Friday, March 13, 2009

The Lobby Does It Again

Two days ago, under intense pressure from the Israel Lobby, including sitting senators Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, President Obama’s choice for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chas Freeman, withdrew his name from consideration. Among other things, Freeman, a diplomat with a distinguished record compiled over thirty years, was accused of being in the pay of foreign governments like Saudi Arabia. But the real accusation, hidden as always, was his stance in bringing a balanced view to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2007, he is reported (by the New York Post) to have said:

“The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending. ... American identification with Israel has become total.”

Anyone who has followed this conflict, and its 60-year history would have to agree with the truth of that statement. Not the Israel Lobby, or the lapdog media. To say such things is to violate what has become a cardinal rule of American politics: don’t tell the truth about the occupation, and don’t tell the truth about the slavish American support of and identification with such oppression. In his statement upon withdrawing, Freeman makes this clearer than ever:

“…It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.
The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.” (quoted from Robert Dreyfuss’ March 11, 2009 article in the Nation)

So, once again, as in the case of I wrote about on January 13 of this year, where Israel’s prime minister Ehud Olmert made the United States Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice change her UN vote, we have American advocates for a foreign power determining crucial foreign policy decisions of the United States. By attacking the President’s intelligence choice on all fronts, including in the Congress, Israel’s American surrogates dictate to the leader of the free world who can and who cannot be selected to staff key positions. The critical question then becomes: to whom are these people primarily loyal? It is a question that has been raised often in the past, particularly during wars (I know a great deal about how it was raised during World War II with regard to Italian immigrants), including cold ones. Now, with the Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman government threatening to make the middle east cauldron ever hotter, the questions must be raised anew. To wit: Can any sovereign government long tolerate such foreign interference and still call itself sovereign?

Does everyone realize how serious this is? Sometimes I wonder.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Was Right!

Any even mildly perceptive observer of the human comedy cannot help noticing the importance we all give to being right in our judgments. Whether it be supporting the “right” candidate (the one who wins), or taking the “right” political stance on the Iraq war (condemning or supporting it early), or selecting the “right” stock or selling the “right” house at the top of the market, or simply judging a new acquaintance “rightly” (I knew there was something fishy about him/her), we all do everything we can to make the “right” choices or decisions. And if we can’t always be “right,” then we make sure that we have ample reasons for having made a wrong choice, thus implying that, by all reasonable standards, it "should" have been right. In short, we—and this “we” can be an entity as grandiloquent as the Bush Administration or as humble as a weekend bettor at the race track—are always trying to justify our actions. Being right, or being seen to be right, is our constant preoccupation.

In fact, it is easy to observe that being right is a major component of our mental life. Whether we call it our “ego,” our consciousness, our narratorial self, or our left brain, it is clear both from our own observation and the relevant literature that we are constantly rationalizing our actions. In other words, though we mostly imagine that when we have a decision to make, we sit down and reason it out, making lists of pros and cons, and finally coming to a reasonable choice, in fact, research shows that it’s usually the other way round. We do something, decide something, and before we know it our conscious minds find ways to support it with reasons, with logic, with whatever we can find to shore up the rightness of our decision. Indeed, to fully realize this is somewhat disconcerting, for most of us like to think that “we” are in control of our lives. “I have free choice” is the essence of democracy. “I” decide to go or not go to the movies, date or not date that person, buy or not buy that service or new object, vote or not vote for that candidate, live or not live. But do I?

William Irvine, a philosophy professor and author of On Desire (Oxford U Press: 2006), takes up many of these issues in his book. And what he points out is brain research that shows that our choices and decisions are mostly made prior to our reasoning about them. They derive from unconscious wants or hates that stem from our emotions. Psychologist Timothy Wilson refers to this emotion-driven module as our “adaptive unconscious,” that more primitive part of our brain that detects danger, or perceives something desirable or good. And we are driven to get that which it perceives as good, and reject or flee that which is bad or dangerous. Unfortunately, sometimes what is perceived as “pleasurable” is not so good for us—like excess sugar or unsafe sex or big automobiles; and what is “bad” may actually be important to face. But since we have this ideal that says our conscious selves are in control, our minds turn the situation and its logic upside down. As Irvine points out, the mystery of our decision-making “leads us to the odd pass of assuming that we must have been consciously aware of what we wanted to do in performing actions we don’t understand…just to keep up the appearance that we ourselves are agents with conscious will.” In other words, we rationalize. Our conscious minds, our left brains, are rationalizing machines. That is what they do. ‘I just did something stupid. There must have been a reason. Of course, it happened because I was drunk, or tense, or ill, or, best of all, noticed a hidden benefit where no one else did.’

This subconscious level of decision-making has been tested in the laboratory. And what it shows is that our much-prized rational ability functions not so much as a decision-maker or truth-finder, but as a “machine for winning arguments.” The quote is from Michael Gazzaniga’s book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, who in turn cites Robert Wright, author of the Moral Animal, as follows: “The brain is a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants a victory, not truth..” Gazzaniga’s own research shows some of the bizarre arguments his split-brain patients employ to rationalize their own puzzling actions (because one side of their brain cannot “see” what the other is doing). One woman, with a lesion in her right brain that causes translocations of space, was in a New York hospital but, despite her hospital garb, IV and wheelchair, firmly believed herself to be in Freeport, Maine. When Gazzaniga pointed to the hospital elevators and asked her what they were, she responded, “Those are elevators. Do you know what it cost me to have those put in my house?” Gazzaniga calls this left brain explainer “the interpreter,” because of its clear function of interpreting or rationalizing what it sees itself doing.

Both Gazzaniga and Irvine refer to the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio regarding the role of emotions in decision-making. Damasio has studied patients with brain damage to the ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex. Though they are perfectly rational, test normally on moral scales, can find solutions to problems and see consequences, they exhibit almost no emotion. And with this defect comes an inability to make decisions. Damasio theorizes that this is due to the fact that having an emotional value connected to any option or choice is necessary to make that choice. In other words, consciously knowing about something isn’t enough to decide on its worth; the human brain requires an emotional response (it’s good, I want it; it’s bad, I don’t want it) to make a decision. Put another way, the decisions we make stem from emotional impulses, often unconscious, that are then ratified and justified by our conscious selves as if they had made the choice rationally, using good logic.

So next time you hear someone, or yourself, boast that “I was right,” consider what’s going on. It’s likely that something hidden—Irvine calls this our inherited Biological Incentive System—drove that choice. This is not to say that we have no reasoning ability at all, or that reason never figures in our decision-making. That we are not as impulsive or instinct-driven as most animals is evident. It is simply that, more than we know, what we boast about hides the true nature of our decisions and judgments. Given the critical nature of the judgments we are increasingly asked to make (about global warming, biotechnology, nuclear weapons, and so on), ignoring the basis for our decisions is, in effect, leaving those decisions to those who wish to manipulate us. And you can be sure that they are not overlooking the research about how most of us decide, and then deceive ourselves about how.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Earth Breath

Yesterday morning I came across this lovely passage in Claire Cummings’ book, "Uncertain Peril, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds":

“As the earth wobbles on its axis, the oceans ebb and flow and the seasons change. Early climate studies revealed that this causes an annual cycling of carbon dioxide from summer to winter. In the spring, as plants and other photosynthetic organisms grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Then in the fall and winter, as they die and decay and are eaten by other organisms, they release it. As Fred Pearce ["With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change"] so eloquently put it, ‘The earth, in effect, breathes in and out once a year.’” (Cummings, 126)

What Cummings and Pearce refer to is the notion that Gaia, the name many use to personify our planet, actually breathes—on a slower scale than we do, to be sure, but breathes nonetheless.

The notion struck me both for its beauty, and for its resonance with some recent personal thoughts and experiences re: breathing. To begin with, Buddhism, like many other eastern spiritual traditions, focuses a great deal of energy and attention on the breath. The Buddha no doubt derived this from the Indian concept of “prana,” which refers to the breath, and breathing, as the pillar upon which all else depends. It is due to this centrality of prana that yoga practitioners often do specific breathing exercises, and work to harmonize and control breath during their maneuvers. Just one random website on prana yoga describes it thus: “Prana is simply life force energy. All living things and the Universe itself consist of this energy. Breath is our own amazing and yet tangible experience of prana…” ( Our word “spirit,” similarly, stems from “spirare,” meaning ‘to breathe.’

In Zen, especially at the beginning, sitting or zazen practice has to do not with specific breathing practices, but simply with counting one’s breath—counting breaths to ten, and then repeating this counting to ten throughout the meditation period. Practitioners gradually move to other forms of concentration, for example, simply observing the breath in great detail as it proceeds in and out of the body, and exactly what happens when it does. And though most move on to still other practices, observing thought formation or bodily sensations and so on, breath watching often remains at least a part of the practice.

Having been through several of these practices, recently it occurred to me to return in zazen to simply breathing. Simply breathing. And it was from here that earth or Gaia or prana came into play. For at some point as I observed how I was breathing, and how it still seemed to be something like, ‘I am breathing, this body is pulling oxygen in from outside me and pushing carbon dioxide out to somewhere else,’ a changed perception, momentary but very real, occurred. It suddenly felt as if it were not “I” who was drawing in air from the outside, but as if the exchange were simply transpiring of itself, more, as if outside and inside were “not two” as the saying goes. As if there were not just an individual self seizing a few quarts of oxygen from the air outside, but something very much larger pulsing in a rhythm with others. As if a kind of universal rhythm were in play. And that that rhythm, which included all else in its pulsations, was breathing me. And I it.

Hence the power of the above image of the earth, each year breathing in, and breathing out. As if we are all, along with the earth, part of this breathing in, and breathing out. And we are. Each being that breathes has a different rate and rhythm. Plants breathe differently from animals who breathe differently from fish or fowl. But in a certain sense, all breathing is one breathing. The earth breathes. Plants breathe. Dogs and toads breathe. Humans breathe. Together. As a Zen master once said (referring only to humans),

“We are all members of the same nose-hole society.”

All of which means it is well not to ignore either our in-breaths or our out-breaths. And what we have been discovering increasingly is that we humans, especially, have indeed been ignoring not only the fact, but the consequences of both our in-breaths and our out-breaths. What is it that we are breathing in? What is it that we are breathing out? Are we foolishly, determinedly ignorant of our out-breathing—the wastes, the carnage, the indigestible detritus that increasingly forms part of our legacy? And just as ignorant of what we are breathing in, as if having to wrestle it from someone or something, like insatiable children?

The answer is fairly obvious. We have forgotten, or chosen to ignore what breathing is. We have insisted on confining it to our lungs, our personal area of responsibility and concern, our little quart or two of breath. It is a kind of willful blindness, a blindness to what we are, which all begins with the simplest, most elemental, most inclusive of our acts: breathing.

Lawrence DiStasi