Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 2 – Why Do We Fight?

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”

Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.

As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.

Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..” 

Arete means seeking to do what is right in every circumstance.
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They Shall Not Grow Old – a movie review

These men were filmed as they sheltered in a road cut , waiting for the order to advance at the Somme. According to Peter Jackson, most of them died in the next 30 minutes.

Since its release last November, I’ve wanted to see Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. On Monday I got my chance.

As the film opens, Jackson explains that in 2014, he was invited by the London Imperial War Museum to create a documentary using their 100 hours of archival footage from the Western Front. The only conditions were that he use their film in “unique” ways, and that the project be finished in time for the centennial of the armistice in November, 2018.

After the credits run, Jackson details the incredible effort and technology that transformed the jerky, black and white footage from film making’s infancy, into a movie that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the men who fought, suffered, and died because it seemed their patriotic duty, only to come home to signs reading, “No ex-military need apply” when they went to look for civilian jobs. Continue reading

The Summer of Love, Repression, and Stuff.

USA. Washington DC. Seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir, confronts the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo gave birth to our nation, and has been part of our heritage every since. Fifty years ago this summer, this undercurrent burst into the loud and colorful limelight as 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury with mottos like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

I was a high school kid in San Jose, wearing torn jeans and love beads, reading the literature of discontent by authors such as Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, and Nathanial West. After Saturday excursions to the head shops on Haight Street, with their incense and posters of Lakshmi and Ganesh, I bought a copy Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I still have, and one which, fifty years later, I more or less understand, because doing so became one of the core priorities of my life.

“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” sang Grace Slick, and in the explosion of new music, art, literature, and the ideas of change embodied in The Whole Earth Catalog, there was a sense of expansion, a sense that we could stop the war, and we could leave the world of ticky-tacky houses, and create a nation where Peace and Freedom would reign as supreme values.

We didn’t understand our own shadows. We didn’t knew that Charles Manson was roaming the Haight during the summer of ’67, winning friends and influencing people with techniques he had learned from Dale Carnegie’s book, which he studied in prison. We didn’t know that “Do your own thing” was a double-edged sword, and that we would see bitter fruits of that motto fifty summers later.

*****

When I turned 40 in 1990, I was halfway through a Masters program in Psychology, which I’d entered in part because in the wake of the Summer of Love, I’d discovered Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Tolkien, and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. And also because, the ethos of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” doesn’t really work very well.

Yet when in that course of study, we came to look at the psyche’s defense mechanisms, most of us thought repression was a bad thing, inhibiting self-expression and individuation. I gotta do my own thing, man!

“Don’t be so fast to put down repression” said the instructor. “It’s one of the glues that holds a culture together.”

I’ve thought of this statement many times since then, never more so than when I read a woman’s letter to the editor in the local paper sometime in the mid-nineties, reporting on an incident she’d seen at a local multiplex. For whatever reason, no one was behind the concession counter, so some of the patrons clambered over the counter, help themselves to popcorn and drinks and then dash into the theaters.

That’s not quite what we meant by “Do Your Own Thing,” but it’s a pretty telling, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of snapshot of the kind of societal breakdown parading through our streets this summer.

One of the four major functions of a living myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is “the sociological function,” which teaches us the norms of living together. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Other roles are more dicey – gender and class roles for instance. These get rigid as times change, and are then modified by pioneers or movements, or in extreme cases, by revolutions if leaders are really stupid and tell their starving masses to eat cake.

Perhaps with enough acts of popcorn theft, large and small, because we feel entitled and we want what we want and we want it now – perhaps the kind of president we have was inevitable. Sooner or later, just as inevitably, he’ll go.

What will we do then? Will we be sickened enough by current events to turn in another direction together? What does a culture do when it’s fragmented by so many contradictory stories that Campbell’s sociological function of myth has completely broken down? What will it take to restore a genuine sense of “us” in our national life, a sense that we’re all in this together? The most obvious and frightening answer is a shared disaster.

Ironic to realize that the youthful idealism that brought us the Summer of Love, and two years later, the high water mark at Woodstock, carried the seeds of its own demise, partly because of the self-righteous sense of “us and them” that still drives our national life. And yet, it is profoundly valuable to review those youthful ideals, that sense of a better world within reach. Without such dreams, we are left with little better to do than rail at each other on social media.

“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “It’s going to be a long time gone.” It will come around again, sooner or later, but the question is, how long a time will that be?

Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

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

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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 on Truth

George Washington and the cherry tree

One time when I was four or five and caught in a lie, my parents admonished me with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. I do not know if they thought the event really happened. I suspect they did, although historians have long known the story was invented by Washington biographer, Mason Weems.

Such stories are part of the fabric of the myth of American exceptionalism, and here I use the word “myth” as Joseph Campbell did. One of the four main functions of myth for Campbell was the sociological view,”supporting and validating a certain social order.” At their best, such myths can inspire us to greatness.

Many sociological fictions are not benign, which motivated Time Magazine’s current cover, and its cover story, “Can Trump Handle the Truth,” by Michael Scherer (Time, Apr. 3, 2017, pp 33-39).

Scherer says, “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.”

Except when it doesn’t…

As a sometimes writer of fiction, I remember a news report from the seventies, when “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a popular TV series. A five or six year old boy jumped off the roof of his home, believing that if he sustained serious injuries, he’d receive bionic limbs and implants like Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) in the series. The news report said the boy was in traction, but expected to make a full recovery. He discovered something our president and many politicians have yet to learn – that physical reality enforces it’s own truths.

The most important truths of life, truths of the spirit and truths of the heart, are non-material and non-visible, yet to enjoy them, we need to survive, and this involves understanding the truths and laws of a material universe:

If we jump off a roof, we’ll get hurt, and no one will spend six-million dollars to make us bionic.

Oil pipelines leak, and oil trains sometimes explode. Climate change is not a Chinese hoax. The US just killed at least 112 civilians in airstrikes in Mosul.

The man who used the “birther” lie to launch his career in politics does indeed seem incapable of appreciating the truth, and as a result, is propelling this nation, at breakneck speed, into the very “loss of greatness,” he promised to turn around.

Notes from 2017 – The dreams of our ancestors

"The Sower" by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

“The Sower” by Jean-Francois Millet, 1866-67, Public Domain

My paternal great great grandfather Gustav, a farmer, was born in the Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the French/German border that had been fought over since the time of Louis XIV. As a young man, grandfather Gustav, his two brothers, and their families emigrated to America in 1870 to avoid conscription into the armies of Napolean III during the Franco-Prussian war.

As one historian noted, the ancestors of most Americans of European descent came here as paupers, petty criminals, war refugees, draft dodgers, or religious fanatics. I certainly come from such stock. I’m alive today, in part because 150 years ago, the US was not afraid to admit refugees from conflict zones. As Bill Murray put it in Stripes, “We’re Americans! That means we’re mutts – the most lovable kind of dog there is!” Mixed breeds are often the healthiest too.

A century later, our open borders policy helped spark the technology-driven economic boom of the late 20th century. Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazis and then the Russian takeover before before coming to America in 1960. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. If you’re reading this post on a laptop or smart phone, you can thank these two pioneers, as well as the space race in the 60’s, which thrived upon a universal respect for science and affordable education which drew the world’s best and brightest to our shores. Microelectronics and the connected world were among the results.
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