2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

2020 Notes 1

Fair Oaks Park, February

February was warm and bright, and I got out regularly to walk the dogs in the local park. It was the finest early spring I could remember, although it struck me that the only other place I’ve experienced such warmth so early in the year was Phoenix, and that suggests a hot summer.

By early February, or certainly mid-month, everyone who was paying attention knew the corona virus was coming, and it was going to be serious. I certainly didn’t anticipate the force of the shock when it hit our shores, but during those sunny walks, I had the sense that this was going to change our world in profound ways. I think lots of people, over the last few years have understood on some level that we’ve been living in a house of cards. I suspect that much of the fear and anger that fill the air derives from this understanding, even if we didn’t quite grasp it consciously.

I thought of what I have read of the prelude to another world changing event. By all accounts, the spring and early summer of 1914 in Europe were the most beautiful that anyone then living could remember. One of the best histories of that period is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman wrote another fascinating history of another period that changed the arc of world civilization, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Fourteenth century Europe was ravaged by climate change, never-ending war, and pandemic which triggered the collapse of medieval culture. I am not making this up!

The century opened with two decades of cold, now known as “the little ice age,” which caused widespread famine. The “Hundred Years War,” continued through the century, and in several outbreaks, bubonic plague killed a third of the world’s population.

At this moment, 20 years into the new millennium, no one knows how this century will end beyond the absolute certainty that the way of life we have known will be but a memory.

*****

Yesterday afternoon, Mary and I left home on the important mission of picking up her birthday cake (it’s tomorrow) at Baskin Robbins and having some ice cream while we were at it. I had to laugh when I heard “Love Me Two Times,” on the audio track. The Doors were way too subversive when to play in an ice cream shop when they first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago!

But who knows? I have no idea when I’ll next be able to get a haircut, so my true colors as an aging hippie may soon be revealed!

Soul Notes #4: The Chosen One(s)?

This morning I decided I needed a daylong fast from social media. I’m in the habit of doing something with my phone while the first cup of coffee brews, so I clicked on the USA Today app to check the NFL scores. Delighted to see that the Niners trounced Green Bay last night, I clicked the NEWS tab, and there it was, the morning’s lead story: “Rick Perry Told Donald Trump He Was God’s Chosen One.”

For an online news source, with a revenue stream dependent the number of visitors, aka “eyeballs,” it’s a pretty effective headline, designed to delight the right and offend the left, thereby generating “hits” from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, that itself is the problem! Think of some of the things these days that cause you to lose sleep. Now think what it means when profits drive a major news source to tell us that the most significant story of the morning concerns a politician who thinks he knows the will of God.

Especially during the last three years, I have often wondered what James Hillman would make of our current political environment. He’d certainly assign some of the blame to the discipline of psychology. One of his basic tenets was that if we only look inward for the root of our problems, we deprive the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, of our energy and our concern.

Above all, Hillman would point to literalism as the greatest ill in our thinking and view of the world, the tendency to mistake imaginal and symbolic truths for literal and historic fact. Soul whispers that each of us is special, but when we take that literally, we end up with a dark history of chosen ones believing they have a divinely ordained license to kill or oppress “the other.”

Even in ancient Israel, where the American concept of a chosen people originated, interpreting the Almighty’s will was not the business of every schmo with an opinion. A culture that venerated prophets knew there were a lot of fakes. On a lighter note, one urban legend suggests that Mr. Perry wasn’t the only politician with no business practicing theology.

Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), the first woman Governor of Texas, elected in 1924, is reputed to have said, during a controversy on bilingual education, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas” (1). Unfortunately, similar quotes are attributed to others, as early as 1881 and more recently, to “an Arkansas Congressman,” and all these accounts lack reliable verification.

My basic instinct remains – when someone says, “God told me…,” get away as quickly as possible. And when it’s a politician, turn off the phone and have another cup of coffee!

Who and What Divide Us?

Embed from Getty Images
A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

Beware the Trolls

NOT THAT KIND OF TROLL
John Bauer, 1912 illustration, public domain

Social media algorithms effectively isolate readers of one type of political news from opposing views; if you follow Fox News, you won’t see MSNBC pop up and vice versa. At the same time, you can usually judge the importance of the “breaking news” of the day by the number of profane, violent, vitriolic comments that follow. I have received, if not death threats, at least death wishes, for comments on Facebook I can’t even remember, and I know I’m not alone in this. Does such overheated rhetoric reflect the national mood? I’ve come to think that in many cases, it does not, though some interests would have us believe it does.

On July 11, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, David Rothkopf, said, “Russia’s primary goal was not to get Trump elected. It was to weaken the United States(emphasis added).

That’s worth pondering at length. It crystalized my sense that a significant part of the national tension over our “house divided” is a creation of social media, and much of it may derive from the focused efforts of foreign trolls.

On the evening of July 11, the PBS Newshour aired a report by Nick Schifrin, with the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Inside Russia’sPropaganda Machine. Schifrin reports that for the past two years, the Russian military has run online recruiting adds, offering soldiers a chance to “put down their guns and fight a cyber-war.” 

Schifrin interviewed a former Russian troll, Marat Mindiyarov, outside of a large complex in St. Petersburg which Mindiyarov identified as the headquarters of this effort. He said he had “maybe 20, 30” online identities, but implied that some have hundreds.

At the end of May Newsweek reported that 900,000 blank twitter accounts had popped up as Trump followers that month. They were easy to spot – no photo, no byline, no tweet history. And no way for a casual viewer to determine their place of origin. I initially assumed they were created by Trump’s team. Now I have serious doubts.

Important stories on left leaning Facebook sites draw verbal conflict that is sometimes abusive enough to report. This morning I scrolled down the Fox News Facebook site, and noted similar trolling.

Again, I refer to Rothkopf’s piece, cited above. It’s very much worth considering that our external enemies no longer care if Trump stays or goes – as long as we as a nation stay angry and divided against each other, they have won…

JUNE 17, 1972- 5IVE MEN ARRESTED FOR BREAKING AND ENTERING DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE HEADQUARTERS AT WATERGATE COMPLEX

As they say, those who forget the past…

slicethelife

150501114442-watergate-complex-exlarge-169

On this day in 1972 what turned into a two year and two month long ‘national nightmare’ began when five men were arrested for breaking and entering the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after midnight on June 17th a security guard at the Watergate, Frank Willis noticed there was tape covering the latches on some of the doors in the complex leading from the underground parking garage to some several offices. Willis removed the tape and gave it no more thought until an hour later when he returned and noticed someone had re-taped those locks again. He then called the police. Five men – Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Baker, James McCord, Frank Sturgis and Eugenio Martinez were found inside the DNC office and arrested and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

At the time it was not a big…

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Notes from 2017 – Infrastructure

Infrastructure: in·fra·struc·ture – ˈinfrəˌstrək(t)SHər/ French noun
the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

This phrase comes dramatically to mind with the spillway failure at the Oroville dam, 100 miles north of here, which resulted yesterday in the evacuation of almost 200,000 downstream residents.

I lived near the dam in the ’80’s, so I followed #OrovilleDam on social media. Most of the messages were touching offers of places to stay for evacuees, tweets about open gas stations, and so on. As you would expect in today’s climate, some tried to politicize the event. A few moron messages blamed the crisis on illegal immigrants and were not worth reading, but one message caught my attention.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that in 2005, environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, warned federal and state officials that the emergency spillway was “fragile,” needed to be reinforced. That sounded like negligence, but putting this news in perspective on a PBS Newshour report, is Jeffery Mount, senior fellow with the California Public Policy Institute.

According to Mount, the request was reviewed, but finally rejected in a cost vs. probabilities decision. The benefit of coating the hillside in concrete seemed too costly for an event that was not expected to happen, and in fact happened this year for the first time in the 50 year history of the dam.

The issue now will be for reservoir engineers to review what we know of climate studies, which suggest that future storms will be more frequent and more intense than in the past.

Which brings us to the issue of infrastructure…

The Oroville dam, the tallest in California, was built in 1968, in a decade that saw America build it’s interstate highway system, open dozens of affordable public colleges, build dams, and bridges throughout the country, and put a man on the moon.

One of the ways we did this was with a 70% tax rate on the wealthiest 1%.  Nowadays, 70% is the percentage of US bridges with serious structural flaws. Since 2001 we’ve cut taxes on the wealthy and waged constant unfunded wars.  This is what our national infrastructure looks like:

Broken concrete, which makes the main spillway unusable.

Broken concrete, which makes the main spillway unusable.

If we continue down this same road, the Oroville dam and evacuations will be our future.

The new president backed off his campaign promise for an infrastructure program after learning how much it would actually cost. So much that it would behoove his fans to ask him to pay his taxes again. And forget about the Mexican wall PR stunt.

A few people, modeling their communication style on the new president tweeted that the damn failure at least would “wash the liberals away.” Aside from the blatantly cruel sentiment when thousands of people could loose their homes when the rains return on Wednesday, these morons failed to realize that the counties affected were red – they voted for Trump.

Look at the broken dam – it’s not a party issue. Is there’s an aged dam or bridge or a risky overpass near you? Wouldn’t you like it addressed? Wouldn’t you for once like to see leaders of both parties consider what is truly good for “the American people?”

Might be time to let them know how you feel…

oroville-dam