Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Corporate Hacking

Dr. Robert Lustig is probably best known for his books and activities warning about sugar and the damage it does to the human body, notably in his bestseller, Fat Chance. In his new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains (2017), he continues that warning, pointing out that refined sugar (refining sugar turns it from a food into a drug) is “the most expensive burden on society,” worse than either tobacco or alcohol. Refined sugar wastes some $1.8 trillion in health care spending in the United States alone by contributing to the diseases known as “metabolic syndrome”: heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, chronic liver disease, and cancer to name only the most prominent ones. But Lustig is not content with warring on sugar here; he adds several other addiction problems that are promoted by corporate America in its lust for profit, mainly alcohol, sex, processed food, shopping, and the technology that has given us the internet, computers, and the smartphone. What is really compelling about his book, though, is that Lustig makes use of his background in neuroscience to explain for us just how these “pleasurable activities” work in the brain to motivate us, reward us and often get us hooked. The major theme he propounds is that the corporate promotion of such activities intentionally confuses us about the difference between the reward system which gives us pleasure, and the happiness system which gives us contentment. That is, we are constantly shown via advertising that Coke, for instance, will make us happy, when what it really does is gives us a momentary pleasurable hit (and no food value) from sugar and caffeine. This is because the two systems at issue here— reward on the one hand and happiness on the other—are mediated by different brain systems. The reward/pleasure system is governed by the neurochemical dopamine, which provides motivation or drive, and the opioid peptides like endorphin, which provide us with the reward. Contrarily, the happiness/contentment system is the product of serotonin, which operates via two receptors, one of which provides contentment, the other of which often provides mystical experiences. What’s interesting is that “the same factors that increasedopamine (technology, lack of sleep, drugs, and bad diet) also decreaseserotonin” (p. 147 note). 
            What Lustig does is show us, first, how the dopamine system works, and the negative effects that happen when cells get overloaded, down-regulate (meaning we need more drug to get the same effect) and we get addicted. This is not necessarily due to weakness or moral failing. It is due largely to the fact that modern life (driven by the “corporate consumption complex”, i.e. the six industries that sell us tobacco, alcohol, processed food, guns, cars, and energy) loads us up with chronic stresses via easy access to addictive substances and activities. You might think it is exaggeration to include processed food in this list, but Lustig gives us a statistic that simply stuns us: where the annual profit margin for Big Pharma is 18% (pretty hefty), it is paltry compared to the processed food industry which grosses “$1.46 trillion per year, $657 billion of it gross profit, for a gross profit margin of 45%”(p. 87). So these hucksters have a very big incentive to get us hooked. 
But, you may ask, why are we so driven by dopamine in the first place? Because, Lustig points out, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that ensures the survival of the species. We need to be motivated so that we act to preserve ourselves and pass our genes on to the next generation (hence we are powerfully driven to eat and to reproduce.) To demonstrate this, Lustig tells us about an anti-obesity drug called rimonabant. It was approved in Europe as a drug to suppress obesity by blocking the CB1 receptor from access by our own brain compound, anandamide, which keeps us eating. Rimonabant actually worked quite well; people who used it stopped eating junk food and lost weight. But the problem was, they lost all pleasure in food and became anxious, depressed and even suicidal. In other words, to lose your motivation for reward (via dopamine) means you lose your motivation for life. 
            The problem comes in with our modern civilization (as Lustig puts it: “reward and stress are the hallmarks of modern civilization” p. 146). We are stressed by daily life, not just short term, which is what the cortisol system is for—to prepare us to fight or flee—but chronically, constantly, as in many modern occupations. In the face of chronic stress, we are encouraged, brain-washed really, to seek relief and happiness in the substances and procedures that seem to offer happiness, or at least distraction: sex (instead of love), smartphones, sugar, processed foods (loaded with sugar) and so on. And we are encouraged daily, hourly, every minute on platforms like Facebook, to buy our way out of stress; to see buying as happiness itself. As Lustig puts it, “Conflating pleasure and happiness is inherently biased and misleading” (p. 190). More simply put, it is propaganda. And the corporate purveyors of this propaganda have succeeded in finding ever-more accurate ways to target those most likely to seek happiness by buying their useless products. As part of this propaganda, we are told that having all these choices in products makes us “free.” Lustig begs to differ: “Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free. It chronically nudges us toward reward and drives us away from happiness and contentment” (p. 147). 
            Having cell phones, especially smartphones, is only the latest invention of such environmental engineering intended to work on our dopamine system. It takes very little to understand how addictive these devices can be. As Lustig points out, “for most people, the cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush” (192). Why is this? Because we have a need for surprise; it’s visceral, says Lustig: as humans we are always looking for something new. This, according to Lustig, “stokes our dopamine and our nucleus accumbens” (the brain area where dopamine registers), and “the frequent checking of cell phones, waiting for something to change, is linked to anxiety and depression” (193). This is key to understand. Sold as a way to keep us instantly gratified and thus make us happy, cell phones in many users seem to have the opposite effect: they make many of the most ardent users depressed. Lustig cites a study of 4,000 teenagers, where “total media use correlated with the prevalence of eventual depression, especially in boys” (197). He also cites a horrifying 2010 case from South Korea to demonstrate how addictive such technologies can be: a couple became so obsessed with raising their two “virtual children” online that they let their actual three-month old daughter starve to death (p. 194). He also cites studies by Sherry Turkle demonstrating that “there is a forty percent loss of empathy in college students as a result of possessing a smartphone” (p. 235). 
            Enough said. Lustig has recommendations for his readers, and they are astonishingly simple (though probably not simple to accomplish in our society). He calls them the Four C’s of Contentment: Connect, Contribute, Cope, and Cook. Connectsimply means develop face-to-face communication with a network of friends, as humans are meant to do. Contributepoints out that self-worth is enhanced by volunteering or otherwise working to enhance the well-being of others. This has been proven over and over. Coperefers to several things: getting enough sleep, which is vastly underrated in our culture, getting exercise (also underrated), and mindfulness, for instance, through some form of meditation. Simply slowing down, turning off one’s devices, can be vastly effective. Finally, Cook: do your own cooking with real ingredients. This should be the simplest one of all, but not for the “one-third of Americans who currently don’t know how to cook” (p. 279). This is simply mind-boggling to this writer, but apparently it’s true. And the fallback for all those non-cookers is one of the chief contributors to our health crisis, processed food. Loaded with sugar and fat and chemicals and made to survive almost forever, it is the chief culprit contributing to sicknesses that should never happen in the first place. 
            Lustig has some fascinating things to say about the serotonin side of things as well, not least the reminder that psychedelics, once criminalized, have been making a comeback among therapists and brain researchers. This is because their chemical structure is very similar to the structure of serotonin. So, compounds like LSD and psilocybin bind to both serotonin-1a and -2a receptors, meaning that they provide both contentment, and mystical experiences. Anti-depressants also work in these brain areas, blocking the reuptake of serotonin so that more is left to contribute to happiness rather than depression. But I will have more to say about these when I write about Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which investigates the new therapies and his own late-in-life psychedelics trips in depth. 
To sum things up for Lustig’s book, we could do worse than use his own coda: “the corporate consumption complex—technology, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, processed food—these are the killers of contentment and the drivers of desire, dependence, and depression” (p. 280). Find ways to rid your life of those, or at least keep them in check, and you can go a long way toward moving in the direction of that happiness whose pursuit is promised as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Soft Shell Crabs

Last night’s (Oct. 9, 2018) PBS Newshourfeatured several segments that were enough to drive a sane person mad. I’m not sure I can get to them all, but the one that sticks most vividly in mind is the one about the tiny island of Tangiers in Chesapeake Bay. It consists of mostly fishermen who for generations have plied their trade in the rich waters of the Bay, earning most of their income from the abundance of blue crabs to be found there. I believe this is the same crab that is used, at specific times of year when the crabs are molting, for the soft-shell-crab sandwiches that I loved when I lived in Connecticut. It’s far and away my favorite shellfish, if not my favorite seafood overall. It was not the food, however, but the crab fishermen of Tangier Island who were the subject on the Newshour. 
            John Yang interviewed several people for the piece, mainly Earl Swift, who has written a book, Chesapeake Requiem, about the disappearing island, and James “Ooker” Eskridge, a fisherman who’s the mayor of Tangier Island. Swift explained the main problem: the island is literally disappearing because of the rising ocean to which Tangier is exposed. Using several different methods to show this, Swift demonstrated how huge portions of the island have already been flooded, with the remaining parts increasingly invaded by the encroaching sea. Since 1850, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, Tangier Island has lost fully two-thirds of its land mass. Swift describes the devastation clearly:

The uninhabited marsh island that forms the northern third of Tangier was a pretty solid expansive marsh. Today, it’s a loose macrame of strands of marsh just pocked all throughout with water.

In other words, there can be no doubt that Tangier Island is losing usable land rapidly, with the loss clearly documented by aerial photographs, graphs and simple visual evidence as cited by Swift. The cause is hardly in doubt either: the sea rise that has long been predicted as a result of climate change, especially for low-lying coastal areas such as Tangier Island. Like large portions of Miami Beach, these areas are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to the dangers posed by the rising oceans. 
            And yet. The residents of Tangier Island refuse to believe the evidence. They know something is happening—which is why they want the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $30 million to build a seawall to surround their island (the Engineers have refused, saying it would be cheaper to move everyone to the mainland). But they won’t credit rising seas as the cause. As Mayor Eskridge says, 

…we can see the effects of erosion daily, weekly for sure. But the sea level rise, things just look the same to me as they did when I was a boy. I have been working the bay for 50 years, and pretty much day in, day out. And I just don’t see any difference in the sea level. 

In other words, for the mayor of Tangier Island, and presumably for most of his constituents, climate change and the predicted sea level rise is a chicken-little hoax cooked up by government bureaucrats. As Yang points out, “no less than 87 percent of the island’s voters went for President Trump, a climate change skeptic.” Indeed. Earl Swift adds that among islanders, as among their hero, President Trump, “there’s a great distrust of expertise, of scientific expertise.” 
            This just boggles the mind. Here is an island which informed sources with empirical data say is clearly in danger from encroaching seas. The evidence seems to confirm that the main livelihood of the island’s people stands to collapse. And yet, they would rather believe their anecdotal impressions of the water (things just look the same), confirmed by a fraud like Donald Trump (Eskridge says: “I love Trump as much as any family member I got”), than those who base their predictions on cold, hard science. 
            This really summarizes the problem of the United States as a whole. Entire segments of our population have decided that they cannot trust the data of experts, especially if they work in government. Whether this is because the ‘experts’ are believed to be ‘eggheads’ with no practical experience, or because these ‘experts’ have an interest in faking evidence to protect their cushy government jobs, or because what the ‘experts’ are saying is inconvenient to those who don’t want to believe that their lives must change to avoid catastrophe, the opinions of scientists seem to carry no weight with these people. They would rather believe the ravings of an idiot, a proven fraud and con-man, who has convinced them with his comforting message that he has their best interests at heart. So when Donald Trump said during his campaign that Tangier Island would survive fine, they believed him and voted for him en masse. 
            This is our problem, folks. People are too stubborn or too stupid to see the danger bearing down upon them, even when it is the ocean which is gobbling up the very ground upon which they stand. They refuse to believe what is difficult for them to comprehend. And since most of the dangers in our modern world are almost impossible for the average person to comprehend, a huge percentage would rather ignore them; ignore the evidence coming from their godless science. Or better still, be diverted to problems with apparently simpler solutions, like immigration, or abortion, or crime in the streets. Build a wall. Simple. Put a sexual predator on the Supreme Court to get rid of Roe. Simple. Give the police more power to shoot the bad guys. Wonderful. Kill ‘em all. 
            So when, on this same program, we learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (those damn scientists again) has just issued a report warning that if governments around the globe don’t cut carbon emissions drastically, millions of people in low-lying coastal areas will suffer dire consequences, we can predict the skeptical reactions from Trumpworld. Just more blather from self-interested, UN-sponsored eggheads. And when, on this same program, we learn from journalist Michael Lewis, as noted in his new book The Fifth Risk, that Trump has been literally gutting the civil service so that U.S. government agencies are and will be for the future too crippled to take the action that is needed to avoid catastrophe, we cringe even more. Because what Lewis demonstrates is that in critical agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the chief scientist who has just left (Cathie Woteki, a distinguished agricultural researcher) has been replaced by a right-wing talk show host from Iowa with no background in science at all, nor any idea what his Department’s mission is. His qualifications for the job? He was a loyalist who backed Trump in the election. Lewis points out that this same pattern has been repeated throughout the government: people with expertise are being replaced by know-nothings. And what makes this worse is that the dedicated bureaucrats who run many of these agencies have become so discouraged that fully twenty percentof them have simply resigned or been fired. This leaves the most important agencies of the United States government—the agencies that do the critical work of government without which a nation cannot function—crippled at their core. Agency websites like FEMA and the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and many others have been ‘cleansed’ of controversial data—FEMA removing data about electricity and water in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, for example; climate change data removed from the Department of Energy. In short, in the face of some of the greatest challenges the world has ever faced, the Trump Administration and its minions have responded by burying their heads in the sand. If we don’t know about it, if we ignore it, then it doesn’t exist. 
            I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of thing that makes me question how long the whole corrupt mess will even last. Because corruption is one thing. This kind of willful ignorance is a mess of a deeper, more pervasive kind. It suggests that people simply don’t have the stomach to face the deep-seated problems that human greed and hatred and ignorance have created. It suggests that even if some courageous souls are willing to confront such problems, most of humanity would prefer to dig a deeper hole in which to bury its collective head. If that is truly the case, then we may find our true kinship with those blue crabs whose soft shells during molting season make them delicious to us, but very, very vulnerable indeed when it comes to species survival.   

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fantasyland

I can do no better in conveying the gist of Kurt Andersens book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (Random House 2017), than by quoting a long passage from its first chapter:

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckerswhich over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from PT Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled (11).

That gets to a major portion of what Andersen has assembled to focus our attention on: the idea that Donald Trump and his believers are not aberrations so much as the fulfillment of our long national aspiration to do our own thing, no matter how nutty. Where we Americans like to think of ourselves as sensible inheritors of Enlightenment rationalism and realism and pragmatism, there is a very powerful strain in the national mythos and character that just as powerfully rejects reason and opts instead for beliefbelief in whatever we feel to be true, regardless of facts or logic or consensus reality. This is why, for instance, the man who is now President of the United States can justify anything he says, no matter how fantastical (that he lost the popular vote because millions of illegals voted for Clinton; or that his offices in Trump Tower were bugged by the Obama administration), by asserting, and having his aides assert as proof that he does believe that, and has believed that for a while. And when asked by a national news anchor about such fantasies—“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?”—he replies No, not at all! Not at allbecause many people feel the same way I do (426-7). In Trumpworld, that is, belief trumps fact every time. What Kurt Andersen does is assemble the history that leads logically to this sorry situation.
            He begins, of course, with the nations founders, including the prospectors who were sure they would find gold in Virginia, the so-called Pilgrims for whom even the relaxed Protestantism of Holland was too constricting, and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, all of whom comprised highly radical wings of the not-very-old Protestant movement. These were people who could not stand any interference with their personal interpretation of the Bible. They felt that God himself had given them not just a new land where they could build their theocracy, but essentially divine rights to the land over and above those who had lived there for millennia, the Natives. And they were quite clear that God had also given them the right to eliminate any who tried to block their settlement, as well as members of other less-pure sects like Quakers or Catholics. As Andersen notes, from 1675 through 1676, they did so with cold-blooded zeal, embarking on what he calls the year of pitiless killing (39) in their war against the Satanic Indians. Believing devoutly that Satan visibly and palpably reigns in America more than in any other known place of the world, they were able to justify their slaughter as a religious war against Satans soldiers (38). And of course, in Salem, the outbreak of witchcraft was met with the well-known trials in which at least twenty witches and sorcerers were executed for alleged fealty to that same Satan. Yet the colonies survived and thrived, creating a place where the real opportunity, according to Andersen, was not so much economic as the permission it gave to dream up new supernatural or otherwise untrue understandings of reality and believe them with passionate certainty (42).
            That auspicious beginning continued literally to the present-day with new sects sprouting like weeds, each nuttier than the last. So America got at least two Great Spiritual Awakenings where participants shook and rattled and spoke in tongues and dedicated themselves to a personal relationship with the Lord as they understood him; and new sects entirely like Baptists and Methodists; and then Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventists and fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics;  and perhaps the craziest of all, Joseph Smith, who somehow convinced his Mormons that America really was the new Holy Land, literally visited by Jesus Christ as proved by the fact that Smith had met and talked with Him near Cleveland, OH. And millions believed him. Such willingness to believe whatever suits the believer made possible the Christian Science of a woman named Patterson who changed her name to Mary Baker Eddy and insisted in her book that neither pain nor disease were real: theres only belief in pain and what is termed disease does not exist (79). It also enabled the founding of over one hundred utopian communities across America including one that Nathaniel Hawthorne toyed with, Brook Farm. As the discovery of gold in California in 1849 seemed to prove once and for all, America was the place where miracles actually happened.
            Andersen then shows how all these initial predilections were given a quantum boost by several inventions: the movies, then TV, and then the Internet. Andersen calls them a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal (138). That is, moving images enwrap the viewer in such a powerful feeling of participation that people who watch TV (many almost constantly) begin to think thats what reality is. Or can no longer tell the difference between what theyve seen on screen and what has actually happened (Donald Trump seems to be one of these people). Add to this the burgeoning of another American fantasythe nostalgia of living in suburbs that appear to be embodiments of a pastoral past we all dream of, or see on screenand you have a nation of people bred on make-believe and brainwashed by commercials that feed even more into that make-believe. In this regard, Andersen makes the notable point that the word suburbia seems to be a conflation of suburb and utopia, the apotheosis of which is the Disney-built town of Celebration, in Florida near Disneyworld. It is total fantasy of a town, fake to the point that each evening in the Fall, every hour on the hour, tissue-paper leaves fall in the town center, while in December, snowlike soap flakes drift from the sky (405). No need for actual trees or clouds or cold weather here.
            There is more about Americans astonishing credulity in this key text, but you get the idea. From belief in UFO abductions to the fake hysteria over satanic abuse in the 1980s and 90s; from the craziness over the right to possess mass-murdering guns to the Republican Partys paranoia over the UNs Agenda 21 (a 1990 resolution about sustainable development that the GOP sees as a plan to coerce us all into a one-world order characterized by socialist/communist redistribution of wealth); from the Prosperity Gospel of Oral Robers and Ken Copeland and Joel Osteen, which says that praying to God can make you rich because Jesus himself was a millionaire and wants you to be rich; to the Hollywood TV Star Fantasy Camp where you can literally pretend to be a star with sets and star trailer etc. for only $10,000what Andersen calls the fantasy-industrial complex keeps going into higher gear and seems set to get even more fantastic as the technology of virtual reality becomes ever more convincing. The net result, of course, is the increasing inability (or unwillingness) of Americans to distinguish between fact and fiction, fake and real. And whats worse is that since the United States has become the worlds greatest exporter of fantasy and fantasy religion, our disease is spreading to the Third World where more than half a billion Christians, according to Andersen, now subscribe to Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity, speaking in tongues and hearing personally from God (289). Not to mention the numbers addicted to our films and video gaming.
And, of course, it has all come back to haunt us with the election of that most preposterous of salesmen for fantasyland, Donald Trump. Andersen calls him a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis (417). And it is true. He is the great white hope of fantasyland, the one who can, so he promised, bring Americans back to their imagined era of greatness (and whiteness). And while those of us in the reality community have a hard time understanding his appeal, Andersens history helps make sense of it. Indeed, it makes sense of what sometimes seems a contradictionthe combination, in Trumps followers, of belief in the preposterous on the one hand, and cynical dismissal of things like science and facts on the other. Andersen quotes from Hannah Arendts masterwork, On Totalitarianism, here, and it is worth repeating part of that quote:

A mixture of gullibility and cynicism have been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true (436).

I think that very nearly describes Trumps true believers, those supporters who seem deaf to his faults, his lies, his idiotic statements and retractions in almost the same breath (such as the one he recently made about having misspoke in his disastrous news conference in Helsinki). Completely unsettled and disoriented by the incomprehensible world in which they find themselves, in which their jobs have vanished and their certainties have been upended, they take refuge, many of them, in preposterous beliefs about the bible, and in the obvious lies of a huckster who promises them relief, improbable though it may be, as well as in cynicism about elites and science and global warming. They can thus think simultaneously that nothing the elites say is true (its all fake news), and that everything Trump promises is both true and possible. And what Kurt Andersen shows us in Fantasyland is that they, this tribe of dreamers and believers, have been prepared for just this apotheosis by centuries of American training in and celebration of what can only be called a childlike way of being. Everything is possible. Nothing is true except what you believe. You can make anything come true simply by believing it. Intuitions are equal to facts. And, as Trumps Witch of Endor said early on, there may be facts that contradict us, but there are also alternative facts that support us. The question is, are there enough Americans who care about the difference to save the ship before it sinks?

Lawrence DiStasi
           


Friday, June 29, 2018

Just Barely Tolerable

The news of the last week has put me in mind of a concept from Mayahana Buddhism (and indeed from the Judeo-Christian tradition as well) which holds that our earthly world in its present condition is “just barely tolerable” (I first heard this phase in a recent talk by Anbo Stuart Kutchins). The Buddhist term for this is “Saha world,” and it is a key element in the Buddhist understanding of suffering in human life. I will address this below, but for now, I am simply interested in the concept—that the world as we know it is “just barely tolerable.” An Italian writer named Mario Brelich has referred to a similar idea in a kind of novelized essay called The Holy Embrace. There, he writes about how humans, after being ejected by God from the bliss of Eden, had to live in another world that would be “just barely tolerable,” so long as they submitted to the divine will, that is. Whether or not Brelich knew of or had access to Buddhist philosophy is not clear, but since he wrote his book in 1972, it certainly seems possible. No matter. The takeaway here is the notion of our human world as one which is “just barely tolerable.” Anyone who has lived long enough and reflected deeply enough (Nietzsche apparently had a similar idea of his world) must surely agree that the world and life as we know it is almost, but not quite, insufferable. Intolerable. Almost, but not quite. 
            The way I think of this is that, considering the news of last week, those who usually thrive and rule in our world often seem bent on making the world intolerable for everyone else, especially the thinking person, the half-way compassionate person. Take the child abuse inflicted on Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States. These are people who have suffered untold misery in their home countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) from both corrupt authorities (usually enabled and supported by the United States) and out-of-control gangs. Indeed, it has been a truism for centuries that no one abandons home, relatives, neighbors, language and everything else that makes life worth living without enormous pressure either from violence or economic deprivation. So it is with people fleeing gangs in El Salvador or right-wing death squads and narco-traffickers in Guatemala or Honduras. To have even reached the Mexico/U.S. border requires an amazing odyssey that has subjected them to untold abuses. And yet, when they finally reach that dreamed-of border nearly mad with anxiety, these parents are met with the most unimaginable outrage of all: separation from their children. It is an obscenity that is all the more obscene because it is unnecessary: these are not criminals; they are refugees, asylum seekers. They want nothing more than safety for themselves and their young children. And yet, Trump and his Administration, almost gleefully (especially in describing the policy to their rabid supporters), have imposed criminal charges against them, charges of illegal entry for which they must answer in court. And this has necessitated their separation from their children. Now thousands of these children are caged and held separated without any indication of when, or whether they can ever be reunited with their parents, some of whom have already been deported. On its own, this is simply intolerable. 
            Then came the Supreme Court decision of June 26, which upheld the Trump administration’s third try at a travel ban against Muslims trying to immigrate. Through a transparent sleight of hand, the administration cosmeticized the original ban to include two countries that are notmajority Muslim—North Korea and Venezuela—so as to be able to claim innocence where religious animus is concerned, so as to be able to claim national security as its aim. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court actually fell for this, or rather, has been slowly built over years to approve of such chicanery. And so they did, ruling that the President of the United States has near-unlimited authority to protect national security, though at the same time retroactively condemning the similar presidential order incarcerating Japanese Americans during WWII. It was a bravura performance of hypocrisy that would have pleased the 1857 court that wrote the Dredd-Scott decision. 
            But not satisfied with that, the Supremes followed that decision with two more decisions that put an exclamation mark upon their 2018 season: one reversing a Texas court’s ruling banning obviously racist gerrymandering, thus allowing racism to flourish in our voting system once again; and another granting a government-employed claimant the ‘right’ not to pay union dues, even though he benefits from union actions. This will bankrupt unions of much of the funding they need not only to protect their workers in the future, but also to help fund democratic candidates—the real point of the conservative decision. As if this were not enough, Justice Anthony Kennedy thereupon announced his retirement, thus paving the way for old Hog-Belly to nominate yet another hyper-conservative justice, this time to pollute the court for a generation, and probably dooming Roe v. Wade in the process. The triumph of vulgarity and stupidity and cruelty could not be more complete. Intolerable. 
            But we are assured that our world is “just barely tolerable.” Is there anything, in the face of all this horror, that makes it so? We can all count the ways. There are flowers that bloom, regardless of the hostility emanating from human poisons. There are also vegetables and trees and fish (barely holding on, it is true) and deer and rabbits and bear and mice and foxes (I  just saw one scratching in my yard) and sharks and whales and hawks and coyotes that appear periodically to assure us that nature cannot be so easily suppressed, no matter how much glyphosate or fossil fuel we spray on it and over it and through it. Or how much carbon and plastic we inject into its air and oceans. And we know in our bones that once the human stain is gone from this earth, the natural world will rebound with unalloyed joy. Salmon will again thicken rivers and bears will feast on them as they journey upstream to spawn past rejuvenated forests and meadows and purefied air. Then there are our grandchildren, eager and beautiful and energetic in their innocent anticipation of growing up so they can taste the world that seems so appealing to them if only they could be adult and free. And as we watch, we can only hope that there will still be a world, “barely tolerable” though it might be, for them to fill out as we did. And then there are those courageous types everywhere who refuse to be threatened or deterred, who let their compassion and their fire drive them to relieve the suffering of those at the border or those under the boot or those fleeing global warming or those attempting to find a way to live on the streets. They are there, they are many, and they are models and inspiration for us all. 
            Which brings me back to the start of this essay. The Saha world is a concept made vivid in the branch of Buddhism known as Mahayana. And what it points out is that, though there are said to be other wonderful realms with names like the Pure Land or the Perfume Universe where everything is perfectly lovely (akin to Christian Heaven, perhaps), the Saha world is really best for us humans not just because it’s what we’ve got, but more precisely because of the struggle and hardship we find here. Struggle and hardship are beneficial for us, we are told; or rather, they are beneficial for those who adopt the ideal of the “bodhisattva”—the being who vows to eschew the personal liberation that he or she might obtain in favor of waiting until all beings are liberated. No thank you, says the bodhisattva when his own personal liberation is at hand; I prefer to remain here and help others. For such an ideal being, in short, the struggles and hardships and sufferings endemic to the Saha world are precisely what is needed for her development; development of the great compassion that keeps her here in the thick of things helping all others. In other words, the world just as it is seems perfectly designed for the development of that which the world itself needs to, eventually, wake up. And it becomes plain to such a being that no one, not even the most advanced of beings, can actually wake up alone. No one. Waking up is exactly that which is done together with all beings. 
            So, though in our more desperate moments (like now), we would, if we could, wipe out all the troubles and problems of the world by whatever means necessary to try to bring about some utopia or other, in our more comprehensive, our wiser moments, perhaps, we realize that the “just barely tolerable” world we have, doing its deluded thing as always, provides us with the right combination of horror and solace to keep us honest, and human, and, we hope, compassionate enough to never turn our backs on its “slings and arrows.” Because it is precisely those slings and arrows, along with a little bit of proper nourishment, that make us who and what we are. 

Lawrence DiStasi