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    Mean Democracy

    I’ve been troubled for some time about democracy; I just don’t think it means what it used to mean.

    Democracy is supposed to be about hearing, considering, and respecting multiple voices, resulting in reasoned compromise that leads to the overall betterment of society. Not today, though. Today democracy seems like just another cudgel, grabbed by the powerful and used to force a modern despotism on a helpless electorate. It has become a tool of convenience; we parade its benefits when it suits our needs, and we do so in ways that subvert its truth. Demokratia, the rule of the people, is used by those who, wielding a bastardized definition, pretend that democracy is a power given to individuals rather than a loan given to representatives.

    While I may be unsure of what the word means today, I do know one thing: the practice of democracy has gotten mean. In North Carolina, for example (a part of the country we should all be paying extremely close attention to), democracy no longer rides the rails at all. The state legislators down there seem to have adapted the modern definition and are busy horse-whipping the populace into submission. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at this video, in which the NC Lt. Governor tells the concerned gallery occupants that they can’t make either sound or gesture. This, he seemingly contends, is how democracy works on his watch.) Instead of representing their constituents, the current supermajority appears to have taken the electoral victory as an opportunity to remake the state in their own image rather than finding ways to compromise for the betterment of the state’s diverse population.

    Such plays out all over the country. Fear and enmity have combined with Torquemadan tactics to create an environment that seems anything but democratic to me.  Instead, democracy is what someone else decides it is; democracy is whatever the winners want it to be.

    And our attitude has gone international. I’ve written previously about the Egyptian elections and how we seem to have conveniently forgotten that they were in fact just that: elections. Now there are those who laud what we used to deplore: the military ousting an elected head of state and then taking over the country.

    In my day we called that a “coup.”  But not today.  A quick search for references to the events in Egypt reveals an abundance of counter-coup claims; apparently, use of the term would violate U.S. foreign policy and impact our ability to provide aid to Egypt. And since we sort of like the results (After all, they got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood!) we wouldn’t want to take that risk. So it’s not a coup, even though “leading voices in Washington contend that it is the security interest of the U.S. and the region to help loosen the grip the Muslim Brotherhood has over Egypt and assist in holding a new set of democratic elections.”

    Apparently the last set of democratic elections didn’t provide the outcome we want.

    And it’s all connected. It seems like no accident that, at the same time that we willfully turn a blind eye to democracy’s overthrow in Egypt, we are also using democracy’s bludgeon to legislate against the non-existent threat of Sharia law here at home.  For proof, look no further than (once again) to our friends in North Carolina, who have chosen to join more than two dozen other states in wasting time on this “threat.”

    Is this really what democracy is for? And, if not, how can it change?

    Perhaps we should start with those few legislators who somehow still care, who try not to see only through a glass, darkly. Currently too many are playing the game the bludgeoners want them to play, catering to the lies and misinformation with counter-arguments that they know will only fall on deaf ears. Perhaps, instead, they should call out the hypocrisy. In North Carolina, for example, in the recent floor debates shown in this video, why is it that not one defiant legislator stood up to call out the bill supporters, to dare them to admit what they are really trying to do? Why do they only play the game of punch-counterpunch when the real issues of fear-mongering and theocracy are never addressed? Can you imagine what would happen if just one legislator bothered to stand up and speak the real truth, to ask just this one question: “Have you all gone fucking nuts?”

    Let’s find those legislators, both at the state and federal levels. Let’s encourage them, give them cover, offer them reportage and support. Let’s urge them to stop struggling in an environment that ignores democracy; urge them instead to call out what’s really happening, and to force those who would suppress us by pretending to democracy admit instead what they’re really trying to do.

    And what they’re trying to do is about the farthest thing from democracy I can imagine.


    Greetings from Woodstock

    I've just come back from a couple of days in Woodstock. Yes: THAT Woodstock. My son lives there and I drove the four-plus hours to help him celebrate his birthday. We spent some time recording music in his small apartment just outside of town (it's amazing what you can do with technology these days), and still had plenty of time to take a few circuits up and down Tinker Street, popping into a store here and there not so much to buy anything as to take a break from the humid heat. (Expect for the bookstore, of course. Can't go into a bookstore without buying something. Ever.)

    As we walked along, I saw this sign, and found it intriguing enough to photograph:

    Interesting, I thought. A bit different than I expected, but it somehow seemed right, true. Seeing it just shy of Independence Day made me think of how important dissent has always been to American history. Hell, we were created out of dissent. Voices are important. Whether it's Occupy Wall Street or the early days of the Tea Party, those voices all have one thing in common: they care.

    Then I saw this sign:

    Now I knew something was up.  A block further on came this one:


    And I thought: Where else but in Woodstock, the original home of dissent?

    When I got home I did a little homework and found out that the signs are an extension of something call the I-75 project, some of the "art of social conscience" by Norm Magnuson.  Now THIS guy knows how to say something.  Check out more of the signs here.

    And remember to speak, to dissent, to CARE.

    Have a great Independence Day, everyone, and thanks for reading.






    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’….


    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….


    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!”