Monday, December 29, 2008

Confession of an indifferent sports observer

Noam Chomsky once observed that professional sports in America have the effect of keeping the minds of American citizens distracted from important issues. The culture of following sports teams and caring about which ones win and which ones lose is part of a larger culture of distraction and superficiality; sports can be part of the phenomenon of what Neal Postman discussed in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

I still recall vividly the moment at which I stopped being interested in spectator sport. I was in high school at the time and was attending a home game of my high school's football team. Like everyone else in the stands, I was yelling and screaming and cheering our team to victory. My heart sank every time the home team fumbled or had a pass intercepted, and I became ecstatic every time the home team moved closer to scoring another goal. Quite suddenly I felt as if I were being lifted out of my personality and given a chance to look at myself as an external observer might see me, and I was overwhelmed with how utterly silly it all was. A moment later, as I settled back into feeling as if I were within myself again, I realized I actually did not care at all who won the game. If one side wins, I thought, the other side will lose. No matter what happens, someone will go home disappointed. I stopped cheering. I sat down and watched the rest of the game without caring in the least which team won. I have never cared which team wins a contest since then. Not caring who wins a game makes games pretty dull viewing, so I have spent remarkably little of my adult life watching sporting events. For a while, when I was first in Canada, I watched hockey on television from a detached perspective. It fascinated me. It seemed to me like ballet interrupted by occasional fist fights.

A friend of my parents was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Second World War. He had a German surname and spoke German fluently. It came to his attention that when German-speaking American prisoners of war were returned to the United States, they were carefully cross-examined to see whether they really were Americans or were English-speaking German spies posing as Americans. The rumor was that one way of identifying genuine Americans was to ask them questions about sports. Who played shortstop for the Red Sox? Which teams played in the 1937 World Series? Who held the American League record for stolen bases? My parents' friend hated sports and had no idea what the answers to any of those questions were. He lived the war dreading being interrogated by Americans; he was sure they would conclude he was a spy. That story has always stayed with me; like my parents' friend, I have been confident that I would fail a quiz on sports with drooping colors. I didn't even know who O.J. Simpson was until somebody told me he was already famous as a sports hero before he went on trial as a result of being accused of murdering his wife.

My attitude toward sporting events carries over to my attitude toward wars. I really do not care at all who wins a war. To be more accurate, I don't believe anyone ever wins a war. Wars have plenty of losers, and they are found on all sides of the conflict. They have no winners. Those who believe a war has been, or can be, won suffer from delusions. I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Sports waste time. Wars are much more serious. They waste life and property and resources. Despite the dramatic difference in the magnitude of the disaster involved, sports have much in common with wars. Competitive sports prepare the American psyche for war. It feeds the American tendency to love winners and to see losers as, well, losers. It is difficult to imagine a pacifist society in which football or basketball had more than a handful of fanatical followers. (It is worth recalling that the English word “fan” is a shortened form of the word “fanatic.”

So here comes New Year's Day. I used to hate this holiday more than all others. Everyone I knew was busy watching football games on television. It was for me the loneliest day of the year. Now that I'm a bit older, I have learned to like my own company much better and can easily spend the day reading books, taking walks, enjoying the trees and birds and squirrels or tidying up my desk to make room for the clutter of another year. The clutter always arrives. It's one thing I know I can count on.

Whether you are a sports fanatic or not, I wish you a Happy New Year. May all your favorite teams all win, whoever they are.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Friendship without frontiers

If one takes a look at the outline of the state of New Mexico, where I grew up as a child and now inhabit again as an old man, it is pretty clear that the boundaries of the state were established by some cartographer taking out a straight edge and drawing three straight lines and one jagged line made of straight segments. In a state full of natural geographical features—mountain ranges, river valleys, basins, calderas, deserts and prairies— there is not a single natural boundary dividing New Mexico from its neighboring states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Chihuahua. Perhaps because of this, early in my childhood I developed the notion that boundaries are mostly artificial, arbitrary and dispensible.

As I made my way through adulthood, my childhood conviction was reinforced at every turn. When I lived in Canada it was obvious that the boundary between Canada and the United States was completely artificial and corresponded to nothing in the world of nature or the world of human cultural geography; and the same could be said of the boundaries between most of the provinces. The same can be said of the boundary between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. To take any of these boundaries as grounded in anything but the arbitrary decisions of treaty-makers would be folly. An eagle flying high in the air, or a wolf chasing a bison, no doubt has a clear sense of terrain and knows very well what modifications in behavior are required by differences in landscape, but neither eagle nor wolf nor bison has the faintest sense of where one nation begins and another ends. No animal needs a nation. I am convinced that the same is true of human beings. Not only do we not need nations, but we would probably be immeasurably better off without them.

It is not only national boundaries that do more harm than good. All the many boundaries that we human beings make have more pernicious than salubrious consequences. Racial and ethnic categories with their inevitable (and inevitably arbitary) boundaries, religious boundaries, boundaries that divide one social class from another or one level of education from another—all these do little good and considerable harm. And yet human beings seem to take them seriously enough to devise all manner of ways to demonstrate just which side of a boundary they are on. People define themselves as individuals by associating themselves as members of a group by such boundary markers as style of dress and headgear, hairstyle, cosmetics and ornamentation, tattoos, dietary restrictions, sexual taboos, and marital regulations concerning the number of spouses one may have and what gender a spouse must be or what religion a spouse ought to be. The only universal human taboo is that against being oneself in a relaxed and natural way.

In December of every year, I find myself feeling especially heartsick about boundaries. Zen Buddhists separate themselves off from other Buddhists by celebrating the Buddha's enlightenment. Jews celebrate, among other things, their distinctness from other peoples through Chanukkah. Christians celebrate the birth of a man whom they claim to be the only son of God and the sole way to enter God's kingdom, thus making a boundary between themselves and those who hold other equally absurd beliefs. All these boundaries that become manifest in December remind me of the strongest conviction I have, namely, that making boundaries is no way to live on a planet with limited resources and on which success can be achieved only by harmonious cooperation among all peoples and between human beings and all the other species that live here.

If I must have a religion, it is friendship, and friendship by its very nature knows no bounds and has no limits. It is universal or it is not friendship at all. David Gwyn expressed very nicely how I have always thought about friendship:

Friendship is perhaps the most universal (yet least defined) relationship of covenant faith. Friendship disregards religious, ethnic, economic, national, and all other boundaries. It subverts idolatrous concentrations of power and authority.

December, the month of so many fractures and ruptures in the human family, is when I am most deeply aware of how much I value friendship, and of how rare friendship is in a world of sectarianism, denominationalism, factionalism and other manifestations of the will of human beings to doinate and control rather than to love and nurture.

The first day of winter (which for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere took place this year on December 21) marks the time when light begins to gain on darkness. It is in a sense the rebirth of light. Light symbolizes friendship, love, harmony and all those qualities that make life sustainable. This year Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, began on the same day. Christmas comes a few days into the season of renewed light. Being a person whose boundaries are all porous and permeable membranes, I celebrate all these holidays, and the Buddha's enlightenment, in spirit with all my friends, and I take this time of year to give thanks (to whom or what I do not know) that no one anywhere is not within my circle of friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have a subversive Christmas

In David Loy's collection of essays entitled The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, there is an essay called “Pave the Planet or Wear Shoes?” Toward the end of that essay, Loy observes that if a religion is a set of views and values and their corresponding practices that plays the greatest role in giving shape to one's daily life, then the principal religion in America is consumerism. When one considers the huge amount of time and money devoted to making Americans crave some product they don't really need, and the amount of time and money Americans spend working for the money to buy those products, shopping for them, protecting them once purchased, storing them and eventually disposing of them, Loy may well be onto something.

I recently assigned Loy's essay to a class in Buddhist philosophy. After saying a little about Loy's work and this particular essay, I broke the class up into small discussion groups and asked them to discuss several questions I had provided for them. One of them was a question about Loy's claim that consumerism is the prevailing religion in today's America. It was interesting to hear students talking about various products they had no idea how they could possibly live without. The products at the top of their list were all things that did not exist ten years ago—products that I have lived without for my entire life and probably will never have a hankering to own. If consumerism is the religion of our day, my students would appear to have taken the catechism classes and had their Confirmation. With only one or two obvious exceptions, most of them are not exactly true believers—most of them seem to reject the ideology of consumerism when it is stated in plain language, and they know it is in some way not cool to be materialistic. But if not believers, they appear to be at least observant practitioners.

The Christmas season is upon us, and it has been evident to many observers ever since I can remember that Christmas in America is much more about the practice of materialism than about anything that opposes, or even questions, it. A few American Christians manage to get worked up over what some of them call a “war on Christmas,” but their main target is not rampant consumerism, but rather merchants and advertisers who prefer to call this time of year “the holiday season” instead of The Christmas Season.

For most of my adult life I have been striving, with only limited success, to ignore the impulse to exchange material gifts and commercial Christmas cards with people I love. I have also struggled with the question of whether it makes sense for someone who does not consider himself a Christian to celebrate Christmas at all, and, if so, to be so resistant to celebrating it as the most holy day in the religion of American Consumerism and so insistent on celebrating as a an important Christian holy day. It is unlikely that I shall resolve any of these issues before my consciousness fizzles out. They are too complex to resolve easily, and frankly not important enough to me to spend much time worrying about.

In the spirit of giving that does not further spread the disease of commercialism and consumerism, my gift of choice this year is an Ubuntu Linux operating system for all my friends who have computers. Everything about Linux in general sits well with me. For one thing, Linux operating systems, and the software that runs on them, are completely open source. That is, they are distributed for free along with the computer code used to build them. There is in principle nothing commercial about a Linux operating system. The only aspect of Linux that can be commercialized is putting together a distribution, which includes the operating system and software packages and a smooth-running installation protocol. Strictly speaking, it is only the installation protocol, and protocols for updating software, that can be sold for profit. There are several commercial distributions.

My reason for specifying Ubuntu Linux is that even the installation protocols are distributed for no cost whatsoever to anyone who requests them. All one has to do is to go to the Ubuntu Linux web page and click on the link entitled Get Ubuntu to begin a download or order a DVD to be sent anywhere in the world free of charge. If one prefers to buy a CD or DVD, that option is available, too. If one wishes to support the Ubuntu movement by making a financial contribution, or by helping to develop or test new products, there are links for all those opportunities as well. Ubuntu is all about community and sharing.

My mother used to intone the mantra “You get what you pay for,” which usually meant that anything that is available at no cost is probably worthless, or close to it. In the case of Ubuntu Linux, nothing could be farther from the truth than that mantra. Ubuntu Linux is very hard to beat as a computer operating system and collection of software programs that will do anything that can be done by commercial programs. Linux rarely crashes; I have experienced two crashes in ten years of using it daily. For a variety of reasons, it is rarely disturbed by viruses; it is, in the first place, constructed so as to be inherently secure, but it is also, unlike Microsoft, a system with few enemies who feel motivated to write destructive viruses to disturb it. Despite viruses for Linux being very rare, there are strong virus protection programs, just in case. In ten years of using Linux, I have never had a virus or Trojan horse or worm. I have lost almost no time to breakdowns or to problems requiring extensive troubleshooting. As the Ubuntu people like to say, Ubuntu Linux “just works.” In contrast to the early days of Linux, using Ubuntu Linux requires very little computer expertise of the user. If one chooses to become expert, there is ample documentation and help available. Almost everything about Ubuntu Linux can be tweaked until one's computer fits one's work habits and aesthetic tastes and quirky personality traits like a glove.

Like most (if not all) Linux distributions, Ubuntu Linux can be loaded on a computer that runs some other operating system. If one chooses to install Linux on a computer that uses some version of Windows, for example, then every time one boots up the computer, one will be presented with a choice to start up either Windows or Linux. When I first installed Linux ten years ago, I installed it alongside Windows. After a couple of years I noticed that I never chose to boot Windows, since everything I could do there I could do better on Linux. Eventually I took Windows off my computer. Since then when I have purchased computers, I have bought them with Ubuntu Linux installed as the sole operating system. My story is a common one.

The bodhisattva who put up the initial funding and organizational genius that makes Ubuntu Linux possible is a man named Mark Shuttleworth. Even if one is not at all interested in trying Ubuntu Linux out, it is interesting and inspiring to read The Ubuntu Story. It is a tale of how life could be if it weren't for individual and collective manifestations of greed, hatred and delusion.

There are alternatives to the religion of consumerism. It is worth considering taking a subversive step or two to undermine consumerism and replace it with humanity and sanity.