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Musings on Politics, The Tea Party, and America's Rampant Electile Dysfunction

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    Sunday
    Jun232013

    Tying the Knot

    This isn’t, as it turns out, the essay I planned on writing today. I started with the assumption that the piece would be a typical polemic in support of Gabriel Gomez, the Republican candidate vying with Ed Markey for the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by John Kerry's appointment as Secretary of State. Gomez looks, on paper, like my kind of guy—a moderate Republican with values I share—and, despite the tinged cynicism I can never avoid these days, he seems like someone I would want to see sitting in Washington. 

    He’s got all the right credentials as far as I’m concerned—without all those far-right credentials. A look on his website tells us that:

    • He believes Washington has a spending problem, and that politicians “continue to kick the can down the road”
    • He supports same-sex marriage in one simple, non-obfuscatory, no-way-to-be-confused statement
    • He acknowledges climate change, but without oversimplifying the economic implications
    • He’s in favor of better healthcare, and favors a states’-rights approach
    • He agrees that immigration reform is necessary, and wants to offer a path to legal status
    • He supports entitlement reform

    He’s not perfect, mind you. I’ve found him uncivil on multiple occasions[1] and the way he backpedaled from his involvement with OPSEC smacks of the typical dishonesty that makes us all cynical about politicians. So it’s not that he somehow walks upon the dirty waters that most politicians routinely bathe in, but if you believe (as I do) that multiple views are important (i.e., that an all-Democrat or all-Republican solution is not only impossible but harmful), then what’s not to like about Gomez? He may be the closest thing to the GOP’er we really need these days.  Not perfect, but at least sane.

    Ahh… and there’s the issue, isn’t it? Sanity. When, I ask you, did we so convolute our dialog that mere acts of sanity were redefined as “moderate” behavior?

    Let’s take a look at those credentials again so we can talk, instead, about what we really should be talking about:

    First, I believe we have sadly misused the term moderate. Take, for example, Gomez’s position on global warming. He says, and here I quote, that “Climate change is real,” and that “We need a serious energy agenda that promotes private sector innovation in both the United States and in other countries around the world.” This isn’t a moderate position. This is a sane position. It shouldn’t, by itself, serve as a reason to elect anyone. That would be like voting for someone because they “believe” in gravity. Sanity should be a prerequisite, not a checkmark in the “plus” column.

    The same holds true for Gomez’s stand on the 2nd Amendment, in which he says that “The President and the Congress must act now to forge consensus and compromise to close the gun show loophole.”  Again: that’s not about moderation, but sanity. The very name of the problem includes a problem: loophole. How many loopholes can you think of that were designed and built with everyone’s best interest in mind? I’m coming up with a number pretty near zero….

    But how can we expect sanity from our elected officials when we refuse it ourselves?

    Yesterday, prior to beginning this piece, I posted on Facebook my intention to write something about Gomez, intimating that I might actually like the guy. Without going so far as to take exact quotes from the Facebook entries (which, I’ve learned, can lead not only to insults, but to threats of lawsuits and of physical harm), allow me to provide the gist of what I saw by responding to some of it.

    A number of people suggested that Gomez can’t be anything other than a lockstep Republican, just another vote for everything far right. That position ignores the very real internecine warfare within the GOP and argues that the GOP can never change, both presumptions belied by history. Our current GOP is a result of such internecine warfare and represents a change itself—away from the eponymous Eisenhower Republicans and towards something far further right. Why then, can’t we believe (and assist) in a swing the other way?

    On a similar note, to say that any vote for a Republican person is just a vote for the party’s platform forgets that the platform is written by just those people—and those who elected them. If you want the platform to change, you change the people who have the ideas that go into the platform.

    I would also point out that suggesting that you “can’t trust a Republican,” or that Gomez has “hitched his wagon to the clown car train,” suggests a narrow-minded view of the world that just continues to reinforce the our guy/their guy, white hat/black hat pseudo reality that I find more frightening every day.

    Oh. And two more things: “Republican” is spelled with a “c,” not a “kkk," and comparing Gomez to Hitler shows a severe lack of creativity (not to mention that it confirms Godwin’s Law).

    Not all of the responses were like that—some were better and some were worse. But there were just so many like these that once again I find myself asking whether we’re having the right conversation—and whether we even want to. It seems no longer about whether this body politic is moderate or not, liberal or not, conservative or not. The question is whether we are sane or not, and it’s starting to feel more and more like the answer is “no.” I make that assertion by watching and listening to those who believe, so strongly, that the “other” side is the insane side. That’s the clue right there. If you think in those terms—if you demonize the “other”—then you aren’t acting by any definition of “sane” that I know of.

    So where the hell can we go these days for just a little bit of sanity….? Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” I’m trying to tie that knot, but admit that I’m at a loss. I invite your comments and recommendations…. Just please… please… avoid any Hitler references….

     


    [1] Quick note: the left got all over him for referring to Markey, his opponent, as “pond scum,” but stayed eerily silent when he called Tea Party Republican Trent Franks “a moron.” Seems like just another example of my guy/your guy thinking…. I’m just sayin’….

    Thursday
    Jun202013

    PRISM Through a Different Lens

    An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.

    -- Steven Weinberg, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics

    I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot lately (as we all have; it’s unavoidable) about spies, and spying, and being spied upon. Not surprisingly, the reactions routinely begin at gut-level and then, through some magical spell that would make a Hogwart’s wizard swoon, promulgate to the brain where they flower from some illogical root (and from there, inevitably, plant themselves in the muddy soil we call Facebook).

    The point that’s been bothering me the most, though, is this one, which comes from testimony given by NSA Director General Keith Alexander, given before the House’s Standing Committee on Intelligence:

    “These programs have protected our country and allies … over 50 times since 9/11,” Alexander said while promising to provide full details of those 50 occasions to congressional overseers tomorrow. “These programs have been approved by the administration, Congress, and the courts.”

    At its base it seems pretty solid. Fifty times. Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say? After all, who wouldn’t want to trade a little privacy here and there to gain that kind of safety and security? Isn’t it worth just a little bit of lost rights in order to avoid another 9/11?

    (Don’t answer that question. Please. It’s not what this is about. Just think about what comes next.)

    The problem of course, is that what we’re left with—what Alexander (and others) clearly want us left with, is the feeling (some might say belief)  that the only way we could have prevented those fifty deadly occurrences is through the use of a program designed (yes, designed) to infringe on those rights.[1] There is a built-in logical fallacy in what Alexander wants us to hear: that without the programs on which the NSA chooses to rely, these fifty occurrences would have happened!  He doesn’t actually use those words, but he depends on us to think in such terms: Either A happens or B happens. Either heads or tails. Either good news or bad news.

    Either right or wrong.

    But couldn’t there be other ways? Why must it always be the lady or the tiger?

    This kind of binary thinking isn’t new, of course; in the early days of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush famously said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Most people interpreted that statement as meaning, “If you don’t support our policies and our reasons, then you support the terrorists.” Those policies and reasons included an almost metaphysical belief in what were clearly not facts: Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, the need for secret prisons and rendition, and the “understanding” that waterboarding wasn’t really torture, but that even if it was, it was okay because it helped us get the guys in the black hats before they got us.

    I remember at the time thinking that Bush’s statement sounded foolish; clearly I could believe many things other than those two options, and so I ask myself—and all of you: When it comes to the really important things, why can’t we count higher than two?

    And why, I ask, do we allow ourselves to be forced into someone else’s binary quandary? Why do we believe, so easily, that there are only two sides to any issue, to any story, to any possibility?

    We’ve allowed ourselves to remain locked, for centuries, in a world of Aristotelian dualism, a place where things are or are not, but never both/and. It’s not that way everywhere. There are other ways to think. In many Eastern cultures “both/and” thinking is quite common. Thinking processes in many parts of the East, for example, focus on creating harmony between and among objects rather than automatically separating and categorizing them, tendencies that inhabit the Western mind.

    In the case of this spying debacle (and debacle it is), we could, if we wanted to, look at things through a different PRISM (as it were). We could, for example, think about other ways to gather information, or other ways to more effectively separate citizens from non-citizens when we spy. We could think about a different model for alliances and shared intelligence, perhaps, or even ways in which we might involve us, the public, more in the pursuit of our own security.[2] Are these viable ideas? I don’t even know. But it sure seems like there might be some, if only we took the time to talk about it….

    What we need is a willingness to have such conversations and, in the absence of such willingness, a way to force such conversations. Perhaps it’s time to challenge our own representatives about what they believe and why, to force them, unendingly, to ask questions a different way, a way that is more open and honest and not designed to trap, or prove a point, or pontificate.[3]

    It all comes back, yet again, to the ways in which power seeps away from us and over to them, those we elect to govern. Conversation, dialog, questions, conflict: these are the tools we might think to use yet again. If we don’t simply absorb and believe, but think and question, we would all be better off.


    [1] Quick side note: the testimony also leaves the lingering impression that these would have been fifty instances on the scale of 9/11, something we can’t accurately assess but, based on history, is highly unlikely to be true.  Still, it does scare us nicely, doesn’t it?

    [2] And for those who think all this has to be a secret, ask yourselves this question: Do you really believe the bad guys don’t know we’re spying on them? And, if so, why are we the only people who don’t know!??! 

    [3] Second side note: Since so many of these people are lawyers, this could all be wishful thinking. Perhaps we should favor non-lawyers when we decided on whom to vote for…. Just a thought….

    Thursday
    Jun062013

    GUEST POST: Politics, Dharma, and Equanimity: Going Beyond Right, Left, Red, and Blue

    [Editor's Note: Today's post comes from Suzanne Harvey, fellow member of the New Hampshire Writers' Project and former representative in the New Hampshire state house. Suzanne was kind enough to read this essay at a recent meeting of the Nashua "Writers' Night Out" group, and I was so taken with it that I asked if I could run it as a guest post. The essay has also been published previously at Shambhala SunSpace. Suzanne Harvey lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband. She is a student of Lama Willa Miller, the founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship and spiritual director of Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, NH.--MC]

    ***

    By Suzanne Harvey

    It’s hard to know which was more surprising: that I would run for political office at all—and then win—or that I would become a Buddhist. Politics happened first… or maybe not.

    A recent return visit to the New Hampshire State House served to remind me that I’ve put dharma teachings to work in my interactions with individuals whom I find difficult. Putting your practice to work in a political setting should be no different from doing it at any office, but a legislature of 400 members wins hands down as a place to find plenty of challenging personalities.

    Where did it all start for me? Back in the early aughties I picked up various dharma books from my husband’s collection. I found them interesting but couldn’t make a personal connection. By early 2007, I’d begun meditating, and this coincided with the start of my second term as a member of the NH House of Representatives. The cushion became my main refuge.

    For the next few years a local sangha provided a welcome constant in my life, but my sitting practice was an on- and off-again effort.

    Between the sangha, the books, and a few retreats, I kept my toes in the dharma. But every time there was an opportunity to take the Refuge Vow and call myself a Buddhist, I declined. It didn’t resonate for me. I said I didn’t need or want the “label.”

    Meanwhile I continued to steep myself in my legislative work, appreciating the opportunity to contribute. Over the decades I had volunteered in many campaigns, but it wasn’t until 2004 and living in New Hampshire that the idea of running for one of the 400 House seats took root. Once at the State House, any sense of equanimity was continuously challenged by the most cantankerous and self-righteous colleagues.

    No issue important to me was without its detractors. But from the beginning of my freshman term in 2005 to my third and last two-year term, I made it a point to reach across the aisle in an effort to make collegiality one of the hallmarks of my service. Sitting down to lunch with someone from the other party, or even inviting myself to a lunchtime cafeteria table filled with “the opposition,” was part of my attempt to fight stereotyping. I wanted to get to know these folks whose philosophies were so different from mine and I wanted them to know me—in a way that would transcend politics.

    Right, left, red, blue—did it really matter at lunchtime? Did it really matter when we bragged about our kids or grandkids together or shared stories about growing up in NH or elsewhere? And maybe the good cheer would spill over into committee work.

    In my second term, when listening to floor speeches by certain colleagues, I touched in on what I’d learned from dharma teachings. I made deliberate efforts to consider that they, too, had families they loved and maybe elderly parents to care for, as I did. Some had children with special needs or spouses fighting illness. Each one, I had to remember, wanted happiness the same as I did. Each one had a Buddha nature, just as I did. The tough ones, though, the ones who seemed so self-righteous in their opinions (did I, too?) were my best teachers. I had to pay attention—and tamp down the “us” vs “them” dualistic thinking.

    The weekly floor debates during our House sessions, however, became a test of my patience and equanimity.

    “What would Buddha do?” or “How would Buddha vote?” were not exactly questions on my mind. I don’t waiver much when it comes to issues affecting inequities or the common good (at least my definition of it). The main issues I gave my time to—renewable energy and the electric grid, human trafficking, and substance abuse prevention and treatment—were of primary importance to me. Despite my opinions, it didn’t take long once I was actually in the thick of the political drama to realize that other voices and viewpoints must be heard.

    I also learned that when mindfulness, compassion, and loving kindness intersect with politics, interesting things can happen—if not yielding a desired result, then creating a change in you. Rather than having kneejerk reactions to the opposition, I found myself consciously trying to understand their positions and just accept that we had different worldviews.

    Several weeks ago I attended a hearing on a bill at the State House and was greeted enthusiastically by many former colleagues. Then I found myself sitting next to one of the legislators who always gave me pause. We might have spoken once in all the time we were colleagues. We could probably find maybe one or two issues on which we might agree. Even as our elbows touched on the chairs’ armrests, he was not acknowledging my presence.

    Remembering his difficult family health issues and my meditation practice of taking in others’ suffering and sending out love, I took a breath, turned to him and asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” he answered, looking straight ahead. Simple, straightforward. He was not interested in engaging with me and that was okay. I’d reached out with an open heart.

    And so, after never having given a moment’s thought to running for office, I did and served six years. Then, by the end of 2011 I’d finally met the teacher who would inspire my regular practice on and off the cushion and give me a deeper appreciation for the Buddhist path. When she offered the Refuge Vow recently, I thought, “Of course!”

    Sunday
    Jun022013

    Mirror, Mirror: Part 2

    This morning, while watching Good Morning America: Weekend and breaking my fast with some granola and pineapple yogurt, I saw a story about this ad, from Cheerios. 

    In it, a young girl—perhaps four or five years old—asks her mother about Cheerios’ heart-healthy properties. When the mother confirms the ad sense, the daughter goes over to where her sleeping father lies on the couch and pours the cereal straight out of the box and onto his chest. 

    The story wasn’t about the health claims, or the possible use of GMOs in the cereal, or any of the other beat-up topics I’d come to expect. Instead, it was about the bi-racial family depicted in the ad and the outsized, poisonous, deplorable vitriol cast at Cheerios from those amongst us who still harbor racial hatred deep in their bones.

    And I thought: “Oh, great. Another round of conservative-bashing is about to begin.”

    -------------------

    It’s both frightening and impressive the way we make assumptions. Often working with limited (or even faulty) data, we combine experience and belief in ways that allow all of us to get through our days. We make assumptions about weather, about how much exercise is good or bad, about how busy we’ll be in the week ahead (and whether we can afford a day on the golf course on Tuesday). But as often as we make these little, necessary assumptions that propel us forward, so too do we make assumptions that judge, that harm, that excoriate.

    We humans are “assessment-making machines,” and we often take action and make decisions automatically based on the assessments we make about situations and people. The problem we run into is that our assessments are often ungrounded—we have, at best, ad hoc evidence from a small non-random sample to support them—and then we draw conclusions, create beliefs, and base our decisions around our inaccurate or ill-informed assessments. The result is that we may be using our own “mental models” for decision making rather than assessing the data and information that might lead us to a better decision for any one particular situation. It’s our view of the world so it must be right! Right?

    There’s an interesting description for this behavior: The Ladder of Inference.

    First introduced by Chris Argyris, American business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and later popularized by Peter Senge, American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Ladder of Inference describes how we create these mental models, assumptions and stories we carry around about ourselves, other people, and even social institutions (like bi-racial marriage). We certainly need these mental models, but when we refuse to reflect on them, when we slavishly adhere and use that adherence to infer behaviors and attitudes in others, then we are said to be “climbing high on the Ladder,” a habit that’s both harmful and hard to break.

    When we climb the ladder, we go through a process of selecting data, adding meaning (both cultural and personal), and then making assumptions. From those assumptions we draw conclusions, then adopt beliefs supported by those conclusions. All that is well and good  until we realize that those beliefs become reflexive, leading us to select more data—but only that which already supports our beliefs, which then leads to making more reinforced assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs.

    It’s insidious, and we all do it: We hear “Islam” or “Christian” and we have a reaction. We hear “the South” and we have a reaction. We hear “Glenn Beck” or “Sean Hannity” or “Rachel Maddow” and we have a reaction.

    We hear “race” and we have a reaction.

    Too many just climb up that ladder. Some—like the thousands and thousands who spewed hatred over this ad—don’t just climb; they park themselves permanently on the top rung, distressingly comfortable in the hate-filled air they’ve chosen to breathe.

    But other climbers vie for the top of the ladder as well. It’s not just about those who spew hatred, but also about those who react to those who spew hatred, the assumptions made about those people. And I ask you—all of you who had some visceral reaction to the Cheerios ad—how high did you climb? And is the air getting thin up there for you, too?

    -------------------

    There’s an additional subtext to this whole story, though—one that I’m rather loath to admit. It turns out that, in addition to all of the reasoned arguments above, I’m probably something of a jackass. Why is that? Well, for those who’ve read this far, you may have noted that I did the exact same thing that I accused others of: I climbed that ladder just as high and just as fast. My initial response to the story (well, perhaps my second response; my first was nausea) was to assume that those on the left would excoriate those on the right such as myself, lumping us all into that racist stereotype in which I knew I did not belong. But my very assumption—that “liberals” would jump on me, makes me guilty of that same stereotyping. I’m just looking leftward rather than rightward.

    Now my assumption may be (somewhat) correct: I may go visit my usual Facebook and Twitter haunts and see exactly what I expect to see. But that doesn’t make my actions any more correct than the stopped clock that’s accidentally right twice daily. It still makes me a jackass—unless I’m willing to recognize my mental models, understand that I’ll mostly likely see what I expect to see and, in so doing, give myself the opportunity to step back down the Ladder.

    Saturday
    May182013

    The Real GMO Wars

     

    Much has been made—and rightly so—of the constant push to genetically modify this or that. Our food is the most common target: the seeds from which it is born, the offspring from which it is raised. A recent article even touched on the future of beef—edible beef—sans the need for any kind of genealogy, grown instead in a petri dish. Monsanto is famously infamous for genetically modified soybeans and corn, but even this short list of GMOs (from Monsanto and others, and including not only corn and soybeans, but sugar beets and papaya) tells us that such apparently infinitesimal tinkering is (and is becoming) far more common than we think.

    Monsanto’s latest brainstorm is still another genetically modified soybean, this one developed (with BASF) in response to “an explosion of crop-choking weeds around the U.S. that have become resistant” to the most recent round of Round-up, Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide. The weeds, it seems are smarter—and faster—than our best scientists.

    ***

    I never much liked Edgar Allan Poe. I find him overly rococo. For sheer horror, built from natural human responses and events, give me Nathaniel Hawthorne any day.

    Hawthorne isn’t a name that leaps to mind when thinking of horror, but that deserves to change. Hawthorne regularly dipped his toes into gothic waters, particularly in his short story oeuvre. Tales as popular as “Young Goodman Brown” live side by side with lesser-known (but still wonderful) works such as “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” (which could give Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” a solid run for its money) and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”

    What strikes me most about Hawthorne—and what made him scarily prescient—is the way he wrote about science and its obsession with changing the natural order of things. Exhibit A is the masterful tale “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” written about 1844. In it, our protagonist, one Giovanni Guasconti, arrives in Padua to study at the University there, and takes up run-down lodgings overlooking a beautiful garden, where he soon spots Beatrice, the daughter of the eponymous scientist—a man who has been (using our modern terms) genetically modifying organisms. Beatrice, born and raised in this environment, has had her own genetics modified. As with many cautionary tales of the times, such a use of science—by man in imitation of God—results in predictable tragedy.

    ***

    We have very little sense of (or choose willfully to ignore) the unintended consequences inherent in our quest for answers, yet science plunges forward anyway, as if anything that comes of it can only be good.  Regardless of how many times we are reminded that such is not true, still we learn little. And we’re playing with nature….

    Many of us watch the GMO wars and fear becoming Rappacinni’s daughter, or perhaps worry that our children will, or that their children will. We fear that we, ourselves, will unwittingly become genetically modified organisms, much as Beatrice did. But if you’re afraid of what the science of genetic modification might do to you or your offspring or your offspring’s offspring, then you’re likely wasting your time.

    We could all be gone by then.

    The real war—and the real fears that go with it—are closer than you think, the harmful impacts potentially much greater and much more immediate.

    We humans change relatively slowly, our cumbersome genetic responses dragged down by twenty-five-year generational cycles. We are surrounded by organisms, however, that evolve at rates much, much faster. The plant world, the insect world, and the microbial world—the worlds with which Monsanto and others are at war—are evolving in response to chemical attacks.  We don’t need to worry so much about the chemical effects on us as we do about dying because of the rapid changes on this much smaller scale.

    It's not just the florae—the ones schooling the scientists at Monsanto and BASF—that should worry us. They are not nearly as smart as the smaller still insect world. Just last fall it was reported that Monsanto’s carefully constructed anti-rootworm corn was now succumbing to… rootworm. You know how it works by now: the genetically modified corn resists the rootworm and the majority of the insect population—they live only on corn, after all—die off. But the few that remain, the resistant few, breed and survive. Rootworms lay eggs on annual cycles, and so it wasn’t that long before the resistant worms were comfortably feasting again. Likewise, too the Colorado potato beetle, which has developed resistance to more than fifty different compounds.

    Smarter still are the microbes—and they’re why we should be frightened. You see, it’s not just about Monsanto and our food. It's about all chemicals designed to make our lives better. The pharmaceutical industry is essentially in the same business as Monsanto, attempting to perfect the use of science in developing protections against harm, and, like Monsanto, the health care industry now suffers the same constraints. So-called superbugs have become stronger in recent years: a 2013 report from the World Economic Forum shows an unprecedented rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or ARBs, with nearly 100,000 deaths reported in the United States alone.

    We’re paying attention to the wrong GMOs; the real GMOs are the creatures adapting and surviving, the ones killing us.

    ***

    It’s a war we’re losing, a war we can’t possibly win.  We need to think differently. We need to be at war with the way we respond to what happens around us and to us. If we focus on wars with companies then we’re missing the picture. We must recognize that we live in a time where defeating is more important than coexisting, a dominion philosophy grown from socio-religious roots, a time where short-term profits produce short-term thinking without considering long-term consequences. The war needs to be with our culture, with ourselves, the part that says eat cheap and fast and take a pill for every ache and pain.

    If we don’t change—if we don’t recognize that we can’t win a war that aims to dominate nature—then the result could very well be a Hawthornian future, one that makes the ending to “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” even more frightening.  As Hawthorne writes near the close of the story, “And thus the poor victim of man's ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom, perished there….”

    Let it not be so.