Monday, June 30, 2014

ISIS: Terrorism on Twitter

ISIS via social media
As if eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame, ISIS rebels recently began posting videos of their crimes in Iraq and Syria via social media. While the images are horrific, what they prove above all is that the ISIS rebels are devoid of honor, truth, or justice. They have no cause and no high aim; they are merely on a joyride of violence and murder for its own sake.

The immediate response after seeing such pointless violence and cruelty is to do something - anything - to stop ISIS. It's just an instinctive response. Yet however easy it is to understand the visceral anger and disgust ISIS inspires, we need to respond with our intellect and not just our emotions. Unfortunately, based on the comments made by US citizens on social media sites, it seems that the experience in Afghanistan and the total mistake of the Iraq war have not been enough to teach hawkish 'Mericans that it's better to think first and shoot later.

This is a sad take-away, but there's no other conclusion to reach after reading comment after comment bashing President Barack Obama for taking too much time to act. "We gotta do something" is the demand (without proposing what we should do). Of course, there is the usual solve-everything-with-troops camp, led by John McCain and Dick Cheney. These two hotheads - and their "bomb them all!" supporters - are always eager to push the US into war without stopping to consider whether it's the best move for the country and/or whether the sacrifice will be worth it.

image: Amnesty International
Looking at the comments from another angle, I was surprised by the genuine shock many US citizens express in seeing atrocities like this. I say surprised because any informed person knows that atrocities like this have been going on in some combination of countries every day of every week of every month of every year for decades. Just consider some of things that have happened in the last year or two:
  • Nigeria: Vigilante groups hunt down and kill Muslims with machetes and axes.
  • Sudan: Government forces bomb entire villages, driving 300,000 people from their homes.
  • Myanmar: Government-sanctioned mobs have killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims, including a day-long massacre in which 28 children were hacked to death.
  • Ukraine: Russian-backed thugs in the eastern end of the country kidnap, beat, and 'disappear'  civilians at will. 
  • North Korea: Prison guards torture and starve between 80,000 and 120,000 inmates, many of whom are guilty of nothing except being relatives of someone the government wanted to punish.
  • Venezuela: Protesters are regularly kidnapped and beaten by government forces. Over 40 people are known to have been killed in the last year.
  • Israel: Israeli troops arrested 700 Palestinian teens (some as young as 12) and subjected them to solitary confinement, death threats, and sexual assaults.
  • Mexico: Drug gangs drive into villages to round up every relative of whistle blowers (even children), execute them, and dump them in mass graves.

The point of this list is not to dismiss such atrocities; no one should ever do that. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the situation with ISIS is not some unprecedented crisis. And that raises a question: why the shock and determination to thoughtlessly jump into Iraq? Why not Nigeria, Ukraine, or Sudan? The only explanation I can think of is that, due to ISIS posting their crimes to social media, a whole lot of Americans are having this violence shoved under their noses for the first time. Maybe they're used to having such tragedies reported only in places they can ignore them: non-Fox News media and 'pinko-liberal' organizations like Amnesty International. Knowing this kind of violence is a constant part of the global landscape does not make witnessing it via video any less disturbing but, someone lacking that perspective is probably more likely to experience out of control emotions.

This emotionalism is why President Obama must proceed with caution regarding ISIS, especially in terms of whether to commit our resources and/or the lives of our soldiers. Places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia are just as horrifying as ISIS/Iraq. If America jumped into every one of these messes with the haste hotheads like McCain and Cheney would have, our country would be financially destroyed and we'd have ten times as many slain and maimed soldiers as we do now. And maybe we'd also be facing two or three more examples - akin to Iraq - where billions of dollars and thousands of lives were squandered to accomplish little or nothing.

Sending troops into a war zone cannot be done lightly or in a state of emotional furor. It's a decision that must be weighed carefully. As proof of this, ask yourself how different things might be now if we'd used a little more caution before initially invading Iraq. Might we have had time to learn there were no weapons of mass destruction? Might we have realized Cheney and MCain's vows that the Iraq war would be over in a few weeks were gibberish which proved neither of them had any idea what they were talking about? Might we have headed off the Iraq war before it started? If so, how many lives and how much money would we have saved? Chew on that before you advocate how President Obama needs to stop thinking and rush headlong into another Iraq war.

For thoughtful Americans pondering how - or whether - we should respond to ISIS, the images of ISIS' crimes on social media undeniably stir up a lot of thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, it's hard to turn away from these images. On the other hand, it's just as hard to ignore that we've already given Iraq more time and money and blood than any other problematic area in the world...and it's still falling apart. What more can we do?

cartoon: Dave Granlund
Part of deciding whether we should go in and - if so - how far involves answering some contextual questions: Whose fault is this mess with ISIS? Did we create it? If so, do we have a moral obligation to clean it up? Of course, Cheney, McCain, and the mindless rabble of the Tea Party blame President Obama for the situation, saying he pulled US troops out of Iraq too soon. This is a patently absurd position if, for not other reason, than the inordinate length of the Iraq War. We were there plenty long. More importantly, however, Obama correctly identified that the way to motivate Iraqis to step up to the plate was to tell them we were on our way out.

It worked; Iraq was stable (albeit not perfect) when we left. It also remained stable for a good period of time after we left. Nevertheless, the Tea Party blames Obama for the current situation. But then, since they blame him for everything, their opinions aren't very credible. (I'm surprised they haven't demanded a Congressional commission investigate whether Obama orchestrated Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini).

Petty partisan politics aside, what happened to transform a stable Iraq to what we have now? There's plenty of people whose actions may have simply made Iraq unfixable and the violence we see inevitable. There's the French and British imperialists who - with their usual witless bumbling - set up this cauldron of badly drawn borders in the first place. Some might say George Bush hopelessly destabilized Iraq with his pointless and incompetently managed invasion (replete with embarrassing human rights abuses that tarnished America's image worldwide). Others point to Bashar al-Assad, whose policies in Syria gave rise to rebellion and who later stoked ISIS for political camouflage. Any or all of these views may be valid, but at some point we have to get beyond the past and focus on the here and now. And - in the here and now - I believe Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's idiotically sectarian administration is to blame for the current situation.

It's hard to imagine any way Maliki - whose rule is another sad legacy of the Bush administration's crummy policies in Iraq - could be a worse leader. In the religious and ethnically splintered Iraq, he refused to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. Instead, he insulated himself and political power behind a Shiite phalanx. This created the kind of environment in which groups like ISIS thrive. At the same time, he neutered the military that was successfully built during the US presence (particularly after Obama told Maliki he'd better get his act together because the US had had enough). Maliki has been charged with replacing experienced military leaders with political yes-men. He's also charged with weakening and demoralizing the Sunni fighters who had been keeping a lid on groups like ISIS up to now. Maliki also alienated the Kurds, who are now the only bloc in Iraq with the military muscle to stand up to ISIS. Whoever else you point your finger at (my choice would be Bush), ultimately the real blame goes to Maliki. This is his mess, and he needs to clean it up.

As such, Obama is totally right to hesitate and/or tell Maliki straight out: "We did our bit; you're on your own." At minimum, there are a lot of questions we would need to answer before we help Maliki in any way. Such as: Is it wise to back Maliki's Shia-only government? What do we gain by doing so? Will we alienate the Kurds and Sunnis by doing so? (The answer to that question is most definitely "yes"). If so, is that in our best interests? Would our help only keep Maliki afloat until his poor policies inevitably produce some new crisis? Most damning of all, why should we help someone who refuses to heed sensible advice from us and other powers? Answering these questions doesn't reveal a lot of upside to wading back into the morass of Iraq, especially to help a regime that is probably not going to end well no matter what we do.

So going back to the emotional "we gotta do something" reaction many people in the US are having. I'm not so sure we gotta do anything. After a lot of time, money, and sacrifice, the US finally left Iraq and Maliki in about as good a place as was realistically possible. And he blew it. So - unless something game-changing happens - I feel the US should stay out of this. Let's count on Maliki's all-too-healthy sense of self-preservation and - while we're watching to see how that plays out - we should think about whether it's a good idea to build relations with the Kurds. They seem likely to come out of this debacle as autonomous, organized...and oil rich. They might be a much better ally than whatever becomes of messy, sectarian Iraq.

While it's tough to wash ones hands of such a terrible situation, there is a very small, very dim glimmer of hope amid all of this. By flagrantly showing the world in full color video just how depraved it is, maybe ISIS has shot itself in the foot. While Maliki, the Sunnis, and the Kurds don't trust or like each other, it's a sure bet they distrust and dislike ISIS even more. Further, Iran is unlikely to savor the idea of ISIS creating a caliphate "two doors down". Even Assad seems to realize he's created a monster. While none of these players needs to be told how heinous ISIS is, a picture is worth a thousand words. Is it too optimistic to hope that the images posted on Twitter and YouTube could become a catalyst for some kind of temporary regional coalition against ISIS? If Maliki, the Sunnis, the Kurds, Iran, and maybe Syria presented a united front, then ISIS could very quickly find that its fifteen minutes of fame are up.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Magazine Mania! (Part Three)

And...even more magazines. See? It is a mania!

The Paris Review

It’s usually not a good idea to subscribe to a fiction magazine. If there is a variety of authors and styles represented, then it tends to be a hit or miss affair. Some stories/authors resonate and others fall flat. If there is a narrow focus then, even if you like that focus, the magazine will start to feel stale after a few issues.

However, the issue I read of The Paris Review largely avoided these pitfalls. It’s a 200+ page quarterly containing poetry, a few interviews, a half dozen short stories, and a serialized novel. That’s a lot of material! Surprisingly, I liked all of the prose even though it seems quite varied in subject matter. I didn’t ‘get’ some of it right away, but most of the stories presented meanings if I marinated on them a bit. I’ve even considered re-reading some of them to see what I may have missed the first time around. The serialized novel was thoughtfully written. While I’m not sure what the thrust of the story is, it’s only the second chapter. I’m happy to have found a magazine like this so I can maintain some connection with contemporary writers and writing. That’s usually missing amid my classicist reading preferences.

While the interviews left me cold, it was likely because the subjects didn't resonate with me more. What I’m unlikely to warm to is the poetry. I found virtually all of it typically contemporary: self-referential to the point of opacity, self-consciously arty, devoid of the love of language, and full of grindingly unevocative imagery. I’m hoping I just hit a bad issue. Otherwise, I can only pray the poetry content was higher than normal because the issue fell over National Poetry Month.

Luckily, the bulk of The Paris Review is fantastic prose that is more than enough justification for the subscription.

Astronomy

Astronomy has been around for a long time, and I have a long history with it. I read my first issues back when I was in grade school! I’ve come back to the magazine many times since. While it’s definitely a lighter magazine than Scientific American, what makes Astronomy such a good read is the tight focus. The magazine does a great job bringing the most interesting developments in planetary science and even a bit of astrophysics to the general reader. Best of all, there is excellent coverage of the most interesting developments from current space exploration missions and satellites.  Complete with the ‘pretty pictures’ we all love to see, Astronomy has an instinct for what someone with a general interest in the title subject wants to read.

If you are a telescope or space photography enthusiast, it’s hard to imagine what could be better than this publication. It contains plenty of content about how to see what and when to see it. I skip over all this material since I do not own a telescope, and there’s probably too much light pollution where I live for it to make sense buying one. While that’s a lot of pages I’m not reading each issue, I don’t mind at all. It’s even kind of a plus, given the volume of magazine reading I’m undertaking of late.

Apollo

This is an absolutely beautiful magazine about art and art collecting. It screams high end and delivers a luxurious tactile and visual appeal in every issue. The latter is especially important in a magazine about the visual arts. Apollo tackles all periods of art from ancient art all the way to contemporary painting. The writing is rather scholarly but avoids being stuffy for the most part. Of course – small quibble – there seems to be an odd bashfulness about acknowledging the sexuality of homosexual artists. The words “companion” and “friend” have appeared in some articles, as if the writers were at a tea party in the 1950s.

The magazine has an extra dimension in that almost every issue contains an article about a major art collector. While I can’t imagine I’ll ever become so expert in collecting, I find it super interesting to read their thoughts on their collections, why they collect, and how they got started. Kind of inspiring really. There are also tremendous book reviews.

I’ve been introduced to many artists in the pages of Apollo and, thanks to the scholarly approach to the writing, the profile's of the artists include their milieu. This has introduced me to some relatively obscure, yet highly rewarding, authors. I’ve picked up several novels based on references in an Apollo article, sometimes being exposed me to entirely new genres. This enriches me as well as heightening my appreciation for the art I’m viewing. Tremendous publication!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Learning Acoustic Guitar

When I was a child, I took guitar lessons for a short time. I ultimately preferred piano and stuck with that in high school and college and then came back to it fairly often throughout life. Lately, a good deal of acoustic guitar music has been making its way into my playlists from all sorts of genres: Gillian Welch, Federico Aubele, Willie Nelson, Jakob Lindberg, Emmylou Harris, and Ryan Bingham for example. I’ve also been listening to a lot of classic seventies’ acoustic guitar music from the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, Heart, and others.

All this musical input started me thinking about giving the guitar another go. While I love piano, I only play classical music on it. I just can’t see learning to play acoustic guitar songs on piano. Also, my poetry over the last year has almost all been written with rhyme and meter. Very little blank verse. The stuff just screams ‘song lyrics’! If I could learn guitar, maybe I could eventually write my own songs! Of course, I’m not sure where that would lead because, at the end of the day, I can’t perform any songs I might write since I’m utterly incapable of singing.

Be that as it may, I took the plunge and started taking lessons. Positively, because I already know how to read music, my instructor was able to skip past a lot of introductory material. We’re focused on technique, learning chords, and finger picking. This was a big relief because - as anyone who has learned to play an instrument knows - the initial songs you are assigned as a student are absolutely awful. Nothing you would ever keep in your repertoire or perform for anyone, anywhere, at any time. It’s a bit discouraging, and I had definite doubts I'd be able to stick with my lessons if that was the only stuff I'd be playing (especially at my age!).

Speaking of my age, I was surprised that I initially felt a twinge of self-consciousness about starting guitar lessons. I had this feeling that it’s something mostly done by kids and teens. And mostly it is. However, I just refused to let myself think that way (or if I couldn’t help thinking that way, at least not let it hinder me). It would be really sad to pass up new experiences for no reason other than my age or that ‘most people don't do such and such’. Once I signed up, this fear pretty much evaporated.

Now the only twinge I feel is the stinging in the fingertips of my left hand. Steel strings can be very cruel!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Seeing the Buddha in Other People

Something I picked up at the sangha I sat with for a while was the idea of seeing the buddha in other people. During each session our leader would have us bow at certain times, either to each other or towards a statue of Buddha. She was always very clear that we were “not bowing to Buddha. We’re bowing to the Buddha in each of us.” In my head, I just saw the bowing as akin to the show of respect that it represents in a dojo. However, later on, it took on a significance closer to what was intended.

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this but, as I got older, I found I had a harder time naturally making eye contact with new people I met. I have to consciously think about making that contact and holding it. I’m not really sure why this happened. It could be a result of moving into the city, where such eye contact is not always the best idea. Or perhaps it's simply part of the cynicism that creeps into our mindset as we get knocked around by our (sometimes negative) experiences with people in life.

Whatever the case, I wondered if  ‘seeing the buddha’ in people might help change that. So I started thinking about it. Everywhere. With people I passed on the street. With people who cut me off in traffic. With people at work. I found that I started to naturally seek out people's eyes more. I was looking at them rather than simply dealing with them. It was an odd mental shift, and the fact I had to make it suggests there’s something I can learn from this.

Of course, it’s hard to focus on this idea all the time. It’s running counter to a mentality I’ve clearly formed over a lot of years. However, one positive side effect is that I find myself thinking more about what lies behind the people I meet. I also feel more at ease around people, and perhaps even a bit more positive towards them. I’m not sure where this will lead (if anywhere), however it’s interesting in that it seems to have tweaked my relationship to the world around me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Magazine Mania! (Part Two)

More magazines in my recently established queue...

Scientific American

Okay, I know this is not an especially original selection, but over time I have truly found Scientific American to be a great balance between hard science magazines and those that are popular because they're a bit too lightweight (e.g., Discover). The articles in Scientific American seem to emphasize subjects that non-scientists will find interesting, and yet do not pander to us. At least not too much...dinosaurs do seem to appear on the cover an awful lot ; )

Another great thing about Scientific American is that articles end with a thumbnail box listing further reading, often including books or articles from harder science pubs. So if a subject really fires my imagination, I have some directions for how to dive into the deeper water. On the other side of this, about twenty years ago I read so voraciously about theoretical physics and cosmology that I was considering taking a calculus course, because the books I wanted to read started using equations to explain things. My ever migrant imagination took me in another direction before I got too serious that, but with Scientific American I feel like I can keep up somewhat with a discourse I still find thrilling.

American Craft

For some time, I've toyed with the idea of opening a gallery someday. While this may be one of my many ideas that ultimately goes nowhere, it spurred me into visiting some galleries, talking to the owners, and thinking about what kind of creative works I admire enough to represent in my imaginary gallery. What I discovered is that I get really excited about where art and craft intersect. There are brilliant artists out there whose process is just as fascinating as the work they ultimately produce. For example, I came across one artist (or artisan?) who weaves baskets and other forms. She apparently grows all her own materials. She grows plants, harvests them, and then creates the reeds, string, and whatever else she needs to create her works. For me, this made her objects a thousand times more meaningful.

Lo and behold! There is an arts magazine that focuses on just this kind of work! American Craft - in just a few pages - made me realize I held an assumption that 'crafts' are a lightweight cousin of painting and sculpture. I really can't believe I actually held this opinion, but I have been thoroughly cured of it. In the issue I read, the volume of artists covered and the array of media and materials touched on made me feel like a kid in a candy store. So much amazing work is out there, and I'll be surfing the web to explore many of the artists covered and even some of the works advertised. Definitely looking to have my perceptions stretched by this magazine!

The Humanist

One of the benefits of being politically independent is that you are not a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal. You are free of labels and, thus, free to explore and accept any and all ideas you find worthy. When someone balks at a belief I hold that doesn't fit predictably with wherever they have attempted to pigeonhole me, I get to smile blithely and say: "I'm an independent, my dear."

As I was exploring potential magazines to subscribe to, I thought: "What I would love to have is a magazine that - without stinking of pot and hippies - introduces the latest super-liberal, non-religious thinking." There are tons of ideas that come from this end of the spectrum. Today, they get dismissed as left wing Utopian idealism...only to end up informing our reality years later. It's like when you watch a couture fashion show or visit a cutting edge art gallery. You wouldn't wear or buy much of anything you see, but this is the fertile ground of ideas from which everything cool that you will end up wearing or buying comes from.

The Humanist may be that magazine for me. While I get my dander up when I sense shallow polemic (see recent post refuting one article that annoyed me), there are fantastic ideas in this magazine. Since I naturally lean towards fiscal conservatism and yet am all too aware of the social and economic equity issues we face in our nation, exposure to these ideas on a regular basis will help broaden my perspective. Whatever we might think of hippies and left wing Utopian idealism, the US needs this element in our discourse to stay fresh and vibrant as a nation.

More pubs to be covered in subsequent posts.

By the way, it's amazing that I am actually reading all this material (so far)! Ensuring that a good number of the pubs I select are quarterly or bi-monthly helps keep the reading level manageable.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Magazine Mania! (Part One)

With a lot more time to read lately - and a determination to take a break from Zola - I decided to dive into the world of publications. I have nothing against reading on my tablet, but I do prefer print magazines because it allows me to escape screens. That's got to be good for my eyes.

Of course, I had to turn the selection of pubs I would subscribe to into an adventure! I went to a few bricks-and-mortar bookstores and scoured their massive rows of magazines. Exploring all these small, obscure pubs was fun! There are so many crazy magazines out there that you can't believe command a readership that keeps them afloat. Wanting a variety of subject matter, I picked the pubs that seemed to be the best for me. I figured I'd read them and, if they clicked, subscribe.

Some of these are magazines are quite popular, others I was already familiar with, and some come to me from supporting charitable organizations. Here are a few of the pubs I chose and am currently enjoying. I'll need a few posts to get through them all as I really have gone on a 'mania' with them.

The Economist

For a long time, have been lax in keeping up on world events. I suppose I got turned off by how phony news outlets have become: the generic human interest stories, morbid sensationalism of randomly selected crimes, and loathsome political polarization. For example, I know Fox News will bash anything Obama does because their politics drive their news. And there are left wing sources with the same ax to grind. So why bother? I also turn-off to overly manicured newscasters. I just don't find someone who looks like they spend more time in make-up than they do reading news credible.

Of course, this is all just a (lame) excuse, and I wanted to be informed again. Over the past several years, whenever I was at an airport preparing for business travel, I'd pick up a copy of The Economist knowing it was quite well-respected (and has been around for about 150 years!). I like the standardized text, lack of personalities, and the occasional dry remark that never gets too clever for its own good. While they have definite editorial positions, I sense a good mix of conservatism and liberalism in its pages. So I finally signed up!

The New Criterion

During the past few years I'd benefited from reading biographies of several authors I'd tackled (such as Melville, Zola). I also found myself introduced to writers as I learned about the milieu of certain artists. I wanted a magazine that would give me this kind of input on a regular basis. The New Criterion may fit the bill for me. Aside from great articles on the humanities, I like that there seems to be a healthy dose of skepticism employed in assessing contemporary work. While I love contemporary art and writers and enjoy having my sensibilities stretched, I find that many arts magazines seem to convey a bland acceptance of everything. I believe part of being an art or literature lover is actively evaluating what I am exposed to. I push to be open - very open - because some of the best art experiences are those that shatter our boundaries or drag us outside our comfort zones. However, this must be balanced with a level of discernment or the entire concept of art is destroyed.

The only potential downside to The New Criterion is its sliver of political essays. The low level of thought in these essays is all the more noticeable given the intelligence of the other content. For example, the April 2014 issue has an article about which races are best suited to succeed in America based on their inherent qualities(!). The article names the Jews and the Chinese as the most effective races. Oh and, by the way, one of the authors of the essay is Jewish and the other is Chinese. Seems the magazine loses it's self-touted critical edge when it comes to politics and public policy. But I can skip a couple articles when the bulk of the material is so thought-provoking.

Lapham's Quarterly

When I came across Lapham's Quarterly, I could scarcely believe what I was holding in my hands! This quarterly magazine is over 200 pages in length. Each issue selects a theme around which the magazine amasses two to three page excerpts and essays from writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, world leaders, politicians, etc. The writers are from around the world and throughout time and, at the end of each essay, there is a thumbnail biography so you get the context and setting behind the text. The pages are also richly illustrated with art, photography, charts, and visual miscellany related to the subject.

In the issue I picked up, the theme was revolutions. Among the over 80 writers/thinkers included, the most recognizable names were Martin Luther, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Karl Marx, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Lord Byron, Margaret Sanger, Giacomo Balla, Albert Camus, Che Guevara, Emerson, Copernicus, Thomas Jefferson, Adolf Hitler, Isaac Newton, Aeschylus, and Leon Trotsky. Among the lesser known 'contributors' (at least lesser known to me) were plenty of historic and contemporary figures from other cultures that I'd likely never be exposed to on my own.

While each issue is long and text from certain writers can be a bit challenging, the brevity of each selection led me to move very quickly through the issue. Lapham's Quarterly is the literary equivalent of dining at a tapas restaurant. A little of this, a little of that. A variety of dishes that don't all go together but are all expertly prepared and create a very satisfying experience.

More to come in another post...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bourgeois Hippies

Now, this post is not an anti-hippie rant. Hippies are just fine by me. Not that I agree with everything they believe, but that's hardly the point. I like having people around that push different positions, including those I don't agree with, because I believe we all balance each other out. No, this post and its title refers to materialism and some of the attitudes about avoiding it.

There can be little doubt that one pitfall of modern life, especially in the United States over the last decade, is materialism. While there has always been a vein of materialism in our semi-capitalistic society, the rise of reality celebrities has given the shallow lifestyle of materialism an extra heavy dose of air time. Hearing that Paris Hilton spent over a quarter of a million dollars on her dog house or that Kanye and Kim are having a massive jet set wedding in Europe unfortunately fascinates a huge swath of Americans. There is also the Occupy Movement and it's highlighting the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. In general, it seems that concerns about the balance in our neighbors checkbook (and what we aspire ours to be) is a bit more in our faces these days.

Of course, there are plenty of people who reject the materialistic lifestyle and set of values. In particular, since the recovery set in many people have hung on to their more frugal habits in an attempt to reclaim their lives from the rat race of materialism in modern life. Various religions offer guidance in this area. For me, Zen Buddhism provides a means of keeping the lure of money and possessions at bay by cultivating a focus on the present moment rather than seeking after things.

While people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are deservedly reviled for their crass materialism, I have noticed the rise of an equally crass trend among those who are opposed to materialism and avowedly not of the 1%. With a 'holier than thou', self-congratulatory smugness some of these people seem eager to castigate those who have or want things simply because they have or want them. They set up a human value system akin to the one created by those who value people based on what they have or earn. Instead, they base their system on what people don't have or don't earn. The problem is that this measuring stick is just a different side of the same coin.

I have, I believe, coined a term for these people: bourgeois hippies.

My thinking in this area was spurred by an article I read in an otherwise excellent magazine called The Humanist. The article ("The Materialist in Her Bathtub" by Michael Cohen in the May/June 2014 issue) bothered me because of the way the author set himself up as an arbiter of morality based on what he perceives as the degree of materialism in the people around him. Reading his views crystallized for me what bourgeois hippies are and why I find them objectionable.

Of course, I essentially agree with Cohen when he asserts "being too attached to possession is bad for the soul or some other quasi-spiritual entity." From a Zen standpoint, 'love of things' in and of itself is not a problem. It's totally possible to have a fancy house or a fancy car or a collection of beautiful art or lots of money and be on the path. Someone would only be in danger of delusion if their focus becomes the acquisition of those things, if attaining this or that becomes the guiding force in their decisions. This is a problem because the mind's focus would then no longer be on the reality and truth we have within us at this moment. Instead, the emphasis would be on the abstract future (what we want, where we want to go, what we want to be). A deluded mindset of this kind ultimately leads to a lack of clarity and disciplined thinking, and that leads to confusion and sorrow.

However, I soon part ways with Cohen - who seems to me to be a bourgeois hippie. At root, I disagree with his definition of materialism.  While I'm not sure he's totally conscious of how he comes across in this article, he makes a pretty clear case for a broad interpretation of materialism. He believes "why we want [a material possession] doesn't matter as much as wanting it" because he seems to assume that wanting material possessions necessarily means that we view the attainment of those possessions as a path to happiness or fulfillment. To Cohen, by wanting something we are "substituting a possession for something more legitimately desired". While Cohen allows that there are things that can be "legitimately desired", he doesn't say what those things are. However, from his text it's pretty clear most physical possessions don't qualify. So what he ends up suggesting is that we can accurately gauge a person's morality based on how much they want something(s).

I would argue that our motives as well as how we go after what we want are far more accurate indicators of our moral compass than what we want. It's easy to imagine that someone who wants to be a millionaire could have redeeming qualities, while it's impossible to believe that someone who advocates genocide to achieve national peace is anything but a monster. Just because someone swears off the pursuit of sports cars, big gold chains, designer clothes, and multi-million dollar homes doesn't automatically make them moral, nor does it prove that they are more moral than someone who actively pursues those things. So I think Cohen is way off base to suggest that having the right goals (wanting things he believes we can "legitimately desire") is a way to judge moral character.

Dante's Inferno, where Charon herds sinners into his boat
(illustration: Gustave Dore) 
Cohen goes further. In his article, he not only asserts this form of moral measurement, he creates multiple classes of materialists and ranks them in terms of how morally corrupt the people who belong to each class are. Reading how Cohen enumerates these categories (from least offensive to most egregious) is a bit like Dante organizing sinners into different rings of Hell in the Inferno. Here are the classes of materialists Cohen identifies, from better to worst:

1. Unconscious or normal materialists - These are the least objectionable, because Cohen kind-heartedly deems them "susceptible to reform". They are the bulk of people, caught in the rat race of modern life, unaware that they have put themselves on this treadmill and could step off it if they want. There are two sub-classes. The "grindingly poor who truly have no choices" are better than the rest of normal materialists, who buy houses to put their stuff in so they can go out and get more stuff (to paraphrase George Carlin).

2. Gadget materialists - As we progress to the next lower ring of Cohen's Inferno, we find those who have an affinity for certain kinds of stuff. The example Cohen provides are gun enthusiasts: people who collect guns because they admire their precision workings or the craftsmanship with which they are made. He derisively describes them as "people for whom the...photos of gleaming pistols in Guns & Ammo are as bright and attractive as the carnations in a Brueghel still life". (Note: Cohen reveals some insight here into a "legitimate desire": being an art lover. Apparently, people get a pass if they are enthusiastic about things in which Cohen has a personal interest)

3. Comfort materialists - These people are "in nearly the same place" as the gadget materialists. Their sin is "taking pleasure in material things because they make him or her feel secure, content, or peaceful." Examples include taking pleasure in the colors of ceramic pots you own or the content one receives from the feel of a cashmere blanket. So, apparently, Cohen is objecting to any object that delights the senses (but wouldn't that include the Brueghel still life?). This puritanical objection left me imagining Cohen as a medieval monk urging his flock to dress in burlap and wear a crown of thorns to avoid the temptation of cotton or linen or (gasp) silk clothing.

4. Substitutive or compensatory materialists - Now we're getting to the people Cohen really finds morally bankrupt. These materialists acquire/desire objects to use them in conveying a specific talent or to satisfy an emotional need. They go off "spending money indiscriminately as a way to fill a psychic hole" and "attempt to turn stuff into respect." The possessions they have are used as a status symbol and a way to prove intelligence or worth.

5. Entitled materialists - In the icy plains at the bottom of Cohen's materialistic hell (where Satan is chewing on Judas) we would find these representatives of the "most egregiously malevolent form of materialism". Entitled materialists are damned for inheriting wealth and feeling entitled to that wealth. Beyond a litany of spurious studies proving 'haves' tend to be nasty liars and cheats, Cohen provides no explanation as to why leaving your child a fortune irretrievably poisons their moral character and renders them the basest materialistic wretch. On the contrary, one might argue that Cohen - by judging these people based on their possessions and wealth is acting from the exact sin he deplores. Shouldn't we judge people by the content of their character rather than the balance in their check book (or trust fund, as the case may be)?

As I said, I agree that if someone allows material objects and/or the acquisition of them to become the driving force of their life that they are likely in possession of a deluded mindset. However, because I believe this I can't agree with judging people (and certainly not their moral character) based on how much they have or what they have. However, Cohen engages in precisely this behavior. It's made worse by that fact that much of the behavior he decries is perfectly harmless. Is a woman who values a brooch her grandmother passed down to her a comfort materialist? Is a collector of fiber art baskets a gadget materialist? Is an heiress who runs a foundation doing good works an entitled materialist? This seems beyond zealous, narrow-minded, and terribly unfair.

This is the problem with labeling the mere desire for objects - any objects - as a deplorable materialism without paying attention to motives or behaviors. And this brings us to the concept of bourgeois hippies. My feeling is that a desire to crow about one's moral superiority to alleged materialists based on what one does not have or desire is the basest form of materialism there is. A person who engages in this behavior - while ostensibly (and usually quite vocally) rejecting materialism - uses a materialistic yardstick to judge everyone around them. The person with the mansion is less moral than the person in the raised ranch. The person in the raised ranch is less moral than the person living in the box under a bridge ("who truly has no choices").

Building off of Cohen's classifications, we one might call someone like this a 'reverse materialist'. However, this person is actually as materialistic as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. They are a hypocrite. Humorously, while they are a materialist they are not smart enough to get the loot that goes with being one!

Mr. Cohen, you - and other bourgeois hippies - expose your own unclean hands by casting the first stone.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Officiating a Wedding!

A few months ago, two close friends of ours asked me to officiate their wedding. The request was a total surprise, and I was totally honored. I immediately said yes, thinking how wonderful it would be to help make their day special and that it would be a fantastic life experience.

What I didn't think about - until I was back home - was whether I could legally do it! However, a quick bit of research made it clear that in most states it is not difficult to become legally qualified to officiate a wedding. So I became an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church, and I am now allowed to officiate over a wedding in my state.

I spent a lot of time working on the ceremony text, making sure there was enough traditional aspects of the usual wedding ceremony in it but also wanting it to be unique enough so that it would be special for the couple. At the same time, I felt as though it was important to include some spiritual aspect within the ceremony to give it greater resonance and to personalize it. This was a bit tricky, because I sensed neither of my friends wanted overt religious content of any kind.  However, without this sort of content, the ceremony seemed cold and a bit too 'justice of the peace'-like.

In the sangha I go to, we end each evening with Gandhi's prayer for peace. During this prayer, we form a circle by joining hands: with one hand palm up and the other hand palm down. The idea being that you are taking from the group (palm up) but also giving as well (palm down). I felt this could idea could easily be adapted to the idea of a relationship. So, after writing the text for the bulk of the ceremony, I included this shortly before the vows:

As a sign of this love, please raise your right hand, palm down. This represents what you promise to give to one another:
·     - Expressing your thoughts and feelings to each other
·     - Sharing your triumphs and successes
·     - Offering encouragement and strength in times of need
·     - And always, your love and understanding
Now also raise your left hand, palm up. This represents what you promise to take from one another:
·     - Listening to your partner’s thoughts and feelings when they share them
·     - Celebrating their triumphs and successes
·     - Accepting encouragement and strength when you need it
·     - And always, being open to the gift of love and understanding that is given to you


Join hands now. This represents a circle of giving and receiving, an unbreakable union between you. Hold fast to the vision and the promise of this special day. Please meditate for a moment on the meaning of this commitment.

It went over very well with the couple when we talked it over and rehearsed it. So the ceremony text was ready (and approved!) after a lot of thought. All I had to do then was show up (and clean up). The weather was amazing for the wedding, and it was beautiful and a lot of fun. I was so happy to be a part of making this day special for my two friends.