Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Blog

This morning I woke with a question that occurs to me with some regularity: What’s the point? What is the point of existence, not just my own, but anyone’s? We appear, we struggle mightily to perform our little dances, we die. Some of our leaps and pirouettes are remembered for a time, some not. All are forgotten sooner or later. All is vanity.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my mood shifted. First, there was the admission that yes, all of us, every single one of us no matter how valuable our contribution to humanity or progress or world peace, are replaceable. Eminently and utterly dispensable, there being no shortage of people with similar talents and energies to substitute for us should we have never appeared in the first place. And even if some once-in-a-blue-moon intellect like Einstein or Mozart were to have never been, the world would still have gone on its merry way, none the worse for their absence, perhaps better off with the geniuses who no doubt would have arisen in their place.

Then came the other hand—arising on the memory of the many figures in my life, friends, family, acquaintances, teachers, students, children, lovers—the other hand which said that each one of those figures, every last one, is indispensable to my world. Without each one of those absolutely one-of-a-kind beings, my world would be deeply impoverished, a wholly different world. I think it is the same for all of us. The people and things that constitute our world are irreplaceable. And not solely or simply for what each one does or says or accomplishes, in either the qualitative or quantitative meaning of that word. Achievement is decidedly not the issue here. The issue is being. Each person in my world, in all our worlds, is indispensable for himself or herself, totally aside from doings. Indispensable for being absolutely what he is or she is. For being totally and absolutely themselves. You are you, even aside from or in spite of what you do. Your presence loudly proclaims you as you even before you do or say anything. So does mine. We spend lifetimes trying to work on these things, developing a presence or a way of being, developing a skill or talent with which to present ourselves to the world, hoping that the world will see only it and approve of us, adopt us, become like us, perhaps. And yet, it is all vain. Presence is not amenable to change, or at least rarely. No. One’s being is there, one’s being is unique, one’s very presence proclaims one above and beyond all that one does.

The problem is that most people do not respond to this overtly. Or rather, everyone actually does respond, but most are not aware of it. And so we dwell on what she said, or how she smiled, or the way he acted when he found out, trying desperately to put such things into words. But most of us are rarely able to put our finger on the feel of such things. And even more rarely are we able to convey to those people in our lives our appreciation for their being.

I am guessing that this is what that rare person, the Dalai Lama, is able to convey. Somehow, with the intensity of his attention to each person, he is able to convey his absolute and utter joy in that person’s being. And each person so attended to feels it. Perhaps the infant feels this from his attentive parent as well. But not for long. Soon the attention gets focused on what the child does, his performance, his behavior. And he spends the rest of his life, perhaps, longing for that undivided and unbridled attention to his being. Most of us rarely get it, and rarely give it either.

I remember one sesshin (several days of intensive zen meditation) I attended. After a few days, I had drifted into a mood where nothing—no person, procedure, or thing—pleased me. All I noticed (I think I was one of the sesshin leaders and so had to notice what people were doing) were defects: this one never replaced the sugar; that one left a mess at his cushion; the other kept jerking or shifting during meditation; the schedule was ridiculous. This had my mind and my thoughts tangled in knots of annoyance. Why can’t he do this? Why can’t she do that? What is the matter with these people? Eventually, my mind quieted some. And a period ended, and we began to do kinhin, walking meditation, an apparently pointless circling of the small room we were in, passing each other in a kind of snakelike round. Annoying, it still seemed annoying, everyone deep into their quirks, annoying.

Then, without warning, it shifted. Suddenly, each person became lit up as wholly himself or herself. Each droop of clothing, each jerky step, each frowning expression took on an aspect of deep rightness, the full and unchangeable signature of that person. This one’s annoying twitch of the head became only itself, the thing without which he would be wholly other. That one’s slouch and grimace of boredom became wholly her, perfectly suited to who she was. And I, I found myself loving each quirk, each frown, each being completely and utterly himself and different from every other not just here, but anywhere. I became aware that I would not, under any circumstances, have that person or her signature changed. For each one was, each person walking or jerking or slouching along that floor in that place was, for me, the necessary stuff of my world, the absolutely indispensable beings without which it would no longer be itself.

I now think that is the way it is always. We don’t know this. We usually don’t recognize this. But that is the way it is. And the only circumstance which reminds us of it—of how indispensable the being of any person is to the isness of our world—is death. When one of our central figures dies, then we suddenly realize: it’s gone. That person’s being, which that person alone presented as a phenomenon unlike any other, is gone. And I miss it terribly. I miss not what he (and here I am thinking of my older brother, who died almost two decades ago) accomplished or made himself known for; I miss him for himself. For what he alone was. And it is gone, utterly.

In another sense, we sometimes know this at the moment of birth. I was present at the birth of my daughter. And I still remember the astonishing moment when she appeared, as if ex nihilo, in that birthing room. And it was not her face or her size or anything of the kind, at least not alone; it was the entire presence of her, a presence which one could feel as if something huge had just entered the room, huge as the trains used to seem when they entered the station when I was a boy, obliterating all else on the platform with their steaming, overwhelming presence. The appearance of a new being is like that. And the disappearance of a being is like that. We suddenly understand how unique and indispensable is that thing we call being, how bereft our world when it is gone, how enriched when it enters.

This, then, is what I think we are for, the point of our lives. We exist for each other. We are the indispensable ingredient in each other’s lives. And when I say “we”, again, I mean not only what we do or achieve, but what we are. Our beings are necessary. Who we are is necessary, not only to ourselves, but to the others who make up our world. And it matters not how “good” or “bad” we are, how steady or flighty we are, how accomplished or ordinary we are; for in this most fundamental sense, what matters is what always matters: simply being.

Perhaps in this season, we could all, at least some of the time, in whatever way we can (and it doesn’t have to be in words), convey that to our necessary others.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin as Man of the Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been chosen Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Now aside from any quarrel with the idea that he has been the most influential man in the world for 2007 (what about Al Gore?), the selection and the report on Putin on the Lehrer News Hour leaves me seriously concerned for the Russian people. The main concern is this: once again, Russians seem to be placing their faith in a leader who not only rose to power from the secret police, but one who makes no secret of his aspiration to be leader for life. He has selected his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and seems a cinch to become Prime Minister under this hand-picked president. When asked to explain how the Russians feel about the possible recurrence of yet another supreme ruler, one of the pundits on the News Hour explained that most Russians seem to have been willing to give up a “little” freedom in exchange for stability.

All this seems, especially after having read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, a terrible case of ‘déjà vu all over again.’ Hope Against Hope is Mandelstam’s account of her years with the poet, Osip Mandelstam, as they struggled to survive the series of purges instituted by Josef Stalin after the Russian Revolution, purges which resulted in the deaths of millions. Though she survived to write her memoir, Osip Mandelstam did not: he was arrested for the second time in 1937 (presumably for a poem he wrote criticizing Stalin, but no one really knows), and perished shortly thereafter (no one really knows when). As Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, in the days of the Stalinist terror, with arrests occurring without notice or reason at any time, arrest meant not simply incarceration for a time, but a literal death sentence. Almost no one returned from the labor camps.

What is most chilling with regard to Putin are Mandelstam’s thoughts about why the Russian people put up with all this. Why did they tolerate a dictator who turned on his own people, his allies, his friends, anyone and everyone? Why did they act like such helpless sheep? Mandelstam attributes their behavior, in the first place, to fear of chaos. Here is what she writes:

"There had been a time when, terrified of chaos, we had all prayed for a strong system, for a powerful hand that would stem the angry human river overflowing its banks. This fear of chaos is perhaps the most permanent of our feelings—we have still not recovered from it, and it is passed on from one generation to another….I remember Herzen’s words about the intelligentsia which so much fears its own people that it prefers to go in chains itself, provided the people, too, remain fettered." (p. 96)

When we think of the economic and social collapse Russia suffered beginning in 1990, we see history repeating itself. Once again, with the memory of the chaos and deprivation of those years of meltdown still fresh, it appears the Russian people have opted for “a powerful hand,” the hand of ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin. For an idea of the type of massive indifference to human suffering this can lead to, consider the story Mandelstam tells of the woman she encountered in a Prosecutor’s Office. The woman was desperate to find out about her son, who had been arrested by mistake: he had the same name as the person supposed to be arrested from the same building, and was therefore hauled off to camp. Still, “though it meant moving mountains,” the woman had actually managed to convince an official of the mistake, and obtained an order for her son’s release. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the woman now heard that her son had been killed in an “accident.” She began to scream and sob, but not only was she yelled at by the Prosecutor, she was also set upon by her fellow supplicants in the office, all trying to get their own cases heard:

“‘What’s the use of crying?’ asked one long suffering woman who was trying to find out about her own son. ‘That won’t bring him back to life, and she’s only holding us up.’ The disturber of the peace was removed, and order was restored.” (p. 285)

Thus does terror involve everyone, make victims of everyone. As Mandelstam puts it, “Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to saves his life.” This is because the reign of terror, the logical consequence of absolute rule, takes its victims beyond fear to what Mandelstam describes as “a paralyzing sense of one’s own helplessness to which we were all prey, not only those who were killed, but the killers themselves as well.”

Now we have Vladimir Putin, the man whose “soul” our insightful President once claimed to have seen as benign, placing himself in position to become yet another leader for life, with all the consequences in power and terror that position implies.

There was a time when we in the United States could contemplate such developments from afar. No longer. Especially since 9/11, what Americans no less than Russians have to fear is the self-same willingness of many of us to put ourselves in the hands of a power-hungry leader, to exchange just a “little” loss of freedom for the promise of security. Given the underlying shakiness of the economy and the U.S. dollar, the fallout from global warming, and much else besides, one can only imagine what further losses we might all be willing to tolerate in exchange for stability. In that regard, we should heed what Nadezhda Mandelstam has written, especially about the need to rage against such losses, to resist.

“If nothing else is left,” she says, “one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Could They Do It?

Increasingly, we humans are faced with acts that seem unexplainable. How, we ask, could the Nazi Holocaust, the genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, and most recently, the torture committed by United States troops at Abu Ghraib, have happened? With this in mind, I recently read Iris Chang’s disturbing account of yet another genocidal killing spree, that of Japanese troops against the residents of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, all of it detailed in Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (Basic Books, 1997). And the question that Chang poses in at least two places in her book is the one haunting us all these days: How could they do it? How could otherwise rational human beings lose all sense of respect and restraint in order to torture, humiliate, dismember, and violate in every way fellow human beings, and on such a grand scale? Chang offers not one but several answers to explain the events in Nanking—where as many as 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in a matter of weeks. Among them are the absolute deadliness of absolute power; the specific training which the Japanese military imposed on its soldiers, training them with exercises meant to instill killing instincts; the suppressed rage of those soldiers, themselves treated like dirt by their officers; the “frightening ease” with which all of us can witness and accept genocide as long as the danger is perceived to be far away. All these, and others, especially the training which portrays the enemy as “sub-human,” no doubt operate. But I think there is one more, a usually unspoken one, which relates to some recent thoughts of mine on betrayal (see the blogs, Traitors I and II).

I am referring to a sense one can get when reading about truly unspeakable acts—the vindictive manner with which Japanese soldiers cut off the heads of all Chinese, including women they had just savagely raped; the torture and brutality imposed on little children, pregnant mothers, helpless old people, none of whom could have possibly represented a threat—that more than the numbing of civilized behavior or empathy is at work, that some unspoken animus is at play here. It is as if the soldier, the perpetrator, is blaming his victims, blaming them for being what they are. There is the distinct sense in this, in all sadism perhaps, that the perpetrator is blaming the victim for being something disgusting, something humiliating. The soldier/torturer, that is, first puts the victim in a situation of complete powerlessness, and then blames him or her for being powerless. For groveling. For not standing up to defend himself, but rather begging for his life, demonstrating his willingness to submit to any humiliation in order to be spared.

And what we hear is the interior monologue of the torturer: you disgust me. You are beneath contempt, and therefore do not deserve to live. But why? we want to ask. What is so disgusting? And I think the answer is that you, as a victim, my victim, remind me of what I am, of what I am trying desperately not to be: completely vulnerable, a being who is a hair’s breadth away, always, from dying, from groveling in shit and humiliation myself. This, I think, is the deep fear that is raised by the sight of a completely helpless victim. And, at the same time, what is also raised is an exhilaration that I can, at least for the moment, rise above that horribly rejected condition by treating you as dirt. By destroying you, sending you back to that nothingness from which you came. That is to say, we, our conscious selves, always yearn to be invulnerable, always strive to position ourselves above the mess and perilous brevity of our existence, to see ourselves as somehow not the barely cobbled-together, watery beings we know we are. And the yearning runs on fear.

In a real way, I think, this fear is connected to the fear of reversion I’ve referred to in my ‘Traitor’ series. We all know we are mud and dirt and slime, disgusting from the point of view of so-called “civilization” where we do everything to mute and disguise that origin. We also all know that our determination to pretend to be substantial, permanent, solid, to make our civilized works permanent and solid, stems from our evanescence, from the paltry nature of what we are and how pitifully brief and shaky is our appearance here. Iris Chang refers to this several times in her book, when she comments again and again on the “thin veneer of civilization” that can vanish so easily and quickly in a genocide. And that is true. And we all know it. And it terrifies us, the knowledge that any of us, all of us, can so easily revert to a state of anarchy, powerlessness, shapelessness. And again, it is precisely that terror which is turned on the victim, turned into rage against the victim who reminds us of our terror. Of the imminence of our reversion to mud and slime and liquefaction.

This, then, is what I think lies at the heart of all this horror and brutality, this exultation in rape and dismemberment and torture and murder in the cruel fashion of which only humans are capable. ‘Don’t remind me of what I am. I hate you for reminding me of what I am. And therefore I will reduce you to the most abject piece of shit and trash imaginable.’ The Nazis did this constantly, routinely to the Jews in concentration camps. And, as Iris Chang demonstrates with chapter and verse, the Japanese in Nanking did this just as routinely. It wasn’t just killing soldiers or civilians who might be dangerous. It was humiliating them even after death. Most were dumped into the Yangtze River, which ran blood for weeks. But the most vivid depiction of what I am referring to occurred in the revolting story of the Japanese dumping the bodies of dead Chinese into pits—the pits which the Chinese had earlier dug in most roads in the vain hope that they could hinder the advance of Japanese tanks. The conquering Japanese responded with the genocidal cruelty which Nanking symbolizes: they filled the pits with Chinese bodies, some still alive, and took pleasure in running over these pits of piled-up bodies now functioning as dirt, with their tanks and trucks. Horror. But more than horror, this cruel inversion of decent burial turned the Chinese bodies into the deepest form of humiliation: ‘You are nothing but roadfill. Roadkill. Inanimate shapeless matter of the most worthless kind.’

Something more than the numbing of civilized behavior in war is needed to explain such horror. Something, I would submit, like what I have referred to above. Something that all of us, however well trained, ignore at our peril.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NIE Report on Iran

Is it not astonishing to watch the smarm coming out of the White House in response to the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which reported that Iran is NOT working on a nuclear weapon, and in fact ended its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003? Is it not mind-boggling to see the President at a new conference assuring us that far from contradicting the saber-rattling blather that he has been hyping for months—recently raising the specter of WWIII if Iran were to get the “knowledge” to build a bomb—the NIE report just confirms and reinforces his suspicions of Iran? And further to see, in response to a question about the timing of his WWIII comment, the President smirking (as he always does when he’s lying) and insisting that he didn’t know about this report when he made his remarks, because he only found out this week?

I mean, have they no shame? No discomfort to be caught lying through their teeth, to the point where their whole Iran policy is revealed as yet another fraud? Apparently not. Because in the first place, has just rerun a story dated Nov. 9, 2007 by Inter Press Service that literally doubles the fraud:

“A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s militarily aggressive policy toward Iran….”

In other words, the report that the public just read about yesterday was not only ready to be published A YEAR AGO, but the President knew it and tried to quash it entirely. Failing that, he had it sent back three times to modify it so as to conform with the administration’s attempt to create enough fear about Iran to justify a military strike on its “secret” nuclear-building operations.

And now that the intelligence experts have refused to bow to administration pressure, and have directly (though a year late) contradicted the administration’s propaganda about those “secret” operations, the President and his minions in Congress, without batting an eye, contend that the report actually substantiates their view that Iran was working on nukes before, and will be working on them again.

So, where any rational human being would interpret the NIE report as exposing Cheney and his neocon henchmen as the fools that they are, the report is tortured to resemble new evidence against the alleged nuclear devils in Tehran.

In short, evidence means nothing to the adolescent fascists in the White House. Determined to paint Iran as a rogue nation deserving of a pre-emptive strike, they will reinterpret, undermine and make up their own intelligence to do it. And of course one of the ways they do this is to keep repeating the other durable lie—that President Ahmadinejad of Iran “intends to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” In regard to which Marjorie Cohn pointed out recently,

“According to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and Farsi language analysts, Ahmadinejad was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, who said the “regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” Cole said this “does not imply military action or killing anyone at all.” (, Nov. 25, 2007)

Rather, it means that the Iranians predict (and devoutly hope) that the Zionist regime will sooner or later disappear. Anyone familiar with the history of Israel and the Middle East would be hard pressed to disagree. But language, like truth, means nothing to the Bushies. Or rather, it represents just another tool to be tortured and twisted to create the impression of constant crisis, to instill fear in the populace, and to use that fear to justify the loss of liberty at home and “pre-emptive” aggression abroad.

So beware. Even though its own intelligence has confirmed that the so-called nuclear danger from Iran was, and is pure bullshit (as was the similar hype over Iraq’s WMD), the sociopaths in this White House have proven that they not only have no shame, they lack even the minimal conscience needed to be embarrassed, much less dissuaded from their criminal designs.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 3, 2007

Iraq Again

The President is at it again. This morning he once again berated the Democrats in Congress for not giving him the money he has asked for--$200 billion in supplemental funds for the Iraq War. The Democrats have proposed a supplemental of only $50 billion, qualified by language that would start the long process of bringing the troops home, and ending the war. In turn, Republicans and their President try to cow Democrats by accusing them of abandoning American boys in battle.

In such a climate, it is necessary to bring a bit of context to this struggle. And by “context,” I mean to simply remember how this war started, and what its cost has been, both to the United States, and to Iraq.

Consider first an item by today’s Associated Press: “National Debt Grows $1 Million a Minute.” That’s one million a minute, folks, $60 million an hour, $1440 million a day. It means the United States government now owes $9.13 trillion dollars! That’s $30,000 for every American man, woman, and child. And just for comparison, it was $5.7 trillion when Bush took office in 2001, and gave tax breaks to the richest Americans, at the same time as he decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This kind of debt, like yours and mine, doesn’t come free: interest on it came to $430 billion last year alone, the third highest spending item in the national budget. The second item was “Defense” spending, helped, of course, by the huge outlays for Iraq. Only that most of the cost of fighting and dying in Iraq is not even included in the Defense budget—it must be covered by supplementals such as the one Bush is now asking for: $200 billion just to get through the Spring.

Then let’s get back to that Iraqi war. This was not a war against an enemy that had attacked or even threatened the United States, Iraq having had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. This was a war of CHOICE. It was an illegal aggression against a country that not only had done nothing to us; it was a country that the United States had been, for the dozen years prior to its 2003 invasion, attacking. The U.S., that is, had imposed sanctions on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 children due to the lack of medical supplies. It had virtually destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure—it’s water treatment facilities and the like. It had continuously bombed Iraqi areas it called “no-fly zones.” Such measures had reduced Iraq’s standard of living from where it had been in the 1980s—as the most advanced Arab nation, with a highly-educated, secular population—to a third-world basket case, which, even today, is threatened with a cholera epidemic, due to unclean drinking water.

Then, when UN inspectors failed to find the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” the Bush administration claimed Iraq had hidden, the United States ignored the UN and began its “shock and awe” campaign of bombing a virtually defenseless country. It then raced into that country, overwhelming the minimal resistance offered by the vaunted Republican Guard of Saddam Hussein, and took possession of the country. The President, in full military regalia, trumpeted the great victory: the United States, a nation of 300 million with the most advanced weaponry in the world, had defeated Iraq, a nation of 26 million, with no air force, no navy, virtually no artillery, and an army that had vanished before the U.S. onslaught.

What followed was the destruction of an entire nation, including its priceless heritage of libraries and archeological sites marking the very birth of civilization. In the years since, 70% of Iraqis have become unemployed, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million Iraqis have died, countless others have been wounded or irradiated by uranium-tipped weapons, and more than 2 million have fled the country. An additional 2 million have been displaced by the civil war that has raged between Shiite and Sunni Arabs that once lived side by side. And of course, over 4,000 Americans have been killed.

This is the “great cause” that the President now demands be continued. This is the noble fight that he ridicules Congress for refusing to fund. Americans are told that if the vaunted U.S. military cannot “finish” this job—a job they are now allegedly succeeding at—the United States reputation in the world (not to mention the reputation of Bush and his Republicans) will suffer irretrievable damage. The truth, obvious to all but the most obtuse, is that America’s reputation is already in tatters, and precisely because of its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The truth is that no more Iraqi civilians need to be slaughtered. No more American boys need to sacrifice their lives. The illegality does not need to go on. What needs to happen is that Iraq must be allowed to recover free from an occupying army (for that is what American forces are: an occupying army resented by every Iraqi) making that recovery impossible. If the United States needs to invest more of its treasure in this benighted venture, it must invest millions in the business of rebuilding, of compensating a long-suffering people for the damage already done them. Any other expenditure to validate such a criminal adventure would be not only morally bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible, it would be insane.

Lawrence DiStasi