Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Praying for everyone's troops

On a car parked in the lot of a mega-church near my home I spotted a bumper sticker that said “Want Our Troops Home? Then PRAY!” That seemed like good enough advice, so here is my prayer.

May every nation that has any troops stationed on foreign soil bring those troops home immediately so that no nation has any military personnel anywhere but on its own soil. May every nation that has any military installations on any foreign soil close those installations. May every nation that has military vessels at sea outside its own territorial waters bring those ships back to its own harbors or at least within its own waters.
May all military personnel be returned safely to their countries, and may they be joyfully reunited with their families and loved ones. May all artillery, missiles, warheads, land mines and explosive devices be safely dismantled. May all lust for territory and for the leverage of power over human beings and other sentient beings be eliminated from the mentalities of those who govern and of those who are governed.
May all those who undertake military service in order to free themselves from poverty, debt and systematic social and economic disadvantage find alternative ways of rising to positions of safety and dignity and the esteem of their neighbors and fellow citizens.
War is a condition of collective incompetence arising from the failure of individuals to be contented. Therefore, may individuals learn to be contented. May those who succeed more quickly than others in finding contentment teach others what they must do to find their own forms of contentment.
War often arises out of a fear of those whose ideas, practices and values are different from one's own. Therefore, may all people learn to embrace variety rather than to fear and loathe it. May all we human beings learn to tolerate everything except governments who would lead us into war. May those who would lead us into war be gently removed from positions of decision-making power.

I am not sure whether this is exactly the prayer that the owner of the car in the parking lot of the mega-church had in mind, but it is my prayer. And I thank the person who put that bumper sticker on his or her car for taking the time to remind me of the importance of taking the time to pray for what is truly important. May all beings be contented.

Friday, August 22, 2008

John Adams versus the Quakers

Recently I have been watching the excellent John Adams (HBO Miniseries). I am enjoying it as much as I enjoyed reading the book (John Adams by David McCullough) on which the series was based.

John Adams famously had a dispute with a Quaker named John Dickinson over the issue of whether it was wise for the American colonies to declare independence from England. Dickinson favored a cautious course of negotiation that he thought would avoid war. He said he could not endorse a declaration of independence that would surely result in British retaliation and armed conflict from one end of the colonies to the other. Adams acknowledged that war would inevitably follow a declaration of independence, but his passion for freedom and justice made such a conflict, in his mind, justifiable. Indeed, Adams argued that in the face of British injustices, a declaration of independence was morally obligatory; if such a declaration resulted in war, then the war also was morally obligatory.

It is common, when one reads about history, to ask oneself where one would have stood in the sort of controversy between Adams and the pacifist Quakers of Pennsylvania. (Not all Quakers, of course, were pacifists. Some fought in the war for independence, just as some fought in the American civil war.) In this particular instance, no sooner do I ask the question, than I know exactly what my answer would be, given my current beliefs. I would have been firmly with the Quaker Dickinson and opposed to those in favor of taking the risk of a bloody war. Even knowing everything I know now, from a 21st century perspective, about the consequences, I would be opposed to a declaration of independence that would result in war.

The American war of independence was bloody and brutal. It is impossible for me to see the result, independence from the British, as being anything near worth the horrible price of bloodshed that was paid. In gaining independence, the newly independent Americans went on to be every bit as savage and unjust as they had been while they were British colonists. Slavery continued unabated. Wars against the native Americans continued and even increased. Independence changed almost nothing. Moreover, it would surely have come about on its own anyway, just as it did for Canada. The British were far less interested in the Americas than they were in their other colonies, the ones in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. America was small potatoes in the British Empire.

Given my current way of thinking, I would have opposed the war of independence, and even the declaration of independence that, as all rightly saw, was sure to result in that war. There has not been a single war or conflict that the United States of America has participated in since 1776 that I would have endorsed, given how I now view the world. I would, of course, have been in the minority most of the time, for the United States has long been addicted to violent solutions to problems that might have been solved peacefully.

What is not clear to me is whether I always would have had the courage of my convictions. I can only hope that in the years I have before me, I will not falter.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Learning from Granddaddy

A couple of years ago I had the unexpected pleasure of going to a social event in an apartment that was right above the apartment where my grandfather lived when I was a child. He lived in the apartment from 1935 until his death in 1964, and I spent many of my most joyful moments there. I have been past the apartment building many times over the years but had never been inside. The apartment immediately above his had almost exactly the same layout, so being in it was almost like returning to childhood for a few moments. As in all returns to childhood, everything had changed almost beyond recognition.

As a child, I learned a lot of important things from my grandfather. He taught me how to play solitaire, an important skill for an only child. He also taught me how to cheat at solitaire, which he said was an acceptable thing to do, since no one was really being cheated except an ornery deck of cards. Any other kind of cheating, of course, he strongly discouraged. He also taught me how to read the baseball statistics in the sports page, and eventually he taught me how to keep track of a baseball game on a scorecard. He also taught me how to use a typewriter and let me practice using his old Smith-Corona, the machine on which during my childhood I composed a number of stories about improbable heroes. I learned all that and more from him when I was a boy, soaking up knowledge of the world around me like a sponge left in the kitchen sink.

This year I'm the same age my grandfather was when I was born. I find I'm learning from him again. I'm learning from his example as I recall them, and I find a great deal of what he taught me through example is something that not only I, but many people I know, could benefit from mastering.

My grandfather was born in 1982 and spent his early life on a farm in Kansas. The electric light bulb was invented just four years before he was born, and he did not have electrical lighting for much of his early life. He was seven years old when Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz made the first automobile, and he was 26 years old when the first Model-T Ford came out in 1908. I have no idea when he starting driving a car, but I know he never trusted an automobile as much as a horse, or at least that's what he said. As long as he lived, he preferred to walk any distance less than about three miles. It didn't make much sense to start up the car to go any distance that could be walked to in less than an hour.

My grandfather had a telephone, so people could contact him. He initiated no more than about four calls a year. A telephone conversation with him rarely lasted more than thirty seconds, just long enough to make arrangements to meet somewhere in person so that one could have a proper conversation.

Perhaps because he never quite got over the feeling that electricity was a miracle, and a darned expensive one at that, he never turned on a light switch until it was pretty nearly impossible to see which cards were laid out in his solitaire game. The lights were never on during the day, of course. When he ate lunch in the small dining room of his apartment, he never turned on the overhead light, even though there were no windows in the room, and precious little light came through the small window in the adjacent kitchen. Electrical lights were to use after the sun was well down, and even then they were turned on only when there was really something one had to see (such as the cards in a solitaire game.) To my great shame, I probably use as much electricity in a day as he did in a few months, despite the fact that I use compact fluorescent bulbs and have formed the habit of turning lights off when I leave a room. Like most people I know, my house is full of appliances and gadgets that never existed when I was a child. All of them, strictly speaking, are unnecessary. It's a shame that I've become accustomed to having them.

People of my grandfather's generation never used credit cards, and they never bought anything for which they hadn't saved up the money. If my grandfather did not have enough cash in his savings account to make a purchase, he reckoned he had no real need to make that purchase. If there was a need, he saved up until he had the money to make it. As a consequence of those habits, he was a frugal man. He used a deck of cards until at least have the cards had broken in half and were held together with cellophane tape. When it was no longer possible to make out whether a face card was a King or a Jack, it was time to start thinking about getting a new deck, but not before. He wore a pair of shoes until it was no longer possible to repair them by having another sole and heel put on them.

As much as he approved of me, and even doted on me as only a proud grandfather can do, he did express his concern about how wasteful youngsters of my generation had become. Not wanting to dismay him too much, I developed the habit of keeping things rather than throwing them away, just in case I would someday learn to repair them or find some other use for them than the use for which they had been invented. I had several shoe boxes full of pencil stubs too short to sharpen further, eraser crumbs, and rusting paper clips. For about ten years I held on to a spark plug that I had found in an alley way. Unfortunately, I never did find a use for most of the contents of those shoe boxes. The only effect that came from keeping them was a habit to hang on to things that no one could use. That habit does have one good effect. It reminds me how many of the habits a person forms are really pretty useless, if not downright destructive. That's a good thing to be reminded of.

These days, as I look around at homes and offices filled with electrical and electronic equipment, gymnasiums filled with exercise machines that use electricity to tell people who many calories they are burning off, driveways with several vehicles parked in them, people ambling along talking into mobile telephones to tell people the stupendously important news that they are in a shopping mall and are thinking of buying a beef taco, and people using fuel-consuming machines to blow leaves instead of raking them or to mow a patch of turf that a push-mower could take care of in ten minutes, I wonder what on earth my grandfather would think of the world we now live in. If asked what is wrong with this picture, he would know the answer right away. Everything.

Pretty much everything has gone wrong. The average American family, I just heard on a news program, is $16,000 in debt, not counting mortgages for living accommodations. People are going into debt to buy things that make them lazy and sick. Our economy is no longer based on the manufacture and sale of goods and necessities. It is based on the manufacture of bads. People spend far less on needs than on their many addictions. Civilization has been destroyed and replaced with a pseudo-culture of delusions and fantasies. The American dream has turned into the world's nightmare. It needn't have turned out this way. But it did. Or at least it has so far. We cannot continue on the course we're on. Reality will not allow it.

Some of the damage done to civilization and the environment is irreversible. Some of the destructive habits we have let ourselves fall into might be unlearned, if we have the will to do things in ways that at first feel a little awkward and uncomfortable. Learning how to live a sensible and sustainable life might be possible if we study the ways of some of our ancestors. I have a grandfather to remember. You probably have someone, too.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why our electoral process breeds presidential monstrosities

The United States is nearing the end of what has been without a doubt the most destructive and morally bankrupt presidential administration in our history. Many people believe that the next president, whoever is elected, will be a significant improvement over what we, the citizens of the world, have endured for the past eight years. I am not among those who hold that belief. I believe we are destined to continue a moral and cultural decline, and therefore a political and economic decline, for the foreseeable future, no matter who is elected. Our system of government, and especially our way of choosing who will govern, is incapable of producing anything but moral dwarves. (I say this with apology to dwarves, who do not deserve to be compared with American politicians.)

The American form of democracy was devised at a time when candidates for public office rode around on horseback or in carriages. It was a time when candidates met with voters in meetings small enough that the voters could take a reasonable measure of the candidate. Candidates announced their positions in broadsides and other written publications. When votes were submitted on election, the results were often not announced for weeks or even months. The process was slow and deliberate and conducive to reflection.

The American form of democracy that exists today has little in common with its ancestor. Results come in and are analysed at lightning speed. Hours before the polls close in California and Oregon, there is a strong indication of who has won in Maine, Pennsylvania and Florida. Some people still vote after a careful reflection on the positions of the candidates on issues that matter to them, but it is safe to say that everyone is to some extent influenced by factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with actual issues. People spend billions of dollars encouraging Americans to avoid thinking altogether or, if they must think, to think as superficially as possible about tangential matters that have little bearing on the character or the policies of the candidates. The candidate who is most successful in manipulating the irrational emotions of the majority of voters tends to win the election. The candidate who spends the most money tends to be the most successful in manipulating the irrational emotions of the voters.

In today's society election campaigns are conducted in such a way that the winner of an election is almost guaranteed to have bad character. It could hardly be any other way. Our current way of conducting important campaigns makes it unlikely that anyone will enter office except for moral monsters. It is worth reflecting on why this is so.

Character is the sum total of habits that a person has developed. Habits are the consequences of choices that a person has made. Every deliberate, voluntary action reinforces a habit. Everything we have done increases the likelihood that, given similar conditions, we will do a similar thing in the future. This is elementary moral theory and something very much along these lines has been spoken about in detail by the ancient Greeks, by thinkers in India, by Chinese sages, and by elders in traditional oral cultures. If anything can claim to be a universal principle that holds for all human beings, it is something along the lines of what has just been said about the relation between choice, habituation and character.

If we now give a thought to the way that campaigns are conducted in technologically advanced nations in present times, we observe that the pattern followed by almost every candidate—I say“almost” even though I really cannot think of any exceptions—is that the candidate exaggerates his or her own strengths, usually quite dramatically, and magnifies even the smallest (or even the most imaginary) blemish in his or her opponent. The decision to distort the truth through hyperbole is made again and again as the candidate tours the country attending political rallies, and as the candidate approves the contents of televised paid political advertisements. Presidential campaigns in the United States nowadays go on for well over a year, during which time every candidate reinforces the habit many times every day of speaking in a way that is neither balanced nor in accord with reality. Such virtues as truthfulness, fairness, courage, compassion and humility are weakened, perhaps even obliterated. Vices such as pride—regarded in many cultures as the most vicious or sinful personal characteristic of all—and vanity and narcissism begin to rule the candidate's character. No matter what kind of character she or he may have had at the beginning, when candidacy was declared, is bound to have undergone a steady and dramatic turn for the worse by the time the last votes have been counted and the candidate has won.

During my life there have been twelve presidents of the United States. Of these there has been only one that I would allow into my house or welcome into my circle of friends. The rest I would not be willing to have in my company or to have contact with anyone I love for more than a few moments (and then only with plenty of chaperons on hand).

I do not believe this is a matter of bad luck that the United States has had men of such demonstrably inferior character in the White House. I think it is an inevitable consequence of democracy as we know it and as we have let it become. As long as we embrace the status quo of money-driven superficiality and persuasion through fallacy, we will never see anything but more monsters in the White House. I use the word “monster” advisedly. It comes from the Latin word for “warning”. We have been warned repeatedly. Still we seem, perhaps because of the bad character that results from our own educational institutions, unwilling to heed the warnings.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Memories of Hiroshima

There was part of me that hoped Hiroshima would still be a pile of rubble when I arrived there in November 1977. Of course I knew it would not be. I was going there to study for two academic years at Hiroshima University, and I knew from the people there and from friends who had visited the city before me that Hiroshima is a beautiful, modern city. Somehow I did not like the idea that a place destroyed by an atomic bomb could recover so well in a couple of decades. Knowing that cities can eventually get over atomic bomb attacks, I thought, might give people the idea that attacking enemies with nuclear weapons is not as dangerous as all the disarmament people claim it is.

Before going to Japan I talked to a friend in Toronto whose parents had died in the atomic bomb attack of Hiroshima. His family had lived in the suburbs of Hiroshima, and they had, as usual on a working day, gone to the downtown area to work on August 6, 1945. My friend was about five years old at the time. He remembers being taken downtown to search for the remains of his parents. Where their workplace had been, nothing was left but a vacant lot filled with rubble. Everything less solid than rock had been atomized. There were no human remains at the site. His parents had apparently turned to vapor almost instantly. One moment they existed, and the next they did not. My friend was eventually adopted by Japanese Canadians in Toronto and lived a pleasant and safe life there. As long as he lives he will never forget the fruitless search for his parents' physical remains.

We were standing in the Asian Studies library when my Japanese-Canadian friend told me about his memories of the days after the atomic bomb attack. Our conversation was overheard by a Chinese woman. When my friend and I parted company, the Chinese woman came up to me and said “I'm glad his parents were killed. They deserved nothing better.” She then told me of her childhood memories of nearly starving to death as Japanese soldiers who had occupied her village ate almost all the available food. She remember seeing Japanese soldiers toss a Chinese baby high into the air and impale it on a bayonet as it fell back to earth.

What can one say when people report such memories? All I could do was listen and wonder how on earth people who have witnessed such horrors can go on with their lives and eventually recover enough to spend most of their waking hours in banal pursuits and superficial conversations. I had had hundreds of other conversations with the Chinese woman. Her favorite topic of conversation was barbecue chicken. Talking about food seems to have pushed all those memories of starvation deep into the shadows of her subliminal mind, just as talking about baseball banished my Japanese friend's memories of the atomic bomb far into the background.

A few months before going to Hiroshima I read a book about Paul Tibbets and the flight crew of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb used in a war. Tibbets eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General and lived to the age of 92. The book I read about him focused a lot of attention on the remarkable finesse Tibetts manifested in the complex and dangerous bombing mission. It also dispelled the myth—one that I had heard dozens of times—that the pilot of the Enola Gay had gone insane from guilt. General Tibetts never, so far as I know, expressed any regrets about his role in the mission. Indeed, he talked as though he was proud of it. One member of the flight crew did eventually end up in a mental hospital, but the story is that he was considered so unstable toward the end of the war that there was a question whether he should take part in the Hiroshima mission. In other words, said the book, he was well on the way to being crazy before the mission and did not get much crazier after the mission.

The book also explained why Hiroshima was chosen as a target for the first atomic bomb. It was chosen because it was not an important military target. It was chosen because it had never been bombed by conventional bombs. Hiroshima had managed to get through the war almost completely unscathed. Why choose such a target? Because the United States military wanted to know just how much damage an atomic bomb would do, so they needed a target in which no damage had been done by anything other than the atomic bomb itself. One might say it was chosen out of scientific curiosity. One might also say that it was a target populated by hardly anyone but civilians. The only military there were those needed to operate a small prison in which about a dozen American prisoners of war were being kept. The American prisoners of war, like the thousands of Japanese civilians were what a later generation of American military people would call collateral damage. The death of innocents is just part of the cost of doing business when the business is warfare. (This is nothing new or especially modern. The Bible is full of stories of Israelites and their enemies putting thousands of women and children to the sword.)

Eventually I worked up the nerve to visit the atomic bomb museum in the Peace Park in Hiroshima. Like most visitors to the museum I stumbled silently through the exhibits, numbed by the horrific photographs, stunned by a chunk of a stone wall that had melted into liquid in the unimaginable heat of the atomic bomb and then resolidified in a grotesque caricature of stone. No wonder so many human beings had essentially been turned to gas by the heat.

When I got home after seeing the atomic museum I tried to put my thoughts down on paper. The moment I tried, I began to sob. Once I began, the sobbing lasted for hours. I sobbed until my ribs hurt and my lungs burned. I have rarely felt so exhausted. Never had I been so aware of the cruelties of war. Never had I felt so ashamed of being human. Never since then have I recovered. Never have I been able to understand why human beings are so willing to inflict pain on others for the sake of getting a bit of land and control over others, so eager to visit magnified suffering on others when others have hurt them.

In August Japanese people commemorate the deaths of their ancestors. In Hiroshima this special religious holiday has a special significance. It is a day for remembering all those who died in the atomic bomb attack, and of those who have died since then of radiation-caused diseases acquired most probably as a result of being in the vicinity of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The deaths are commemorated by putting candles into paper lanterns and letting them float down the river past the Peace Park. I watched the lanterns come down the river on August 6, 1978. At first just a few came. Then more and more came. It was beautifu as a sight. It became terrifying only when one stopped to remember that each beautiful lantern represented the soul of a victim of the atomic bomb. So many beautiful lanterns! So much pain. Once again I was overcome with shame at being human.

During the time I lived in Hiroshima, I talked with many Japanese people about the atomic bomb. I was amazed at how many Japanese people I met who told me the atomic bomb had probably been a good thing that had saved both American and Japanese lives in the long run. Some added that if the Americans had not stopped the war when it did, the Soviets would have invaded Japan and demanded at war's end that Japan be divided as Germany and Korea were into Soviet and Western zones. There is, of course, no way of knowing what would have happened. All one can do is speculate about what might have been if things had not turned out as they did. All one can know for sure is that Americans managed to convince themselves, and quite a number of Japanese people, that killing many tens of thousands of people was unavoidable and ultimately had good consequences.

Since 1979, when I left Hiroshima and returned to Canada, I have heard many times that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many lives. Interestingly enough, the report of lives saved has climbed steadily since 1945. The figure climbs in proportion with estimates of the number of people who died as a result of those attacks. The more we learn of the long-term effects of radiation and adjust the death toll upwards to account for all those who died lingering deaths in years and decades after the atomic bomb attack, the more lives we become convinced were saved by the attack. It is obvious that most of the people in the only nation in history to use nuclear weapons against innocent civilians are not yet capable of coming to the conclusion that the attack was unjustified, let alone possibly an unconsionable evil. Americans, after all, don't do evil. That's not part of the American self-image. Tragically, it is not part of any nation's self-image. And so the evils continue without interruption.