Friday, February 5, 2016

New Book, Branded, on Indiegogo

Here is the link to my Indiegogo campaign to fund Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became "Enemies" During World War II.



Please help fund the campaign. I am close: 89% funded towards my goal of $3000. Every little bit helps. Pass it on.

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/branded-italian-americans-as-wwii-enemies/embedded/1649824



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Refuting/Refusing the Assholes


My mental field has been preoccupied this week by the preponderance of assholes in the world’s public life. Since yesterday was the anniversary of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt five years ago, the situation there was uppermost in my mind. Several reports told the grim news: where five years ago the Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding—and getting—the ouster of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak and a democratic government in Egypt, since then the Arab Spring revolutions that seemed to hold such promise have mostly collapsed. In Egypt, elections were held and Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, yes; but within a year the army, under its head Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, grew impatient, ousted Morsi and flung him in jail along with as many as 40,000 of his compatriots. General Al-Sisi had himself elected president, and with the Egyptian Army fully in control, there was not a single demonstrator in Tahrir Square to mark the 5th anniversary of the successful ‘revolution’; instead, Cairo and the rest of Egypt were under guard by a massive military and police force to prevent even a sneeze about democracy. So much for the peaceful revolution.
            The same is true in most of the other countries in the Middle East that thought to emulate the Arab Springs of Egypt and Tunisia. Libya made its attempt, and did, with the help of massive bombing by the United States and its European allies, manage to topple Muammar Gaddafi. But in its place has come chaos and more than chaos: replacing the dictator are jihadist groups that have set the once-prosperous nation into a ruinous civil war where no one is safe and ISIS-related groups seem to be in the ascendancy. The same seems to be happening in Tunisia. In Syria, a supposed Arab Spring to oust Pres. Bashar al Assad has been strongly resisted by a ruthless program of government bombing that has, as most people know, turned loose the main ISIS force along with countless Saudi-supported jihadi groups fighting so viciously for supremacy that Syria has become the most dangerous place in the world. Its population is fleeing by the millions. Its cities, many of them heritage sites, have been turned into rubble. The same has happened in Iraq, where the U.S. in 2003 invaded to oust Saddam Hussein and replace him with “democracy.” The trouble is, the so-called  leaders who’ve replaced Saddam have turned out to be both corrupt and ineffectual, thus allowing ISIS to take over huge chunks of what was once a country, and, again following the pattern, turning many cities into rubble. As Tom Englehardt noted in an article yesterday, the sum total of U.S. efforts in the Middle East supporting, for example, the retaking of Ramadi with massive air power, seems to have been the “rubble-ization” of major cities, with more to come.
            The same pattern seems to be at work in other parts of the world. Everywhere, either gangs or dictators or corrupt leaders resort more and more to brutal force against helpless civilians to effect their will. The gangs, according to researcher Ioan Grillo (El Narco & Gangster Warlords), are often a mix of gang members deported from the United States, local guerrilla fighters, ex-military thugs and local politicos. Their violence parallels the conspicuous violence of terrorists elsewhere, confirming the notion that both types of organization use violence for the same reason: to intimidate those who would oppose them and their main revenue sources, mainly drug-running, prostitution, robbery, human trafficking, and assassination. Though such groups at times confront law-enforcement in pitched battles, usually they impose their violence on unarmed civilians. The same is often true of government forces, like the Saudis who have in recent years bombed cities and forces in Yemen with callous disregard for what is called ‘collateral damage.’ Their policy, as noted by Engelhardt above, also seems to be one of “rubble-ization.”
            And of course, here at home in our presidential primaries, the violence—so far mainly rhetorical, but can one count on that?—has become almost routine. Just two days ago, Donald Trump, still the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, bragged that he was so popular he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, and still not lose a single one of his rabid supporters. Prior to that, in response to attempts by peaceful protestors (one a woman in hijab) to silently stand and protest Trump’s remarks about Muslims, the candidate sneered and ridiculed and ordered his guards to toss them out, while groups of his snarling supporters reinforced the rough treatment with spitting and shouting and kicking the hapless protestors as they were hustled out with threats of even more savage treatment if they dared to return. All Trump’s loyalists lacked were the truncheons the Nazis used to employ to maintain “order” at Hitler rallies. Nor should the “peaceful” invasion of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge be left out of this summary. There, Ammon Bundy and his “defenders” of their Constitutional rights to seize land from the federal government, all showed up armed to the teeth. It was and is clear that this tactic of appearing armed and ready to use their weapons has deeply shaped the government response—which, so far, has been to allow the invasion and illegal takeover of government land and property to stand unopposed. The clear lesson: if you are an asshole, especially a white asshole, and want the U.S. government to respect you, arm yourself to indicate your readiness to use lethal force. 
            In summary, we are faced, at this early date in the year 2016, with a plethora of assholes at every level of our public life. What’s a reasonable, not to say peaceful person to do? This is not an easy matter. Most people would prefer to believe in the triumph of reason over ignorance, of peaceful diplomacy over violence and bloodshed. And in some rare cases, thankfully—as in the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program—this holds true. But increasingly in our world, the resort to violence seems well on its way to becoming the undisputed default position. Violence commands respect. The nations with nuclear weapons are treated with deference and wariness. So are the white demonstrators who arm themselves before occupying a government building. But as the death and destruction and bloodshed in Syria are proving, violence has a short half-life. Weapons are now available that can turn virtually any city or village into rubble in seconds; it’s quite easy. What’s not easy is managing to preserve some modicum of human—and not just human, planetary—existence. This is what Trump, with his vow to “Bomb the shit out of them (meaning ISIS)” and Cruz with his vow that he will order “carpet bombing” in Syria, seem not to comprehend. And with the availability of thermonuclear weapons that can turn half the globe into rubble, this is something that would seem to be a minimum requirement for a leader—any leader; every leader—at the national level. And yet, these two assholes are leading the pack.
            What to do? How to be? Should one just conclude that humans are basically assholes, basically ignorant, and therefore doomed—either in the short or the long run? It is tempting, I have to admit, especially at my age. But on balance, I think not. What must be attempted, despite the odds against those with no weapons, is some form of refutation, of refusal. The assholes on every side must be repeatedly refuted—refuted at every level. The Trumps and the Cruzes must be reasoned out of the political arena, argued out of the political arena, laughed out of the political arena. They must be resisted with every method, every tactic, every strategy of disobedience available. This, in fact, gives us one of the best remaining reasons for being: to refute, to resist violence, ignorance, the herd mentality, the usurpation by the vicious of that which only the good produce. In whatever way any individual can, such resistance is not only a right, but a duty. For it is as true today as it was when it was first uttered:       
            The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
            (Often attributed to Edmund Burke, this possibly derived originally from a statement by Plato—see https:en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke. I also like this variant by Paul Rosenberg: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to obey.”)


Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Saving American Capitalism

NB:  This one's by my colleague, George Giacoppe.

We’re number one; We’re number one!
Except when we are not anywhere near
In days as gone as the setting sun
This empire has passed from first to tears
Except for Bernie’s Billionaires
Who write and relish the rules
Of Citizens United and Wall St. shares
And we let them, we fools
            

The recent book Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich is mandatory reading for anybody who cares about the details of our current economic disease.  Intuitively, perhaps, we have all figured out that the American capitalistic system is skewed for the average person to be screwed.  As Reich explains, the total system is broader than we think.  It includes the tax subsystem, of course, but that could not explain our wide disparity in wealth by itself.  It includes a political subsystem, but that does not explain the legal basis for the axis of money and power.  It includes the judicial subsystem including Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, but that does not explain how Goldman Sachs is a “person” that can never go to jail.  It includes election of judges who then make judgments favoring major contributors to their elections, but that does not explain large inequities in state systems that enhance gerrymandering that, in turn, promotes long-term disenfranchisement of selected voters.  Truly, the devil is in the details and Robert Reich has researched the details with enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism and finesse bordering on precision.  As a spoiler, I agree completely on his analysis, but feel that his conclusion is wildly optimistic.  In reading the history of the 20s, I cannot envision any voluntary shrinkage by the haves to either assist or even to mollify the have-nots.  In the 20s, the very wealthy corporations and individuals hired private security and convinced many local and state governments to force their will on workers, their unions and even the families of the working class.  Yes, I know compromise would be logical and self-preserving in some ways, but I believe that those with great wealth and property will, once again, aggressively protect their property and privilege until they cannot withstand the forces around them and then they will flee our nation when that strategy fails.  We have built an aristocracy and it may take a 21st century (virtual) guillotine to convince the privileged that compromise works best and aristocracy is unaffordable in the long run.

Mr. Reich posits that outcomes depend more upon decisions than on the policies of our capitalistic variant.  He shows that critical politico-economic decisions are made in the areas of:  Property, Monopoly, Contract, Bankruptcy, and Enforcement.  If you go back to the bad old days of the 18th and 19th centuries, we had a largely agrarian economy and most property was real land or the structures built on that land.  We still use the term “real property” today, but the percentage of property considered to be “intellectual property” is far greater than ever before.  Worse, the rules governing intellectual property have progressively favored longer and longer granting of exclusive rights to that property.  Had the wheel been just recently invented and patented, nobody could use wheels without a license for the next 81 years.  Witness the 2015 legal kerfuffle over rights to the “Happy Birthday” song and lyrics.  Yes, you can now sing it without a paying a royalty, but somebody had to bring it to court for that to happen.  In some areas of commerce, intellectual property rights lend themselves to a monopoly such as in areas of social media, but even the lowly razor long used in shaving, grants the Gillette company a virtual monopoly for a fairly simple tool as the purveyors of a monthly razor subscription service just learned by lawsuit. Start-ups are at a distinct disadvantage and politicians that continuously add to the exclusive rights periods of property, seem to get a share of the largess through campaign contributions by firms wanting to protect their property.

In the area of contracts, time was when most contracts were between equals or comparables, and breaches were handled by lawsuits. Now that is so constrained as to be rare.  You typically sign an agreement to proceed to mandatory arbitration paid for by a large company that has deep pockets and pays for that arbitrator with the result that over 70% of decisions favor that purchaser of the arbitration service.  By contrast, in court only 40% favored the corporation.  Arbitration works well for your telephone or cable-company, but how well does it work for you as a consumer?  Likewise, an agreement not to compete between drug companies combined with the time extension of exclusive rights means that you, as a meds purchaser will pay a higher price because competition has been legally forbidden and the time to go generic has been pushed off into a distant future.  Both the original and generic makers are blessed with high profits while you are cursed with their legal but morally questionable contract.  You lose.

Bankruptcy was an early capitalistic concept that permitted individuals to get away from the threat of debtors’ prison, but there are serious questions as to how decisions are made to implement that concept.  Student debt cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy, yet Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy at least four times.  Those bankruptcies resulted in the impoverishment of people who were not paid for their labor or their “earned” pensions (as also with United Airlines) and many suppliers of goods and services were left with pennies on the dollar while Trump himself was made whole for most of his investments.  Fair?  Mr. Trump surely thinks so.  Similarly, Bain Capital of Mitt Romney fame appropriated pension funds and other assets of companies they took over and declared bankruptcy for several firms in its approach to legally use the bankruptcy rules for personal advantage and the severe disadvantage of workers who depended on their earned pensions and the jobs that were often shipped overseas as part of “restructuring.”  Labor unions and workers were once considered legitimate stakeholders in corporate economic actions.  Today unions represent only about 9% of non-government workers and there, the Supreme Court will soon rule on whether members of a teachers union must pay dues, thus ripping income from an already wounded “stakeholder.”  In the 30s, 40s and 50s when union strength peaked, the income gap and wealth gap of Americans was at its lowest.  It was not coincidence and the creation of “right to work states” stripped power from unions during that following period of weakening unions while the income and wealth gaps again increased.  Workers became so expendable that they lost thousands of jobs to Investment Capital and Venture Capital firms that were able to export jobs to nations with low wages and also were able to legally confiscate earned pensions from purchased corporations.  Workers lost rights and money.  Overwhelmingly, a handful of “Mitt Romneys” of our nation prospered.

The final category developed and explained by Reich is Enforcement.  As you may imagine, enforcement has some interesting issues related to the political side of our capitalism.  An example provided by the author is that the official policy for income taxes assures us that tax liabilities are measured and used to apply the rules.  However, the current GOP Congress decided that it did not want to support finding big tax dodgers and therefore enforcement was cut back.  This decision was made despite the statistic that for every dollar spent in tax enforcement (audits, etc.) twenty-five dollars in tax income is earned by the federal government.  Perhaps this was a quiet rebuke to President Obama, but it had the effect of reducing government income, regardless of motivation.  Even the concept of “small government” itself is misleading since many conservatives want to reduce enforcement of regulations in areas like environmental protection (witness the BP oil spill and the toxic lead in Flint, MI drinking water).  On the other hand, they want to beef up and privatize military spending or have government add staff to monitor birth control, abortions and Congressional investigations.  These are decisions based on cherished ideologies rather than cold logic.  Large corporations with legions of lawyers are time-consuming tax targets that require larger government staffs to effectively audit.  Cuts disproportionately benefitted wealthy individuals and corporations that might otherwise be audited.  Of course, those same corporations (people?) invest heavily in political campaigns to promote those very politicians that seem to favor the corporations, but that is only coincidental happenstance, right?

How can all this be?  Hedge fund traders (many making a $1 B or more per year) are taxed using “carried interest” (also called performance fee) rules that tax their gains as ordinary income (also true for companies like Bain and their managers).  You and I cannot. 

This entire issue of legality should cause us to review how things become “legal” in our nation.  How can we permit the very wealthy like the Koch brothers to spend $889M for the current presidential election without concluding that their purpose is to buy elections?  The short answer is that the capitalistic economic system does not work in a vacuum of a free market as the mythology suggests.  There is no “free” market except for what the political forces allow.  The longer answer must include that the Supremes decided that “one person = one vote” was undemocratic and that “$1 = one vote” was “freedom of speech.”  Maybe the Supremes only talk money. Traders also invest in politicians that write favorable tax rules.  Another coincidence!  You probably thought that we had a consumer economy.  In good times, we do.  In the current time, we have an investment economy and if you have enough dollars to invest in the right politicians, the tax rules are a payoff while the other is that if you are too big to fail or pay taxes, your losses will be covered by the taxpayers themselves (another payoff for investment in politicians).  We privatize winnings and socialize losses.  Conservative Socialism.  Be too big to fail.  Stiff the taxpayers and get bigger.  Hmm.  Lobbying has become a growth industry but we taxpayers simply do not have the monetary resources to hire lobbyists to compete with the big players.  “Legality” is the result of judicial interpretation of laws made by our legislators and influenced by lobbyists who are paid to represent specific interests and enforced by people with ideological agendas.

As another example of how the rules permit a legal fleecing of the taxpayer, you may be surprised that CEOs need to report their incomes for stock accounting purposes.  CEO salaries and bonuses and other compensation are indeed reportable and tax deductible.  In most nations that has not changed the basic CEO compensation ratio with the average worker (e.g., 50: 1 in Germany).  In America, that ratio has become about 400 to one.  That fact has actually changed what US companies do for a living.  Instead of a focus on manufacturing or providing services and sharing its largess with all stakeholders, what happens, increasingly, is that the value of a company is measured by its stock price.  CEOs are paid mostly on shareholder value.  They take most of their income in stock (often at special pricing) and then proceed to increase the value of their company’s stock at the expense of quality products made here at home.  As a personal example, when GM bought Hughes Aircraft in 1985, the company was a highly skilled high tech and engineering company in LA with about 78,000 employees and capable of competing for the highest technology contracts in government and civilian efforts.  A few years later, the company was down to about 27,000 employees and incapable of significant contracts in technology.  The target stock price of, say, $55/share was reached and the remaining pieces of the company were sold.  GM did not have to make anything.  It simply played the stock market and rewarded the management team for great (non) work.  The concept was absolutely legal, despite several lawsuits for questionable firing practices.  GM won the day.  Engineers lost.  America lost.  Allowing that to be legal meant that the rules had to be in place beforehand.  It is noteworthy that GM was bailed out by our government in 2007-2008.  Unfortunately, that was repeated all over America and workers won the race to the bottom while CEOs won the race to the top. Their compensation is deductable by the company, e.g., Hughes/GM or Wigits Inc. and therefore the company pays less in taxes and the cycle begins anew with influencing the political element to favor the wealthy corporations and individuals.  It never stops.  True, some companies like GM blamed their problems on unions, but, as an example, GM ran Saturn for more than 20 years in a union free environment and was unable to earn a dollar.  Top-heavy management without a quality product focus outweighs any union expense.

Robert Reich seems to feel that the “haves” will see the hazards of continuing this unstable US model of capitalism and will willingly, if grudgingly, provide legislative and corporate relief through new decisions and by more modest personal enrichment.  As I see the history of the 20s, the decisions will be made in the streets, not in the boardrooms, nor in a lobbyist crowded Congress.  Prove me wrong.  Please.

Peace,
22 Jan 2016
George Giacoppe

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Whitey's Last Stand


The invasion of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, led by two sons of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, seems to be fulfilling some of the rhetoric advanced by conservatives in recent years about government being the enemy. While it is not clear if Ronald Reagan really believed in a nation without government (surely many of his corporate friends and allies got rich off the government welfare known as military contracts), he certainly made it sound as if he did. It is not clear, either, if he was really urging Americans to rebel against government intrusion into their lives, nor if the general Republican support for the NRA means to encourage flag-waving militia types to take up arms in that fight, but that is what the rhetoric has now led to. The handful of “patriots” waving flags and insisting that they are upholding the Constitution are, in fact, heavily armed. And the fact that they are indeed armed is no doubt the major factor prompting government agencies to use extraordinary caution in confronting them. Just imagine, for a second, that the group that took over the Wildlife Refuge had been peaceful, nonviolent protestors urging more protection for wildlife. The media would have been full of diatribes against left-wingers violating the law, endangering the public peace, and full of dire warnings that the government should deal with such ruffians severely or risk open rebellion. We saw what happened, in fact, to most of the Occupy Movement’s nonviolent participants: many were beaten, most were arrested and harassed and their possessions seized. The government was clear that such interference in the daily life of commerce (on Wall Street first, then elsewhere) could not be tolerated. But in Oregon, in a clear insurrection that has illegally taken over federal government buildings with the threat of force, the feds have declined to act, saying they prefer not to interfere in a local matter. And the local sheriff has urged—verbally only; there has not been even a hint of a police force coming to mount an attack to remove them, or even observe them—has pleaded with the protestors to remove themselves and just go home peacefully. It is as if law enforcement is simply too frightened or wary or reluctant to engage with white guys with guns. Someone nice (white), after all, might get hurt.
            And that is what I think we have to take from this episode, however it turns out. The forces of the law seem perfectly willing and capable of understanding why white ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands might be frustrated. Why they might have some ‘beef’ with the federal government. Why they might keep insisting that the federal government has no right to the millions of acres of land they have set aside for national parks or national forests or any other national purpose—the main objective of which, since Teddy Roosevelt, has been to preserve the rich natural heritage of the United States for the use of ALL of its citizens. That is, rather than allow every available inch of mountain and valley and river to be occupied and exploited and ruined by commercial interests bent on extracting every bit of mineral or timber or grassland wealth from it as soon as possible, the federal government chose to set aside some of the most pristine and spectacular landscapes so that all its citizens—not just the rich or powerful or exploitative—could use and enjoy them. So that some species, threatened by the very industrial uses of the corporate powers at issue, might survive a bit longer. All of which infuriates those (mostly white) ranchers and miners and timber moguls who now have to be careful about how they use those lands, mainly through leases, and must be subject to the rules and regulations of the federal government intent on preserving them. Ah no, they say. The feds have no right to these lands in the first place. We who came to the West (most of these militants are from western states like Idaho and Montana and even Oregon, which were viewed by white settlers as the last places they could enjoy free from the encroachment of the darker races overrunning the cities) and were given huge land grants, mostly for a pittance, have an inalienable right to even those lands we weren’t given outright. An inalienable right to spread out and extract from those free lands all the wealth we have earned by the sweat of our white brows (i.e. by getting the lands free, and now by being able to use all of nature’s bounty that god has given free, white America without any cost whatsoever). The invaders in Oregon (they call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom) have posted a sign summing up their position: “BLM [Bureau  of Land Management]: Another Intrusive Tyrannical Government Entity Doing What They Do Best—Abusing Power & Oppressing the Backbone of America.”
            And so we have frauds like Cliven Bundy, who signed up with the federal government to lease, for a yearly fee, the lands he can use to graze (i.e. fatten) his cattle on, and then decided that paying the back lease fees he owes to the Federal Government —amounting to more than a million dollars—was an intolerable intrusion on his rights. In other words, though paying lease fees is an accepted part of the cost of doing business, Bundy simply decided he didn’t want to pay those costs at all, and so reneged on his agreement, and then took up arms to protect his ‘free’ lands from government agents who came to collect. This is basically equivalent to a company deciding to not pay its rent to the property owner. Or a regular citizen refusing to pay taxes to a local government.  But these militia types frame it as one of the freedoms they have (and the government doesn’t have) under the Constitution. It is no such thing. It’s fraud, pure and simple, and they should all be arrested and locked up for fraudulent, criminal behavior.
            But as of this writing, the government has still refused to eject these white guys from their illegal occupation of government property—an occupation that is, according to a local judge, costing the government (i.e. you and me) some $75,000 a day. Nice work, if you can get it. If you’re white, that is. And armed. And taking a last stand on your whiteness before the dark hordes take over majority status—as all population projections say they will in a few years. This is really the issue here. White Americans, and especially white southern and western Americans, see the writing on the wall, see that they will soon become a minority in what they consider ‘their own country,’ and are foaming at the mouth contemplating that awful eventuality, that overturning of the “natural order of things.” And this is also why they are flocking to support racist demagogues like Donald Trump—that pasty-faced sandy-haired epitome of whiteness who best expresses the barely-suppressed violence they wish to inflict on the ‘politically-correct’ world that seems ready to deprive them of the white privilege they’ve come to expect as their due.
            And so we have Ammon Bundy, trying his best to act peaceful and reasonable even as he violates the law. And so we have Donald Trump, trying his best to frame himself as the rough-and-ready (but peaceful!) standard-bearer of embittered white men like Ammon Bundy. And so we have a timorous government trying its best to avoid a confrontation with an entire population that it no doubt sees as ready to explode, choosing instead to direct its wrath at its darker charges who might be harboring a similar wrath, but who are still less numerous, less armed, less organized, and because they have been beaten down for so long, feeling less entitled and thereby less dangerous.
            It is a nauseating spectacle that only confirms what progressives have been saying for years: the deck is stacked, the game is fixed, but the cracks are beginning to show and will soon prove too obvious and catastrophic for even the card sharps to disguise. And when that happens, this ‘standoff’ may well prove to have been the start of Whitey’s last stand.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Old Year Passing


It’s New Year’s Eve and once again the annual madness is about to begin. Strange how we do this. What we’ve actually got is a celebration of something that happens regularly, due to the orbiting of our planet around our life-giving star, the Sun. What we call a “year” is the time it takes for that circumambulation to happen. Trouble is, at least as far as I know, there is no marker by which we measure when, exactly, the circuit is completed. We accept the doctrine that it happens at midnight on December 31, though since the advent of television, we’ve become aware that the magic moment happens successively in different time zones. So we witness visually that there’s no one New Year moment around the globe. That in itself ought to make us pause, and wonder why whoever started this tradition picked the middle of winter for the alleged “beginning” of the New Year. Why not the start of Spring? (Actually, it turns out that the earliest recorded celebrations for New Year go back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where the first new moon following the vernal equinox—it’s a day in late March where sunlight and darkness are more or less equal—marked the New Year and the celebrations for it. The Romans used to celebrate the New Year on the vernal equinox as well, until a king, Numa Pompilius, added January and February to the calendar, and then, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar instituted his Julian calendar and made January 1 the date of the New Year. So what we have now is essentially a Caesarian (pun intended) holiday. see http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years). That should confirm the point: what we celebrate is essentially a construct, which itself tends to make more sense of our trying to construct and hype up the evening with joy and hopes for some positive (for us) changes. But why we think the new year, starting on this wholly artificial date, should be any better than the old, is again something to give us pause.
            All that aside, though, and putting aside for a moment the fact that I can't really remember a New Year’s Eve that amounted to much (save for a few years in the 1970s-80s when my neighbor in Berkeley, Peter Engelhart, used to have a New Year’s Eve party that stands as the best I’ve ever been part of. Peter’s house was roomy and filled with musicians and friends young and old making music and conversation and feasting on Peter’s wife Locha’s great pot of Posole with chicken, a Mexican tradition. Then just before midnight, Locha would hand out bunches of twelve grapes, which each person was supposed to eat and wish on as the clock struck the magic hour. Sadly, that party and its house are long gone, but it still stands out for me as one true New Year’s Eve celebration), a typical one would be the year my best high school friend and I decided to try to join the festivities in Times Square. We took the train from Bridgeport CT into the City and hiked towards the zero point, but as it was already late, we couldn’t even get within shouting distance: all the roads were blocked and/or jammed with partiers who’d been there since 8 AM or earlier; so we gave up and spent New Year’s Eve in some nondescript bar on 48th Street, watching Times Square on TV as usual—making that New Year’s eve one of the most disappointing ever.
            But I digress. What I really meant to write about was my morning walk. The day in Bolinas dawned sunny and crisp—cold, really, for California at 40 degrees or so—but after yesterday’s rain, clear as glass. The ocean’s horizon edge was razor sharp, with only a couple of container ships breaking the line. Then, as I approached the top of a hill near the end of my walk, I got a huge western view of the Pacific in all its glory, fronted by the newly-washed road heading down to the tide pools, with pine trees and woods and plants in the foreground, and at the blue horizon line this time a puffy layer of dainty clouds looking like a lace ruffle. But the clouds weren’t just white, they were tinged with pink from the sun in the east. As I took all this in, and remembered it was New Year’s Eve when I wouldn’t be doing anything at all but staying home to watch the stupid ball drop to hysterical shouting, I suddenly had this feeling of all-rightness. This would definitely do, I thought. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to try to hype up a good time or shout or drink or enthuse over anything. I am here, and this place, this coast, this moment of achingly pure air and blue sky/ocean and unfettered landscape are quite good enough. More than good enough. Because I know that though there are countless young people (and a good many older ones) who still feel the need to travel and see what’s left of the world before it’s too late, I no longer do. It’s not that I’ve seen everything—which of course, no one ever does. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have been born at a time when the earth could still afford us the kind of view I’m now witnessing. And even before that, when I was growing up in urban Connecticut, the earth still afforded us room: room to roam, room to explore nearby woods, or the golf course a few blocks away, or vacant lots—there were still vacant lots—that could quickly be converted to a baseball diamond or a field for mock battles with leftover construction materials. In winter we could skate on a pond at the golf course for free; or after a snowstorm, build caves in the snowdrifts formed against sand traps. I and all who grew up with me could look forward to a world that held promise—mainly the promise that it would still be here by the time we grew up, would still be hospitable to humans in the way it always (at least as far as we knew) had been.
            No doubt some of that world still remains for some people in some countries. No doubt there is still time to explore and travel and hope and dream of better days. But increasingly, at least in these United States and in the West in general, the gardens that once seemed so promising have begun to close. The assurance that allowed my parents and even me as a parent to allow children to play on their own in the streets and alleys and woods and vacant lots, has now, as far as I can tell, vanished. Fear stalks the streets, even though it is surely exaggerated. Activities must be planned down to the letter. And that, to me, is a terrible loss—for the great thing about roaming is that you never know quite what will turn up. One day it might be a plan to have a circus. The next it might be enough kids gathered to have a football or stickball game. The next it might be simply a game of ring-a-levio. Or climbing a tree. Or running by mistake into a hornet’s nest. Or smoking in the woods behind the school. We never knew. And therein lay the glory.
            So that’s my hope for this New Year’s Eve. I hope that more kids, more people in general, can somehow conjure up more random roaming for themselves. I hope that more people can find, completely unexpectedly, something like the joyful vision I had this morning. It doesn’t require a view of the Pacific Ocean; it doesn’t require vacant lots even; but it does require some opening of the mind and heart to what is right in front of us. That is, more than anything, what is missing from our lives these days. And the great thing, the miraculous thing, is that we never know when the world will open and give us its magic, its mystery. We never know.
            So even knowing it’s a construct, may your New Year be a happy and roaming one.
Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Reality Check


This Christmas season I’m essentially at a loss as to what to write. And it may be that the underlying cause for my blank slate is the blank state of the world, of our country, of Christmas itself. To begin with, Christmas, the birth celebration of the man-god called Christ on December 25, is essentially a concoction. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t really born in December (Clement of Alexandria in about 200 C.E. actually chose May 20 or April 20-21 as Jesus’ actual birth date, while the New Testament stories don’t give an actual date). According to Andrew McGowan, dean of the Divinity School at Yale, two different theories still exist about December 25, a date not actually mentioned until centuries after Jesus lived. The first theory claims that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the midwinter Saturnalia festival of the Romans. The Romans celebrated an actual birth festival on December 25, that of the Sun God, Sol Invictus, and the theory is that early Christians thought to hitch a ride (and gather more Romans to their faith) on this celebration. The second theory, and the one McGowan seems to prefer, is that which links Jesus’ birth (date unknown) to his crucifixion date, which was more or less known—being linked to Passover. So, if Jesus was crucified on the Jewish 14th of Nisan (March 25 in the Roman calendar), then thirty-three years earlier, he should have been conceived on the same day (this linking of conception and death derived from Jewish belief), which, adding nine months to March 25, would make December 25 his birth date.  According to McGowan, Tertullian of Carthage mentions this very calculation in about 200 CE. The point is, that however you calculate it, December 25 is a wholly made-up date for Christmas, derived from quite other (including pagan) beliefs and considerations. (To read McGowan’s whole discussion, see http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/).

            Of course, Christmas in the modern world has little to do with the birth of Jesus in any case. It is a mostly commercial holiday, meant to enrich merchants who exploit what was once, presumably, a celebration of something holy. This reality might easily seem unsettling to some. I mean, if billions of Christians around the world celebrate the birth of their savior on a day that has nothing to do with reality, then what is the reality of their god in the first place? And equally important, what is the point of the horrific series of wars and crusades meant to establish this man-god as the one true god if we can’t even get his birthday right? And on the other side, what is the point of the horrors even now being committed in the name of other proselytizing religions—to wit, the beheadings and exterminations that have always been carried out in the name of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? In the name of ‘our God is the only God and anyone who disagrees deserves to die’? Where do these certainties unto death come from? What is the point of making up some version of reality, insisting that it is the only reality, and slaughtering hordes of unbelievers to defend it?
            I don’t know. People like to be right. People are desperate to confirm their ways and beliefs, their versions of reality. Our current political scene dramatizes this in the most nauseating way. Ted Cruz is a fundamentalist Christian and he has recently said he would, if elected president, “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion.” Later, at a Tea Party rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he is reported to have added: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Though the NY Times claimed it didn’t know what his words meant, Robert Parry of Consortiumnews.com had no doubt that it was a clear reference to Cruz’s readiness to use nuclear weapons. The fact that neither carpet bombing nor nuclear weapons have any way to limit their destruction to combatants, and that an immense number of innocent civilians would be killed via “collateral damage,” doesn’t seem to faze either Cruz or his fellow aspirant for the nuclear trigger, old “bomb-the-shit-out-of-them” Trump. In short, both Cruz and Trump (and essentially all of the other Republican aspirants) are quite certain, or project that they are, that they know not only what’s right, but what’s real (i.e. what they say it is). They have no doubts about what they would do with the unrivalled capacity of the United States military to inflict death on whatever desert infidels seek to challenge them. Doubt is for sissies. Doubt is for the “politically correct.” Uncertainty is for the “others,” including scientists and academics who worry about such ‘nonsense’ as global warming and the unprecedented die-off of species, about whether the United States should help developing nations get beyond carbon-based power. To them it’s all bleeding heart liberalism, which is to say, wasting time worrying about losers and unbelievers.
            The trouble is, this sort of certitude plays well with far too many voters. Most people want their leaders to project confidence. To project doubt, to express uncertainty about how to solve a problem or even acknowledge that a problem has several aspects and no simple solutions (as scientists and those well-versed in a subject almost always do), is a sure-fire way to be left at the starting post. To be an also-ran, a has-been. And yet, most of the science of the last century has been in the nature of casting doubt on previous certainties. There’s even a principle with that name, the Uncertainty Principle, and it is almost as if uncertainty has become the bedrock principle behind virtually everything we thought we once knew. Including reality. What is the nature of reality, anyway? Time was when you could say, “I know what I saw” or “I’m dead certain because I saw.” That would hold up in conversations with friends, or in a court of law where eyewitness proof was a kind of gold standard. But more and more we see studies showing that eyewitness testimony is commonly tainted with opinion. With uncertainty. Though we think ‘seeing is believing’, most people can be totally fooled by experiments showing that even eyewitnesses paying attention can miss a gorilla walking by in the background. It depends what you’re paying attention to. If you’re closely watching something in the foreground, you can completely miss something as startling as a gorilla in the background. So what is reality?
            Nor does it stop there. Even what we are certain we see, and see objectively, turns out to be shaped and controlled by our presuppositions, by the visual system we have as humans, by our evolutionarily-shaped need to see only those objects or events crucial to our well-being, our search for food, our need for security. Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher of neuroscience who makes this rather unsettling point of view quite clear. In a recent blog, he wrote this:

…being conscious means literally creating models—both of what is “out there,” and what is “in here.” We have brain-generated images of what the world “is” and what we “are”, and they work quite well in most cases; but they are not “real” in the sense we think they are—i.e. that “we” are in direct contact with what “is”. They are “virtual,” models that create a center for us, a center we experience as ourselves, as our first person perspective, and which we use to great advantage to do everything needed to survive.

In short, we as humans call “real” that which we as humans have evolved to see or feel, that which accords with the models (both of the outside world, and of ourselves) we create. It is not an objective view of ‘the world’ nor is it the same as what other beings will ‘see’ or ‘hear’ or, in the case of dogs, ‘smell.’ It is not even what scientists, using instruments, assure us is really real. For example, in a later phrase, Metzinger clarifies again that what we see as a pink sky is not really what exists:

There are no colors out there in front of your eyes. The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all…out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electro-magnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths….

It is our human brains and their visual and perceptive and interpretive systems that create an order—a model—out of the wild mix of nature. And that Metzinger is not just conveying his opinion about this is indicated by his citing of the brain injury called “apperceptive agnosia.”  As he points out, the “injury prevents the brain from forming a coherent visual model of the outside world, even though the patient’s visual apparatus is intact.” So though such patients can technically “see,” they cannot recognize what they are looking at. In Metzinger’s terms, their brain’s modeling capacity is disabled. And without that modeling capacity, they cannot see or recognize “the world” that we all take for granted.
            Evan Thompson in a recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being (Columbia U Press: 2015), delves even deeper into this uncertainty. Thompson is a philosophy professor who writes about the mind, employing information from both neuroscience and phenomenology (phenomenology here means personal accounts of consciousness events, often derived from ancient spiritual practices, but increasingly buttressed by the neuroscientific studies). His unique perspective comes from his willingness to take dreams and dream states seriously, particularly as Indo-Tibetan practitioners have long taken them. Starting with ancient vedic practices as evidenced in Vedanta philosophy, Thompson valorizes dreams as both informative in themselves, but also as occasions that lead practitioners of “dream yoga” to be able to have “lucid” dreams (where the dreamer awakes within the dream to realize he or she is dreaming), and thereby to draw conclusions on waking reality itself. Briefly, the appearances in a dream (where the dream events seem perfectly real and convincing to the dreamer) are seen as metaphors for the similarly mind-influenced appearances in real life. Indeed, so deeply are our perceptions of reality influenced by our minds that, in the extreme case, it is difficult to tell—from experience alone—whether waking life is not also a “dream,” as in Shakespeare’s phrase in the Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It is a commonplace these days (especially after the film, The Matrix) to say that we do not know, and cannot prove, whether what we experience is ‘real,’ or whether what we take as ‘reality’ is projected by an outside ‘computer program’ shaping virtually the experiences all us earthlings seem to have (see http://www.kurzweilai.net/reality-is-a-computer-projection-physicists).  Thompson puts it like this:

 In an ordinary dream, we identify with our dream ego [the “I” that has the dream] and take what we experience to be real…Whatever we see or feel seems to exist apart from us with its own being or intrinsic nature. This confused state of mind serves as a model for our waking ignorance of the nature of reality. We think our waking ego exists with its own separate and essential nature, but this belief is delusional, for our waking ego is no less an imaginative construction than our dream ego, formed by imaginatively projecting ourselves into the past in memory and into the future in anticipation (Thompson, 173; emphasis mine).

So if, as Thompson suggests, both the dream world and the waking world are constructed of appearances, then both worlds are made of “mind stuff”—which means they cannot be separated from the mind that makes them. And that mind, in its usual, un-awakened state, is essentially dreaming. This is why, for both Thompson and for those engaging in Indo-Tibetan “dream yoga”, having lucid dreams is heuristic. It is a kind of “waking up” in the midst of a dream. The lucid dreamer “wakes up” and realizes that he or she is dreaming, and therefore that the dream is a construction of the mind that has no substantial reality. The lucid dreamer, in fact, in some instances can help shape the dream itself, and take it in a more positive or less threatening direction. In the same way, Thompson points out, traditions like Buddhism that counsel “awakening” offer a more heuristic way to view fears and apparent dangers in real life. It is not that awakening gets rid of reality; rather “It aims…to effect a fundamental shift in our understanding of what it means for something to be real” (173). What this leads to, in turn, is waking up to the deep involvement that our minds—our thoughts, our projections, our emotions—have on what we take to be ‘real.’ We realize the extent to which what we take to be the “real world” depends on our own minds. Again, as Thompson puts it, “waking up to our participation in the creation of our world—resembles becoming lucid in a dream.” We begin to see, not that the world “out there” doesn’t exist, nor that it is separate from us and our mental experience of it, but that the physical world and the mental world are entwined and mutually dependent.
            What then, does this mean about ‘reality?’ Hard to say. But in some sense, it means that reality is an entity not objectively “out there,” but rather something more subjective, something we have a rather bigger hand in producing than we might have thought. It’s a little like Christmas as God’s birthday: it’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist, nor that it hasn’t existed for a thousand or more years. It’s that humans, Christians (and for reasons not always clear, but certainly reasons less than ‘objective’ or even ‘spiritual’), have had a rather larger hand in its construction than at first meets the eye. And that most “truths” or “certitudes” would partake of this same behind-the-scenes machinery if we were to look hard enough—if we were, in short, to wake up. Or, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, see behind the wizard’s (who might just turn out to be ‘us’) curtain.
           
Lawrence DiStasi