Monday, May 25, 2009

Lest we forget

On the last Monday of May, people in the United States celebrate a holiday called Memorial Day. Originally, Memorial Day was a day set aside for remembering those who had died fighting in the Civil War. Days of remembering those who had died in that war were celebrated in various locations, and eventually there was a consolidation into a single day of remembrance. It was not until 1967 that the day was officially called Memorial Day. Until 1971 Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30. In 1971 it, along with numerous other holidays, was turned into an occasion for a long weekend, and so moved to the last Monday of May and the first long weekend of the summer.

Memorial Day appears to have been hijacked by patriots and made into a holiday for honoring people who have died in the course of military service. That is an unfortunately limited selection of the dead to honor. The day should be a time of remembering all those who have died whom one wants to make sure not to forget.

An expression that one hears often during Memorial Day with reference to those who have died in wars is the phrase “those who gave their lives for their country.” One might as well refer to people whose houses have been robbed as those who gave their property to theft. People do not give their lives. People join the military for any number of reasons—at many times in the history of the United States they were required by law to do military service—and politicians send armies into armed conflicts in which people's lives are taken, not given. Referring to a killed soldier as someone who gave his or her life to his country is a way of trying to distract everyone's attention from the ugly and tragic and unnecessary waste of life that invariably takes place in war.

Memorial Day is a time to be ashamed. It is a time to hang our heads in shame for being part of a society that sends people to their death as part of serving the selfish interests of the powerful and the unimaginative. As long as we are recognizing our shame, let us remember that war has many more victims than those who die in uniform. Everyone on the planet is in some way or another a victim of every war that takes place. Wars devour resources, destroy habitat, create shortages of food, and disrupt the natural economy in countless other ways. Not only human beings but creatures of all species suffer from the environmental degradation that takes place in wars. As Edwin Starr sang about war, “it ain't nothin' but a heart breaker, good only for the undertaker.”

It is worth remembering that war is not the only form of human incompetence that leads to suffering and death. We should also hang our heads in shame for allowing people to live in poverty, and for using products (such as computers and mobile telephones) that place strains on the environment by using energy that must be generated and by concentrating toxins that eventually return to the earth and endanger life in ways we can barely comprehend. Memorial Day is a time for not being forgetful of all the ways we contribute to death and devastation through our incessant craving for short-term comfort and convenience. It would be good if we had an entire holiday set aside for nothing but remembering that, but until such a holiday is declared for that purpose, we can use Memorial Day.

Shame is only part of life. Memorial Day is also a time to celebrate, a time to be grateful. It is a time to recall all the positive contributions made to the world through noble thoughts and noble actions. It is a time to reflect on contributions made in the past by all the peacemakers, philosophers, holy people, artists, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, music makers, scientists, engineers, philanthropists, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncle and neighbors who have enriched our lives in obvious and in subtle ways. To forget all them while remembering only fallen military people would be tragically narrow and short-sighted.

Life is possible only through death. The dead literally provide the living with their food. On most days of the year we forget the everything that sustains our life is something that was itself at one time alive. We forget that we ourselves are food, that our bodies will eventually sustain the lives of creatures who find ways to eat us. Memorial Day is a time to remember that, in the wonderful words of the TaittirÄ«ya Upanishad “Oh, how wonderful it is! I am food. I am food. I am food.”

I wish everyone a Memorial Day spent in fruitful reflection, a bit of shame, a lot of celebration and a recollection of our place in the food chain.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Laws in a land of outlaws

The city of Albuquerque passed a law some time ago against using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving a motorized vehicle. The intention of the law is clear enough, and the motivations behind it are a mystery to no one. Holding a steering wheel with one hand and holding a telephone up to the ear with the other hand gives a driver less control in case of an emergency, and being distracted by a telephone conversation is more likely to get one into an emergency situation than if one were devoting full attention to driving. (The Insurance Information Institute has a web site with information about cell phones and driving.)

I have not conducted a systematic or scientific investigation of the matter, but as a pedestrian walking several miles daily along busy streets, I have amused myself by making observations of how many drivers I see talking on cell phones as they turn corners, change lanes, approach intersections and perform other maneuvers that require a combination of paying attention and keeping a vehicle under control. I have seen drivers hurtle through red lights, apparently unaware that they did not have the right of way. I have seen truckers negotiating a tractor-trailer through a left turn using one hand on the wheel and one hand to the ear. I have seen motorcyclists holding a cell phone to an ear as they drive; since wearing a helmet would interfere with talking on the telephone, they wear nothing to protect their heads in the event of a crash or a spill. I have seen drivers holding to the wheel with the little fingers of both hands while the rest of their two hands were holding a telephone as their thumbs poked keys to dial a number or send a text message.

While looking at people driving while using cell phones, I have also seen drivers doing other potentially dangerous things while driving, such as eating or drinking or lighting cigarettes. I saw a car weaving back and forth across a divider line on a busy city street as the driver used both arms to pull a sweater over her head. Watching what people do while driving is a good method of witnessing a number of astonishing practices.

In observing mobile telephone booths, I have counted the number of cars traveling along a stretch of road for a period of time and also counted the number of drivers ignoring the law against driving while using a hand-held cell phone. Sometimes only 3% of the drivers are observed breaking the law. Sometimes it's 12%. Whatever the percentage may be, it is clear that the law is being ignored. The law seems to be as difficult to enforce as it is necessary. And this raises an interesting observation one could make about laws in general: common sense has degenerated to such an extent that one needs laws to protect people from their own foolishness, but the laws are unlikely to be capable of doing what they were designed to do. Virtues cannot be legislated into existence, and folly cannot be legislated out of existence. As soon as government is necessary, it is too late for government to do any good. Laws do not make idiots wise; they only make idiots outlaws.

When George Fox was challenged on his interpretation of the Bible and asked whether he could read Hebrew or Greek, he responded that a knowledge of the languages of scripture are not nearly as important as having the spirit that inspired the scriptures in the first place. If a person is already filled with love and generosity, then he can easily understand a text urging people to be loving and generous. If a person is not filled with love and generosity, then a text urging people to be loving and generous is unlikely to be understood or followed. Scriptures are effective and inspirational only for those who do not need them. Those who have the spirit have no need of being inspired. Those who are uninspired can only make a travesty of texts and institutions meant to inspire them.

My idea of a utopia would be a society in which people are so spontaneously aware that they would avoid dangerous activities without being prompted. People would simply not do such stupid things as driving while talking on a telephone. They would not become intoxicated. They would not enrich themselves by cheating or stealing from others. They would be truthful. In such a society there would be no laws, because there would be no need for them. (Recall Bob Dylan's observation (in the song Absolutely Sweet Marie): “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Living outside the law, however, is not the same as being an outlaw. Living outside the law is having such an elevated degree of integrity that one has no need for laws. Being an outlaw is having such a diminished degree of integrity that laws are incapable of altering one's behavior. I would love to live in a utopia filled with people who live outside the law. Alas, I live in a dystopia filled with a bad combination of laws and outlaws who cannot benefit from them.