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."