Sunday, December 30, 2007

A moment of silence! Now what?

As another year draws to an end, many people are making resolutions for the new year, both for themselves and for the human race. Rather than adding to the weight of unfulfilled resolutions and vows, let me offer a few tips on what to do with silence. (I am assuming all readers of this blog have a refrigerator magnet that says “You have a right to remain silent” and that you exercise that right many times a week. If so, you may find some silences more awkward than others and therefore welcome a tip.)

One of the many kinds of contemplative exercise I have learned through Buddhist practice is one that I have recently read about in connection with Quaker practice. In both of these contemplative traditions there is an exercise that begins by sitting quietly and letting the mind settle as one concentrates on watching the breathing process. Once the mind has settled down from the relatively excited state it maintains during normal waking activity, turn your attention to the some place within the body, such as the region around the heart or in the pit of the stomach; it is best to pick a place in the body where one readily feels physical manifestations of emotional changes. People who are visually oriented may wish to imagine a light shining into that region of the body.

The next step can involve slowly and silently reciting a short list of ethical guidelines. I usually recite in my mind the ten precepts of Buddhism, but one just as easily use the Ten Commandments, or a list of virtues that Stoics recommend cultivating. The object of the exercise is to recite these ethical sayings while keeping attentive to your physical responses to them. If it helps, you can even recite the ethical guideline and then think “Where do I stand in observing this one?” Usually if one recognizes that one's behavior has fallen short of the ideal, there is a physical response that one identifies as a twinge of conscience. Sometimes, if one is paying close attention, one will notice an urge to move on quickly, to run away or to distract oneself. That should be seen as an invitation to stay and hold that feeling in the light, until it is clear where it is coming from. As the feeling is held in the light, it will usually become clear why the feeling of uneasiness has arisen. It will also become clear what one has to do to avoid that uneasiness arising in the future. Et voila! A resolution arises spontaneously.

Because my daily life involves quite a lot of speaking and writing, my practice is to reflect on where I stand with respect to following the guidelines on speech offered by the Buddha.

Before you speak, ask yourself about what you are about to say, Is it true? Is it beneficial to someone? Is there likely to be a receptive audience? If it is not certain that what one feels like saying is true, best not to say it. If it is not going to benefit anyone to hear the words, then why say them? Even if what one has to say is true and beneficial, there may not be anyone around who is likely to receive and welcome what one says. If there is not a receptive audience, then there is not much point is speaking. And even if what feels like saying is true, beneficial and has a receptive audience, this may not be the right time to say this particular thing.

Not infrequently, when I imagine shining a light within my body, I detect some uneasiness arising from a recent failure to heed those guidelines. I recall that I have said something without being fully confident of its accuracy. Often I realize I have recently spoken reactively or in irritation or in hopes of being seen as clever or witty or just to pass time, not to benefit anyone. Sometimes I realize that it should have been obvious that my words would fall on deaf ears. And many times I realize in retrospect that my timing was off. When any of these realizations arise, I hold them in the light. It almost always becomes clear what I should have done in the recent pass, and what I should resolve to do in the future.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Pausing to give thanks

George Fox admonished his followers to be aware of their own similarity to villains and sinners mentioned in the Bible. Rather than saying “I t is they, they, they who sin and fall short,” he suggested getting i nto the habit of saying “It is I, I, I and we, we, we who are in this condition.” (See Truth of the Heart, p. 12-15.) Because it has been my lifelong practice to seek fault nearby rather than far away, and to see flaws in self and friends more readily than in real or imagined enemies, I may give the impression to some of being unduly critical of my own home and native land. Indeed, many of the blogs here may seem to fall into the “Blame America First” genre. If that is how my writings appear, it shows how deceptive appearances can be.

A Buddhist friend of Japanese-American background once told me that he thinks the most important gift that Japanese Buddhism has to make to Americans is the practice of expressing gratitude repeatedly—not only for things for which gratitude is the most obvious response, but also for things that may seem to invite expressions of discontent. Not just Japanese Buddhism, but all of Buddhism encourages practitioners to feel contentment and joy with even the smallest of good fortune, whether that good fortune is one's own or belongs to a friend, a total stranger or an enemy. When I am counting things to be deeply grateful for, one of the first items on the list is the effects that years of Buddhist practice has had on my mentality.

Also very high on my personal list of things to feel thankful for are the Sun, the planet Earth and the country in which I happened to be born and in which I have lived almost 42% of my life so far. Not only when the mood strikes, but daily I feel deep gratitude for a range of blessings found in the United States.

  • The Constitution. The more I have studied the founding documents on which the United States was founded, the more I have come to admire them. Informed by the values of The European Enlightenment, the Constitution was written by men who were deeply wary of the abuses of power to which men are prone, and perhaps especially when they think of themselves as fulfilling the will of God. The genius of the Constitution is manifested best in its carefully crafted system of checks and balances, designed to keep any branch of government from growing too powerful and invasive in the lives of the ordinary citizen. The spirit of compromise—even some rather unfortunate moral compromises, such as the concessions to slavery—pervade the work, and this spirit of compromise has been one of the greatest strengths of the United States through the decades.
  • Location, location, location. The North American continent has a breathtaking geographical diversity, most of it beautiful. Surrounded by seas, the land is relatively safe from attack from the outside, as a result of which it would be possible to spend nearly all of the continent's resources on promoting civilization rather than on military defense.
  • Excellent neighbors. The United States is blessed with long, undefended borders with two peace-loving countries. Canada to the north provides a steady example of refined multicultural civilization, much of which has found its way across the borders to enrich the culture of the United States. Mexico to the south has a vibrantly exciting culture and a hard-working population, some of which has found its way into the United States to increase the agricultural and industrial productivity of the United States. While it is a shame that so many Mexican and South American families are dependent on workers finding employment out of their own countries, Americans would be immeasurably poorer, both economically and culturally, if it were not for the flow of workers coming from points south.
  • Religious diversity. Part of the genius of the Constitution is the first amendment, which prohibits the formation of a state religion but guarantees right of association and freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Many observers have rightly argued that the prohibition of forming a state religion has allowed the United States to have one of the most diversified religious populations in the world. The presence of many kinds of Buddhist, numerous denominations of Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, not to mention the many religions of American native peoples.
  • Ethnic and cultural diversity. Before Europeans touched foot on American soil, there were already hundreds of peoples who had learned how to live on the continent without destroying its resources. Their linguistic, cultural, and racial diversity made the Americas a remarkably rich land. Over the centuries this richness has been augmented by waves of immigrants from all parts of the world, each bringing its own values and perspectives (not to mention its food!). To its credit, America has always eventually found ways to embrace everyone who has come to live within its boundaries, whether they have come involuntarily as slaves, or have sought refuge after their own countries have been devastated by wars and natural disasters, and whether they have come legally or illegally. North America is truly a melting pot to which everyone who has come to its countries has made an important and welcome contribution. That the United States has been part of this multicultural adventure is an occasion of joyous gratitude.
  • Thanksgiving holiday. Although the list of things for which I am grateful is much longer than I have given here, I am going to close my list by noting my gratitude to the fact that there is a national holiday set aside just for giving thanks. Every year people set aside time to give thanks for their health, their well-being, their freedom, their relatives, their friends and their many other individual and collective blessings. Just about everyone, whether or not they feel a need to thank anyone in particular, pauses to look around them at all the things worth living for. And this itself is perhaps the most wonderful gift of all to the people in this land.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The danger of misidentified dangers

When I was a tender lad of 13, I read a book by then director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover, entitled Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America. The book, published in 1958, was designed to make the reader terrified of the imminent Communism threat, a conspiracy of evil-minded men and women dedicated to destroying freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and every other freedom that Americans love and cherish. After reading the first couple of chapters, I responded as the author no doubt hoped: I became afraid—very afraid—of Communists. By the time I had finished the book, I was still afraid, but the focus of my fear had changed from Communism to the FBI. Hoover's warnings against Communism seemed so obviously unsubstantiated and overstated that I became much more alarmed at the prospect of anyone taking the book seriously than at the prospect of Communists taking control of the educational system, the news media, the government and my private life. Although it would be a decade or so before I learned about the psychological concept of projection, I had an unshakable conviction that Hoover was a frightened man because he was a frightening man, a man with a mind filled with suspicion, hatred, fear and, yes, the very deceit of which he was warning his readers.

After reading John Edgar Hoover's book, which was intended to terrify the reader and thus could reasonably be classified as a piece of terrorist literature, I never again had any worries or concerns about Communism. That Communists were so intent on destroying American freedom struck me as a preposterous claim. Surely, I thought, their motivations had to consist of something more than simply wanting to destroy freedom. There must have been something positive they hoped to achieve; human beings, it has always seemed to me, are rarely moved by nothing more noble than the wish to eliminate good from the face of the earth. And yet for some thirty years after reading Hoover's pathetic piece of fear-mongering (which I assumed was itself motivated by somewhat noble but disturbingly misguided intentions), I stood by helplessly as a great deal of American foreign and Domestic policy was driven by this ridiculous and unnecessary fear.

When the Communist threat unofficially and symbolically came to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall, I thought for a week or two that the manic panic driving American politics might eventually die for want of an enemy to fear. That thought proved to be short-lived, however, for soon Americans were being treated to hand-wringing reports of a new enemy: terrorists. It was not long before it was clear, although not often clearly stated, that what Americans should now be alarmed about is a horde of Muslim fanatics whose goals were, amazingly enough, identical to those of the defunct Communists. Just like the Godless Communists before them, the God-frenzied Islamists were obsessed with world domination and the total eradication of freedom in every form. A new dangerous enemy had been found. The Cold War could continue. Or, if one prefers the language eventually used by Norman Podhoretz, World War III had come to an end, and World War IV was under way.

In recent months one has been hearing with increasing frequency references to a group of people known as Islamofascists. “Islamofascism” is a term that Stephen Schwartz of The Weekly Standard claims to have coined. In his own explanation of the term, Schwartz says it “refers to use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology.” One suspects that the first element of the compound, ‘Islamo’ is used to distinguish this sort of totalitarianism from the kind of domination of the world advocated by signatories of the Project for the New American Century or by those who use the faith of Christianity or Judaism for totalitarian ideology.

Stephen Schwartz advises that we learn to use the term “Islamofascism” accurately and sparingly. Properly used, he says, it refers to the ideologies of such organizations as al-Qa'ida and Hezbollah, which are organizations informed by, respectively, Sunni and Shi'i principles. Schwartz's reason for placing these two very different organizations under the same umbrella seems to be that both have contempt for Israel and both sponsor disruptive paramilitary campaigns against Israel and her allies. His reason for calling that umbrella ‘fascist’ seems to be to call attention to the resemblance of their putative anti-Jewish sentiments to the sentiments of Germany under the National Socialism.

One of the notable features of al-Qa'ida, according to Lawrence Wright, a scholar who has studied that organization's websites and whose observations were aired on CBC's program Ideas in a program called “AL QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11 ”, is that they have next to no political or economic policies at all. Fascism, as usually understood, is a politico-economic ideology based on a state-controlled economy (in contrast to a free-market economy) in a state based on a strong sense racial or ethnic or national identity (in contrast to identity based on commitment to spiritual or intellectual principles). It would appear, therefore, that there is nothing at all Fascist about Islamofascism. The ‘fascist’ element in the compound seems chosen not to be politically or economically descriptive or informative but to be psychologically manipulative. Its purpose, it seems, is to conjure up fear—in this case, a fear of the specter of racism, and especially the specter of anti-Semitism.

On October 29, 2007 on the Fox News program America's Newsroom, a guest reminded viewers that America has dangerous enemies “who need to be killed.” This was preceded by several references to Islamofascism. It is quite possible that the guest was at most half right; there probably are dangerous people in the world whose policies would not do America or anyone else much good. It is unlikely, in my view, that anyone anywhere has ever needed to be killed; more likely is that there are people whom other people would like to be killed. In fact, what I would be inclined to argue is that it is precisely those people who would be willing, or even eager, to see others be killed who are the dangerous people of this world. The so-called Islamofascists do not have a monopoly on dangerous people. The guest on Fox News who asserts that others need to be killed is dangerous for precisely the reasons that her would-be victims are dangerous. Anyone calling for the bombing of Iran is at least as dangerous as anyone in Iran. It could be argued that the more influential the person advocating the bombing is, the more dangerous that person is.

Just as in 1958 the militant anti-Communists were no less dangerous than the Communists, now the militant anti-Islamofascists are no less dangerous than the people designated by that dubious label. What is dangerous is militancy. What is dangerous is the issuing of overt and veiled threats. What is dangerous is the state of mind, wherever it may occur, that enables anyone to see another living being as a worthy candidate for death. No particular group of people has a corner on the market of being dangerous in that sense.

People who are dangerous do not need to die. They need to be listened to. They need to be allowed to state their grievances without being prejudged. They need to be treated as human beings fully entitled to all the respect that any other human being is entitled to receive. Until that basic principle is understood, neither America nor anyone else will ever be out of danger.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Indulging ourselves to death

The Chinese Daoist author Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) looked around the world in which he lived some twenty-five centuries ago and asked “Why are there so many boats on the river? Why are people building bridges just so they can easily get to the other side of the river? What is wrong with people that they can't be happy where they are?”

Do you have an answer to his question? Do you understand your own Wanderlust, your own compulsion to travel, whether by bicycle or automobile or airplane or virtually by serfing the Web? What is wrong with you? What is wrong with me?

One thing that is wrong with both you and me is that we are part of a network of enterprises that are destroying the only planet available to us and to our descendants. One Quaker writer, Marshall Massey, has argued that our current willingness to live in a way that destroys the earth that our children's children will inherit is morally equivalent to slavery. The people who founded the United States of America benefited from the labor of slaves. This was not much less true of those who did not own slaves than it was of those who did. People in colonial times enjoyed goods and services produced in an economy that depended heavily on the involuntary labor of captured human beings, people who would never enjoy all the things that their forced labor made possible. Today we look back on slave enconomies and find them deplorable. We feel a sense of justifiable smugness about our own moral superiority to our ancestors (or to those who enslaved our ancestors, as the case may be).

And yet we ourselves are enjoying goods that are, in effect, being stolen from future generations. We are living comfortable lives by depleting the resources of the earth, thereby making it impossible for our descendants to enjoy what we enjoy—perhaps even making it impossible for them to survive at all. Our oblivious insensitivity to the effects of our lifestyles reaches a scale of immorality—of evil if you prefer that term—that makes slavery look like a charitable institution in comparison.

Our generation is certainly not the first to live an unsustainable lifestyle. History is full of civilizations that have so destroyed their environments that the civilization fell into a state of ruin. In the Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilization (in what is now Iraq), both the Sumerians and the Babylonians had enough people living such lavish lives that the environment eventually collapsed, bringing the human cultures down with them. The Romans had a similar effect on the environment of northern Africa during the times when rich and powerful people in the Roman Empire were living in luxury. The Easter Islanders, the Mayans of Guatemala and southern Mexico, and various other indigenous peoples in North America lived beyond the sustainability of their environments. People have been in the business of indulging themselves beyond the capacity of their environments to sustain their greedy pursuits for a very long time.

What makes modern times different from these past examples of environmental collapse, of course, is that nearly everyone everywhere is participating in a pursuit of pleasure and comfort that puts severe strains on the environment. When people destroyed their environments in the past, they could migrate to a new location. In the world in which we now live, the human population has grown so large that nearly all habitats that can sustain human life are filled to overflowing with human populations. The effect of the world-wide degradation of the environment is cumulative, both across space and through time. Environmental scientists have made the following observations:

  • 20,000 species a year are going extinct, most of them because of degradation of the environment due to human activities.
  • Human beings collectively consume approximately 20% more resources than the earth can produce.
  • As a result, 60% of the earth's ecosystems have been severely compromised.
  • At current rates of extinction, it is estimated that 12% of all bird species, 25% of mammal species and 30% of all amphibian species are likely to be extinct by the end of the 21st century. If you are a parent with young children, your grandchildren will live to see all this extinction —provided your children and grandchildren live as long as human beings now live, which may turn out not to be the case.
  • 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators (such as tuna, swordfish and sharks) have disappeared in recent years.
  • Degraded plastic is now found everywhere in the earth's oceans, and biologists report that all species living in and near the ocean have significant traces of plastic in their systems. Plastic is not bio-degradable, has no nutritional value, and often impedes the normal biological processes that keep a species healthy. Its toxic omnipresence is slowly strangling all the lifeforms on our planet.

While nearly every intelligent and well-informed person shows at least some level of concern about our relationship with the environment, few are both willing and able to see what radical changes would be required of all of us in how we live, what we buy, how and where and how often we travel.

It is as if we all believe that our own personal projects are so important that we can be excused from adjusting our lives. (For example, I am using the energy-guzzling medium of the Internet to disseminate this message. Does the fact that I am writing about the environment somehow lighten my share of the burden that is being placed on the weary earth? Does the fact that you are reading this message reduce your impact on the environment? You and I both ahve some thining to do.)

Every man woman and child, whether he or she is a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Sikh or a Wiccan, owes it to the rest of the human race and to future generations to give some thought to these questions.

  • Why are we individually and collectively so blind and deaf to the effects our personal decisions have on other human beings, on animals and on plants?
  • If we would like to put this into the language of Asian systems of thought, why are we so oblivious of our karma and its ripening?
  • If we would like to put it into the language of the Abrahamic religions, why are we so unwilling to be custodians of God's creation and to preserve it for our descendants? How can we be so sinfully scornful of the creation of which we are a part?
  • To put the matter in a language anyone can understand, how did we descend into such an abysmal ignorance and insensitivity that we fail to see the obvious?
  • How can we change? If so, when do we start? Why are we waiting?

There is an environmentalist named Kurt Hoelting, who draws upon both Christian and Buddhist sources of inspiration, as well as upon scientific literature. He stresses our need as human beings to be in touch with wilderness. By losing touch with wilderness, he writes “we have placed our own psyches on the endangered species list.” The destruction of the environment is not only the consequence of our collective insanity; it is the cause of further forms of insanity. We have lost touch with something fundamental to who we are. We have lost touch not only with our animal natures but with what some would call our divine natures, namely, our ability to reason and to imagine courses of action other than the ones to which we have become habituated. This is nothing new, of course. The Chinese Daoist philosophers asked the provocative question “Of all the ten thousand things in nature, why is it that only human beings have to ask themselves ‘What is the Way?’” While the situation is not new, it is arguably more critical now than it has ever been before. We are now at the point where we cannot afford to be insane any longer.

To a human being in touch with wilderness, and with that part of nature that is not dominated by human obsessions with comfort and with pleasure, it is perfectly obvious that the individual self is a pure fiction. None of us are individuals. No one is independent. No one is free. No one can be secure. To pursue such fictions as individual rights and freedoms, and autonomy and freedom and security is to chase phantoms of one's vain imagining. We are all in this together—you and I and the chickadees and the mice and the salmon and the ladybugs and the juniper trees. Not one of us is free of the others or independent of the others—all of them.

When we lose touch with nature, we gain something, but what we gain is an illusion, an impossible dream that may begin with a seductive pleasantness but that sooner or later turns into a nightmare. We gain the delusion of individual selfhood and autonomous agency, and with that acquisition we take on the full brunt of the calamity of modern human life: the competitiveness, the greed, the insensitivity to others, the narcissistic isolation that manifests itself in constant struggle at the personal level and in warfare among peoples. When each of us is living in a way that depletes the available resources of material goods and energy, it is inevitable that we eventually feel justified in fighting to the death over them. We convince ourselves that we are entitled to live as we wish and that those who have the resources we need to do so are somehow undeserving to be living on the land that has the resources we crave. We turn them into demons. We invade their land. We kill them. Then we cannot understand why they resent us, and we turn their resentment into further evidence of their moral inferiority. This story is as old as history itself. But it is not the only story told in human history.

Ever since the dawn of recorded human history, there have been people offering us alternatives to the madness of personal and collective greed. In every part of the earth and in every culture there have been those who have invited us to learn to be content with having just what we need to survive, to be content with going no further than walking distance from our homes, or to be content to have so few possessions that we can easily carry our homes on our backs. Few people, especially in groups of people who pride themselves on being “civilized” accept the invitation. We may delude ourselves into thinking we are following the Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad, but how many people actually manage to live their lives as these great men lived theirs? There are a small handful of people who actually follow the examples of simplicity manifested in the lives of the Buddha or the Christ, but there are billions who imagine they are doing so.

You have read this. Now, what do you propose to do?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Where have all our manners gone?

On September 23, 2007, the CBS program 60 Minutes carried an interview with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The interview, conducted by Scott Pelley, was conducted in the customarily aggressive 60 Minutes style. One does not expect politeness or good manners in 60 Minutes interviews; that is not their style. It was, however, shocking to hear Pelley quote President Bush. The transcript of the program shows that Pelley said this:

I asked President Bush what he would say to you if he were sitting in this chair. And he told me-quote-speaking to you, that you've made terrible choices for your people. You've isolated your nation, you've taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made your country the pariah of the world. These are President Bush's words to you, What's your reply?

President Ahmadinejad seemed slightly taken aback, but he regained his composure quickly and said he did not believe President Bush had really said those things. Pelley claimed that he was quoting the American president directly. If Pelley was telling the truth, it is a truth that should make all Americans feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed. There is no excuse for one head of state to say to another, even through a television interviewer, that the other head of state has taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made his country the pariah of the world. That, of all people, President Bush, who has disgraced his own country in the eyes of the world, should say such a thing is a prime example of a pot calling a kettle black; but that is not the point. The point is that no head of state should ever speak in such undiplomatic and unprofessional language of another. Speaking in such a way is inexcusably rude, not to mention potentially dangerous. It is conduct unbecoming a president of the United States.

Perhaps emboldened by President Bush's carelessness and rudeness, a few days later Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, addressed aggressively rude remarks of his own to President Ahmadinejad, who was an invited guest speaker at the university. President Bollinger said:

Let's then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. And so, I ask you—and so, I ask you, why have women, members of the Baha=E2=80=99i Faith, homosexuals, and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? Why, in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN, did Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world's attention from the intolerable conditions in your regime within Iran—in particular, the use of the press law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system? Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

Then, before he invited President Ahmadinejad to speak, President Bollinger closed his introduction by saying:

Frankly—I close with this comment—frankly and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will, in itself, be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately, I am told by experts on your country that this only further undermines your position in Iran, with all the many goodhearted intelligent citizens there. A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country—was at one of the meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations—so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party's defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more. I am only a professor—I am only a professor who is also a university president. And today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better. Thank you.

I, too, am only a professor. But if Lee Bollinger were the president of my university, I would demand his resignation as president for making such embarrassingly disgraceful comments in full public view to an invited guest. There is no excuse whatsoever for inviting a guest to speak and then to introduce him by accusing him of being a petty and cruel dictator with a fanatical mindset who makes preposterous and belligerent statements.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, the United States of America has never been the envy of the world for being a bastion of refinement and polished civilization. That notwithstanding, the United States has in the past been a place of decency and civility. Are those days gone forever? Are we now to expect the president of the country to make rude and disparaging remarks of other heads of state? Are we to take it as a matter of course that prominent academics associated with our most prestigious universities will blurt out schoolboy taunts to invited guests? If so, we have become a sadly fallen nation indeed.

If no one else will apologize to President Ahmadinejad for the brazen crudeness and impudence of our public figures, then I will. President Ahmadinejad, on behalf of the American people, I apologize for the shoddy treatment you received while visiting my home and native land. While I myself have many differences of opinion with you, I admire the gracious cheerfulness with which you received the rudeness of my countrymen, and I thank you for saying several things about the policies of my country that desperately needed to be said. May your criticisms of us not fall on deaf ears.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A grandson of Confucius assesses America

In “America's report card” we saw what grades the United States might get if graded by the standards set by Walt Whitman's poem “The Broad-axe.” In this squib, we'll take a look at how the United States might be graded if we used the standards of Kongji, the grandson of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), who is credited with writing these words:

There are nine standards by which to administer the empire, its states, and the families. They are: cultivating the personal life, honoring the worthy, being affectionate to relatives, being respectful toward the great ministers, identifying oneself with the welfare of the whole body of officers, treating the common people as one's own children, attracting the various artisans, showing tenderness to strangers from far countries, and extending kindly and awesome influence on the feudal lords.

Applying the criteria

Kongji goes on to explain “If the ruler cultivates his personal life, the Way will be established. If he honors the worthy, he will not be perplexed.” Our current ruler seems to cultivate his personal life, if we understand cultivation to mean keeping in good physical fitness. The President reportedly has many rigorous workouts every week and loves to ride his bicycle vigorously enough to work off 1000 calories per session. He also claims to read more than one hundred books a year. So we are off to a good start. When it comes to honoring the worthy, our President seems to believe that he does just that, although his criteria of who is worthy could be questioned. All appearances indicate that being worthy in the eyes of the President consists mostly in being loyal. While loyalty is a good quality if it is toward a noble and honorable person, loyalty to a person of low or questionable integrity is not always a positive quality. In the interest of not prejudging the situation and coming to a conclusion without adequate evidence, we should perhaps say that there is not enough impartial information to give the President a grade on this criterion.

Konji says of the ruler: “If he is affectionate to his relatives, there will be no grumbling among his uncles and brothers.” The President does seem to be affectionate toward his father, his mother, his brother, his wife and his children. Once again, he would probably receive high marks from the grandson of Confucius.

Konji says “If he respects the great ministers, he will not be deceived.” Here most of the evidence suggests that the President is not especially good at listening to great ministers. He does seem to do well at listening to those who agree with him, but there are many well-informed thinkers who have excellent advice to offer who seem to go unheard, or at least unheeded. In this area the President is right on the borderline between failing and getting a barely passing grade. (A tougher grader than I might just fail him.)

“If he identifies himself with the welfare of the whole body of officers, then the officers will repay him heavily for his courtesies.” From the very outset, the commander-in-chief has earned a reputation for being selective in which of his generals he heeds. Those who seriously question or openly disagree with the command-in-chief's policies find themselves on the margins. If one understands officers as including non-commissioned as well as commissioned officers in the armed services, and if one asks whether the command-in-chief identifies himself with their welfare, he cannot, I'm afraid, be given a passing grade. American members of the armed services are being exposed to unnecessarily dangerous circumstances, as a result of which serious injuries and psychological traumas are being sustained, and follow-up care for the wounded has not been even close to adequate. It is alleged that the commander-in-chief has not attended the funeral of a single uniformed serviceman who has died in the war in Iraq. It is difficult to escape the impression that the commander-in-chief has a difficult time expressing his care for the people whom he has sent into perilous situations. It is reported that he regularly cries when he thinks of the dead and injured, but his tears have not been translated into policies that would help better to prevent them from dying and being wounded.

Kongji says of the successful ruler: “If he treats the common people as his own children, then the masses will exhort one another to do good.” Here the President receives his lowest grade. His sluggish response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has been well documented. The poor, the weak and the helpless citizens of the United States have never been the focus of the President's attention. Indeed, their share of the economic resources in the United States has steadily decreased during the past seven years. The rich and powerful have fared much better. They have enjoyed tax cuts and various other advantages that have resulted in dramatic increases in their wealth and power. Regulations that have restrained the greed of major corporations have been steadily eroded. No progress has been made toward providing universal health for everyone, including the poor and the powerless, in the country. The quality of public education has declined noticeably. If the common people had been our President's children, they would have been disinherited or treated as medieval tyrants treated their bastard offspring. Even giving the President an F might qualify as grade inflation.

So how are we doing in the realm of commerce? Konji says “If he attracts the various artisans, there will be sufficiency of wealth and resources in the country.” Encouraging, through a relentlessly dogmatic commitment to free markets, business enterprises in this country to seek the lowest-paid labor in the world has resulted in the steady diminishing of industry in the United States. Artisans have not done well at all in recent years. The principal beneficiaries of the President's policies have been the extremely wealthy and those in the poorly paid unskilled service sector. A larger percentage of people live in poverty in the United States than in any other industrialized nation. If there is a sufficiency of wealth and resources, they are so poorly distributed as to be almost non-existent to those with the greatest need. Once again, a fair-minded evaluator would reluctantly have to give a grade of F.

“If he shows tenderness to strangers from far countries, people from all quarters of the world will flock to him.” In this area the President himself has apparently had the will to show kindness to strangers from foreign lands, provided their plan is to come to this country to work at wages so low as to be tantamount to economic slavery. Unfortunately, he has failed to convince his most ardent supporters of the wisdom of showing compassion to people from foreign lands. As a result, there has been a collective paralysis of legislators to arrive at any workable remedies to the problem of economic refugees who have come to this country in hopes of making a decent livelihood. Our ruler seemingly has good intentions, but is it not with good intentions that the road to hell is paved?

“And if he extends kindly and awesome influence over the feudal lords, then the world will stand in awe of him.” The world has never stood in awe of the current ruler of the United States, and the world stands in less awe of the country as a whole every passing week. A Confucian would no doubt find a close link between the qualities of the President and the declining international prestige and influence enjoyed by the United States.


Taking all the criteria of Confucianism into consideration, our current ruler does not fare much better than when America's greatest poet, Walt Whitman, were used as a basis of evaluation. If the country had had inadequate leadership for only eight years, we might have hope to expect a slow but steady recovery to health. Unfortunately, incompetent leaders have been the norm in the United States for at least the past twenty-five years. Some Presidents have done better than others in specific criteria, but none have been consistently admirable, noble and competent leaders of the sort that Confucians always dreamed. It is, therefore, difficult to be both reasonable and optimistic about the future of the United States. If we stay on our present course, there is probably nothing to look forward to but steady cultural decline.

There may be an alternative. Hints on what the alternatives are may be found in the Declaration of Independence. A detailed look at how that revolutionary document might be applied to our current situation may be the subject matter of a future squib.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

America's need for light

A scientist speaks of rainbows

One of the most interesting books to come out during the past ten years is Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. (Boston: Mariner Books, 1998). The title refers to a complaint from the poet John Keats that Sir Isaac Newton's work on optics was taking the mystery out of such beautiful events as rainbows. Dawkins argues that science actually adds mystery to life, because science never stops asking questions and never stops probing deeper. Religion, he suggests, is more prone to closing inquiry by giving answers, often superficial and inadequate ones, and discouraging further questioning. By way of illustrating how interesting scientific accounts can be, he offers a brief account of the optics that account for rainbows (pp. 45-49). Anyone who wishes to read that can borrow or buy the book. What I would like to do is not recapitulate the physics of rainbows but to take rainbows as a point of departure for discussing light poetically as a religious metaphor.

Where on earth is a rainbow?

One of the most interesting things to ask oneself about a rainbow is: where exactly is it? In thinking about this, consider that if one watches a rainbow from a fast-moving vehicle, the rainbow seems always to be about the same distance from the observer. This suggests that the rainbow is moving at the same speed as the observer. Now imagine that one is looking at a rainbow from a fast-moving train and passes a farmer who is standing in his field and looking at the rainbow. The farmer sees a rainbow that is standing still, and the person on the train sees a rainbow that is moving. Are they both looking at the same rainbow? If so, how can the same rainbow be simultaneously moving at the speed of the train and standing still?

Now consider what happens if one walks (or runs or drives very fast) toward a rainbow. The rainbow backs away. It always seems to be at exactly the same distance from the observer. What if, instead of one observer moving toward the rainbow, we had a hundred observers placed at a distance of one meter from one another. Each of them would see a rainbow that seems to be at a distance of, say, five kilometers away. (When one really thinks about it, it is quite difficult to estimate just how far away a rainbow appears to be. When I look at a rainbow from my house, it seems to be somewhere in front of the Sandia Mountains, and I know the crest of the Sandias is about 15 kilometers from my house, so presumably the rainbow seems to be closer than that.) Now if one hundred observers each see a rainbow that is five kilometers away, then either there is one rainbow located in one hundred different places, or there are one hundred rainbows, all but one of which remains hidden to each observer.

The way out of these problems seems to be to admit that each observer sees his or her own rainbow. And this would suggest that a rainbow is not located on the earth or in the sky at all. Perhaps, like the second moon one sees when one's eyes are not properly focused, it is not located anywhere at all. If it is anywhere, it could be in the eye (or mind) of the observer.

It is not, however, entirely satisfactory to say that a rainbow is merely in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. A rainbow does not appear to the beholder no matter which way she happens to be looking. The rainbow appears to an observer only if she is situated in a particular way relative to the sun. (More about this in a moment.) So the rainbow is not an internal visualization that one projects willy nilly onto an empty sky in the way that a Buddhist meditator might project an image of Amitabha Buddha onto a clear blue sky or a sunset. Where is that rainbow?

I love questions much more than answers, so I am not even going to try to answer the question of where the rainbow is. But let me return just for a moment to the question of where the observer has to be situated relative to the sun in order to see a rainbow. When the sun is still in the eastern part of the sky, the rainbow is in the west. When the sun has moved to the western part of the sky, the rainbow appears to be in the east. The observer always stands between the sun and the rainbow. In other words, an observer can see a rainbow only when his back is to the sun.

What, from an optical point of view, is a rainbow? It is the effect of clear, invisible sunlight being refracted by millions of tiny droplets of water, each of which has a prismatic effect of breaking clear light into several bands of colored light. Colored light is only a part of full-spectrum light. Colored light is light with a particular frequency, whereas whole sunlight contains all the frequencies of light at once. A rainbow, then, can be considered to be something like broken, fractured light. Whole light is invisible, yet it enables one to see everything that one sees. Fractured light is visible but enables one to see only part of the visual field. Looking at this poetically, a rainbow is an image of a display of partial and broken lights. One can see that only when one has turned one's back on the whole light, the light that enables one to see everything clearly.

Holding someone or something in the light

When Quakers know of someone who is undergoing difficulty, they often say “Friends, let us hold so-and-so in the light.” Quakers also talk of holding a concern in the light. In fact, at a Quaker meeting for worship for business, the entire proceedings are a series of holding issues in the light until it becomes clear to everyone what the right solution is. Quaker meetings for business are not run by Robert's Rules of Order. No one makes a motion. No vote is ever taken. Rather, an issue is discussed in the context of vigilant and attentive silence--silence broken only when someone has a leading to share a new dimension of the issue being discussed--and the discussion continues either until it is clear to everyone what the right policy is or until it is clear that at this time no clarity can be reached. (When the latter happens, the problem is set aside to be “seasoned” for a month or so.)

The Quaker way of discussing problems or handing conflicts can be see as doing just the opposite of what a prism does. A prism breaks up whole light into a spectrum of colors. In A Quaker meeting, each person comes in with a particular perspective, which is usually based on a partial understanding. Each Friend comes to the meeting seeing a problem in a colored light. As discussion takes place, all these colors of light merge into a more complete light. No Friend can see the full, clear light unless she is willing to turn her back to the rainbow of partial lights.

Quaker business meetings often feel as though something miraculous has emerged. Unity often arises out of what seems at first to be a set of irreconcilable diversities. Every month, after the monthly meeting for business at the Meetinghouse, I find myself wishing that America (indeed, the entire world) could do business in a similar way. I wish we could all have the courage and the will to abandon our partial perspectives and to look at every problem of life in the whole clear light, and I wish we could all realize that this can happen only when we all have the courage and will to listen carefully to everything being said, to hold it without reaction and judgment, and to let it have its way with us. This does not mean concluding that everyone is right about everything; it is not a descent into irresponsible relativism. Rather it is ascent into a higher understanding, one that is based on the recognition that everyone has a truth to tell and is therefore worth hearing out, but everyone's truth is partial and in need of being complemented by other perspectives.

Perhaps one of the reasons that few Quakers experience a conflict between religion and science is that the deep listening and reflection that is the soul of the Quakerly way of dealing with concerns is a way that is both the way of mystical religion and the way of scientific method. As long as one is willing to listen further and to reconsider issues in a fuller light than has been available so far, then one is prepared to do both good religion and good science.

At this stage of its development, a significant portion of the American nation seems to have developed the habit of turning its back on whole light and looking at all problems in isolation and in fractured, refracted light. That is a way of seeing that promotes fear, even panic, and results in ever-increasing destruction. There is an alternative to that fearful way of seeing, but one of the effects of fear is that one can rarely see alternatives to being fearful.

America is now in dire need of enlightenment. Whether enough people will see the light to turn the country back onto a more wholesome course remains to be seen. As the country descends into deeper darkness, there will always be some of us holding the country in the light.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is nuclear energy a solution to global warming?

The MIT study

In 2003 an interdisciplinary study group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study called The Future of Nuclear Power. The study is worth reading in full, but what I would like to focus upon here is a few of their observations and one of their important underlying assumptions.

First, the conclusion that the study reaches is that global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human energy consumption is a serious problem that must be addressed. In that context, the study says that are there are possible strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that at this time none of those strategies should be rejected. The four strategies are:

  1. increasing efficiency in electricity generation and use;
  2. expanding the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal;
  3. the sequestration of carbon, that is, capturing carbon dioxide emissions at coal-fueled electrical generating stations and isolating it in places where it cannot easily enter the atmosphere; and
  4. increasing the use of nuclear power.

Of those four strategies, all of which the study advocates using, the only one it studies in some depth is the use of nuclear power. It's recommendation is that at this time the best strategy would be to have 1000-1500 nuclear reactors around the world in use by the year 2050.. As of 2003, says the report, there were 366 nuclear reactors in service. So the recommendation is that during the next 43 years the number of nuclear reactors in the world be a little more than doubled at least and a little more than quadrupled at most. This would require the building of somewhere between fifteen and twenty-six nuclear reactors every year between now and 2050.

Hazards of increased use of nuclear power

The MIT study outlines several hazards of the increased use of nuclear-generated electricity. The principal concerns as with safety of using nuclear power, security risks of producing and storing nuclear fuel, and unresolved problems of waste disposal.


No nuclear plant design, says the study, is totally risk free. The possibility of leaks of hazardous levels radioactive materials into the environment arises from two realities: 1) any complex technological system is prone to having flaws in the design, and 2) any technological system operated by human beings is prone to human error. The most one could hope for, says the study, is to keep the probability of accidents down to an acceptable level. The acceptable level they suggest is one serious accident per fifty years. This level represents a ten-fold reduction in serious accidents from the level that has been attained up to this time.

It is worth asking how likely it is that a ten-fold reduction in the rate of accidents could be achieved. Even maintaining current levels of safety would require a steady repair of already existing nuclear plants, many of which in the United States are already older than the forty years for which they were designed to operate. Of at least equal concern is that maintaining and operating nuclear power facilities would require constantly educating people to serve as operators. In an atmosphere of general decline in education in the United States in mathematics and the sciences and technology, there is no reason to be optimistic that reliable operators will continue to be trained in the United States. In many important ways, the culture of expertise in the United States is in decline, and there are at present no signs that this trend will soon be reversed.

Waste management

Under this heading the report says:

The management and disposal of high-level radioactive spent fuel from the nuclear fuel cycle is one of the most intractable problems facing the nuclear power industry throughout the world. No country has yet successfully implemented a system for disposing of this waste.

At present there is only one site for high-level waste management in the United States, namely, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. To accommodate the proposed increased use of nuclear power, says the study, there would have to be similar storage facilities created somewhere in the world every three to four years. Moreover, the problem of safely moving radioactive waste from nuclear plants to these facilities would have to be solved much better than is now the case. While the short-term risks ofradioactive contamination are not too serious, says the study, the long-term risks are much more serious. Again, maintaining disposal sites requires the very best in technology and in human training and moral integrity. In a rapidly changing world such as ours, neither of these requirements can be counted on.

Security risks

Another hazard that has yet to be resolved satisfactorily is the likelihood of enriched uranium and plutonium falling into the possession of people who would not use it for peaceful purposes. It appears that the current trajectory of human civilization is not in the direction of greater co-operation and harmony. Even if hostilities around the world did not rise from their current levels, the likelihood of discontented groups of individuals breaching nuclear facilities or fuel-generating plants with catastrophic consequences for thousands or millions of people is a sobering reality.

Availability of fuel

One further point the study makes, albeit as a positive point, is that one can expect the world's supply of easily available uranium to last for approximately fifty years. After that, resources will be most probably become scarce. What the study does not say spell out is that when uranium becomes scarce, then a world that has become dependent on it for electrical production will be as likely to fight over scarce nuclear fuel as it has been to fight over dwindling fossil fuel resources. In other words, the nuclear solution is another short-term solution. Unlike others, however, it is accompanied by serious potential risks of catastrophic consequences, especially in the long term.

Unexamined presupposition

Despite all these potential risks, the MIT study group concludes that increased use of electricity produced by nuclear processes is less likely to produce disastrous consequences than the continued use of fossil fuels at current levels. That conclusion is very sobering for two reasons: it highlights just how serious the consequences of continued use of fossil fuels are, and it makes it sound as though there is no alternative to living in a world that is increasingly compromised by human consumption of energy.

What the study assumes is that human beings will continue to use electrical energy at the same rate of acceleration as it has during the past fifty years. Energy consumption in the United States has quadrupled during the past fifty years, as the population of the country has doubled. That means per-capita energy consumption in the United States has doubled. No responsible scientist of policy maker believes our current level of energy consumption is sustainable. It simply cannot continue to increase. Itcannot even remain at anything near its present rate.


Unlike the MIT study group, I am inclined to say that increased use of nuclear-energy-fueled electricity production is not a strategy that it would be responsible to pursue in the United States or anywhere else in the world. We who are living now owe it to future generations to find a way of living that dramatically reduces our negative impact on the environment. The increased use of solar, wind and geothermal energy is something to pursue. But even more important is a significant reduction of our use of electricity and other alternatives to using the energy of our own muscles. The human being is not designed to do as little physical work as most people in “developed” countries now do. When a human body does too little walking, lifting, carrying, reaching and moving, it tends to become overweight and to suffer a wide range of threats to health.

The next time you go to the gym to use electricity-driven machines to do some kind of exercise that could much better be done by using your body to do work and by using the legs to get from one place to another, ask yourself: What is wrong with this picture?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

America's report card

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass contains a poem entitled Song of the Broad-Axe. The fifth canto in that poem describes the place where the great city stands. The great city, Whitman says, is not the place of great commercial enterprises, nor the place of the biggest and most splendid buildings, “Nor the place of the best libraries and schools—nor the place where money is plentiest, Nor the place of the most numerous population.”

The place of the great city, says Whitman, is the place where we find the following:

  • Where thrift is in its place
  • Where prudence is in its place
  • Where the men and women think lightly of the laws
  • Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases
  • Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons
  • Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority
  • Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and what not, are agents for pay
  • Where children are taught to be laws unto themselves, and to depend on themselves;
  • Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs
  • Where women walk in public processions in the streets, and enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men

Taking a couple of these as criteria, let's see what grade a fair-minded teacher would give contemporary America on its report card.


When I was a child, the adults in my life hardly ever turned on the electric lights during the daytime hours. They relied on sunlight that came in through windows. When my family finally got a television set, we agreed that we would watch it no more than an hour an evening. If we opted not to watch it at all on some evenings, we allowed ourselves to apply the time to other evenings. When the television was off, it was completely off. When it was turned on, it took about a minute to warm up. Nowadays, even when most televisions are turned off, they are consuming electricity, because a small amount is used to keep all the circuits warmed up. The same is true of several other appliances. (Learn more about hidden electrical bandits.) Nowadays lights are left on routinely, although recently awareness of this seems to be on the rise. Michael Hodges reports that America's consumption of energy has nearly quadrupled since 1955. During that same time the American population has not even doubled, which means that each of us is using on average more than twice as much energy as we used fifty years ago. reports that the average household in the U.S. is about $14,500 in debt, not counting mortgage debts. Sixty years ago hardly any households were in serious debt, while now about 40% of American families annually spend more than they earn. The United States as a nation is a little more than 13 times more in debt than it was in 1940. (This figure is corrected for inflation; without that correction, the absolute debt is, of course much higher. A fuller explanation can be found on Ed Hall's national debt clock FAQ.) Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have completely lost sight of thrift. So by Walt Whitman's first criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA an F.

Has the slave and the slave-owner ceased?

Walt Whitman lived to see the end of the ownership of kidnapped Africans forced to work for wealthy families who owned them (families that included several signatories to the Declaration of Independence and a number of America's first presidents). Whitman rightly called slavery “the foulest crime in history known to any land of age” (See This dust was once a man.) It might, however, be premature to say that America has abolished a slave-based economy. True, human beings are no longer formally owned by others, but the American economy depends heavily on an underpaid workforce made up of citizens who work at wages that keep them below the poverty line and of non-citizens who migrate here to do black-market labor. When 13% of the US population lives below the poverty line, giving the United States one of the highest poverty levels in the industrialized world, and when a significant number of families cannot afford health care, it is not unreasonable to say that conditions barely better than slavery still prevail. In a spirit of generosity, a fair-minded teacher might give the country a C.

Does the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons?

A recent report on the Bill Moyers Journal stated that 45% of Americans favor impeachment hearings for President Bush and 54% favor impeachment for Vice President Cheney. While those numbers are encouraging in some ways, they hardly serve as evidence that the population as a whole has risen against the audacity of elected officials. And if they have risen at all, it has certainly not been at once. The response has been sluggish and reluctant, and there is little reason to believe a) that our elected representatives in the Congress will vote for impeachment, or b) that the American electorate will vote their elective representatives out of office for their failure to impeach even when the grounds for so doing are probably as strong as they have ever been in the history of the nation. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have become jaded about the audacity of their elected officials. So by Walt Whitman's fifth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a C minus.

Does outside authority enter always after the precedence of inside authority?

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, claimed that any external authority is only as good as the insight and wisdom of the person who interprets it. This is a classical statement of what people nowadays call theological liberalism, that is, the position that individuals are free (liber) to interpret scriptural authority by their own lights. This is not so much a claim of policy as it is a claim of fact. That is, it is not claiming that people ought to be free to interpret authoritative statements so much as it is claiming that people have no choice but to interpret everything they encounter, for there is no such thing as any belief that is not a personal interpretation of something.

While it is obvious to theological liberals that we all swim in a sea of personal interpretation (most of which is, of course, conditioned by our desires to fit in with people around us), there are people who believe that it is possible just to read the Bible, or the US Constitution, and know immediately, without intervening interpretation, what an authoritative source means by what it says. Such a conviction is part of what we mean by the concept of fundamentalism.

So how fundamentalist is the United States? To what extent does the populace of the United States admit that they appeal to external authority only after appealing to internal authority, and celebrate that they approach authority in this way? A clue is provided by an article on the website of Copernicus Marketing, where we read:

Copernicus discovered that among the general population, the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously liberal increased much more dramatically over the course of 30 years while the number of fundamentalists increased only marginally. Liberals expanded from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to 29 percent in 2002, while fundamentalists grew from 27 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 2002.

Although the emphasis in the wording of the paragraph above is on the percentage growth among theological liberals in the United States, it is worth noting that the number of self-identified fundamentalists is still 1% higher than the percentage of self-identified liberals, and that fundamentalism is still on the rise, even if less rapidly than theological liberalism. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have never been as good at thinking for themselves as they sometimes like to believe. The United States is still, to a large extent, a nation of sheep. So by Walt Whitman's sixth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a barely passing C minus.

Is equanimity illustrated in affairs?

Given that nearly every commentator on the contemporary scene has pointed out how polarized the US population has become, and given that polarization is rarely the outcome of careful, balanced thinking and equanimity, I think it is clear that, the United States is dangerously close to failure. At best, the United States is currently doing no better than D minus.

Are the genders equal?

As this is written, a woman is the leading contender to be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and for the first time a woman is Speaker of the House. More women than men are graduating from high school and entering college. Women are routinely in public view as news commentators, journalists, higher-level educators and political candidates. About all this, Whitman would no doubt be pleased. Women are still, however, dramatically underpaid in comparison with men who do the same jobs. The nation has been heading in the right direction for the past few decades, but there is still room for improvement. Not wanting to give a grade on this issue without consulting my wife, I asked her what grade she would give America in the area of gender equality. Her grade was exactly the same as I was thinking before asking her. So the answer must be right: in gender equality America gets a B.

Overall assessment

Averaging all the above grades according to Walt Whitman's poetic criteria of the place where the great city is found, we come up with a D+ for the United States of America as a whole. While that is strictly speaking not a failing grade, it is not high enough to earn a credit in a required course. The case is not hopeless, but there is a great deal of work to be done before a satisfactory grade can be given. The United States should perhaps have a tutor. I recommend turning for high-quality mentoring to Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden for a start. Later, when a good foundation of social and political knowledge has been reached, the United States can turn to other countries for help.

As with any student in danger of failing to make the grade, the biggest question with the United States is: is the student willing to learn? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is America ready for Democracy?

There are those in the United States who are enthusiastic about the project of supporting democracy in various parts of the world. Supporting democracy is a project about which I can muster some enthusiasm, but only if the circumstances are right. A democratic government is only as good as the general electorate is informed. At the very least, a voting citizen should be informed about the laws of her land, the historical circumstances that led to the making of those laws, and the geographical features of the nation in which she is casting a vote. If one is a voter in a nation that has ambitions of becoming the center of an empire, as the United States does, then a voter is obligated to be well informed about the geography of the world as a whole, and the histories of the many nations with which there is interaction.

There is mounting evidence that many of the people eligible to vote in the United States since the passing of the 26th amendment to the Constitution in 1971 (the amendment that gave the right to vote to every citizen of the United States who is 18 years of age or older) are not sufficiently well informed to make informed decisions about those who represent them and preside over them. It has been well documented for years that young Americans consistently get among the lowest scores in the world in internationally adjudicated math and science tests. More recently there have been stories about the astonishingly poor knowledge of geography that young men and women in the 18–24 age group have.

One such story can be found on the CNN Education site. On this site we learn, among other things, that 44% of Americans in the 18–24 range were unable to locate on a map even one of the countries Iraq, Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Some 57% of Americans in that age range were unable to locate the state of Ohio on a map, and only 50% could find the state of New York. These results did not surprise me much. I recently asked a group of students who were taking an upper-level undergraduate course on Buddhism how many of them could find India, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea on a map of Asia; the majority said they would be unable to find Korea, Japan and Vietnam, but most thought they would be able to find China or India. It is reassuring to know that these American students could find the two most populated countries on the planet, countries in which about 36% of the world's population lives, but I wonder how many would know that India and China together have a population about seven times that of the United States. And how many would know that most college students in those countries know far more than the average American college student knows about world geography, world history, math, science, and quite possibly American geography and history.

While I have not seen any statistics recently on how many young American adults could pass a citizenship test if they were required to, my guess is that many could not. This raises the question: if the United States does not allow immigrants to vote in US elections until they have passed a citizenship test, why are citizens allowed to vote before they can pass the same citizenship test? Never shy of recommending adjustments that might be made in US law, let me suggest the following policies that might be tried out:

  • Make periodic citizenship tests mandatory for everyone. If people must pass tests before they are entitled to drive an automobile or a truck or motorcycle, it seems quite reasonable that they should pass tests periodically to prove they are fit to cast a vote in a municipal, state or federal election.
  • Allow people from every country in the world to vote in US federal elections, provided they can pass a citizenship test. After all, just about everyone in the world is affected by policies made by US presidents and by the US Congress. It seems unreasonable to deprive them of a voice in their own destinies, provided they are knowledgeable enough about world events and current affairs.

Normally, I would suggest a policy of improving America's domestic educational system, but it is unlikely that Americans will ever be smart enough to elect people who will make education a priority, rather than waging aggressive wars around the world and trying to achieve regime change in “developing” countries. While it might seem like a good idea to divert some of the $400,000,000,000 the United States spends on the military every year to the education budget, which is about 10% as large as the military budget, there are probably not enough American voters sufficiently educated to insist on voting only for presidential and congressional candidates who value books more than guns and who realize that the best possible way to have a safe and secure country is to contribute to the well-being of people around the world rather than terrorizing them with knowledge that an unfriendly giant has the capacity to obliterate them.

If you have not yet seen it, check out the Oreo cookie demonstration that puts all this into perspective. It is reminiscent of the classical BB demonstration that Ben Cohen gave to give some idea of how large the nuclear arsenal of the United States is.

If you are a US citizen, please write to your senators and congressional representatives right away and insist that they support legislation to require citizenship tests of all voters, not just those who were born outside the country. But first, why not try your hand on some questions from the citizenship test that is given to people seeking US citizenship?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Regulation yes, prohibition no

One of the slogans used by those who want guns not to be banned is “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” One can hardly argue against a proposition of this form, since it is a tautology. If X is outlawed, then only those who break the law can do/have X. So if parakeets are outlawed, then only outlaws will have parakeets. If sunbathing is outlawed, then only outlaws will sunbathe. My favorite instance of this logical form was one I recently saw on a bumper sticker: “If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.”

The slogan about guns, of course, is somewhat more than a trivially true proposition. It does get at an important psychological truth, namely, the law of forbidden fruits. This psychological truth is reflected in the stories of many traditions, including in Jewish (and Christian) mythology. The story goes that when God commanded the first man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.16), then gave him a female companion, the first man and woman promptly ate the fruit of the only tree that was forbidden to them (Gen 3.6). As a result of eating the forbidden fruit, the man and woman became mortal, and their mortality was inherited by all their descendants. This feature of the story shows the potentially serious consequences of yielding to the temptation to do anything that is forbidden. And yet doing what is forbidden comes very easily to most human beings (and, so my observations tell me, to most dogs and cats).

People in the United States of America learned the consequences of trying to forbid the sale of alcohol during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933). Several other countries (Iceland, Norway, Finland, Hungary, Russia, the Soviet Union and some provinces of Canada) tried the same experiment with much the same results. The forbidden substance did not cease to be attractive, and the demand was quickly met by suppliers who, by the very act of supplying a forbidden substance, became criminals and made criminals of those who purchased the forbidden substance from them. It has been suggested by some that the advent of syndicated crime owes much to the attempt to prohibit a substance that was considered undesirable by some.

While people in the United States learned the consequences of prohibiting alcohol, they apparently did not learn the lesson fully. One still hears of people who strongly advocate prohibiting the sale and use of goods and services that they do not approve, thereby making the purchase of those goods and services criminal activities. Americans still have not fully realized the insight of the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tzu), who observed that there would be no crime anywhere if only there were no laws. It is lawmakers who make criminals.

There are several areas of life in the United States, I would argue, where prohibition is prohibitively expensive and should be abandoned altogether in favor of regulation.

  • The use of various drugs. The non-medical use of narcotics, opiates and amphetamines, and any use at all of marijuana, has been prohibited for quite some time. The result has been that all these substances are sold at highly elevated prices, so that those who are addicted to them are often driven to robbery and other criminal activity to pay for the illegal substances. Most of the crime associated with the use of drugs that are now illegal could be eliminated immediately simply by making the substances legal but regulated and taxed, in much the way that alcohol now is. This formula has worked with great success in the Netherlands.
  • The sale of firearms. Various legislators have proposed bills at various times that would ban the sale of various kinds of firearm. These attempts at prohibition are doomed to failure, and would, if ever implemented, almost surely lead to a great deal of violent crime. Banning firearms is hardly the route to go. More regulation of the sales and ownership and use, however, would likely result in a reduction of the amount of firearm-inflicted death within the United States. Licensing sellers, buyers and users of firearms has been successful in several countries in which the percentage of the population who die by gunshot is a fraction of what it is in the United States.
  • Homosexuality. Perhaps nothing is more absurd than laws prohibiting the natural expression of affection between two people who love one another. Fortunately, laws against homosexuality are falling by the wayside. There are those who still favor strongly discouraging homosexuals by making it difficult or impossible for them to have the full rights of marriage or civil unions, but polls suggest that the majority of Americans are now in favor of homosexuals being fully accepted in society (although a majority are still opposed to allowing full marriage rights to homosexuals). On this issue, Americans are moving slowly in the right direction, that is, toward tolerance and even acceptance. (There is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance still implies disapproval, but with a willingness to allow what one condemns to exist.)
  • Abortion. America has had a sensible position on abortion ever since the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade. Yet there are many Americans who favor a return to some kind of prohibition of this medical procedure. The experience of other countries in the experiment in prohibiting abortion is not very promising. Poland, a land in which abortion is illegal, has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe, often with disastrous results to women. It would be most unfortunate for the United States to revert to prohibition in this area.

Some time ago I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot of a church that read “Prayerfully pro choice”. This bumper sticker could be applied to a wide range of behavior in this country. Opposition of a kind of behavior of which one disapproves is much better achieved through simply avoiding it oneself and trying through “gentle persuasion” (which is significantly different from emotional blackmail and intimidation) to influence the decisions of others. Vegetarians, for example, are much more likely to save the lives of animals by quietly pointing out the advantages of vegetarianism than by trying to pass laws against ranches and slaughterhouses or trying to shame meat-eaters. People who know the health hazards of smoking tobacco have set an example that could be followed in many other areas of life, namely, that regulation and education is far more effective than outright bans and prohibitions.

There is still time for Americans to continue the slow process of waking up to sensible and workable policies rather than dogmatic and emotion-driven strategies that nearly always fail.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The karma of a nation: "This Land is Your Land"

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a Sephardic Jewish American born in New York City wrote some of the best-known words in American poetry. Part of her poem “The New Collosus” were inscribed the Statue of Liberty some twenty years after the poet died, because the words were thought to capture the generous spirit of the American people.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I was born in a part of the United States that was made a territory after a war of US aggression against our neighbor to the south. I belong to an ethnic group, the English, that makes up less than 7.6% of the population of the state in which I was born. Almost 37% of the population of my state are descendants of Spain, Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries, and another 10% are native Americans whose land was forcibly taken from them by waves of people of European descent. No doubt most of my views on American immigration policy is shaped by the fact that most of my ancestors came from England several generations before the United States was an independent country and that I somehow was born in a state whose principal values were forged more by Mexican and native American values than by anything from England. The Mexican culture of hospitality has shaped my thinking at least as much as the English-American value of equality. Because of my own deepest religious and social values, I find myself amazed at the attitude of many of my fellow Americans—an attitude that all too often strikes me as mean-spirited.

The aim of this essay is to outline a few considerations that I would hope might become the basis of American immigration policy in the near future.

  • Let there be an international agreement that allows people to move as easily across borders as goods. The North-American Free Trade Agreement did much to eliminate protectionist measures that stood in the way of the unimpeded flow of goods across the borders between the United States and Canada and Mexico. Unfortunately, NAFTA did little to help the people whose lives were affected by these changes in trade patterns. NAFTA was an agreement that served the interests not of ordinary people, but of multinational corporations. It was an agreement of the wealthy for the wealthy. It is time to amend the agreement so that all Americans—that is, all the people living in North America, Central America and South America can move freely from one country to another in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. The model for this agreement might be something like that which exists in the European Union, whereby citizens of the twenty-seven member states can move freely anywhere within the union. What I would propose, in other words would be an entity of united American states in which everyone from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego could travel without impediment and take up residence to work wherever they wish within the two American continents. The best way to eliminate illegal aliens is to banish the laws that make it illegal to move freely in pursuit of a livelihood.
  • Let there be a common currency throughout the Americas. Toward the end of facilitating the free movement of both peoples and goods and services, there should be a common currency somewhat like the Euro in Europe. It might be called something like the American Peso.
  • Let there be at least three official languages in the Union of American States. As anyone who lives in Canada has experienced, it is quite manageable to have two official languages. Switzerland manages four, as does the small Republic of Singapore. Surely a territory as large as the proposed Union of American States could manage the three languages already in common use throughout the region. Having three official languages would ideally be much more than a passive acceptance that these languages exist. Rather, Spanish, English and French should be taught to all students in all countries from the very beginning of a child's education so that everyone in the Americas would be comfortable speaking, reading and writing all three of these languages. Not only would competence in these three languages make a great deal of the world's culture accessible to all American peoples, but it would facilitate movement across borders so that all American people would be at home, at least linguistically, anywhere from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego.

The policies advocated by many citizens of the United States would be comical if the spirit behind them were not so tragically lacking in the spirit of charity that is so important in all the religions commonly practiced in the United States and the rest of the Americas. Some have proposed the ludicrous idea of building a tall wall or fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. Others have advocated tightening the border so that people cannot cross from one country to another as easily as they now do. These ideas are ridiculous, because both of the borders between the United States and neighboring countries are completely artificial. That is, they are not based on geographical realities but on arbitrary political decisions. Drawing a boundary with a straight-edged rule and then expecting animals, birds and human beings to honor those boundaries shows an appalling lack of any sense of reality. Millions of United States of Americans have relatives in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas. These families have become divided not only because people have moved, but because artificial lines have been drawn on maps. As many people of Mexican descent in the Southwestern United States say “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.” (One of my favorite buildings in the city where I live was built when the land it is on was considered part of Spain. When Mexico gained independence, the building became part of Mexico. When this land was ceded by Mexico as part of the Treaty of Hidalgo, it became a territory of the United States. The same is true of many buildings in the southwestern United States.)

The mean-spirited xenophobia exhibited by many Americans, nearly all of whom are themselves the descendants of immigrants, is creating a national karma that is not only disgraceful and embarrassing but also potentially dangerous. If the United States of America is ever to regain the reputation of benevolence and goodness it once held in most parts of the world, our people will have to meditate long and hard on the words of the Jewish American woman from New York whose words have brought tears of joy to countless millions of people, whether they were born in the United States or migrated to this country in pursuit of the inalienable God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Did Jesus defend our right to bear arms?

According to a feature entitled “God Not Guns,” broadcast on July 13, 2007 on the PBS program Religion and Ethics, a number of white Evangelical Christians oppose gun control and even find a passage from the Bible that they claim supports their view that Christians have a right to arm themselves. One minister interviewed on the program was Pastor David Whitney of the Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Maryland. He says the American public would be surprised at how many pastors favor guns. Churches, he said, “should be involved in helping arm and train people to use handguns effectively.” Members of his congregation, he says “understand that we have the biblical right of self-defense. Jesus said, ‘If you don't have a sword, go buy one’—for the purpose of self-defense.” So let's examine this “biblical right of self-defense.”

A quick search for the word sword in a Bible concordance shows that there is only one passage in the Bible where Jesus apparently endorses the purchase of a sword, namely, Luke 22:36-37:

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet. Whoever has none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with the lawless.’ For that which concerns me has an end.”

There is a saying that a text without a context is a pretext, so let us examine the context of this passage.

The passage occurs in the context of Luke's narrative of the Passover feast that Christians commonly call the Last Supper. Peter has just declared that he will follow Jesus to prison and even to death, at which point Jesus says that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows. He then asks his apostles whether they lacked anything when he had earlier instructed them to go forth without purse, wallet and shoes. They say they lacked nothing. He then delivers the lines cited above

According to notes on this passage in Luke in The HarperCollins Study Bible, the line “He was counted with the lawless.” refers to Isaiah 53:12

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

The passage in Isaiah occurs in a chapter describing the sacrificial lamb.

Isa 53:3 He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we didn't respect him. 4 Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering; yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.

Immediately after Jesus refers to this passage in Isaiah, his apostles say that they have two swords. Jesus replies simply “That is enough.” Enough for what? Enough for defending Jesus and all twelve disciples from the Romans who were coming to arrest him? The aforementioned study Bible suggests that the passage means that the swords are emblematic; perhaps two is enough to fulfill predictions in scripture.

That the swords were not be be used for self-defense becomes clear in the rest of the narrative that immediately follows. As Luke tells the story, Jesus twice warns his disciples not to fall into temptation. Then the arresting party arrives, and one of the apostles draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Jesus instantly responds to this act of violence by healing the person who has been attacked with the sword. In the version of the story told in Matthew 26:52, Jesus instructs the armed apostle “Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword.”

Taken all together, this dramatic event in the life of Jesus hardly sounds like an endorsement of carrying weapons for self-defense. It is not clear how Pastor David Whitney could get such a message out of these passages. At best, his interpretation of the passage he cites seems far-fetched, perhaps motivated more by a desire to conform to the predispositions of his Maryland congregation than by a desire to portray accurately the teachings of Jesus.

P.S. Maryland, by the way, is a state that does not regulate the sale of rifles or shotguns and where no permit is required to purchase a rifle or shotgun. Apparently the lawmakers of the state agree with Pastor Whitney's views that guns need not be controlled; whether their thinking is based on Biblical considerations only God knows.