Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump's Legal Mouthpiece

Jay Sekulow Has History
Right Here in Hampton Roads

            A man identified as Trump’s lawyer has appeared on national news shows of late. He’s not Trump’s only lawyer, but he is the lawyer speaking for all of Trump’s lawyers. His name is Jay Sekulow. He has deep roots here in Hampton Roads.
            In 2001, as a contributing writer for Port Folio Weekly, now defunct, I wrote a piece contrasting the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) with the better-known American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLJ, where Sekulow is still director, was founded out of Pat Robertson’s Regent University with the particular intent of competing with the ACLU on most issues.
            The article I wrote, reproduced below from my files (the published article may have been slightly edited, I have no copy of it now to verify), distinguishes the purposes of the ACLJ and the ACLU. This suggests to me that “the Russia thing” is on course to become a clash of alternate legal realities, making “the rule by law” a matter of opinion, not necessarily a matter of justice for all.
            The Port Folio article in its entirety as I submitted it in 2001, appears below. Keep in mind that some things have changed.

Whose Civil Rights?
The ACLJ v. The ACLU

            July 10, 2001:―Every weekday at noon and midnight on Christian Talk Radio WPMH-AM, "Jay Sekulow Live," a national call-in program originating in Virginia Beach, offers legal advice to believers concerning matters of faith and its public expression.
            Callers typically complain about perceptions of religious discrimination and censorship. Host Jay Sekulow gives each a preliminary hearing, and if he thinks a case has merit he transfers the caller to his team of lawyers on back-up phones to take the information for further investigation. Three or four calls come in that way each day.
            Between calls he plugs an Action Alert petition urging the U.S. Senate to move forward with President Bush's nominees for federal court judges. "We want the right judges in place," he tells listeners. With 100 current vacancies, "You don't want to see Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, or the American Civil Liberties Union appointing judges."
            Sekulow is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, the activist legal right arm of Regent University. His team of lawyers are student interns from Regent University Law School.
            Though not an official part of the school, the ACLJ's headquarters are on the top floor of Robertson Hall, the law school building. The two organizations have "a close, long-term relationship," says Sekulow, which includes the opportunity "to train up the next generation of lawyers on the issues."
            Fifteen to 20 interns work at the ACLJ year-round, part-time during the school year, full-time over summers. Forty-five per cent of the ACLJ staff are Regent graduates.
            This gives students "tremendous exposure" to the workings of the legal system, from preparing cases for argument to reserved seats in the visitors' gallery of the U.S. Supreme Court.
            Sekulow himself has argued nine cases there during his career, winning about as much as losing. He lost two high-profile free speech cases last year involving student prayer at school athletic events and protests outside abortion clinics.
            At any given time the ACLJ is working on 150 to 200 cases through offices worldwide, including Washington, D.C., and Strasbourg, France. Its focus is on First Amendment issues involving religious freedom and separation of church and state. Judging from Sekulow's frequent radio bullets, its most pernicious enemy, among many, is the ACLU.
            But according to Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU office in Richmond, the gap is somewhat conditional. "We both promote religious freedom," he says. "But our interpretation of the separation of church and state is pretty much antithetical."
            That is, either group will defend an individual's right to practice religion freely, but the ACLU, watchdog over church-state separation, takes cases where individuals are confronted in public with unwanted religious expression. The ACLJ defends the rights of individuals to evangelize--that is, provide that unwanted expression.
            The two groups rarely go head-to-head in a courtroom, though, because each tends to represent clients bringing suits against government agencies or other bodies, who retain their own legal teams.
            A very different reading of the First Amendment's establishment clause, separating church and state, seems to be at the core of their antithetical relationship.
            Says ACLU's Willet: "There is a breaking place in law taught in the US, (that) with the adoption of...the separation of church and state, even though much of law is grounded in religious traditions...ultimately the law of this country is secular...and laws...and judicial proceedings are all state proceedings that must operate under strict separation."
            Regent Law School Dean Jeff Brauch recommends the writings of James Madison, saying, "That was far from the framers' minds--a secular society in that religion has no part in public life. To say it's illegitimate to make religious arguments in the public sphere is absolutely a misinterpretation of the First Amendment."
            When the best minds can't agree, how will the people live?

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Great Schism

Listening to the Other Side
Without a Jealous Mind

            So he did it. I thought for a little while he was playing his “art-of-the-deal” game, keeping everyone on tenterhooks while he pretended to be considering an extreme position. But no. He’s out for revenge on all the environmentalists and the people who believe science is right about climate change because he knows none of them voted for him and hate the sight of him on their television and internet screens. So now he’s going to screw them, and he’s going to rub it in.

            That’s my left wing response. Here’s my right-wing response:

             I believe God takes care of us, not the government, and I am sick and tired of all these intellectual Ph.D.s and pseudo-scientists and so-called educated college wimps acting like they know what the good Lord is up to with this weather business when all they learned in college was atheism. The government thinks it’s God, but it’s just a tool of the Devil.
            You see, I decided to listen to the “other side.” I don’t mean where my dearly departed Mother and Dad are, but where the right-wing lives. Guided by a friend, I watched a video by “Coach” Dave Daubenmire, a prophetic right-wing figure whose most recent hour-long diatribe calls on Christian men to become more violent.
            I get the logic. They hate liberals. Who are liberals? Candy-assed feminist men, Jews, blacks and browns, journalists, and the highly educated—Democrats, mostly, or out in Left field with the Greens and sometimes the Socialists, giving our country away to Them.
            What I don’t get is how taking up violence against the liberal enemy is Christian. In my understanding of the Gospels, Jesus never advocated violence against an enemy. But Coach Dave apparently sees a different Jesus than I. He has his Jesus and I have mine. And you have yours, and she has hers, and on an on , etc, etc. We all have our own idea about how this world runs and who should be in charge, and Coach Dave proudly brays when Trump pushes Montenegro Prime Minister Duško Marković aside to get front and center among a crowd of world leaders posing for a photo. That’s how a POTUS should act, he says. Show them who’s The Man.
            He also stoutly approves of Republican Greg Gianforte’s response to the Guardian reporter who asked him about the American Health Care Act. Gianforte threw the reporter, Ben Jacobs, to the floor, cursing him and breaking his glasses. That’s what a real man does to these girlie boys who stand in the way of God’s Kingdom. And he still won the election! Montanans know what’s up, they’re not fooled by this communist crap.
            Coach Dave assures us that the Lord Jesus Christ was not passive. He was a real man, a Man among men. He stood strong against the Powers That Be. How many Christian men today will do that? But that’s what Coach Dave charges his Christian men to do. No more Mr. Nice Guy. It’s time to get real with these sissy liberal punks, give them the taste of a knuckle sandwich.
            Coach Dave would like Ezra Pound’s poem about Jesus, “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere.”
                        “No capon priest was the Goodly Fere,
                        But a man o’ men was he!”
            Ezra Pound, of course, was a fascist sympathizer who backed Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy. Some people theorize Trump is a lot like Mussolini. So is this a pattern? Do admirers of manly saviors, like Coach Dave’s and Ezra Pound’s versions of Jesus, tend to be fascists?
            I was raised to see Jesus as a non-violent pacifist. Coach Dave instructs his Christian men to be warriors against the desecrators of their religion. We each can justify our interpretations by the Bible. Is the Bible bi-polar? This is not a frivolous question. Is Coach Dave’s preferred Jesus who drove the money-changers from the temple with a whip the same prophet who said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”?
            Who’s correct, which path is the true one? I personally prefer the latter. Though I’m not a nominal Christian, I revere the Christ spirit and the man whom we’ve determined embodied it. But how do I explain the cleansing of the Temple? How does Coach Dave explain the Sermon on the Mount? These are 2,000-year-old arguments, at the least.
The Real Issue
            Leaving them aside, then, I don’t think the central question here is who’s the true American or whether Jesus was a pacifist or a  warrior, calling us to turn the other cheek or fight back. I think the real issue, less important but more urgent, is the survival of the United States of America.
            At present we are obviously not “united states.” After Trump’s announcement to pull us out of the Paris Climate Accord, the governors of New York, Washington, and California announced they were voluntarily and independently signing on to the Accord. Immediately something like 100 cities agreed, and more states, municipalities, and even major corporations are expected to follow.
            It looks like “the great American schism,” which my Facebook friend Stephen Schwartz has warned about for years, advances now apace. But how can we carve two nations out of the present United States when the two sides, who may speak the same language in name, are so divided geographically? The blue states will resemble the Palestinian non-state, with their territories separated by hostile forces except perhaps for the blue islands of Colorado, Illinois, and conceivably one or two others. And perhaps there will be city states, as well—Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, Albuquerque, and hopefully Norfolk.
            My opinion, of course, is that pulling out of Paris is sheer madness, inadequate as the agreement may have been in relation to the gravity of the climate problem. But everyone on my side of the fence knows that, while on the other side, while they gloat over my side’s anguish, they want nothing to do with remedies that will change their lives. They want coal to come back for them. They say, “My grandfather, my father, and all my uncles were coal miners, and I’ll be damned to hell if I’m going to take a job in a pussy industry like solar or wind when all my people for generations have mined coal.”
            It’s hard to argue with people attached to family and clan traditions where “progress” is seen as a betrayal of your ancestors. Those roots go deeper than the concept of a general good and, of course, include “dat ol’ time religun.” But not for me.
            I frankly love the idea of “the United States of America”—United being the operative word. That idea to me is bigger than either side, and it’s rare if ever in U.S. history when it’s been in full operation, where everyone, however grudgingly, agrees. But to me it’s the one big idea we have as a people: A union of totally disparate groups around the idea of Union.
            It’s like a marriage in which the parties are determined not to fail. That alone can cause parties eventually to love one another.
            (The reason for that is a secret. It’s because all people are lovable. Shhhhhh! Don’t tell!)
            Coach Dave is a man who’s quick to tell you his age—mid-sixties, I forget which digit. He sits as if at a sportscaster’s desk with an aerial shot of an empty football stadium as his backdrop. From there, he rants, his stubbly white beard and ball cap identifying him as an angry white man, a proud redneck who also, he assures us, is a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. 
            He’s saying Christian men have got to toughen up, stop shying away from violence, and take the fight to the liberals, man-to-man.
            I’m sorry, but isn’t this a little ridiculous—a man, no more than ten years younger than I, about to hit his first heart attack, cancer, or stroke—actually challenging me (for example) to a fist fight over politics and religion and who’s the real American? 
            I saw two old black men get into an argument in Thomkin’s Square Park in New York City one afternoon in 1968 or ‘69. They were both obviously inebriated, staggering as they faced off, fists up, taking ineffectual swings at each other as if waving away flies, until one of them got out his pocket knife and threatened to stab the other, who became enraged and resumed swinging while the other man poked at his fists with his knife. At that point a third man jumped up from a nearby bench and intervened, talked some sense to them both, and, with an arm around each, walked them back to the bench, where they sat down. After all, it really wasn’t worth the effort—two old fools too dumb to know they’re both standing on the steps of the Exit. Someone—a friend to both—has to remind them.
A More Perfect Union
            I grieve at the thought that we might relinquish the great idea of a United States of America. Say it to yourself and tell me you don’t feel something, even if it’s bitter.
            I think of Thomas Jefferson, my favorite founding father, as the architect of that idea when he wrote The Declaration of Independence and also successfully pressed for a Constitutional Bill of Rights. (His only indisputable crime against humanity was owning slaves, which he knew was wrong but couldn’t give it up. I like to think it was because he was afraid he’d lose Sally Hemings, who he loved in torment. For that I offer more pity than condemnation.)
            Jefferson conceived of a Union of disparate elements and Lincoln—to keep the chain going for a moment—insisted on preserving that Union. It takes my breath away that we now see two sides determined to tear it apart rather than admit the other side is American, too. Who will keep the name if the schism really comes? Or will we just fight over borders for hundreds of years like the Europeans have?
            Jesus Christ, men! What the hell! 
            Here’s my take:
            We’re all human first. And then we’re Americans. Americans don’t have to love each other or even want to know each other. But for Americans to argue among themselves over who’s the true American is like those old black men, probably in their ‘80s, trying to settle an argument going back so far they can’t remember what started it. 
            No one can win this red-blue/right-left stand-off. But as Americans we all can lose if we don’t put United first and States second. To me that means we’ve got to have the oversight of a national government. We’ve got to have Washington to be our ultimate safety, our referee, assuring justice in our Union among all Americans.
            An American is a person born or naturalized in the United States. Period.
            So if we give up the United States of America, as so many are calling for, we surrender the Great Idea of “out of many, one,” which is printed on our money as a reminder of our deeper truth.
            It’s not just about accepting “the other,” either. It’s also about accepting ourselves. We are the United States of America. The United States. Unless we cast that name aside, we’re bound by honor to meet its demands.
            So I say to Coach Dave, on the very outside chance he’s reading this, that though we stand on totally opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, I know we share enough as Americans that we could have a few laughs over beers in a country bar or stand together in a moment or two of awe at a July 4th fireworks display. And I’m sure there are many other examples where we live in a common America. Isn’t that proof enough that we’re both Americans? Do we have to be mortal enemies because we have different ideas about Jesus and how much government we should have overseeing our lives?
            And more to the point, why do we get so angry that we’d like to saw each other apart? That just doesn’t make sense. Are we having a mental health problem here?
            “What are you afraid of?” you ask your Christian men who don’t step up to fight. But one could just as easily ask, “What are you afraid of, Dave, that you won’t sit down and make peace?”
            We’re going to need a third alternative, a peace-maker who understands the great Jeffersonian idea of the United States of America—“out of the many, one”—and brings both sides back together to the park bench to sit down and remember the good times. Otherwise, a lot of people are going to get hurt, before and after we understand what we’ve given up by forgetting our one big idea.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Trump Abroad

Reviving the Boorish American

            The spectacle of Donald Trump abroad last week reminded me of the portraits of Americans abroad in the late 19th-century novels of Henry James. James consistently contrasts the naive optimism, the crass commercialism, and the clueless social behavior of his countrymen and women with the sophisticated, culturally rooted, class-conscious societies of Europe where the American nouveau riche was regarded as vulgar, unmannered boors with an uncanny ability to destroy their personal reputations.
Henry James
            The problem with that: The Europeans needed the excessive wealth these American boors were looking to invest because their own exhausted economy was buckling under centuries of war.
            Not much has changed since that gilded age, except that the boorish American has become President and is now toasted and feted among oppressive regimes who appreciate his nihilistic vision of arms for dictators and nothing for the people, ignoring existing western democratic values in favor of a militarized,  authoritarian regime—the Trump Regime.
            Meanwhile, in Europe, they see that kind of a Trump Regime as a dangerous threat to the world order which America has led since the end of World War II. The Trump Regime will spend billions for arms in the Mid-east but will significantly cut what it spends to defend our democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere.
            The New World (Democratic) Order of the alliance between Europe and the U.S. is over, it seems, or greatly modified.
The American World Order
            I’ve lived all my life under that American world order. It’s not utopian by any means, but it’s based upon democratic principles developed in the eighteenth century by European philosophers and the American revolutionaries who took the emerging Enlightenment ideas and ran with them to found the USA, soon to become one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, thanks to free enterprise, including slavery.
            That untethered freedom to pursue wealth became part of the unwritten understanding of what American democracy meant. In Europe old aristocratic families were the arbiters of social relations. Everyone learned the aristocratic way of holding a knife and fork. But in America there were no old families to govern taste. There were just wealthy families, who were the first to claw their way to a generous helping of the newly developing American Dream. They were the ones who went abroad, offending the delicate tastes of the Europeans at every turn.
            Jala and I encountered that phenomenon when we traveled in Europe during the summer of 1964. At that time the New (Euro-American) World Order was just beginning to take off as thousands—probably millions—of young Americans traveled abroad and got the taste of other cultures. For us it was a transforming experience, simply because, as unrealized artistic souls ourselves, we were blown away by the art and architecture everywhere on display and available to the public.
            Our life together as artists and writers and dabblers in ancient wisdom began that summer of 1964 when the consciousness of our distinct identities woke up. We ditched the American clothes we brought with us, picked up some European styles in an Italian open-air market, and hitch-hiked our way from outside Naples to Calais, stopping at every site where great art was on display. It was a tremendously illuminating liberation from the bourgeois consciousness of practical survival which permeated our backgrounds. With my college French retrieved from memory and Jala’s pidgin Italian picked up from her elderly relatives, we obscured our identities as Americans and were greeted in many places as international citizens whose country-of-origin was not immediately apparent. Like the man who sold us tickets to the carnival rides in Calais, where we were enjoying ourselves exceedingly:
            “Quell nationalité,” he asked.
            “Americain,” I said.
            “Americain!” he cried, as if astonished.
            “Oui,” I said, proud of not being recognized as an ugly American.
            We saw one of those in real life on our Channel crossing from France to England on the very day after we’d enjoyed ourselves at the carnival.
            We were on the deck of the ferry watching the weather and the water when our attention was drawn to a guy sitting on one of the deck chairs—tipsy if not drunk—who announced to all assembled that he was an American enjoying himself immensely here in Europe. He wore a semi-conservative, green-and-gray checked sport jacket—collar open-no tie—and was about forty-five. He had his left arm around a pretty young blonde in a mini-skirt, who sat on his knee, and in his right hand—God’s truth, I swear—he held up a fat wad of American bills. “It’s easy to get along here in Europe,” he said—indicating his blonde trophy, who smiled on command—“when you’ve got enough of these,” holding up his wad of American money.
            So the boorish American still existed in 1964. We saw others, but that guy won first prize.
Cultural Shock
            The cultural shock came home more vividly, however, right after we returned to America after twelve weeks abroad. Before heading back to graduate school we stayed briefly with my in-laws on Long Island, giving us the opportunity to see Michelangelo’s Pieta at the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. We’d seen his other three in Europe and wanted to complete our experience of the series.
Pieta del Duoma
            Our favorite, which we went back to nearly every day of the total two weeks we spent in Florence, was the Pieta del Duomo di Firenze, the Pieta housed in the spectacular Duomo cathedral, which dominates the cityscape of Florence, Italy, like a huge watch tower.  Also called The Deposition and sometimes Christ Lowered into the Tomb, this masterpiece sat not far from inside the main entrance of the cathedral. There may have been a rope or chain holding the public back from touching the sculpture, but otherwise we were able to get close enough to see the chisel marks Michelangelo left in the marble. It’s awesome to stand that close to such a work of artistic genius and admire it at your leisure. 
Vatican (and New York) Pieta

            The fourth Pieta, transported to New York from the Vatican that summer, is the critics’ choice for world favorite. The poignantly realistic sculpture portrays a limp, very dead Jesus lying over the lap of his mother, whose face, with closed eyes, expresses a serenity so subtly combined with grief that one stands transfixed at how life-like cold stone can be made to seem. But I can’t say I got close enough to the Pieta in New York to have seen that.
            To view the American display we stood on a conveyor belt which took us into an enclosed, chapel-like environment bathed in blue lights with sacred music—think Mormon Chapel Choir—piped in from above. Twelve or fifteen yards in front of us, at an angle of perhaps twenty degrees below our level, the Pieta was displayed as if it were a sacred object in a Hollywood vision. Giving us perhaps a minute to spend with the sculpture, the belt then spit us out into the crowd again at the other end of the display.
            And did I mention the solid pane of bullet-proof glass mounted between the Pieta and we who passed by on the conveyor belt?
World's Fair Pieta
Viewed from conveyor belt

            (For the record, the Florentine Pieta is no longer in full public view but has been moved to the adjoining Duomo Museum, where it may be seen, along with other timeless art and objets d’arts, for a small fee.)
            It seemed to Jala and me that we were in a sense forced to leave behind our new perceptions and perspectives on this enormously wider world we’d discovered just so we could assimilate back into American life. And we never were entirely successful in accomplishing that. Fortunately, though, American life has transformed in the decades since 1964. Diversity, globalism, expanded civil rights to groups once not only excluded but despised, have especially advanced citizen sophistication in many areas.
Repealing the 20th Century
            But with Trump we see a backlash to an age before any of this happened. The Trump Regime is working to create a new gilded age which, in a way, seeks to reverse the entire twentieth century, at least when it comes to equitable distribution of the world’s resources. The idea that the Earth belongs to everyone who lives here is some sort of heresy that enrages the regime’s supporters. The supposition that personal freedom needs restraint to achieve the greatest societal good evokes disturbing outbreaks of red-faced rage. The suggestion that the Trump Regime is the worst of an uncivilized rogue element in the American character—descendants of the criminals who poured over here en masse to make a fortune from stolen land—is not welcome in our current dominating political environment.
            But it’s all true. All that’s missing is the realization, not that America is at a critical choice between full democracy and some sort of oligarchy or authoritarian hybrid, which it is, but that America is about to lose its claim as the hope of the world because the foundations of our much-vaunted and admired system are rotting and collapsing under the weight of every person’s inalienable right to get rich, as Ronald Reagan so transparently articulated.
Trump at NATO last week
            Trump is the personification of America’s love affair with wealth, as our European allies look on with varying degrees of pity and fear, not because wealth puts them off but because Trump is vulgar, crude, and hostile in his display of it. As others have pointed out, his admiration for the Saudi princes, Netanyahu, Erdogan, the despicable Duterte, and of course Putin and Xi Jinping is striking compared to his tense relations with our allies in the one-world international order we’ve been committed to protecting and pursuing in agreements supposedly cemented fifty, sixty, and seventy years ago.
Is Democracy Sacred?
            It’s fair to ask, “So what? Is Democracy sacred, a best of all possible societies? Why should any of us be worried if it changes into a dictatorship?”
            I worry because it seems to me that Democracy, particularly a liberal Democracy such as America became, despite increasing counter-pressures, between the late 1950s and the election of 2016, provides an opportunity for all souls to grow and develop according to their own lights. And that, it seems to me, is in accordance with a Divine Plan, if there is such a thing, to evolve life forms with increasing ability to live in harmony with each other rather than in a state of Nature which the predatory and ostentatious capitalism of the Trump Regime is pushing as a social philosophy.
            We couldn’t be more out of step with loftier principles of human activity than we are with Trump, whose regime glorifies cash over character, popularity over substance, and who is greeted everywhere with false smiles currying favor in the hope that the rich, boorish American will drop a bundle of those coveted American dollars before he leaves for his next stop on his historical tour of our allies, European and Mid-eastern.
            By the time he comes home we understand that American interests have shifted. Our rulers are no longer interested in preserving and carrying forward an historical tradition dating back at least 5,000 years. Like the radical groups that blow up cultural icons of competing religions, we as a society have given permission to a rogue regime to explode the democratic ideals I’ve seen growing over a lifetime.
            The underlying vision directing history after the disaster of World War II was toward cooperative unity among nations. One day--perhaps we might even live to see it--humanity would become one race of many cultures connected to everything we are, from the single cells that emerged from “nothing” to the greatest souls who ever walked the planet and taught us how to cope with our single-most common problem which we share with everything that lives on Earth—mortality.
            That illusion of unity is gone with the Trump Regime. But what are we replacing it with? So far, amidst all the bluster and noise about fake news and pity for poor picked-on Donald who’s way too terrific for the jealous to endure, all we’ve got now is an inferior culture with a huge arsenal of deadly weapons to blast anyone who tries to contradict us in the claim that we are still the best country in the world.
            Seems like we’re not in the mood to play with our old friends. We’re tired of them. We like the idea of a strong man. Maybe a King. Or an Emperor? Why not a competition among dictators for the role of Emperor of Earth? We could hold televised auditions, online voting, and pick the Ruler of the World like we pick winners on the Amateur Hour by who gets the highest reading on the virtual applause meter.
            Donald Trump would win. Believe me. And it’ll be terrific.
            But the art! What will happen to the art when boorish wealth takes over the world? Will it disappear into private collections, even in Europe?
            Sometimes I feel most grateful for living in a prosperous, cultured time, which I realize is rare in history. Sometimes I want to weep to think that this era of privilege for others like me is ending, when the treasures of culture were readily available to any student who could afford a $250 round-trip plane ticket to Brussels. Sometimes I want to fight against the wave of cultural ignorance that has gathered like a tsunami bearing down upon the Age of Enlightenment, which enemies call a failure.
            Maybe they’re right. Maybe history moves in circles, not in a line. Maybe there’s no culture, however beautifully portrayed in art, which compensates for human weakness and stupidity. Maybe life is a matter of a few winners, who we admire, and many losers, who we dismiss with contempt. Maybe we live, after all, in a state of Nature and Man is just a successful species of primate whose time on the planet is short. Maybe we shouldn’t defend people who don’t pay us for it. That’s what any minimally rational animal in the jungle would decide.
            Or maybe we’re just passing through “the Trump Hump,” as Jala named it, when progress toward an interdependent world must pause, must wait for those who don’t yet accept global inclusion to get over their anger and insecurity, change their minds, and come along willingly. If the Trump Regime falls under its own weight of inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, lies, and dictatorial tendencies, we’ll have another chance to rethink what we’ve done to our Democracy by electing this shrewd but Ugly American as our President.
            But if the Regime somehow survives and succeeds, in its own terms, we’ll be in a new era where Democracy loses ground to authoritarian control and a huge majority of us become serfs in a new feudalism.
            It’s too early to tell which way, if either, it’s going. But if I had to choose another place to live to escape an ugly regime, I’d choose southern Europe for the weather and for the art. 
            In the meantime, welcome home to America, Donald, where culture has yet to fully penetrate. I know you don’t feel it quite as we did back in 1964, but, as someone once said, it takes a lot of history to make a great civilization. We’re obviously not there yet. Hopefully you’re a wake-up call, not a trumpet sounding Taps.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Westerner’s Journey to the East

Can Mindful Meditation
Overcome Trumpism?

            Raised as I was by a rational mother who educated herself by reading the world’s great books, I was discouraged from pursuing meditation. Paraphrasing Carl Jung, my mother believed that meditation was an eastern thing—passive and inwardly directed—whereas western man’s nature is active and outwardly directed. Therefore an American or European who meditates is as out of place in his culture as an Indian selling life insurance might have been in his.
            At least that’s the way it was before the eastern gurus began sending their best and brightest to England and America to teach we highly amped westerners how to cool our over-heated frontal lobes with the practice of yoga meditation. Exactly what western man was not supposed to do!
            But there was no turning back the hemispheric change, which entered our pop culture in the 1960s and ‘70s as a further, safer step beyond psychedelic drugs—a viable if less spectacular substitute for getting high—and best of all it was free. You didn’t have to score. You became your own supplier.
Jose Silva
            My first introduction to what I’d call entry-level meditation was an editorial assignment for a weekly alternative newspaper to cover a week-long workshop in a program called Alpha Awareness. It was a generic brand of Silva Mind Control, run by a former Silva instructor who’d in some way rebranded his master’s product without legal challenge and now traveled about offering a Silva course under a new name and a discounted price. A couple dozen people turned out to avail themselves of the bargain.
            For my part, I took to Alpha Awareness like the proverbial duck-to-water and practiced it regularly for five or six years—counting down to my “level,” establishing my laboratory with its beachfront view, relaxing completely in my own safe space, watching the flow of scenes and faces streaming by my closed eyes as I tried, according to instructions, to program my subconscious mind to manifest my desires.
            Before long I went through a career change from part-time journalist to part-time playwright and actor in my own community theater company which then evolved into hired actor and playwright working for several different theaters in our locality.
            To supplement my irregular income in theater, which was generally less than my desires, if not my needs, allowed, I found a job that required more of my attention than the deep relaxation of self-hypnosis provided. I began to work as an art school model. For the next dozen years I met my day-to-day expenses by offering my nude body to college students, many of them fine arts majors, to draw, paint, and sculpt for what was for me at the time a pretty good hourly wage.

Think This Is Easy?
            But to reach that level of success where I was under contract or on call at half a dozen college art departments, I had to pass through an initiation into radical mindfulness. Holding an interesting pose without moving for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, even up to an hour, is a practice in itself. In time I learned to breathe into all the pockets of pain developing in my body as a pose went on. I learned to relieve the aches with the subtlest of motions that, even with all the eyes of a class upon me, no one detected. This required a near-laser focus on my body in space at any given moment, rushing relief to any distressed part like a nurse on call. Emergency! Cramp in left thigh!
            Aside from addressing my muscle aches and numb limbs from blocked circulation, I spent many an hour in art class over those years in a rarefied space where hallucinations danced on the walls—wagon trains, animal faces, Egyptian princesses and African dancers, images of people I’d never met, occasionally of people I knew. It was liberating, in a strange way—to be so confined in body yet so free in my mind. It reminded me of The Hanged Man card in the Tarot deck, a paradox containing a reward worth a lot more than ten or fifteen bucks an hour to me.
           And it all came about from a fixed attention on my breath—in and out, in and out. Nothing dramatic, just a very slowly developing cumulative effect.
            In the mid-1990s I began practicing a sit-down meditation of at least 20 minutes every morning and evening, following instructions periodically mailed from Self-Realization Fellowship, an institution founded by Paramahansa Yogananda to transmit the teachings and practices of his line of Hindu gurus to the spiritually ignorant West.
Yogananda, by all accounts an enlightened master himself, came to America from India in the early 20th century and became popular as a teacher, writer, and lecturer on religious and metaphysical subjects.
            Practicing these mail-order lessons for three years left me rather devout, but the organization putting them out disappointed me for its orthodoxy. After Yogananda passed away, it seemed his breadth of spirit also passed away from the institution he’d founded. That seems to happen regularly between master and disciples.
            Following my own regimen, then, I continued meditating daily into the millennium and beyond, a practice supported when I joined a Buddhist sangha focused on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the internationally known Vietnamese monk who has spread his gentle brand of Zen Buddhism around the world.
Thich Naht Hanh
Under his absentee guidance and supported by my new Buddhist friends, I rode the mindfulness wave onto the shores of 2017, where living mindfully in the present is all the rage. Even my local TV station advertises its commitment to the Now.
            Meanwhile, after years of “the Practice,” I’m finding that meditative mindfulness, like water dripping on a stone, has hollowed out a dent in my consciousness so that I actually walk around during the day with my mind in the present a good bit of the time.
            Or, I should say, I did, before Donald Trump. Now there’s a new challenge—to stay present and mindful as the world as I’ve known it from my earliest days collapses around me. Can I survive, let alone thrive, in a world run on cut-throat business principles?
Needs No Caption
It’s a rude awakening. Change is coming down like lightning strikes bouncing along Tornado Alley from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge. The barbarians have taken the Capitol. The Age of Enlightenment is canceled.
            But I am committed to my practice above all because of a set habit going back forty years to Alpha Awareness and the forms that came after and also because, as an antidote to ease the anxiety of mortality, it works. However dire or catastrophic the circumstances, remembering to breathe—to open that mental door to the memory of the meditative state—immediately breaks the spell of doom that seizes my mind when serious obstacles loom. A second breath, and then a third, secures the shift. This simple practice brings a wider, potentially cosmic perspective to the issues that unnecessarily roil the majority population.
            Meditation helps us to see clearly through our fears. Our world never needed that more.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Popularity of Hell

Why Politicians Love War

            Now we know, if we didn’t before. For me, it was good to have my memory refreshed. I’d lost perspective in the political tsunami of the past year, forgotten my basic ABCs of non-partisan truth. Once Bernie Sanders, who best represented my political views, was bumped off the bus, the election for me became a defensive measure to keep Donald Trump’s hands off the levers of power.
            When that strategy failed and the inconceivable happened, I lost all sense of a political base for myself. The right-wing corporatists had finally taken over. All those heart-warming policies, like letting more people with non-violent offenses out of jail early, going easy on illegal immigrants and pot smokers, requiring non-discrimination in public facilities, granting equal protection under the law to sexual minorities—all those policies of mercy Obama put in place, inadequate as they may have been in truly relieving suffering, poverty, and a poisoned environment—are suddenly wiped away, and gone with them are many more protections and charitable measures to help ordinary people struggling in an increasingly top-heavy economy.
            The Democrats raised hell about all this, of course, but how many of them will give up their corporate donors—who have become their social friends—to embrace humane policies already in place in every other major industrial democracy? Almost none.
            So they hedged. They always hedge. They’ve hedged so long they’ve lost their relevance.
            Curiously, though, when it comes to war, there is very little hedging, very little partisan divide. As the news broke of Trump’s “decisive” action against the contemptible  Assad regime, Democrats fell in behind him and his gang like mindless robotoids. “He did the right thing,” a block of them agreed, “but he should have asked us first.” The news media, of course, noted how the Democrats seemed more supportive of the attack than many Republicans.
            What message does that send to us, the people, when two sides who would rather slit one another’s throats than back one another’s ideas suddenly become comrades-in-arms, cheering on the peerless leader for his act of war and only criticizing him for not letting them approve it first? Obviously, they would have approved it.
            The message I get is that the Democratic Party is no place for me or any true democrat who supports the franchise for all citizens of age, which we now set at 18. Maybe there should be a Voters Rights wing within the Democratic Party to distinguish Democrats who uphold full participatory democracy from Democrats who want to keep the corporate thumb on the scale, just to assure that “the People” don’t get too much power through the electoral process.
            That strategy didn’t work so well in the last election, but Democrats show little sign of giving it up. Chuck Schumer’s rails against the Republican agenda come across like the rants of an impotent goat butting his own image inside a bank vault. You almost have to laugh at what a clown act he’s putting on.
            What will it take for politicians to recognize and correct the imbalances in our society caused by the unequal distribution of wealth and power? We spend so much of what we have to assure ourselves that we’re ready for war that we have little left to make peace in our own land. War—or its domestic equivalent of police shootings and citizen reprisals—becomes a default position, not a last resort, in a society permeated with fear and paranoia because of our monumental failure to get along with each other.
            We need to disarm before we can dispel our fears. That’s counterintuitive, I know, and I know that even with hands up—or arms open—you can still get killed by a nervous cop, who will likely get away with it. But more weapons, more high-tech killer bombers and drones—all that war stuff that costs so much money, some portion of which finances friendly politicians—that’s  what we can count on Democrats and Republicans coming together to protect. They are the War Party, always a majority, always a priority. War is the common ground of our elected government, and it has been for decades. It’s the one issue politicians consistently cross party lines to agree on, and not by slim majorities, either. Peace is political suicide.
            But it’s very disappointing to consider that of the great many human activities supported by government, war is the most popular of them all.
            How can that be? Few disagree that war is hell. Is it a human thing to prefer hell when there’s an idea called heaven available? If we can create hell on Earth with war, it seems we could do at least as well in realizing its opposite, just by figuring out what hell is not. And then funding that.
            Hell is not love, for instance. Hell is not comfort. Hell is not generous or kind to strangers. Hell is the opposite of everything that warms your heart or gives you pleasure. You can fill in the list for yourself.
            If we spent half as much money addressing the causes of war as we now do on the preparations, chances are at least even that the risk of war would decrease, maybe even significantly. But we need better politicians on both sides than the ones we’ve got now or we’ll never see the end of war, though we may see the end of a lot of other things we’ve come to value, including the whole Enlightenment-era idea of America. It still shocks me how many of our people don’t even know what that is.
            Then again, maybe I’m the one who doesn’t get it. Maybe the Enlightenment experiment is over. Maybe it ended when a black man, defined in the Constitution as three-fifths of a person, became President of the United States, fulfilling America’s enlightened destiny in the nightmarish hell of history.
            And now that play is over. A new drama, a thriller, has opened on the world stage.
            If people like the nightmare—the thrills and chills and clashes of passions that keep us ever on edge behind locked doors—more power to them. But if they don’t, they should lay down their arms. That’s the alternative I’m working on. It’s not a single action, either. It’s a way of life.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Thinking Dog Barks

Breaking Silence on Donald Trump

            Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve had nothing to say in this space. What can I add to the noise that isn’t an echo?
            Now, though, it seems that even an echo is of some value, because as a country, as a democratic system however flawed, we’ve crossed a line, and more people have to say it. Not that “getting back” is an option. You can never go back, any more than you can stop going forward. But you can try to see where we are and where we might be going from there.
            And some things become less opaque when you shut up, keep your eyes open, and listen.
            Having done so for the past four months and counting, I see hysteria on all sides. Exaggeration draws conclusions that wheel out of control, emotions flare which exaggerate the exaggerations, and very soon alternative realities begin to clash in public spaces, eventually inviting an excuse for riot police and perhaps martial law.
            So I want to calm down from all that.
            We know that America is divided—about 50-50 between conservative and liberal, right and left. In our politics that settles in as Republican and Democrat, red and blue. But to leave it at that doesn’t get to the essence of the “great schism” in America, as trend-tracker Stephen Schwartz names the split. Our political parties only reflect the divide imperfectly. They don’t necessarily define it.
            The real divide is between mercy and severity, qualities of consciousness. Excessive mercy enables liberality and moral decay, which triggers severity—a crack-down. Too much severity cries out for mercy—a liberalization of the laws. These forces work like two poles of a constantly active pendulum.
            But, speaking as an American, it’s a pendulum few Americans understand is always operating beneath events. The die-hard law-and-order types represent severity, a quality always with us, as are the anarchists and libertines who thrive under the liberality of mercy. Getting the balance right in a society and in a world of constant crisis—caused precisely because we haven’t yet got the balance right—is the struggle I see in happening in America, where the ideal of equality among citizens once led the world but is now fallen like an eagle with a broken wing.
            Basically, we Americans can’t agree about who to punish and who to reward. But it seems many of us agree that the curse of poverty is the fault of the poor, which of course implies its opposite, that the rich deserve their bounty. This is old-time Puritan Calvinism. Did you think it went out with the Salem witch trials?
            Donald Trump is no angel. Morally, he’s black as coal, by his own public admissions. But he’s rich. And if he’s rich he must be successful. It seems the average American is easily seduced by people who appear successful because they’re rich. Obviously a great many American voters overlooked Trump’s outrageous lies and unbecoming behavior because he represented something they admire more than squeaky clean. They admire ostentatious, untraceable, bottomless wealth. If we had all the money in the world, wouldn’t we be happy! That’s the shadow side of American free enterprise, which we’ve now entered, like an eclipse of our dream, to be realized in full with the election of the present government.
            Having been seduced by the siren song of a proudly “successful businessman” whose opulence we envy, Americans are now learning what it means to change the concept of the U.S. chief executive from President—the one who presides over the government—to CEO—corporate executive officer, the one who runs the government.
            As has been noted by others, a corporate executive is a dictator. He may be merciful or he may be severe, but he’s the one who says what’s what. That’s the structure of corporate life, which runs from the top down. It’s at odds with the U.S. government structure, which is a (limited) democracy. The balance of power crafted into our Constitution requires a political process to enable a President. A President is not free to do as he pleases, and legislators, unlike corporate minions, are not free to betray the interests of their constituents. If they break the bargain, they lose their jobs, in a perfect world.
            But the new men in Washington, backed by enough voters to put them there, don’t care about the old values of democracy. They are businessmen, corporate creatures, and they are not going to save us, they are going to try to mold us into corporate citizens who do what we’re told or we’re out in the cold.

A National Identity Crisis

            This is a national identity crisis. What America really stands for is in the balance. Are we for profit (severity) or non-profit (mercy)? Do we believe more in human rights (mercy) or states’ rights (severity)? Do we offer the impoverished a hand up (mercy) or a kick in the face (severity)? How you feel about distributing wealth? Should we lead by example or by force? Where is the balance between mercy and severity which will satisfy a voting majority of Americans in fair, ungerrymandered elections?
            With Trump & Co., we’re at a point where Americans will either capitulate to our new corporate state and the changes it will bring to our national mission and way of life, or we will turn back the forces of corporate rule by electing politicians with better ideas of social organization than bottom-line, top-down despotism with the protection of wealth its highest priority.
            The outcome is truly unpredictable. It all depends on how far we’ve gone down the road to oligarchy. In that dictatorial rule by a coterie of the very rich who run society as a for-profit business, people can be hired or fired at will with no recourse to a court of appeals to reverse the executive decision. No unemployment benefits, either.
            In the next year or two, I read in persuasive sources, our CEO will likely be fired himself on a variety of charges, and then the real corporate enablers, already in place, will take over. President Pence will be no friend to democracy, but if we decide to go forward as a corporate state he’ll be the perfect front man and do everything he’s told. He’s proven his willingness to serve a boss without question, an uncanny ability to spin straw into gold for the benefit of the privileged.
            My hope, of course, is that a majority of Americans won’t stand for it—stripping the poor of all assistance, letting corporations operate practically tax-free, charging the elderly extra for healthcare while cutting their Social Security benefits, criss-crossing the country with leaking oil pipe lines and earth-quaking fracking. Are they going to cut aid to war widows and orphan, too? Just wait, Paul Ryan's got the plan.
            A word about Ryan, a college sophomore mentality blinded by his attachment to “conservative principles,” which seem to involve loyalty above all to a balanced federal budget. I’m not one to argue about economics, having dropped the course like a hot potato in college, but my understanding is that the United States is still the richest country on Earth, and if “conservative principles” were as important to Ryan as he says, there should be no problem with saving money with healthcare for all or demanding the Department of Defense cut its enormous waste, as everyone knows exists in the military.
            It seems it would also be cheaper to preserve our natural resources rather than squander them on short-term, profit-generating projects that create wealth for a few in the present and misery for the many in the long run. I’m so tempted to scream into the wind, “What the fuck is wrong with us?”
            But I will exercise Buddha-like restraint and only say, I’m quite sure we’ll come together one day, when enough of us agree we’ve had enough. I only hope I live to see that day.