecuted and discriminated against for their religion, as well as their ethnicity, and the Church seemed like a protective ghetto; the proof is that the generation since the election of John F. Kennedy, the signal event that finally Catholics had arrived, has had markedly lower church attendance, shown dramatically lower vocations to clerical and religious roles, and made significantly smaller financial contributions.

Worldwide, the Church faces decomposition in the form of a deaf, lazy and navel- gazing, misogynist clergy and hierarchy; an ecclesiastical structure incapable of communicating values because it so clearly does not lead by example; a structure whose survival depends on putting the genie of free inquiry and democracy back in the bottle; not to mention the pedophilia scandal.

As to the latter, let's not forget that someone hired thugs to intimidate Polish reporters looking into the child rapes one Karol Wojtyla swept under the carpet when he was archbishop of Krakow. Governor Keating had it right: the person who looks closely at the ecclesiastical structure can barely distinguish its MO from that of the Mafia.

The laity is voting against the clergy with its pocketbooks and its feet.

THE ISSUES

Among the issues that will confront a future pope are:

-- JP2's demarche from Vatican II;

-- the coercion exerted against scholars and the matter of free academic inquiry;

-- the ordination of women and the question of celibacy;

-- the persistent exclusion of the laity from significant roles despite the increasing decline in the number and proportion of priests, including the stasis that allows the priesthood to be the least accountable sinecure in the world;

-- creeping infallibilism in the Roman Curia;

-- the vast disparity in the resources and emphasis placed by the Church on the value of life of the unborn and the infirm contrasted with the almost cavalier attitude toward the death penalty, the mass economic slaughter brought on by growing disparity between rich and poor, and war.

THE OPTIONS

From the bottom of the well in which the Church finds itself, I see two options developed by the two basic camps within Catholicism.

Liberals are open to increased lay participation, a democratization of the institution and a deep renewal that would start with a general housecleaning and the beginning of an effort to preach by example. Conservatives are willing to cling to the caesropapaist authoritarian structures inherited from the past at the cost of decimating the ranks of Catholics to even a tenth of their present numbers -- the "pure remnant" (this is an OT notion) of the "remnant" will carry on with "the truth."

I see no effective middle ground, although the present castrated, sycophantic cadre of clerics could continue bumbling for decades to come ... ever more insignificant, until it all withers away some time within the next century. Impossible? The cult of Isis existed over thousands of years, who worships Isis today?

THE CANDIDATES

Most of us have heard of two candidates. Liberals talk a lot about Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, achbishop of Milan. Conservatives crow about Francis Arinze, of Nigeria, who has the added advantage of being (obviously) black to shut up liberals.

Neither are real papabbiles ("papable" or viable candidates). Martini is a Jesuit and an Italian. Arinze is a member of the Curia (Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). Both have been mentioned in print far too many times, they are in their 70s, they are known quantities (Martini is liberal and might be expected to ordain women; Arinze is more conservative than the JP2).

In ecclesiastical politics, which is byzantine in form if not history, the most effective campaigns for power are anti-campaigns. Look for the quiet prelate with his hands folded as if in prayer, asserting vociferously that he loves his present job "serving" his "flock"; that's the ruthless climber who will succeed.

Such a candidate will make his ad limine visits, drop in on all the key monsignori laboring in out of the way second-rung offices and regale them with "offerings" for Masses requested by the candidate's (rich) "lambs." Spread enough money around and you get named to be redactor of committee reports at meetings, which gives you a low-profile access to all the movers and shakers, whose views the redactor most poll (this was Wojtyla's job at the Evangelization synod in the early 1970s). The Winning Candidate flees publicity and the press as he flees the Devil (at least in public).

So, let's see what are the chances of folks.

An Italian pope is unlikely. They broke the 400-year streak last time and no one really wants to go back. Besides, the Italians are now a minority in the college of cardinals. The same goes for an East European, for the opposite reason. They rarely chose repeats.

There are several Western Europeans who are viable, particularly as compromise candidates, but I won't name them because I think they're OK -- or at least not the worst.

Africa has another cardinal, Alexandre do Nascimento, but he's older than either Martini or Arinze and he's a moderate and not very influential. Besides Africa already has a clerical rape scandal and is about to have a clerical polygamy scandal any day now.

Asia has a few good cardinals who are moderate and exemplary. Christianity is still a largely persecuted minority religion, except in the Philippines, and this appears to have a cleansing effect. But,again, not likely.

In the American continent, the U.S. church is tainted by the mishandling of the pedophile scandal and, besides, the rest of the Church sees the USA as an unruly source of money, but not much else. The U.S. cardinals are all relatively new, none stellar. Canadians are out: too liberal to a man (they got their lectionary out before Arinze could stop them). South America has a number of irredentist hyperconservatives who love the Opus Dei and TFP; that's too far right and too obvious. There are a couple of moderates, however, who could be dark horses -- I'm not naming them.

That brings us to Central America, where my man is. He's a man pretty much of the same cloth a JP2, he has access to U.S. support (as did Wojtyla). Although he had a close relationship to U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, and associations with his nation's military, he managed to keep his hands spotless -- unlike his Nicaraguan neighbor Obando y Bravo, a non-papabbile if there ever was one. He is not histerical about his views, he is little known outside the Curia and the college of cardinals, his election would effect the shift away from a Eurocentric hierarchy, while upsetting few conservatives. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the next pope Oscar Andrés Rodríguez de Madariaga, cardinal archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.