Thursday, December 31, 2009

Night Thoughts

It is that time of year again when the change from one calendar year to the next, though wholly artificial, leads many of us to take stock. What has the year amounted to? What have our lives amounted to? Is there some way to make things better?

This always leads me to the thoughts F. Scott Fitzgerald identified as those dark demons of the mind that occur when we wake at 3 in the morning and all seems impossible, lost. How can one possibly get through? Does it matter?

Simone Weil once wrote: “It is our function in this world to give our consent to the existence of the universe.”

But does the universe even care about our consent? Perhaps, perhaps not. Without the old concept of a personal god, it hardly seems likely. Who would there be to care? And even if there were, would that translate into the critical question: does he/she/it care for me? For my family and friends? For my country? And if the answer is yes, then whence all this nastiness, as in the year just ended? Economic collapse. Afghanistan out of control. Rapacious banks and bankers still maintaining their death grip on our lives. What’s left of the health care bill laughable, a pathetic joke. And on Christmas day, yet another fanatic from the Middle East trying to blow up a plane full of innocents. Us.

It’s something most of us in the United States have great difficulty imagining: there are people in the world who actually hate us. US. The greatest nation ever to bestride the planet. We who saved Europe, saved civilization, and have no aspiration for anything but the welfare of others, to extend to the unwashed masses of the Third World a democracy like ours so that all will be able to enjoy the benefits we enjoy—liberty, free choice in the global supermarket, and the opportunity to be whatever our hearts desire.

And yet. There are these people. Malcontents. Fanatics. Willing to blow themselves up so they can blow a few of us up as well. Must there not be a way to prevent such things? And not just suicide bombers either. Prevent the Bernie Madoffs of the world from doing their dirty work. Prevent the right wing-nuts from torpedoing every meaningful reform. Prevent the corporations from exploiting the rest of the world so they’ll love us again? Because that’s really the underlying notion: we humans, and especially we Americans are geared to think that if we just get smart enough, farsighted enough, our military powerful enough, our scientists well-funded enough, our foundations generous enough, our nation integrated enough, we can avoid or outwit all the problems the universe can blow back at us and finally live the carefree life we have been promised: peace and liberty and justice for all.

But can we? Has there ever existed a nation or a world without problems? Without shit happening on a regular basis? Is not shit happening the very nature of the universe—that universe we are supposed to give our consent to? It seems. And yet, how hard it is to come to terms with that. How nearly impossible to assent to the real nature of things, which is change. Change in every cell of our bodies and all else in every second and nanosecond of our lives. On both the very large and the very small scale. The American moment is changing. The American empire is changing. The sun itself is changing. And so are we all, entropic every one. And it is almost impossible to assent to, almost impossible to give our consent to this aspect of the universe’s existence, of all existence. No, we want to preserve it, keep it from slipping from our grasp. One way being to record it. Manically, desperately.

How else explain the mind-bending proliferation of gadgets, even in this season of economic discontent? With more and more of us insisting on our ipods and ipod nanos and flips and cell phones and computers and digital cameras and HD screens to take in everything, grasp everything, record everything in the vain hope that our lives will be preserved and amount to something, our nations will be permanized and celebrated as having counted. For something. Nevermind Ozymandias. Nevermind "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." We matter. We must. Our way must matter, it must be “right.” For if not, if all our photos and films and recordings and constructions are nothing but matter for the growing trash heap of history, then all we have left are absurd, meaningless moments, arising, and fading. Things and events being born and dying. Endlessly. Like grass. Where is the good, where is the nobility, where is the crown of creation, the god-chosen centrality of our perfectly adorable species in that?

Sadly, there are no answers. Save perhaps the old notion we’ve been hearing for aeons: pay attention. Pay attention to as many moments as you can. Pay attention to dirt, to grass, to spiders, to rain, to scum, to shit, to the least of creatures. And pay attention to what animates the conceptions and prejudices we all carry: that “they” are nothing, that “we” are the chosen, that our way is the superior way, that my god is the one true god who gives me the right to not feel/see/hear/attend to you and all else if it means I and mine can thrive. Survive for even a bit longer.

Yes, pay attention. Pay attention even to paying attention. It is, inherently, consent.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Health Care and Other Sorrows

President Obama and various Democratic Senators trumpeted their “victory” this weekend, when they managed to bribe Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to pledge his vote for the Health Care Bill in exchange for concessions on abortion (how abortion became part of the health care debate is another matter). Here is how an AP report characterized the concessions: Not only would health plans not have to offer coverage for abortions, but

“In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.
Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange, but after passing specific legislation to that effect.”

Thus, one reactionary senator from one corny state has dictated the health benefits offered to women in the entire nation.

The rest of the benefits once considered firmly in the bill have been torpedoed by other reactionary senators like Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. So gutted has the final bill become that Howard Dean, once a presidential candidate and chairman of the party, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that appeared today, condemning the compromise in no uncertain terms. His words pretty much sum up the defeat of Senate liberals on healthcare:

“If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers’ monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health care reform.
Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.
Real health care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company…”

If you want to read more of what Dean said, and it is powerful, check out his op-ed.

But the important thing here, as in numerous other initiatives of the Obama Administration and the craven Democrats who promised reform in this and other areas, is the continuing abandonment of long-held principles upon which they were elected. A recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine (“Obama’s Big Sellout” Dec. 9, 2009) cites these concessions chapter and verse. It is not a pretty picture. Basically, according to Taibbi, the Obama Adminstration took action as soon as Nov. 5 to abandon the promises (and people—Austin Goolsbee, Karen Kornbluh) that got him elected, and steered deliberately towards the center and the moneyed interests who reign there. It was clear in the appointments Obama made to his economic team—and which we have commented on before. People like Tim Geithner as Secretary of Treasury, Lawrence Summers as Head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, Michael Froman as head of the National Economic Council, and countless others, all came out of a very specific area of Wall Street, many of them aides or protégés of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. According to Taibbi, Rubin, who came originally from Goldman Sachs, has screwed up every job he’s ever had. Nonetheless, he has been consistently demoted upward, most recently to the Chairmanship of Citigroup, which the Federal Government has bailed out with billions (upwards of $300 billion) of taxpayer dollars. His legacy in the current administration has been extensive and toxic:

"The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants. “Bob Rubin, these guys, they're classic limousine liberals,” says David Sirota, a former Democratic strategist. “These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they're willing to give a little more to the poor. That's the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else.”

It is sickening to realize that this pretty much sums up the moves made by the Obama administration in virtually every arena of government: the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, the policy on torture and Guantanamo, health care reform, and global warming. It is always a compromise with the most reactionary forces, and justified by the catch-phrase that has now become their mantra: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. But what good is a good that makes matters worse, as Dean says about the current health care compromise? What good is a Nobel Peace Prize for a president who has just ordered 30,000 more troops to a war that never should have been started in the first place?

All one can conclude is that one’s optimism that Obama was a “necessity” ran its course on Inauguration Day when people wept to see a black man as President. Since then, it’s been downhill all the way. The real power in this nation has remained unchanged, and firmly in the hands of Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, health-care moguls, and the same wealthy elites who have run things since the beginning. One might have thought that the near-catastrophe that brought the financial system to its knees would change this, but, if anything, it has made conditions for most of us worse. Now the health care “reform” bill threatens to add to the stench.

In this dark season, one cannot help but veer towards that prophetic question of William Butler Yeats:

“..what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Family, by Jeff Sharlett

By now, most of you have seen on TV or read in a magazine or newspaper about the clique of politicians embroiled in sex scandals while living in a C-Street mansion in Washington, DC. While Senator Ensign and a host of other notables were using this address as a hangout and refuge and ignoring the commonly accepted rules for personal responsibility, they also prayed together. Yes, the family that prays together also preys together. What a concept! Unfortunately for them, since the book was published, their tax exemption for the house as a church has been revoked.

Jeff Sharlet (The Family, Harper Collins: 2008) conducted extensive research that required years of interviewing members of the Family in wide ranging settings from Washington, where he was accepted as a sort of research intern, to Colorado Springs where he joined fundamentalists in their everyday religious activities to develop information that uncovered an extra-legal and off-government influence of worldwide events.

The group began formally in 1935 when a Norwegian immigrant (Abraham Vereide) established the International Christian Leadership that became a front for American fundamentalism that has since expanded beyond any reasonable expectation. Now who could have any objection to prayer? That is a fair question that only reading the book will begin to answer. To start with, the name “Christian” has a different meaning for most of us because the theological base of the New Testament seems paramount in the mix of things. Not so for many fundamentalists who seem to be focused on the Old Testament and especially King David whose reputation for adultery and murder might seem at odds with a religion that touts the Beatitudes.

The answers seem rooted in the concept of power that the Family espouses. The powerful do not have to live by the rules of the ordinary folk. God chose David. This act gave David power and power does not have to answer to ordinary rules. You can see where this is going on the level of individuals in power, but what you cannot easily see is that a concept like this would go nowhere unless it was enabled by people in power. Note that the National Prayer Breakfast (formerly the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) is organized by the Family, so that the group creates access to those currently in power.

Some of you will probably see in this fabric the hint of a Calvinistic pre-ordained nature of humanity. Either you are saved or not, and nothing you do will change the outcome. This surely reinforces the powerful and it also makes the rest of us a little out of the picture unless we take sides and join with the powerful to get God’s work done. This is less an illusion and more a matter of secrecy and organization. Concentric organizational circles are drawn that offers something to everyone. Those on the inside touch power and make things happen. Those nearby such as in Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia, support the Family directly and hope to grow from being congressional aides to men with real power. And, yes, men, because women have a different role in this scheme and direct access to power is not a fundamentalist role for women. Those several circles away take pride in doing God’s work as they see it, and they pray to support the aims of the leaders.

Sharlet carefully explains the links between economic Darwinism and political power through the policies that are promoted by the Family. This allows the group to endorse strong leadership without any flinching and also promotes the image of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and even Mao as examples of how power gets things done. Abraham Vereide (Abram) expressed preference for Hitler over Roosevelt who dared to curtail the suffering of Americans during the Depression while Hitler took action against those who were adding nothing to the German community (as he saw it). Later, Doug Coe, taking over the Family from Abram, did likewise. Coe often told the story of how just seven men (Hitler’s closest group from the putsch) were able to do so much to change history (and that the Family should also do so by using power and secrecy).

Again, all this would mean little unless something happened to change “prayer groups” into action committees (cells) at home and abroad. The Family does that handily using Supreme Court judges, senators, representatives and ambassadors and generals in several of the concentric circles. If somebody in the Family feels that it is God’s will that the people of Uganda should have abstinence education instead of condoms to slow the ravage of AIDS, look to Senator Brownback and others to introduce legislation to do that for God and the Family. Unfortunately, the AIDS rate spiked up when he succeeded, but then, pain and suffering are part of God’s plan, so that is not a problem.

In the 40s and 50s the Family effort was to provide get-out-of-jail cards for Nazis. In the 60s and 70s, the Family took the side of Suharto against the citizens of East Timor. Over 600,000 were massacred according to Sharlet (men, women and children, if that makes a difference to the pure), while Wikipedia allows only 100,000 for those killings. What is also
chilling is the language that Suharto used. He spoke of the “New Order.” That language was also used by Hitler, Abram Vereide and our own neocons. How could that be? Suharto was invited to the Family’s prayer groups and, incidentally, they never condemned his actions. The reason they supported Suharto was because he was anti-communist although communists did not control East Timor, Suharto was a strong man doing god’s will. The “New Order” calls for hegemony built on absolute acceptance of “Jesus plus nothing.” That is a concept where Jesus is stripped of everything but power and it is a tenet of the Family that separates it from most of Christianity.

This Family scenario is replicated with African and Central/South American dictators and with similar devastating results and, in each case, whether the excuse be homosexuality, communism, or even the lack of “free” markets, the results were the same and help was obtained through our own and allied elected and appointed officials who went to extraordinary efforts to support foreign murderers and thieves. The list includes Papa Doc Duvallier, Emporer Selassie, General Park of Korea and General Medici of Brazil. American resources were spent through foreign aid and other means to do what the Family could not do on its own but did through influencing power sothat, in the end, the will of the Family prevailed.

Jeff Sharlet studied several religions for years and then got on the ground with hundreds of fundamentalists here and abroad to discover how this strange group with its concentric circles of faithful was able to get business done. The concentric circles have decreasing power and knowledge of the secrets of the Family as they become more distant from the small group of leaders. The common element appears to be a prayer breakfast. That is something most of us have participated in, so how could anything so innocuous become so powerful in a this-worldly and vicious manner?

Much of the present magnetism of the Family is derived from early American fundamentalists with the ingenious addition of the focus on power. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in today’s reality. I commend this book to anybody that is curious as to why things are as they are. It is a sobering look at how things get done, even when they are too horrible to contemplate.

George Giacoppe