Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next”

I have been watching Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. I watched it after the third debate. I watched it in-between reading news stories of demonstrations on the streets and the police abuses at the North Dakota pipeline. I watched it for relief from post-election news. I realize that the countries Moore talks about as examples of good policies also have awful policies and aren’t utopias. However, there are scenes that stick in my mind and make me ache for what could be:


In the movie, the father of a boy killed by a terrorist in Norway insists that it would be a violation of human dignity for his country to kill the crazed man who murdered his son. I can hear the outrage from many of my fellow Americans, but I just marvel at him.


Moore shows us wall-less prisons in Norway where murderers and rapists are housed, and are actually reformed, by being treated well, with dignity, and by eliminating personal conflict in their lives. And the result is a greatly reduced recidivism rate, one ridiculously lower than ours. (One fact check shows this policy and reduction in recidivism began in 1995 with a new policy focusing on rehabilitation and in 2007 with the opening of one of the prisons depicted in the film.)


Women’s rights are recognized not only in terms of equal treatment in the law, as it is here, but in terms of personal control over one’s own body and health, including abortion—a right most Americans recognize but too many politicians, including our possibly new President, rail against.


Police in Portugal advise the US that if we want a more peaceful society, we have to do away with the death penalty, as a start. Drug use (but not sales) was decriminalized leading not to chaos but a decrease in serious drug use and drug-related crime. And in Iceland, the bankers responsible for the severe recession were actually tried and sent to prison.


So many of us struggle to earn enough to support our families with comfort and dignity, and work in dreary jobs or dreary factories with no windows, or go to schools that look like factories, while in Germany and much of Europe, it is considered just good economic sense that workers and students should be treated well. This means workers are given health care, made part of the management and design teams, are given enough paid time off each week and each year so they can live good lives and have good relationships outside the workplace. (According to Moore, the average workweek for full time workers in most of Europe is less than in the US. Germany is 26 hours, Sweden 30. See this ABC news report to fact check his figures.) And students go to school for fewer hours, are better educated, are fed better food and not given unreasonable numbers of tests. And in Slovenia, a college education is free.


In the US, too many of us get caught up in retribution and revenge, and it’s too easy to lose a sense of mutual respect. We too easily lose awareness of how others are as valuable, as human, as we are. Why is that? Is it because of a Calvinist type of ideology, that if you’re rich, you must be favored by the Divine? So the rich are to be admired, and their privileges protected, even more than the loss of power, freedom, and income of most of us is deplored? Is it from our history of class divide and slavery warring with a dream of equity and democracy?


Is it from our country being so rich and powerful that we are too covetous, too afraid of what we might lose so we don’t see what we have already given up? Are we too shackled by the idea of capitalism and competition that we don’t see how such competition can turn everyone not on “our team” into an enemy, and everyone on our team into some thing to be valued only in proportion to what we earn or what we contribute to a “winning” record?


How can we understand the film now, after the election? As a wake-up call? As a reminder of what we once thought could be possible so we don’t normalize fear and oppression? Or as propaganda? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that it’s time for a revolution of mutual caring and a deep examination of how what we think we want affects our ability to get what we need.

Dreaming of A New Movement

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe it really happened. I live in a hilly rural area in central New York. I look out my window. The sun is shining. The apple tree in front of my house still stands. Birds still fly. But somewhere, down the hill, maybe above the homes of neighbors I barely know, there is a cloud, a cloud I can only see out of the corners of my eyes. The cloud gets darker each time I listen to or read political news.


When I first moved here more than 40 years ago, my wife and I, and the group of people we moved here with, were the Hippie-radicals. We bought the land our neighbors and their gun club enjoyed as a hunting area. Maybe they thought we came here to deny them their freedom to hunt wherever they chose. There were tense moments when we had to escort armed hunters off our land. There was even a time we were threatened with being shot. Many people of color and LGBT people unfortunately know this threat much more intimately than I do.


But there was a movement then, a base of support. I would have been more frightened if I was alone. And there were increasingly good moments with the neighbors over the years. For example, once my wife and I got caught in a snowdrift and a woman down the road helped pull us out. And now, we know each other and are good neighbors if not friends. And this is what I hope can happen now, a movement of the majority of Americans. By majority I don’t just mean the 50% of the electorate who voted for Hillary, but those who would have voted for Bernie or just didn’t trust the system at all.


Mr. Trump uses his own form of terrorism, one we have seen too often in history. Acts of terror are carried out to spread fear through a populace and lead a country, especially a country claiming to be democratic, into a frightening double-bind. Anger and fear can lead a people to call for measures of revenge and protection: violent revenge not only against the specific people who carried out the attack but the religion, culture and anyone who even looks like the people who gave it life. Protection can include all kinds of measures to defend against further attacks. But as we learned from Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, protection and revenge can lead to over-reaction and the destruction of the rights and liberties necessary to keep democracy alive. To protect democracy, we end democracy. That is terrorism’s goal. That might be Mr. Trump’s goal.


To eliminate the inhumanity that is ISIL requires studying and untangling the massively tangled web of beliefs, suffering and oppression that gave birth to it. To eliminate the threat that the new President represents requires the same. One aspect of ISIL is the absolute belief in the rightness of its ideology as well as its mission to destroy anyone who gets in its way or has different ideas. Mr. Trump calls for locking up or suing anyone who opposes him.


Spread enough fear and you can break the ties that bind us together. It can provoke people to hold on too tightly to their ideas of how things must be, degrade the value and examination of truth, and lose sight of the humanity of others. Society is held together by the most precarious of ties. It is not just buildings and institutions, but relationships, ideas, empathy and dreams. Mr. Trump spreads such fears.


Of course, his rhetoric has softened after the election. We don’t yet know exactly what he will do and must listen carefully to what he and other Republicans propose. But we also know that anyone who has spoken as he did in the election is not to be trusted. Even if, as some claim, his words were a tactic to gain power, such a means to power exposes, to some degree, his ends.


Fighting the ideas of Mr. Trump means not becoming who or what we oppose. To quote Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is too tempting to yell and assign blame, to hold too righteously to anger as our identity, and thus become like Mr. Trump. As many people have said, those of us who abhor terror and the politics of fear must fight not only against hatred but for democracy, for the rights, equity, humanity, and compassion that should characterize a government and are our best weapons against the terrorist ideology of Mr. Trump—or ISIL, for that matter.


One strategy we might use is for each of us to create a small, caring group dedicated to deepening our own education, developing mental and emotional awareness, and committing ourselves to act when necessary—it would help us all to find balance and limit the reach of our fears. Such groups can take the work seriously and also support us in playing and finding beauty in the world. We need to think as clearly as we can, and the greatest aid to clear thinking is energetic commitment to a deep examination of issues, combined with kindness and joy in being together, in being alive. Much of the news is depressing but that doesn’t mean we need to deny our selves or our friends joy.


So, I hope we find a way to improve the way we care for, support and educate each other, and not let fear drive us apart.


*Also: For some hope, read this article on student responses to the election of Mr. Trump.

Compassionate Critical Thinking, A Book Worth Owning and Sharing

Here’s a review of my book that cheered me up a little during a tough week.

I sat down with this book, very excited to finally have a copy in my hands to read. I was looking forward to feeling inspired by it as I read it quickly over the weekend, and to feel appreciation for the teacher who decided to share his work.

Two weeks later, I am still very excited to have it, but it is not a book I want to skim through for vague inspiration. Rather, I am awed by what an amazing treasure of detailed information this is! I wonder what the world would be like if these lessons could be offered to every school child. I went to a Quaker high school where every day started with a short period of silence for the whole school. This book takes that kernel of an idea and brings it into the rest of the school day.

I will go further and say this is a wonderful handbook for an ongoing mindfulness or meditation discussion group for adults. The wisdom Ira Rabois writes about is not superficial or difficult to understand, but instead the book offers topics, questions and reference reading on being a human being in this world. His students were so lucky to have a teacher who was able to approach their education with this respect and sensitivity, and the publication of this book brings this opportunity to the rest of us as well.

While it is clear that Rabois has a strong background in Buddhist teachings, what he is able to get across in this book is not limited by a particular philosophy or religion. Rather, he offers a detailed plan to study the human mind in all its fullness and frailty, all its potential and confusion. This book has found a permanent place on my nightstand with a couple other books (such as a book on Lojong) that I refer to again and again for guidance as problems come up.

If high school teachers are interested in helping students develop compassionate critical thinking, they would probably be most successful reading this book first, applying its questions and ideas to their own lives, allowing a first-person understanding of this information to be the basis of their teaching style. If a school has staff development days, even a small amount of time shared reading and discussing this book would be of great benefit to teachers and students alike.

I only wish that the table of contents had listed the Lesson Plans. The vast amount of information presented is not just a single line of knowledge, but rather is also a reference guide for approaching specific concerns as they arise in a classroom, or in one’s own life. For example, It would be helpful to be able to easily find out that “Anger” is discussed in Lesson 14, or that a lesson plan to study the “Geography of the Brain” is Lesson 8.

Definitely a book worth owning and sharing with others. Thank you Ira for being able to articulate and gather together so much wisdom in this form! I am deeply grateful to have it in my life.

Grief and Fear Can Motivate Clarity and Action

Like practically everyone I know, I am in shock. I feel afraid. I feel, like commonly happens with grief, that I could have done more. To me, the very roots of society have been shaken.


Society is built out of social bonds. Of course, fear can be a bond, but only a tenuous one. When the bond is built on opposition, built on hating, it is very unstable. It lasts only as long as you can maintain an enemy and must be constantly re-created. So not only those outside the wall are rejected, inside the wall is always suspect. Since this President-elect used blatant hate and fear to win office, there is great weakness in his administration and also great danger.


When the heart burns with fear and grief, the mind must awaken. It just must. When the earth itself feels like it will break open and weep, stop. Breathe as calmly as possible. What you hear is not the earth speaking. It is the world of your heart in that moment. The earth has a different message, if you can see, hear and feel it. When you feel fear, it could be telling you to turn away. Or it could mean sharpen your observation, get ready to act. That is the message here.


Because society is also built from mental bonds, how you interpret your own messages to yourself, your ideas, your stories, your ways of responding to what others do, as well as what you feel, must be studied and understood. On Facebook this morning there were so many people saying we must come together, share hugs, strategize; feel and think together. This is real. This I say yes to. I think we must find ways for such a yes.


Maybe I was too complacent. Maybe I held back. All that matters now is that I, we, use such energy to think more deeply, to feel others more deeply, feel our mutual need, and act with clarity, caring and commitment. That is the only way I can think of to face the fear engendered by this election.


Thank you for listening.

Go Vote! And Consider What It Means To Be Free

We use the word all the time and often get worked up over it, so what does ‘freedom’ mean to you? The meaning has varied greatly amongst different people and times in history. For the early Romans, ‘freedom’ meant not being a slave, or being ruled by a Roman, not an Etruscan. Later on, it meant they could choose the rich Roman to rule them. At the height of Athenian democracy, it meant you could choose not only the rulers but the rules, and any citizen could be a ruler for a day (or lead the Assembly or Athenian Congress), but women and slaves were excluded from such freedoms.


Does freedom only involve political choices? Are you free if you can vote for someone to hopefully represent your interests, but in other areas of your life, choices are greatly limited?


Is having a choice the only criteria of freedom? My philosophy professor in college, Frithjof Bergmann, asked: What if you have many choices but none of them are meaningful ones? You can chose from twenty or a hundred cell phones or shirts, but none of them are what you really want or none satisfy the deep hunger in you. Or, is it free if you have ten insurance companies to choose from, but you can’t afford any of them, or can’t afford any that provide reasonable coverage? Or is it free if you have only one choice, but it’s a good one? And what if you have hundreds of choices of what to buy, yet the use of resources to provide such a selection shortens your lifespan or shortens the lifespan of humans on the planet?


What if your freedom means another person’s oppression? I frequently hear on the news Trump supporters say “now we will be free.” If they own a store, they will find religious freedom, for example, by not serving a gay person or pay for health insurance for a woman who makes the awful decision or medically needs to have an abortion. I had a discussion with a Donald Trump supporter who said one of the things most dear to him is freedom. He said he valued freedom to chose to have health care or not, or which health care provider. He said it was important to have freedom where to send his children to school. He also claimed that if tax money funded public schools, it should also fund charter and religious ones. But what if such policies meant the loss of a quality education for others, or the destruction of resources needed to provide people with the economic support they need to live? Which “freedom” is primary?


For many people, freedom means an absence of constraint. You are not locked up in jail, not forced to work in chains. It means, hopefully, that you are recognized as a fellow human being, with rights equal to all others. That is crucial, but is it enough? Defining ‘freedom’ as “not being in chains” is like defining ‘conscious’ as “awake” (not asleep). This is the beginning, not the end. You need to consider how aware you are when awake. And what if you are locked up for defending your principles? Or you “freely” act in ways that cause you and others suffering—is that freedom? Or you act only with your own interests in mind and, thusly, perpetually put yourself at war with all others. Is that freedom?


And what if one person out of ten or a hundred owns most of the wealth? Does that limit your freedom if you’re not one of the top 1%? In the US, approximately 1% of the population owns 60% of the wealth. When that happens, it means the richest people pay a smaller percentage of their wealth in taxes. It certainly means they have a much larger spendable income. Thus, they have more money to influence the political process, and less money is available for the infrastructure, health care, education, environment, emergency services and first responders, etc. that serve all of us. In the 1950s and 60s, the US economy was greatly expanding, but income tax rates for the rich were two – three times higher. As taxes go down on the wealthy, expenses go up for the majority. If you must work two jobs and have little “free” time, or spend most of your income to pay your bills, is that freedom?


Figuring out what freedom means is more complex that many realize. It is a great question for a teacher to raise with students, or a parent with children. My high school students loved such discussions. Not only what is freedom, but why is it important? If it is so hard to define, should it always be paired with love or compassion or equity? To me, it means not controlled by someone else’s interests, and not feeling stuck, confused, or lacking, not locked inside yourself so you can’t feel or respond to the suffering of others. To rule yourself, you must know your own mind, and be honest with yourself. As much as you can, you are aware of your own emotions and thoughts. You can’t act freely in the world if you don’t constantly expand your breadth and depth of understanding of it, and can’t feel the humanity of those people around you.


One basic freedom we have is to vote and participate in the political process in very basic ways. So, we need to use it, and as wisely as possible, or think about the consequences of losing it.



*This is a slightly amended version of a blog I posted earlier in the week.

*If you are in Ithaca, NY this weekend, I will be giving a talk on my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, on Saturday, November 12th, at 2:00 pm at Barnes & Noble.