Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“IN THE GARDEN…

… of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

I just finished reading this compelling—and frankly somewhat terrifying—account by Erik Larson of the brief ambassadorship of William E. Dodd in Berlin from 1933 to 1934, at the time of Adolf
Hitler’s rise to absolute power. As Larson portrays him, Dodd was an academic and a “Jeffersonian liberal,” a man of considerable integrity, who was clear-sighted in his understanding of Nazism and its goals, and prescient about its eventual militarist aggression. His story has some important and sobering lessons for us at this critical historical moment in the USA.

Not that our new president* is a Hitler—I prefer to avoid the Nazi analogies, in part because they serve only to diminish the unmitigated abomination that was Germany’s National Socialist Party. Nor are his acolytes, hopefully, the moral equivalent of the likes of Goebbels, Goering and Himmler. No. The lessons have to do with the importance of vigilance on the part of we, the governed, to actions and policies that subvert our democratic traditions and the values that undergird and validate our social relationships. What we read about in Larson’s book is the slow erosion of those values, and the passivity or permissiveness that gradually allowed all the normal restraints of civilized behavior to be abandoned.

It is not only the German people who stood by, some even applauding, as Hitler and his Nazis first seized, then held on to power with vicious, unrelenting efficiency. Out of self-interest or self-preservation, the majority of Germans failed increasingly to challenge what they knew to be lies and propaganda, and allowed themselves to be swallowed up in a stinking morass of ignorance and barbarity. They failed, notably, to condemn the conspicuous evidence of bigotry and cruelty they could not help but notice on the public streets, before their very eyes.

On our side of the Atlantic, however, things were not that much better. The diplomatic establishment of mostly Ivy League graduates—a “pretty good club,” as they were happy to call themselves—was busy subverting the efforts of Ambassador Dodd to draw attention to what he saw to be a gathering storm of historic scale. Casually anti-Semitic themselves, these men—in Larson’s thoroughly persuasive account—were more concerned with matters of wealth and social status than with Hitler’s increasingly repressive policies and actions. Their seemingly cavalier and laissez-faire attitudes allowed the Nazis to promulgate their hatred and advance their agenda virtually unrestrained by the international code of diplomatic norms.

As for FDR himself, though for the most part lending a sympathetic ear to Dodd’s warnings, he eventually surrendered to the isolationism that inspired the majority of Americans—the ignorant clarion call of “America First” that echoes, appallingly, once again today. The terrible conclusion that we reach, in reading In the Garden of Beasts, is that, given vigilance, given honesty and integrity and sound judgment on the part of many, both within and outside Germany during those early years, Hitler could—and should—have been halted in his tracks. Without vigilance, we surrender out integrity slowly, by degrees; and before long we find that we have abandoned everything that was important to us, everything that defined who we are as human beings.


This, then, is the lesson for us today. We have already witnessed crass behavior and political actions we deplore, directions taken that are alien to who we thought we were. We have already slipped deeper into callousness, animosity and corruption than most of us thought possible. We cannot afford to lapse further into the passive acceptance of blatant propaganda and cynical grabs for power. Larson’s book is a timely reminder that vigilance and, when necessary, resistance are an urgent civic duty.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

FROM MY "PULPIT"

The spectacle of Republicans in the House of Representatives falling all over themselves--and each other!--in their determination to "repeal and replace" Obamacare would be comical if it were not so disheartening. Right-wingers, on the one hand, are protesting that the American Health Care Act does not go far enough in depriving our citizens of health care coverage, while those on the not-so-far-right are wringing their hands, not because of the bill's lack of human compassion, but rather for fear that it will cost them their voters' support.

Do no harm. It's the core principle not only of the dharma, but also of the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm." It's a good principle, and one that the designers and supporters of the American Health Care Act seek to violate with impunity. They do so at the goading of a president who insistently promised to provide better care for every American, and at lower cost. That promise echoes hollow now, as do so many of his others, as Congress debates this heartless and contrarian measure, which by objective analysis threatens to deprive countless Americans of their coverage and cost others a great deal more than they are paying under the current system--even as it perversely benefits the very wealthy.

As for many, the bill has personal implications for me. In my immediate family we have not one, but two cases of relatively young men recently diagnosed with different forms of cancer. Of the two, one is covered, I believe, by his employer's plan; I have no idea how that plan might be impacted by this change in the law, but even if not directly, there will surely be ripples of side-effects that will bring about unpredictable changes in his coverage. For the other young man, the situation is dire: he is heavily dependent on the Affordable Care Act, and stands to lose his coverage if it passes. In addition to the pain and uncertainty of his medical condition, this cloud of potential financial ruin already adds to his suffering. God knows what a future under the sorely misnamed American Health Care Act holds for him.

Aside from doing no harm, the dharma requires from us the exercise of compassion for our fellow living beings. It posits that any harm that we do, any lack of compassion on our part, will show up to our detriment at some future point in our lives. I look to the president and I look to the United States Congress and, with all the goodwill I can muster, I see no compassion in their words or their actions. I see only the outcome of great harm for vast numbers of their fellow citizens.

So what is an aspiring Buddhist to do? For myself, the best thing I've been given to "do" is to write. I feel it my obligation to use such talent as I have in the struggle for humanity, justice, and freedom from anxiety and need. I remember my father, an Anglican priest, being bitterly criticized for using his pulpit for political ends. He was unable, in good conscience, to remain silent wherever he saw injustice and inhumanity. Like father, like son. "The Buddha Diaries" is to me what my father's pulpit was to him. It's not about happy talk. It's not about some spiritual doctrine disconnected from reality. It's about speaking the truth.

Monday, March 20, 2017

SOCIALISM: THE POWER OF THE WORD

The Buddha Diaries tries to stay true to its mission: to get to the heart of the matter. "The matter" is normally in some significant way related to meditation practice or the teaching of the dharma, or simply on the predicament of being human. and I happen to believe that this perspective is valuable in these dire political times. In the past couple of days, I have been thinking about how certain beneficial aspects of socialism have been ignored or purposely distorted in America, and how the word itself has been used as a weapon to discredit the political philosophy. Compassionate at its heart and in its intention, socialism has at times and in various places been poorly represented in its practice. But--especially with the human populations of the world exploding--it does suggest ways of living together peaceably on this planet Earth, and sharing our human potential as well as our limited resources.

This short essay seeks to encapsulate some of my thoughts...

SOCIALISM: THE POWER OF THE WORD

I’m no historian, but I do have a layman’s take on how we arrived at our current national nightmare. It’s just one, personal approach, and it’s conditioned in part by my having grown up in England since before World War II, and during the war and the post-war period, and particularly by what I know of my earliest years. I was born in the northern coal-mining town of Newcastle-on-Tyne, where my father was the incumbent priest of a slum parish. Poverty and hunger were the norm, and my father, unsurprisingly, was an ardent socialist—and I inherited his political beliefs.

You can imagine, then, how surprised I was, with this background, to discover when I first arrived on this side of the pond, that “socialism” was a word so vile that it could not be uttered in polite society. I exaggerate only a little. I did not know much of American history, but was vaguely aware of the social achievements of FDR and the subsequent Communist scare of the 1950s. When I become a citizen in 1972, I was still required to swear, under oath, that I was not then and had never been “a member of the Communist Party.” I thought the exercise a little absurd, but went ahead and dutifully swore, thankful that at least I had not been asked if I was a socialist. (To be quite honest, I still have difficulty with the notion of swearing allegiance to a country or its flag, but that’s another essay.)

As I was growing up, then, the words “conservative” and “socialist” had rather different connotations than they do here in the US. In broad terms, the Conservative Party represented the interests of wealth and social privilege; the Socialist, or Labour Party stood for the working class, the poor, and the underprivileged. I had never questioned my allegiance to the latter.

Since my arrival in the United States, even the (formerly) less charged term “liberal” has come to share in the disrepute of socialism. By those on the right, it is most often uttered with angry contempt for those leaning more to the left. And, in a curious and—to my mind—unfortunate reversal, those with the most at stake in the social contract have been co-opted, no matter their own interest, into the conservative camp. Political ideology failed, in the form of McCarthyism; but corporate interests have proved successful in deluding the working classes and the poor into the belief that socialism—or liberalism—is anathema. The word itself summons nothing but fear and loathing. The means to achieve this end has been a continuous stream of simplistic slogans fed out by those in power in the form of barely disguised propaganda—facile platitudes about such things as “individual freedom”, “big government” and the tiresome familiarity of anti-tax rhetoric, repeated so often and in so many ways that they have come to be accepted as irrefutable truth.

So it is that here, in this wealthiest nation in the history of the world, we have sacrificed all sense of social responsibility on the altar of delusory individual rights. We have been persuaded to submit to the axiom that government is the great Satan, and that we can dispense with its services—most notably those that provide for others than ourselves. The rabid opposition to universal health care, readily disparaged as “socialized medicine,” is a case in point. Every other country at our stage of economic development has found a way, at considerably less expense than ours, to assure the protection of its citizens from the personal, financial and emotional ravages of sickness, injury and old age. Only here in America, it seems, do people clamor angrily against even the relatively meager coverage (for themselves!) achieved under Obamacare. Only here in America do the insurance companies and drug manufacturers wield sufficient power to prevail against all common sense and human compassion in their advancement of a for-profit system that functions not for the health of citizens but exclusively for corporate benefit.

It’s not only health care, of course. The fear of socialism prevails in every aspect of our lives. It’s rooted deeply in our system of justice, which benefits wealth and privilege to the detriment of the poor and powerless. It is a malignant force in the perpetuation of racial prejudice. It disempowers our government from sensible regulation—whether of financial markets, banks, air and water pollution, even guns… It is particularly pernicious in delaying the increasingly urgent need to manage and protect our threatened resources and our natural environment. And so on.

Some form of socialism is the accepted norm these days in European nations, where it partners in various ways with free-market capitalism without apparent detriment to the economic well-being of actual people—even the very wealthy. It thrives, indeed, in our own country, in multiple unacknowledged ways. The so-called entitlements that constitute our indispensible social safety net go unrecognized as socialist programs by many who depend on them: “Get your government hands off my Medicare!” Yet even these are now under attack by the right-wing, supposedly conservative politicians who are in ascendancy—those same politicians who have been elected, and are passionately supported by those who deplore big government and rail against taxation.

The great question remains unanswered: if the primary and avowed purpose of the current administration is the “deconstruction” of the underpinnings of a civilized society, and if they are successful in this attack, what will happen to those who were duped into unwittingly supporting them in this endeavor?  When will our new would-be emperor be exposed as a man of unmitigated ignorance and greed? What innocent child is going to point to his parade and say: “But, Ma, he has no clothes.”

It seems to me that first we’re going to have to recognize some rights beyond our own, to accept a common responsibility for our fellow human beings. We need to educate our young people in a serious way about the history and the true meaning of socialism; and to become, in our personal and political lives, just a little bit more socialist ourselves. In the real sense of that much-maligned, much-despised, much-mistrusted word.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

STRENGTH



There are those, I know, who think of Donald Tr*mp as a “strong” leader. I don’t agree.

Refusal to acknowledge truth supported by evidence is not strength, it’s weakness;

Intemperate language and temper tantrums are not strength, they’re weakness;

The insatiable need for adoration is not strength, it’s weakness;

Willful ignorance and the rejection of facts, whether scientific or otherwise, are not strength, they’re weakness;

Refusal to hear, still less to heed, the opinions of others is not strength, it’s weakness;

Blaming others for one's own failures is not strength, it's weakness;

Bullying behavior is easily mistaken for strength, but it’s not, it’s weakness;

Outright rejection of criticism is not strength, it’s weakness;

Telling transparent lies, and constantly repeating them even when they are proven untrue, is not strength, but weakness;

Rudeness and other forms of mistreatment of others are not strength, they’re weakness;

“Grabbing pussy” to prove one’s masculinity is not strength, it’s weakness;

Indiscriminate boasting and exaggeration are not strength, they’re weakness;

Obsession with irrelevant details while neglecting important questions is not strength, it’s weakness.

Donald Tr*mp is a desperately insecure individual whose inner terror of appearing weak compels him to project a false image of strength.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

ROBOTS


I have a new remote for my Apple TV. It’s a remarkable little instrument, quite small in the hand, and with it I can communicate with the television via voice command. I can simply hold up the device and say “Casablanca,” and in no time at all the icon for the famous old movie appears on the television screen. With a click of the remote—and the payment of a $2.99 rental fee—I can watch one of the finest movies Hollywood ever produced. Quite a deal! It’s the same with Siri, by the way, who appears (to me) unpredictably and somewhat annoyingly on my cell phone, on my television screen and even on my computer, to ask me how she can help me. I never know what to tell her.

A propos of which, I spent sometime yesterday teaching Ellie—to whom these things are even more mysterious than to myself—how to work the remote, and for this reason, perhaps, awoke in the middle of the night giving out enigmatic and quite needless orders to some disembodied entity that existed only in my mind. Which led me to reflect on where all this might lead.

The possibilities are endless. There are already, as I understand it, driverless cars and trucks out on the roads. Thousands, perhaps millions have sacrificed their jobs to the automatons that do their work without salary, benefits, or complaint. I have seen—on television, I’m sure—the images of robots given startlingly realistic human form and face...



... along with humanoid skills.

And so I wonder. I can easily imagine a future in which every family has a life-like robotic servant, in the same way that today we have cars, television sets, computers, as a matter of course. The family robot will be ready to respond to every command: clean the house, prepare the dinner, do the dishes, baby-sit the children… Service, perhaps, my sexual needs? An indispensible convenience, in other words. Who cold resist such help around the house?

I also happen to be reading The Undergound Railroad, a deeply disturbing novel about slavery by Colson Whitehead, and it occurred to me to wonder what the possession of a virtual slave would mean to his/her/its human owner. The primary victims of the slavery system were the slaves themselves, of course. Abducted from their homes and abused in every conceivable way, they suffered more cruelly than we privileged folk can possibly imagine. The deep wound to the soul of our fellow Americans of African descent remains in many ways unhealed to this day.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the dehumanization of those who deemed themselves superior beings for purely racial reasons, claiming the right to own other human beings and use them to their personal advantage. These slave-owners willingly sacrificed their own humanity even as they misappropriated that of their victims, inflicting suffering on others in order to profit from their misery. It’s my belief that we Caucasian Americans also continue to suffer to this day from that inhuman cruelty we practiced long ago.

So I wonder what it will do to us to become slave-owners once more? Our “slaves” may be machines which will not have the capacity to suffer as human beings do. But what happens to the psyche of one who can simply exercise the power to have all his needs provided for, who can indiscriminately issue orders in the expectation that every order will be unquestioningly obeyed? Is that power in itself not in some way damaging to our fundamental humanity?


The human spirit as I define it is the ability to look beyond one’s immediate and basic needs for survival, to cooperate with others, to be inventive, to deal with adversity, to love, and feel compassion. We risk sacrificing that humanity when we assume the right to command others—even machines—to do our bidding, fulfill our least requirement, and relieve us of the responsibility to see to our own lives.