Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

The last Thursday of November is set aside in the United States as a day for giving thanks to whomever gratitude is to be given. This year I find myself wishing to express gratitude for several features of the nation in which I was born and in which I have once again, after a long absence, taken up residence. In giving thanks for the gifts of the United States, I find it impossible not to give thanks to all the peoples of the planet earth without whom the United States would be meaningless. This year I am feeling particularly grateful for the following:

  • E pluribus unum. I am grateful for the diversity of people who have made their homes in the United States and who have enriched the nation through their presence. I value the contributions of the Afghan, Albanian, Algerian, Angolan, Apache, Argentine, Armenian, Assamese, Australian, Austrian, Bangladeshi, Belgian, Bermudan, Bhutanese, Blackfoot, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Canadian, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chilean, Chinese, Chinook, Chippewa, Choctaw, Colombian, Comanche, Congolese, Corsican, Costa Rican, Cree, Creek, Croatian, Crow, Cuban, Cypriot, Czech, Dakota, Danish, Delaware, Dutch, Ecuadorian, Egyptian, English, Estonian, Ethiopian, Fijian, Finnish, French, Gambian, Georgian, German, Ghanaian, Greek, Guatemalan, Guyanese, Haitian, Hawaiian, Honduran, Hopi, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Inuit, Iranian, Iraqi, Irish, Iroquois, Israeli, Italian, Jamaican, Japanese, Jordanian, Kenyan, Keresian, Kiowa, Korean, Kuwaiti, Lakota, Lao, Latvian, Lenape, Liberian, Libyan, Lithuanian, Luxembourgian, Macedonian, Malaysian, Manchurian, Maltese, Mexican, Mohawk, Mongolian, Moroccan, Nakota, Narragansett, Navajo, New Zealand, Nicaraguan, Nigerian, Ninnuock, Norwegian, Ojibwa, Osage, Ottawa, Pakistani, Paraguayan, Pequot, Peruvian, Philippine, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Rwandan, Salish, Samoan, Saudi, Scottish, Seminole, Seneca, Senegalese, Serbian, Shoshone, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, South African, Spanish, Sri Lankan, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian, Tanzanian, Tewa, Thai, Tibetan, Tiwa, Towa, Turkish, Ugandan, Ukrainian, Uruguayan, Ute, Uzbek, Venezuelan, Vietnamese, Welsh, Wichita, Yemeni, Zambian, and Zimbabwean peoples, and to the many peoples whose names I have neglected to mention. I value the contributions they have made to the literature, the music, the cuisine, the philosophy, the religion and the wisdom of my home and native land.
  • The First Amendment. I am grateful to the framers of the Constitution of the United States, and especially to those who formulated the First Amendment:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    I cherish the genius of those who saw the value of having a nation without any established religion, a nation in which every resident is free to practice any religion or none without fear of persecution or interference, so long as the practice of a religion does not abridge the rights and freedoms to others to do as their conscience dictates. And since the rights outlined in the First Amendment have been challenged at various times, I am grateful that the Supreme Court of the United States has consistently found against encroachments on these freedoms.
  • The Fifteenth, Nineteenth and Twenty-sixth Amendments to the US Constitution. The fifteenth gave the right to vote to all citizens regardless of race; the nineteenth made women eligible to vote; and the twenty-sixth lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. Had these amendments not been ratified in 1870, 1920 and 1971 respectively, we would probably not be looking forward to the inauguration in January 2009 of the first African-American president. May Obama be the first in a long series of presidents that reflect the diversity of the United States.
  • Our North American Neighbors. I am grateful that the country in which I live enjoys a harmonious and peaceful relationship with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, two countries that I esteem and value in their own right.
  • The National Park System. I am grateful for the foresight and wisdom of those who established and who maintain the National Park Service and the US Forest Service. I am grateful that there are still wilderness areas where wildlife can flourish and remain unmolested by the human exploitation of their habitat. The area of the United States in which I feel most at home is the Southwestern region, which is rich in national parks and national forests that help preserve an extraordinary variety of natural habitats and places of astonishing beauty.
  • The Twenty-second Amendment of the US Constitution Thanks to the amendment, ratified in 1951, that places a limit on how long one person can serve as president, I shall be among the 80% of the country that will be rejoicing that this will be our last Thanksgiving under the presidency of George W. Bush. It will probably be years before the full reckoning can be made of all the damage his administration has done to his country and to the whole world, and we won't be knowing until a few decades from now how much of that damage will turn out to be irreversible.

After writing these expressions of gratitude, I went back and reread my Thanksgiving message of 2007 and note that I was feeling grateful for almost exactly the same things then. And so I add one further expression of gratitude: I am grateful that all the things I treasured last year have survived one more year to be treasured again this year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The bright side of economic collapse

When I was in my final semester of high school in 1963 I took a required course in American government. The teacher was a young man who had recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. He was much too smart, and much too liberal, to be teaching in a high school in the suburbs of Denver in which all the brightest kids were Young Republicans, and the more ordinary students were obsessed with winning state championships in football, basketball and track. Most students found him an unbearable nerd. I loved his ability to shake up my limited world view.

One of the biggest grenades this teacher (whose name I am ashamed to have forgotten) lobbed into my Weltanshaaung (a word he taught me) was his insistence that money is not backed up by anything but faith in, well, money itself. A dollar is worth a dollar only because people keep thinking it is worth a dollar. A dollar is a fiction that liberates people from having to trade a bushel of apples for a garden hoe in some bartering transaction. If someone has a bushel of apples, he can sell it to me for a handful of dollars, and then he can buy something he really wants from someone else; he doesn't have to settle for the garden hoe I happen to want to get rid of. But what makes the entire system work is just faith in the system.

This no doubt oversimplified explanation of how money works drove me crazy. I hated the idea that anything could depend on something as fickle and friable as faith. Faith was for religious fanatics who believed in all kinds of spooky realms and unlikely fantasies about the dead being resurrected and everyone's sin being atoned for by the death of one man on a cross two millennia ago. I wanted economics to be built on a more solid foundation. I wanted something tangible, like gold, or at least granite, to be backing up the American dollar. Somehow or other, however, I got used to the idea that money is essentially a fiction that has value only as long as people continue to believe that it does. I never liked this economic reality very much. I just got used to it.

Events of the past few months have reminded me of what I learned about money in my senior year in high school. Not being an economist, I understand nothing about money in sophisticated terms. I see all financial things through the eyes of a child. So what the current economic situation looks like to me is that a bunch of greedy financial people thought they could get very rich indeed by making loans to people who were not likely to be able to pay the loans back. As people around the world began to see how much money was being lent in ways that even faith could not support, faith crumbled. As a result no one has as much money as they used to think they had. And the money they do have will not be nearly as effective in helping them acquire the goods and services they believe they want, because of two things. First, money loses purchasing power as people lose faith in it. And second, when money loses purchasing power, people stop producing the goods and services that they used to provide. So even if people still have money, there won't be as many products to buy with it. For one person to be able to go on a cruise, he has to find a few thousand other people who want, and can afford, the same luxury. When there is no longer a critical mass of people seeking luxury cruises, cruise liners will stop running. All the money one has saved up cannot by a product or service that has ceased to exist.

There is in all this something that I cannot help thinking is going to end up making the world a much better place. Commodities, even the so-called green products, tend to create conditions that degrade the environment. An ordinary automobile that meets American fuel efficiency standards carrying two passengers consumes about 55 gallons per passenger mile. In contrast, An intercity bus uses about one gallon for every 330 passenger miles; a train consumes about one gallon for every 328 passenger-miles; a hybrid automobile carrying three passengers uses about one gallon of fuel per 165 passenger-miles; a commercial jet airplane uses one gallon for every 20 passenger-miles; a cruise ship uses one gallon for every 17 passenger miles. So as the economy tanks, and more people walk or bicycle or take buses or trains, the total amount of fuels consumed will decline dramatically, leading to a reduction in greenhouse gases, and that can only be good for the environment.

Another positive outcome of a failing economy is likely to be a dramatic decline in the production of highly toxic products such as computers, mobile telephones, televisions and other electronic products that no one really needs. Their increasing availability has created terrible waste disposal problems around the world, especially in the poorest countries. As economic factors force people to wean themselves from these instruments, the environment is likely to improve.

Perhaps the best outcome of all of an economy in which faith-based financial instruments have lost their value is that people will one again discover the satisfaction of working for each other instead of for money. Communities based on real human values are likely to re-emerge. An economy in which a person's wealth is measured in terms of how much he can lend a hand to help others and provide their needs could well replace an economy in which wealth is measured in terms of how much one can hoard. An economy based on genuine needs rather than artificially created desires would be a welcome change.

Life is so complex that the only thing one can be sure of is that not much that happens will have been expected and accurately predicted. Perhaps none of the changes that I would welcome will take place. Still, it is no more inherently risky to hope for the best than to have faith in the value of fictitious money.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

As civilization winds down

The ancient Chinese had the sensible belief that when unexpected unnatural events occurred, they could be taken as a sign that Heaven was angry and that the government should be overthrown by the people. Comets, eclipses of the moon, calves born with two heads or five legs and prolonged droughts (or serious floods) could all be taken as signs of a need for regime change. (I suppose melting polar ice caps, huge accumulations of plastic junk floating in the middle of the ocean, and the extinction of large numbers of flora and fauna might also qualify.) Native peoples in the Americas often have stories of warning signs of the end of human civilization and impending doom, many of them involving erratic animal behaviour.

To me one of the clearest signs that civilization is coming to an end is that old people no longer act their age. When I was a child, old people acted old. They dressed like old people. They sat in rocking chairs. They laughed at the antics of kittens and grandchildren. They recited Biblical passages they had memorized. They wheezed. Their hair was grey, and then white, if they had any at all. Their hands were cold. Women had moustaches. Hardly anyone lived much beyond 70. Old people started to smell funny, and then they got weak and spent most of their time in bed, and then they died. That, it seems to me, is what being old should be like. I do not like the way old people are nowadays.

When I was huffing and puffing (and, yes, wheezing) on an elliptical trainer at the local YMCA yesterday (something my grandfathers never did when they were 63, because in their day the YMCA was an association for young Christian men), I happened to see a news story on the television that the YMCA puts in the gym to help people avoid looking at the beautiful mountains through the huge picture windows as they exercise. The story claimed that the Mexico City government has passed a new policy to give free Viagra to all men over 70. When I saw that, I muttered my favourite prayer: “Oh, for Christ's sake!”

When men get old they don't need to have erections. Not having an erection is not a dysfunction. There is no such thing as erectile dysfunction syndrome. It is just being old. It goes with wheezing and having white hair and needing suspenders because you can't find a belt big enough to go around your waist. It's normal. Like having wrinkles and sagging cheeks and a double chin. That's part of being old. Viagra, Botox and Grecian Formula are signs that people have forgotten that they really should be acting their own age. They are signs that human civilization is coming to an end.

Cell phones and ipods are also signs that human civilization is on its last legs. Earlier this week I was a little late getting home and decided to take a bus rather than walk. As I sat on the bus, I noticed that I was the only passenger who wasn't fiddling with a cell phone or an MP3 player. Everyone else had plastic stoppers in their ears so they could hear the music being played by their ipods. Everyone looked pretty much like a corpse from the neck up: expressionless faces showing no sign of life. The only signs of life were fingers and thumbs frantically and impatiently pecking at tiny keys. Now young people being impatient are showing their age. That's a good sign. But they are not talking to each other or trying to get the attention of the opposite sex or making rude comments about the old men on the bus. That's a very bad sign.

Given what I have seen of what people seem to think civilization is, I will not miss it when it finally falls. I already have a couple of good rocking chairs. And I have a teapot. That's all an old man needs in the way of material possessions. The only thing else he needs is to remember to zip his fly now and then, just in case a visitor comes around.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

It tolls for thee

The fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all. The merchants of these things, who were made rich by her, will stand far away for the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning; saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, she who was dressed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in an hour such great riches are made desolate.’ Every shipmaster, and everyone who sails anywhere, and mariners, and as many as gain their living by sea, stood far away, and cried out as they looked at the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like the great city?’ They cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her great wealth!’ For in one hour is she made desolate.

The Revelation to John 18:14–19

The above text from what is commonly called the Book of Revelations is describing the fall of Babylon. To the readers of its day, however, it was predicting not the fall of Babylon, but the fall of Rome, most probably the fall of the Emperor Nero. For persecuted Jews and Christians to speak directly of the fall of Rome during the height of Roman power would have been so politically provocative as to be suicidal. Speaking of the fall of Rome could only be done by speaking of the fall of another detested enemy of the Jews from a past era. Conjuring up the horrible memories of the Babylonian captivity that a previous generation had suffered was a veiled way of reminding readers of a similar tragedy in the lives of the intended readers.

The generation of readers who suffered persecution during the time of Nero eventually slipped into history. The text written for them, the Apocalypse (or Revelation) to John, survived. In a sense it outlived its urgency. Its survival raises an interesting question to later generations who inherit it as a piece of presumably inspired canonical scripture.

As many interpreters of texts from the past have pointed out, there is no single meaning to a text. The meaning the text had for its author(s) is one meaning—it may well be a meaning that no later generation can fully recover. It's original meaning can be compared to a mathematical asymptote; it is a limit that can be approached but never quite reached. But the meaning of a text is by no means limited to the meaning it had for its original author or authors. Layers of meaning are constantly being added as circumstances change. This is why there can never be a definitive or final understanding of a living text. Texts are dynamic and forever shifting from one generation to another, and from one interpreter to another within a generation, and from one decade to another in the life of a single interpreter. With all those cautions in mind, let me play at finding meaning in the above passage from The Apocalypse to John.

First, it would be a mistake, I think, to read the text from the point of view of the authors. After all, they were not writing the text for themselves, but for their intended audience. In the case of the text under discussion, it was no doubt meant to give some kind of comfort to those who were being subjugated by an overwhelming power. It was meant to be read by those who were being left out of the wealth and comfort and luxury—the dainty and sumptuous being enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful.

To put the issues into the terms of today's society, the text was being written not to comfort the elected politicians and the prosperous executives of international corporations and those who lived on inherited wealth bade by their ancestors, but to comfort those people whose land has been taken from them and those who have been enslaved and those who must beg, or work at substandard wages, to eke out a living for themselves and their families. It is a text of comfort to, among others, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants whose countries have been devastated by wars the Americans in positions of political and economic power have visited upon them

If John's Apocalypse has the purpose today of bringing comfort to the counterparts of the disenfranchised Jews and Christians experiencing neglect or subjugation during the time of the Roman empire, what is its meaning for the counterparts of the Romans? What is its purpose for the likes of wealthy and powerful men such as George W. Bush, John McCain, John Kerry, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey and T. Boone Pickens? It could mean something like this:

The day is fast arriving when the “fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all.” And not only will you be mourning the loss of all that used to comfort you, but so which those merchants who became prosperous by catering to you in your hours of self-indulgence. Prepare for torment, weeping and mourning.

The text is not an invitation to be smug and self-satisfied with one's prosperity. It is not a text of congratulations to the wealthy and powerful for having God on their side.

Reading the text through a mind conditioned by Buddhist teachings, I am inclined to see the text as a reminder that all conditioned things are impermanent, and those who have become addicted to impermanent things are in for suffering, probably much sooner than they think.

The sunset was beautiful tonight. It did not last. The waxing moon is shining through my window. Whose is it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thanksgiving Day 1963

As I watched tears streaming down the faces of black and white people in Chicago just as they heard the long-awaited announcement that Barack Obama had been declared as the elected president of the United States, a personal memory that had been festering for forty-five years came to the surface.

The memory was of a bitter cold Thanksgiving Day in 1963. On that day I had made plans to go with a friend of mine to a good restaurant in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town in which my friend and I were both freshman at Beloit College. When we got to the restaurant, the maitre d' pulled me aside and quietly informed me that my friend could not be seated in the reastaurant, because his presence would offend the other guests. My friend was a black student from Kenya. The feeling that came over me on that occasion was one of a deep shame for the country in which I had been born—a country in which I had lived my entire life listening to many, perhaps most, of my white friends making insulting comments about Negroes (as African Americans were then often called when people were trying to be polite), and about Jews and about Asians and about Mexicans (as Americans with Spanish surnames were usually called in those days). My family's culture was deeply at odds with the tone of racism that permeated America in the days of my youth. The prevalent cultural values of my home and native land were embarrassing to me, filled me with shame, made me angry and plunged me into despair. In 1963 I never dreamed I would live to see the day when an African American would be elected president of the United States. Therefore, like hundreds of millions of other people around the world, I wept with joy when the announcement was made last night.

There was not much to feel thankful about on Thanksgiving Day 1963. Just six days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. And Kennedy's presidency had been an ordeal for many of us who believed in peace and disarmament and who were alarmed by what Eisenhower had dubbed the Military Industrail Complex. Kennedy's presidency was not necessarily the beginning of America's tragic transition from a nation to an imperialistic power, but it accelerated us along that trajectory. The Kennedy years plunged us deeper into an unrealistic paranoia about the putative evils of Communism and Socialism and into a patriotic conviction that somehow America had an obligation to make the world free. The Kennedy years had been, with only a few exceptional moments, mostly unpleasant to people with my convictions. The brutality of the way that unhappy presidency ended only puncuated the tragedy that the United States had become.

The election of Barack Obama feels to me as though a curse has been lifted. It is as though an evil spell has been broken—a spell that was cast during the 1960 presidential campaign, a campaign in which there were no positive options in the race for president, a campaign in which the Americans were presented with having to choose the lesser of two evils: John Kennedy or Richard Nixon. That curse of having to choose the lesser of two evils has been with this country ever since. With the exception of the candidacy and presidency of Jimmy Carter, the American people have not been offered a wise and insightful and capable presidential candidate by either of the two most powerful political parties. For the past eight years the American people, and the entire world, have suffered under the policies of a man who quickly secured for himself the distinction of being the most disastrously destructive president the country has ever had.

In the interest of honesty I must confess that Obama was at the bottom of my list of preferences for a Democratic candidate. Early in the race I supported Dennis Kucinich. Then I settled for John Edwards. Then I supposted Hillary Clinton. When only Obama was left, I reluctantly supported him, despite strong temptations to vote for the Green Party candidate, 100% of whose policies I could enthusiastically endorse. Obama's foreign policy makes me nervous; it is far too militant for my tastes. He is not nearly socialist enough for me. He believes in the death penalty. He does not endorse strong gun control. He does not favor same-sex marriage. I cannot imagine him dismantling our nuclear arsenal or closing all American military bases on foreign soil. On most issues that matter most to me, he is too far to the right, and in matters on which we agree I do not see him as a president who will push hard enough to achieve good results quickly. But for all that, he is, to my mind, not simply the lesser of two evils. He is the first presidential candidate since Carter for whom I have felt I was casting my vote for him and not just against his opponent. (Again, to be honest, I have voted for a presiential candidate only twice in my life. The 2004 election was the first one in which, at the tender age of 59, I cast a vote for anyone for any office in an American election. In that election I voted for the lesser of two evils.)

On Thanksgiving Day 2008, I will celebrate the prospects of finally seeing a black family in the White House.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Preparing America for Democracy

Like everyone else in the world, I am waiting to see what the results will be of the 2008 elections in the United States of America, elections that the media never tire of reminding us are historic. I cannot help hoping the way the elections were conducted this year will soon be history—something we tell our grandchildren about someday but that we never again have to experience.

When I voted, there were six candidates for president on the ballot, three of whom I had never heard of. Of the three I had heard of, all were clamoring for some kind of kind. Clearly America loves to see itself as a nation that is ready for change. Here is one change I am ready for: I am ready for democracy to come to America. I do not think that will happen until a few other changes are made. Here is a short list of those changes:

  • No more paid political advertisements! Every newspaper, television and radio station should be required to donate an equal amount of time and space to every political party fielding a candidate. If that arrangement would be too onerous on the media, then let the government compensate all the media outlets for the time or space used. What is essential is that every citizen be given a chance to hear what every candidate has to say and that no candidate be advantaged by having access to a large amount of money or disadvantaged by a lack of money. Ideas and principles should determine elections, not money.
  • Voting should be done on a holiday. Elections should take place either on a weekend, or election day should be declared a federal holiday, a day on which no one, except for operations considered vital for maintaining an orderly society, is required to work or to lose pay for not working. Again, if the expense of paying workers for a holiday is too burdensome for corporations and small businesses, the government should provide funds. The point is that no one should miss the opportunity to vote because of fear of losing wages, missing a class and being punished for failure to show up for work or class.
  • Child care should be provided for voters with children. There is no reason a single parent should miss an opportunity to vote because of having children to mind. A parent should be able to spend a modest amount of time standing in line and voting without worrying about his or her children. The expense of qualified child care at voting sites should be provided by the government.
  • All voting should be done on paper ballots and counted manually. There is no reason people need to know the results of an election on election day itself. Newly elected officials do not take office until about ten weeks after election day. If it takes three weeks to tabulate the results, nothing is lost. Manual counting of paper ballots is much less likely to be tampered with than any form of electronic counting of ballots cast on electronic voting machines or marked on paper ballots and then scanned.
  • All federal elections should be scrutinized by United Nations observers. This is routine in fledgling democracies and in areas of the world where there is a history of corruption and fraud. If Americans prove that they are capable of holding free and fair elections, then the scrutiny could be relaxed in years to come.
  • Automated telephone calls should be banned. This ban should be put in place not only during election season. No one should ever be put in a position of ansering a telephone and having to listen to a recorded message. Recorded messages are dehumanizing.

These recommendations hardly exhaust the changes that must be done in order to pave the way for a meaningful democracy in the United States, but they would be a start. (In a previous posting I recommended that no person be allowed to vote until he or she has passed the same citizenship test that naturalized citizens are required to take. So far this recommendation has been ignored.) If this blog has any readers, and if any of those readers have further ideas, please post further suggestions as comments to this posting.

Now I am ready to watch the farce of this year's election unfold.