Thought for Today

Pinocchio's had his nose done!
Sleeping Beauty is popping pills!
The Three Little Pigs ain't kosher!
Betty Boop works Beverly Hills!

Fred Flintstone is dyslexic,
Jessica Rabbit is really a man,
Olive Oyl is really anorexic,
Casper's in the Ku Klux Klan!
--Robin Williams was going to sing these lyrics at the Academy Awards as a way of making fun of James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family. Last month Dobson's group attacked SpongeBob SquarePants and other cartoon characters for appearing in a video about tolerance that was allegedly "pro-homosexual." ABC found the song offensive and cut it from the show.

Checking In: 'As Happy As a Jew can be in Berlin in 1936'

I'm baaack. Huge thanks, Hollywood hugs and, where appropriate, wet kisses to Amy Sullivan, Surya Das, Asma Hasan, and Karen Collins for the brilliant pinch-hitting stints. I learned a ton from this quartet--first about the range of spiritual experience, but also about my own beliefs in the light of theirs. That is, I was brought up short by who I'm not and may never be.

Eons ago, in a time when a normal person did a joint every night and acid every other weekend, a friend went to medical school. To keep his mind clear, he stopped taking any substances. The unanticipated result? After three weeks, he declared, "Reality is like LSD--what a trip."

That's what February was for me: a showdown with sobriety. I'm not talking about substances and vintages. I mean a deeper look into the news, more attentive listening, a willingness to follow thoughts to their destination, however unpleasant. I had no specific aim--I just wanted more congruence with reality.

And where do I find myself after a month of repose? Answer: more pissed-off than ever. And less tolerant of the people and policies that piss me off.

Here's the thing about reality: It's real. Yeah, it's Maya. Yeah, it's a dream that is real only because large numbers of people collectively agree about it. But cutting a monthly check to the aged....dropping after-school programs.....dispatching suspected terrorists to countries where we know they'll be tortured--this stuff happens. This reality has shape and solidity and effect. It changes reality...forever.

Can the words of one blogger stop it? No. But the words of a hundred have weight. And the words of those who feel as we do have a little more weight. Remember Mario Savio's speech at Berkeley in 1964?

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.
We're not there yet. But we're getting there. So forgive me if I don't spend much time affirming the sweetness of my personal life and the satisfaction of my personal quest. Let's leave it at this: I am as happy as a Jew could be in Berlin in 1936.

Baby, It's You

[NOTE: If you have not seen "Million Dollar Baby" and you plan to and you do not know the plot twist at the end of the movie, you are advised to stop reading now.]

I never voted for a winner until I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. My favorite CDs never get nominated for Grammys. I doubt anyone else even has heard about most of the books I read. But last night at the Academy Awards, a film I adored--"Million Dollar Baby"--walked off with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director.

I loved this movie precisely because it was a movie, not a cleverly-packaged marketing strategy. It was made on a small budget, shot in just 37 days and not particularly loved by the studio that released it. But Clint Eastwood, director and star, had faith in the film--and the audience. And while very few people have seen it (gross to date: $64 million), those who went generally found themselves moved to tears. And, even more, when they went home, the movie stayed with them.

We talk about "Million Dollar Baby" because, like life, it's messy. Things happen that you wish would not have occurred. Characters make decisions you might not have made. So you debate. You argue. You are, in short, engaged by the film--and when was the last time that happened for you?

That "Million Dollar Baby" even exists is a small miracle. That it's been honored makes me feel there is some hope for Good Work in our bland, pandering, no-risk culture.

But poor Loose Canon! She put the whammy on "Million Dollar Baby"--her least favorite film of the year and, worse, in her view, a nasty piece of propaganda: "a pro-euthanasia sermon"--and it goes on to win four Oscars. And then the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film goes to "The Sea Inside," another film about a paraplegic who wants to die.

If Loose Canon was short of proof that liberals with an anti-life agenda have seized control of Hollywood, she has it now. Oh, my, what a scandal. A full-fledged conspiracy to rid the world of anyone too decrepit to drive a Volvo. I fully expect her idol, Ann Coulter, to hold seances with a view toward exhuming her idol, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Now there was a guy who could get to the bottom of this! Subpoena those LA Yids! Make them admit their twisted desires to kill the weak, the terminally ill, the aged poor....No, sorry, got that wrong--that's the President's plan to "fix" Social Security.

Hey, if you want to talk about conspiracies, let's talk about Loose Canon and her cadre. They had no problem revealing the "secret" of the ending of "Million Dollar Baby"--a violation of one of the oldest codes of film-reviewing. (On the other hand, just last week, LC was oddly scrupulous about a film with a "secret" no one could care less about: "Loose Canon isn't going to spoil Constantine, the new movie in which Keanu Reeves plays a failed suicide/exorcist who has the ability to see fallen angels and demons, by revealing the ending." Consistency, please, LC!)

Give LC credit--she was blunt about it. Michael Medved is the influential conservative film reviewer who dispenses marching orders to lesser conservative writers. Here he is in the Wall Street Journal last week (no link available). on the controversy he generated about "Million Dollar Baby" by disclosing the ending:

As a matter of fact, I never disclosed specifics on the movie's dark surprise, nor indicated which of its endearing characters chose to exercise "the right to die."
Do you love it? He ruins the end for those who haven't seen "Million Dollar Baby," but doesn't tell you if it's Clint, Morgan Freeman or Hilary Swank who dies. What a sweetheart!

I go on at this length about matters seemingly unrelated to the movie because, in an effort to defame the film and all connected to it, LC and a bunch of conservatives revealed something more important than the plot's surprise--their view that everything is political. And, of course, any political message they don't agree with must be crushed.

I find this way of thinking stupid in the extreme--and considering the crudeness of the position, astonishing to see under the bylines of educated, otherwise sensitive people. I mean, I know LC. She was raised right. She can cut her meat with a knife and fork. And here she is, along with Rush and Medved and a handful of others, advancing an argument from the intellectual gutter--that Clint Eastwood set out to make a film glorifying euthanasia.

I have spent hours on the Web, looking for a single quotation from Eastwood that suggests he has ever stated a position on euthanasia--any position at all. He never has.

Why did Eastwood make the movie? Because the characters and plot were compelling. A man who's lost a daughter gains another. A woman who's lost a father finds a new one. And then a terrible thing happens, and he must decide whether to help her end her life--and, symbolically at least, his as well. (For a nuanced discussion of this seemingly simple but terrifically sophisticated film, please see my interview with Sufi sheikh Kabir Helminski.)

Here's James Wolcott on Medved and this attack on Eastwood's movie:

The movie tells a story, the story deepens and darkens, and the dilemma the characters face is dramatized as a wrenching quandary, a mortal decision; like most tragic stories, it carries the pall of the irrevocable. To vulgarize it as disguised propaganda is to miss its artistry entirely, but then again to Medved, art is something that should carry warning labels so that gullible doofuses (his target audience) won't be lured astray.

He says now that his "main objection" to the movie is its "misleading marketing," which barely hints at its "pitch-dark substance." The man clearly doesn't know how to read images or interpret visual tones. The very sombre, purgatorial look of the film and its ads more than hints at what Medved thinks should have been slapped on the counter like fresh fish. And here is David Mamet, removing personalities to talk about the role of drama:

Bad drama reinforces our prejudices. It informs us of what we knew when we came into the theater - the infirm have rights, homosexuals are people, too, it's difficult to die. It appeals to our sense of self-worth, and, as such, is but old-fashioned melodrama come again in modern clothes (the villain here not black-mustachioed, but opposed to women, gays, racial harmony, etc.).

The good drama survives because it appeals not to the fashion of the moment, but to the problems both universal and eternal, as they are insoluble.

To find beauty in the sad, hope in the midst of loss, and dignity in failure is great poetic art. Eastwood has done exactly that. The members of the Academy recognized him for it. I don't hold this group up as an example of infallibility--far from it, I usually disagree with their choices. But my disagreement is on the Mamet level: I found Film X to be more powerful/funny/artistic than film Y.

You can say a film with Sean Penn sucks because he went to Iraq and wrote about his opposition to the war--and if you're of a certain mindset, you'll hate "Mystic River" for that reason alone. Yes, but what about that moment when he knows the dead girl in the woods is his daughter and 20 policemen can scarcely hold him back? One of the most heartbreaking moments in the history of film. Too bad Sean Penn was the actor. Wait, wasn't that pinko Tim Robbins in that movie? Another reason to hate it.

Yes, it often happens that actors with liberal or leftist politics appear in films that have social and political content. But they appear as characters, not as cartoons--they check their egos at the door and "become" other people. That's why they call it acting.

It's also why writing isn't necessarily preaching, and directing isn't necessarily promoting. And why distribution companies and publishers put out movies and books and CDs by artists who do not share their values.

This is one of the glories of America. It's strange that people who have benefited from diversity and tolerance don't get it. And frightening that, rather than disagree with artistic works on the merits, they feel compelled to slander and defame. The good news--this time--is that Hollywood didn't listen.

Beyond the dust-up over "Million Dollar Baby" is what comes next. This cadre is so sure of its mission we'll surely see it attack some other filmmaker who's made the mistake of doing a film that's--gasp!--About Something. And then we'll have this fight all over again.

I'm reminded of a John Cheever story, "Goodbye, My Brother." It's about a family get-together at a beach house. A brother arrives. He's impossible. It's not that his ideas are offensive or his manners ruffle the others--it's that his basic assumptions about life and human relationships are so nasty, so off, that no one can deal with him. This is how the story ends:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming --- Diana and Helen --- and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Medved and LC and Rush would never recognize themselves in that paragraph. Nor would they recognize it as art. But you can be damned sure they'd be interested in Diana and Helen. And they'd want to know if those naked women had had abortions, or something like that, so they would have a reason to condemn this gorgeous piece of writing.

The Beauty Part

You've heard a snatch of his music, but never seen an ad for it because he made this 4-song CD on his own and is selling it at $7.99. If you make the mistake of buying it, be warned: Alexi Murdoch will turn you into an acolyte, and you may never play another CD again.

Guest blogger: Karen Collins
Karen Collins Karen Collins (Mrs. Swami Uptown) is an ecumenical spiritual seeker and lifelong progressive whose prize possession is an autograph from Hubert Humphrey. A recovering Rapture Christian, she flirted with Catholic Charismatics, attempted levitation according to the Rosicrucian method, attended Naropa Institute to study Buddhism and has spent time at Gurumayi Chidvilasananda's ashrams. All her major crushes have been Jewish men, and then she married one. Thich Nhat Hahn is her spiritual teacher now, which helps her stay in every precious moment with her three-year-old daughter, Little Uptown.

Thoughts for Today

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
-- Susan B. Anthony

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
-- James Baldwin

Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
-- John 8:7

Valuing Families

Some of you have asked me about my spiritual experiences. I won't bore you with a long tale, but I think I can tell a quick story that will help my readers understand where my point of view comes from.

At 32, I checked myself into rehab at St. Mary's in St. Paul, Minnesota. (I think of Minnesota as "the land of ten thousand treatment centers.") The counselors said I was going to need a "higher power" to replace the Jack Daniels that been keeping the pain at bay. I had long ago abandoned organized religion, so there I was, feeling very alone, sitting on a cold metal chair in an empty hospital meeting room, wondering what on earth I was going to do. I asked myself: "What can I believe?" I was pretty sure there is some consciousness that lives on after physical death. In that case, other departed spirits might be hanging out; I decided to "talk" to them. That might be Jesus, Buddha or someone's great aunt--whatever, just do it. And I did. I am now 16 years sober, so there must be someone there who heard me.

I contacted God all by myself, with no priest, no rabbi and no holy book. Yes, I had much wisdom from my studies of the world's religions and holy men and women in my subconscious, but for once, I had my own organic experience with God. I often felt when I was a Christian, or trying to be, that I was living off the experiences others had, hoping it might rub off on me. The scriptures are heresay--someone thousands of years ago saw or heard something, assumed it was from God and told someone else, and at that point, it becomes Chinese telephone. Everyone in the churches, ashrams and sanghas I attended seemed so clear about God. But I never got there myself. Until I stripped it all away and just spoke from my heart.

There is much value in organized faiths, but not for me. While I respect everyone's choices, I just can't believe that any man or woman living now or long ago has the whole truth. I abhor the certainty of most religions because I don't believe any of us can define God for anyone else.

But the Christian Right insists that only people who believe in the Bible have morals. And that leads me to today's theme: Morality and Family Values--and why don't I have them?

Just what are "Family Values?" The press and everyone else assume that the GOP is the party of Family Values, but has anyone defined this? I want only the best for my child and my husband, I have a strong loving marriage, I don't want my daughter to dress like Britney or drink until she is of legal age or have sex until she is fully mature and in love or see age-inappropriate programs on TV. I want my neighborhood and parks to be safe for my daughter. We visit her grandmothers as often as we can, spend holidays and summers with my family. Swami calls his mother almost every day. I don't know, what else is there?

Could it be the rejection and vilification of homosexuals that makes one full of Family Values? Isn't that really what this coded term means?

Alan Keyes--who's always a candidate for something, somewhere--must have Family Values as he's a conservative Republican. He just threw his 19-year-old daughter Maya out of the house and stopped paying her tuition at Brown because she decided to be honest about her sexual orientation. Here is some of what Maya Keyes had to say:

"Most parents would be thrilled to have a child who doesn't smoke, have sex, do drugs, hardly drinks...does well in school, gets good grades, gets into the Ivy League...goes regularly to church, and spends free time mentoring kids.
I would be thrilled if my daughter turned out as well as Maya Keyes. But then, I obviously don't understand Family Values.

I can't think of anything--apart from hating homosexuals--that separates my family values from Alan Keyes's. What am I missing?

What Will We Tell the Children?

When I have debated the gay marriage/parenting issue with members of the Religious Right, they always ask: "What will we tell our children?"

I guess they resent the thought of having to be kind and accepting if their child should ask about the new kid, Tommy, who has two mothers. Is it too hard for them to simply say: "We don't believe that God wants two women or two men to live together, but we will be nice to Tommy and not say anything bad about his family." Why is that so hard for followers of Christ? And isn't this the only problem for them? Why did PBS have to pull a cartoon when one of its characters visited a kid in Vermont who had two mothers? The mothers were never mentioned, yet the Secretary of Education had this episode pulled. Why? Well, what would we tell our children when they ask who those two women are?

The Christian Right is unable to treat alternative families with simple decency and respect. They resent being asked to be tolerant. They want homosexuals back in the closet so they don't have to confront the issue. My mother used to say, "It takes all kinds to make a world." But the Christian Right wants anyone who is not their kind, hidden away. Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists want them rounded up and executed. I kid you not.

Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family--he believes in corporal punishment; that's another way, I guess, my family values are not as good--is afraid of cartoon characters who appear to be teaching kids to be tolerant. We have a relative-- a conservative and religious Republican--who writes for a major newspaper. She was going to write a piece about the harmful effects of gay marriage on families, but had to abandon the project because there was nothing to say. And, trust me, she was really looking to prove this.

Vermont has had civil marriages for five years now. If there were some detrimental effect on straight marriage, we would have heard. Proud to say my state of New York may be next. Interesting to me that the Right feels it has to pass amendments to constitutions to stop the courts from requiring equal rights for gay couples. That can only mean that our federal and state constitutions actually do guarantee equal rights for all. Can't have that!

Marriage, to the State, is a contract. Just like the contract you sign when you sell a house or enter into a business partnership. The State is not in the sacrament business. Why is it not enough for religious organizations to deny gay people a God-approved marriage? Why do they have to deny them any kind of legal contract? Oh, yeah, what will we tell the children?

Low Down Tactics

The GOP uses homophobia to get Black churches on their side. This is deeply cynical and outright dangerous to Black women.

In 2003, the rate of new AIDS cases for black women was 20 times that of white women and five times greater than the infection rate for Latinas.

"On the Down Low," a bestselling book by J. L. King, explains why acceptance and openness of homosexuality in the Black community could save lives:

These men live "on the down low," the "DL," for short, and their sexual activities have gained significant notice as the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in black women has skyrocketed, with the vast majority of cases coming from heterosexual sex. King is a veteran of the DL himself and his book serves partly as a social and psychological survey of the other men he has surveyed and partly as highly candid memoir. King was well regarded in his community, popular at his church, successful in his career, and married to a woman who had no idea that his secret life existed. But when she caught him in a lie and with another man, the marriage collapsed and King's long and painful path to self-awareness began. King cites the negative image many socially conservative black men have of homosexuality as an obstacle to those men being honest with their partners and themselves about who they are.
The GOP's support for intolerance of gay relationships in the Black community is literally killing people--Republicans should be ashamed of their party.

If Christians really want to "save" gay people and other Liberal sinners from an eternity in hell, their time would be better spent reaching out and accepting people--living as an example of Christ's love--rather than trying to legislate sin out of existence, or, at least, out of their extremely limited field of vision. There is lots of behavior that offends my sensibilities--like Hasidic boys playing in the hot sun wearing heavy black clothes, big hats and curls--but if something only offends my sensibilities, do I have a right to try to legislate it away? And don't get me started on the arranged marriages of young girls in the Mormon community. I don't like it. I think it's wrong, but should I try to stop them? Wish I could. But then, I wish I could make everyone a Buddhist. But I can't. And, for so many reasons, shouldn't try.

Rick Santorum, the extreme right-wing Senator, doesn't get it:

"I'm talking at a very protective level about what is important to our society if we are to be a free people," he said. "The less virtue we have in our society, the more the need for government to control our lives, to govern our lives."

In other words, government needs to enforce virtue in order to keep government out of our lives.

Einstein said: "Force always attracts those of low morality." He got that right.

Are We There Yet?

What if homosexuality is natural and not--as homophobes claim--a "choice"? This might be another clue:

Dr Qazi Rahman and colleagues from the University of East London reported in Behavioural Neuroscience that homosexual men used more landmarks during map reading than did heterosexual men, adopting a blend of male and female navigational strategies.
And then there are those darn gay penguins:

Four Swedish female penguins were dispatched to the Bremerhaven Zoo in Bremen after it was found that three of the zoo's five penguin pairs were homosexual.

Keepers at the zoo ordered DNA tests to be carried out on the penguins after they had been mating for years without producing any chicks. It was only then they realized that six of the birds were living in homosexual partnerships.

She said that the birds had been mating for years and one couple even adopted a stone that they protected like an egg.

Speaking of eggs, we are friends with three sets of gay parents. In fact, we have already "promised" Little Uptown--in jest--to the son of some lesbian parents. My hairdresser has pictures of his child all over his refrigerator just like any "normal" father. He moved out of Manhattan so he could have a house with a yard for his son. These are well-loved, happy kids with responsible parents. That is what I will tell my child.

Oh, Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin gave a powerful address in support of the Civil Marriage Act being considered by the Canadian parliament. I urge you to click and read the entire text. His eloquence in defense of minority rights is thrilling:

This is an important day. Our deliberations will be not merely about a piece of legislation or sections of legal text - more deeply, they will be about the kind of nation we are today, and the nation we want to be.

This bill protects minority rights. This bill affirms the Charter guarantee of religious freedom. It is that straightforward, Mr. Speaker, and it is that important.

The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority.

We embrace freedom and equality in theory, Mr. Speaker. We must also embrace them in fact.

There is one question that demands an answer - a straight answer - from those who would seek to lead this nation and its people. It is a simple question: Will you use the notwithstanding clause to overturn the definition of civil marriage and deny to Canadians a right guaranteed under the Charter?

This question does not demand rhetoric. It demands clarity. There are only two legitimate answers - yes or no. Not the demagoguery we have heard, not the dodging, the flawed reasoning, the false options. Just yes or no.

Will you take away a right as guaranteed under the Charter? I, for one, will answer that question, Mr. Speaker. I will answer it clearly. I will say no.

To those who value the Charter yet oppose the protection of rights for same-sex couples, I ask you: If a prime minister and a national government are willing to take away the rights of one group, what is to say they will stop at that? If the Charter is not there today to protect the rights of one minority, then how can we as a nation of minorities ever hope, ever believe, ever trust that it will be there to protect us tomorrow? Of course, the American Christian Right is funding opposition to this Canadian initiative. Spending time and money winning hearts and minds--that's "hard work," as Bush would say.

Can You Hear Me Now?

I am sure you have all heard about Doug Wead, an author and former aide to President Bush's father, who secretly taped phone conversations with then Governor George W. Bush. It's not the content that is interesting, it's the cynical attitude Bush has about his coveted Evangelical voting block. He wants to use those Christians to get elected, but he was wary of unnerving secular voters by meeting publicly with evangelical leaders. When he thought his aides had agreed to such a meeting, Mr. Bush complained to Karl Rove, his political strategist, "What the hell is this about?" He also says on the tapes that he won't fire gays because he doesn't believe in discriminating against people and he won't "kick gays" to make the Religious Right happy.

Where has this man been hiding these past 5 years?

The George Bush who was elected President is more than happy for his party and his followers to kick gays whenever possible. His entire 2004 domestic election strategy was scaring homophobes with the prospect of a legion of gay marriages to get them to the polls. At the same time, while he says he supports an amendment to the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, he doesn't lift a finger to help make this happen. His education secretary pulls cartoons encouraging tolerance; he says nothing. The Swift Boat liars run an attack ad against AARP that accuses this senior advocacy group of hating our soldiers and loving gay marriage, and he says nothing. Bush cynically uses religion and homophobia to divide and conquer, so I might ask, what does Mr. Steely Resolve really believe in? Getting elected at any cost. As he says on the tapes:

I may have to get a little rough for a while," he told Mr. Wead, "but that is what the old man had to do with Dukakis, remember?"

'Hey Hey Ho Ho'

"Social Security has got to go." Oops--not sure the groups trying to sell Social Security "reform" wanted it known that their true agenda is to eliminate Social Security as we know it in favor of market-dependent private pensions. But that is what happened when Senator Rick Santorum was entering a town hall meeting on Social Security at Drexel University. The College Republicans were shouting down other protesters with that unfortunate chant. Embarrassing video can be seen here.

I have some personal experience with Social Security. My parents died when my sister and brother and I were all quite young, but we were kept afloat by Social Security Orphan Benefits. Has anyone heard what Bush's plan is for these survivor benefits and the monthly payments that most disabled people depend on for basic necessities? (And there will be no more big settlements to help the disabled if malpractice or corporate malfeasance is to blame for their inabitlity to hold a job, thanks to "torte reform." ) Both of my grandmothers existed almost exclusively on Social Security, supplemented by their modest savings, until they were in their later 90s.

In a world called Perfect, every family is close-knit and loving and we all have houses big enough for our parents to move into when they are too old to work, and everyone has enough discretionary income to feed and clothe and provide medical care to 2-4 more people. But we don't live in Perfect. And those of us in the reality-based community feel that it is our duty as human beings to make sure that people who worked all their lives, raised families or not, are comfortable in their old age. What kind of a society abandons its elderly, widowed, orphaned and disabled to the whims of the capitalist free-markets?

Can you imagine Jesus picking up his carpenter's paycheck and complaining about the Social Security deduction: "I don't care if it puts others at risk, I know I could make more investing this money myself." Again, the people who want this country to be more "Christian" have joined the chorus of complainers.

Social Security works. Operating expenses are only 1% of its total budget. With a little tinkering, like raising the cap on taxable income, which is now $90,000, and raising the retirement age by a couple of years, Social Security is saved. Ok, next non-crisis please.

Helping Women

Women For Women International is helping the female victims of war in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Colombia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have assisted more than 24,000 women, distributing $14 million in direct aid and microcredit loans. These women, most victims of vicious campaigns of rape, are cultural outcasts through no fault of their own. The stories these women tell will shock and horrify, yet they keep going with the help of this organization.

Societies where woman are repressed or invisible have more chaos and violence. Literate women raise literate children. I really believe that improving the lives of woman will go a long way to promote peace and lift nations out of poverty. If you want to do something to help this crazy world, take a look at the work of this worthy organization. In the words of the one of the women:

"This is the first time I am talking about what has happened to me in such details, and confiding in someone. I have never told these things to anyone. This is the first time that I found someone who is sincerely interested in me. I have told you all these details because you are another woman. You have treated me with humanity and respect; you have expressed an interest in me and who I am despite my situation. You have expressed a willingness to listen. It is one thing to have been through what I have been through, but to have no one acknowledged your pain enhances that pain threefold. To suffer in silence is the greatest kind of suffering. Your willingness to recognize my humanity has given voice to my distress and meaning to my pain."
Reasons to Be Cheerful

Is there any hope for the tolerant, live and let live, rule of law America I believe in? Where there is life, there is hope. And also, where there is internet access.

It's getting harder for policy makers to keep their nefarious plans under the radar. Example: Recently in Virginia a lawmaker introduced a bill requiring all women to report a miscarriage to the local police within 12 hours, no matter how many weeks or months along the fetus was before the miscarriage. Through the power of the internet, this item made the rounds of all the progressive blogs--including this one. The attention this brought, along with emails and phone calls, shamed the Virginia lawmaker into withdrawing the bill. National ridicule also forced another Virginia lawmaker to withdraw a bill that would have fined people $50 if their underwear showed above their pants in public. So we need to be vigilant to keep the internet free and uncensored and to protect the opportunity it affords us for dissent to flourish.

Thanks for reading me this week and for all your kind words and for the not-so-kind words--provoking discussion and allowing dissent are good for all of us. And thanks to Beliefnet for allowing me to empty out part of my backlog of outrage. I really wanted to talk about morality and the Federal Budget, the real crisis--health care--which I consider a basic human right and the Family Values issues of jobs and the economy, but it is time to let go of the keyboard...

The Beauty Part

She's Canadian, she doesn't tour much, and she releases CDs when she feels like it. So it's entirely possible that you have never heard of Jann Arden or her compelling, deceptively straightforward songs. Lucky you. Joy awaits.

Thought for Today

I am a backseat driver from America
They drive to the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel's name is Seamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
And Seamus says, Now what chance has that kid got?
And I say from the back, I don't know.
He says, There's barbed wire at all of these exits...
And there ain't no place in Belfast for that kid to go.

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then the hard life is all that they'll know
And there ain't no place in this world for these kids to go
--Nanci Griffith, "It's a Hard Life," on Storms

The Brownshirting of America

After the 2004 election, I was on the "Buy Blue" bandwagon, vowing only to buy from businesses that support Democratic candidates, boycotting those that donate to Republicans. But I have since thought better of it. I am alarmed by the ugliness and anger in our current public debates and I don't think it is helpful to add to the Red/Blue divide. We need to be more tolerant, more accepting of people whose lifestyles and ideas offend our sensibilities, not less.

In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama argues for awareness of our interdependence as our only hope:

Consider that in place of our dependence on one another for support, today, wherever possible we tend to rely on machines and services. We find modern living organized so that it demands the least possible direct dependence on others. The more or less universal ambition seems to be for everyone to own their own house, their own car and their own computer and so on in order to be as independent as possible. But with these developments there has arisen a sense that my future is not dependent on my neighbor, but rather on my job or, at most, my employer. This in turn encourages us to suppose that because others are not important for my happiness, their happiness is not important to me. We have, in my view, created a society in which people find it harder and harder to show one another basic affection. All this is compounded by the contemporary rhetoric of growth and economic development which greatly reinforces people's tendencies toward competitiveness and envy.

Due to the fundamental interconnectedness which lies at the heart of reality, your interest is also my interest. Thus, my happiness is to a large extent, dependent on yours. Because of this, if we wish for our own happiness, we have to consider others. It is a practical necessity that we do so. But that is not what I see happening. In Washington, State Sen. Bob Morton is proposing splitting the state because, as he says, "People who think alike should be united." First, I would say--how boring! But then I would say--wow, do we really want to split off into snotty little cliques like in junior high school? (Wasn't my favorite few years!)

Not that Ann Coulter matters, but she is calling for a New McCarthyism, aimed at us treasonous Liberals. It's not what she said, but where and to whom. The Conservative Political Action Conference bills itself as the nations' oldest conservative grassroots organization. Other speakers were Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Should we just dismiss this as the ravings of a wingnut? Not as long as these wingnuts are bogarting the microphone.

Powerline--Time magazine called it "blog of the year"--states unequivocally that Democrats are betraying America. George W. Bush started it all when he proclaimed, "You are either with us or against us." I am afraid his followers have taken this as the 11th commandment.

Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Reagan, former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review--no Liberal--has written about what he calls the "Brownshirting of America." His aim is to defend his brand of old-fashioned, small government Conservatism from this new brand of right wing stateism:

In the ranks of the new conservatives, however, I see and experience much hate. It comes to me in violently worded, ignorant and irrational emails from self-professed conservatives who literally worship George Bush. Even Christians have fallen into idolatry. There appears to be a large number of Americans who are prepared to kill anyone for George Bush.

The Iraqi War is serving as a great catharsis for multiple conservative frustrations: job loss, drugs, crime, homosexuals, pornography, female promiscuity, abortion, restrictions on prayer in public places, Darwinism and attacks on religion. Liberals are the cause. Liberals are against America. Anyone against the war is against America and is a liberal. "You are with us or against us."

This is the mindset of delusion, and delusion permits no facts or analysis. Blind emotion rules. Americans are right and everyone else is wrong. End of the debate.

That, gentle reader, is the full extent of talk radio, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal Editorial page, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and, indeed, of the entire concentrated corporate media where non-controversy in the interest of advertising revenue rules.

Like Brownshirts, the new conservatives take personally any criticism of their leader and his policies. To be a critic is to be an enemy. I went overnight from being an object of conservative adulation to one of derision when I wrote that the US invasion of Iraq was a "strategic blunder." I have dropped the color coding of people in favor of a palate of neutrals, because we urgently need to find common ground before anyone starts breaking windows. Still, I shop at Costco instead of Walmart because Costco treats its employees so well that the Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece complaining about its high labor costs. Swami and I wrote to the President, Jim Sinegal, to congratulate him on his progressive labor policies. He appreciated the acknowledgment. Much more constructive to honor good behavior.

We Don't Like Ike

Another symptom of this creeping fascism I see is calling anyone who questions war "anti-American." Even General Eisenhower is too controversial. Some parents in Cookeville, Tennessee objected to Veterans for Peace setting up a booth at a school fair because of some materials they found "anti-American" and "anti-military." Literature they objected to included part of a 1953 speech by President Eisenhower: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed. Those who are cold and are not clothed."

Eisenhower also said "All of us have heard this term 'preventive war' .... In this day and time...I don't believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

Maybe cloning technology could bring him back?

Ike would hate to hear about this incident: In Bloomington Minnesota, Youth Against War and Racism had permission to set a up a table to counter the Military recruiters who were at the school (mandated by the No Child Left Behind act). At the last minute, the Principal got a visit from representatives of the American Legion, who threatened to cut of donations to the school unless the student anti-war table was pulled. The District Superintendent got a call from the American Legion demanding that the club be shut down. What lesson are these kids learning?

In my experience, generals are the most eloquent opponents of war. Listen to General Omar Bradley:

"Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them, must share the guilt for the dead" and "The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living."
General Romeo Dallaire, force commander of the peacekeeping force in Rwanda, was so scarred by the genocidal nightmare he was unable to stop that he later tried to take his own life. He has since written a book about his experience: "Shake Hands with the Devil." Peter Raymont followed Dallaire during his first return trip to Rwanda for a film that won the 2005 World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at Sundance: Shake Hands With the Devil.

Supremacy and worship of the Military (by those who are not near the fighting) are signs that a society is in danger of slipping into Fascism. What are the other signs?

Fascism: The Movie

Dr. Lawrence Britt, a political scientist who has examined Fascist regimes, has identified 14 defining characteristics. Watch this short film and then tell me if you don't get a chill.

And how about this new enemies list created by right wing ideologue David Horowitz? It's called "Discover the Network--network of the enemies of America--and though I would prefer it get the lack of attention it deserves, it is so ugly and outrageous you have to see it for yourself. Look, there's Pete Seeger on the same page as Mohammad Atta. Horowitz is asking for submissions. I have my picture and bio ready, do you?

Need more? Here's Horowitz again, pushing a bill to limit academic freedom in Ohio, where conservatives in the State Senate are considering a bill that would prohibit public and private college professors from introducing "controversial matter" into the classroom and giving control of college course content to state governments and courts. And Ohio is not the only state where this bill is gaining traction.

Fascism is nothing without citizen armies, eager to kick traitor ass. Are the citizen border patrols in Arizona the beginnings of our own right wing militias?

Nearly 500 volunteers have already joined the Minuteman Project, anointing themselves civilian border patrol agents determined to stop the immigration flow that routinely, and easily, seeps past federal authorities.

"I felt the only way to get something done was to do it yourself," said Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant and decorated Vietnam War veteran who is helping recruit Minutemen across the country.

At least some of the volunteers plan to arm themselves during the 24-hour desert patrols. Many are untrained and have little or no experience in confronting illegal border crossings.

"Any time there are firearms and you're out in the middle of no-man's land in difficult terrain, it's a dangerous setting," said Bonner, whose agency is keeping a close eye on the Minutemen plans.

It may also prove to be a magnet for what Glenn Spencer, president of the private American Border Patrol, described as camouflage-wearing, weapons-toting hard-liners who might get a little carried away with their assignments.

"How are they going to keep the nutcases out of there? They can't control that," said Spencer."There's a storm gathering here on the border, and there are conditions ripe for some difficulty," he said. Another hallmark of Fascism: secret trials. Yes, we've got them too. We know the government has been claiming that evidence against terror suspects is secret, but did you know that we have secret laws now too?

And then there's Fascism's old helpmate, an un-free press. You're heard plenty about this; I'll spare you another recital of this administration's control of the media and outright propaganda funded by the taxpayers. But I can't resist noting that, on the President's "triumphal" tour of Europe, he ducked out on a long-planned "town meeting" in Germany because the Germans wouldn't play ball with the format that's worked so well for Bush at home--a hand-picked audience, pre-approved questions. How ironic! America's less "free" than Germany!

President's Day, Minus One

Presidents' Day is when many Americans honor the country's past commanders-in-chief. At the Christian Heritage Center in Fishersville, Thomas Jefferson was not on the list of honorees Monday.

It was the day a call to arms went out to Christians everywhere to band together and fight religious persecution they encounter even today.

It was the day to recognize the perpetrator, that "enemy of the Gospel"-- Jefferson, according to Christian Heritage officials.

The new religious group pronounced Jefferson "the anti-Christian" and George Washington's opposite.

Jefferson, they said, "feigned belief in God to achieve his own political ends and came to sever Jesus Christ from his divinity." Funny, I guess they missed this quote from George Washington: "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

Never Again? Oh, Yes, Again

Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, frequently writes about human rights issues around the world. He keeps shouting about the genocide occurring in Darfur, and no one seems to listening, yet again. Today, there are photos along with Kristof's plea:

"What will really stop this genocide is indignation. Senator Paul Simon, who died in 2003, said after the Rwandan genocide, "If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something about Rwanda, when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response would have been different."

The same is true this time. Web sites like Darfurgenocide and SaveDarfur are trying to galvanize Americans, but the response has been pathetic.

I'm sorry for inflicting these horrific photos on you. But the real obscenity isn't in printing pictures of dead babies--it's in our passivity, which allows these people to be slaughtered.

During past genocides against Armenians, Jews and Cambodians, it was possible to claim that we didn't fully know what was going on. This time, President Bush, Congress and the European Parliament have already declared genocide to be under way. And we have photos.

This time, we have no excuse. Witness to War

Photos are powerful, as Mr. Kristof hopes. Veterans for Peace, Chapter 72, has created a site called the Iraq War Grief Daily Witness. Here you will find compelling photos of the War in Iraq, and a poem. I go there daily to share a moment of silence for those who are suffering.

Wish You Were Here

How do you tell your loved ones (and/or say told-ya-so to non-believers) if you are suddenly taken to Heaven in the Rapture? Well, sign up at Rapture Letters, and they will send an email to everyone on your list when you go. Not sure who is "left behind" to hit the send button, but maybe their tech guy is from India.

Thoughts for Today

A time comes when silence is betrayal. People do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.
--Albert Camus

I say unto you, 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....for if you love them which love you, what reward have you...do not even the publicans the same?
--- Matthew 5:44, 46

Did 9/11 Change Jesus Too?

I left the organized Christian church decades ago, but I have not forgotten Jesus Christ. I may not believe in the official dogma, but I remember the simple compassionate teachings of the non-violent Jesus. And that is why I am puzzled by the Christians who support the foreign policies of the Bush administration. I am alarmed at the merging of Church and Militarism. To me it looks like the Religious Right values the G-O-P over G-O-D. Bush and God's will and American preeminence have bled into one another like a bad watercolor painting.

Rev. John Dear S.J. is a Jesuit priest, peace activist, organizer, lecturer and author/editor of 20 books on peace and nonviolence. Here is his shocking story about the merger of Church and Militarism:

Last September, I spoke to some 2,000 students at a Baptist college in Pennsylvania. After a short prayer service for peace centered on the Beatitudes, I took the stage and got right to the point. "Now let me get this straight," I said. "Jesus says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' which means he does not say, 'Blessed are the warmakers,' which means, the warmakers are not blessed, which means warmakers are cursed, which means, if you want to follow the nonviolent Jesus you have to work for peace, which means, we all have to resist this horrific, evil war on the people of Iraq."

With that, the place exploded, and 500 students stormed out. The rest of them then started chanting, "Bush! Bush! Bush!"

So much for my speech. Not to mention the Beatitudes. This experience led Rev. Dear to write these tough words:

We have become a culture of Pharisees. Instead of practicing an authentic spirituality of compassion, nonviolence, love and peace, we as a collective people have become self-righteous, arrogant, powerful, murderous hypocrites who dominate and kill others in the name of God. The Pharisees supported the brutal Roman rulers and soldiers, and lived off the comforts of the empire by running an elaborate banking system which charged an exorbitant fee for ordinary people just to worship God in the Temple. Since they taught that God was present only in the Temple, they were able to control the entire population. If anyone opposed their power or violated their law, the Pharisees could kill them on the spot, even in the holy sanctuary.

Most North American Christians are now becoming more and more like these hypocritical Pharisees. We side with the rulers, the bankers, and the corporate millionaires and billionaires. We run the Pentagon, bless the bombing raids, support executions, make nuclear weapons and seek global domination for America as if that was what the nonviolent Jesus wants. And we dismiss anyone who disagrees with us.

We have become a mean, vicious people, what the bible calls "stiff-necked people." And we do it all with the mistaken belief that we have the blessing of God. If that story didn't scare you, wait until you see what went on at "Men's Night Out" at a church in Kentucky....

Onward Christian Soldiers

First, click this link--and crank those speakers up--for the multi-media invitation, complete with the whirring of Black Hawk helicopters and machine gun fire.

Then consider the event: the annual father-son "Men's Night Out" at the Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. This was a full-blown, military dog-and-pony show, complete with a Humvee and a real Black Hawk helicopter parked outside the church.

"Lococomo," who attended this event with his father, is a Christian, a Republican and a supporter of the war in Iraq, but he was so horrified that he took these chilling photos and only decided to go public when they started actual recruitment activities. Here is his story:

Then our state National Guard ceremonially presented colors, i.e. this is now a military function. I think they were the only ones that didn't say that pledge of allegiance, but maybe their lips moved and I didn't hear it. I was way back. This was the first time in my life I said the pledge of allegiance with any hesitation at all. I guess I don't like doing it in a place of greater allegiance, especially when it only barely has "under God" in it anymore. Right after the bad Rockapella group sang the national anthem, a couple people shouted "Amen!" at the end. I started to get sick right then.

After that, they had guys wearing the traditional US military uniforms walk out in order while scenes from a Jesus movie I can't recall played. I know it's ridiculously bad taste but yes, that really is Jesus on the cross behind our troops in the first picture. When the final trooper stepped out to the front and center, he thrust his rifle one-handed into the air to shouts of approval, the Jesus footage was still playing, and at that particular point even my dad was uncomfortable.

Captain Sturecker preached to us in full dress uniform about [how] his early faith was based on fear of going to hell, but now he doesn't need to fear death, and about his experiences in the Black Hawk affair ...Every word of this might be true, but it was also part of a "The Lord will protect you in the military" themed sermon. I have never had both respect and disgust for a single individual with such volume in my life.

Jesus himself only got mad once. It was because merchants were using the church to sell their wares; he flipped their tables, seized a whip, and attacked them. This day the answer to "what would Jesus do?" is grab one of the M-16s laying around and start kneecapping. When I first saw this, I thought, well, churches are often used as community centers in small towns--but Lexington, Kentucky is no small town. General Boykin would be proud.

Pharisee Nation

Here is my radical proposition: A follower of Christ cannot be the leader of a nation that believes it needs to engage in preemptive wars, torture, extraordinary extradition, secret assassinations and the use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs--and that's just the tip of the iceberg of the un-Christ-like practices--in order to keep its people safe. A follower of Christ cannot be part of a government that condones these policies, unless he/she is there to change these same policies. But it seems to me that the Religious Right--so proud of the numbers of its ranks that have been elected to congress, and it seems, to the office of the President--has no intention of making government conform to the teachings of Jesus. The Right likes the stoning and damnation parts of the Old Testament well enough, but all that loving your enemies stuff is so September 10.

So I can only conclude that like Alberto Gonzales and the Geneva Conventions, the Religious Right finds the words of Jesus "quaint and obsolete." And that, since 9/11, protecting Americans at any cost means that 9/11 changed Jesus too. Because otherwise, how can these people say they are followers of Christ and remain silent about the crimes against humanity that are occurring right now? And not only silently complicit, but actively supportive of the administration that commits these crimes.

George Bush claims to be a follower of Christ. He claims to seek God's counsel on foreign policy decisions. His religious supporters claim he was put in office by God to do God's will. But stripping a man naked, hanging him by his wrists and placing live electric wires on his private parts is NOT God's will for any of his children.

Maybe the New Testament's commands are for family and friends, and the Old Testament is for foreign policy, since the OT God was known for smiting whole nations for God's chosen. I don't understand. If one of my readers can explain this to me, please do.

Robert Green Ingersoll, a progressive reformer of the post-Civil War days and the best known political speaker of his time, may provide a clue to the disconnect I see in Christian Hawks between following Jesus and supporting Bush's policies. As he writes in "Crumbling Creeds":

The doctrine of eternal punishment is in perfect harmony with the savagery of the men who made the orthodox creeds. It is in harmony with torture, with flaying alive, and with burnings. The men who burned their fellow-men for a moment, believed that God would burn his enemies forever.
He may be referring to the witch hunts and various Inquisitions of years past, but I hear echoes of this kind of thinking in the debates on the use of torture today.


Can't deny it, I am accusing the Religious Right of Idolatry. I believe the Right's actions show that their first allegiance is to America, not God, to America's power and success in the world over the teachings of Jesus, and to the dominance and power of George W. Bush and the Republican Party.

Sure, loving your enemies and turning the other cheek don't seem at all realistic. And America might lose some of its Superpower gloss if we try to lead with love and peace, but unless religion is just a hobby and the church just another community center for bingo and pancake breakfasts, then loving your enemies is the only way for followers of Jesus. Or if the Religious Right values America's power and personal wealth and a permanent war against a grab bag of enemies who can all be labeled "terrorists" more than the quaint and naive teachings of a long-haired do-gooder, how is my accusation of idolatry unfair?

Is my motive to get religious zealots out of politics? That would be nice, but my goal is to wake people up in time to stop America's slide into an "ends justifies the means" doctrine of engagement. The Religious Right is loud and powerful because it has spent time, money and energy grabbing political power. The Religious Left? It must have been busy doing God's work, not Caesar's. Now, at last, the Left is beginning to organize and speak out.

I understand people who feel that America is the nation that best reflects God's will--and America the Ideal does embrace equal rights, justice for all and a government of laws, not of men. So I also understand, to a point, the intense feelings of patriotism expressed by the Religious Right. But I do not understand believing "my country, right or wrong" over the words of Jesus Christ.

It follows that I believe religion has no place in governments that represent diverse populations. To your possible surprise, I would welcome a theocracy in America--but only if it was based on loving my neighbors and my enemies, doing good to those that hurt me and taking care of the least of these. That theocracy would mean a repudiation of all illegal weapons, destroying WMDs worldwide with the USA taking the lead, the release of the secretly "disappeared" people, closing the torture chambers in all the covert hiding places around the world, pulling support from regimes that abuse their people, even if we lose a strategic advantage, and not interfering in countries like Venezuela, where freely elected leaders who don't conform to our notions are exploring new ways of creating an equitable economic system. And that is just the start. Wouldn't that world be close to God's heaven on earth?

Church Folk for a Better America

One group of Christians is speaking out against torture and abuse. George Hunsinger--a minister who is the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America (CBFA)--is trying to reframe the "moral values" debate by raising tough questions about how torture, preemption and poverty can be tolerated by people of moral and religious conviction. He was recently interviewed by Katrina vanden Heuvel for the Nation. He had this to say:

Torture is not a divisive issue for religious people. No religious person, and no person of conscience, can possibly justify it morally. An example of this is an emerging new network of religious progressives which recently published an Open Letter to Alberto Gonzales.

A larger anti-torture campaign is now in the works with the following goals: 1) Congressional action to stop exempting intelligence services from the torture ban imposed on military services; 2) Congressional action to outlaw the horrifying practice of extraordinary rendition/torture by proxy; 3) A clear statement from Bush that US policy does not condone torture in any form or under any circumstances; 4) The appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the issue.

Our work will also continue against the Iraq war. Destroying entire cities, as happened with Fallujah, is a form of terrorism, just as torture is a form of terrorism. Fighting terrorism by terrorism is at once immoral and futile. It has been clear since Abu Ghraib that the war cannot be won. The 14 new military bases planned for Iraq must be exposed and opposed along with the shameless profiteering still taking place. We join with all who call for an early and orderly exit, and for reparations for Iraq's long-suffering people. I dare a Christian Hawk--Loose Canon, can you hear me now?--to sign on to this anti-torture campaign. You can make a donation to support the work of this group at Donate to Church Folks for a Better America.

"He Lives" Merchandise

Christians complain that their holidays are not respected by the secular world. Well, the good American capitalists at Oriental Trading have not forgotten them. Get your Lamb of God sucker covers, Cross lollipops and "He Lives" beach balls here. Yes, that's a "Lamb of God" Sucker Cover and "He Lives" Beach Balls and Candy Cross Sucker. No joke.


Not going to rehash "Jeff Gannon," journalist by day/escort by night, but Bill Maher did some great riffs on Jim/Jeff on the new season premiere of Real Time on HBO. This video clip has all the good lines.

The Beauty Part

He was too sensitive to live. "I can't cope," he told friends. "All the defenses are gone, all the nerves are exposed." And then he overdosed, at 26. But what music he left behind! Yes, I mean that cult favorite, Nick Drake.

Thought for Today

When I tell any truth it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do."
--William Blake

So Much to Say, So Little Time

Every day I read too much news and analysis in the papers and on the "Internets." When I come up for air, I have pretty much the same reaction: shock that the American people are still allowing this administration to run the country. I drop in on one more website and feel a little better--just 1,428 days to go.

I have four days to discuss a legion of daily outrages. So I've planned to focus on one issue a day--four subjects that, from my perspective, religious/spiritual people should be thinking about. I start with the terrible situation in Iraq, because I fear that Americans have used the fact of an election to tune out. Tomorrow: the puzzling Christian Hawks, who are silent about (and even supportive of) this administration's human rights abuses. Thursday: Is creeping fascism a real worry for you? Me too, and that includes the rise of the Talibanjelicals. On Friday, I want to talk about morality, Social Security, the budget and--got to make sure I've left no anti-Americans out--all the gay bashers who feel safe enough with this administration to come out of their dark messy closets. And I want to leave you with that most modern of American Zen koans: Exactly what are Family Values? And why don't I have them?

Long blog ahead. Bumpy ride guaranteed. Fill up the coffee cup.

'Yes, But' on the Iraq Elections

You say the Iraqi elections might not do much to stop the bloodshed, and, like they've had a chip implanted, righties like Loose Canon suggest you hate Democracy. Nonsense--all progressives are pleased when people get to vote for their own government. But pick any country, invade it, occupy its land, bomb the crap out of its infrastructure, fight a two-year guerilla war because of your incompetent stewardship, then let the people hold elections. Damn if they are not thrilled, too.

This shared delight in voting does not, however, erase the Bush administration's lies and lack of planning that led to thousands of needless deaths. Our leaders have blood on their hands that all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten. And that's not patriotism or its opposite--it's just the facts.

Witness to War

Here are the Iraq casualty counts since Swami Uptown stopped blogging at the end of January, 21 days ago:

Dead US troops: 44.
Wounded, not returned to action: 106.
Total US casualties to date: 1,484.
Total US wounded: More than 11,000.
Hundreds of Iraqi citizens and police have been killed in vicious bombings since the election. We don't know the total number of Iraqi civilians killed because our government doesn't believe these deaths are worth counting.

It is important to know these numbers so we don't forget the price of the Bush administration's incompetence. And knowing these numbers is one way to honor the men and women still risking their lives--they serve in the shadow of those losses.

'We Live in This Movie'

One soldier is afraid we have forgotten. According to the New York Times, Specialist Richmond Shaw, 21, wrote his first rap song about Iraq three days after his friend got shot:

We're all trying to avoid getting shot, and we're all wondering whether people will remember us and we're trying to make a difference before we die.

Shaw said he knew he was "living on borrowed time" and needed people back home to know that life there was real, not something on the news, not something in a press conference, not an idea. 'Trials and tribulations daily we do/And not always life's pains wash away in our pool/When we take a dip, we try to stick to the script/But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit/That's when our hearts start racing and our stomach gets whoozy/Cuz for y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie." Another soldier, Sgt. Nick Moncrief felt death's presence often in his 14 months in Iraq--including four bullets just missing his face while on duty in Baghdad. Again, from The Times:

Those bullets were close to me the way you're close when you're getting ready to kiss a girl. Not long after that, he scribbled down a rap: "I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/Cuz I've seen more than your average man in his fifties/I'm 24 now/Got two kids and a wife/Having visions of them picturing me up out of they life."

Now back at his post in Germany, Sergeant Moncrief has turned 25. "My message in my rap is that I have a lot of anger about the war," he said. "Why are we there? Why me? That's basically what I want to say when I write: Why?" 'The Soldiers Support the War' Meme

What's a meme? A generalization repeated so often it becomes a truism. I saw one on Beliefnet recently when Loose Canon quoted a piece on a site called Tech Central Station in which the writer argues that "chicken doves" might support the war if only we were intimate with it:

Military support for the war and the Bush administration is exceptionally high. ...To generalize: the closer and more intimate you are with the war in Iraq, the more you support it.
Really, LC? OK, let's ignore the armchair hawks and doves. It's not just the currently deployed rappers who have misgivings about this war. Ask the 5,500 soldiers who are AWOL. Oops, can't--don't know where they are. Okay, then ask the recruiters whose numbers are alarmingly short of their goals. Or the soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress who have to be given Ecstasy to help them talk about what they've seen.

Then there are the higher than usual number of suicides in this war. Listen, for example, to the Greene family:

Curtis Greene was angry about the war and frustrated with Lisset [his wife] for not understanding what it had been like there. They argued so fiercely that twice the police had to break it up. Gone was the man smiling with her and the kids in family photos. "He was not the person I knew when he came back from Iraq." One night he disappeared from their home outside Fort Riley, Kan. Lisset and the kids went to stay at her father's house in Hernando County. When he called her to apologize for running out, he promised he would come home to Fort Riley. But he wasn't about to return to Iraq: "Over my dead body are they going to make me go back."

"I knew he was having dreams, nightmares," Lisset said. "He would wake up at night really sweaty."

On Dec. 6, he showed up for work, his uniform pressed, his boots polished. He sang cadence. That night, he was found hanging in his barracks. Sgt. Curtis Greene, 331st Signal Company, was 25. Operation Truth and Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War are organizations of soldiers of all ranks who have organized to speak out against the war. IVAW's mission statement, "We are committed to saving lives and ending the violence in Iraq by an immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces." One member of IVAW explains:

"Who I was before the war, who I was in Iraq and who I am now are three very different men," Corporal Sean Huze said. "I don't think I can ever have the blind trust in the government like I had before. I think that my being over in Iraq as an active participant, I'm a bit more responsible than others for things there. And I think by speaking out now, it's my amends." He added, "I don't know if it will ever balance."
How to Build a Conscientious Objector

With all the talk of war with Iraq, Syria and Iran--and who knows, is Venezuela next?--parents might want to read this piece by Helen James from Mothering Magazine. It's an instruction manual on how to build a case for conscientious objector status for your child. Ms. Jones was prescient. She started her son's file when he was nine years old after meeting a Vietnam War vet at a peace march they were both attending:

As I stopped to take a photo of the boys with their handmade peace signs, a tired, frail-looking man, covered with war medals and peace buttons, began limping toward me as fast as he could manage. He'd broken ranks with his group, Vietnam Vets Against the War, and had a look on his face I will never forget. He came close and embraced me, then pulled back, stared into my eyes, and said, "lf my mother had done that for me, I wouldn't be like this now."
The smug right drones on and on about the fallacy of comparing Iraq to Vietnam. But if you're of a certain age, doesn't this sound familiar?

A Guardsman Gets a Bonus

This is one of those stories that cuts through the fog of war. This is who we really are when we strip down to our essential humanity. This is God working through us. This IS God.

The Associated Press reports:

When Capt. Scott Southworth took his soldiers to a Baghdad orphanage in 2003 to befriend the children, a small boy with cerebral palsy immediately returned the favor, crawling across the floor to sit next to him. "By the time we left that first day, he was trying to take off my watch or to do anything he could to keep me from leaving the orphanage," Southworth said.

Iraqi law won't allow Southworth to adopt Ala'a, but he was able to bring the boy home last month under a "humanitarian parole" that lets him make sure the boy gets medical care and goes to school. Now Ala'a is enrolled in middle school, and already has two friends. "I think I've been the lucky one," Southworth said. "He's making my life more fulfilling. I think, maybe, my lifestyle used to be focused on me. Now I have someone else to focus on." Read the whole story and pray that this boy gets to stay with his new father. There is no legal way to adopt him and humanitarian parole only lasts a year, but if the White House can get FBI clearance for a ringer in the press briefing room, I am sure the Administration can find a way to grant permanent residence status for Ala'a.

Buyer's Remorse

According to a new Wall Street Journal poll: "Fully 60%, including one-fourth of Republicans, say Democrats in Congress should make sure Bush and his party "don't go too far." Just 34% want Democrats to "work in a bipartisan way" to help pass the president's priorities."

No doubt Howard Dean, the new chair of the Democratic Party, is looking forward to showing the President what democracy looks like.

Hunter S. Thompson

The Duke may have been a world-class alcohol-and-drug user, but his first-draft thoughts on 9/11 are so smart you might wonder if he had the power to channel the future. Here is Hunter Thompson's column from September 12, 2001 [subscription required]:

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now--with somebody--and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy... We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows?

This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed--for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. Tomorrow I want to help the Right Wing Christians who are suffering so terribly from cognitive dissonance in their attempts to justify torture, extraordinary extradition and pre-emptive war. I think I know why the Religious Right is so desperate to have the Ten Commandments posted in every public place. They need the reminder. Especially on #1: "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me." Idolatry, anyone?

Guest Blogger: Asma Gull Hasan
Asma Gull Hasan is author of the books "American Muslims: The New Generation" and "Why I Am a Muslim." She is a frequent television guest and speaker at universities, schools, and private organizations throughout the U.S. She is also an attorney.

The Death of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Monday, February 21, (besides being President's Day) will be the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, also known as Malcolm Little prior to his conversion to Islam, and Malik El-Shabazz after his hajj trip to Mecca. It's hard to believe that it's been forty years since his death. Malcolm's ideas and advocacy, although brutally cut short, have been so important to me since my high school days, when I began learning about him. He still has so much influence that you would think he had actually been alive these past forty years.

I certainly did not agree with the content of the speeches Malcolm gave during his Nation of Islam career. I recognized what he was trying to do though--by verbally attacking white people, who, for whatever reason, were perceived and presented as superior, he was building the confidence of his own people. I do not disagree with the overall goal. I think without Malcolm's dogged insistence that the promise of equality and freedom America represents has not reached his community, America would not be the same today. It took harsh words to make us all realize what our country had done to African-Americans and why diversity is important.

Malcolm once said in a speech that if white people are better, then why are they laying outside all day, trying to get a tan so they can look like you (he made this speech in front of an African-American audience). This comment resonated with me, as a young girl. I had white friends who would sun themselves incessantly, in desperate hope for skin colored like mine! The standard of beauty for most of my life has been the white woman--soft features, light hair--a standard which I can never meet. Malcolm's comments were in part how I gained confidence in my own looks. If the standard was so different from what I was, then why were tans so sought after?

The most powerful quotation of Malcolm's short life is about his hajj. I have quoted it in both of my books, to show the ethnic diversity in Islam. Malcolm wrote in a letter home from Mecca: "During the past 11 days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond and whose skin was the whitest of white." Malcolm realized that true Islam stood for equality between all races, that true Islam focused on the one God who loves us all. I am sorry I never knew Malcolm or his wife Betty, but their dynamic, loyal spirits continue to inspire Muslims and non-Muslims even today.

My Favorite Religion Book of 2004

My favorite book of 2004 was Karen Armstrong's memoir, "The Spiral Staircase." This memoir of Armstrong's life after leaving seven years as a nun in a convent behind is an amazing book that will resonate with anyone who has felt disappointment or grief. I was amazed to read that someone I consider the world's greatest living Islamic scholar suffered so many setbacks. Armstrong is unmatched in her ability to describe feelings, events, and history. Honestly, I don't think anyone does it better.

Armstrong's road (or actually spiral staircase) was not an easy one. Her epilepsy had been misdiagnosed for years. Her time spent in the convent haunted her, having affected her daily habits. She was unjustly denied her doctorate in English due to university-level politics. Just when her writing and television career began moving, she would suffer a setback. She was mad at God, if she even believed in God, for what she had been through. She writes: " ... I felt that God and I had unfinished business--even though I didn't believe that he existed." Armstrong can write about deep spiritual themes in a way we can all identify with them, putting religion in an individual context.

After Armstrong was basically fired from a teaching job, due to her poor health, she realized that she was going to be okay. Heading out into the great unknown of unemployment, she realized that she had never wanted a normal, uneventful life, but one filled with the surprises brought on by unplanned dismissals: "But had I really wanted to be ordinary; had I really wanted what T.S. Eliot had called 'the usual reign' ... I couldn't have it both ways. And now, here I was again, heading into the unknown, and yet I felt in some strange way as though I were back on track. The bus was taking me away from my nice safe job [from which she had been dismissed], but it seemed to be going in the right direction."

Reading Armstrong also made me realize how to be a better writer. Armstrong advocates understanding what the other person is going through, even if they are being mean to you. She says that you have to be kind to people even when you know they will not be kind to you. She writes: "So I am still a flawed, insecure human being who doesn't like it when people bruise my ego. But this is valuable too ... this more abrasive type of encounter is a reminder that you must not practice the spirituality of empathy simply in order to get something for yourself. I am sure that this is what Jesus meant when he told people to love their enemies. You have to be prepared to extend your compassionate interest when there is no hope of a return."

I am happy to say that Armstrong and I are both nominated for awards at the upcoming "Books for a Better Life" award ceremony, given out by the National MS Society--her for The Spiral Staircase and me for my 2004 book "Why I Am A Muslim." I have always appreciated her writing and learned so much from it. I think most contemporary, non-fiction writing on Islam has been influenced by Armstrong. I hope I can meet Armstrong and keep myself together enough to communicate how much her writing has meant to me.

Converts are Covert Operatives?

In a Senate hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller stated that the greatest threat to the United States is from covert, Al Qaeda operatives in the United States who are likely radicalized converts. Whether this is true or not, it's very frustrating for Muslims to hear this three and a half years after 9/11. I am personally tired of hearing that Muslims in the United States are a threat to us when the FBI and CIA have not really produced any evidence in this regard. (That upstate New York group arrested in 2002 had actually left the training camps and refused to attack their own country, so they do not count.) Obviously the FBI and CIA cannot share all details of their work, and I would prefer they do not. But it's hard for me to keep hearing that enemies are amongst us, without being made aware of any evidence supporting this view. My personal feeling is that Mueller is continuing to try to increase the power law enforcement has. He is already, by making broad, vague statements about covert converts, setting the stage for the renewal of the unconstitutional and un-American Patriot Act--the broadest security legislation in our history. I am sure he also cites the phantom covert converts to justify continuing to hold scared Afghans in Guatanamo, who have produced no leads and have been held, literally, for years without result.

What's the harm, you say, in vaguely accusing Muslims that way? I believe such statements only arouse unnecessary suspicion and paranoia against good Muslims and those who are often ignorantly presumed to be Muslim, like Sikhs, Latinos, and others. In particular, sincere Muslim converts are often confronted with attitudes presuming their radicalism and nicknamed "John Walker," after the so-called "American Taliban." Converts have a difficult enough time without having Mueller call further attention to them. I think it's easy for Mueller to pick on converts because many cannot understand why a convert would trade his all-American background to be a Muslim. Their loyalty is already questionable, in the minds of some individuals. But Mueller and others need to learn that all converts, in all religions, are not giving up their identity but fulfilling it more by practicing a religion that reflects their beliefs accurately. If another 9/11 is going to happen, the FBI should be on top of it, not engaging in useless innuendo.

Thumbs Up for "Bride & Prejudice!"

Ever since I saw "Bend It Like Beckham," I have been eagerly awaiting Gurinder Chadha's next film. I was not disappointed at all with "Bride & Prejudice," the new movie that sets Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" in 21st century India. It was exactly as I expected, and I am glad. I hope that Gurinder Chadha makes movies for the rest of my life so I will be able to enjoy them. The movie has it all and more--a romance, unrequited love, a larger-than-life family, complete with dramatic mother and protective father, naughty sister, flirtatious English men, nerdy suitor, dance scenes, even a Mariachi Band and a gospel choir singing a Hindi song. Who could ask for anything more? Just when I thought I had been more than satiated, Alexis Bledel of my favorite television show, "The Gilmore Girls," joins the movie three-quarters in.

Chadha's film stands on its own but is clearly made in the mold of the Bollywood musical. The plot, the drama, the set design, the colorful costumes, and music are in clear homage to the most popular and artistic Indian films. "Bride & Prejudice" even manages to have celebrity cameo--here, the singer Ashanti--playing a variation of her real-life self, a hallmark of all good Bollywood films. The gifted female director of "Bride & Prejudice," though, takes things a step further with innovative angles that fully exploit the lush scenery. Overwhelmed by the colors, sights, and sounds of India, I was almost relieved when the movie moved to California. The simplicity of the United States was a welcome reprieve from the over-stimulation of India. I often feel this way when I return from visiting family in Pakistan as well. For someone like me--who was raised in preserved South Asian/adapted American culture--movies like Chadha's are very enjoyable. They reflect my values, struggles, and successes. I also like the fact that Chadha's movies are in English. I do watch Indian and Pakistani movies with my mother and sister, but I cannot understand half of what is being said. I feel like Chadha made the movie for me, complete with subtitles.

The average American moviegoer may not enjoy this film as much as I did. The scenes are beautiful and colorful, and the actors are appealing. But the movie is long, somewhat clichéd, and melodramatic--qualities we have come to look down on in American cinema, but which are essential and sought after in Bollywood films. The movie is not only an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice" but in fact, a conversion of an Indian movie into English. I think my favorite scene is when the mother is offered a seat in First Class. She lives it up, noting each item given in the complimentary toiletries bag. Or actually it's the scene where the nerdy suitor says he is looking for a bride in India because Indian-American women have all become lesbians. I would have liked it better if Tom Cruise played the male lead, but I suppose Chadha has to save something for the next film! The outtakes at the end, by the way, are hilarious and include Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein reluctantly being cajoled into a Bollywood dance by a crowd of Indians. Go ahead and dance, Harvey! We all understand the lure of Bollywood!

Stereotypes on "24"

I have been a big fan of the Fox show "24." I was one of the early watchers in the first season and hooked many of my friends on the show in those early days. I was, until recently, always impressed that the writers never took the easy way out by presenting a generic jihad plot. The terrorism on the show always seemed to have a logically cruel calculus to it, not a hell-bent, martyrdom mission. The terrorists were rarely Muslim or Arab.

That is, until this season, as "24" has unabashedly engaged in stereotypes. I find myself laughing at how ridiculous the show is when I do happen to catch it. My digital recorder is no longer set to tape it. But if I happen to flip on to it, I won't turn it off: I can always use a good laugh! My main complaint is that the stereotyped, Arab terrorists are almost entirely played by actors of quite obviously Latino or South Asian descent. Are they portraying Arab terrorists here, or Columbian drug lords and Indian computer hackers? It's insulting that the show's casting agent doesn't realize that viewers can tell the difference between an Arab, a Latino, and a South Asian. If you are going to prey on people's prejudices and fears, at least cast the right ethnicity!

Second, I am completely horrified that the Arab mother--who is actually played by an Iranian actress, so I will give them credit on that casting--poisoned her son's white American girlfriend. Muslim boys have an awkward enough puberty without the suggestion that their homeroom crushes will be murdered! Not to mention that the scenes played out as if this incident were typical of American Muslim households. Beyond that, I know of no gawky, adolescent Muslim boy who can even manage to have the popular girl talk to him until their 15th high school reunion when he is now a successful, handsome doctor.

One episode I saw recently was accompanied by a public service-type announcement by the show's star, Kiefer Sutherland, who lectured us viewers, like a substitute schoolteacher, that, although the terrorists on the show are Muslim, real Muslim Americans have shown their loyalty and stood with America. I can't even begin to express my annoyance with this statement. First, if what Sutherland said is true, then why does the show have Muslim Americans as the terrorists? Second, is Kiefer implying that non-American Muslims have not shown their loyalty? What about all the sacrifices Pakistan has made for the United States in the War on Terror or the Iraqis who welcomed American soldiers? Pakistan has caught all the major Al Qaeda suspects that we have in custody, and the Iraqi people have enthusiastically embraced the US-advocated elections. What about the contributions of these non-American Muslims? Aren't they important? Third, the way the announcement is shot, it looks like Sutherland's character took a momentary break from chasing terrorists to give the President a briefing. It's unclear if Sutherland is making this statement as producer of "24" or if it is a part of the fictional script, which makes the statement less meaningful. He does state that he is speaking as himself, but he packs so many words into such little time that it is easy to miss this clarification.

In short, I am disappointed. I always admired that Jack Bauer (Sutherland's character) was a man of action, who knew the right thing to do at the right time. Gritty and resourceful, Bauer represents the kind of agent I think we would all like to have working on America's behalf. The plot for this season simply does not live up to the promise of Jack Bauer, and "24" is all the worse for it. Another good television show gone bad.

How to Stand Alone in Mecca

Muslim writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani published her latest book, "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" this week. The book chronicles Asra's hajj journey to Mecca and back again. With her supportive parents and niece and nephew, Asra sets out to visit the historic lands of Islam. The monkey wrench here is that Asra also has a baby with her, her baby. Born months earlier to an unwed Asra, her baby son Shibli is the product of a doomed love affair Asra had in Pakistan, where she researched her first book, "Tantrika." How will her fellow hajjis react to Asra and her love child?

I often wonder how Asra, who I have met and enjoyed talking to, told her parents that she was pregnant. Being a fellow South Asian Muslim, I know that Asra probably would have rather told her parents that their home had burned down, their was car stolen--anything but "Mom, Dad, I was having sex and am pregnant." I have no clue how she did it and how her parents reacted. I hope that in Asra's next book she discusses the tense scene. I imagine it would help other South Asian girls who find themselves in similar conflicts.

The title of her new book is a reference to Hajar, the mother of Abraham's son Ishmael. Expelled by Sarah, Hajar was Islam's first single mom, standing alone in Mecca, 4000 years before Asra. In completing her hajj, Asra not only fulfills a religious obligation for Muslims but also exorcises the contradictory and cruel views she finds among Muslims and comes to terms with her single Islamic motherhood. Asra is also quick to emphasize where the Islamic world has gone, frequently mentioning the KFCs among the mosques and pointing out that Abraham would have paid child support to Hajar today.

It is a quick read, filled with insights and slight humor about the state of American Islam today. She says of her nephew, struggling to adjust his hajj robe: "He didn't want to go down in history as the first pilgrim to moon fellow hajjis."

The comic relief provided by her nephew provides an occasional reprieve from the heavier main theme of Asra's book--the commandeering of Islam by conservative, Wahhabi Muslims. She writes: "What troubled me even more was that our broader Muslim community was being taken over by right-wing Muslims. I'd seen it happen everywhere from my hometown in West Virginia to Pakistan, where Wahhabi ideology had taken root." Poignantly, Asra regrets that "Muslims like me sat silently while militants wrenched the religion from us and declared they were the protectors of the faith." It is not, in my opinion, Asra's having a child outside of marriage that has hurt Islam, but, in fact, those who subscribe to extreme views--those who are extremely conservative and encourage violence, alienation, and roughness. Asra says: "Men and women mingled comfortably in Mecca. How could men and women be equal and interact without this burden of sin in Mecca but not elsewhere?" I hope that all Muslims go to Mecca and are put back in touch with the true meanings of Islam, like Asra was. Each individual Muslim, with whatever their vices and virtues, should be able to stand alone in Mecca, proud and spiritually fulfilled.

Give Me Down to There Hair

The photo accompanying my blog is a few years old. Since I took that photo, I have been growing my hair out, with the occasional trim. Now, my hair reaches just below my shoulders and my upper back. I love having it long, though I have to admit that I recently considered cutting my hair short again, probably chin length. I see pictures of stylish bobs in magazines and think how easy it would be to take care of. But I don't think I will. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, I have a Rapunzel syndrome--wanting to grow my hair long enough to ascertain some kind of liberation, which would be risked if I cut my hair.

If I had my way, the next time I would cut my hair would be after I go on my hajj. Muslims are required to visit Mecca once in their lives, if they are physically and financially able. At the end of the hajj, the male pilgrim shaves his head--and the female clips a finger's length of hair--to reflect how they have been washed of sin during the hajj and are starting anew. When I first read about this aspect of the hajj, when I was young and learning about hajj, I decided to myself that I would also shave my head after hajj. What was good enough for male pilgrims was good enough for me. Most Muslim men balk when I state this position, but I am intrigued by the idea of a fresh start--out with the old and in with the new.

New parents are guided by Islamic tradition to shave their babies' heads about seven days after birth, in a rite called "Aqeeqah." The hair should be weighed on a scale, and an equivalent amount of money or food should be donated to charity, along with a goat or lamb sacrificed to donate as well. I remember when we did Aqeeqah to my younger brother. My grandfather conducted the ceremony, and my mom claims we saved the hair for some time afterwards, along with giving to charity. The process symbolizes that the baby comes into his childhood freed from impurities and without sin. The baby has been cleansed.

If you could cut all your hair off to gain a fresh start, wouldn't you? I have heard that Judaism has a similar tradition. Hair, although it is simply dead skin cells, as my doctor-sister likes to point out, has some mythic power to it that even my own religion of Islam acknowledges. Hair is an outward representation of our inward soul, a way to touch the inside from the outside, a physical manifestation of the intangible that we are all reluctant to part with.

The Valentine's Day Fatwa

Yesterday, February 14, 2005, was the 16th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses." (The fatwa was originally published on February 14, 1989.) Rushdie called the work his "Unfunny Valentine" in a nod to the famous jazz song of similar name. Issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, the fatwa--a condemnation of the book--sentenced Rushdie to death and led to book-banning or -burning in several Muslim countries. Does freedom of expression have a place in Islam, the world asked? Soon after publication of the fatwa and the violent protests, Rushdie went into hiding with protection from the British government. It seems Rushdie hides less now. He was recently married to an Indian model in a widely-publicized marriage. The fatwa, despite the stomach-churning it must have caused him, actually made Rushdie more famous than he ever was before. He became a household name overnight. In that respect, I think the fatwa backfired. The real victims, in my mind, are people like me--moderate Muslims who were constantly having to explain that fatwas are optional rulings, not binding commands; that saying offensive things about the Prophet Muhammad is painful to Muslims; and so on. I have actually never read "The Satanic Verses," nor do I plan to. So I guess I cannot pass judgment on it. I know what it's like to have people criticize your writing without having actually read a word of it! I have read "Midnight's Children" by Rushdie, which I must say is a fine book and a lush read. I don't think any other book captures as well the sadness and death behind the division of India, except for perhaps "Cracking India" or "Freedom at Midnight." In writing about "The Satanic Verses" today, I realize how far the world has come in sixteen years. Although similar events seem to happen, we are also seeing the voices of free Muslims everywhere. Look at all the changes in Iran: they hold elections and have female parliament members. I think the "Satanic Verses" incident is a perfect example of something that should be put behind us. Hillary for President

One of my first thoughts after Senator John Kerry conceded to President George W. Bush the day after Election Day 2004 was, "Now Hillary Rodham Clinton can run in 2008." I knew it was unlikely Hillary would run against an incumbent John Kerry, but 2008 would now be wide open. I would support a Hillary campaign simply because she is a qualified woman candidate who could actually win. Hillary may not be the perfect candidate, but neither are any of our male ones. The sooner people accept that women are capable of foibles, mistakes, and even machinations, just like men are, the closer we come to true equality for all individuals. I admit, I was disappointed that Hillary did not leave Bill after he admitted to his infidelity, publicly and privately. But who am I to judge? Beyond that, why should Hillary give Bill his freedom when she has spent most of her adult life promoting him? Hillary and I both went to Wellesley College, a women's college outside Boston (although, of course, she graduated many years before I did). My first year at Wellesley coincided with her first year as First Lady. The lovely, small, but somewhat unknown college I had visited in the spring of my junior year was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. I suspected that people wondered--what secret do these Wellesley women know? A year or so later, an article was published in The New York Times entitled: "How to Succeed in Business: Go to Wellesley." The article said that the most female CEOs, particularly of Fortune 500 companies, were Wellesley grads. My family says that somewhere around this time period, my internal setting was placed to: "Conquer the World!" I often hear others say the same of their Wellesley daughter or sister. Unfortunately, I now find myself saying, "I am too busy to worry about the World!" or "I'm going to pick my battles." However, I give credit to Hillary for continuing to attempt to conquer/change the World. I do have strong feminist views, ones that may be unique to me or women of my generation. Having a female president would be so important for the cause of women, almost more important than other issues, even the War on Terror. I cannot explain it, but rooted deep within me, in the same place where I feel my Muslim beliefs, I also believe in the sisterhood. Supporting Hillary, my Wellesley sister, I feel, is a greater loyalty than party affiliation and political preferences. In a way, the sisterhood is a religious belief for me. Valentine's Day: A Political Issue?

Valentine's Day has suffered from a bad rap lately. Single women take the day as a personal insult. As it turns out, Valentine's Day is a Catholic remake of a pagan festival that involved speed dating. (During the Roman festival of Lupercalia, single women wrote their names on clay tablets and placed them in an earthen jar. Unmarried young men then picked out a name at random, and the two were paired off.) Today, many people--especially singletons--claim that the day has become a commercialized amalgam of hollow greeting-card affirmations. I used to protest these views, arguing that Valentine's Day does not have to stand for romantic love, but actually any kind of love. Valentine's Day, I would say, gives us an opportunity to tell our friends and family that we love them, without seeming icky! The day offers a legitimate excuse to say, "I love you." I was raised in South Asian Muslim culture--I was not allowed to date, and, unlike many of my peers, I actually observed this restriction. I grew up knowing that romantic love was not really a likely option, that the dozen roses from the Secret Admirer were not going to arrive, and, even if they did, I couldn't do much about it! I actually appreciate the lack of expectations I have now. We live in a culture where everything is fiercely heterosexualized. Television shows, popular music, movies--all feature a love story, a boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't blame my single female friends for resenting Valentine's Day. Hollywood and American culture promised them romance, and now, for many, the promise is not fulfilled.
What does disappoint me is that my single female friends have beaten out of me the idealistic view I had of Valentine's Day, the "this is your chance to tell your favorite aunt you love her" approach. In the face of my optimism, my friends would balk. So I finally stopped pushing this view, as it seemed to be adding to my friends' singleton pain.

I would say now that my attitude is neutral. Valentine's Day is almost a political issue. I don't bring it up like I don't bring up the Middle East conflict! Perhaps love--romantic, paternal, familial--is the ultimate political issue, the greatest taboo topic. If we can confront our feelings about love, whom we love and whom we don't, maybe our other problems will seem less insurmountable.

Whether or not there's romance in your lives today, dear Beliefnet readers, I hope you are loved.

Guest Blogger: Lama Surya Das
Lama Surya Das, or "Downtown Lama," as he'll be known this week, is the founder and spiritual director of the Dzogchen Foundation in Massachusetts and California. He is a leading spokesman for Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, as well as a poet, translator, spiritual teacher, and a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order. He is the author of several books, including the national best-seller "Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Modern World."

Heart to Heart Politics

This century's politics leave me cold, failing to touch my heart. I was mad and saddened about the outcome of the Florida election four years ago, but I got over it. Like so many, I have been alarmed by our current regime's weapons of mass distraction and its unconscious, uncompassionate conservatism; however, I am trying to take a more long term view. The truth is I feel I can't trust these people, can't seem find much truth-telling amidst all the spin and media, and that our leaders fail to touch my heart.

Decades ago, RFK said that politics is a noble profession, and no one snickered. I doubt we could say the same today. I long for some serious and sincere statesman to step up and lead us, but fear our country is not ready to either recognize or produce such people. It hurt when Wellstone of Minnesota and Tsongas of Massachusetts both met untimely deaths; I truly liked them both. Where will the future leaders of our country come from? Who in their right mind would enter and persevere, surviving in the bitter swamp of our cynical partisan political system long enough to emerge as a real candidate for high office in this country? What if anything are we doing to inculcate wisdom, enlightened leadership and selfless service as a core value in the younger generations today?

Is America a real democracy, an oligarchy or a plutocracy?

On Inauguration Day in January, I know several people--intelligent friends of mine--who were in a state of what they called "active mourning". Getting together to bemoan the state of things, they wondered about what's next, what can be done, how to proceed in a positive way during the next four years, and so forth. I myself have been in a state of reflection during the last period, particularly since I find that introspective quality extraordinarily lacking in politics and world affairs--at least as we have to come to know it.

The State of the Union did nothing to assuage my Inner Depressive. I felt our president to be a genuine zealot in effort to convert the world to our American way of life and consumer democracy, hidden just beneath the oft repeated mantric buzz word freedom. I feel that I can love him as a soul but not as the rough-riding person he pretends to be.

During last year's presidential campaign I was initially interested in Dennis Kucinich and what he had to say. However, after seeing him close up, it was obvious that he was both extraordinary and unelectable. Governor Dean caught my attention--I particularly appreciated the way his team utilized the Internet to mobilize people and raise funds, but I was ultimately willing later to go along with the party and think that Kerry would do a good enough job of it. I still remained skeptical of his chances against the incumbent and all the fierce forces of true believers marshalled again him.

Now I sense a certain despair and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness among those who were disappointed with the election's eventual outcome. But I don't think this setback is a good excuse to give up or give in to the powers that (seem to) be. Thoreau said: "If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment."

These days I am calling for a Heartful Revolution, where we can meet people heart to heart and come together at a local grassaroots level to face the challenges we have in our country and our world. I want to start the Heart to Heart Party, and speak heart to heart about what is bothering us, what ails us, and what we together as well as individually might be able to do about it. And not just here in this country, but in the greater world of which we are so much a part. I want to face the despair, hopelessness, and fear that is endemic to our society today. Let us grieve for what we have lost, and move on.

This must be far more than a call for social activism and political action, although that could and eventually should be part of it. Activism is fine, as far as it goes; but I think we need to raise our consciousness and be more aware of what we do and why, and how we do things, and their longtime outcomes and implications, before we haphazardly rush into actions we may deem helpful and even necessary. Many do-gooders throughout history have stirred up more trouble through unconscious actions and mixed motivation.

This is I think the challenge of the authentic activist today; to have the vision to know what to do and how and when to accomplish it, guided by wisdom and inner clarity, and to avoid stirring up more chaos and confusion thru shortsighted quick fix solutions to problems with long historical roots and complex multidimensional origins. Only then, with such wisdom at work, can we accomplish effective spiritual activism--working selflessly for the greatest good and highest purpose, in service of the highest power--however we may understand it.

Ram Dass and Aging

The other day I was talking about aging and sage-ing with my old friend and mentor Ram Dass--formerly Richard Alkpert, spiritual pioneer, Harvard professor and consciousness explorer. Since his stroke, he's given up the mainland and wants to pursue what Hindus call "the fourth phase of life" here on the island of Maui. Hindu tradition teaches that after studentship, young adulthood, mature parenthood, and community member cum careership, there comes leaving this world and this life behind and giving oneself to God, to the afterlife or lives, eternity--the fourth stage--the age to cap and complete this life and prepare for what comes next.

It seems to us that the AARP model of retirement--cheerful and helpful as it is--errs too much on the side of fighting and resisting aging forever, and pursuing an active leisure retirement career of skiing, travel, and incessant activity. Isn't there anywhere in modern life, even after retirement and on into old age, where we can respectfully and meaningfully consider life's greatest questions and give ourselves to a higher purpose and to the eternal?

Rest is sacred--or so the ancient Indian saying goes. "Lounge and invite the soul", said Whitman.

Although he has been an international peace activist since the Sixties, the community symbol of the Venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France is the hammock. This paradox is hard for activists and western intellectuals to comprehend.

We are the elders now; must gather what wisdom we can muster and pass it on to the next generations. We can do that in innumerable ways, great and small, through teaching, parenting, mentoring, volunteering, and being of service wherever and whenever we can--being a benefactor to the young'uns, a beacon in this benighted world, and exemplifying a wiser and kinder way of life.

As for higher education, I say: Treat each child as a prodigy, and they will be.

Buddhist Decision-Making

I am often asked to make decisions for people, or to advise them. It is much too easy to tell people what to do, but too dumb and useless for me to fall into doing it much. There's no shortage of those around who seem glad to do so, though, thus disempowering others and going out on a limb oneself.

Of course if one is a professional being paid for expert advise, such as a lawyer or accountant, that could be another matter. It is far trickier in the humanistic realm-- spiritual direction, therapy, life skills management counselor, etc. Each of us has to own our own experience, make and live with our choices, and try to do the best we can. The rest is mere commentary.

I prefer to ask people questions, and see if together we can't get to the bottom of things, consider root causes and their consequences--and future implications of different possible decisions and directions--and develop the discernment that can bring wiser, more informed choices, action and understanding. All this is part of the development of wisdom (prajna), one of the most important of the transformative virtues of the Bodhisattva, the awakening spiritual warrior.

One definition of prajna--transcendental wisdom--is "the best knowledge" or "highest wisdom". This is something that we can learn to cultivate & develop--through learning, reflection, meditation and experience-integration. It includes keen discrimination and clarity of purpose. We have to know what we want and where we are trying to go if we have any real hope of achieving anything. Knowing who we are is also most helpful.

Otherwise we are constantly, as the song goes, "Looking for love in all the wrong places." This helps no one and leads nowhere.

Looking into what we want, wish for, and desire is an important part of any decision-making process. We must consider our motivation; "everything depends on motivation" the Dalai Lama often says, echoing ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts on the Bodhisattva's way of life and way of benefitting the world. What we need is also relevant--to be able to honestly know, acknowledge and consider. Then we have some chance of living creatively and proactively, rather than simply reacting semi-consciously (if not entirely unconsciously) to circumstances and conditions. Through cultivating conscious awareness we can choose how and if to respond to what life brings us, not just living in the animal realm of blind instinct and knee-jerk reactions.

One thing we most need to know, when making significant choices and distinguishing between different paths, is what to undertake and adopt and what to abandon. This is often the essential question around choice-making. Being mindful, attentive, and reflective before leaping into action is helpful at most critical junctures. Being decisive has its own power and magnetism, even when we are off the mark. The Buddhist scriptures and some of my own lamas' magnificence and skillful means have taught me that a genuine Bodhisattva should have great plans, elevated vision and vast aspirations. Boldness has its own power and magic, as Goethe famously said.

Enlightened leadership manuals always recommend considering what is the best for the greatest good, and to consider what will be of temporal and ultimate benefit to others and secondarily to oneself. This means being compassionate in one's dealing and decision-making in order to be a virtuous leader or even just a good parent or citizen. It means changing from an orientation of ME to one of WE, as in Mohammed Ali's great short poem, extemporaneously declaimed on request a a Harvard commencement: "You / me/ we." Few have said it better, tauter, or shorter than that.

When the Dalai Lama met privately with President Clinton in Wash. DC in the early Nineties, the lama told the leader:" You are the most powerful man in the world. Every decision you make should be motivated by compassion."

"One cannot exist today as a person--one cannot exist in full consciousness--without having to have a showdown with one's self, without having to define what it is that one lives by, without being clear in one's own mind what matters and what does not matter."

--Dorothy Thompson, 1939

Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

One day The Dalai Lama was invited to Yale University. That evening, the formal hosts- all -came to get him. After knocking on the Nobel Laureate's door, they were greeted by a man in maroon lama robes wearing a Groucho Marx mask: eyeglasses, nose and moustache. It was His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet himself, having a bit of fun. A jolly lama, indeed.

This is a true story.

I think we often take religion, and ourselves, far too seriously. Life ain't much fun if we take ourselves too seriously, is it? The sacred realm is not meant to be a grim affair full of restriction and brimstone, guilt and penance. Spirit is actually light, lively, luminous, yet uplifting, and joyous-for the most part. Love is the happiest, most ever-youthful, immortal thing there is. The profound incandescence and inner harmony of genuine spirituality is uncorruptibly intact, radiant, subtle, yet vividly present-- ecstatic rather than static. Everything flows, all evolves; nothing remains long.

My mother Joyce Miller in Long Island, who claims to have had once long ago not only Eleanor Roosevelt but also Sam Levinson---the Catskills comic---for schoolteachers, has a great sense of humor, which she must have foisted upon me along with Hebrew School as part of the family religion. For years, Mom has been calling me "my son, the lama", "the Deli Lama", not to mention other kinds of epithets. Of late she has taken to calling herself the Mama Lama. "Where do you think he gets his stuff?" she has been overheard asking her friends. "He was only with those Tibetan gurus for twenty five years, he's been my disciple for fifty." I rest my case.

Get a Transfer

If you are on the Gloomy Line,
Get a transfer.
If you're inclined to fret and pine,
Get a transfer.
Get off the track of doubt and gloom,
Get on the Sunshine Train, -there's room-
Get a transfer.
If you're on the Worry Train,
Get a transfer.
The Cheerful Cars are passing through,
And there's lots of room for you-
Get a transfer.
--Best Loved Poems of the American People

Nelson Mandela, Bodhisattva?

In these days of bitter partisan politics and a war on terror, which is itself a bit terrifying; I feel greatly inspired by spiritual activists such as Aung San Su Kyii of Burma, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, whom I had the privilege of joining on a September 11 panel at a church in Harvard Square a few years back. These are individuals we could do well to learn more about and hear more from.

Like Nelson Mandela said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I think it is incumbent upon all of us today to grapple with and find just solutions for the great issues of our day, which Mandela had to face and fight in his own country of South Africa: the challenge of the dichotomies of war and peace, violence and non-violence, racism and human dignity, oppression and depression and liberty and human rights, poverty and freedom from want.

Moreover, he affirmed: "We undertake that we too will do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the wretched of the earth. Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates. Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war. Let the efforts of us all, prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold. Let a new age dawn!" (Oslo, December 10, 1993)

More recently, Mandela gave a speech in London's Trafalgar Square:

"I am privileged to be here today at the invitation of The Campaign to Make Poverty History. As you know, I recently formally announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here. However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."

I think we all must look and see that as long as one quarter of the world goes to bed hungry at night and millions of children die each year from hunger, diarrhea and so on, that we have an obligation not just to kick back and retire to our own peace and comfort here in the Gold Mountain while the world tears itself to pieces in order to survive. (Gold Mountain is what Chinese immigrants of one hundred years ago used to call America, when they came over to build the railroad and find a better life.) Even in our rich country today, poverty-- like illiteracy--continues to plague us, and is the source of a great deal of the violence and crime in our society.

Mandela's ongoing mission to serve the greater welfare and the higher good reminds me of the Bodhisattva ideal of Buddhism, the highest spiritual ideal I know. A Bodhisattva--or awakening spiritual warrior--vows never to give up striving for the betterment of all, on every level--material and spiritual, visible and invisible, in this life and in all future lives. And the inclusive word "all" includes all beings, human, animal and otherwise.

As the Dalai Lama of Tibet, an exemplary selfless Bodhisattva, always prays:
"Only when the limits of space are reached;
Only when the limits oif all sentient beings is reached;
Only when all are free from conflict and negativity
Will my vow have been fulfilled."

That is called the Bodhisattva Vow: to dedicate this life and all possible livs to the betterment and ultimate liberation and enlightenment of all--without leaving even one single being behind.

From the Japanese:
"Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to transcend them.
Dharma teachings are boundless; vow to master them.
The Wisdom Way of Enlightenment is supreme; we vow to embody it."

What This Wandering Jew Found

In my youth, I circled the globe thrice in search of all that is good, true and holy. I attended many of the saints of the time, and visited many if not most of the sacred sites, temples and pilgrimage places of man. I had visions of the holy ones, I swear it. Some days later, when I told my first lama, Thubten Yeshe--whom I was teaching English at the time--he exclaimed, laughing: "You too much, American boy! Just like a good dream. Let's have tea."

On my 21st birthday in December of 1971, I was alone in Nepal at my thatched hut under the stars, two miles from my lama's monastery in the refugee camp outside Kathmandu. I could have felt lonely, but I wasn't; big turning point for me. Alone but not lonely, by the blessings of spirit. I felt as charmed and invulernable as Zorba the Buddha. What an illusion! Fortunately, I had good karma and a healthy upbringing, and managed--through grace and luck, coupled with a little pluck and attention--to avoid the obstacles, pitfalls and accidents some fell into. I always had a little bit of good karma, being blessed and protected. Other people I know fell off Himalayan cliffs and died, or went down in bus accidents, plane hijacking and crashes, passport problems, mugged, raped on the road in those poor developing countries--but nothing like that ever happened to me. I was always protected, as it were.

I lived in Asia for two decades--or was it two lifetimes? But caves and ancient shrines, a few spiritual sayings on the lips, strange hairdo's, saffron or white clothes and robes don't make the mensch. A Buddha is as a Buddha does. There are no enlightened beings, only enlightened activity.

Transforming ourselves transforms the world. Healing ourselves heals the world. Knowing ourselves, we know the entire world, as Lao Tsu says. (He wrote my favorite book, the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Virtue).

If this wandering Jew found anything, it is only that it is all within. What we seek, we ARE. There is simply no way around that.

IT is too close, so we overlook it. Too simple, so we complicate it. Too near, so we can't reach it by reaching out for it. Not outside, so we can't grasp and obtain it. It seems too good to be true, too evident, so we can't believe it. It is transparent, luminous, transrealescent--so we can't see it or easily perceive it--although always right at hand. But--what is it? Ah, that is truly the question. What is it.

Zen Master Dogen sang, long ago: "Here is the place, and here leads the Way.... Like water and ice, apart from beings, there are no Buddhas." So look deeply, and rejoice. The true Buddha is not bronze, stone, or wood, but is shining in everyone and everything.

Eternity Isn't Everything

I was flying to Maui recently, to do a three week juice fast and healing retreat. On the nerd-bird from Boston to San Francisco, I met a hard-drinking overweight business exec type who'd gone to MIT and now works for Dell Computor Company in Austin. He asked what I was doing, and I told him, much to his shock and surprise. "Why would you do that?" he exclaimed. "I am a Christian, and we put our stock in the next world, after we die. Our body is dust. It doesn't matter how long we live here, but how we live."

I was glad to hear of his beliefs. In a way, I couldn't agree more. How we live here and now makes all the difference. But as a Buddhist, I'm not necessarily other-world and heaven-oriented, as if our mortal coil is nothing and immaterial spirit is all--as if temporal existence is nothing and eternity is all.

Tibetan Buddhists consider this body a temple, and each energy and chakra in the body like a Buddhafield full of archangels and deities. How we care for, maintain and develop it helps determine how many beings can benefit by the light that temple provides and radiates.

Human life is precious, rare, hard to achieve and maintain with all the faculties intact; and should be cherished rather than squandered or destroyed. Conscious human life is rare and not to be taken lightly, and spiritually awakened life is rarer still.

When I was younger, I never thought much about longevity, although Eastern tradition abounds with tales of immortal saints and sages. Tantric Buddhism has its own plethora of healing and longevity empowerments and practices, yogic fasts, mineral pills, herbal tonics and vitality enhancers, energy exercises and so on.

Now I see that, as a Bodhisattva with significant training and a lot of work to do, it is important to me to maintain this vehicle and continue ferrying beings to the other shore of nirvana, and not to give in to whatever bad habits my family and societal conditioning have helped me and many of my mates to fall prey to. This my blessed life is simply far too rare and precious an opportunity to make a difference, make a contribution, and be of service and helpful to others.

Above all things I want to be useful and to make the world a better, more beautiful place--to be a light in this world. Fortunately for me, I have found a way of life and a vocation, and beliefs and understandings and spiritual practices and guides, that have come together in bringing me what I have always been looking for. I am content. I cannot ask for or imagine wanting or needing more.

I wish that for you, too.

Plans for the Next Life

Here on Maui, I visited one of my late guru Kalu Rinpoche's Dharma Ctrs., Kagyu Rimay Osel Ling. I'd taught there six or seven years ago, but haven't been back since.

My old friend from Darjeeling days, Lama Karma Rinchen from Eastern Tibet, was there--resdent lama in Honolulu--and we sat outside in the garden and had a nice chat as the sun went down and the crickets started to sing. Eventually I asked him if he was prepared to die--he is in his seventies now--and he said: "Anytime." I asked him what, if any, his plans were for the next life, and if he was intending to be reborn in any of the radiant stainless Buddhafields or planning to return to Tibet to help his people there. He replied in a quiet voice, very simply: "I will be reborn wherever I can be helpful. That is what a Bodhisattva does. You're in a special position; you should take good care of yourself and stick around. I will pray for that."

My Spiritual Birthright

I have been transported, even if only temporarily; and seen that another world, another way of life is possible. There is another, better world and another life, and it is here---we are living in it. We may feel far from it, but rest assured: it is never far from us. You may sometimes feel out of the flow, but the flow goes right through you: thus spake Surya.

Around the time of that experience, I wrote:
"This is the pure land. Why wait?
Everything is already perfectly one and at peace,
Just as it is.
Yes. Fantastic!"

I have had transformational experiences, growth experiences, terrifying and exhilarating experiences, breakthroughs and breakups and even breakdowns, in the loosest use of that word; deep samadhis, ecstatic revelations, colorful dream-like visions and clear light dreams, cosmic orgasms, glimpses of god and heaven and hell. But most of these are just special effects, not the main story line of a poor pilgrim's authentic progress from darkness towards the light, from ignorance to knowledge, from death to deathlessness. I have been brahmacharya, a monk and in cloistered retreats for years and years, and lived in caves, ashrams, cowsheds, tents, undergone austerities, and wandered without visible means of support. I have experienced ego-death and spiritual rebirth. I have changed a lot since my childhood, no doubt... And yet, I am probably more myself than ever, now. But transformation? That comes hard, even to a professional spiritual practitioner and questioner, truth seeker and transformationalist like myself. Patience furthers. "Haste slowly, and you shall soon arrive." Every step of the way is the Way. And the greatest miracle is love.

Many claim enlightenment experiences, satoris, insights and realizations, which is fine. These days, it seems, it is far easier to get enlightened than to stay enlightened; and that is the crux of the problem. For better or for worse, there is no enlightenment pill or enlightenment-guaranteed-or-your-money-back weekend. (If it was that easy to see God, what would it be worth, ultimately? It probably would not be the ultimate reality of that grand notion, and in any case we'd immediately be seeking something else.) After all, we want and need a spiritual life, not just a spiritual event, weekend, or experience. Epiphanous experiences can provide us a glimpse of the Promised Land, and help us to ascertain beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is really a there there, as all the mystics and sages throughout the ages say. But just one or two visits ain't enough. Don't we want to live there, to be there, -even here and now, -and not just to visit? For what is there, is here. If it ain't, it ain't IT. To use the vernacular.

Myself, through the blessings and inspiration of Buddhist wisdom, self-inquiry, training and practice, coupled with the kindness and generosity of my own enlightened teachers, good parents and friends, plus a little luck and pluck; I have begun to find out who I am, and ain't.

No self-transformation, yet everything is transforming right before our eyes. What a mystery, what a spectacle! Emaho! Marvelous, wonderful.

Buddhism is not a self-help project; there is no separate, eternal self--and in any case, it can't be helped. And yet the dance of being and becoming, of doing and being goes on. Wise, sane and caring people continue to work towards a better world by being better people even while learning to love and accept themselves, others, and things just as they are. Striving for enlightenment on one hand while, on the other, coming into deepening acceptance and appreciation/gratitude: seems like a contradiction, a paradox, a conundrum, don't it? Try just for a moment to hold in mind both extremes without fixating on one or another? This is the koan for today.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the French say. An example: the older I get, the more I am like the father I rebelled against in my youth. A bird doesn't fall far from the tree. Or something. (A phoenix is another matter. But who is ready to be totally consumed, and transubstantiated?)

I am what I am, as--mysteriously enough-- God has also purportedly said. Tibetan lamas say that our true nature is immutable, deathless, unborn and undying-Dharmakaya, in Buddhist lingo. Untrammeled pure spirit, inherently free, unconditioned and luminous: truth itself. Reality. We are all Buddhas by nature; we only have to awaken to that fact. It is only adventitious obscurations which veil it.

Nonetheless, change is law. Everything is constantly in evolution and transformation. I trust in that, having found it to be true. I have found out what my life is, and what it can be. This is what spiritual teachings promise, a birthright which has become real to me through Buddhist meditation and living an intentional mindful life. This journey of awakening can take some effort and attention.

The More Things Change...

People often ask me what difference spiritual practice, especially meditation, has made in my life. The answer is that it has changed everything for me. And, in a funny way, it's changed nothing. Because in the ultimate sense nothing changes, while in relative reality, change is the law and everything is always evolving, impermanent, fleeting as today's weather. Finding out who I am hasn't changed anything, although it has totally transformed my world in that it my experience of things is no longer the same. Nothing happens--but it sure is somethin', ain't it?

I like some wise guy's quip that before he was different, but now he's the same. I used to have to be different, but now I'm the same as everyone else. Perhaps one difference is that I know it, and some don't seem to.

I learned to meditate at college and at a zen center in the late Sixties, but I couldn't really follow through with it as a daily practice until I started a series of Vipassana retreats with U Goenka in India in 1971. I vowed to practice every day. That has totally changed my life. That's the good news.

I had many great enlightened teachers and gurus during my decades in India and the Himalayas. Their inspiration, teachings, blessings, grace and personal guidance gave me a huge boost on my spiritual path, for which I am forever grateful. My guru is always with me, although they may have passed from this world. The person dies, but the authentic spiritual connection---the guru principle, the heart connection--is beyond coming and going. That is an example of the adage that love is greater than death. I have seen miracles, but the miracle of love reigns supreme.

Spiritual practice has changed my life, and revealed to me that there is no other way of life--for me, at least. I have found meaning and purpose through discovering my timeless source and deathless, groundless ground of being.

In one of my little red travelling poetry journals, from my India days, I found some prayer-fragments from the 70s, including:

May your heart and mine
Remain inseparable,
for the limitless benefit
Of one and all.

Lord and master,
let me be--
hold thee.

May I be a pure vessel
Of your compassionate enlightened activity
In this benighted world.
(Darjeeling, West Bengal 1974)

Let Me Tell You the Truth

I would love to tell you a glorious story of personal and universal transformation. But here I would rather tell you the truth. That's the bad news.

We all want to change. Most of all we want our mates to change, our parents or children, colleagues, boss, employees to change. We want the economy and education and government to change, and our leaders too, of course.... And while we're at it, let's not forget to make these things change for the better--now that we are in charge, or think we are. Too many revolutions just turn things around and revolve back to somewhere similar to where they were. In reality, rather than our fantasies, the illusion of being in control is like have locked car brakes at high speed while driving on a winding, downhill, windy road. Kindly reflect on this.

The good news is: We all want something greater, grander, larger than just this world and this life. In one way or another, at some point in our lives I believe we all pursue it, or at least wish we could. It will not serve us to look for truth, reality, God, love, enlightenment, meaning and purpose, -or even the simple truth about ourselves--in all the wrong places. This perennial pursuit, common to humankind throughout the ages, is the work and play of a lifetime. Myself, I found that connecting to my source, what Buddhists call the groundless ground of being, makes clear my purpose and place in the world and gives meaning and direction to my life. Then it doesn't matter so much what I'm feeling or doing, what is happening; for everything is a lawful unfolding, grace-full, blessed, a cause for gratitude, reverence and and rejoicing--even life's gritty and hard parts. And we can't avoid those.

Freedom is a choice. Freedom means to be able to make choices and not just be run ragged by our internal conditioning. It is hard to step out of our ruts, and to truly change and transform ourselves. Probably it's better let others do the same, and just accept them as they are---which brings its own transformational magic---and trust that they, too, will step out and make the larger, riskier leap, if and when they feel compelled or simply desperate enough. Unconditional acceptance and appreciation is a vital part of wise and compassionate living; it is one of the most generous and loving gifts one can bring to the world, and the source of great peace.

Buddha said there is nirvanic peace in things left just as they are. Leave it as it is, and rest your weary heart and mind. This would be wise and compassionate, to yourself and to all beings. This is the heart of what Gandhi called ahisma--nonviolence/nonharming--and living an impeccable life. Thomas Merton pointed out the one of the most basic forms of violence is our inability to be still and quiet, and our busy-ness and drive destroys the fabric of much of our lives.

We each must work on ourselves; a life's work that no one can do for us, but no one can impede either. As the young Dalai Lama says to a Chinese general who reports the liberation of the Tibetan people is under way by the Chairman Mao's Communist Army, in the fine Scorcese movie "Kundun": "General, only I can liberate myself." This is speaking truth to power.

Often it takes crisis or loss to precipitate a spiritual opening, a renewed interest in looking inwards and seeking deeper rather than just going along in our normal way through life. I call this gaining through loss, the virtue of adversity, like the labor pains of a spiritual rebirth. The Pearl Principle: With no inner irritation, no pearl of wisdom gets produced within our hardened habitual carapace.

The George Bush Buddhist Center

It's a great year to live in New England. First the long-awaited triumph of the Red Sox, and now the Pats. Who could ask for more? At last New Yorkers have realized that Boston is best, and will stop trying to compete.

Oh yes, there was John Kerry's defeat--but what can you say? My wife canvassed in New Hampshire for Kerry, but that kind of Massachusetts trifecta would have been once in a century, if ever, and was probably too way much to ask for and expect. Perhaps we partisan Pilgrims didn't have our priorities exactly straight? (It's been known to happen.) But we learn to do the best we can and let go, and whatever happens, happens. We keep on.

I know you might think that a Downtown Lama, a veritable Pajama Lama, probably doesn't get out much, go to games and such, nor follow the polls; but a man cannot live by spirituality alone.... And let me tell you, I've tried! Anyway, there is really no inside nor out.

To quote one of my best Tibetan friends, an enlightened lama from Nepal named the Dragon Master (Gyalwang Drukpa) who visited my meditation retreat center outside Austin in November--yes, amidst the sea of red: "I like and am interested in everything, all that is good and not harmful."

Perhaps we'll rename our Austin center the George Bush Buddhist Center, just to make our contribution to peace and reconciliation. Whaddya think? For I have met the so-called enemy, and They 'R Us.

How to Train Your Mind

Like a diary, with daily blogging one stands naked, exposed. One's mind--the internal dialogue, at least--is revealed, as it is. How mundane! It is embarrassing to let others in on how I talk to myself, in this way. Fortunately I have learned the art of meditative awareness, including the concentration and mindfulness which allows me to modulate my thoughts and moods when I want and need to. Through cultivating mindful awareness in the present moment, attending to what is--outside and inside, body, mind and spirit--one can actually change the mind. I myself have seen the unfathomable power of a trained practitioner transform it and purify thoughts and conditioning, which is karma; and through ancient yet timeless, tried and true, intentional attitude transformation techniques, recondition and decondition our negative, or merely unfulfilling, habits and actions. One can also control the mind and even stop it, temporarily, although I want to step very lightly in this particular terrain. Buddhist mind training and refining the spirit--"lojong", in Tibetan--helps us to change and transform our attitudes, and for the better.

By becoming more honestly aware of what is genuinely going on inside of myself, in my own heart and mind--including the body, of course, through somatic awareness and emotional wisdom--I have come to see how natural it is to be able to relate consciously to all that I think, feel, desire and know--supressing nothing, yet simultaneously not being carried away by tidal waves of thought and feeling. This kind of incandescent awareness has also helped me to become a better listener, and to know others better as well as mySelf.

Clearing the mind and trying not to think, as some new meditator may, may, is not at all the point. That would be chasing a stick, like a dog, instead of jumping on the thrower, like a lion.

Consciousness, which is a big part of the mind, can be purified, altered, changed, transformed, transmuted even: transmuting the lead of conditioned thoughts and illusion into the gold of clear vision and the wisdom that sees things just as they are. This self knowledge, and ultimately profound self-realization, is the goal of meditation. Thus brings enlightenment, inner peace, harmony and bliss.

Good and helpful as they undoubtedly are, I think too much time is spent worrying about techniques--such as yoga postures, counting prayers, mantras, or simply observing the breath--and not enough in spiritual investigation, self inquiry, and active spiritual intelligence looking into the nature of things, both as they are and as they appear. One need not become a breath watcher or guru worshipper or dogmatic believer in order to free the mind, wisen up and enlighten up.

True Lies

Numbers don't lie, people do.
Pictures don't lie, those using them do.
The problem is that our perceptions and interpretations
Aren't veridical.
Who knows the truth?

It is the mind that lies
Due to its internal distortions;
Being bent out of shape
Is the main problem.

Knowledge as we know it
Gets in the way.
Of clear vision.
Who can see things just
As they are,
Rather than as we'd like
Them to be?

The masters say that not seeing
Is true seeing, not knowing
Is authentic knowledge;
Not finding
Is finding. I
Recommend it.

There are no families without conflict.
Everything follows its own nature;
All return to themselves.
Like waves in the sea
Although many seek the mountain
From which the tides of birth and death have receded,
We're born we die,
Returning again and again to the ground
Which bears us.
We don't need to pacify ourselves or find peace;
everything is already perfectly
at peace.

Mirrors are revolutionaries.
One look and you're no longer a mask.
Death is necessary for evolution.
Nothing is necessary.
According to string theory, the universe is
Two nine-sided slabs of crystal clear space
Facing each other.
Everything happens, nothing is
For long. Nothing

My First BuddhaVision

On my first Asian trip, to India in July 1971, I met the ancient great Buddhas in Bamiyan, treasures of the ancient world destroyed in the 90s by the Taliban. With my ex-Green Beret traveling buddy Ken Humphrey, I ascended their insides and peered out over the sandyAfghani Valley through their eyes. Was thas my first glimpse of BuddhaVision?

A few days later we continued our overland trip on to Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass, and into India. A few years later I returned to New York, and had a similar feeling from the top of the newly built World Trade Center. It was like divine sight, gazing down upon teeming multitudes, including all the possible realms of existence, heaven and hell, samsara and nirvana. Remembering these two twin pillars, East and West--so gargantuan for their respective times, seemingly invincible, yet so transient--I remember Shelley's great poem: "My name is Ozymandias, King of kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

A Little Song of Self-Inquiry

What is the most important question for our time? (Einstein said it was, in his: Is this a friendly universe or not?)

My childhood Jeff Lowe, whom we called Coconut due to the feeling of hollowness inside his skull, in fifth grade transmitted to me my first Zen koan (existential conundrum), which I have never really satisfactorily answered: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

What is authenticity, really, and what is true and real?
What do I really want and need?
Am I lacking anything?
Why am I dissatisfied?
Why is my satisfaction so fleeting
And dissatisfaction arise so quickly
And last so long?
Where does my true happiness truly lie?
Is this the most direct way to it?
How to love and be love(d)?
Who am I, really,
And why am I here?
What is my purpose?
Is there meaning?
Why do we die?
What is all this, in essence?
Who am I really,
Why am I here?
How to truly know
What am I doing,
And why?
Am I just a word,
and the word is with,
and the word is

Enlighten Up!

The search for God, peace, love or enlightenment may be a serious business, but we have to lighten up as well as enlighten up along this great way of awakening. Joy is an important part of life and necessary component of spirit. If we take ourselves too seriously, life ain't much fun. My old girlfriend used to call me Serious Das, but I was older then. That was in the Seventies. A laugh closes the distance between a speaker and an audience. A smile is the shortest distance between two strangers. I have found that humor is one of the best teaching tools, and I never leave home for a lecture or teaching tour without it.

Wit is worth little unless grounded in insightful wisdom. "Humor is not a trick. Humor is a presence in the world- like grace -and shines on everybody," says Garrison Keillor. If Buddha was alive today, I believe he'd add Right Humor to his eight-fold prescription for enlightened living known as the Noble Eight Fold Path. Right Exercise might be the tenth, like a necessary extra inning.

The Tibetan tradition of crazy wisdom--defined as a higher form of lucidity that sees through everything--tells us that what the world calls sane, those with clear vision most often consider insane. Is it any wonder then that what the world calls insane, the tricksters and jesters, the holy fools and eccentric yogis and siddhas consider normal? Irreverent saints have said the world is mad, but we are all mad; but let us be mad for the Divine rather than for that which so swiftly passes away.

Since time immemorial, iconoclastic crazy wise masters and enlightened pranksters such as the Middle East's Mullah Nasruddin and Drukpa Kunley of Bhutan have poked fun at hypocrisy and pretence, deflating pomposity and breaking through complacence, and reflecting knowledge to us our own foibles and flaws, with the mask of comedy sweetening the pill of self-knowledge. Through their rambunctious and inspired foolishness, I personally have been freed from inhibitions and other mind-forged manacles deleterious to living spirit and free flowing energy.

I adore Benjamin Franklin, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and their progeny for carrying on that indispensable tradition. My friend Wes Nisker has written a fine book on this subject, called "Crazy Wisdom."

"Clown and guru are a single entity: the satiric and the sublime sides of the same higher vision of life," wrote social critic Theodor Roszak.

Contemporary Zen master Bernard Glassman Roshi today carries on the tradition of master as clown, has been to clown college, and is training others.

"Who is wise?"
He that learns from everyone.
Who is powerful?
He that governs his passions.
Who is rich?
He that is content.
Who is that?
-- Benjamin Franklin

I've Found What I'm Looking For

What is the meaning of life? At this point this seems to me to be a fallacious question. The meaning of life is found through living. Each of us must find our own meaning. Of course we can subscribe to the meaning ascribed to life by someone else---St. Paul, Mao Tse Tung, Billy Graham---yet we still must live it out for ourselves, and reap the genuine satisfactions and fulfillment for ourselves, or lack for it, depending on our own authenticity. For there is no fooling ourselves, in the end; nor deceiving our maker, if you look at it like that.

Perhaps we'd do well to notice that there are various meanings for various people. For some, the meaning of life is found in work, through a career and accomplishments; for others, in love, family and children. Some find it most deeply through -service to God, or service to humankind. Some simply come to it, as if by surprise; but I believe there are no accidents.

Life is about love, meaning and work, which are all interwoven. For some, many even, it seems elusive and many never seem to find it, although meaning is always following them.

To find the meaning and purpose of life ourselves, I think we must ask certain questions. What is most meaningful to me? What do I care about the most? Who or what do I devote myself to? Who do I love? Who helps make me feel most alive, real, joyful?

Some say life has no real purpose or meaning, but that is slightly nonsensical. I think what they really mean is that it does not seem to them to have any one single purpose, for all. Or they feel that life has become meaninglessness to them personally. I understand that feeling; but that does not necessarily imply reality is congruent with it.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet says that the meaning of life is to find happiness and fulfillment.

Things may not be exactly what they seem to us to be; but they are exactly what they are, if you can believe Yogi Berra. By the grace of God and Buddha, I have found what I came here for.

Movies That Raise Consciousness

I was very moved by the new film "Hotel Rwanda", about the genocide of the Tutsi people ten years ago while the world stood aside. I recommend this new film to you. It follows along with other Downtown Lama pics including "Dead Man Walking" and "Schindler's List", fine examples of art that raises social conscience and consciousness and can move us to beneficial action.

However, I am tired of seeing these things a decade after the fact. When can we see something like this while it is happening, given our modern media? Then the world could react in a more timely fashion, with more information, with more effectiveness.

Bewailing the horrors of genocide much later is good: tears pour forth, one wonders what can be done to prevent it from happening again. But how to effectively and skillfully help now, in Dafur, Sudan and in other hot spots of the world where similar atrocities are being committed? Perhaps things are getting slightly better in this regard, as I have noticed the alacrity and vivid immediacy with which new technology has brought the recent tsunami's tragedy and devastation into our homes and consciousness, and almost immediately produced huge aid efforts.

The spiritual activist has to wake up and catch up to pain of the world and hear its cries, right now, and be moved to compassionate action and selfless service. That is the true meaning of compassion. Service to the highest through serving the lowest, the neediest.

I vote for Oscars to be given for categories of caring and compassion, consciousness raising, and most dedicated unselfish celebrity of the year-- a Hollywood Peace Award.

When his daughter drowned, Victor Hugo wrote a poem, saying: "Mankind can only see one side of reality. The other side is plunged in the darkness of a frightening mystery. Mankind bears the yoke without knowing why. Everything he sees is short-lived, futile and fleeting.... I come to you, God, the Father in whom we must believe. Calmly I bring you the pieces of my heart filled with your glory, which you have broken. I accept that only you know what you do, and that mankind is only a reed that trembles in the wind."

Walking With God

I love walking outside. It almost feels as if God awaits me the minute I look up and around. I barely believe in God, and yet there is this felt sense; it must by my Jewish genes speaking. Many wait for the messiah to come. I sense Him awaiting me, awaiting us. Yet the God that I love is within. Let's look deeper, and see for ourSelves.

Just connecting with nature is enough to open my heart and mind to all that is, and feel grateful, touched, inspired. Thrilled to be alive, to be breathing. The treetops speak to me like steeples and spires. An overarching forest is like a cathedral. The sky makes me happy. I feel slightly insane. The God that I love is within.

If I don't walk outside at least once or twice a day, I get rusty. Spider webs seem to clog my chakras and internal energy channels. My erstwhile neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, said he had to walk outside at least four hours a day; he walked the entire length of Cape Cod and back one year, and wrote about it.

Walking along the water on a beach for me is akin to Eden. There is nowhere to go and no hurry to get there. But any walk outside will do, for a constant companion is always accompanying. And you never know in whose face you will meet Him.

They say that joy rises in the morning.

Walking with my dog each dawn, I sally forth to meet my maker.

We are never alone.

Guest Blogger: Amy Sullivan
Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly. She has written about religion and politics for publications including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, and has served as a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR's Morning Edition, and other news outlets. Previously, Sullivan served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and as editorial director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. She holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School.

The State of Our Union Is...Oh, Who Cares

I was all set to share witty and insightful observations about Wednesday's State of the Union address and then I decided to look back at my commentary from last year (sorry...the link's not working at the moment) and now I'm just depressed. Bush was far cockier and combative last year, lacing most of his speech with straw man arguments ("From start to finish," I wrote, "the thing was chockfull of false choices--you can go backward or you can go forward. You can undermine educational standards or you can support me. You can tear apart the American family or you can support me. You can encourage children to get STDs or you can support me.") And the Democratic response--while predictably underwhelming--included some lines that sounded pretty good. So good, in fact, that they reappeared in this year's response ("Social security should be a guarantee, not a gamble.") In short, the president came off as an obnoxious trash-talker and the Democrats introduced some decent rhetorical comebacks. And, as we know now, it didn't much matter.

So you'll excuse me if I'm less than enthusiastic about the exercise of dissecting this year's address. Instead, I'll offer some select thoughts:

The phrases "we must be good stewards of this economy" and "the road to providence is uneven and unpredictable" were the only ones this year that contained any religious undertones, and even then, it's a stretch to characterize them as specifically religious. The sparse use of religious rhetoric is mostly due to the fact that Wheaton grad (and former head speechwriter) Michael Gerson wasn't the architect of this speech. But it also reflects the fact that Bush doesn't need to communicate with his base in code anymore. In fact, much of the middle section of the speech--the part about "the values that sustain a free society"--was a layer cake of conservative rallying cries: "Government should not undermine them [values]," "Marriage...should not be redefined by activist judges," "Culture of life."

Once again, Bush banged the drum, warning religious conservatives that government could take away their right to hold beliefs, that government could undermine what they hold dearest. Although most of Bush's political compatriots don't like the idea of affirmative action for racial minorities, they're all for affirmative action for religious folks. It may seem like Grassy Knoll conspiracy theorizing to many liberals, but this stuff works. Those 1960s court decisions taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools were what first energized religious conservatives to enter politics, and they haven't been forgotten. Today's gay marriage and Pledge of Allegiance cases are seen as additional proof that an elitist society and political structure is trying to persecute their minority beliefs. This, despite the fact that evangelicals hold virtually all of the GOP leadership positions in the House and Senate, run the White House, and had dictated Justice Department policy for the last four years.

Most of the commentators after the speech went on and on about how Bush "hit it out of the park" and considered it an eloquent masterpiece. I realize that I'm not incredibly objective, but I've now listened to and read the address half a dozen times and I'm just not getting that. For instance, can anyone tell me what "We must never turn away from any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America" means? If what he means by "never turn away" is that we should lend a helping hand to those in need, particularly those urban youth he highlighted, then I'm confused. Because in the last two years, Bush has eliminated all funding for Youth Opportunity Grants, a federal program that used to spend $225 million giving job training to young people.

The section on expanding the use of DNA evidence in criminal cases momentarily threw me. And then I remembered that public support for the death penalty has fallen by at least 15 percentage points in the last ten years while concern over whether prisoners have been wrongfully convicted has grown. The claim that Bush doesn't pay attention to polls is demonstrably untrue and this is a prime example of the White House crafting an initiative around poll numbers. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I'm tired of hearing about how this president doesn't need to take a poll to know what he thinks.

Hi Diddly-Do!

That paragon of Red State moral values, Ned Flanders, is front-and-center in this Sunday's Super Bowl episode of "The Simpsons," appearing in the halftime show of a cartoon version Super Bowl to produce a biblical pageant and preach to the crowd.

What If She Means It?

Earlier in the week, I wrote about Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about religion and Democrats. Now, in this article elsewhere on Beliefnet, I take a longer look at the various explanations floating around for "why this? why now?" and raise the incredible possibility that she actually believes what she's saying. Take a look.

Prayer and Pancakes

I didn't make it to Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast for a number of reasons--not that I seem to have missed much (Bush's speech lasted just eight minutes and consisted mostly of thank you's)--but I did attend a pre-breakfast dinner on Wednesday night before the State of the Union. And yes, the idea of a pre-breakfast dinner struck me as odd, as well.

I guess I'd always thought of the National Prayer Breakfast as a mildly interesting annual event, one or two hours of eggs, bacon, and homilies, that was practically required for any politician who considers him- or herself religious. I had no idea that it's much more like an evangelical trade-show, a multi-day conference that takes over the Washington Hilton (best known as the site where President Reagan was shot) and involves countless Christian vendors, a furious amount of religious networking, and lots of women who look disturbingly like Pat Nixon.

And everywhere, there are members of the Fellowship (also known as "the Family"), the group that puts on the whole shindig. What's the Fellowship, you ask? Oh, are you in for a treat. This 2003 Harpers article by Jeff Sharlet--he's currently working on a book about the group--provides an inside look at the organization, led by Doug Coe, one of those "25 most influential evangelicals" listed in Time this week.

State of the Union

I'm swamped by my day job at the moment, so State of the Union commentary will have to wait a few more hours. The switch in head speechwriters from Michael Gerson to Bill McGurn was evident--fewer (read: almost none) coded religious references; more hit-you-over-the-head conservative button-pushing phrases. I guess there's no need to be subtle when you've already won your second term. Again, I'll have more thoughts shortly. Please excuse me while I go back into the archives to see what all of those Republicans who were wildly applauding the Laura Bush anti-gang initiative (which, in all seriousness, sounds like an excellent idea to me) had to say about Bill Clinton's similar initiatives that included funding for midnight basketball, after-school programs, and school uniforms. If memory serves, nearly every conservative responded to the Clinton proposals with...oh, what's the word I'm looking for? Mockery? Ridicule? Yeah, that sounds about right.

What Is Time Magazine Talking About? Part 2

One of the other stories in the Time magazine cover package on evangelicals is about Democratic efforts to reach religious voters (it's only available online to subscribers, unfortunately). The article does a fairly decent job of outlining the various Democratic leaders who are spearheading this discussion and the institutional changes already underway (e.g., the DNC's creation of a center for religious outreach). But the reporter--Perry Bacon, Jr.--writes with the apparent assumption that Democratic values don't appeal to religious voters. "Religious voters might like the music," he concludes, "but they're unlikely to be seduced by it as long as Democrats stick to their core positions." That's only true if by "religious" you mean "conservative."

It's bad enough when members of the media automatically equate "evangelical" with "conservative." (And, yes, I'm aware that the majority of white evangelicals voted for Bush, but they didn't all go Republican. There are millions of liberal evangelicals, too. Ever hear of Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? John Edwards? They're not alone.) But painting "religious voters" with the broad brush of conservatism is irresponsible. Democrats do need to realize that it's not enough to stick with health care, education, and prescription drugs, and assume that voters will realize that they're also really good people. But addressing their image problem isn't just window-dressing--when the entire Republican presidential campaign is a religious outreach program, you better believe the DNC needs to hire at least one person (and preferably a whole slew) to fight back.

I'm Taking My Church and Going Home

What many people don't know is that the battle over gay marriage and the ordination of gay priests in the Episcopal Church hasn't gotten much further than a lot of angry talk for one simple reason: Individual churches don't own their buildings--the diocese does. So if you want to leave the denomination, that's fine. But you're going to have to turn the church building back over to the diocese and find your own, thank you very much.

As you can imagine, this isn't going over very well with some of the Episcopal churches that are most up-in-arms about the idea that their denomination might express tolerance of homosexuals. It has been a particular problem in Virginia, where a dozen conservative churches brought over a bishop from England last year to preside over confirmations rather than use their own bishop, who has taken what they believe to be too liberal of a position. So, the Washington Post reports, a Virginia state senator has introduced a bill that would "allow congregants to vote to leave their denominations and keep their church buildings and land, unless a legally binding document such as a deed specified otherwise." Hmm. If it's that easy, why would anyone stay in a pesky denomination anymore?

What Is Time Magazine Talking About?

I hadn't seen this week's Time magazine, with its cover package on "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America," as well as a piece on Democrats and religion, until a reader pointed it out. Having read it, I'm now having trouble seeing straight, so I'll need to parcel out my comments in installments.

For now, I'll just say that a list of the nation's most prominent evangelicals that doesn't include Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo or Ron Sider or Richard Mouw is appallingly incomplete. And I say that having the greatest respect for David Van Biema, the Time religion reporter who penned the piece. It is simply absurd and insulting to publish an article purporting to identify the leaders evangelicals look up to while ignoring the existence of evangelicals who are to the political and theological left of Tim LaHaye. Of the 25 evangelicals profiled in the magazine, I can only identify three, maybe four, who can even be charitably defined as centrists. The remainder are solidly on the right, religious conservatives who command a following--there's no doubt about that--but whose influence does not span the entire evangelical community.

Farewell to Shrummy

This is slightly off-topic, but we can't be all-religion all-the-time here. It may just be a coincidence that Kerry campaign strategist Bob Shrum declared he was leaving the world of Democratic consulting and moving to New York to teach just one week after my article advising Democrats to fire Shrum (along with a number of other consultants with equally awful win-loss records) appeared. I can't prove causation. The thanks of a grateful nation is enough for me.

Now, as Shrum and his wife prepare to leave D.C., they've put their house on the market and are asking $1.4 million more than they paid for it just over one year ago. Why the price increase? It seems that in addition to advising John Kerry, Shrum spent much of the year helping his wife remodel the house. As she explained to the Washington Post, "This house was done to be the perfect house for the Kerry administration." In other words, the Shrums were just getting ready to be the cocktail party spot in a city filled with Democratic administration types.

Hey, Bob? You know what would have really made it the perfect house for the Kerry administration? IF YOU HAD ELECTED KERRY TO THE FREAKING WHITE HOUSE FIRST.

Crosses and Cubicles

An article in Tuesday's Boston Globe about a movement that advises Christians on how to practice their faith in the workplace reminds me of one of the more inexplicable decisions made by the Kerry campaign. Few people are aware that John Kerry introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, along with unlikely cosponsor Rick Santorum, during the last Congress, and that he has been the prime mover behind similar legislation since the mid-1990s. The main reason few people are aware of this fact is that, to my knowledge, Kerry never mentioned it during the campaign and it was noted way at the very bottom of the "People of Faith for Kerry" page on his campaign website.

Here's a relatively uncontroversial issue--it's about freedom of religious expression, after all, not freedom to proselytize--that has the support of religious minorities like Sikhs and Muslims, civil liberty advocates, and religious conservatives. And yet not one peep from the Kerry campaign. If Karl Rove had been handed an opportunity like that, you wouldn't have been able to pick up a paper without reading at least five anonymous quotes from "close friends of the candidate" attesting to his commitment to protecting the rights of people of faith and reminding voters that he's a good man with a good heart.

Happy Groundhog Day

So many quotes to choose from in the classic Bill Murray movie. But I'm going to have to go with:

"Don't drive angry."

Words to live by. Especially when you're in Boston. Happy Groundhog Day, everyone, with a special helping of good cheer going out to faithful reader Brett in Missouri, who is the only person I know who throws an annual Groundhog party. If you really want to get in the celebratory mood, read this essay in--of all unusual publications for me to link to--the National Review on the movie, which has apparently become some sort of spiritual touchstone for people of many faiths.

Silence on Sudan

You heard plenty in Bush's inaugural address about how it's our divine duty to traverse the globe to look out for those who are oppressed by encouraging (sometimes via a little arm-twisting) their home countries to adopt democracy. And you're sure to hear more of the same in tomorrow night's State of the Union address. But it's hard to believe that this is anything more than an idea embraced in theory by many in the administration. Watching the inauguration, I kept yelling at the television, "Oh, yeah? So does that mean we're going into Sudan?" and when I heard that during her confirmation hearing, Condi Rice omitted Sudan from the list of countries in need of protection from oppression, I wasn't much happier. A lot of pretty words don't mean much if we're going to turn a selectively blind eye to suffering countries.

Stop the Presses!

I suspect you're all as shocked as I am to read in today's New York Times that conservatives don't believe Hillary Clinton is really religious. In recent speeches, they say, she's starting talking about God and morality, which they find awfully convenient. And that's stunning, because conservatives have always thought very highly of Mrs. Clinton and have been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

To be fair, further down in the article, Times reporter Raymond Hernandez admits that many people say faith has always been important to Clinton--she taught Sunday School in Arkansas and I can personally report that she attended services at Foundry Methodist just up 16th Street from the White House whenever she was in town. So why did the Times decide to spin the article this way? Everyone knows that conflict plays well in news, but the he said/she said formulation is even more strained here than usual: "Hillary Clinton talks about religion; conservatives say she's a big faker." Well, then. Who to believe?

If Hernandez had dug just a little bit deeper, he would have learned that Clinton has been convening her colleagues in the Senate to discuss ways to "reclaim" concepts like faith and values and morality since well before the election. In 2001, she headlined a panel the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put together to discuss faith-based social services. And anyone who paid attention to her husband's mantra that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" knows that both Clintons believe abortion rates should be lower.

Unfortunately, this reality doesn't fit neatly into the boxes most political reporters have for politicians--Republicans are genuinely religious; Democrats are natural secularists, and if they talk about religion, it's insincere. Need more examples? The day before the election last fall--a Monday--John Kerry took a quick break from the campaign trail to attend a mass for All Saints Day. It wasn't a campaign stop, it was just a Catholic guy going to church. Did it get covered? Barely--a sentence here or there in a wire story, but nothing like the photos of Bush leaving church over the weekend that blanketed papers that same day. You can almost see reporters' brains melt down as they're presented with information that seems to contradict what they "know" about Democrats and religion. Can. Not. Compute.

And While We're At It...

Allow me to extend my rant for one more thought. It's both annoying and wrong for Democrats to paint all evangelicals--heck, sometimes even all religious people--with the same broad brush of intolerance, ignorance, and conservatism. But it's equally wrong for conservatives to act as if all Democrats are godless heathens who hate religion. "You stupid Democrats," they say. "If you would just venture into a Red State every so often, you might realize that there are millions and millions of people who are motivated by their faith." Fine. But if they're spending so much time out in the heartland, then surely they've run across the millions and millions of progressive religious folks who don't embrace the politics of division.

If conservatives are going to set themselves up as the experts on "real America," then they shouldn't be allowed to pretend that they've never met a religious Democrat. The whole tradition of prairie populism--pioneered by good Lutherans and Catholics and other heartland denizens--suggests otherwise.

Praying in the Closet

I don't know about you, but I'm sure pumped about the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning. Or at least I would be, if I could get a press pass for the event. (Apparently, reporters aren't really encouraged to attend. I think the organizers have the wrong take on this entirely. Shouldn't they see it as an opportunity to reach out to members of the godless elite media?) While I was surfing around to see if I could figure out another way in, I came across this amusing essay written by The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook on the occasion of last year's Prayer Breakfast. Easterbrook argues (with tongue somewhat planted in cheek) that the whole concept of a public prayer breakfast is un-Christian, because Jesus specifically preached against public shows of piety. "When you pray," He said, "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen." It's not a verse we're likely to hear at Thursday's breakfast.

Hello. I'll Be Your Blogger This Week

Do not panic. Do not adjust your computer monitor. Jesse is off enjoying a well-deserved blog vacation, and I'm filling in as the resident liberal blogger for the first week of his absence. It's a pleasant homecoming-of-sorts for me--four years ago, when I was still tooling around on training wheels, testing out the whole idea of writing about religion and politics, a start-up website called Beliefnet published a few of my essays. I was hooked from the start and thrilled to discover that there was an audience for the two topics that matter most to me. I soon set off on my wobbly writing way and now it's my pleasure to return for a few days to share my analysis, commentary, and random musings.

Readers should know where a writer is coming from when they read opinion commentary; here, then, are a few notes about me before we begin. Religiously, I'm currently a member of the Episcopal Church, but I'll always be a recovering Baptist at heart. Politically, I'm firmly on the left side of the aisle, but I spend a fair amount of time taking fellow liberals to task for stereotyping all religious people as crazy Bible-thumping Red-Staters. I'm a Democrat precisely because of my faith, not despite it.

Stick around. With the State of the Union and National Prayer Breakfast both taking place this week, I have no doubt that Bush the Occasional Church-goer will give us plenty to discuss.

You Say 'Values,' I Say 'Values'

The fact that The New York Times even finds it necessary to run stories informing readers that many religious folks (evangelicals, even!) consider things like, oh, poverty and war to be moral issues strikes me as somewhat depressing. But that's where we are. Thirty years of brilliant strategy have allowed religious conservatives to define the ABCs of moral concerns as abortion, buggery, and capital gains tax cuts. Sigh.

As the Times article reports, however, a broader consideration of what constitutes a moral issue is supported by both liberal and conservative people of faith.

Glen E. Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said his students, who were largely conservative, agreed that poverty should be part of the moral values discussion. "A lot of Christians who are worried about abortion see poverty as a pro-life issue, because if you undermine the safety net for poor mothers, you'll increase the abortion rate and infant mortality rate," Dr. Stassen said. "We've seen that happen since welfare reform, just as the Catholic bishops predicted."

Dr. Stassen, who describes himself as "pro-life," added that many evangelicals, including his students, want to change the current moral values rhetoric because they think it drives people from, rather than to, the church. "They're both offended and worried that it will persuade people concerned about justice that they should not be Christians," he said. Stassen's last point reminds me of a question raised by the oft-discussed so-called "God Gap"--the finding that those who attend church most often tend to vote Republican and those who never attend church tend to vote Democratic: What if it's not that liberals left churches, but that churches left them? In other words, it's perfectly possible that over the past thirty years, liberals have not suddenly become less religious, but they have found it more difficult to stay in churches that have become more tied to conservative political agendas. We don't really know enough right now to say with any certainty which way the causal arrow points. But neither do those who point to church attendance findings as proof positive of the growth of "godless secular liberalism."

Casting Ballots

Just for a moment, set aside your beliefs about whether or not the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, whether our policy there for the past two years has made any sense, and whether there is any hope of peace and stability in the near future-and take a look at photos of Iraqis voting yesterday (the link to photographs is in the box on the side). They are all striking images, but one in particular moved me. It shows an elderly woman being pulled to the polling station in what looks like a wheelbarrow, and it immediately brought to my mind the story of the men who carried their disabled friend to see Jesus and ended up lowering him through the roof of a house so that he could reach his goal. The determination on these faces, and the knowledge that they braved violence that killed dozens on Election Day in order to get to the polls, is inspiring and humbling.

This Week in God

Stephen Colbert of "The Daily Show" was already one of my favorite people; now I adore him even more. Over the weekend, I caught part of his "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross and learned that despite what you might think, given his signature irreverent segment, "This Week in God," he's a committed Catholic. "I was actually my daughter's catechist last year for First Communion," he told Gross, "which was a great opportunity speak very simply and plainly about my faith without anybody saying, 'Yeah, but do you believe that stuff?', which happens a lot in what I do." As someone who's been referred to around the office as "Jesus Girl" or "Bible Girl" just because I know who Michael W. Smith is, I feel your pain, Stephen.

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