Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fanatically Anti-Fanatic

On the cluttered deity table in my office stands a statue of Guan Yin, given to me by my Qingdao University students just before final exam time in the spring of 1994. No doubt they hoped that since Guan Yin is the Goddess of Mercy, she might help soften the usual harshness of my grading standards at that crucial time. In fact I appreciated the gift because Guan Yin is my favorite deity: a benevolent and forgiving goddess who actually used to be a god in Buddhist India before she underwent some kind of celestial sex change operation on her way to China.

I wonder if I were to burn a little incense to Madame Guan Yin she might find a way to relax and enlighten Bill Maher, who spends entirely too much time beating up on religion. According to him, religion is not only responsible for most wars, it also causes the enslavement of women and does lots of other awful things.

But religion doesn’t cause these things. It would be more accurate to say that religion may be brought in like a flunky/character witness to justify one group’s treatment of another, but it is typically brought in after the fact of the mistreatment.

White southerners were already committed to slavery – for economic reasons -- before they began rooting through the Old Testament to find some way to declare that God said it was OK for them to dehumanize and enslave African families. The men of the Arabian Peninsula were subjugating women long before the angel Gabriel gave birth to Islam by dictating it to Mohammed.

Religion didn't cause slavery and the subjugation of women; it just helped the enslavers and male chauvinists to justify their self-serving behavior. Against these examples there are plenty of cases in which religion modified nastiness rather than enabling it.

Religious beliefs grow out of the cultures in which they appear and tend to mirror those cultures. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim family of religions grew out of societies in which patriarchal clans and families were the norm, and loyalty to the clan was virtue number one. Because of this male-dominated cultural setting, all three of these religions imagined God to be a wise and powerful father figure to whom one must be absolutely loyal. Even Satan is a male figure in these religions.


Dante's Satan

Satan is actually more variable and interesting than God, given his youthful rebelliousness. Let’s face it: Satan is cool. He flouts authority, takes chances, and knows how to have a good time. But, like God, he’s unmistakably a “he.”

He’s only mentioned a few times throughout the Bible, as, for example, when he instigates Job’s troubles. In Dante’s Inferno, he’s depicted as a huge, three-headed animal who sits in a freezing pit. Yes, freezing.

There seems to have been a long-standing division between Middle Eastern and European notions of Hell, with the Europeans seeing it as a place of bitter cold while the Middle Easterners were sure that it was hot and fiery. Given current cartoon depictions, I’d say the Middle Eastern vision finally won out. On my old Gary Larson screen saver, for example, Hell looked like a fiery cave and the devils in charge were horned and tailed. They were also definitely male.

All these shared notions of Gabriel, God and Satan point to the common origins of Christianity and Islam. These two religions also share a belief in Jesus. For Muslims, however, Jesus is not the Son of God, but rather a prophet of God. Moses, Abraham and other Old Testament figures are also counted among the Muslim prophets. Devout Muslims are inclined to say “Peace be upon him,” every time they utter the name of a prophet. I recall an Arab American Imam who lectured on our campus about Islam and Christianity and who repeated the phrase “Peace be upon him,” every time he mentioned Jesus.

(Picture not available)

Mr. Maher is wasting his time by focusing his hostility on religion. Not only are Christianity and Islam similar to each other, religious people and non-religious people are similar to each other in that we’re all trying to figure the world out in light of what we believe. The problem is not in religion per se, but in fanaticism.

Fanaticism starts with the idea that one’s own beliefs are the right ones and the world needs to benefit from them whether the world realizes it or not. Little good can come of this mentality, but it is not always rooted in religion. The anti-religious fervor of Stalinist Russia easily matches the brutality of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

So, Bill, my advice: Take a chill pill on religion. I’m not saying you need to go so far as to burn incense to Guan Yin (though she did come through for my Qingdao students). I’m just saying our real enemy is not religion, it’s fanaticism.

Guan Yin with Dragon

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is Our Adults Being Educated?

I had a terrific time last week attending the American Anthropological Association meetings in New Orleans -- site of my debauched youth, and still one of my favorite cities. This is particularly true now that I managed to purchase, in a funky French Quarter shop, an intriguingly sinister cane. For a handle it has a glassy blue knob decorated with silver bats. And “bats” is what Darla implied I was when I bought it, but I still think it’s kind of cool.

Anyway, the anthropology convention was rewarding. There are an awful lot of brainy people in anthropology and what I particularly like is that so many of them have been to interesting places and are able to talk about them with first-hand knowledge. One session I attended focused on Afghanistan, and there I learned that even though I’ve read a bit about that conflict, my ignorance of the real situation is so profound that if I were in Barack Obama’s place I wouldn’t want to make a move on Afghanistan policy without first consulting with such experts as Thomas Barfield, Andrea Chiovenda and Noah Coburn. Mr. President, proceed with caution.

In another panel, Georgetown University Professor Rochelle Davis made the point that American officers and enlisted personnel in places like Iraq and Afghanistan tend to regard American style democracy and American society generally as so clearly superior to anything the local people might be doing that resistance to “Americanization” seems either foolish or evil, if not both.

Actually, it’s not just the “boots-on-the-ground” guys who are misled in this way. The actions of Viceroy J. Paul Bremer, when he gutted the Iraqi economy and attempted to set up a “free” (i.e., “corporate-friendly”) economy in Iraq, show that this “Our way is best and they better get with it,” mentality was shared all the way up the chain of command. As I have argued before, the arrogance of this mindset is responsible for much of the bloodshed and suffering that Iraqis and Americans have experienced since the early days of “shock and awe.” For a definition of “shock and awe,” see “terror.”

I’m kind of bragging on my fellow anthropologists here, but naturally there are plenty of disciplines in the academic world where people motivated by a yearning to understand things have managed to accumulate a treasure trove of knowledge. It seems to me that the best way to make sense out of what's happenin' in the world is by consulting these experts.

During the years of Y2K fever, for example, there were all kinds of irresponsible reports about how disastrous the turn of the millennium would be. To me the simplest way to gauge the level of the coming “disaster” was to check in with my friends in the computer science department here at Rollins. Their report: “Don’t worry, Y2K has been adequately handled ahead of time so that problems will be minimal.” Consequently I wasted no time or nervous energy fretting about it.

I have heard different factions of the Tea Party denouncing the Federal Reserve as though it were an agency of Satan, so I asked some of my pals in economics what the story was here. “Well,” they explained, “the anti-Fed fanatics are just a subcategory of those people who resent government in general.” Got it.

It seems to me that America is splitting into two separate worlds, Education World where people respect what curiosity-driven knowledgeable experts have to say and Fox World where people depend on cheesy self-promoters in the profit-driven media, people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Here’s a simple True-False test to figure out which World you belong to:

T F Barack Obama is a socialist.

T F Smaller government means more democracy.

T F For the good of the country, Congress should dedicate itself to undermining President Obama.

T F Our taxes are higher than ever these days, especially for the rich.

T F So-called "global warming" is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists who are plotting to...I don't know, do something evil.

T F We should all apologize to BP for the mean things everyone said about them last summer.

T F Sarah Palin would make a fine president.

T F Reigniting the nuclear arms race with Russia is a smart way to make us safer.

T F Barack Obama is a Muslim.

T F FEMA camps are being prepared where innocent Americans will be incarcerated.

T F We would all be so much better off if President Obama had just allowed the economy to collapse last year.

T F Fox News is fair and balanced.

Well, I’ll let you figure out how to score this quiz.

Really, isn’t this split into Education World and Fox World the very thing that underlies the irreconcilable partisan divide now undermining our government’s ability to act? Well, IMHO it is. I’m old enough to remember the days when reasonable Republicans like Richard Lugar, could make deals with reasonable Democrats like Barack Obama, and our country was able to accomplish great things thereby. Are those days gone forever? And if they are, how much responsibility does Fox News hold for this condition? IMHO, lots.

Here follow some pictures from Morocco, a place I've learned about from my anthropologist friend, Professor Rachel Newcomb, and from Noureddine, my friend from Fes.

Professor Newcomb and Noureddine with Camel

A Moroccan Village

A Couple of Friendly Moroccan Chaps


 Village Kids Playing Soccer

Leatherworkers of Fes

Household Courtyard

Moroccan Pool Players

Berber Tent, Set Up for Hospitality (The politically correct word for Berber is "Amazigh.")

Farewell, Friendly Fes

Anthropology, Education and Morocco: three things I believe in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Smaller Government! Less Democracy!

The Tea Partiers and other conservatives keep telling us that our government should be "smaller." By this, I gather they mean weaker and less able to tend to its core business: looking after the interests of the people who elect its leaders.

The utopia the "small government" advocates talk about resembles Mayberry but, like the Mayberry of TV-land, it does not and cannot exist. As soon as governmental power, that is, the power of our democratically elected representatives, is hobbled, corporate power moves in to take its place.

If BP angered us with its callous contempt for safety standards and dishonest response to the oil-spill disaster last spring, imagine how it would have behaved had government been "smaller," that is less able to enforce safety standards or demand restitution for the damage its mad grab for profits caused.

Actually, you may not have to imagine it if the small government conservatives have their way; you may actually find yourself living it. Instead of a public-dependent, one-person/one-vote democracy, our lives will be dominated by a profit-oriented, one-dollar/one-vote corporatacracy. Good luck getting a sympathetic, public-spirited response from the likes of BP, Halliburton or Citigroup once we live in ConglomoCorp-World.

New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, with his usual insight, has highlighted in his column today some of the trends that have pushed us more and more under the domination of the super-rich in recent decades, i.e., since the current conservative revival began.

Here are a couple of the highlights from his piece:

"The wealthy Americans we should worry about instead are the ones who implicitly won the election — those who take far more from America than they give back. They...are all but certain to cash in on the Nov. 2 results. There’s no one in Washington in either party with the fortitude to try to stop them from grabbing anything that’s not nailed down."

"The Americans I’m talking about are not just those shadowy anonymous corporate campaign contributors who flooded this campaign. No less triumphant were those individuals at the apex of the economic pyramid — the superrich who have gotten spectacularly richer over the last four decades while their fellow citizens either treaded water or lost ground. The top 1 percent of American earners took in 23.5 percent of the nation’s pretax income in 2007 — up from less than 9 percent in 1976."

"The bigger issue is whether the country can afford the systemic damage being done by the ever-growing income inequality between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else, whether poor, middle class or even rich. That burden is inflicted not just on the debt but on the very idea of America — our Horatio Alger faith in social mobility over plutocracy, our belief that our brand of can-do capitalism brings about innovation and growth, and our fundamental sense of fairness. Incredibly, the top 1 percent of Americans now have tax rates a third lower than the same top percentile had in 1970."

Well said.

Rich cites a source that says the process of super-rich domination began when Carter was president, which surprised me, since I always saw the beginning of the trend with Reagan's rise. Of course one of the primary culprits in this trend is the expense of presidential and congressional campaigns; this expense means elected leaders must defer to the super-rich in order to get into office. It may well be that Carter's era saw its beginning even before Reagan took office.

In any case, it would be nice if those who keep demanding "small government," would acknowledge that the government we have is already too small and too beholden to corporate wealth to adequately serve and protect us. And let's thank Mr. Rich for pointing out that shrinking our democratic institutions is not the road to utopia.

Frank Rich of the New York Times

A Reliable Source

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I'm Still "All In" on This Idiot Savant Country

So that’s what an ass-whuppin’ feels like; 1994 was so long ago that I had pretty much forgotten.

Honestly, I have to confess that I manage to enjoy every election, even those like this year’s when our frenemies, the Republicans, sweep the table. I remember in 1992 when I took Little Four-year-old Grace Marie to the polling place with me, Mom Darla, in an effort to keep our daughter’s feet on the ground, made it a point to explain to her that “not every grown-up gets as excited about election day as your Dad does.”

“OK, Mom,” she replied.

Tuesday morning, after I cast my (pathetically ineffective) vote, I started my walk to school and by coincidence the first tune to pour out of my iPod was Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

I ask you, how cool is that?

Anyway, here’s what I think: America is fantastic – Abraham Lincoln! Rally to Restore Sanity!! Election Day!!!

On the other hand, America is a mess – Sean Hannity? Governor Rick Scott?? Flowbee???

My Island Buddy, Steve, recently sent me some comments highlighting the more frightening features of the “America is a mess” side of the story, some of which I will present here as my own ideas. Since he is my buddy, I'm figuring he won't sue me for stealing some of them.

The basic political story of 2010 is this: In the infamous Citizens United decision, conservative Supreme Court justices voted to allow corporate moneyed interests to continue screwing us with increasing vigor and this has doomed Americans to serfdom. The day is just around the corner when we will have to beg BP to please allow us to spend our free time cleaning their oil off our beaches at which point the BP executives, if they are in a generous frame of mind, will nod to their Senators and other Congressional minions who will write a law allowing us to do so.

OK, maybe we aren’t there yet. But I do think that at the very least Schoolhouse Rock needs to update its cute little “How a Bill Becomes a Law” video. I was introduced to this wonderful educational cartoon by My Favorite Student, who, when she was a little girl, got together with her pal Meryl and did performances of some Schoolhouse Rock scenarios for Darla and me.

In the original version, an adorable little rolled up and ribbon-bound bill sits on the steps of Congress waiting while House and Senate committees debate it. Then Presto! it becomes a law after the wise ones of Congress vote for it and the president signs it.

The little bill was sent to Congress in the first place because concerned citizens wanted a law which would prevent school buses from being crushed by trains at railroad crossings. What could be simpler or more benign?

1. Citizens see a need and consult their Congressional representative who
2. writes a bill on behalf of America’s school children, and finally,
3. after a lot of jingle singing, it becomes a law.

But I would like to propose a new, more realistic version of “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” This updated version would open on a scene in which a group of thuggish characters sit around a bottle-littered table in a smoke-filled room barely illuminated by a single dangling light bulb. On the wall hangs a poster of Satan who looks surprisingly similar to Dick Cheney and who smiles with self satisfaction as his tobacco-stained fingers gently stroke a little model of an oil derrick which reclines in his lap. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” plays in the background.

So the thugs put together a bill that makes it unconstitutional to ask any member of Congress where their campaign funding comes from and which contains a supplementary clause prohibiting any citizen from complaining about oil on beaches, residents, clothing, children and all accouterments thereunto appertaining.

The bill produced in this foul little room is then made public (to the tune of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”). As the bill shoves its way through throngs of protesting citizens, it swaggers up the capitol steps where members of Congress genuflect before it and quickly rubber stamp it. Then President Palin signs into law.

Of course it isn’t set in stone that things will turn out this way. After all, America has survived crises in the past and I still have faith that we will survive this one too.

You may well ask, “But, Comrade CultureWorld, what can we do to keep Satan from taking over America?”

Naturally, I’m happy to advise. First, as a general rule, you should favor Democrats over Republicans in your voting because Democrats never use dishonest or unfair ads in their campaigns.

Oh all right, so Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson used a grossly dishonest and unfair ad against his Republican opponent this year, but that’s only one.

OK, OK, so Democrat Jack Conway used a ridiculously stupid and unfair ad that tried to make Rand Paul look like a slave of Aqua Buddha. Very well, I admit it. Democrats can be creepy too. But the main advantage of the Democrats is that they are somewhat less in thrall than Republicans are to the corporate money that has been steadily smothering our democracy since 1980. In other words, in order to fund their campaigns, the Democrats frequently go whoring with Satan; the Republicans, however, are happily married to the Prince of Darkness.

The second thing I recommend is that you not watch FOX News…unless you simply want to keep tabs on what the Forces of the Dark Side are up to. If you actually believe that Fox is “fair and balanced,” it may be too late for you.

I would like to recommend as an alternative to Fox, the Morning Joe program on MSNBC, hosted by Joe Scarborough. I know, Joe Scarborough is a conservative Republican, but he’s still cool. (Yes, I said cool – now bear with me here.)

You know those types who go around saying nutty things like “Obama is a Muslim,” as if they were idiots? (And I use the phrase “as if” liberally here.) Well, Joe treats them they way they deserve to be treated, i.e., as though they inhabited their own little Sims World where anything they want to make up can be true.

Being a conservative Republican, Joe is a bit askew on some issues, but what distinguishes him from those right-wingers who seem to have Ph.D.s in ignorance (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck), is that he respects people whose views he disagrees with as long as their views aren’t just plain wacko. And his program has people like Eugene Robinson and Katrina vanden Heuvel on it -- smart people who actually know stuff and who are not slaves to the corporatacracy.

So, I say, turn off Fox and turn on Morning Joe.

Anyway, back to my original point: Even given the new influence secret money now has on our elections, and the newfound power of crazies like Michelle Bachmann, I still have faith in our country. We may be in for nasty weather, but after all, we more or less survived the Bush presidency, so I believe we will survive the current rise of the right. In the name of Aqua Buddha, I do hope so.

Aqua Patriots

From Vintage American & ARose Books