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 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Post, the Past, and Now

I recently watched the new Spielberg film, The Post, starring Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham. While I wouldn’t say the film was award caliber, it was definitely enjoyable and did its best to engender some suspense over whether Graham, the Post’s owner, would defy the Nixon Administration’s injunction against publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. Anyone who lived through this, as I did, knew that Graham would publish, but the film nonetheless succeeds in building the tension over her decision—which involved not only the possible insolvency of her paper, but possible jail time for her as the owner, and of editor Bradlee and writer Bagdikian as well. What the film mainly recaptured for me, though, was the joy that prevailed, particularly among anti-war activists, when that edition of the Postcontaining the Pentagon Papers piled off the presses; to then be followed by a delirious Tom Hanks dropping on Katherine Graham’s desk copies of a dozen other newspapers across the country that had similarly defied the Attorney General’s injunction against publication. That meant that the strength of all those papers challenging the government and asserting their freedom-of-the-press rights would influence the subsequent Supreme Court decision that agreed with their assertion of those rights. The power of Nixon’s imperial presidency was broken right then and there—which the film makes clear by closing with a night watchman, about a year later, noticing an opened door at Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building. The initial reporting about this break-in by Nixon’s so-called “plumbers” (who had earlier broken into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist) would lead inexorably to Nixon’s resignation. The Vietnam War would ignominiously end soon thereafter. 
            Given our current dire situation, the film could not help but bring up my hope that something like the miracle of the Pentagon Papers would happen again to bring to ruin the alleged presidency of the Drumpf. Our situation in 1972 was actually similar to what we are experiencing now. Nixon’s grip on the presidency seemed unassailable; despite his 1971 loss regarding the Pentagon Papers, he won a landslide victory over a rather hapless George McGovern in the 1972 election and seemed well on his way to controlling the nation for years to come. But so outraged was he by the Pentagon Papers leak that he set up the “plumbers’ operation,” Watergate became their signature caper, and Nixon was disgraced, humiliated, and forced to resign rather than face inevitable impeachment. Could it happen again? Who knows? But there are forces in motion that could do the same to our wannabe King. 
            We all know what those forces are. To begin with, Donald Trump’s criminality, not just as president but throughout his long career, makes the lawlessness of Nixon’s burglars seem akin to high-school pranks. And it appears that Robert Mueller’s investigation is focused pretty heavily on that lawlessness—the years of real estate scams culminating in the 1990s sale of scores of properties to Russian thugs and oligarchs to launder their money. Paul Manafort, once Trump’s campaign chief, has already been charged with such money laundering, and there are suspicions that Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner have been and still are up to their eyeballs in the same skulduggery. And it is skullduggery. As 18 U.S. code from 1957 says: 

Whoever, in any of the circumstances set forth in subsection (d), knowingly engages or attempts to engage in a monetary transaction in criminally derived property of a value greater than $10,000 and is derived from specified unlawful activity,shall be punished as provided in subsection (b). 

In layman’s terms, laundering money through real estate is a crime—one that involves using criminally-derived money to buy properties and then selling them. Thereby, the income from the sale will have been “laundered” through property to look legal. Even according to Trump Jr., much of the money that poured into the Trump organization since the 1990s to bail out the then-bankrupt Trump came from Russian sources seeking to launder their loot. These, and a lifetime of other shady deals, not excluding presidential violations of the emoluments clause (whereby foreign visitors to Washington DC, for example, are induced to spend huge amounts of money at the Trump Hotel in that city, or in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago property benefiting the president directly), would be used to indict the president himself. 
The problem would be pinning something on Trump or any of his henchmen in today’s ethical climate. Indeed, if we look back to the Nixon-era 1970s, we can see that the issue of a Trump presidency would never have arisen in the first place. No one with Trump’s record of misstatements, corrupt business dealing, outright lying, and sexual outrages could have even been considered for, much less won the nomination of either of the two parties. Yes, Richard Nixon was a crook and a racist, but he covered it with practiced and well-accepted coded language: the ‘southern strategy’ was kept more or less secret from the mainstream, while the ‘moral majority’ did not obviously signify white supremacists but right-thinking Americans in the suburbs. With Trump, though, the racism, the goatish behavior, the contempt for government itself, the scapegoating of the press, the open nepotism with his daughter, and a whole galaxy of attitudes and practices going on quietly to cripple government for decades, are all out in the open. And what is astonishing is not only that Republican politicians seem deaf to these ethical breaches (making impeachment a distant dream), so does what is accurately called his “base” (the people from the basement, the people who are truly basein the worst sense of that word). An incredible instance of that baseness made the news on June 22, when an actual pimp owner of several whorehouses in Nevada named Dennis Hof won the Republican primary for a seat in the Nevada assembly! Explaining his rather surprising support among those highly ‘moral’ Christian evangelicals, Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, told Reuters, “People will set aside for a moment their moral beliefs, their religious beliefs, to get somebody that is honest in office. Trump is the trailblazer, he is the Christopher Columbus of honest politics” (“In age of Trump, evangelicals back self-styled top U.S. pimp,” by Tim Reid,, 6.22.18). The Christopher Columbus of honest politics—you just can’t make this stuff up. But it is clearly what Trump’s supporters, including his evangelical ones, seem to think and feel. We heard it repeatedly during the election: “He tells it like it is.” Which is to say, he’ll insult anyone, especially the “elites” that the great unwashed envy and hate, without dressing up his language. That most of what he says is pure fabrication, outright lies, or worse, seems not to matter. That he takes damn fool actions, like the recent ones against asylum-seekers at the border that amount to child abuse, doesn’t matter. That he is a billionaire who is making money that will never reach his impoverished supporters, whose policies will only impoverish them further, doesn’t seem to matter. He is sticking his thumb in the eye of the hated “coastal elites” whom they blame for their troubles, and that’s enough for them. 
And yet, those of us who watch with horror as this happens, can’t help thinking that sooner or later, logic will catch up, truth will catch up, facts and common sense will catch up. And we comb history for parallels (Hitler, Mussolini, Huey Long, etc.) to see if we can understand how this could happen. For me, this comes down to a simple question: how can people believe this known liar? I keep thinking of the song from the 1951 musical (and later film), Royal Wedding: “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love you?” the second line of which is, “When you know I’ve been a liar all my life?” That’s it precisely. We all know, they all know that Trump is a serial, a compulsive, a habitual liar. And yet they believe. Why?
There’s a mountain of research on the true roots of belief, but most theories come down to a simple equation: people believe what they want to believe. This is generally called “motivated reasoning.” What that means is that we all have fears, or ideologies, or vested interests, or identity needs that influence what we’re willing to believe and what we’re prone to reject, in today’s term, as “fake news.” So, if we’re fearful about something, we’re much more prone to believe even a wildly improbable promise from a known liar like Donald Trump. If we’re anxious about maintaining our group identity, we’re driven by that to believe what accords with the group, especially if they’re all wildly cheering for the same Donald Trump. And the problem with such belief is that it’s not easily dislodged, least of all by introspection or conscious effort or even opposing facts. All of these motivations are discussed in a May 2017 article by Kristen Weir in Monitor on Psychology, “Why we believe alternative facts.” And what we learn is precisely how powerful motivated reasoning can be, how “our wishes, hopes, fears and motivations often tip the scales to make us more likely to accept something as true if it supports what we want to believe.” This is especially true given the media landscape we all live with these days—with fewer investigative reporters as failing newspapers struggle to maintain even skeleton crews; and with the proliferation of ‘echo chambers’ on the internet that reinforce every wacko bias—all of which makes it ever harder for real facts to win out over wishful thinking. And even when vetted facts can be marshaled for an argument against obvious lies coming from the top, believers can retreat into the accusation of “fake news.” In other words, anything that challenges my beliefs can credibly be attributed to “fake news.” Because after all, that’s what the president says all the time, isn’t it? Anything he doesn’t like is “fake news.” Anything that disputes his truth is “fake news.” And he should know: he’s the all-time champion dispenser of “fake news.” 
There is probably one more (or a million more) element here as well. A 2017 book by Kevin Young looks at the endless variety of bullshitters in American history. It’s titled Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and starts with P.T. Barnum (sideshow mogul born in my hometown of Bridgeport, CT) and ends with Donald Trump. And while there’s much to admire in the book, for me the most salient point is simple: it’s not only that the public, as Barnum proved, is eager to be taken in by hoaxes and ‘bunk,’ there is an element of awareness in its attitude which the bunco artist and con man seem to understand. That is, not only is it the case that we are “motivated” believers (Young says at one point about some fake memorabilia of Hitler, “the forgery is believed not because it alters history, but because we wishhistory were otherwise” p. 276), but also that, on some level, we knowthat we are being taken in, and enjoy or at least need the game. We wantto be fooled, perhaps because the made-up reality is better than the one we are trapped in. Young links this to the “confession” as the dominant form (usually in the form of memoir) in what he calls our ‘Age of Euphemism.’ Here is what he says:

Now the hoax, married to confession, caught in the narrative crisis [where we no longer can tell truth from falsehood, memoir from fiction, ed.], has replaced drink as our national addiction, and substituted loss for feeling lost (439).

In other words, we are, many of us, willing participants, willful believers, junkies ever more addicted to the deception that has become commonplace in our national life. We no longer seem to mind being taken advantage of by internet hucksters, political and financial scammers, bunco artists, and fake presidents. Many of us actually court the hoax, the lie, the gross exaggeration as a kind of entertainment—witness the huge profits being made by media companies that promote scripted ‘reality’ shows and every fart uttered by the Hoaxer-in-Chief.  Of course, these same media companies pretend to be outraged by his “mis-speakings,” but almost all bend over backwards to employ euphemisms rather than calling a lie a lie. They seem reluctant, that is, to kill the goose laying the golden eggs—fake eggs though they may be—that have so many of us mesmerized. 
            And as long as this is so, we are caught, trapped in the need to amuse ourselves, no matter what the cost to our once-vibrant democracy. And it will be considerable.  

Lawrence DiStasi