Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

I woke this morning rather early, for my second pee, with dawn’s light just beginning to seep in from the east, when, glimpsing through my bathroom window to the west, I saw something I don’t remember seeing before: a full moon, already about a third obscured, setting in the west. It seemed uncanny to me. I had never seen a moon-set before, at least not that I remember. I’ve seen a quarter or half-moon in the western sky high up, while the sun rose in the east, but never this—a full moon looking almost like the sun setting, only it was this bright, glowing moon. Later, I saw an item in my Bing news feed: that this was a special moon in another sense; it was a “blue moon,” the second full moon in a single calendar month. And, a bit later, that it was also a “paschal” moon—the moon around which Passover, and therefore the Easter that always follows the Jewish holiday (since Jesus was a Jew and celebrated his Last Supper in honor of Passover), also revolves. 
            Of course, it’s not Easter yet. It’s Good Friday. And that name also gives me pause. I mean in what sense is the gruesome crucifixion that Good Friday celebrates “good?” Why do Christians celebrate (as many adherents of other religions often ask) the brutal torture and killing of their God? Why have they made it the central symbol of their religion? Why do religious people wear crosses or even crucifixes (metal images of their dead God hung from the cross) around their necks? 
            I haven’t thought about these things for many years, mainly because I have been practicing Buddhism since my thirties and Christianity has seemed mostly irrelevant. But of course, like many others, I still mark Christian holidays by attending special family dinners, featuring traditional meals that I love. And periodically I write a blog about one of the holidays and the philosophy behind it. As I’m doing here. What is this Good Friday thing? Does it depend on knowing that the dead God, Jesus, will rise again on Easter Sunday (implying that we, too, will survive our death)? Is that why the Friday of his death is “good?” Or is the Friday of the God-slaying “good” even aside from the joy of the resurrection? 
            If I remember correctly, there is something “good” about the death of Jesus, about his sacrifice, because he is thought to be redeeming all Christians (and perhaps all of humanity) thereby. His death is an atonement, a sacrifice to his Father, the big Macher, for the “sins” of humanity. And because he is believed to be no less than God himself, this sacrifice, this death of God himself, is sufficient to make up for, to atone for the horrible sin(s) of humans. And that, of course, raises the key question: what have we humans done that we require such an awful atonement? 
            If we follow orthodoxy and the Bible, we would have to say that humans, in the persons of Adam and Eve, sinned against God by eating of the forbidden fruit. As Milton put it in Paradise Lost: “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…” So there it is: this flouting of God’s command in Paradise set the stage for the coming of Jesus to perform his sacrifice and redeem us all from what Roman Catholics call “original sin.”  But clearly, we’re not just talking about an apple here (or even a pomegranate). The Bible is referring to something more critical, more outrageous. It is referring to some deep transgression, a crime so unforgiveable that only the death of God’s son could atone for it.What could that be? 
            Given the symbolism, we might reason, it had to do with eating—since eating the fruit is what causes the problem in the first place. And this reminds me of the first novel I ever wrote, still unpublished, called Eat. It concerns a character who decides that human life disgusts him so much that he will stop eating. Stop eating altogether. Not a fast for some political reason, but simply as a sign of his disgust with the human situation. It was based on some fasting done by a student of mine when I was teaching at a small college in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and I found it so fascinating, especially for an Italian, that I turned it into a novel. The point here is that the act of eating itself, no matter how we try to sanitize it, brings with it all kinds of ethical problems. If we eat meat, we are essentially eating the dead bodies of animals. And that requires that we take life to sustain life, that we kill something living to survive. And even if we limit our consumption to vegetable products, we are still taking vegetal life from plants that would prefer to proliferate on their own. There is simply no getting away from it: Life lives on other life. Living things survive by killing and consuming other living things. And so, if one wanted to live a perfectly blameless life, one would have to find some way to survive on air, or light, like the angels. This is the dream behind religion, not to mention the veganism, so popular in our time: there must be a way to survive without killing other beings. 
            If we were to expand this further, we could easily see that our current predicament, in this twenty-first century of the Christian era, stems from related problems. Humans have turned out to be the most lethal creatures ever to roam this earth. We have, anthropologists tell us, been directly responsible for the extinction of countless species—for example, several species of large mammals that once roamed the North American continent. Currently, our food production practices (what we do to raise cattle, pigs, fowl, and even fish on farms) are causing endless mayhem to the natural world. To provide grain for these animals, we have increasingly destroyed forests that are the literal lungs of our planet. The excrement from our farm animals is a major source of pollution, including methane, one of the most potent of greenhouse gases. And our industrial fishing of the oceans has depleted fish stocks to nearly the point of no return. The industry and population explosion made possible by this food system has led to global warming and what is turning out to be the greatest mass extinction of other species in history. 
            So, yes, our eating practices, our virtually infinite appetite for flesh to sustain us, could well be said to constitute our original sin. The flaw in the very biological construct that we are. But isn’t it the case that we are simply following the pattern laid down by evolution itself? Aren’t we simply doing what all living creatures do, and must do—consume each other? We are. And here we come to the real flaw. The root flaw, as I reflect on it, is our inability, our refusal to accept who and what we are. Our determination to make of ourselves, the species homo sapiens, something special. Something out of the ordinary. Something separate and unequal. Something that can somehow, no matter the cost, circumvent the necessity of our being. And so we invent gods, and sons of gods, who come into existence to save us from ourselves. Save us from being human. Jesus on the cross redeems us—and thereby makes it ok to do what is repulsive—consume the flesh of other beings. Then and thereby, we become humans who are above and beyond all other creatures. We are the special creature, the one that god saved by sending us his only son to die for us. And we can comfortably go on despoiling the earth and its creatures because we have been given that dispensation. We have been given Good Friday. We have been given redemption. We have, essentially, been given the earth to do with, to despoil as we will. 
            I think it is clear what the problem is here. What the “good” in Good Friday means to signify. And what we must all do, somehow, to move beyond our root refusal to accept our aliveness, must involve our human-ness and the responsibility that comes with it. The responsibility, I mean, to find a way to embrace our kinship, our continuation with all of creation that can keep us from consciously or unconsciously destroying it. An ability to somehow consume what we must consume with some sort of reverence. Some sort of restraint. Some sort of appreciation. Some species of willingness to allow all else to do the same in the precious and precarious balance all have been given. 
Even when it means, as it inevitably must, that we ourselves are the consumed. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Kim, the Trumpster and Denuclearization

World news outlets were rocked this week by Donald Trump’s alleged agreement (the news was actually broken, rather strangely, by the South Korean delegation that brought the North Korean’s offer to the White House) to hold a meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Given Trump’s belligerent rhetoric of only a few months ago in which he threatened to rain “fire and fury” upon the North Koreans, it was surprising to say the least. But perhaps it was really not so surprising after all. For Trump clearly sees in this nuclear summit the prospect of great headlines throughout the world—and if there is one thing this global narcissist lives for, it’s headlines announcing a “first” for him (not to mention getting other less savory news off the front pages). Whether he’ll be able to pull something real out his toupe´ is something else again. For as usual, the headlines mistake what Kim Jong Un has offered. He did NOT say he was willing to give up his nukes. He said he is willing to discuss the “denuclearization of the peninsula.”  What does that mean? Not exactly clear. But one thing is certain: Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, wants to get out from under the American threat, both nuclear and otherwise. He wants to get a formal end to the Korean war (not just a cease-fire). He wants a halt to the joint military exercises put on twice a year by American and South Korean forces, including simulated nuclear strikes. He wants an end to punishing sanctions. So when he says, “denuclearization,” if he means it at all, he’s talking more about getting rid of American nukes (including those at the disposal of South Korea) than getting rid of his own. And he may just figure that if he can get Trump committed to a huge summit meeting, the president may be so rash as to agree to something that would be a huge victory for Korea. Already, in fact, Kim has gone a long way toward getting what he has long sought: using his nuclear testing to induce the United States to recognize him and his country as equal enough to deserve a summit meeting.
            But enough speculation. Here I would like to simply provide the background I adduced way back in September when the explosions from both sides were giving the world daily agita. This is important to keep in mind when, as no doubt will happen, our media outlets drum up the heart-stopping “US v THEM” dramatics should a summit actually take place. Hence, this blog, first posted on September 5, 2017. It’s titled, ‘Who’s ‘Begging for War?’

As North Korea ups the ante once again, this time with a massive nuclear blast that some observers (and the North Koreans themselves) are calling a hydrogen bomb, the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration gets more belligerent by the minute. As I noted in a previous blog, the two adolescent leaders—Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the U.S.—are engaged in a pissing contest. ‘My dick is bigger than yours; look how far my piss goes.’ Only it’s not piss that’s being compared; it’s weapons of such massive destructive power that most rational humans shudder to even contemplate their use. But not the Donald. “What’s a nuke for, if we can’t use it?” he once said. Most recently, Nikki Haley (who, before becoming our UN Ambassador, seemed semi-rational) has been uttering nutter phrases like “We have kicked the can down the road enough. There is no more road left…” No more road for diplomacy, is what she seems to mean, especially considering that she also said Kim Jong Un is “begging for war.” The President himself tweeted much the same thing, berating the South Koreans for their “talk of appeasement with North Korea,” which will “not work, they only understand one thing.” That is, violence of the nuclear variety.
            And as we all look on in horror as nuclear Armageddon looms ever closer, we have to ask: Just who is it that’s begging for war? Can the world really believe that North Korea, a nation of 24 million people whose economy seems permanently hobbled, and whose military, while large, would be no match for that of the United States and South Korea combined (the South itself may have nukes in its huge military arsenal supplied by the United States), actually wants a war? Or is it rather Donald Trump—he whose administration has lurched from one failure to another without a single legislative victory, with an approval rating that’s the lowest of any president in modern history—who is really searching for a ‘wag-the-dog’ solution to distract us all from his mounting problems?
            To really probe this question, especially the one concerning what exactly Kim Jong Un thinks he’s doing with his rockets and nukes, we need to know a bit about history (which most Americans, especially their idiot president, do not). My source is an article that appeared on last week: “How History Explains the Korean Crisis,” by distinguished historian William R. Polk. In it, Polk makes sense of North Korean belligerence by detailing the long history of invasions Koreans have suffered, starting in 1592 when Japan invaded and controlled the country for a decade or so. The Japanese invaded again in 1894, and this time set up a ‘friendly government,’ thereby ruling Korea for the next thirty-five years. It was in this period that many Koreans fled the country, including Syngman Rhee (the first president of the South) who fled to America, and Kim Il Sung (the first leader of the North) who fled to Russia-influenced Manchuria, where he joined the Communist party. By WWII Japan had reduced many Koreans to virtual slaves (thousands of Korean women became “comfort women” or concubines for the Japanese Army). But what’s fascinating to me is what happened to some of those Koreans who became rulers in the post-WWII period. Syngman Rhee, long resident in the United States and ‘Americanized’ (not to say ‘Christianized’), was set up as the first president of the new South Korea (North and South were vaguely established by the UN in 1945, but Rhee officially became the South’s ‘president’ with American help in August of 1948). He ruled basically as a U.S. puppet, with the United States military assuring his continuance by sending thousands of U.S. troops to support him, and American industry assuring the economic rise of his part of the country. According to William Polk, “Syngman Rhee’s government imposed martial law, altered the constitution, rigged elections, opened fire on demonstrators and even executed leaders of the opposing party.” His successor (via a military coup in 1961), Park Chung Hee, spent the war in Korea, but by collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (he apparently even changed his name to a Japanese one). His rule as President was so vicious that he, too, was overthrown (assassinated by his intelligence chief, 1979) and replaced first by Choi Kuy-hah, who was then deposed in a military coup by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who himself immediately imposed martial law that closed universities, banned political activities and throttled the press. A book I’ve read recently, Human Acts by renowned Korean novelist Han Kang, dramatizes the university and high school protests of 1980 in Gwangju that were savagely put down by Chun Doo-hwan, who ordered soldiers to coldly shoot over 600 young protesters and bury them in mass graves.
            By contrast, Kim Il Sung, who was to become the leader of North Korea after WWII for no less than fifty years, spent the war years as a guerilla fighter influenced by the Russians, where he led the resistance to the Japanese occupiers. His status as a hero was established there, and he soon became the first Prime Minister of the North, which he declared as a state in 1948, with ambitions to reunite North and South (Syngman Rhee had announced the same intention, as ‘reunification’). But when Rhee declared that the South was a fully independent state, Kim Il Sung saw it as an act of war, and (once China had agreed to take responsibility for the outcome) ordered his army to invade the South. Far better equipped and motivated than the southerners, Sung’s army took possession of Seoul, the South’s capital city, within three days, on June 28, 1950. By this time, the U.S. had persuaded the UN Security Council to protect the South, and organized 21 countries to send troops (though Americans made up the bulk of the forces in what was called a “police action”). Still, Sung’s military drove the southern army all the way south to the city of Pusan, where, by August, the southern army “held only a tenth of what had been the Republic of Korea.”
Here the situation was saved for the South only by the brilliant counterattack led by General Douglas MacArthur, who made a storied landing at Inchon, where, behind enemy lines, the Americans were able to cut off the Northern army from its bases. That led to a further attack by the South, which retook Seoul, and then moved across the 38th parallel (the dividing line between North and South) and drove nearly to the Chinese frontier. This brought China into the conflict, and, with what it called a 300,000 man “Volunteer Army,” overwhelmed the South Koreans and drove the Americans out of the North. At this point, General MacArthur urged President Truman to use fifty nuclear weapons to stop the Chinese, but Truman instead replaced MacArthur and continued the more or less conventional war. Except that it was not at all conventional for the North. U.S. carpet-bombing devastated the North with more tonnage (including chemical weapons) than had been used against the Japanese in all of WWII. Analysts today estimate that the North lost 33% of its population through this bombing—one of every three North Koreans perished. As Polk puts it, Korea proportionally suffered roughly 30 times as many people killed in 37 months of American carpet-bombing as these other countries (Britain, France, China and the U.S.) lost in all the years of the Second World War.” This may help explain why North Koreans generally favor their government’s stance to repel invaders at all costs: most have experienced the utter devastation of war firsthand.
            Finally, the North agreed to negotiate a cease-fire to end the stalemate (the state of war between North and South still exists), with the country divided at its 38th parallel by a demilitarized zone to keep the armies separate and to keep ‘new’ (i.e. nuclear) weapons out of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the United States, in 1957, violated article 13(d) of the agreement:

In June 1957, the U.S. informed the North Koreans that it would no longer abide by Paragraph 13(d) of the armistice agreement that forbade the introduction of new weapons. A few months later, in January 1958, it set up nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Moscow and Peking. The U.S. kept them there until 1991. It wanted to reintroduce them in 2013 but the then South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won refused (Polk op. cit.).

Thus, we see that it was the United States that decided to introduce nuclear weapons to the Korean conflict. But what about the North Koreans and their nukes? Even here, Polk points out, both the South and North had agreed to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement (1975 and 1985 respectively), but both violated the agreement (South Korea covertly from 1982 to 2000; North Korea in 1993, withdrawing totally in 2003.) Polk also adds that the precipitating event for the North’s withdrawal and its underground testing begun in 2006, was George W. Bush’s January 2002

Axis of Evil speech, in which he demonized North Korea. Thereafter, North Korea withdrew from the 1992 agreement with the South to ban nuclear weapons and announced that it had enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about 5 or 6 nuclear weapons (Polk op. cit.).

            This brings us to today. As noted in a recent article (Mel Gurtov, “Echoes of Reagan: Another Nuclear Buildup,” 9.3.2017), the United States currently has about 6,800 nuclear weapons (roughly 1,400 strategic weapons deployed, the rest stockpiled or retired). Among these, the 920 missile-launched nuclear warheads deployed on 230 invulnerable submarines, are alone “enough to destroy an entire country and bring on nuclear winter.” By comparison, North Korea may have about a dozen nuclear weapons (some analysts say they could have as many as 60), most of them about the size of the ‘paltry’ nukes that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also has the still fairly rudimentary missiles it has been launching with frequency this year, very few with the ability to strike the United States or anywhere near it. So what is this business about the North “begging for war?” It is an absurdity. What the North is really after is simple: survival; a resolution of the South-North war, which has been ongoing since the armistice in July 1953; and, related to that, an end to the huge and provocative war games that have been carried on for the last three weeks. These ‘games’ go on twice a year, and are clearly designed to threaten the North by simulating an invasion of North Korea and a “decapitation” operation to remove Kim Jong Un. What would the United States do if Russia were to carry on war games from Cuba or Mexico? We already know the answer to that. Yet despite the continuing pleas of the North to the U.S. and South Korea to cease these provocative military exercises, the U.S. and its protégé have persisted and even expanded them ever since the end of active fighting. In addition to these regular war games, recently the United States has sent groups of F-35B fighters, F-15 fighters and B-1B bombers on military operations over a training range near Seoul, where they dropped their dummy bombs to simulate a nuclear strike. According to Mike Whitney (, 9.4.2017, “What the Media isn’t telling you about North Korea’s Missile Tests”),
The show of force was intended to send a message to Pyongyang that Washington is unhappy with the North’s ballistic missile testing project and is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the North if it fails to heed Washington’s diktats.

That’s it exactly. For this is the way the world according to American empire works: we can hold threatening war games, we can surround you with nukes from submarines and bombers and missile launchers, we can insult you and threaten you and starve you and humiliate you and refuse to end our war against you, but if you dare to stand up to our bullying, we will destroy you. And it’s your own fault for defying our ‘rule of law.’
            But of course, the North sees through this. Kim Jong Un may be a clown in a funny haircut who’s trying to prove he’s a big boy now, but he’s no dummy. His nuclear response to the threats from the United States, when considering his people’s history, and his knowledge of recent history, is perfectly rational. As Mike Whitney points out, “Kim has no choice but to stand firm. If he shows any sign of weakness, he knows he’s going to end up like Saddam and Gaddafi.” To remind you, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya finally decided to take the West at its word, and give up his nuclear plans. He was thereafter the victim of an invasion by western powers and ended up publicly violated in a gruesome death, mocked by American leaders like Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.” Ditto Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose country is in ruins. Kim Jong Un would clearly like to avoid that fate. He and his people would like to avoid being bombed back into the Stone Age, again. And so they are gambling that the blustering primate in Washington will either run true to his cowardly form, or be persuaded by calmer and more rational minds to see if there might not be an opening for negotiations. In fact, we all have to hope that this is the case. China and Russia also hope that this is the case, proposing once again (as they did in March and often before that) that in exchange for a halt to the military exercises by American and South Korean forces, North Korea could be persuaded to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Surely, there is the germ for a diplomatic agreement here. Even South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in has just reiterated his offer to hold peace talks with North Korea (, 9.5.17) in what he has called his “Sunshine Policy.”
The only real question is whether the United States, and especially its wacky president, will ever agree to stop the war games. Because, after all, we are the Americans, the big dogs, who don’t back down, don’t negotiate unless it’s totally on our terms. Which in this case, means: do what we say not what we do, give up your nukes, and we can discuss the terms of your unconditional surrender. Anything short of that is “begging for war.”

            Addendum, Mar. 10, 2018. Since writing the above, I have read Min Jin Lee’s novel, Pachinko. In it, Lee narrates a saga of a Korean family that, during the pre-WWII period, moves to Osaka, Japan to seek its fortunes there. What we learn is the agonizing plight of Koreans in Japan (and in Korea under Japanese colonization) who are always and everywhere discriminated against as “lazy” and “morally defective,” even when successful and allowed to become Japanese citizens. This helps to explain both the never-healed antagonism between Koreans and Japanese, and the never-outgrown defensiveness of Koreans that pertains to this day—including, perhaps, some of the behavior of Kim Jong Un himself.

Lawrence DiStasi