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

Notes from 2017 – The Day of the Dove

The Day of the Dove, Star Trek, season 3, episode 7

The Day of the Dove, Star Trek, season 3, episode 7

A 1968 Star Trek episode, “The Day of the Dove,” is an apt metaphor for one of the perils confronting our nation 22 days into the new administration. The episode aired in November, 1968.

An alien entity traps Klingons and the Federation crew aboard the Enterprise, and incites them to anger and violence. It isolates individuals in different parts of the ship. It implants false memories of past harms to feed the anger. It materializes weapons as tempers build.

After recognizing the danger, Kirk and Spock convince the Klingon commander and their respective crews to lay down their weapons. They laugh, joke, and generally act like they’re having fun. The entity fades and disappears.

As David Brooks observed Friday night on The PBS Newshour, the new administration had ample opportunity to move toward “bringing the nation together,” the stated goal of every other victorious president I can remember. Instead they go out of their way to foment discord

Why? Continue reading

Notes from 2017 – What is your innermost truth?

truth-2

I  started this post several days ago – in what now seems like a galaxy far away – with something different in mind. My title is paraphrases a question asked by Zen priest, Edward Espe Brown, at a retreat in 2011: “What is your innermost request?”

In the context of the retreat, I took his question to mean, “What is the deepest desire at the deepest core of your being?”  The word, “request,” implies not just desire, need, want, but something akin to prayer. What do we want our lives to be about? What would it take , when our time comes to leave this world, to exit with a sense of peace, victory, satisfaction?

I mean the same kind of thing with, “innermost truth.”  Not just beliefs, ideas, concepts, deductions, or any of the contents of consciousness, for they inevitably change. How many beliefs, ideas, concepts, and so on do you hold from this time a year ago, let alone 10 years ago, 20, or from childhood? What do you know more deeply than emotion and reason both?  Jack Kornfield, in A Path With Heart described this as something you know so deeply that if Buddha and Jesus both said, “You’re wrong,” you would answer, “I am not!”

It’s not an easy question, and there is no simple answer, but it has never been more essential to look to our truths, try to clarify and hold them close over time.

Knowing what we truly believe is an anchor, a center, a “know thyself” tactic at a time when the new president and his minions are trying to normalize lies as “alternate facts.”

The day will come when telling “a Spicer” is a synonym for “telling a whopper,” but until that happens, we need to guard our sense of right and wrong, true and false, as the greatest safeguards we have against the fascist administration that now occupies the White House.

voltaire