Saturday, October 31, 2009

Beyond Forgiveness

It's a pleasant surprise in middle age when you run across something you have never heard before, something that stops you dead in your tracks to make you ponder. This happened to me with this ethical counsel:
Be like night when covering the faults of others.
We are asked not merely to forgive, but essentially to forget. When we see or suffer someone else's wrongdoing, not only must we avoid calling attention to the wrongdoer, or seeking revenge or justice for the wrong. This encomium advises us to conceal the wrong and spare the other person embarrassment or penalty.

This is obviously way beyond Christian forbearance. Way beyond our Western sense of tit for tat, dressed up in fancy legal codes.

The source is one of seven counsels attributed to a famous Muslim poet and mystic Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), known to most of us in the West simply as Rumi, a saintly jurist and theologian who wrote in Persian and lived in what today are Afghanistan and Turkey.

Everybody claims Rumi as his own; and, yes, possibly Virginia Woolf, too.

The Sufis and the Shia and Sunni Muslims have regarded him as their own. Because he wrote in Persian, a variety of nations today claim him as theirs, as does Turkey. Even many Americans -- except me, of course -- have long regarded him as a favorite poet.

Yet, of course, although his poetry and sayings are quite ecumenical, he made plain that he believed in Islam. Indeed, this teaching goes back to a hadith* (verse) in the Quran that goes something like this:
Allah will cover up on the Day of Resurrection the faults of the one who covers up the faults of the others in this world.
This comes reasonably close to the reciprocity asserted in the Christian Lord's Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive others. Yet again, there seems to be a crucial difference between the Islamic idea and the Christian.

In Islam, it seems to me, an admitted non-Muslim ignoramus, the deity isn't even seeing the faults. There's some sense in which the moral defects of a person are treated almost as if they were private parts, to be covered by a robe of sorts.

Don't let other people's moral warts show and no one will look at yours. This is not merely the Christian "do not judge lest ye be judged." The whole idea of judgment is skipped over and replaced with a moral imperative to allow everyone to save face ethically.

Note also the quiet ease in which Rumi puts us while thrusting upon us a moral norm that is momentous and, insofar as I can see, runs against the grain of our Western common sense, at least. "Be like night ..." Make sure no one knows that there ever was anything deserving forgiveness!

So, now, for your enjoyment, the Seven Counsels* of Rumi:
Be like a river in generosity and giving help
Be like a sun in tenderness and pity
Be like night when covering others' faults
Be like a dead when furious and angry
Be like earth in modesty and humbleness
Be like a sea in tolerance
Be as you are or as you look like
And relax. I haven't converted to Islam.

* I do not claim to have translated these. I cannot seem to find the exact bibliographical information to identify the Quranic verse or the precise source of the "seven advices" [sic] widely attributed to Rumi. I will properly source them if someone has such information.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Romance as Estrangement

Sunday, reading The New York Times I came across a gem of an epigram, within a question, quoted in a book review, from what seems to be a very experimental, deeply philosophical novel. This gem follows:
‘Strangers become intimate, and as intimacy grows they lower their guards and less mind their manners until errors are made, which decreases intimacy until estrangement exceeds that which existed before the strangers ever met,’
Notice the comma at the end? That's because it is sandwiched inside the question “If the observation were made to you that [epigram quoted above] would you be inclined to agree?” The full quote is from The Interrogative Mood - A Novel? By Padgett Powell, as reviewed by Josh Emmons.

Ok, so this is not my idea. But wouldn't you agree with its profound truth?

We become intimate in the flush of infatuation and lust that we call "falling in love." For a time we are in paradise and there has never been another person or another state like it in the entire history of humanity remotely similar to our beloved, our love, our lovemaking.

Who cannot recall becoming inflamed in languorous multilingual conversation over a glass of red wine, then waking up next morning by a pale white body, a naked Greek statue enfleshed, at rest after crests of passion uncommon to the species in their depth and palpitating frequency?

Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, speaks of men at the point of orgasm declaring love to a prostitute -- or more commonly, a one-night stand -- as a phenomenon having to do with a temporary collapse of ego boundaries that, absent the spike of brain chemistry, keep our emotions within certain prescribed social limits.

Intimacy. Fused inside and out. Then confidences. Then the slow unpeeling of the knight's armor and the lady's veil. I drink too much. I nag. I have this teensy-weensy habit ... but it's OK, because you love me, no?


No, it's not OK, and it gets worse when, without thinking, you say or do something the knight or the lady would never do. The cat's out of the bag: I am me, you are you. The bag is slowly emptied of all the psychic detritus lying there, sometimes causing unspeakable pain in the other and unfathomable guilt of one's own.

Eventually, it is better to be apart, to erase every last vestige of the other until things are back ... no, until you are in a new primordial universe in which the other person never existed and you never met. Of course, we are as if made of wood: the nail's been taken out but the hole remains.

So we try to fill it again with a new shining lover on a hill. A new rush of what we think is love.

We are doomed.

Wouldn't you agree?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hitting On and Getting Hit: It Takes Two

There's a disturbing one-sidedness among women blogging and commenting about public, unwanted, but perfectly legal male attention in a way that paints the man as a figurative predator and the woman as a figurative victim. The truth is that genius and stupidity are abundant in both sexes and this leads to plenty of misunderstandings.

The two most recent examples of which I am aware are my cyberfriend Heartinsanfrancisco's So Many Fools, So Little Time, which tells a vignette of an overheard street approach to a "very attractive young woman" by a young man on a bicycle, and Schrödinger’s Rapist, which purports, amid much frothy giggling, to dispense advice to young men in such a situation.

In both instances, there was a chorus of unanimity from women canonizing the notion that in these situations men are always willful and wrong, not merely mistaken, and that women are innocent and hapless, not merely inconvenienced. An approach on the public street that does not involve physical contact or profanity is not morally equivalent to rape no matter how you slice it and dice it, and there are two players in that scene.

Sure, some men are cads. But some women are foolish.

The woman in So Many Fools gave her name to the stranger, first thing, instead of ignoring him. A commenter told of a "friend" (herself?) who allowed a total stranger, a man who was not a professional photographer, to take her picture. Not a day passes, particularly in the summer, that I see young women in variations of near-undress in the public sidewalks of my city.

Why are women surprised that returning the attention of an unknown male contemporary, giving a stranger of the opposite sex a physical image of yourself or walking around half-naked convey messages that they are open to a conversation, to being objectified or to inspiring fantasies of naked activities?

I'm not endorsing the men.

The young man on a bicycle didn't take the hint when the attractive woman clearly attempted to break off the conversation some moments later. The "photographer" was apparently arrested for masturbating in the public company of a whole batch of photos of foolish women who had let him take their picture. And, yes, many men do undress women in their heads due to a huge swath of anthropological reasons that, I agree, do call for change (a whole other post).

Yet in the case of casual, public approaches by men who are obviously physically attracted to a woman -- they do not know whether she has read T.S. Eliot -- the responsibility for decorum falls upon both the man and the woman.

I cannot think of a reason for a woman to let a stranger in a metropolitan area photograph her, other than sheer narcissism. Um, what could that be for? What is being photographed here, her PhD thesis on Francis Bacon? Similarly, I cannot find any excuse for "photographer," other than pathology.

However, if the attractive young woman was slow to convey her disinterest -- Heartin deems that acceptable -- then perhaps we ought to cut the young man some slack for being slow to get the message.

Similarly, if an adult woman wears a low cut dress that does not exactly draw attention to her frontal cerebral lobes, the men might be excused if their fantasies get away from them, so long as they stay as mere fantasies.

Still, might there not be a woman who dresses attractively to attract and, indeed, meet the man of her dreams unexpectedly? Is it not possible that a suggestively attired woman is actually seeking to inspire fantasies in at least one particular man?

MIght we all simply relax a little about the mishaps and miscommunications between men and women? Isn't it possible that women, as well as men, bear the burden of mixed and missed signals?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Afghanistan: the Next Step

Since the President is in a listening mood, I thought I'd throw in my three cents regarding what to do with Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the single, clearest goal in all military and security efforts since 2001, and from now on, had to be, should have been, and should be, to bring to justice those responsible for 9/11 and those conspiring to bring about similar crimes.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan had decent prospects of achieving that goal in short order. However, the military execution raised the question of credibility: why was Osama bin Laden cornered, then allowed to escape? Moreover, the invasion of Iraq was a distracting error that should never have happened.

The mission in Afghanistan should never be confused with stabilizing or in any way changing or influencing that country's internal functioning.

Afghanistan is, after all, a country slightly smaller than Texas, with only 12 percent of its territory containing arable land. No one quite knows the population of Afghanistan (estimates range between 28 and 33 million) and it is easily one of the three or four poorest and most backward nations in the world. This is not a country with a few minor problems.

One journalist who was there recounted that Afghan villagers asked why U.S. troops had arrived. He explained 9/11 and people laughed at him in disbelief: airplanes flying into buildings how tall? Remember, most Afghan villagers don't have TV or radio or newspapers (most can't read, anyway) and have likely never seen an airplane or a building higher than three stories, if that.

Developing Afghanistan, bringing roads, schools and modern technology may be high minded, but that is a task to accomplish over generations. Let's not get too cocky about this, either: It took the United States 381 years to go from a primitive settlement on Plymouth Rock, Mass., to the launch of the iPod.

Besides, how do we know that our kind of society is really an advance? Do we want to export to Afghanistan our American clogged freeways, drug problems and obesity?

As to making change by military force ... forget about it!

The mountainous Central Asian nation has been the burial ground of the hordes of Genghis Khan, the quicksand of British military expeditions in the 19th century and in the 20th swallowed whole entire divisions of the very same Red Army that defeated Hitler. What makes any American even think that the U.S. military would experience anything less?

Overthrowing the Taliban, despite its religious affinity with Al Qaeda, was most likely a crass error. Sure, it provided images and headlines of "victory" similar to those of World War II, but it also landed Afghanistan on our laps.

A more realistic view would be to let "the Afghan bastards," in George Patton's salty language, deal with the problems of Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is a base for Al-Qaeda, let's get them there; if Osama and his gang are elsewhere, let's go where they are and capture them there.

Let's leave fixing all the world's problems for another post, another policy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day of Argument

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and, beyond that, no one ever quite agreed what happened next.

In the English speaking world, unparalleled Spanish cruelty coupled with Catholic obscurantism descended on the continent until 1607, when English people landed in Jamestown. In the Spanish-speaking world, the English were preceded by explorers and priests who brought Western, Christian civilization and spawned a new multiracial society (see Hispanic theologian Virgilio Elizondo's "cosmic race" born in mestizaje), featuring the continent's first universities, churches and other august institutions -- all long before the Puritans or the British pirate Drake.

Among the oldest inhabitants of the American continent (I'm told their preferred word for themselves these days is "Indian" but I'm not taking chances), from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego, October 12 is the anniversary of the beginning of a long tragedy in which various ancient ways of life were destroyed by the sword, the pen and the cross of various Europeans.

Spanish conquistadores decapitated three major pre-Columbian empires. A British general invented biological warfare to better steal lands in New England. French Jesuits naïvely brought about among the once fearsome Iroquois one of the most genuine and heartfelt mass conversions to the gospel of "blessed are the peacemakers," and the tribe was subsequently wiped out in a generation by its long-suffering enemies.

We still don't know conclusively whether the remains of Christopher Columbus are in the Dominican Republic or in Spain. Nor whether he was Italian, the grandson of a Christian Spaniard in Genoa or, potentially, a Sephardic Jew. (The first person in Columbus' first expedition to set foot in the New World was, indeed, a Sephardic Jew, translator Luis de Torres.)

Nor do we know, of course, who really "discovered" America. Most likely, it was a Mongol who crossed the Behring Strait more than 10,000 years ago. Take that, Leif Erikson!

America the continent -- not the weasel "Americas," which tries to make up for the theft of the continental name by one of the countries of the original British North America -- isn't even named after anyone who was actually here.

Of course, as shown, we can't even agree about the name even though, to my mind, on my side of the Atlantic, we are all Americans, from Argentines to Venezuelans and every other nationality in between.

Despite my bouts of flea-bitten regionalism, I feel at home anywhere on the continent, having lived in Canada and Argentina, as well as the economic behemoth that lies somewhere in between. We americanos de la patria grande or Greater Homeland Americans really have a common history of migration and settlement, of constantly remaking and renewing our hopes.

We are more flexible than the Europeans, whose culture is pretty much fixed in identities forged in the first half of the last millenium. We are less mature than the Asians, whose wisdom and ways of life are at once the oldest and newest. We are far too much more individualistic than we should be, as the communitarian cultures of Africa teach us. We are, all of us, too driven to simply enjoy the paradises of Oceania.

Yet we are a tossed salad of them all -- Behring-Strait crossers and Polynesian raft sailors, European transoceanic transplants, Asian seekers of industry, African survivors of the "middle passage" and Pacific Basin neighbors.

In this last notion, I hope, we can all agree.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Was "Women's Liberation" a Capitalist Con?

Having put on my rotten-tomato resistant armor, allow me to raise an issue that's been bothering me for some time: did the alleged advances of women since the 1970s really improve overall economic conditions for the average U.S. wage earner? I am tempted to wonder whether it wasn't all a clever con.

Look at the facts.

1. Employers can get away with paying less per wage earner -- (we know that between 1973 and 2006 average wages declined in real value 22 percent). Is it a coincidence that this is the period in which there has been a steady and sustained rise in the proportion of women in the labor force and double-income households in the population? Perhaps.

2. Women always worked; anyone who says they didn't has never spent a day with an infant or washing clothes. They merely were not paid directly for their labor. Yet the proportion of time spent by women on average in tasks related to household and child care has not declined notably over the past few decades, while the time spent by men on these things has actually declined.

In brief, women have added responsibilities, but they still earn approximately 85 cents on the dollar that men earn, and both they and their male peers have actually seen their wages' purchasing power decline over time.

Second-wave feminism increased competition for jobs, as women added to men swelled the overall ranks of available workers, making the labor market ever more an employers' game. What happens in capitalism when supply overwhelms demand? Prices drop. The price of an individual worker declined.

Who won here? Not the women of America and not even the average men of America.

Is it at all conceivable that the powers that be allowed second-wave feminism to be promoted with the full knowledge that it would increase the supply of workers? I can't prove such a thing. Yet even if that's not what happened, this is still a pretty convenient coincidence for the wealthy and powerful few.

What's the lesson here? To my mind, it is that merely rearranging the deck chairs on the mighty oceanliner SS Capitalism, by promoting women into professions and prominence, isn't enough to make substantive changes to the system, because inequality will prevail.

Your mileage may vary. What do you think?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Friending and Unfriending

I feel right in the midst of the Zeitgeist. In yesterday's Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor sang a very funny song about being "unfriended" on Facebook, featuring a couple of verses that went, "you don't need me / you've got Carla and Nicholas Sarkozy."

It sure spoke for me, I was unfriended this week by a fellow blogger. The curious thing is that I had stopped following her blog -- one of those navel-gazing white-girl blogs in which all comments coo "you're awesome" -- some time ago.

Then she "friended" me some days ago. You know, click, click, "wanna be my friend"? (For a funny take, see Are You F*cking Kidding Me? (Facebook Song) on You Tube.)

Now, if you want to know my opinions about friendship go to my post Misanthropy and Friendship (one of the things I love about this medium is that one can slowly build an easily cross-indexed "canon" of ideas). Friendship is close to love, as the Quakers well knew, even though that's not how most people live.

The average experience in North America since the settlers is of friendships made on a handshake and a prayer, without commonality or shared experience or anything else before the arm is extended in peace.

Remember declaring someone or being declared "best friend" on the school yard? That's more or less the experience being summoned to mind on Facebook and similar social sites.

"Unfriending" -- click, click, I don't like you any more -- is just as childish.

In my case, it was done just to shut me up.The unfriender belongs to that generation that was told "good job!" far too many times; as many of her peers, she accepts only congratulations.

That's been my perennial complaint about "cybercommunities" and cybercourting. There's a deceptive sense of immediacy: since we share an easy and common interface, we must be in this together, no? The ego barriers collapse into cybersex, or at least a romance, because "at last, someone understands me" (at least until the computer is turned off).

There's no person to deal with, really. Only a bunch of keys, a mouse and our own imagination.

So, my fair unfriender, take your friending and unfriending: I won't be your groupie. You don't want discussion of ideas, you want a cheap ego-boost. That's fine. Just call it what it is.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why Polanski Should Be Freed

For all those clamoring to see Roman Polanski extradited for his 32-year-old statutory rape, the fact that is forgotten here is that determination of guilt is no longer a legal issue. Polanski agreed many years ago to plead guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse" under a deal that sentenced him to time served in a mental institution, which he had completed.

If the court revisits the plea bargain in a case this high a public profile, then no prosecutor in the United States will be believed ever again.

This means that every case will have to go through trial, even slam-dunk, open-and-shut cases. It will clog the courts to the point that no one will ever get their constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial. Fewer people will be convicted of crimes they committed and, one way or another, thousands of seriously dangerous criminals will walk free.

Is the Puritan yen to pin yet another scarlet letter on another public figure that strong? Is it worth it?