No Swami on Monday--Swami may be a citizen of the planet, but he observes all national holidays.
Swami also wants you to know he takes his spiritual assignment seriously. He agrees with some of you who have posted: too much politics in this blog. But in Swami's defense: Politics is--somewhere past the deal-making and compromising and outright lying--one way we try to make a kinder world for the less fortunate. And thus it is an expression of character. And character is spirituality's first cousin. So politics is character in action. And, in Swami World, action matters more than belief.
"You gotta serve somebody." About the smartest line Bob Dylan ever wrote.
This weekend marks the beginning of Grill Season, when we gather around fire and worship charred meat. It's also a sacred weekend. Has been since 1868. Purpose: to honor the war dead. "Memorial Day is not about division," a historian writes. "It is about reconcilation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all."
One good way to honor those who died for our freedom is to use and extend our freedom--our intellectual freedom, our mental freedom. With that in mind, some cultural suggestions:
Video: In America
Irish parents come to New York to start a new life after the death of their young son. Their daughters adjust; the adults are having a hard time. Performances so real you may feel you're watching a documentary. The kids are exceptional. If you don't cry when one of them sings "Desperado," maybe a heart transplant is in order.
Memoir: Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery
Karen Armstrong, the great religious historian, here tells of her seven years in a Catholic nunnery in England. It's a harsh, ugly experience, but it leads to her coming of age. Read this one with a pencil in hand; you'll want to mark the insights.
War story: We Die Alone
Early 1943. The Nazis occupy Norway. Jan Baalsrud and some comrades sneak back into their country. The mission is discovered. All but Baalsrud are killed. Without supplies, he must get help and cross the Arctic Circle to safety. Talk about a page-turner.
CD: Red Dirt Girl
This next-to-most-recent release by Emmylou Harris could be her masterpiece: a set of songs that transcends category. "Bang the Drum Slowly," about her military-man father, has special resonance this weekend.
John Ashcroft: One Mo' Time
Kevin Drum, in Washington Monthly.com, links to an article about John Ashcroft's press conference that includes an astonishing quote from our Attorney General.
The Madrid railway bombings were perceived by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to have advanced their cause. Al Qaeda may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar consequences.Drum notes:
The supposed "consequence" of the Madrid attack, of course, was a victory by the opposition party. So Ashcroft is rather unsubtly saying that al-Qaeda would consider a John Kerry victory to have "advanced their cause."
What a despicable worm. What a revolting, loathsome, toad. One more note about Ashcroft. That hide-the-women and children announcement? It wasn't his to make. From The Washington Post:
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and Bush administration rules, only the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can publicly issue threat warnings, and they must be approved in a complex interagency process involving the White House. Administration officials sympathetic to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he was not informed Ashcroft was going to characterize the threat in that way--an assertion that Justice officials deny.But as we know, only the little people--that's you and me--need to follow the rules and color between the lines. And if Swami reads Ashcroft right, we'd better follow those rules and color between those lines very, very carefully.
At 81, the angry young man still can throw hard. From a recent essay:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
"Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
Ashcroft: Apologize to My Mother!
John Ashcroft is back from Sick Leave, just in time to make us sick.
Yes, that Ashcroft, the Attorney General who is, as the Rude Pundit [Parental Advisory: RP lives up to his name] has noted, so toxic that his own pancreas turned against him.
In case you missed the full-bore freakout that Ashcroft unleased yesterday, what you need to know is that he wants your help in locating seven Arabs suspected of working with Al Qaeda to bomb your neighborhood this summer. (Yes, it's your responsibility to win the War on Terror. Your government's too busy fighting "terrorists" in Iraq to protect our ports and nuclear plants and oil fields.)
Little problem with the Attorney General's news conference--there was no real news in it. From the New York Times this morning:
The administration did not raise the terrorist threat advisory from its current level of elevated, or yellow, and the White House said Mr. Bush would not alter his schedule because of security concerns.
"There's no real new intelligence, and a lot of this has been out there already," said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There really is no significant change that would require us to change the alert level of the country."
Mr. Ashcroft called for greater public vigilance, especially in looking out for seven people sought by the F.B.I. who are suspected of being Qaeda members or sympathizers.
The names of six of the seven were publicly circulated by the authorities months ago, and officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they had no reason to believe any of the seven suspects were in the United States.
Asked about the timing of his new warnings about the suspects, Mr. Ashcroft said, "We believe the public, like all of us, needs a reminder."
Some intelligence officials said they were uncertain that the link between the fresh intelligence and the likelihood of another attack was as apparent as Mr. Ashcroft made it out to be. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said just a day before Mr. Ashcroft's announcement that they had no new intelligence pointing to the threat of an attack. So what was all the fuss about? Politics. The MO of the Bush Administration ever since 9/11: When the polls dip--and the Prez's ratings are currently in the toilet--remind Americans that the terrorists hate our freedom and want to kill us all.
This kind of fear-mongering should have this reaction: "Hey, pal, why scare us? Why not just nab the terrorists?"
But because we are a nation with a large population of Adult Children, it has the opposite effect: Terror alerts make us cling tighter to Daddy's bosom, in the hopes that our "wartime President" will protect us (just as he's protected our environment, our schools and our economy).
And it's not just the Hard of Thinking and the Blindly Patriotic who fall for this stuff.
My mother is one of the sharpest tacks on the planet. At 87, she scours the Web, hungry for information--and, okay, hungry for bargains. (These lifelong passions should be familiar to those of you who were young during the Depression and those who are the kids of Depression children.)
Swami and Mrs. Uptown are, late in life, the besotted parents of a remarkable little girl who would greatly enjoy frequent visits with her grandmother. Alas, the child lives in New York and Granny lives in California. Visits are infrequent. Worse, from Granny's point-of-view, they involve planes. Since 9/11, flying makes her nervous.
But JetBlue had a monster sale going on--they were practically paying you to fly--so Swami proposed a summer visit to his mother. She was wild for the idea: great trip, great price. The JetBlue promotion was expiring, so Swami called his mother to finalize the itinerary.
She was nearly hyperventilating when she picked up the phone. And close to weepy when she confessed she had been watching Ashcroft on TV and he had convinced her that she just...couldn't...fly.
Swami was dumbfounded: "Why would the terrorists want to take down a smallish JetBlue plane?" But you can't reason with a woman who's got the TV on all day, the better to mainline bad news and its byproduct, fear.
Swami eventually got his mother back to reality--though not before building up a colossal rage against this Washington punk whose greatest skill is to frighten the citizenry. Poking his nose into libraries and bookstores was bad enough. Detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely without giving them access to courts or lawyers is plenty disgusting. And those prayer meetings at the Justice Department give Swami the willies.
But scaring grandmothers so badly that their images of planes involve either nausea or death--just to bump your boss a point or two up in the polls? That's way over the line.
So I want John Ashcroft to apologize to my mother.
And, as the date of her flight approaches, I want Ashcroft to guarantee her safety--and to be clear that if anything unfortunate happens on that five-hour flight, her family will hold him responsible.
Maybe you'd like to join Swami in this Responsibility Campaign. (Feel free to cut and paste.)
Here's John Ashcroft's e-mail address: AskDOJ@usdoj.gov
In the subject line, I'll be writing: My Mom is flying on [fill in date].
Dear Attorney General Ashcroft,
My 87-year-old mother is flying on [DATE] to see her grandaughter. She'll be taking [Jet Blue flight #]. She'll return on [DATE] on [JetBlue flight # ].
This is to alert you that her loved ones hold you personally responsible for her safety. It is the government's job--not ours--to protect American citizens. Holding press conferences and frightening the populace make no one safer. Indeed, this showboating merely gives you less time to do the job for which you were chosen.
When my mother's return flight lands safely, I will write you again--to thank you. If something goes wrong? Then we'll do our best to tell the world about the woman whose blood will be on your hands.
Trent Lott: Part 2
A reader sends this:
"About Trent Lott's comments regarding using dogs to intimidate Iraqi prisoners....
"Has everybody missed the fact that dogs are haram (unclean) in Islam? Putting a dog in with or near a Muslim is nearly as bad as forcing them to eat pork! (Actually, it's probably worse; the Qur'an says if you eat pork out of duress, there's no sin.)"
New Reality Show: 'Republican Survivor'
Speakers up, then click on Republican Survivor
What is it? The teaser for a new animated "series"--Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Katherine Harris, Ann Coulter, and Tom DeLay on a desert island.
The unlikely sponsor: the Democratic National Committee.
W.H. Auden on G.W. Bush
Not really--Auden's inspiration was Lyndon Johnson. But doesn't this poem read like prophecy:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Required Reading: Chris Dickey
Without apparent regard to his own safety, Christopher Dickey has done what Marines and great journalists do--run toward trouble. His columns about Iraq are beacons of common sense; they're Gospel in many more households than Swami's. If you haven't had the pleasure of communing with sanity, start right now: The Long Goodbye.
Tom Clancy? Yes, Tom Clancy!
The king of America's macho writers has spoken out against the occupation of Iraq. (Hey, guys: now what's holding your clergyman/woman back?)
Check out Tom Clancy criticizes Iraq war.
Trent Lott: "This is not Sunday School"
Oops, he did it again: Sen. Lott Sounds Off On Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Photos.
"Frankly, to save some American troops' lives or a unit that could be in danger, I think you should get really rough with them," Lott said. "Some of those people should probably not be in prisons in the first place."
When asked about the photo showing a prisoner being threatened with a dog, Lott was unmoved. "Nothing wrong with holding a dog up there unless it ate him," Lott said. "(They just) scared him with the dog."
Lott was reminded that at least one prisoner had died at the hands of his captors after a beating. "This is not Sunday school," he said. "This is interrogation. This is rough stuff."
Imagine There's No 'Imagine'
From the New York Times review of Madonna's just-launched concert tour:
There's something really depressing about watching Madonna present a video of children from around the world (it included a plug for Spirituality for Kids, a cabala-inspired organization) while singing John Lennon's "Imagine."
Ever since 9/11, "Imagine" has been everywhere, and it's probably time for singers to give that chestnut a break or at the very least to stop treating it as a high-minded protest song. When Madonna sang, "I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one," she sounded vaguely presumptuous. What does us mean, coming from someone like Madonna? Pop stars? Americans? Britons? Children's-book authors? And who exactly is you? "Imagine" on the shelf? Here's another vote for that. And I know Bette Midler singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" was moving at a number of 9/11 events--Swami attended one, and the old softy bawled like everyone else--but, please....enough, already.
On the other hand, after years out of the rotation, Swami heard Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" the other day. And when they got to these lines...
When you're down and out,
When you're on the street,
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you.
I'll take your part.
...the Swamster misted up. Better than the theme song from "Friends," doncha think? Just a tad?
What music has worn out its welcome in your home? What still inspires? Do post your suggestions.
The Swami Challenge
In his speech last night, President Bush said, "Next month...our coalition will transfer full sovereignty to a government of Iraqi citizens who will prepare the way for national elections."
You heard the man: "full sovereignty."
So if they ask us to leave, we're gone--because it's their country, right?
Swami is not a betting man--when you have powers to see deep into the future, it's not fair--but Swami is willing to bet this is...oh, how shall Swami put it?...a lie. Yes, that's the word. A lie.
Swami believes the following scenario is more like it:
1) Iraqis will ask us to leave in 2004.
2) We will say yes, but drag our heels.
3) We will continue to maintain our right to have air/army bases in Iraq.
To bet against Swami is easy. All you have to do is believe any ONE of three propositions:
1) Iraqis won't ask us to leave in 2004.
2) If Iraqis do ask us to leave in 2004, we'll do soon as quickly and completely as possible.
3) If Iraqis ask us to leave in 2004, we'll forget about those military bases.
All bets are made by e-mail to SwamiUptown@AOL.com.
The stakes? It's a gentleman's bet. But at the end of this year, Swami will make a donation of $1 per Beliefnet bettor to Share Our Strength, a charity that works to feed hungry children.
Rules: You may vote only once. Voting ends (of course) on June 30, 2004.
The President's Speech
Swami didn't watch. He knew what the President would say: freedom vs. terror, democracy vs. terrorism, the virtuous United States vs. our satanic opponents.
In other words: a black-and-white world.
Swami used his time better last night. He played Leonard Cohen's CD, Ten New Songs, which includes these smart smart lyrics:
Looked through the paper.
Makes you want to cry.
Nobody cares if the people live or die.
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white.
Thank God it's not that simple
In My Secret Life.
The Peanut Gallery
Others watched the President for Swami. From the message boards of Eschaton, some amusing (if only!) takes on the President's speech:
The Christians Are Coming! The Christians Are Coming!
ChristianExodus.org has been established to coordinate the move of 50,000 or more Christians to a single conservative state in the U.S. for the express purpose of reestablishing constitutional governance.
The ultimate goal: "an independent Christian nation where people may once again worship God under the protection of a friendly government. In addition, such a nation will be free of burdensome taxation and federal meddling in local affairs."
It's too hard to take over the entire country in one swoop. Easier to do it state by state. Or, rather, in one of three states under consideration for the first "exodus"--Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.
And they say New York and California get the cool stuff first! You lucky, lucky Southerners!
Weekend Sermon Survey
Did only two of you go to church or synagogue this weekend? Is it possible you're all...Buddhists? Or is there a Church of Slackers that Swami knows nothing about?
Many thanks to two Beliefneters who shared the sermon topic at their churches. What they heard:
"Our preacher spoke about leaving your needs and worries in God's hands, to pray to Him and rely on Him to provide. That we have all we need with or without money through Him."
"Our pastor preached about revival and what you need to have one--be humble, repent and pray. Tonight he is going to preach on what we can do to have a good revival."
Worthy subjects, to be sure. But not what Swami was hoping to hear. On the other hand, this is pretty much how it's gone since the start of the war. According to a survey by the Pew Forum before the war started, "Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of those who regularly attend religious services say their clergy has spoken about the prospect of war with Iraq. But just a fifth (21%) say their priest or minister has taken a position on the issue."
Swami says: This has gone on long enough.
Which leads us to...
What Can You Do to Stop the War?
Swami gives a big shout-out to Willsea, who posted: "Enough analysis, Swami! Tell us what we can do to stop the war."
Swami rises to the challenge....
l) Talk to your clergyman/woman. Tell him/her that his/her silence on the war is intolerable to you. Tell him/her that he/she has until June 30--when we turn over the keys to Iraq to whatever Iraqi allies haven't been killed by then--to do this. Do you care what position he/she takes? Nope. This is America. All you want is for him/her to engage your congregation on the great moral issue of the year.
A request without a threat is meaningless. So Swami urges you to say one more thing to your clergyman/woman: "If you don't do this, I'll start church/synagogue shopping in July--I'm outta here!"
2) Write to your Congressmen/Congresswomen and Senators. Tell them you are a "one issue" voter--and your issue is Iraq. If they don't take a position loud and clear and fast--again, June 30th is a fine deadline--you'll vote against them in the next election.
Swami will make it easy for you. If you're lazy, just cut and paste this message:
Every generation, a moral issue comes along that's bigger than politics--but politics is how we have to deal with it.
For our generation, that issue is Iraq. Getting rid of Saddam may have been a noble goal, but the way we did it and the mess we have made since doesn't justify the loss of American and Iraqi lives or the hundreds of billions of dollars we have squandered.
The spotlight is on you. You cannot evade the judgment of history. You must either speak up in favor of the Administration's policy--or condemn it and urge our withdrawal at the earliest possible moment.
Please know that your silence on this issue comes at a price--my vote.
If you want my support in the next election, I would urge you to speak out loud and clear against this wasteful, immoral war.
For Congress: Click here.
For the Senate: Click here.
3) Become a "freeway blogger." All is takes is cardboard or a sheet and a thick Magic Marker. Create a slogan--or borrow one of these freeway blogs: FreewayBlogger.com. In just a few hours, thousands--or tens of thousands--will see your message. And your message will encourage others....
4) Join Run Against Bush. It's multi-tasking at the highest level. You get in shape, you make new friends--and you're a human billboard.
5) Read MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change. It's the most practical guide to making change in your life since...oh..... The Joy of Sex.
Nicholas Berg: More Questions
Berg beheading: No way, say medical experts.
The Boy on the Bike
In the Official Story, President Bush was on the 16th mile of a 17-mile ride on his trail bike near his ranch in Crawford Texas when he wiped out, scraping his chin and nose.
"The president was nearing the end of a 17-mile ride on his mountain bike, accompanied by a Secret Service agent, a military aide and his personal physician, Richard Tubb, who treated him at the scene," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.
"It's been raining a lot and the topsoil is loose," Duffy said. "You know this president. He likes to go all-out. Suffice it to say he wasn't whistling show tunes."
One problem with the Official Story: It hadn't rained in that part of Texas in ten days.
Last significant rain: May 13. 2.79 inches. You can look it up.
So Swami wonders: What really happened?
And, looking back, didn't the "pretzel incident" also precede another big speech? Is it possible that Bush wants to come clean with the American people but is thwarted--and so he finds a way to punish himself for his weakness/cowardice?
Shabbos and Church Services
Yesterday Swami offered up a sermon topic--and a cheat sheet for lazy clergy men and women who might be inclined to speak on the theme of responsibility and accountability.
For those among you who attend church and synagogue services this weekend: Swami would be very interested to hear what your minister/rabbi spoke about. Please, if you would, post on the message board to your right, or send e-mail to SwamiUptown@AOL.com.
Meanwhile, a few items of special interest to Christians who want to keep up with the ever-widening interpretations of the message and life of Christ.
"Thank Jesus You're Alive"
The Washington Post reveals a new round of photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison, buttressed by accounts of detainees who were held there. One account caught Swami's eye. Not to give Gen. Boykin a hard time or anything like that, but Swami wonders: If the situation were reversed, how would Christians hold up to this kind of abuse? Or--just a thought--maybe religion isn't much of a factor when you're being beaten and humiliated.
The telling anecdote:
Al-Sheik said he was arrested on Oct. 7, and brought to Abu Ghraib, where he was put in a tent for one night. The next day, he was transferred to the "hard site," the two-story building that held about 200 prisoners and contained Tiers 1A and 1B.
He said a bag was put over his head and he was made to strip. He said American soldiers started to taunt him.
"Do you pray to Allah?" one asked. "I said yes. They said, '[Expletive] you. And [expletive] him.' One of them said, 'You are not getting out of here health[y], you are getting out of here handicapped. And he said to me, 'Are you married?' I said, 'Yes.' They said, 'If your wife saw you like this, she will be disappointed.' One of them said, 'But if I saw her now she would not be disappointed now because I would rape her.'"
He said the soldiers told him that if he cooperated with interrogators they would release him in time for Ramadan. He said he did, but still was not released. He said one soldier continued to abuse him by striking his broken leg and ordered him to curse Islam. "Because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion," he said. "They ordered me to thank Jesus that I'm alive."
The detainee said the soldiers handcuffed him to a bed.
"Do you believe in anything?" he said the soldier asked. "I said to him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, "But I believe in torture and I will torture you.'"
Unitarian Universalists Aren't Religious (in Texas)
According to the office of Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Denison Unitarian church isn't really a religious organization--at least for tax purposes. Its reasoning: the organization "does not have one system of belief."
Scientology, on the other hand, qualifies.
You gotta read every word of this.
Da Vinci Debunked
So Christ wasn't crucified? He went on to get married, have kids, live in France, right?
As you know from diligent reading of Beliefnet-- Da Vinci's Secret Agenda--"The Da Vinci Code" has disturbed some Christians, who fear that this novel will be read as non-fiction.
Eleven books have recently appeared to debunk and/or analyze the claims Dan Brown makes in his bestseller. Which to read? FaithfulReader.com's critic waded through them all and offers a comprehensive guide to the debunkers.
And if you're really into it, FaithfulReader.com has a conversation with the authors of these 11 books.
Great Health Care
Guess what country this is?
Its hospitals gleam. Waiting-lists are non-existent. Doctors still make home visits. Life expectancy is two years longer than average for the western world.
....For the patient, the [X] health system is still a joy. Same-day appointments can be made easily; if one doctor's advice displeases, you can consult another. Individual hospital rooms are the norm. Specialists can be consulted without referral. And while the patient pays up front, almost all the money is reimbursed, either through the public insurance system or a top-up private policy.
For family doctors too, liberty prevails. They are self-employed, can set up a practice where they like, prescribe what they like, and are paid per consultation. As the health ministry's own diagnosis put it recently: "The [X} system offers more freedom than any other in the world."
For the answer, read this Washington Monthly item.
Our Sermon Today: The Wedding Party
Memorial Day--when we honor our war dead--is the first real summer weekend. What are the odds you'll be in church or synagogue that weekend? Not so good. So your ever-thoughtful Swami has prepared a cheat sheet for a sermon that your religious leader might want to give this weekend, when you (and he/she) are still able to think about more than how you look in a swimsuit and if your old friends with a country/beach house will ever call. Feel free to forward this...
Our sermon today is about responsibility. About accountability. And, of course, about the flip side: irresponsibility. Really it's about irresponsibility, or no-fault responsibility, because that is the moral lesson we cannot help but draw these days.
Someone on a blogger's message board made a joke of it. An officer pulls you over for speeding. He hands you a ticket. You wave him off. "Thanks, officer, I take responsibility for this," you say. And drive away.
But it doesn't work that way, does it? At least for us, it doesn't. But wherever white men in suits are gathered together--and you can't help but noticing, with the notable exception of Condi Rice, it's hard to spot a woman in any of these rooms--you can be pretty sure "blame" and "responsibility" and "accountability" won't be a big part of the conversation.
Of course I'm talking about the war in Iraq.
The war ended--unofficially, of course--when we learned about Abu Ghraib. Ever since, the American leadership has been acting like those cartoon characters who run headlong off a cliff and don't dare look down. But they can't sprint on air forever; soon enough, they're going to plunge like a stone.
If only they can get to June 30th. For them, that's when the war finally ends. (For America, that is. For the Iraqis, it's the start of a new round of war.) Oh, the chiefs swear we're in Iraq for the long haul--you don't create a democracy overnight, blah blah blah--but they have lied (or been wrong) about everything else, and they lie (or are wrong) about this as well. So, unlike Vietnam, we'll get this one right: We'll declare "victory" before we get our asses fatally kicked and zoom outta there, and if President Bush's corporate friends haven't started to pocket the massive profits they planned for, too bad--the boss has an election to win.
Yes, I know the President says, "My resolve is firm. This is an historic moment. The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see no weakness. We will answer every challenge." But surely he and his gang of dreamers know the truth is closer to what a former CENTCOM commander chillingly told Congress: "I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss."
Consider: We've already turned Fallujah over to the Iraqis. It seems we're firing on Karbala and Najaf just to keep busy, lest the press have nothing to write about except the Abu Ghraib scandal. The rest is random: a sarin bomb (or not), the martyrdom of a young American by Al-Qaeda (or not), a chopper strafing a wedding party and killing 40 (or not-- the Army denies it).
I'm reminded of something I saw on a blog about that last outrage: "There were probably a thousand weddings in Iraq today that went off beautifully, and the Liberal media will only cover the one we shot up. Damned America-hating Liberals." That has just the right tone: anger overlaid with irony, despair made palatable.
Because who really gives a damn?
The sad fact is, we are numb. As a nation, we seem to be apathetic to anything grander than "American Idol." It didn't used to be that way. Back when some of us were pups, this country was on a mission as grandiose and misguided as Bush's--saving Vietnam from Communism. It was a bogus, corrupt mission, and kids and smart adults knew it, and they took to the streets and shouted and screamed and, over time, changed a lot of minds.
You would think that the machinations of the most inept presidency since the Harding Administration (any History majors in the house?) would inspire a second flowering of the anti-war movement. You'd think people would be in the streets screaming. You'd think you'd hear the word "impeachment"--or, at least, "train wreck."
But, no. Nothing. A billion dollars a day down the crapper. Four or five poor bastards a day stuffed into body bags (and that's just on "our" side). But outside of the "liberal" bloggers and the MoveOn crowd, no energetic expression of outrage. What would it take to get us out of our chairs, hearts pounding, looking to Do Something?
It would take regime change--at home.
I submit the reason we do nothing, the reason we are so astonishingly silent, is that there's no target for our anger or our idealism. There's no target because there's nobody home in Washington--and I don't just mean the White House. Because you can't be angry at someone who says "Yes, I take responsibility" and "I'm accountable." Hey, he admitted it--the bad thing happened on his watch, the buck stops with him. But then...you wait for a response beyond, "I'm sorry," but nothing happens. They don't think they've done anything wrong. Or maybe they know that our attention spans are short; there's no real need for a course correction. Or--and I suspect this explanation is closest to the truth--they really don't think they've done anything wrong and they're just shining us on.
Whatever the reason, no one is fired or reprimanded; it's like a shadow play. If something happened, things might change, and these folks like life exactly the way it is.
But the law of life is change. As June 30th approaches, with the President's poll numbers tumbling, we can expect many expressions of what we might charitably call "pragmatism" (but which is really just common sense, applied late in the game). The sudden realization that our pal Ahmad Chalabi is a crook and a cad (and maybe even a spy working against us, despite the $27 million we've paid him) is a start. There will be other "surprises" ahead that will daunt the President's conservative friends. And then, out of the blue, there will come the day when a new Iraq government asks us to leave and we beat it out of Dodge at warp speed.
But before we go, before we put Iraq behind us as if it never happened, let's spend just one minute contemplating that wedding party. Young people, celebrating their love. Old people, further along the stream of life, seeing themselves as they once were. And children.... because, as some of our brethren like to insist, marriage is all about the creation of a family.
And then, from the sky, death. Forty bodies, ten of them women, fifteen of them children. Naturally, we are not accountable--we thought the wedding party was a gathering of insurgents--so we don't need to apologize. And, in this way, the dead disappear into yesterday's news.
This is what I pray for: Dear God, send us a Picasso to paint this Guernica! Find a way to rip the apathy from our hearts so we can feel for others as we feel for our own! Give us some way to distance ourselves from the killing--this meaningless killing--that is done in our names, lest our silence condemn us to the same harsh judgment that is surely coming to those who, in the name of freedom, have brought a fresh round of torture and murder to a hapless people.
(In lieu of a Bible passage)
Traveling in a comfortable car
Down a rainy road in the country
We saw a ragged fellow at nightfall
Signal to us for a ride, with a low bow.
We had a roof and we had room and we drove on
And we heard me say, in a grumpy voice: No,
we can't take anyone with us.
We had gone on a long way, perhaps a day's march
When suddenly I was shocked by this voice of mine
This behavior of mine and this
The Season's Best Graduation Speech
In his "Welcome, Beliefnet friends" note, Swami promised joy and fun. And today's entry, to this point, has been anything but jolly. So let me redeem myself with this:
Many graduations to go. But someone will have to be very sharp indeed to top this one, by Jon Stewart (of the Daily Show on Comedy Central), delivered at his alma mater, William and Mary. You'll want to read it all. But here, some highlights:
As a freshman I was quite a catch. Less than five feet tall, yet my head is the same size it is now. Didn't even really look like a head, it looked more like a container for a head. I looked like a Peanuts character. Peanuts characters had terrible acne. But what I lacked in looks I made up for with a repugnant personality.And, more seriously...
In 1981 I lost my virginity, only to gain it back again on appeal in 1983. You could say that my one saving grace was academics where I excelled, but I did not.
And yet now I live in the rarified air of celebrity, of mega stardom. My life a series of Hollywood orgies and Kabala center brunches with the cast of 'Friends.' At least that's what my handlers tell me. I'm actually too valuable to live my own life and spend most of my days in a vegetable crisper to remain fake news anchor fresh.
Lets talk about the real world for a moment. We had been discussing it earlier, and I... I wanted to bring this up to you earlier about the real world, and this is I guess as good a time as any. I don't really know to put this, so I'll be blunt. We broke it.
Please don't be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.
I don't know if you've been following the news lately, but it just kinda got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and uh, then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize.
But here's the good news. You fix this thing, you're the next greatest generation, people. You do this--and I believe you can--you win this war on terror, and Tom Brokaw's kissing your ass from here to Tikrit, let me tell ya. And even if you don't, you're not gonna have much trouble surpassing my generation. If you end up getting your picture taken next to a naked guy pile of enemy prisoners and don't give the thumbs up you've outdid us.
We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror--it's not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I'm sure we'll take on that bastard ennui.
The Rapture: Bring It On
As if the Israeli/Arab conflict weren't muddled enough, we now learn that a new element is influencing American policy. No, not the Jewish voters of Florida, who are the ostensible reason that President Bush, in an election year, reversed decades of relative moderation in the Middle East and gave Sharon support for any old thing he wanted to do on the West Bank. Now, it appears that the real power resides in those Christians who see Israel as key to the Second Coming.
It's not news that Evangelical Christians like Israel for their own reasons. (See The Rapture Factor. ) What will raise eyebrows among those who doubted the Evangelicals would get much traction: a stunning Village Voice report that, just three weeks before Bush's stunning reversal of policy, National Security Council Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams met with members of the Apostolic Congress, a group opposed to a Palestinian state. They're big supporters of Israel--not because they have any abiding affection for Jews, but because it is crucial to God's Master Plan that the Holy Land remain in Jewish hands.
Swami is weak on the specifics of the Rapture, but the general idea is that it affords salvation only to the devout. Jews need not apply. They're really just placeholders; when the Rapture comes and the faithful are lifted to Heaven, the Jews will be torched in the general inferno.
As religious belief, Swami has no argument with this; who is he to say that this is not valid prophecy? But as foreign policy? Madness. Lunacy. And, of course, a total betrayal of our long-held tradition of keeping religion out of politics.
One saving grace: As Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, writes in his blog, "The one downside for Bush is that he is beholden not just to the far right Christian looney fringe but also to Wall Street, and the latter can't actually be very happy with the roller coaster ride his policies are producing for their investments. Unlike poor people, moreover, the monied both vote and give to political campaigns."
Charlotte Hayes, Swami's colleague-in-crime, wrote in her blog yesterday: "People rarely talk like Boykin does nowadays, but such thoughts were the staple of the wonderful, old Victorian missionary hymns. Using the language of a less secular era doesn't make Boykin somebody likely to mistreat others."
Sorry, dear friend, but it's a short slide down the slope from racist language to racist acts. This is why, in a public space, if some moron lurches around shouting, "Nigger," African Americans have the good sense to move back. Boykin all but said that Muslims are lesser beings. He may not be likely to mistreat others himself--what General is?--but as his message filtered down to junior officers and grunts, it emboldened those who abused prisoners, pointed guns at the heads of children and may have murdered as many as 27 Iraqi detainees. (See Pentagon Records Show Five Brutal Interrogation Deaths.)
I grant that it must be thrilling for Ms. Hayes to see a square-jawed man in uniform exhorting Christian soldiers. But as a lover of hymns, she must surely recall that the soldiers in the hymn aren't marching "off to war," but "as to war." Why? Because they're not literal, armed and uniformed soldiers, they're missionaries. Our soldiers, alas, are marching off to die in a real war and for reasons that change monthly--but, to date, have thankfully not included the suppression of the most popular religion in the world.
Back to Boykin: Swami wonders if he has a picture of Charlemagne on his wall. Talk about your "terrible swift sword"--Charlemagne gave captured Saxon rebels a choice between baptism and execution. Four thousand five hundred Saxons chose execution. Charlemagne had them all beheaded--in a single morning.
Who Killed Nick Berg?
Arrests have been made. The body's been buried. Outrage remains, but it's just rhetoric now--the story is over. Or is it?
Bloggers aren't sure. The tape seems...dubbed. The victim is oddly passive, even inert. If the leader of the gang that killed Berg was Zarqawi, he sure looks hearty. (Before the war, didn't we hear that Zarqawi had a leg amputated? Now he seems to have two good legs.) And, most of all, this bloodiest of killings yields...no blood. Judging from the video: not a drop. This is the real puzzler --- Swami has seen more blood spurt from a chicken killed at a kosher butcher than he saw in this bloodless video. For more speculation: Doubts Emerge About Berg Decapitation Video.
Iraqi Democracy Rapture
Ah, June 30th, when everything (or probably nothing) changes. Tired of the Administration's doubletalk (If they ask us to leave, we will. No, we won't.)? Skeptical about the ability of the Iraqi Council--one blogger calls it the "Clowncil"--to do anything but get assassinated, one opportunist (oops, idealist) at a time? Then Swami has a comic strip for you: "Get Your War On," by David Rees. Started shortly after 9/11, this strip gets better as life gets worse.
CONSUMER WARNING: Under 18? Got a problem with obscenity? Don't like blunt speech? Think "liberals" crave America's ruin? Then this is NOT for you. Freethinker? Here you go: Get Your War On.
Why So Much War Talk?
Beliefnet's turf is the spiritual realm. So why does Swami use this precious real estate to bang on about the war?
Because war is about the concentration of pain, and pain is a spiritual concern.
Because war generally involves polluting language--turning it into propaganda and thus discouraging clear thinking. And unless we find belief through simple assertions of faith, clear thinking is an essential element of spirituality.
So Swami--like you, perhaps--is trying to parse the war.
Today, Swami is thinking about our "offensive" in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. Our adversaries are groups who don't accept our control. But we say in June we will not be in control. So what is the point of killing people to gain control for the next 45 days?
Can anyone explain this to Swami?
Howler of the Week
Swami knows, it's only Tuesday. But David Brooks--the "Bobos in America" author who was tapped to bring youthful conservative perspective to the New York Times op-ed page--has come up with a jaw-dropper so astonishing Swami can't imagine a serious challenger.
In today's column, a big-hearted nation is so filled with goodwill it rushes into a war without any planning--because, hey, those good intentions just make you do silly things. And that nation bumbles, to be sure. But just like in the Jimmy Stewart movies, the idealistic lug of a nation recovers its footing and...wins.
Brooks grants that some of our policies sound "incoherent." But they may work. Among them, this classic:
"There is talk of moving up elections so when an Iraqi official is assassinated, he is not seen as a person working with the U.S., but as a duly elected representative of the Iraqi people."
Give Brooks this. He doesn't say "if." He goes with "when."
A Moment of Silence for Rafah
As a nation, we can only process one story at a time. (Well, two, if you toss in the NBA playoffs.) So until today's eruption of news about Israel, the Sharon government has enjoyed a full week of our inattention. As a result, while no one was looking, 1,000 Arabs found themselves homeless last week: Read the BBC News report.
According to residents of the Rafah refugee camp, it was their misfortune to live on a strip of land that Israeli troops use to patrol the Egyptian border. Arab terrorists are said to smuggle guns in tunnels near the town. Israeli troops moved in with bulldozers. Goodbye, Rafah.
The White House is mad for Israel these days--we'll discuss why tomorrow--so it's a lonely feeling for a Jew who sees both sides determined to make anything but peace. So Swami was gratified today when Tikkun Magazine sent email to its supporters: "Tell them that AIPAC doesn't speak for you, and that recent polls indicate that a majority of American Jews believe that Israel's best interests would be served by ending the Occupation and the settlements, a path made possible by the recent Geneva Accords." Read the petition.
Swami has struck a nerve. Several posts about Joe Lieberman, all defending the Senator (or just attacking Swami).
May I respond?
To bbdh: "As usual, Kornbluth...." you begin. Huh? Swami's on been on these premises for three days. Give him a chance to get in a rut and bore you, OK? As for defaming "a person he knows nothing about," Swami thinks we got a pretty good look at Lieberman in 2000 and again in this year's primaries. Swami's with Jon Stewart on this one: "Lieberman is the candidate for those who think Bush isn't Jewish enough."
If Lieberman, at a hearing to discuss torture in Iraq, was making the point that the "war we are waging is against persons with NO moral code and NO ethical scruples," he--like bbdh--needs to be given a map. As even President Bush (but not Dick Cheney) now admits, the immoral, unethical forces of Al-Queda were nowhere to be found in Iraq when we started this war (though we have certainly encouraged them to come on down). Then why did Lieberman begin his questioning of Donald Rumsfeld by blurring the distinction between Al-Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi detainees (many of whom are said to be innocent of any crime)? Swami's no mind-reader. Ask Lieberman himself: His email address.
To mannyj: You write: "To infer that Lieberman thinks that we're fine so long as we're one notch better than Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein is, well, overwrought." Dear friend, Swami inferred nothing. Lierberman said it. Okay, not exactly one notch better. But what does Lieberman know? Let's ask a survivor of our interrogation at Abu Ghraib: "He said he had been tortured at Abu Ghraib before under Saddam, when he refused to serve in the military, and his treatment by Americans was way worse." For the full story: First Abu Ghraib Iraqi Prisoner Sues U.S. for Damages (scroll down).
To subtleguy1: Connect WHAT dots? To Swami, Iraq looks like an isolated event. But if he were in a mind to connect dots, Swami--like his fellow "libs"-- might start looking a lot closer to home.
Married in Massachusetts
"And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." --1 Corinthians 13:13
Joe Lieberman, Not My Kind of Jew
Here's the Connecticut Senator and elected Vice President of the United States at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the the treatment of Iraqi Prisoners on May 7, 2004.
LIEBERMAN: Mr. Secretary, the behavior by Americans at the prison in Iraq is, as we all acknowledge, immoral, intolerable and un-American. It deserves the apology that you have given today and that have been given by others in high positions in our government and our military.
I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized. Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq working to liberate Iraq and protect our security have never apologized.
And those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Fallujah a while ago never received an apology from anybody.
Wow! Sure sets the bar high, doesn't it? "We have better manners than Saddam and Osama." Where I grew up, Jewish mothers --- mine above all --- pointed to the kid who was BEST at everything and said, in effect, "That's the kid to beat."
Set aside (if you can) what a miserable representative of Connecticut Lieberman has become. Consider, instead, what a miserable representative of the Jews he is.
Why do I say this? Here's a passage from Karen Armstrong's amazing memoir, "The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness." She's talking with Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish librarian in London.
He was arguing that Jesus could well have belonged to the school of Rabbi Hillel, one of the leading Pharisees. Jesus had, after all, taught a version of Hillel's Golden Rule.
"You know the story?" I shook my head. "Some pagans came to Hillel and told him that they would convert to his faith if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. So Hillel obligingly stood on one leg like a stork and said: 'Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.'"
'Jesus said, 'Do unto others as you would have done unto you,' didn't he?" I asked.
Hyam shrugged. "Same difference...I think Hillel's version is better than Jesus', though. It takes more discipline to refrain from doing harm to others. It's easier to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desire onto other people."
Note to Joe Lieberman: "It takes more discipline to refrain from doing harm to others."
Martin Luther Bush
The President tends to use graduation speeches to share Big Thoughts. (At West Point, a few years ago, he announced that the United States might defend its interests without waiting to be attacked.) On Friday, he traveled to Concordia University, a Lutheran school, to deliver a commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Full text: President Bush's Commencement Address at Concordia University.
Did Bush tack any new ideas on the chapel door? Not this time. He's too busy running for re-election to risk a New Thought. But there are some great eye-rollers:
BUSH: A person shows his or her character in kindness and charity. And what is true in our lives is also true in the life of our nation. You can fairly judge the character of society by how it treats the weak, the vulnerable, the most easily forgotten.
SWAMI: No. The weak and vulnerable are just props for photo ops in this Administration. Indeed, if you're running a charity, the last thing you want is for Bush to show up. Consider the Girls' and Boys' Clubs. Bush came for the photo op and pledged his support. And then, in his 2002 budget, Bush proposed eliminating all federal funding for the Boys and Girls Club of America. In his 2003 budget, he proposed cutting the program by 15%. Here's Lawrence Weschler in the Los Angeles Times last week:
Quick. Before they take it down. Log on to GeorgeBush.com - the official Bush/Cheney '04 reelection website.OK, now notice how running horizontally along the top there's a row of file tabs: Economy, Compassion, Health Care, Education, Homeland Security and so forth. So, hmmm: Compassion. What could that mean? What might that involve, thematically speaking? Click the tab, and there you are on the Compassion page.
Nice big picture of Bush merrily shooting the breeze with two black teenage girls. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you'll find a quadrant labeled Compassion Photos, with the invitation, "Click here for the Compassion Photo Album." Do so.
And let's see, what have we got? First one up: short-sleeved Bush, holding a black kid in his arms, a bleacher full of black kids behind him, and he's merrily waving to the crowd. Click "next." And it's Bush at a Waco Habitat for Humanity building site, his arm draped around a black woman, his other hand tapping the shoulder of another of the black construction volunteers. Next: Bush waving to the Urban League. Next: Bush working a crowd, a black--or maybe, in this case, South Indian--kid prominently featured in the foreground, gazing on in amazement. Bush in an African thatch-roofed schoolroom.
BUSH: Our worth as human beings does not depend on our health, or productivity, or independence, or any other shifting value the world might apply. Our worth comes from bearing the image of our Maker.
SWAMI: Fortunately, our Maker has imbued us with Souls. He has not done that for our enemies. As the President has said: "We will never show weakness in the face of these people who have no soul."
BUSH: The moral ideals of America are also universal. Because we believe in the rights and dignity of our own citizens, we believe in the rights and dignity of people everywhere. (Applause.) So in Africa and elsewhere, we are leading the fight against AIDS and other diseases.
SWAMI: Leading the fight? After Bush promised Bono the United States would give $15 million to fight AIDS in Africa, he sat on his hands. (No more photo ops with Bono.) Last week, in contrast, Canada doubled its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS to $51.1 million.
This, too, Is a Faith-Based Initiative
I forget: Who has these missiles that we must protect ourselves again? And do we need that protection more than we need decent food for the hungry, better schools for the poor, affordable housing for the struggling, etc.?
You might want to add your support: Star Wars: Faith-Based Defense?
A Dog Named Fear
Let's set the scene.
On good afternoons, I get free of this computer early enough to take the kid to the playground. She runs around on her own--she's a free-range child--and I sit and watch her, making sure I maintain eye-contact so she knows she's covered.
These are not good afternoons.
Oh, the kid and I still get out. But at the playground, my mind goes to the same bad place, and I see the AC-130 gunships swooping through the night and targeting their 105 mm howitzers on "insurgents" in Najaf. I see mothers burying kids in the mass grave that was once the soccer field in Falluja. I see a squad of American troops stopping at a house in Basra, finding no one home, and grabbing the guy next door. And, of course, I see the torture.
And I think--like a 16-year-old pondering the mysteries of life--about my good luck. When the sun fades, I'll roll my daughter home to a good dinner, a warm bath, a safe bed. What did I do right to deserve this daily blessing? And what did the Iraqis do wrong to merit their misery?
If I got a dog today, I'd name it Shame. Or Fear. Because Shame and Fear are my constant companions now.
Shame: I'm ashamed that men and women were tortured for information they could not possibly have possessed--the location of the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. And ashamed the way our leaders turn every embarrassment into a paternal "We'll deal with this, you go back to the NBA playoffs."
Fear: Rush thinks Iraq is a world-class frat initiation--no biggie. Michael Savage wants more abuse. But what if, as Rumsfeld just started suggesting, we can't make it "work out" in Iraq? Will conservatives blame our leaders--or will they pin the defeat on those of us who vigorously shouted that this conflict is immoral? And if they do...
Fear and Shame breed Helplessness. Give money to a candidate? Pray? It doesn't seem enough. [Here's the first creative gesture I've seen in a while: Freeway Blogging.] By the time my wife and put the kid to bed and have our first adult conversation of the day--invariably about the latest outrage in Washington and the Middle East--we are, both of us, in a badass funk.
Which is where we were mired when we headed out to....
A Holy Night With Krishna Das
I'm a big fan of Middle Eastern and Asiatic music precisely because it's completely pure for me--I don't understand a word of those languages. But I knew nothing of Krishna Das until I read Amy Cunningham's riveting interview with him in Beliefnet.
The story in brief: Long Island Jew meets Ram Das, learns about a guru in India. Goes there, gets knocked upside the head by the power of the guru's love, starts chanting. He has a modestly pleasant voice, but man, does he have conviction to burn. The combination makes him a kind of star on the chanting circuit.
The promise of a magic experience is why, at the low point of our week, my wife and I found ourselves trying to sit cross-legged on the floor of a recycled church on New York's Lower East Side. It was hot and sticky, and the room was full, and they were serving vegan dinners and selling meditation clothes, and to say I had some attitude about all this is to understate --- the prospect of group chanting took me back to teenage beach parties when kids sat around and sang "Kumbaya."
"Welcome to Bombay Weight Loss and Kirtan," Krishna Das began. "Here you can sing and lose weight at the same time."
So he was funny. A good sign. And he looked amused: close-cropped hair, wire rim glasses, a junior version of a Wilfred Brimley moustache. He picked up the harmonium. "Shree Raam Jaya Raam Jaya Jaya Raam," he sang, then we sang with him, and I wish I could build some drama here, but the thing of it was: Liftoff was immediate.
That's partly because the music is in a lower register, so it works as directly on the spine as a great bass guitar riff. It's also because the music forms an instantaneous community--500 people singing together, in praise of God and the god in themselves. And, as Krishna Das pointed out, "The repetition of the holy names reveals a presence hidden within the heart. Something begins to happen that's very disturbing--we get happy."
With Krishna Das, time bends, then stops. As it did, the room cooled a bit. Babies fell asleep, babies were carried out. As for vain, sophisticated, oh-so-clever me --- your Swami shucked his brittle shell and felt his heart beat with a roomful of strangers. And in that moment, peace prevailed. It was tangible. I mean, you could feel it.
You don't want to miss Krishna Das if he comes to your town.
Krishna Das Tour Schedule
Krisha Das CDs: For me, the best is Door of Faith
Introducing Swami Uptown
Shall we start at the beginning?
When I was four years old, a six year-old kid in my city was kidnapped, beaten, strangled and then shot to death before his parents even got a ransom note.
But Bobby Greenlease wasn't the kidnapper's first choice.
I'm told I was.
Why me? Because the kidnapper had been the previous owner of our house. He knew my parents had two young sons. And he thought my parents had money. But he wasn't sure, so he broke into our house a few times--and, fortunately for me, noticed that my mother was using his old champagne tubs for laundry.
So I'm alive on a pass.
As we all are, if only we weren't too wrapped up in the daily drama of our lives to realize it.
But if we knew how lucky we are to be here, we'd understand exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh means when he writes, "Nothing is more precious than being in the present moment, fully alive and fully aware." Watching your two-year-old daughter jump up from a Shirley Temple video to imitate Shirley's dance moves, learning to love a meal that lacks carbs, re-reading a favorite book in a summer house on a rainy afternoon--there's no end to the glory and beauty of this world.
But to be fully alive is also to see what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "the ocean of suffering."
In the long view, that's disappointment and betrayal, the endless hunger for more, sickness and the fear of death.
The short view, alas, is even worse.
It is the opinion of this blogger that we are, here in our comfortable homes, living in a war zone as dangerous in its own way as Iraq. Over there, we are fighting for any number of reasons, the least credible of which are "freedom" and "democracy." Back in America, it's much clearer: In this war, the stakes are, unquestionably, "freedom" and "democracy."
|A cadre of right-wing extremists who cloak themselves in the mantle of Christian evangelicalism has decided that the values that formed this country aren't worth preserving.
These people are obsessed with sex--or, more correctly, its suppression. They want the government to promote abstinence rather than provide information about birth control. (Dollars to donuts these folks don't practice what they preach.) For them, "straight" is a destiny but gay is a "choice" that leads to hell. If the Attorney General has his way, men who can't live without pornography will have to buy it in back alleys from sinister-looking guys in trenchcoats and fedoras. You don't have to be a paranoid to extrapolate from the current state of affairs and imagine how, in a Bush second term, we could witness the end of Roe v. Wade and the beginnings of a theocracy.
It's not possible to feel grateful for your life and meekly accept the grim, joyless future that these extremists--and the President who seems to feel he owes his office to them--have in mind for us. In this space, I intend to examine what the so-called "Religious Right" and its allies in the government and the Bush campaign are up to. Maybe it's possible to have a conversation about this stuff that gets beyond name-calling.
The good news: Pointing out lies and exposing contradictions isn't a big enough ambition for me. I mean, it's important, useful work, but there are those who do it better than I can (so I'll link to them). What I never seem to find on the web is the affirmative case for the free-thinking life, the case for fun and music and art and all that we have been blessed with. I know that the Right likes to say that it was Ronald Reagan's willingness to outspend the Russians in the weapons race that bankrupted the U.S.S.R. and knocked down the Berlin Wall, but I think Reagan got a lot of help from Bruce Springsteen and blue jeans. Show people a new route to feeling good, and sometimes they'll take it-- that's not an unreasonable theory. So I'll try to make the case for the kind of pleasures that lead to insight and grace.
Which means that I reject the "God" who seems to be so popular in our country today--the vengeful God who loves to play "gotcha" and ship sinners off to Hell, the God who decides that once you're "saved" you can never be "unsaved" no matter what you do, the God who only seems to speak to right-wing Republicans. I'm with John Lee Hooker: "Ain't no Heaven/Ain't no burnin' hell." My God created only one paradise that can be confirmed--this holy planet--and, as I see it, all we need to do is remember we're already in Heaven and live accordingly.
Alas, unlike those who claim to have a monopoly on God, I can't offer a "roadmap" to happiness. Some days I don't feel I know much at all. But I'm continually inspired by this: Thanks to the Internet and a handful of spiritual experiences, I've had a glimpse of the world as a series of caring communities. On message boards and in chat rooms, in emails and in relationships that move from the virtual world to the real one, I have been privileged to witness love and concern at the intensity Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed describe. (I'm sure that regular visitors to Beliefnet can tell me stories of friendships forged, faith strengthened, through chance meetings here.)
And so, rather than hate those who surely hate me, I want to use this space for a better purpose: to look at what happens every day and try to see the Big Picture, to understand that, if the worst comes, it will also go. And, above all, to remind myself--and you--of the opportunities for joy in even the darkest times.
For guidance in these days of pointless bloodshed, I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh--indeed, since the war started, he's almost the only thinker my wife and I can consistently stand to read. No mystery why: this Vietnamese Buddhist has been through a war worse than any I've known. His brand of Buddhism is equally about meditation and action; he spent most of those years trying to negotiate peace in his native Vietnam. For his troubles, he was expelled from the country. So when I need to be talked off the ledge, I turn to his "Essential Writings," or, these days, to "Fragrant Palm Leaves," his diary from the '60s.
In his final diary entry, he looks back on what he's lost--friends killed, monasteries burned, death on every side. But he refuses bitterness:
"Love remains despite impermanence and emptiness of self, despite so much cruelty and blind ambition. Tomorrow, if we are burned to ashes, those ashes will be love and will nestle in the heart of the earth to nourish the flowers. Flowers don't know how to hate. We will return to the circle of life as flowers, grasses, birds or clouds to bring people the message of eternal love. Like the village children who, even in this time of war, sing: We will love others forever and ever; hand holding hand. We will love others forever."
It's hard to hold that thought. Hard to be that optimistic and open-hearted. That's why I chose "Swami Uptown" as my identity here. There's a bit of the showman in this shaman--for all his claims to holiness, he knows he's an actor playing the part of a holy man. That makes him a bit of a prankster, and, as he jukes and jives through life, a bit of a fool. But better that than a humorless zealot. If you see the Swami getting solemn and mordant, I trust you'll remind me of that.
Maybe Protecting the Troops Is a Faith-Based Initiative
This was a war of choice. It wasn't like Pearl Harbor, when we were attacked and had to respond before we were ready. We picked the timing. And, according to just about every reputable writer on the topic, we'd been plotting this sorry adventure for almost eighteen months before we actually went in to Iraq.
So why are our troops begging for the most basic protective gear? When God "spoke" to President Bush, did He hang up too fast? Or is the care of our soldiers--for the first time in our history--somehow the responsibility of the people who know and love them?
Two examples of our woefully under-resourced troops, just from today's media: The Ocala Star-Banner in Florida reports that reserve units are now sending urgent requests to the folks back home to send body armor. Members of a New York Army National Guard unit are furious that they have to travel around Iraq in a "slow-moving five-ton truck"--perfect ambush targets--instead of the armored vehicles they'd been promised.
Tomorrow: A holy night with Krishna Das